A Sermon for All Souls
2nd Nov 2012
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
He observed them; a people recovering from The Great War and most of them suffering the deaths of their men folk: sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. And the feeling is one of great sorrow and loss. And this is a sorrow that Eliot describes as a kind of ‘undoing’. “I had not thought that death had undone so many” he says. Death and the brevity of life and the loss of a loved can feel like we are being unravelled.
Another poet, Dylan Thomas writes a poem which is an elegy for his dead father and bids us ‘rage,rage aginst the dying of the light’.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It expresses a passionate anger that must form a part of the sense of impotent rage at a life gone from his midst, and the terrible loss of it. This too, forms a part of the human experience of death.
This Solemn Commemoration of All Souls on this day each year, 2nd November is, as the Pope has said, “…a beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death’. However faint our powers of recollection, we nevertheless feel in our own lives the influences of those who have gone before us. We feel there is more here than words can express, even for an Eliot or a Dylan Thomas. “What will survive of us” said WH Auden “…is love”.
At this time each year we remember the dead in faith and in thanksgiving. And we pray that as we journey on, so we may be sustained and maintained in hope by the One who made us and loves us as Christian souls. He is The One who came to show us the way through death and into life eternal, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
28th Oct 2012
Sermon for the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude.
Holy Cross Cromer Street, Sunday 28th October 2012.
You also must testify John 15:27
It is pretty negative, but both S Simon and S Jude were defined by who they were not. S Simon the less was not the great Simon Peter, prince of the apostles. And Judas is Judas not Iscariot: a boring good guy who ended up as the patron saint of lost causes because he was only entreated for his intercession as a last resort for fear that people might think one was asking the traitor for prayers. But the positive thing about them is that they testified. They were evangelists of the faith. All apostles are evangelists: apostle means ‘one who is sent,’ and Christ did not send them out for a loaf of bread: he sent them out with a message, to testify the Good News.
We are apostolic in the sense that we have been converted by this message, and receiving it we are one with the apostles in their life in Christ. But we are also apostolic in the sense that we also must testify: we too are sent, and we too must go out with the Good News.
Today’s scripture readings help us to unpack a little what it means to be an apostolic church – one which is united with Christ and so testifies well.
The beginning of apostolic ministry is Christ who is the cornerstone. The Nowadays a corner stone a ceremonial plaque and is seldom structurally necessary to the building. Looks good but no real use. That is not what the Bible means when it describes Jesus as the Cornerstone. He is the fundamental thing: the foundation, the reason why the whole edifice stands up. People scoff against this. They always have, as the prophesy of Isaiah says. But the word of the Lord comes to those who scoff: this is a precious corner stone for a sure foundation. It is true, and the challenge we have is to live as though it were true. Taking Jesus seriously in our lives is more difficult than it looks. How can we take the virtues of the Kingdom as the basis of what we do, the commands of God as our inspiration, how can we allow Jesus and our faith in Him to be more than a set of vague ideas or membership of a cosy club? How can virtue grow in us, how can souls burn with love and zeal, how can we build on Jesus as the foundation of all that we do, rather than faith in Him being a small time off activity?
Only grace can do this: God’s action in our lives. It begins with the call – the apostles themselves were called by the lakeside. Jesus reminded them: you did not choose me, no I chose you. This is God’s prior action. And He has called every one of us. How can I say that so certainly? Because you are here. The evidence is as simple and as incontrovertible as that: you are here. And here you are being built up in grace. Baptism is the beginning, the wondrous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, no less powerful than that outpouring the apostles received in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. You receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the food of angels, the presence of Christ with you, the indwelling of His life in yours, when He offers Himself to you in Bread and Wine. He is with you here in His temple and He is with you in the office and at home, in your work and wherever you go. This is what S Paul means when he says that you are ‘fellow citizens with God’s people, and members of God’s household. The while building is founded on Christ and raised to become the dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.
So you are called like the apostles and in the church you are built with them by His grace in the sacraments into the dwelling of God. And that is why you re rejected and why your mission is difficult. No servant is greater than his master; if they rejected me they will reject you. We are thought mad or bad by the world. The church holds positions which challenge the vested interests and the wealthy and the powerful: we stand up for the weak and the outcast and the poor. But the progressive world is also challenged and made uncomfortable when we propound views which seem exclusive in demanding that the say that our behaviour should be regulated by the teaching of a 2,000 years dead rabbi rather than by what is thought acceptable in the drawing rooms of Islington. We are thought simply mad when we say that God is alive and well in the world and influences decisions, and frankly we are dangerous when we suggest that suffering is not simply an evil to avoid and purge, but yet another tool, along with wellbeing, to help us on our way to God.
Where perhaps the apostolic message has had most traction is in the call to love our neighbour. For we do not come like some sect with a message of condemnation and hate and disengagement. The command of the Lord is to Love each other, and that challenge is one for which we plead help to fulfil. None of us lives up to the perfection of the apostles and we all fall short of heaven. And from our own sinfulness – and the awareness of its forgiveness in Christ – we reach out with the charity – that is the love – of Christ to the world. The offer of the disinterested love of Jesus Christ is the beginning of so much of our mission: offered not to convert but simply to respond to need: to show His love to the world, who was crucified for our salvation.
But that is not the whole of what the apostolic church does. It is not that we have some nice private faith which expresses itself in good works. Look at the end of the Gospel reading: when the Advocate comes He will testify. The Paraklete, is an Advocate in tow senses. He is our defence advocate in the court of public opinion: He helps us to defend ourselves against the attacks of the world. But He is also the advocate who brings our charges against the world. He helps us to make the challenge. Like Simon and Jude we are sent to make the case for Christ, in season and out of season, to teach rebuke and exhort. There will be much opposition, but we cannot duck the challenge: it is the inevitable concomitant of our membership of the church. For we have been built on Christ the Cornerstone and given grace for the upbuilding and conversion of our own souls. The result of that is the hatred of the world, to which we respond with acts of love and also with the courageous proclamation of the truth: that Jesus is the cornerstone on which they too can and must build their lives. Come, receive the bread of life; then go out: proclaim the Gospel with your lives.
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)
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.
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.
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