Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
25th Aug 2019
Sermon for The Tenth Sunday of Trinity Year C
“What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God” Hebrews 12. 22.
The wonder of modern travel is that we can experience the great cities of the world as never before. They have all become so accessible. It now becomes possible to clamber aboard a train from King’s Cross Station, a few hundred metres away from here, and find ourselves in the centre of Paris in the space of a little more than two hours! The visiting of other countries at shorter and longer distances invites an experience of ‘a change of air’ and the experience of a different dialect or a different language, history, architecture and mood. Such changes ‘take us out of ourselves’ and reinvigorate us.
This morning’s second reading is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, where we arrive at a new and revitalizing city destination. The writer sets out the provision for the transformation of the Christian community as it was emerging out of its Jewish inheritance. Now, suddenly, in Jesus Christ was envisaged as a divine society. Mount Zion is not just located as a former place name or destination, but now becomes what the writer calls ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’, promising a radical social inclusion never before seen. These are the characteristics of a divine society. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, twenty centuries later was to speak of the Church of God on earth as “A divine society, with Christ as the glory in the midst of it and the Holy Spirit as work within it”. In this new city, the city of the living God we are reminded that an understanding of God’s ways does not proceed merely out of our minds or wills. As Tolstoy once said, ‘It is not the mind which helps us to understand God – it is life itself’.
It is a mark of the genius of the Church of England that it is divided up into parishes. Each one of these parishes has a church. Each church represents a worshipping community and a whole slice of life. For each parish, as for each church there is a distinctive character. Someone has remarked that in there is ‘a church for everybody’. It is some time ago now that men and women might church crawl and find churches they had never before visited always open, even if empty. Entering upon the apparent emptiness of a church there is so often the energy in the air which is the atmosphere of prayer. Then there are the many signs of human activity with notices of social events and prayers put up for churches in other parts of the world. Churches have become in recent history places of social ingathering and not just religious places. They aim now to be inclusive of the communities they serve, whether they consist of regular churchgoers or not. In this way contemporary churches fulfil Christ’s own mandate, where the Sabbath stands for healing and the idea of ‘the city of the living God’ one which is intended to be a place and an experience of joyful interaction and communion.
In our own church we find ourselves this late August preparing to welcome new tenants to our crypt, a drama school which auditions and supports budding young actors, many of them from poorer backgrounds. We are also planning and preparing for the installation of the Moon, a digital facsimile of the Moon which will cover most of the chancel area and attract may people from within our own church orbit and beyond it. The experience will be truly interactive and awesome. Churches like ours need no longer feel restrained by the tradition of Sunday worship alone. The model for growing churches will place the onus on us to allow our plant to be ‘turned inside out’ in the service of the wider community. While we do this, we remain a worshipping, praying community whose heart lies with and in God in Jesus Christ. Christ’s is the dynamic we embrace, at all times, and in all ways.
We at Holy Cross are fortunate to be a church in the heart of one of the most happening places in London. The quality of our life as a Christian Church is enriched in interaction with others. Each fulfils his or her own so-creative potential in the one interaction. It in this vein that Jesus heals the crippled woman on the Sabbath. We are to know in this way ‘where he is coming from’. His Kingdom is one which is expressed in freedom. “What you have come to” responds the writer to the Hebrews “…is Mount Zion, and the city of the living God”.
There are some American expressions which are not easily translated into (proper!) English language but which nonetheless put things more succinctly and say things in a much more laid back way while conveying the real essence of things. One of these is a favourite of mine:
“We just get to hang out”
Yea, ‘we just get to hang out’. But for the writer to the Hebrews, this is Christian teaching about the deep and prayerful quality of community life that it expresses. And the influence of God runs through its life as a golden thread. Churches ‘hang out’ in a particular way and the strong bonds of friendship they encourage are mediated in corporate prayer and holy communion:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
God has brought us to this place, the City of the living God, a place of radical inclusiveness, of generous welcome, and of the wonder that resides in the communal and particularly in its capacity to look both within and outside itself. But its life is sure. Christ has made it so. It is the divine society , with Christ as the glory in the midst of it and the transforming and liberating Spirit at work within it.
