Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
31st Aug 2014
Sermon for The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let them renounce themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save their life will lose it. Matthew 16.25.
This time last year I was staying in the convent of the Consolata Missionary Community in central Italy. During this stay it seemed as though the normal course of life was being lived in reverse. I mean this in relation to the existence overwhelming silence. In the convent, a God-filled silence seemed to pervade everything. The life of the convent worked its way around the existence of this silence as it offered a real means of communication in a generous space. The second aspect of my convent experience lay in the company I was keeping. The sisters are brave souls, missionary sisters, who do not stay in their Mother House for long, but are sent, directed to mission fields across the globe, from places as far apart as Liberia and Mongolia, London and The United States. They are multi-lingual and outward looking. But importantly these are sisters who have taken vows of stability of life. And the established silence of this community give one the impression of life lived intensely and yet in peace and in freedom. It may often seem that women and men who live like this have ‘turned their backs’ on life or that such a life is a kind of waste. On the contrary, our readings this morning remind us that The Christian Call from the beginning was one which acknowledged a paradox, a contradiction which nonetheless proves true: ‘…anyone who wants to save their life will lose it’. The sisters have made this visible and knowable to us. They make Christian Faith real and apparent.
The rejection of this kind of life as an absurdity fails to acknowledge the necessary living out of the Christian paradox. Like Peter in this morning’s Gospel, in our ignorance and fear, we erect defensive barriers and create our own distinctions. We accept and reject certain realities so that our worlds may be made in our own image and likeness and not in God’s. This is only human but can become self-justifying. When Jesus foretells his destiny as one involving death and resurrection, Peter remonstrates. He can’t cope with this. He responds in the negative: “This must not happen to you!” And we can sympathise with him. We know that Peter was fearfully protective of his teacher. But it was a protectiveness which was misguided because possessive. Jesus’ astonishing reply to Peter is “Get behind me, Satan!”. “Your way is not God’s, but Man’s”. As Jesus admonishes Peter he challenges the idea of the Christian way as predictable and safe. Jesus has come for the opening of human hearts and minds and for the realisation for the Call to live our lives more truthfully. He has come to bring a message which is demanding. He has come to challenge each one of us in the deepest parts of our being. To call us into question. This involves St John the Baptist’s call for real repentance. It is also to say that we may find God both in the stability of a quietened mind and as much in the call to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. To let go rather than to possess. This is what makes the Call of Christ so searching. The Spanish mystics lived in the late sixteenth century and spearheaded the Catholic resurgence after the challenges of the Reformation. Their emphasis lay most definitely in the direction of this same letting go:
This is the advice from one such Spanish Mystic, St John of the Cross (1542-1591):
To reach satisfaction in all
desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to enjoy what you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.
This Church of the Holy Cross in King’s Cross stands as a witness to the place and the time and the society in which we live. It has always taken seriously the care and respect for those persons, from whatever type or background who live in this small parish and who experience the full ‘King’s Cross ‘Effect’ as a place of brief or not so brief transit. But this Church also exists as a spiritual oasis, a centre for Christian teaching, a place of prayer and a witness to Christ within the deep places of the human soul and psyche. It stands for an acceptance of the particulars of contemporary life with the embrace of what one theologian called a` ‘passionate and an active inwardness’. It is the living out of the divine paradox and it stands alongside a secularised society as more counter-cultural than ever.
As Christians it becomes the duty of the Church to be most truly itself and to find the courage and the words to proclaim the Christian message. This may be done not in words which seek to justify or prove a point, but words which emerge out of our life together. This is the way of life which is founded on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a Church turned inside out so that what is met and beheld in this place becomes the means by which this parish, and those we meet may truly receive the divine Consolata, the message of hope for our distracted existence. This is to exist within what someone has called ‘the groove of hope’. It is to embrace the paradox in and through which the truth of our human being is being surely revealed.
Sermon for the Feast of St Bartholomew
24th Aug 2014
Sermon for the Feast of St Bartholomew, Apostle
August 2014 (Year A)
“Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. John 1.47
It seems strange that this morning we take a break from the long procession of Sundays after Trinity and celebrate the life of an apostle and saint, Bartholomew. Strange because we know so little about him, other than that he was called by Jesus and then commended for his particular kind of integrity, which was as Jesus himself said, ‘incapable of deceit’. He was a plain speaking man (‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ John 1.46) and he came from Cana in galilee, where the wedding feast took place. Legends attest to his missionary work in India and Armenia. It has been important, even with this scant information, not to ignore ‘the bigger picture’: of Bartholomew’s call to be an apostle; the one who was ‘sent’ and of his obedience to that call. The Church would always identify itself as apostolic, as a continuing series of very particular and significant callings, in the inheritance of the original witness of the apostles. The term ‘apostolic’ represented an abiding trust in the idea that before ever witness to Christ was a job of work, it was foremostly a Godly calling. The initiative always remained God’s initiative in and through his Son Jesus Christ. The Christian Ministry was based upon the idea of a spiritual line of succession from Christ through the laying on of hands, the apostolic succession, which gives authority and weight to a ministry that would otherwise be man-made. It was not to be a status but a service.It was a calling from God; a vocation, before it was a curriculum vitae...
