Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
14th Oct 2018
Sermon for 20th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Mark 10.18, 19.
Our Gospel reminds us that we like the disciples before us, are not only to understand or ‘see’ the Christian message but also respond to it in person. We are being called into a deeper relationship with God and ourselves and our world and this is not to be ignored or set aside distractedly. It is God and not ourselves who initiates that movement of faith which brings us closer to the Kingdom.
To begin the new millennium in London, in 2000, a landmark exhibition was staged at the National Gallery. The coming third millennium provided the opportunity for a celebration of Christian time, and the title of the exhibition ‘Seeing Salvation’ showed ways of seeing and realising the centuries old Christian witness through its best paintings.
The first of these paintings shown was to be was a startling and unusual one. It was a Spanish picture, painted in around 1630 by Francisco de Zurburan and depicting a lamb trussed and placed on a slab. The title of the painting, ‘Lamb of God’ or ‘Agnus Dei’ told you what you needed to know about the subject, whilst the lamb you saw had a halo above its head. The image of the lamb is moved the audience because it appealed directly to their sense of compassion.
Christian paintings have been important in helping us to understand some deep and complex theological truths. The Mona Lisa, The Light of the World, The Last Supper, The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…These images are generous. They give us the time and the space and allow our imagination to rest upon them and to feel them. They help to make difficult truths real and understandable for us. Words cannot convey the meaning that images can. And so what might seem a pathetically simple image, of a lamb bound and ready for slaughter (or sacrifice?) becomes one that speaks of a deep sense of mortality and of loss, but here bound inevitably to the life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Zurburan’s gaze and his intention is unrelenting and searching. It echoes the words of the Old Testament Reading from Isaiah, who spoke about a Messiah who would be a sacrificial lamb.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53: 7-8)
Jesus is for ever the Lamb of God. We sing about every week in church at the Agnus Dei.
“Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi….” ”Lamb of god, who takes away the sins of the world….”
We have another ‘Lamb of God’ image in our stained glass window in this church, designed and made by Martin Travers in 1920. He created this image three hundred years after Zurburan and yet the message is still rather similar. Travers has the Christ in poor majesty wearing an amber coloured cloak and carrying a lantern, the light of the world, and this time the lamb is carried on his own shoulders. The lamb Jesus bears as the good shepherd also alludes to the lamb of sacrifice. His cloak is riven with thorns and nails. The Christ wears a crown of thorns, his hands bear the stigmata or wounds and a single tear appears out of the corner of his eye.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows? Isaiah 53.4
Today’s Gospel message is that it is not sufficient just to ‘see’ salvation. It also has to be acted upon. In our Gospel reading the paintings and their meaning are given owe a necessary debt to Christ’s teaching for a discipleship which is sacrificial. We understand this in terms of servanthood and service. If the saving death is sacrificial then the Christian action is also sacrificial. It is a radical message because it reverses accepted notions of status and rank. It calls us out of ourselves and toward the other. The rich young man goes away shocked and then depressed because though he obeys every bit of the law Jesus suddenly challenges him to sell all his possessions. We do not know whether he did so, only that he went away from Jesus disconsolate. It is by the way of self-giving that we lose ourselves to find ourselves. It is by costly self-giving that lives are transformed into God’s likeness. It is by these means that the Christian Church becomes Christian at all. Here is a twentieth century interpretation of these words by Dr Martin Luther-King:
“He (Jesus) transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favouritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared. Prepared to serve. ( Amen)
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.
The Church of Christ in the new third millenium must proclaim this ‘new definition of greatness’. But so that this proclamation doesn’t become two dimensional it must be a true proclamation which is continually informed and enriched and enlivened by that Christian vision of the Christ, the Lamb of God, the one who has known suffering and who is therefore able to contain it, transform it and bring it to its true fruition through forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of the self and the soul. The Church is to be one of the vital places where this service of self-giving is to be seen and known and trusted. It is the visible reminder of the Christian salvation at work, alive and active in those, like you and I, who have seen salvation and have now been called to act upon it, but not in our strength or will alone, but by God’s grace and through his mercy.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
7th Oct 2018
THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF TRINITY YEAR B
‘God…for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists’.