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
18th Aug 2019
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity Year C
Jesus said to his disciples: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled’. Luke 12.49.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we have been learning these past two weeks of the Old Testament people, God’s chosen people Israel. Theirs was a history of struggle to maintain their faith in God at times of great testing. But in all this they knew that God is a God who is nearby and not far off, though occasionally they behaved as though that were not the case. They were very human and often weak. Nonetheless what drove them on was an indomitable faith in their destiny and a courage in following it. And the message of our second reading this morning is that if our Christian faith is real, it will be a faith which will be put to the test. The can be no relationship with God which does not involve passionate struggle. But like the Old Testament people, God is feeding us and loving us. .
It is important to speak of God in this way. We come to this Holy Eucharist to receive Christ in the forms of bread and wine. They become for us the body and blood of Christ and so when we receive them we are taking Christ into ourselves. We are in the words of one prayer ‘Becoming what we receive’.
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.
As we come to the Gospel reading we realise however that membership of the Church is not only a matter of ‘becoming what we have received’ as though that were our own privileged secret. Christianity is not a private or pietistic religion. There is another aspect of the call of Christ which is altogether different and which speaks of ‘bringing fire on earth’ and ‘not peace, but division’. Jesus accuses his disciples of lacking the stuff necessary to realise their baptismal calling. They do not have what we might call ‘fire in their bellies’. “I have” Jesus says “A baptism to be baptized and how I long for it to be completed”. The inference is that the disciples, and we too, are not always ready to accept a Christianity which demands more than our casual allegiance.
Linking the two passages is the idea of God’s Kingdom which has already come in Jesus Christ and which is provided for us in this Eucharist. But there is another Kingdom, the one which is in a state of becoming, and which is suggested by Jesus’ words. This involves struggle. The working out and the continual establishment of God’s kingdom on earth will take place both in harmony with the existing state of things and also in strong, fire-like opposition to it. Its reaction to the world in which it is placed will be volcanic. Our modern world and what is going in in our modern world, including knife crime, the Rise and fall and rise of unchecked money markets, violence in schools and with the police, drugs everywhere – these are but a tiny fraction of all those elements that exist in a kind of alchemic reaction to the Christian presence on this earth. We The Church are called to love God’s world, not possessively as ‘my little world’ but passionately, as that world which bids us to suffer alongside it, to love it and to speak up and speak out in its defence for what we come to know as ‘Kingdom values’ – of human compassion, of inclusiveness, of the embrace of difference. The Church is called to be God’s presence in the world. That presence is never to be benign but active and involved and compassionate. It stands for the living out of that courageous baptism which acknowledges all people to be part of the one Kingdom, whether they know it or not, whether they ‘feel’ it or not and even when they oppose that Kingdom. The Salvation Army motto ‘Blood and Fire’ is a typical reference to its own desire to engender a Christianity with real passion, one which has plenty of ‘fire in its belly’ and which fearlessly proclaims God among the poor.
I met a Scottish football supporter earlier this week who needed to tell me that he wasn’t a Christian. He wasn’t a Christian because he had his own moral values and didn’t need the Church to ‘improve’ on them! It would have been good to have had what we both wanted - a long and friendly conversation. But it was not to be… He had to get off to the England/Scotland match and I had to get to Mass. There are so many like him. They have difficulties with the Christian Church and feel that unless these difficulties are allayed, then Christianity must lie as a dead thing before them. Except that I think it does not and can never exist as dead. It is everywhere alive. The presence of Christ on this earth exists in strong relation to the world in which it is set and yet also exists as its life itself, and Christian Faith from us must be confident, refreshed by God and his Word, and deepened in prayer if it is to find that fire-in-the-belly doggedness which is the living spark that keeps alight the divine flame. How we wish that the flame would burn brighter, but how we are sustained and given joyful confidence in the fire that has already been lit by Jesus Christ.
Onwards and upwards!
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity
28th Jul 2019
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity Year C
Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find… Luke 11.10.
