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He did not speak to them except in parables

17th Jun 2012

Sermon for Trinity 2 Year B

There are so many aspects of human life that cannot be put into words. But that has not stopped us from trying! Words can convey so much. But what underlies language is also important. The deeper resonances. When John speaks of Jesus speaking in parables, he is saying something to us that we already know. We love a story, and a story is a very good way of communicating an important truth. Much of the early Christian witness was based on this kind of truth telling or witness. The truth telling was of lives which had found their reason for being in Christ; Gospel.

So many of the bestsellers lists are of books of biography. The word ‘bio’ and ‘graphy’ aiming to combine two contrasting elements -  that of life as it is lived;  and the setting down of that life graphically, descriptively, in words. When we look at the Gospels we are not looking at the biography of Jesus, even though the Gospels have biographical elements in them, and the four Gospel writers agree on many of the same happenings in the life of Christ. The Gospels are just that, they are ‘gospel’ and the aim of they treat biography as a necessary but secondary consideration. The first consideration is that the Gospel is theology. It tells us about God, and of how we see and experience God in the life of Christ. With this lies also the Gospel as Christian teaching, and Jesus this morning likens the faith of the Christian to the planting of a mustard seed, the tiniest of the seeds, which may grow into a vast tree. This of course is a simple figure of speech, and paints a picture in the mind’s eye.  It sets forth the Christian teaching in a way which gives the individual space and scope to imagine and to assimilate. This is not dictation. It is far removed from ‘literal truth’ or ‘fundamental truth’. It does not treat the individual reader or listener as a foil or a dummy. It expects a human response which is unpredictable, like the parable of the rich young man whom Jesus advises to sell all he has. The Gospels do not tell us whether he goes on to do this!

The telling of stories has always been with us and its beginnings are lost in the mists of time. We know the Bible to be not one book but many books, and also letters, diaries and eye witness accounts. But mostly the Bible is bound by the story of human salvation as we begin with Genesis and human origins right through to the dream in Revelation of the vision of a heavenly city, a new Jerusalem. ‘It begins in a garden and ends in a city’. But what drew me as a child to the Bible was the way in which good stories are for the growing child as well as the adult a vital part of come to terms with what makes us human and what makes God God - Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the witness of Job, the raising of Lazarus all emerge out of a body of story-telling which provides the scale and the scope for us to imagine these as not just quaint stories.  Rather, they communicate in the endless telling and re-telling, the eternal and priceless truths concerning our existence. For the writers and readers of the Bible, they trace the patterning of the history of human salvation. The statue of David in the Accademia gallery in Florence and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre , Paris are works of art which have an everlasting quality. They stand for the truth of our everyday existence as they marry their amazing reality with their understanding of the salvation history of which the Bible speaks. And these works can only be understood when both are realised. They stand for us as ‘real presences’ which communicate a deep truth which has an everlasting quality. No amount of seeing and re-seeing, reading or re-reading can ever exhaust the meaning of what is being conveyed or intended. We see through what has already been provided for us to see.

It became necessary in a recent exhibition of reliquaries and paintings in one London Gallery to state that such and such works of art were loaned from places of worship, Cathedrals and churches, and were therefore not to be solely regarded as art objects, but as objects of veneration. It is in this sense the when Jesus speaks in parables he is communicating in a language which speaks of this world  but which also establishes the existence of faith and as that which reaches out beyond itself to find itself. It is part of our knowing and recognising but also it lies beyond this. But this also allows us to understand that we see not only with our eyes or our brains but with deeper instincts.

The Bible can be regarded as just a type of religious text or it can be regarded as The Book of Life. If we choose the former then we relegate the Bible and its teaching to one of those posh volumes, with fake leather binding that you can order in instalments and sit on your shelves trying to look grand, never read, but largely ornamental. If we see the Bible on the other hand as a Book of Life, then there is no limitation. It may speak to us in our own lives and human states as found. Many Christians I know supplement their church going and their prayers for a small booklet which can be easily ordered and which provides for daily readings from the Bible  with brief commentaries. Many have discovered by these means that Bible is not relegated to the ‘dry as dust’ section but waters and nourishes and provides a seed-bed into which the mustard seed of our growing and perhaps hesitant faith may find watering and refreshment.

In speaking in parables Jesus is admitting the need for a deeper understanding of the truths of our existence. It was Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell who observed that

We live I believe in a world of surfaces.