Today is set aside for us to spend some time thinking about the creation. Our readings speak to us about God as our Creator. We are reminded that God ‘has given everything its place in the world, and no one can make it otherwise’. Never before have the questions surrounding the created order and the earth’s manner of survival been more urgently sought and expressed with the effects of global warming, deforestation and the spending of irreplaceable fossil fuels. These represent permanent losses. They are very uncomfortable realities because they challenge our sense of place as inhabitants of planet earth. They challenge us to become more aware of our true place in the created order and to a recognition of our proper responsibilities. If we bear within ourselves the likeness of God then so does our earth and now it seems we are witnesses to its becoming scarred and diseased. For Christians this offers the reminder that we inhabit this earth and we see it as God’s creation. It seems we must care.
It is possible to crack open a piece of unpromising rock and to gaze upon the skeleton of an animal that lived on this planet 500 million years ago. This is truly awesome! Charles Darwin gazed in awe but also came to a scientific conclusion: he realised that the created order was in a continual state of becoming and adapting, and that each species grew and changed according to its environment, and it grew and changed over impossible stretches of time. It was therefore possible to trace the origins of Man’s existence back through millions of years of development from ape-like creatures. Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ rocked the certainties of the Victorian Christian mind-set. It lay bare, like that 500 million year old skeleton, a reality that was raw and uncomfortable and yet strangely awesome. The foundations of the thinking about who you were and where you had come from were well and truly shaken. The questions of our existence were bigger and tougher than anyone had ever thought possible. But nonetheless this new science did not shake the minds of those who, through faith in God, were seeing the world from a deeper perspective and that our existences were not to be explained by science but understood it and through the light of faith in the Creator, God.
The language of ‘Genesis’ a name which signifies the tracing of our origins, speaks of where these true origins lie. And when we have traced the outline of our origins in God, we discover one thing about our existence and its meaning : that we are not the sole providers of our existence. We can work out how things are but there remain many unanswered questions about why we are here, who we are, and what we are in relation to one another. These questions belong uniquely to the human race, and they are questions which remain only partially answered. There are questions we ask ourselves which only find their answer through the passage of time. Life presents itself as factual (remember ‘The Facts of Life’) and yet it is also mysterious and strange. Even the person we know and love the most can seem a mystery to us at times. What would human existence feel like if in our relations with one another there were some complete kind of knowing? It wouldn’t somehow be human, would it, even with artificial intelligence!? Likewise human existence cannot be explained away in a theory. St Paul reminds us of this in his ringing hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 that,
“Now we see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood”.
If the proof for all human living is not exacted out of mere scientific enquiry but emerges out of God, then we come to see things in a new perspective. It echoes the words of George Herbert’s famous hymn ‘Teach Me, My God and King:
A Man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth through it pass
And then the heaven espy.
It offers a way of describing the Christian Vision which are offers a deeper sense of things, drawn not from reason but from contemplation. There is much that cannot be certified or proved. So much must be understoood other than just the provable. The Christian way of seeing things is a special way of seeing. It is a kind of sustained gaze, a sustained examination and contemplation of things so that in this seeing, ordinary understanding may deepen faith.
There has been one rare example of a person who managed to convey this deeper things in his own manner of living. St Francis, whose feast day we celebrated a few days ago, is important to Christians as a radical. As a child I remember our church and its statue of St Francis stroking the feared wolf of Gubbio, the one he had tamed. St Francis was for any child a favourite saint because of his love of animals and of the natural order. But underlying this was Francis’ gift of seeing and experiencing the natural order as bearing the likeness and the love of God. He was intensely aware that written into the created order was the image, the imprint of the divine likeness. He often gave the earth’s elements a gender as in ‘brother earth, sister moon’ because for him an experience of creation could only be a deeply personal experience. Where there is deep prayer so there is a certain sensitivity to the fine details of our created order. As you looked upon the creation, care for it, and learn to love it, you are in a sure way at one with its Creator. This is a spiritual response.