Detailed accounts of so many Christian apostles over the centuries have bypassed any written assessment and their witness remains little known to us. The real fact is their existence as a cloud of witnesses, as the successors of the apostles, who have committed their lives in the service of the Church beyond the promise of personal security, advancement in status or the fulfilment of personal desire. It is not to their work or spiritual status that The Church points but to the bedrock of faith and trust which made the ordinariness of their witness truly apostolic, a testimony to the One who calls, Jesus Christ, by their own witness and in their own time. And it was costly witness. St Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, makes it all too plain that the apostolic witness was one which expected to suffer ignominy. He says that “God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ”. (1 Corinthians 4.9-10). In The Acts of the Apostles, the writer Luke delivers the salutary warning that “None dared to join them (the apostles) but the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5.14) A special kind of response to God’s grace was evidently called for, one which could endure under severe pressure. Paul goes on to describe the transformational effect the early apostles achieved in their ability to exhibit grace under suffering. It was this apostolic conduct which helped to secure a future for the Church in an atmosphere which was often brutal and barbarous, and unpredictable.
If we draw all these strands together we come to a realisation of the Christian calling as a particular witness to the world in which we live as it is shaped and informed by Christ’s own example. It is neither an escape from the realities that the world throws up or a retreat into a spiritual acquiescence, but a living out of the Christian promise as an act of supreme faith and trust.
It is significant that much attention is now being given to the life and witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the lifting of the ban on his beatification. It is significant not only in relation to Roman Catholic internal politics but to the renewed attention given to a life whose character was distinctly apostolic. He was an Archbishop whose ministry was focussed most distinctly upon the needs of the poor. But crucially and like Pope Francis after him, it was this very engagement with the lives of the poor which radicalised him against coalescing with the repressive state.
For this, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot on 24 March 1980 while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called "La Divina Providencia", one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights. As soon as he finished his sermon, Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and at that moment he was shot.
The legacy of a ministry like Bartholomew’s and Romero’s is incalculable, not least because they show more clearly than words can express that the Apostolic call is the one which has set so many on a course to do what it is The Church’s basic task : to make the love and the light of Christ real and effective in our own time. They were doing only what they were called to do, but in the economy of God’s design for his world, their witness and the shedding of their blood makes the Church look more like the Body of Christ on earth. Their message to posterity is trustworthy and true. “Here” said Christ, “…is one in whom there is no deceit”.
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
17th Aug 2014
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” Romans 11.32.
The graphic story in today’s gospel tells of a Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman who as a foreigner, successfully challenges Jesus’ own intention to minister foremostly to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’. This woman is a rank outsider. She gate crashes the party where the invited and the included are those deemed to be strictly righteous and for whom the inheritance of faith in God was a given and sacrosanct. They are the Jewish inheritors of a covenant which had given them exclusive rights and access to Rabbinic teaching. But the woman’s presence reveals the down-side of this righteousness. Its more ugly outcome lay in the way in it excited feelings of ethnic cleanliness, and exaggerated and hardened itself against any who stood outside the community of the chosen. An obvious example of this is the caste system in India, but this is a common and recognisable human phenomenon. This excluding reveals itself as a kind of emotional and dumb obstinacy which may often lead to cruelty and violence in the name of its little god.
Jesus, as a rabbinic teacher, stands awkwardly in the middle of these tensions both as a Jew himself and as an inheritor of the Jewish tradition. But crucially he is ready to give ground. He knows from deep within that the gift of faith is generic. It is for all and has not been parcelled out to the practising religious alone. This is evidenced in the case to this mere woman who comes from a territory unvisited by strict Jews. She comes to the gospel text as ‘the outsider as insider’. Nonetheless she gives Jesus due respect, using the title ‘Lord, Son of David’. And in a gentle play on words like ‘dog’, which were and still are in the middle east used as insults, she turns the joke to her own good use and appeals to the witty idea that even the (real) dogs are permitted to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table. Jesus commends her for her faith. The word faith here is being used as a kind of forthrightness, a kind of keen wit and intelligence borne of necessity. One comedian once said that in order to have a sense of humour and to make humour work you need also a strong sense of proportion. The place of this woman in this context is to put the ancient and well trusted idea of the Jews as God’s elect in its proper, that is to say human, and wider and more embodied, context. She might be saying, even to Jesus, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’. There is an understanding to be gained here which goes beyond words and appeals to basic common sense.