The speaking in parables provides a way of apprehending what St Paul described as the ‘length, the breadth, the height and the depth’ (Ephesians 3.18) of our existence and to know it through a lifetime’s study and pondering. Jesus is the One who allows someone like TS Eliot to see this as a never ceasing from exploring over a lifetime. This holds for us the promise of finding that place where we started from, the place of our own origin and truth, and of arriving at that place perhaps for the first time. But nonetheless to see the truthful things of God, whether or not embedded in mystery, whether seen through a glass dimly or whether enjoyed in the re-reading of old and worn parables, is for us the implantation of the mustard seed. In faith and intrust we pray that the Creator, the Giver and the Sustainer who is God will provide for the increase.

R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)

Via Negativa

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

Basic Humanity

10th Jun 2012

Today on this First Sunday of Trinity we begin to return after the great feasts of Trinity and Pentecost and to ‘the wearing of the green’. This colour will symbolise for us ordinary humanity, our humanity, as we stand  before God in need of the divine understanding and mercy. I think of the refrain from ‘It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer’. As a vital part of this ordinary humanity we rightly speak of the existence of the soul and the soul’s health. For Chrstians that has meant a humanity which is both ‘outward and visible’ and ‘inward and invisible’. We addresses God in words that cannot always be spoken. There are all the exterior things to do with the running of our lives and then there are those things which are almost inexpressible : our loves and our longings and our hopes. It is in this way that Paul can speak of our outward and inner natures and declare  that

“…even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day”  2 Corinthians 4.19.
But for him, in the final analysis, to be ‘In Christ’ is to be most fully alive in the acknowledgement that we are not just body, but also soul. The outer and the inner person is fully heeded ‘In Christ’ and as a soul.

One of the Prayer Book Collects (for Lent 3) reads:

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jesus’ meeting with so many of those he comes to heal begins with a simple throw away line or a basic question ‘Zacchaus come down, today I must dine with you”’ he says to Zacchaeus in the tree, and to the demoniac ‘What is your name? To the widow of Nain he says “Do not cry”. As a healer, Jesus is the one who ‘sees into’ the humanity of the person and stays with it before ever the healing is carried out. The healing acts are inseparable from the human encounter and the arrival at a place of mutual understanding.  And it is possible to begin to see that as humans we are made to love and to be loved. That loving may show itself in ‘being with’ a person rather than anything good we feel we might be doing on their behalf.

At theological college one of our tutors was rather eccentric. He was a big man and always seemed to be in a hurry. He arrived late and breathless to one of our house meetings and rushed towards a chair and sat himself on it with such relief and weight that it gave way immediately to gales of irrepressible laughter as we saw him gazing up at us with legs akimbo. He once visited one of our students who was full of a terribly fluey cold. This student was female and also a chain smoker. The large and chair-breaking tutor came to visit her, and feeling a bit awkward asked her whether she’d like a cup of tea? She said ‘Yes’ and he got the tea, and then sat next to her bed and fidgeted and asked her whether she had any biscuits? She said yes, there, over by the bread bin. She remembers this visit not so much by anything that was said, and even least by her tutor’s social skill, but that as he listened to her intently, he proceeded to devour the whole packet of biscuits right in front of her! Ever since, she has found the memory of this visit delightful because it was so characteristic of him. He knew how to be himself even when he found it difficult to be himself. It was, at least, very human and in a way, very pastoral.

This ‘being with’ a friend or loved one is surely a way of expressing the desire to be loving even and especially when you don’t quite know how this is to be done. It is an acknowledgement of the thin divide that exists between the caring for the outward things and leaving the inmost things to God’s good grace. It is an act of love which is done not with self-consciousness but, as one theologian would have it, ‘love seeking expression’. It is love as an action of love, like the person who did not know what to say to the woman whose son had committed suicide so he made a casserole and left it outside her door with a note and asked her permission to cook a dish for her once a week.

The Clod and the Pebble, William Blake, Songs of Experience, 1794.

"Love seeketh not Itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair."
So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet;
But a Pebble of the brook,
Warbled out these metres meet:
"Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to Its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite."

English Hymnal 216:

Disposer supreme, and judge of the earth,
Who choosest for thine the weak and the poor,
To frail earthen vessels and things of no worth,
Entrusting thy riches which ay shall endure.

There is an icon in church this morning. It is a Coptic or Egyptian icon of the sixth century and features a famous saint, martyr and abbot, Menas, given the charge of his community by Christ himself, who, unusually, puts his arm around Menas in an encouraging gesture. This icon is shown by the Taizé community of young people as an icon of reconciliation and of friendship with Christ and it is charming in the details of the outstretched and embracing arm. But it is significant too, because it is not a mere painting but an icon, and painted or ‘written’ in a particular way. The figures in these icons have large heads, eyes and ears but small mouths and noses. That is because the head, the eyes and the ears were considered more spiritual than mouths (gossip) and noses (too sensuous). But this is an encouraging icon because of its humanity and for us the prevailing truth of the Christ who is with us even and especially when we  may not realise this. He is the one who underwrites our frail humanity and actively seeks our reconciliation with the Father through ‘his presence and his very self’.