For Francis this went further, to acts of charity to the poor, the homeless and the hopeless which were encounters with the divine love as it was found in Jesus Christ. This was a putting into action that Christian vision which made God real and apparent in the present. In such an exchange God could be known and recognised for his own sake. He could be made visible. This was an incarnating of the love of God in a way which was recognisable. It was radical because it was uncompromising. And it is still radical. The call we still have, centuries later is the one in which through our own acts and decisions we can make God real in and with and through the One who has made all things as the writer of the Hebrews puts it in our second reading ’God’…’for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists’.
Let us make a pledge in this Eucharist. As in our worship we give ‘worth-ship- to God, so too may we give ‘worth-ship’ to those all those with whom we have contact and to all those we have to deal, so that God may prove indeed to be our ‘all in all’. For God is no theory, he is as real as you are and as our world is.
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
30th Sep 2018
The Prayer of Faith
30th September 2018
Sermon for Trinity 18 Year B
“The Prayer of Faith will save the sick” James 5.15
When in 1980 I went to work as a nurse in a hospice my eyes were opened. The Hospice Movement at this point was beginning to make itself felt throughout the country. And what I saw at St Christopher’s Hospice was a revelation of something new. It lay in the slaying of a great demon which was the spectre of terminal cancer. Up to the nineteen-eighties it had become a taboo subject and as a taboo, an unmentionable one. And the cloak of silence which overlay cancer was a thick one. It generated so much fear and unease because it seemed to represent a kind of hopelessness. It was a ruthless scourge. Dame Ciceley Saunders was the genius behind the movement towards a greater understanding of cancer and its human consequences. At the same time she showed a strong determination to treat the patient as a person rather than as a mere diagnosis. The patient was not to be deserted in what she described as their ‘total pain’. Good pain control, palliative care, was to go hand in hand with ensuring quality of life and experience.
And so the hospices, which were a cross between hospitals and good 4* hotels were born. At St Christopher’s there was a squawking parrot, and in the late evening a drinks trolley accompanied the drugs trolley, with morphine often washed down with a whisky and soda. The mood of the whole place was unlike anything that had yet been known. It was relaxed, convivial, and hopeful. Of course many would still say that the hospice was the place where patients ‘went to die’, but equally, they came to be seen as vital places, which celebrated and honoured life rather than being oppressed by death. They were a bridge between life and death. There lay the willingness to face the idea of disease and suffering and dying head on, and without flinching. This was done not as an act of will but as a witness to life and to hope. The dying patient need no longer live in the shadow of things, discarded, but find themselves part of a community of care living in the clear light of day. None of this was easy.
It is important to note that Dame Ciceley Saunders was no ordinary medical practitioner. She was also a Christian visionary and a prophet. The prophet is the one who breaks the old spells that bind the people to a limited destiny. In our Old Testament reading this morning two prophets, Eldad and Medad, prophesied from outside the place of normal sanction. But they were commended by Moses who yearned for the day when all God’s people would be prophets and possessed of God’s spirit. The prophet is for Moses the one who has spoken words and carried out deeds which bring the Kingdom of God closer to home. The prophet sees into the heart of things and acts to bring to birth those things which lie dormant in us and which have yet to be realised.
Dame Ciceley Sanders was a Christian visionary, but first an ordinary Christian like you or I. She was an Anglican Christian obedient to her Church and its teachings and awakened to the possibilities that the Christian Faith held for her work as a medical practitioner. The two elements combined powerfully to provide for her the coming together of Christian Faith and compassionate medical practice with new vision. The Christian teaching is the one which is for life and for the living situation and for its essential hopefulness in the Christian promise of life in God no matter what obstacles are placed in its way:
"You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die." ~ Dame Cicely Saunders.