In this morning’s gospel reading we meet with the Jesus who is a teacher of prayer. His teaching opens up for us the necessity of prayer not only from the point of view of saying prayers but of prayerfulness as a way of being; akin to breathing. Our spiritual oxygenation. This is to say something about our always being ready to pray, and the image used of the opportunity for prayer is as a door which opens for the one who knocks. Asking and searching are suggested. And a certain amount of discipline is called for, a commitment to prayer. To be truly awake to these things and active in response to them is to say to God in the words of the old spiritual: “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer”. God remains the One who beckons and we the ones who respond in kind. On this week in which we celebrate the Feast of the Founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola, a great teacher of prayer all these things are understood in a refreshing fashion.
Jesus’ teaching on prayer is the one which sees prayer as a life source, issuing forth out of God’s very life. It is vital stuff for the soul’s survival.
The goal of our life is to live with God forever.
God who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God's life to flow into
us without limit.
St Ignatius Loyola
In the London of today it is no small matter for the members of Christ’s Church to be called to pray. It is not easy to find the right space, the right times, the time to stop, and to come to God. There is so much static and this prevents us from wanting to pray. There are so many excuses! Never before have we been bombarded with so many images, so much news and information, so many concerns, a surfeit of so much life and so many choices. In this context the suggestion of a prayer life might seem slightly absurd to some. But a life of prayer lies at the heart of how Jesus functioned both as a human being and as Son of God, and his ‘Lord’s Prayer’ offers us his loving guidance in this matter. The Lord’s Prayer is a universal prayer given to provide us with our necessary compass bearings. It is the prayer which lies at the heart of our existence; the prayer for all time. Something of this sense of prayer was present at the time of the moon landings in 1969. Many thought this a supremely momentous event which had meaning beyond anything mere words had the power to express. It was an experience of being caught up in an atmosphere of awe and a wonder which is the prerequisite for prayer. And so we must learn to pray, and to persist in prayer, however awkward it might feel. We mustn’t ignore its vitality. If we do, we will suffer its loss. ‘Pray as you can and not as you can’t…Our PACTS leaflets are a simple guide to prayer.
If as St Ignatius says, ‘The Goal of our life is to live with God for ever’ then God, who is always and everywhere present for us, is beckoning each one of us to inhabit that presence and to live and thrive in it to our soul’s own well-being. It’s a great calling. As Carl Yung once said, ‘Bidden or Not Bidden, God is Present’.
Closer is he than breathing; nearer than hands and feet.
The idea of the persistent seeker after Christ and the healing power of prayer also recognizes a type of Christian who seeks God in that which lies beyond their own devices and desires. In the writings of St Ignatius are various vital ingredients which are as necessary today as they were when he wrote and thought and prayed five hundred years ago. One of these marries prayer as a kind of radical attentiveness with the accompanying idea of prayer as a radical letting go or leaving off of our own preoccupations. In our self-surrender we integrate those things which so often get in the way and cause us disquiet as we (correspondingly) enter a place of stillness and peace. . It is in this state of being that we understand Ignatius’ greatest prayer in its own context. It is a prayer which knocks at the very frontier between the human and the divine – a door that opens into the presence of God and which, if we did but know it, has always lain open for us at all times, though we so often imagined that it had been closed.
In Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Bell, young Toby climbs over the wall of a convent in which he hears the strong and strange tones of the nuns at prayer. He slips and falls badly, injuring his leg. The kindly nun who takes him in and bathes his leg wound informs him gently that the massive doors, which seemed closed were in fact always kept unlocked. The enclosure was there not to keep people out but to concentrate the spirit of prayer within. He had only needed to open the door and let himself in…
The way in, the entry point, lies in our own glad and willing surrender. God is the One who is a beckoning God, inviting you and me to come to the source of our own life and hope. He is love and so we need not be constrained.
In Prayer, we have merely to seek to find...
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory,
my understanding, and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.
Whatever I have or hold, you have given me.
I return it all to you and surrender it wholly
to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace
and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.
St Ignatius Loyola from The Spiritual Exercises.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
21st Jul 2019
Fifth Sunday of Trinity Year C
“The mystery is Christ among you; your hope of glory”. Colossians 1.27
The Gospel shows us the Jesus who is at close proximity to the people who surround him. We are left in no doubt that the presence of Christ is felt spiritually and intimately. An encounter with him is an encounter with the Creator Father who is present in the outpouring of spiritual grace. And it is in the nature of this presence that it should be intimate. The poet Auden once said that God is always and everywhere present for us, and so there is no need seek him apart from every waking, waiting, listening moment. We seek him as he is found in the present moment; we seek him just as we are and just as we are found and we do not seek him elsewhere.