We feel in this place at this time, his presence as a  guiding and encouraging one, one we can come to trust and to know despite and because of ourselves. Let us, then be the most ordinary people we can, and to love the ordinary and ordinary humanity, particularly in the God-given capacity to show love not jus as a feeling but as an active response which emanates from the source of all love, God himself…

Trinity Sunday

3rd Jun 2012

The Feast of the Holy Trinity itself forms the latest of great feasts that crown the Church’s year; Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and now Trinity Sunday. Easter focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, Ascension his heavenly glory seated at the right hand of the Father, Pentecost upon the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity upon the godhead itself. Of the four, the Feast of the Trinity, of God’s manifestation as Creator God, as Christ and as Holy Spirit is the hardest to understand because it expresses God as three ‘persons’ but as a single unity.  Despite the difficulty, it is more important than ever that we learn to speak about God. To know God as real and to communicate that reality in words as theologians.  How then are we to make God real? I want to show you how this has been done by an icon painter, a novelist and a spiritual writer, and then to show three paintings which tell us more about God.

The Holy Trinity has been painted by Andrei Rublev as an icon for a household of love. The icon is based on one of Abraham’s visions in Genesis Chapter 18, in which the elderly Abraham and his wife Sarah entertain three mysterious guests. Rublev’s point was to establish the Trinity as both a concrete reality and as a sublime mystery. At the heart of the mystery is the hospitable God who wishes to invite you to take your place at the heavenly banquet, for the place in front of you is yours. God is depicted as a place to dwell in, or as Henri Nouwen has put it “a household of love”. This is a household where there are no artificial boundaries and where all who honestly seek after the presence of God may find it and be embraced by it. Living in this household is not only a revelation of God’s love but also makes this love apparent and real. This has far-reaching implications for the Church which must both safeguard the integrity of its faith but welcome the strangers in its own midst with the completest hospitality. And this hospitality has to reach deep into its theology and its world-view and into all its own prejudices, known and unknown. The icon for Nouwen’s household of love is also Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ in which loving forgiveness and reconciliation is God’s response to our own longing to find our true destiny.

We live not one life but many lives. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Bell’ begins with the words “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.”  Immediately we are plunged into Dora’s inner life through this novel in a way no other medium allows. Her life is not a simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but like the rest of us lived out riddled with contradictions, or with what Murdoch called ‘contingency’. What could be more contradictory than a God who is at one and the same time Creator of Man, Man and Spirit? It is in the tradition of the novel to allow us to accept and incorporate both the limitedness of human understanding with the incompleteness of things.  As the hymn “And Can It Be?”  puts it:  ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies, who can explore his strange design…?’  It is in life’s radical incompleteness that the God of love comes to meet us. He is the one who, in Jesus Christ offers hope even in and through the gaps of our existence.

Three years’ ago I attended the funeral of a former parishoner who had been living with cancer for some years. I shall call him Michael. He had had many remissions and had fought the disease bravely until finally he died. As his eulogy was read at the funeral service I realised with a start that I had only known him as a sick man, albeit a lovely human being. But here was another man with a rich past, a painter, a diplomat, who had lived in Egypt for twenty years and was fluent in Arabic, and all I seemed to remember were our rather stilted conversations, mostly theological discussions, because he took a keen interest in that. As the service wore on, I nonetheless realised two things; firstly that the life I had encountered in Michael was put a small part of the entirety of his earthly life which spanned times and places I could barely imagine or inhabit. Secondly, I realised that nonetheless all real human encounters are spiritual encounters, and they have a quality that makes the spirit sing for joy. They involve the subtle interplay of lives apparently lived at a distance, but recognised as part of one reality. The funeral became for me a celebration of his life and of mine too. That small part of my life which was spent with him has been transformed for me and is part of my present life, and as I think on these things I know that in the middle of all this is the love of the Trinitarian God.

We can’t begin to fathom the intricacies of the meaning of all this, just as we can’t fathom the intricacies of the Trinity. Masaccio paints the Trinity as older man, younger man and dove but does this in a painting where you are left to wonder about their existence within the realm of time and space and perspective. It is not there to overwhelm you but to place before you the existence of God as both an abiding truth and a sublime mystery. The Holy Trinity does not therefore find us speculative and doubting, but beckons us to enter in and to find God ready to greet us, as we do today; to come and eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Saviour and to come ‘just as we are’, within the household of His abiding and all-embracing love.