It was in this same vein that Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich was to say that his own cancer was as much a part of God’s creation as the sunset and he found it very helpful to understand the words of the dying St Paul when he said that whether alive or dead he was the Lord’s. “What did it matter?” said Robinson as he himself lay dying. “What did it matter for Paul? Surely he had already known the Lord, he had already lived Christ’s life. He had already risen!”
In our second reading comes the injunction from James for the anointing of the sick in the very early days of the Church. Even in his time, less than a hundred years after the death of Christ, there is a deep compassion for the sick and dying which issues out of the life and death of Christ. With this experience comes a compassionate understanding of the human condition as it is found and the need for healing and confession. In this case the healing comes in the form of anointing with holy oil. James asks the Christian community directly ‘Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord’. ‘The prayer of faith will save the sick’. Two thousand years after this original injunction, anointing was offered at St Christopher’s to hospice patients. Those words of authority and directness from The Letter of James echoed down the years and the anointing with oil once more done for the healing of the person. Not perhaps like morphine, or even whisky and soda, but nonetheless effective and a sign of hope and inner truth for the feeding of body and soul. Effective of the truth of the spiritual power which overlay and undergirded the life of the Christian Church from the very beginning. And its message too: that in Christ, neither life nor death may separate us from ourselves or from our maker. All becomes one. With this (Christian) understanding ‘palliative’ or ‘total care’ made it possible to challenge the ‘total pain’ of terminal illness.
In the Gospel reading for today Jesus is the first to own and recognise that the spirit of God works to heal and to give life, under all circumstances, and that the Spirit of God is free and may rest upon any person upon whom the gift has been bestowed in the name of God its giver. Ours is a spiritual church. Our readings this morning do not see prophets and healers as a particular caste of people or professionals. But rather they are those who act as agents of the divine (spiritual) purpose. Their purpose is to reconcile humankind to itself. Christ has come so that life and death may be seen in the one love and the one hope, whether it come through Eldad or Medad or Ciceley Saunders. The Kingdom of God is to be established upon this earth and its establishment is to come before all else.
Now is eternal life,
If risen with Christ we stand,
In him to life reborn,
And holden in his hand;
No more we fear death’s ancient dread,
In Christ arisen from the dead.
G W Briggs (1875-1959)
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
23rd Sep 2018
Trinity 17 Year B
“They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him”
There is one important feature of St Mark’s Gospel which stands out. It is known as ‘The Markan Secret’. This is the secret which foretells Jesus suffering, death and resurrection, and which Jesus himself tries to express. But the disciples are not ready to understand and so for the time being the secret must remain somewhat hidden. The disciples are, for the most part, unbelieving. Jesus remains something of an enigma to them, even though they recognize him as a powerful figure. And so Jesus will speak to them only in parables.
Good secrets are of course very significant. They contain powerful information and meaning. Children enjoy sharing and keeping secrets as marks of friendship. The adult invitation to keep a secret is a great trust, and when a secret is broken it is invariably a grave and upsetting thing. The exercise of the keeping of confidences is the mainstay for the medical profession (The Hippocratic Oath) and those engaged in counselling and therapy and of course in the Seal of the Confessional. The code breakers during the last World War used secret information in the form of letters and numbers to save thousands of lives. The giving away of secrets, especially state secrets is accounted as treason and has in the past exacted the strictest of punishments. And for us, there are secrets, confidences, those things which are kept silent and in trust, and which many of us deem necessary. We don’t live as though it were possible for total transparency to reign supreme, though in the case of abuses against individuals, the enforced keeping of a bad ‘manipulative’ secret has been a wicked thing, and designed to control and abuse, and it is right to call for the admission of grave wrongs and the letting in of truth revealing light.