I once went shopping with my stepfather, and after several hours we finally arrived home, and I was anxious to get the bags out of the car and get in, but he stopped and said, ‘Look up at that overflow pipe. Look at that bird up there sipping away at the drips of water”. It was mildly irritating to be reminded of this stillness but even so it at reminded me of the possibility of a greater observance of the beautiful and fine detail of the created order in an attitude of openness to the elements. St Paul in writing to the Colossians expresses this as a Christian understanding. It is the close proximity of the person of Christ dwelling within you. And he likens this spiritual presence to a mystery. “And the mystery is Christ among you”… he says, “…your hope of glory”. (Colossians 1.27) The presence of Christ is an indwelling presence, which blesses and gives life.
God is a hospitable God who welcomes us into his presence at all times, and this is being outlined in two of our readings. The first is taken from Genesis Chapter 18 and details the reception of three strange guests at the Oak of Mamre. Abraham goes out to offer them hospitality but strangely addresses them in the singular, calling them Lord. And it is from this encounter that the guests promise that his elderly wife Sarah will give birth to a son. The presence of God is shown as a mysterious guest, offering us a foretaste of the post-resurrection meal at Emmaus. It remains true that the sharing of hospitality, the careful preparation of food and the conversation over the meal table can transcend the sum total of its parts. The presence of God himself, the writer of Genesis reminds us, lies at the heart of gracious hospitality, even though this may have been sentimentalised in the God who is likened to the silent guest at every meal. The Genesis account has famously been transposed into the art of the icon painter, as the Russian Andrei Rublev depicted the three strange guests spoken to as one in his icon of the Holy Trinity. Rublev gives the most powerful significance to the Genesis account, and we are permitted as we gaze upon this icon, to encounter the presence of the God whose love for us his creatures is and will for ever be a hospitable love.
In the Gospel account of Mary and Martha we have what seems like the showing of a sharp division of kinds of hospitality. Of pious Mary who ‘has chosen the better part’ and stays with Jesus and is in his presence, and the apparently distracted and overworked Martha, who is understandably angered by her sister’s apparent laziness. Is Mary pious or lazy; is Martha a put upon worker or simply distracted? In a painting by the Spaniard Velazquez, Mary and the Christ are seen as a reflection through a mirror or(or a serving hatch) from the kitchen. Standing in the foreground and pummelling away at some herbs with huge forearms and fists through a pestle and mortar is the angered Martha, much the most important figure in the picture, dominating the scene as she glowers out at us. In a fine details we see fish and eggs and bits of garlic and a jar of oil on the table. Mary and Christ are seen from a vague distance. And Velasquez is approaching the story from Martha’s point of view. The story and its theological importance still holds good. Even Abraham got up out of the noon-day sun to serve the strange visitors, and he did this before conversing with them. Their significance as holy visitors is allowed only in the context of their being at the table and of their being waited on. Martha remains for me the most interesting figure because she matters too. She cannot sit at Christ’s side even if she would have wanted too, because she has work to do! The disharmony which Martha’s glowering presence sets up is the one which has not allowed us to see that both work and prayer are both apart of the one needful offering. In this Eucharist we “do this in remembrance of Jesus” and the doing element becomes an inseparable part of the worshipping and the adoring element. Both are part of the one offering.
The promise is made to us this morning in the strangers who pass by and in the service of Mary and Martha, that before all else the love of God is ever open to us, ready to meet us where we are and how we are. God is waiting for us to come into his presence that we might find in it the healing which is the mystery of Christ among us; the hope of your glory and my glory,,,
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
14th Jul 2019
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity Year C
The Good Samaritan
“…And who is my neighbour…?’
