21st Oct 2012
Sermon for 20th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” Mark 10.43
To commemorate the beginning of the new millennium in London, a landmark exhibition was opened at the National Gallery in the year 2000. The coming third millennium provided the opportunity for a celebration of Christian history, and the title of the exhibition ‘Seeing Salvation’ a way of seeing and realising the centuries old Christian witness in paintings.
The first of these paintings was a startling and unusual one. It was a Spanish picture, painted in 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 moving because it appeals directly to your sense of compassionate understanding. But its title means that this painting has a meaning which is emphatically Christian.
Christian paintings have been important in helping us to understand some deep and complex theological truths. 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 is it sacrifice?) is also one that speaks of a deep sense of mortality and of loss, bound here to the life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Zurburan’s gaze and intention is unrelenting and searching. The image echoes the words of this morning’s Old Testament Reading from Isaiah:
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He is 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)
Isaiah spoke about a messiah who would be a sacrificial lamb—of course for us it is Christ. Jesus is 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 in 1920 and yet the message for our salvation remains still clear and sure. Travers has the Christ as Good Shepherd wearing an amber coloured cloak and carrying a lantern, the light of the world. This time the lamb is carried on his own shoulders. But we know that the lamb he bears as the good shepherd also alludes to the lamb of sacrifice. His sacrifice. The 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
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 their necessary debt to Christ’s teaching in a discipleship which follows a pattern of sacrifice. We understand this in terms of servant hood 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 is very demanding. It calls us out of ourselves and toward the other. Jesus’ sacrifice is the one which is transformational because it works for our greater good. It is the teaching given by the One who is for all time the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But in earthly terms it is by the way of self-giving that we lose ourselves and find ourselves. It is by costly self-giving that lives are changed. It is by these means, and by these means only, that the Christian Church becomes Christian. It is this teaching which provides the prophecy for our times. The arguments in the Gospel about greatness are in Jesus Christ, redefined and re-orientated around the sacrifice of his life.
“And he 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 a rant it must be a 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 and bring it to its true fruition. The Church is the place where the modelling of this service of self-giving is to be seen and known. 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 his grace and through his mercy.
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild;
He became a little child.
I, a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
William Blake (1757-1827)
The Rich Young Man
14th Oct 2012
Nineteenth Sunday of Trinity
Everything is possible to God. Mark 10.27.
This morning’s Gospel reading continues to ask the same question. “Can I afford to be more generous?” The story of the rich young man appears to be one of the most straightforward and indeed the easiest to interpret. Jesus challenges the young man at the point of his greatest possessiveness. His wealth. And this is surely a story about the acquisition of money for its own sake and of greed? The reading and interpretation surely falls easily to hand? But the story has a more subtle meaning: What might it mean to live the life we are made by God to live? The Gospel writer Mark places alongside the ideas of finding and gaining the equivalent ideas of renouncing and of losing one’s self. It is with the principle of renunciation rather than with that of acquisition that life is made productive and can be made Godly. It is when we can give from within ourselves toward that which lies outside of ourselves that life is enriched. This is the basis of all service in whatever capacity, even when our own motives are mixed and our intentions not particularly selfless.
The rich young man enjoyed his time of spiritual ease. He came to Jesus as the religious man from a good post code. But he had become complacent. He lived an oblivious life. Churches are now growing across the world, containing congregations of great number, in which a new Gospel of ‘Rich is Godly’ is preached, where the minister might well own a private jet and drive about in a limousine. There is seen to be no irony in this… He is a for many of his followers kind of hero. But his riches cut him off from himself and lead away from God. The rich young man lives in the spiritual equivalent of a gated community. A kind of cordon sanitaire, away and apart from the mainstream. Jesus stands before him as the presence and the voice of God. He lacks one thing, this young man; the spirit of self-emptying or renunciation. To ‘move on’ he needs to ‘move out’ and even to ‘get rid’.