Jesus’ secret is the one which is crucial to our understanding of him. It is the secret of why he became Man and how he is to be revealed as The Christ. The disciple’s experience of Jesus is not a dumb one. Their incredulity is also our incredulity, and we are being invited to know Jesus today as they did then, as the invitation to partake of a living relationship, one of faith and trust and one in which the fuller knowledge of Jesus, perhaps over a lot of time, begins to become more real in us, too. Doubtless if Jesus were with us as he was with the disciples, we would ask a lot of questions because we have the benefit of hindsight. We know how the story of Jesus begins and ends, don’t we? But the real point of Jesus apparent ‘hiddenness’ like his silence before Pontius Pilate is to make his presence known and to begin to understand his meaning. “Jesus” will be the our own response to Pilate’s despairing question “What is truth?”
The second part of Jesus’ holding of the secret is to instruct the disciples as if they knew it. The full secret will be revealed in due course. But until then Jesus will instruct his disciples in ways which are practical and challenging. These instructions are wake up calls. He will say to them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. He will take a little child into his arms as an example of simple welcome and ask them to do the same to others. The terrible secret of his death gives way to the desire he has to show the Way we ourselves are to follow. Jesus says “I challenge you to become like this. You are not to measure your own self-worth by power and status but rather the opposite”. You are to humble yourselves and so live. Spiritually we are being called to surrender to the Jesus who will offer up his very self. It is this willingness to go by the way of surrender, in unknowing, which forms the spirituality of St John of the Cross. It allows us to understand the ‘Markan Secret’ more fully:
In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, desire to have pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything, desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything, desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at knowing everything, desire to know nothing.
John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, book I chapter 13, section 11:
Jesus is turning things upside down. Willing service is to be the mark of the new order which Jesus inaugurates and not self-glory. Open-hearted welcome will always be the mark of a church which is rightly aligned to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A Church obsessed with its own image and which looks down on others not so. The Gospel of Jesus sets us on the path of the dispossession of those things which are not needed on voyage. Note the repetition of the word ‘desire’ as a movement not of will or of mind, but of the heart. A spiritual movement.
Can we be that kind of desiring Church? We have a God-sent opportunity with our empty crypt to usher in a new era here at Holy Cross and we need your commitment and imagination and hard work to help us not only survive but also to thrive and to make a distinctive contribution to the lives of the many here in King’s Cross. We have coined the phrase ‘A Church Turned Inside Out’ to remind us of our purpose. The glories we experience within this holy place may by God’s help be carried by us outward and onto the streets and into the lives of those in the parish.
In all these things, Jesus, as Mark would say, Jesus is the One who has gone before us to show us the way forward and in His good time, revealed more of Himself, the secret which, long hidden comes to bring God’s presence and blessing to everything it touches. The secret is of course, well and truly out!
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
26th Aug 2018
13th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life”. John 6.60.
St John’s Gospel is the Gospel which is written for the Church, and which raises practical issues of basic understanding and faith. And this morning’s Gospel Reading confronts us with what John has called ‘the message of eternal life’ and of the challenge of its falling on deaf ears, and the possibility of its being lost. ‘The simple question/plea ‘To whom shall we go?’ suggests that God is at the heart of human life’s meaning and that we are to come to him and not seek him ‘elsewhere’. God is never lost, though we may sometimes feel he is far away.
I well remember as a young child on holiday in August 1966 taking a new orange ball onto the beach. As I got to the sea’s edge I threw the ball into the sea and swam after it, the waves soon took it out, and then came the sad admission of its being irrecoverable. The sea had taken it away from me. It was awful to see it float away, so visible among the blue/grey sea, seemingly quite happy to bob up and down and to be on its way, being carried out on the current, further and further away. Something of me was there with it! And then much later I imagined that it might arrive in another place and that someone might find it and take it, delighted at the thought of a lovely orange ball having arrived out of the blue. I wondered though, if my voice would be loud enough to say “Would you please give me my ball back?”