This Gospel reading and this strange woman provide a timely reminder of the need for a bigger and broader range of conversations between Israel and Israel, Israel and Palestine and Israel and the world. And not just Israel, but also for the conflicting interests in the South Sudan, in Russia and the Ukraine, and in all those places where bloodshed and suffering are, whether consciously or not, considered the price worth paying for an enhanced ethnicity against all reason to the contrary. The bedraggled masses of what BBC news calls ‘minorities’, driven to the mountains of Northern Iraq, are fleeing the slaughter borne out of the emotional dumb obstinacy that sanctions ethnic cleansing for its own sake. It is merciless and base. It is a perpetrated violence borne out of deep personal dishonesty and mental disonance.
The effect on our world in the face of such actions is devastating, as the stakes for Jesus in his own time were also high, too. The Syro-Phoenician woman stands not only to prompt Jesus into the enlargement of the household of faith. She tells us even now that such enlargement, such widening of sympathy, is necessary to the very integrity and honesty of the Christian Way. It begs important questions regarding the nature of faith and the commonness of our humanity, but it also acts as a break on those forms of ethnic purity which have led to so much horror and barbarity.
Jesus is not only Son of David here, but as this reading progresses, manifestly Son of God, too. In him, we come to know that it is the Creator’s will and purpose that all are given free access to his love and mercy, beyond the imposed confines of human will and vanity. As the hymn reminds us, there really is a wideness in God’s mercy, not just for us of the household of faith but for all who, whether consciously or unconsciously, seek God from the bottom of their hearts.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice,
Which is more than liberty.
F W Faber (1814-1863)
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
3rd Aug 2014
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity Year A
The God who gives himself for us and who feeds us…
In Matthew's account of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus is moved with compassion to heal the people (v. 14). In Mark he is moved to teach them (Mark 6:34). Both aspects are important and interrelated. The Lord loves us and wants to heal and teach us. This he does supremely in the Eucharist. He feeds and teaches us at the altar of Christ’s sacrificial love. We cannot grow spiritually unless we are being taught - through the Word of God and through the teaching of the Church. And this is a teaching which may prove healing, too.
Christians of the 4th Century period built monasteries, churches and shrines in Galilee and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to commemorate the ministry of Jesus and the miracles ascribed to him. Tabgha – an Arabic corruption of the Greek name Heptapegon (Seven Springs) – is the traditional site of the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. (Matt. 14: 13-21) It is situated in a narrow, fertile valley on the northern shore of the lake, watered by several springs.
The earliest building at Tabgha was a small chapel (18 x 9.6 m) from the 4th century CE; only a part of its foundations was uncovered. This was probably the shrine described by the pilgrim Egeria at the end of the 4th century:
In the same place (not far from Capernaum) facing the Sea of Galilee is a well watered land in which lush grasses grow, with numerous trees and palms. Nearby are seven springs which provide abundant water. In this fruitful garden Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The stone upon which the Master placed the bread became an altar. The many pilgrims to the site broke off pieces of it as a cure for their ailments.
The monastery and church at Tabgha were destroyed in the 7th century, probably during the Arab conquest of the country, and buried beneath a thick layer of silt and stones. In the 1980s, after excavation, the church was restored to its Byzantine form, incorporating portions of the original mosaics. The existing church is called ‘The Church of the Multiplication of Fishes’ and stands as a powerful reminder of the way in which God provides for our basic and essential need.
Our experience of the one great act of worship in this church is of the receiving of the sacred elements of bread and wine at the Sunday Eucharist. In it there is a promise. It is that we become what we received, bearers of Christ himself. As we end the Mass we pledge our willingness to live and work to God’s praise and glory. To share that which we have received and so to multiply the means of grace so that it may be transformed into glory.
I knew a woman who had lost her son. He had committed suicide. She was beside herself with grief. She was a devout churchwoman and this seemed to make her grief not better but worse. She was in a state of great confusion. She felt the expectation that she should be able to bear all these things as befitted her well-known status as ‘a pillar of the Church’ and a proper Christian. But this was not the case. She felt the loss of her beloved Son the more keenly. People kept on asking her about how she felt. This soon proved difficult to accept. In her grief there was to be no known or ready-made set of consolations. But at a crucial point, early on in her grieving, her Vicar, whom she had known for many years, came to her home one day while she was out shopping. He left on her doorstep a beef casserole which he had made and with it a small message. The body and the soul are not so much different, are they? Neither are our need for physical and spiritual sustenance. Both need feeding from their true source, which is God and from his helpers.
That woman recounted to her kindly Vicar many months later that it was that gift, of the casserole dish with its food waiting on her doorstep, which spoke louder than words could at that time, and remained for her human and memorable, and yes, God given. Its kindliness stood for that sharing of loves, that staple diet, informed by the Word of God and of his teaching, which blesses us, sustains us and provides for our increase.