Feast of Pentecost

27th May 2012

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.  Acts 2.4.

Some say that The Coming of the Holy Spirit marks the Church’s birthday, and in a way this is true, although the Church was begun as the disciples were called at Galilee. But even so, our dramatic first reading from The Acts of the Apostles describes a signal moment among those who had followed Christ. This Pentecost moment was singular and devastating. The Holy Spirit had come with power; like burning fire, and it rested upon them. And it literally turned their lives inside out.

This had emerged out of their long Eastertide. It had been an Easteride of waiting and of wondering and of bewilderment. Something might emerge out of all this, but what? What is certain among the loose band of followers was this: The teaching of Christ and the experience of the resurrection had been transformative. They now knew that what they had been given was a Gospel of unparalleled spiritual power.  Pentecost had come to them in the giving of spiritual gifts. And the Giver was the Giver of all things, God himself. And the gift was the gift of himself as seen and known in His Son Jesus Christ and in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had asked that it be sent. And so it was. The original spirit of God, which had brooded over the face of the waters before the Creation had now become the life giving spirit mediated in and through the life and death of Christ. And the gift was to be both inspirational and practical.

It is most important to the writer of the Acts of the Apostles that this is a Holy Spirit which is not wil o’ the wisp and elusive. It is a Holy Spirit which takes basic form in the life of the emerging Christian community as a gift from God in Jesus Christ. And the primary fact of this gift is three-fold:

Firstly it is a gift which calls us to think differently about the human family in the breakdown of tribal, national and language barriers. The idea of the proliferation of languages with the one singular understanding burns in our minds as the possibilities that lie inherent in the understanding of different worlds of understanding. We are here called to take on the reality of what lies before us as strange and new and embrace it wholeheartedly, for it is when we meet and greet and accept the new and the hitherto unlearned parts of our experience that we truly grow into God’s likeness.

Little Gidding   IV
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
  Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre -  
  To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment?
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. 

T S Eliot.

Love as a devouring fire… A devastating thought.
Secondly, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the one which calls the Christian Church to look beyond itself and its own needs and to see the person of Christ in the eyes of the stranger, the visitor, the refugee, the homeless one, the marginalised one, the gay person, the drunk, the depressed and the fatalistic. It is inward in that the Spirit is holy and it is a spirit which gives inner nourishment, but its basic life is one which calls us out of ourselves and beyond the level of our normal horizons. God is to be found there : in the other. He is ‘The Holy’ Other… In this there may come new life, for the Spirit renews us as it draws us out of ourselves, and into the place of illumination and of hope which is the presence of God and the love of God. The Spirit is also indwelling, and inward: This Church is to be the place where we may both re-charge our spiritual batteries and where our hopes and imaginations may be re-kindled:

Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known.

Extract from 'Pentecost' by William Blake.

Finally, the Holy Spirit lives among us in the life of God’s Church, which is the power of God and the influence of God. This week as in all weeks we meet on Friday mornings for coffee. From 10 am until 2 pm. This is not a coffee morning or a conversation group – I would prefer to call it an open group, open to the elements, offering an open welcome, and open to the possibility of human encounter and human encounter in many different conversations being transforming and renewing in its possibility. It tells us all something about what one theologian has called ‘the sacramentality of conversation’. This week we had a welcomed a young business man from Toronto, a young man from Florence in Italy and an elderly Iraqi woman and her daughter-in-law, not Moslems but Kurdish Christian women. The older of the two women had witnessed her husband’s death at the hands of Saddam’s security guards. But they all come to this church and find something of god here, in what ever form you may wish to describe it. Or perhaps this presence, this peace, this Spirit of God is in fact indescribable.?

This Church, in what it is and in what it manages to be for so many different kinds of people, is that place where God is known to dwell and therefore a place of peace. This provides for a pentecostal peace, the peace of God which passes all understanding and yet one which may be known and shared: that peace which may reach into and beyond the barriers of custom and boundaries set by this or that ingathered community… The message of Pentecost is that the Spirit of God has now entered places where doors had formerly been shut and minds closed. In the breaking down of these barriers, in the love of the stranger and in the power and influence of God, The Holy Spirit has now provided the living flame of God’s love for us, whomever and wherever we may be…

Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer!! 

Margaret Schelegel (Emma Thompson) From chapter 22, Howards End (1910)  E M Forster.

That They May Be One

20th May 2012

“That they may be one as we are one”.