As I write about this, over fifty years later, I realise both then and now, I am ’hotwired’ to place an imagined and reflective interpretation on what was at base a child’s real loss and a disappointment. And this opens up the meaning of what John calls ‘the message of eternal life’. This is not an empty phrase, or indeed like many phrases in holy scripture, which begets an immediate understanding.
John offers us a clue as to the direction in which we are being taken when he tells us that ‘the flesh has nothing to offer; it is the spirit that gives life’. This is the difference between life’s brute or sad or hopeful and joyful particulars and the hope which lies beyond it and which is imperishable. It is that spirit of God which, residing in us and outside of us, can provide the deeper sea, the broader scope and endless horizon for our spiritual navigation:
Thou art a sea without a shore
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere
This is the challenge of the teaching of Christ for John and for us. God is everywhere. God is reality. The message of Christ is not all ‘sweetness and light’. In John, if there is light, it is the light of Christ, his attention, which enters the individual consciousness as life and which leaves its indelible mark. This is also God’s light which searches us out and knows us. Echoes of Simeon’s words are heard, namely that Jesus is the one in whom ‘the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare’. Jesus is concerned not with exteriors but his gaze is the one which shines a light into the deep places of the heart and mind, and this has left some seekers after God with an all too real sense of their own vulnerability. ‘This is intolerable language’ says one of the followers, defensively, ‘How could anyone accept it?’ We must stay in this difficult place if the alternative is to place the Christian teaching as nothing more than a kind of romance or wistful thinking.
For John’s Gospel, Christ, God’s Word made Flesh and our lives, and even the air we breathe, are one. And yet God’s gaze is also a loving gaze, which longs for our spiritual homecoming, for that which lies true for us and for what will last, for that which is ‘eternal life’ in the here and now. We know we are in need of healing and yet we draw back, all too often defensively. And yet the ‘message of eternal life’ is loving and confiding. It longs to provide for our future. John sets up in the Gospel the tension between that which pertains to the flesh (life ‘without’ God) and the spirit (vulnerable belief and trust in the promises of Christ). There is, in coming to Christian Faith. (we ‘come to faith’ of course at every moment) the realisation in the words of the Psalmist: ‘Thou hast searched me out and known me; thou knowest my down seating and my uprising, thou knowest my thoughts long before’ (Psalm 139). There is nothing to fear.
Only believe and thou shalt see
That Christ is all in all to thee…
There are many who come to King’s Cross seeking something. It is the magnetic draw of the station. The massive inflow and outflow of human traffic speaks of life as connected and yet also as an impersonal tidal wave. But contained in this sea of humanity, flowing in and around this place, are the lives of the many with their hopes and dreams, their joys and disappointments, their stresses and their anxieties. And each person in the sea of humanity is a whole life, with its desires and its longings, containing within that life that eternal phrase of Christ about the flesh and the spirit. They know, each one of them, that there is something more to life than the timetable and the getting to the next place and to life’s brute particulars. There is in each person the unspoken prayer which is their hopefulness and their life’s truer purpose, and it is from this place that eternal life receives its human echo, in the words of Peter:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.”
St Augustine of Hippo:
“Therefore, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you were in me; or rather, I would not exist unless I were in you ‘from whom and by whom all things exist….” (The Confessions, I.2).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“Someone said to me this week, I don’t want you to sell me the Christian Faith like an insurance policy. I don’t want you to tell me that Christianity can make me stronger and better than I might be at present. I want you to tell me of the Christ who comes to me at my weakest and most vulnerable moments, who is with me when it feels like all others have deserted me…who is my way, my truth and my life. It is in this observation that the message of Christ lies, inviting acceptance of this word and belief in it. In it is implied the already known idea of selling all you have to buy the pearl of great price…”