The Parables of Jesus illustrate in a pictorial way the difficult and challenging messages he is teaching whilst recognizing our humanity and the right to moral choice. We mistake the Bible if we think it forms just a story book, or even a manual of spiritual instruction, though it can be both. As a child I thought of the whole Bible as an exotic and glorious story book full of wonderful tales and holding for me a kind of wonder which I could not find in any other book. I took all my reading from a Children’s Bible which was richly illustrated. I marvelled at the way in which Samson brought down the walls of the Temple, and of how David slew Goliath – much better for me than ‘Batman and Robin’, or even ‘Thunderbirds’. I sang the children’s assembly hymn by Charles Wesley :
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.
Lamb of God, I look to Thee;
Thou shalt my Example be;
Thou art gentle, meek, and mild;
Thou wast once a little child.
The Christian Gospels do not portray a Jesus who is ‘meek and mild’. Little children grow up and the parables of Jesus may speak to the adult mind in all their force. The teaching of Jesus communicates a Gospel which is challenging at the deepest levels of our being. They ask questions of our own self-contained worlds; personal worlds which are so often de-sensitivised to the needs of others. “The difficult idea that someone other than myself is real” is what Iris Murdoch observed. However, the parables as teaching stories are also kind, because they admit the great gap that exists between the desire to do good and the will to put it into practice, in other words, the parables admit human frailty. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is typical in this respect. Its teaching confronts the listener with the danger of our indifference to those outside our neat and safe sympathies.
The Road from Jerusalem to Jericho is seventeen miles long, but during that journey the road takes you 3,600 feet down. At the time of Jesus it would have been a treacherous journey, because for centuries roads carrying people loaded with valuables were prone to attack by bandits. This was why people travelled in large, well defended groups. But the Samaritan travelled alone and unfortunately he paid the price. He was robbed, beaten and left for dead.
In this church we have to regard the question “Who is my neighbour?” as absolutely central for our Christian calling. The Parable of the Good Samaritan calls us to a realization of one another not simply as signed up members of a religious organization but as a living body of people who depend and rely upon one another’s generosity and care and who extend that care outwards. This was a model for life in the early church. Each called to fulfil a co-creative potential. In this context, the stranger may come upon us to surprise us and to draw us out of ourselves. If we as Holy Cross Church are not to have this care for one another, how can we show those who live around and beyond this church the love of God made manifest in us? A kind of moral epiphany is being called for, a new awakenness:
This is the true joy of life: being used for a purpose, recognized by yourself as a mighty one, and being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. George Bernard Shaw
The Good Samaritan rises out of the ordinary, and in an extraordinary showing of practical and no-nonsense love, he has revealed the bleakness of the Priest and Levite and their religious indifference to the manifest suffering and pain of their one who lies bleeding. They are the politically correct of their day and don’t help because they refuse any kind of human involvement and the risk of ‘losing’ themselves. They lack imagination. They lack heart. If Jerusalem was the religious capital of the nation, then Jericho must stand for a place of radical action.
How are we to respond? I do not subscribe to the view that our reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan sets a gulf between the religious Jews and the Samaritan outsider. Rather it is there to provoke us into thought and then into action. Above all to realize our co-creative potential. For Christians, the transforming power of disinterested and active love must emerge not just out of a will to do good, but as a response to the God we experience as the ‘mover and shaker’ of our own complacency.
Our Lord Jesus, as he is telling the great parable of the Good Samaritan, is Himself ready to lay down his life for us. He is going on ahead, and leading us into a profound response to the question “Who is my Neighbour?” – a question which is being asked of us as the very litmus test of our claim to be Christian at all. And it demands our daily and active and prayerful response.
Our parish is set in the heart of King’s Cross and is one of the most challenging in the Church of England because of its place near the great railways stations of London and at the centre of the maximum commuter foot fall. Because of this there is begging on a much larger scale and drug taking which is reaching phenomenal proportions. The high rise in the number of homeless with the recourse to self-destruction through drugs and prostitution is rife. Many people in this parish and across London are found in the gutter and lie bleeding. Their plight, however it presents itself as intractable, is nonetheless one which must be heeded by our government, our society and by the Church rather than as an inevitable part of lower life in the big metropolis. But this movement must begin with ourselves, and with the ever-present and all important question which Jesus is putting to you this Sunday -
“And who is your neighbour?” A question which will always in Christ invite a committed response.