London is one city which bounds many towns and villages, each with their own identity. It is like a giant patchwork quilt of differing communities, and you can get this delightful sense of wandering through districts as each appears to you in their distinctive character. There is much speculation about where and how these identities are located and where they meet; where and what is King’s Cross, where and what Bloomsbury, where and what the romantically sounding Fitzrovia? And the estate agents like to talk this up. They like to talk up easy access to the Brunswick Centre, with its ‘shopping opportunities’ and now the King’s Cross identity begins to take on a veneer of luxury living with mention of the St Pancras Chambers, the new 5* hotel, The Guardian Newspaper and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. A cold and derelict tract of wasteland has been turned into a gleaming mini-metropolis. A London postcode for estate agents can tell you all you need to know about a distinct where WC1 sounds and means something different from NW1, as the Euston Road separates them and where this separation was once known as ‘The Dead Sea’. But inhabiting fascinating patchwork of districts are countless lives being led, and all of them asking, whether they express it or not, deep and searching questions about the meaning of life and of its truer purpose: “What is the true purpose of my life?” This is the great unuttered, unanswered prayer of modern life. Its exaction holds for us now just as it did for the rich young man. It is a Gospel question. It is urgent.
Mark tells us that the rich young man went off ‘on his own way’. The story is left open ended. Did he or didn’t he sell what he owned to follow Jesus? The story suggests that he didn’t. He left ‘disconsolate’. Jesus had been the sun breaking through to illuminate the field of his dreams but it was for the young man an uncomfortably searching light. It was the cold light of day. It was more than he could bear. Christ’s insight is not coercive. It allows for our freedom. His illumination does not press the believer against a corner. No: ‘it knows of what we are made’ and expresses what is true to our existence and to the love of God. It is the light which reveals us as we are and the only way in which we can own the truth of our existence.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
The Bright Field by R. S. Thomas
Finally, the story of the rich young man makes comments upon this offer of eternal life in the present. It tells us that it is hard to see or to enter this Kingdom and to realise its beauty if you are ‘hurrying’ or ‘hankering’; and so this is a call to a kind of stillness and waiting from which a truer responsiveness to the purposes of God might emerge. Jesus tells us that ‘…everything is possible with God’. God can use our indifference, our desire to domesticate and tame him and use him for our own ends. He can use our weaknesses, our good and bad faith and our base passions and transform them. We are not as self-sufficient as we suppose. In fact it may be our brokenness and our vulnerability that brings us closer to the Kingdom of God.The gift was always greater and more valuable for its having been given. The giver the greater because you gave freely, not thinking of yourself first. How can it be possible to ‘sell all that you have?’; to take that risk on what might fell like self-annihilation? The One who knows is the teacher, the Saviour, the One who has gone ahead and died for us. He is the One has made it possible. He is the light which seeks to break through to illumine our minds. His is the life which is for our healing.
God our 'All in All'
7th Oct 2012
THE EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF TRINITY
‘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 witness to its becoming scarred and diseased. For Christians this offers the reminder that we inhabit this earth and we see it for what it really is through the lens or the focus which is the existence of God as Creator and of Jesus Christ as the true sustainer of our human being. 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 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? Likewise human existence cannot be explained away like a theory. St Paul reminds us 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 scientific enquiry but emerges out of God, then we come to see things in a new way. It is a way which 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 as one which catches the outward form but which is drawn by God to see in and through the outward realities which are offered and then into a deeper sense of things. There is much that cannot be certified or proved. So much must be understood from a perspective other than just the observational or provable. The Christian way of seeing 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, understanding may contribute to faith. But 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 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. As you looked upon the creation, cared for it, and learnt to love it, you were in communion with the Creator God. And 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 real and 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…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 all those with whom we have contact and to those matters we have to deal, so that in us God may prove indeed to be our ‘all in all’. For God is no theory, he is as real as we are and as our world is.
The Prayer of Faith
30th Sep 2012
Sermon for Trinity 17 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 the 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’. 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. 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 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.
1. 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.
2. For God, the living God,
Stooped down to man’s estate;
By death destroying death,
Christ opened wide life’s gate.
He lives, who died; he reigns on high;
Who lives in him shall never die.
3. Unfathomed love divine,
Reign thou within my heart;
From thee nor depth nor height,
Nor life nor death can part;
My life is hid in God with thee,
Now and through all eternity.
G W Briggs (1875-1959)
13th Sunday after Trinity Year B
This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me.
