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…”
Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
5th Aug 2018
Sermon for the 10th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Whoever eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” John 6.51.
“The gifts God gave were to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4.11-12.
The readings speak of what makes Christian Faith so distinctive among the religions of the world with the emphasis on the spiritual and the physical together. Lying at the heart of our belief as Christians is the fact of God, of Jesus becoming human, which we call the Incarnation. Our readings are reflections and proofs of the existence of God and of the way in which God the Father choses to express his purposes in the physical world and in physical ways. The emphasis is upon the human body and its needs as an analogy for the life of the eternal soul that exists within. This is reassuring. Our God is not One who stands aloof from the human situation. Jesus is God become like one of us, and this relationship is vital to the Christian understanding of who God is and how God wishes to communicate to us.
Between 1947 and 1949, Barbara Hepworth produced around 80 coloured drawings (entitless 'The Hospital Drawings') of surgeons at work in an operating theatre. She would spent up to ten hours in theatre, drawing and observing. This period of activity followed the friendship that resulted from the hospitalisation of her daughter with the surgeon who treated her at the Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter, Devon. The drawings were also an expression of celebration for the founding of the brand new National Health Service. .
Barbara Hepworth said: “There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors”. But on close observation something else was also noticed. Hepworth’s beautiful drawings, depicting medical practitioners, gathered around the patient at different angles, their accurately captured hands, their piercing eyes, and their solemn but purposeful work, operating with great precision, allude to an atmosphere of silent reverence and the Christian sense of the sacramental. The practice of the caring and mending of bodies is felt to be somehow holy. As we think on these things, we may be reminded each day in King’s Cross of how many hundreds of thousands who pass through our streets each day have either obvious and physical or not so obvious and inner pain, or who at least carry around with them the distress of life, whether in the determined faces of those commuters going to work in the morning or perhaps the old man sitting in the park all alone and then the many men and women with little else but the next can of cider or of a drug induced semi-comatose existence way out on the margins.
Our lessons this morning remind us of the close association of the physical body and the eternal soul. Christians will always say that here is no way of understanding our human existence except in the embrace of both. If I am a soul as well as a body, then I no longer speak of the body in purely physical or animal terms, nor do I understand my life to be bound to physical life and death only. Life is not to be considered as linear but dynamic and caught up in eternity. I am not alone but part of a miraculous whole. Jesus speaks of everlasting life both as projected into the future and as shown in the here and now. The numbers of people in parishes across our land used to be accounted not as persons but as souls. The existence of the soul opens up new dimensions for our life’s purpose and its hope. It opens up a relationship of trust with God which is spiritual and physical in its willingness to offer the day to God. Our communion hymns give some expression of this:
Bread of Heav’n on Thee we feed,
For Thy flesh is meat indeed:
Ever may our souls be fed
With this true and living Bread;
Day by day with strength supplied,
Through the life of Him Who died.
This is to speak of what is, for the Christian, life’s true and sustaining principle. Christian Faith sees our human destiny and our life’s worth lying in our interrelatedness and in the binding of all human destinies in the one hope. But this is not just to be a matter of words or a mere formula, but something alive and real, the call to a realignment of human relationships in the likeness of Christ. The Church lives this reality as a Eucharistic community. It shares itself amid the world around it in churches like this one.
As this broken bread was scattered as grain upon the mountains, and, being gathered together, became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom; for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
From The Didache, a First Century Christian Document.
The two abiding references to the human body in the Bible are found, one in the Old Testament and one in the New. The Old Testament eternal reference is the depiction of the people Israel, in the Exodus, a whole nation banished to wander the desert in search of the ‘promised land’. The New Testament reference is to the Christian witnesses as forming ‘The Body of Christ’ who receive the sacrament as we will this morning, the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, and are called at the same time to live that life and to respond to the very joy and the pain which surrounds us at all times. – “Behold what you are…” as St Augustine put it “become what you receive”.
The measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
In Jesus’ name.