The words of John Chapter 17 lie at the very heart of John’s teaching. His Gospel tells us that Jesus comes from God and goes back to God. The space in between these two movements is the one which speaks of the fulfilling of a God-given destiny. The words of Jesus form what has become known as ‘the farewell discourse’ in which the fulfilment of his mission and its final farewell brings with it a prayer for the unity of humankind. The Cole Porter song tells us that ‘every time we say good bye, I die a little’ and in Jesus’s ‘goodbye’ discourse, there lies the greatest hope for the future of mankind. And this is the hope which sets human destiny alongside the call to unity. ‘That they may be one’ says Jesus’, ‘…even as the Father and I are one’.  On this Sunday, the first after Ascension Day, this Gospel reading truly marks the shift between Christ’s earthly existence and the hope which he carries for us all as he returns to the Father.

To speak about unity is not to speak of uniformity or sameness but rather to speak of things which are experienced and held in common. The idea of a co-dependent common humanity is one which was been forged out of the two world wars. It took two devastating global conflagrations  for the message of a united nations to make itself truly known. The forming of the united nations out of the death, destruction, wounds and ashes of world war was a deed whose time had come. It was a learning from past history and its mistakes. It was made out of the tragedy of carpet bombing, civilian death and the Holocaust. It was the creation of what Aldous Huxley had called ‘brave new world’. There is the same sense in St John’s Gospel in which Jesus looks forward to a brave, new world which will be realised as the life of God existent in the life of humankind. Both would, in Christ, live within one another. This was not to be mere  ‘wishful thinking’ or an idle and ill-founded hope. This was to be a unity based on experience and upon fact, upon a future hope emerging out of past and present realities and upon an utterly realistic account of the human condition in as it is found.

Dag Hammarskjold  United Nations Secretary General 1953-1961 on ‘fighting optimism’:

"It is in a sense a switch from the atmosphere of pre-1914 to what I believe is the atmosphere of our generation…—a switch from the, so to say, mechanical optimism of previous generations to what I might call the fighting optimism of this present generation. We have learned it the hard way, and we will certainly have to learn it again and again and again."

The call of Christ is the call to see God in one another and to experience God in and through one another. The Christian faith is one which is, in human terms, for ever relational. And to see God in one another is to live as a ‘fighting optimist’. It is to accept along the way that we are far from the perfected beings we make ourselves out to be. The plain fact is that I need my neighbour not for what I can extract out of him but I need him to fulfil my own true destiny.  I need my neighbour in order to find out what kind of person I truly am. This is surely what all the words about God and love in the New Testament lead us, more fully and more deeply into a love of humankind as I find it in my own life’s modest sphere. To learn from my neighbour that I am weak, fallible and prone to myself is not bad thing, but perhaps is the true ‘pearl of great price’, and the one thing needful for my soul’s salvation. The Olympic flame is now rested travelling through glorious Devon and will this morning cross the River Erme.

“Devon, Glorious Devon!”
Written by Sir Edward German (1862 - 1936, born Edward German Jones).

Combe and tor,
green meadow and lane,
birds on the waving bough.
Beetling cliffs by the surging main,
rich red loam for the plough.
Devon's the font of the finest blood
that braces England's breed.
Her maidens fair as the apple bud
and her men are men indeed.

When Adam and Eve were dispossed
of the garden, hard by Heaven,
they planted another one down in the West -
'twas Devon, 'twas Devon, glorious Devon!

As it traverses the shores of the British Isles, it carries with it the hope for the coming Olympic Games as it blazes its way around our shores. And what kind of an Olympic Games is best for all of us? The Olympic motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is a motto of superlatives, and if you are older yours might be slower, more careful, and a bit shaky’. Christianity does not offer a faith of human superlatives but one which is grounded in our everyday existence. God is to be shown in our everyday dealings with one another and especially how we treat one another with courtesy and respect, honouring one another’s own right to freedom of expression, and of our own right to be ‘who we are’.

The legacy of our ascended Lord is the one which is the prayer for human unity, at the individual, communal national and global levels. That we should find one another in one another.  Perhaps then, we should look elsewhere for a deeper and more lasting meaning, and one which expresses once more the unity which is the hope of the Christ who utters his farewell discourse in Chapter 17 of his Gospel ‘that they be one, even as we are one’. That hope is symbolised in the five Olympic Games interlinked rings, representing the world’s five continents. But the rings might also represent the interlinking and interdependence of all our human destinies. We are to find our true integrity in and through our life together and in the understanding and forgiveness we can show along the way. In this way we can begin to give answer to the prayer of Christa and to begin to practice that ‘fighting optimism’ for which a great United nations Secretary General struggled and died.




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