St Mark’s duty in writing his Gospel is to set down for posterity the foremost facts of the Christian Gospel. In this endeavour, it is important for him to set the teaching of Christ in contrast to the existing Jewish tradition. But this was not, we should note, in opposition to it! Jesus’ purpose is to enrich and deepen and broaden the people’s understanding, and the light that he shone on existing religious practice was and is a revealing and a critical one. This morning’s Gospel centres on a confrontation with the Pharisees concerning ritual cleansing rites: the ritual washing of hands before meals and the cleansing of dishes. Today, these duties are widely praticed outside the religious sphere as being basically civilised and practical. Good manners… No-one would dream of providing a meal on dirty dishes and serve food with dirty hands, would they? But here, Jesus is speaking not about good manners but about the worship due to God. For Jesus, true religion is a religion expressed by the human heart.
To speak of the heart is to address humankind from the inside out. It is to call from us our true selves. It reflects upon what is needful : ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments’, warns the prophet Joel (Joel 2.12-13). There is no need to fuss over considerations of what remains ritually clean or unclean : this is to externalise what can only be experienced from our interior life; No : Christianity is firstly and foremostly a religion of the heart, of what lies deep within human nature. Joel’s ‘rending of the heart’ is a call to a radical kind of honesty about what things are needful for us. And though we cannot always be ‘honest to God’, we do have in this Eucharist the means by which we can try. If last week we spoke of the God ‘who seeks us out and knows us’ so this week we can speak of our own human knowledge in terms of what God already knows of us: Ultimately, St Paul says in Romans 8, “I shall know, even as I am known”. Christ, the Son of God, is shining a new light onto man and women as we really are. And we are to know right away that Gods longing for our reconciliation is one which is being communicated at this moment; heart to heart. The transparency of God’s a priori love for us is humbling and gladdening – it is everlastingly generous and renewing.
What Jesus calls ‘The Commandment of God’ is realised in us as we worship God. When we worship God in church, we come to realise that this is an experience of God’s prior knowledge of who we are and of what our world is made. It involves a heightening of our senses. Our worship of God involves an experience of the sensitive contemplation of our lives and their purposes. This is because our place of worship is a place of truth-bearing and truth telling. It is important to set religious practice into its proper context. The liturgies, the ceremonial, the outward signs of our religion: making the sign of the cross, bowing at the name of Jesus, kneeling for prayer, standing for the Gospel, the burning of incense; these are all outward expressions of what we regard here at Holy Cross as ‘practical piety’, for they express something of the respect and the honour we want to offer to God. I thank God that there are many examples of such piety shown in churches and even on the streets.
I was once in a funeral car, been taken to the Islington Cemetary, and sat next to the driver with the chief mourners behind us. As we approached Hampstead Hill, next to the Royal Free Hospital, two hoodies were walking in front on the pavement. The driver noticed them and moaned to me about hoodies and the demise of our society, when suddenly, as these two hooded young men saw the hearse and the coffin, pulled down their hoods and bowed in respect. My driver said to me after a long, dense pause, “Well, I take that back, Vicar”. Does such a gesture point us to something we should always admit – that humankind has an essentially spiritual nature, or as the great theological writer Evelyn Underhill put it ‘Man is a worshipping animal’. Or as St Augustine rejoins, ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in thee’.
It is the Church’s vocation in the modern age to seek out and to uphold all those people and places where the love of God is being acknowledged, both in an beyond the bounds of the established Church. Only a religion which comes from the heart will have the necessary sensitivity and compassion to acknowledge these things…as like for like. The words of Jesus remain stern and unyielding and challenge us to discover that place of being where, as Cardinal Newman once put it, ‘heart speaks to heart’. Acts that emerge out of a movement of the human heart are agents of human transformation : we need never doubt this and nor, and for that matter, did Christ.
‘The people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me’. Jesus seeks after the coming together of our actions and their intentions. And he calls us, as spiritual beings, to live lives that take proper time to reflect upon the love of God from deep within us. The danger is always the trivialisation or routinisation of those things which form the essential bedrock of our spiritual health. The return for us, therefore, is always to the heart of things, their centre and source, Jesus Christ, ‘by whom and with whom and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory be to thee, O Father Almighty, now and for ever. Amen.