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
29th Jul 2018
Sermon for the 9th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. John 6.20
People have often felt secure in great numbers and in enclosed spaces. When you visit the Colosseum in Rome its stones speak to you of the terror that was once practised within its great pock-marked walls. As you walk into the amphitheatre it is as though you are walking into the jaws of a great lion. It is a place whose atmosphere eats you up. Beautiful it is not. Intimidating it certainly is. Like it or not, such great amphitheatres, or as we call them now stadiums, tell us something we already know about us – that we are tribal, and we have always needed places of ingathering; places where we can feel the power and the swell and the emotion which is raised in being together in one place. But this kind of tribalism is often prey to the emotion of the moment and not to a deeper and more real sense of being together.
What a different scene is represented to us in the Gospel reading this morning, in which the disciples are together in a little boat in a storm and who see Jesus walking on the water and bringing calm. But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. The Gospel writer John understood what we must know to be the case – that in life there is no one place of absolute safety and certainty. The psychoanalyst Jung would often speak of what he called ‘life’s vicissitudes’, as though they were a natural and normal part of the experience of life. We might say that life is not all plain sailing. Things don’t always go smoothly for us. Sometimes we might feel ‘all at sea’. Sometimes life has and does take us into choppy waters. The Old Testament writers experienced these vicissitudes in many ways, and the psalmists in particular sent up their cries and their sighs. “Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord” Psalm 130.1 The psalmist owns an experience of life in which such internal turmoil is deemed natural and inevitable and to be accepted not as a part of something abnormal but as a very predictable and understandable. Jesus recognises this too, and in so many of his encounters he greets us with the words “Peace be with you”.
John sets the figure of the boat amid the storm with finding faith in God amid the storms of life and not apart from them. The boat is a figure for our life together and our need for one another, and the Christ who walks upon the waters is the One who has come to communicate what we have called ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’. In the church we need to begin practising a strong and human understanding of one another which accepts that life has not been plain sailing for any of us. It is in our shared experience of life and its vicissitudes that we may more surely understand what makes us human; and come to a realisation in truer compassion of that which is understandable and forgivable. This must proceed out of inner peace which can only come through prayer and through deeper reflection.
The opposite of this could be a Christianity that places us at a distance from the very humanity which cries out for compassionate understanding and for the receipt of deep peace. Yesterday I met some ‘Mind the Gap’ Christians who seem so sure of who is a child of God and who isn’t, Theirs is a Christianity that expresses itself so literally that it denies us our freedom to be. The ‘gap’ for them is the one which exists between their kind of believers and their kind of unbelievers. Theirs is a Christianity which must exist as a fortress or super defended battleship, just like the selfish ego ready to defend its territory at variance from the common good all around it. The real gap is the one which exists between a Christianity of the heart and a Christianity of the will. It proceeds out of its own emotional insecurity rather than out of any genuine love for common humanity and its many foibles. The message of the gospel this morning is of the Christ who has come not to deny our own fears or to banish them for good but to recognise them and to meet them. To give peace and to offer understanding and forgiveness, and so to set us on our way.
In the little town of Olney in Buckinghamshire there is a Newton and Cowper Museum. And this is a museum dedicated to two hymn-writers who compiled the so-called ‘Olney Hymns’. But they were more than just that. Cowper was descibed by Coleridge as ‘our best modern poet’, and John Newton wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’. He had been a ship’s captain, and was heavily involved in the slave trade. During a storm, the sea was so bad that for the first time in his life he prayed. The storm as it were cracked open his old self and tore it out of him. Christ was revealed to him! Newton had come through the storm and he came to know that it was God who lay in the midst of it.
At the heart of all our defences, uncertainties, reluctance, vanity and stubbornness; at the heart of all our struggles and doubts and failures there lies God, the God who has made us and who even now seeks for us that reconciliation which is our soul’s true wellspring. The God who in Jesus brings always his strong peace. And so it was for Newton, and the crowning expression of his experience of God as a man born blind is given to us in the words of ‘Amazing Grace’.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
And then the sobering words of his friend George Cowper which call for a simple trust in the God who makes things plain:
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
May the God who visited the disciples on the choppy waters of their existence also visit you, to give you that amazing grace which was first realised on the Sea of Galilee and which held the disciples together. For they like we, in and of God, find ourselves, all of us, in the same boat…
He comes to declare himself to us all in the words
“It is I…Do not be afraid”. Receive my peace, passing all your understanding. May God’s deep peace inhabit your inmost being.