Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
30th Aug 2015
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
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 our very most 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 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’. 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… like for like. The words of Jesus remain stern and unyielding and challenge us to discover that place of being where, as Newman once put it, ‘heart might speak to heart’. Authentic acts that come from 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.
St Augustine ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in thee’.
Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
23rd Aug 2015
12th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life”. John 6.60.
St John’s Gospel is the Gospel which is written for the Church, and which raises practical issues of basic understanding and faith. And this morning’s Gospel Reading confronts us with what John has called ‘the message of eternal life’ and of the challenge of its falling on deaf ears, and the possibility of its being lost. I well remember as a young child on holiday in August taking a new orange ball onto the beach. As I got to the sea’s edge I threw the ball into the sea and swam after it, but the waves soon took it out, and then there was the sad admission of its being irrecoverable. The sea had taken it away from me. It was awful to see it float away, so visible among the blue/grey sea, seemingly quite happy to bob up and down and to be on its way, being carried out on the current, further and further away. And then I imagined that it might arrive in another place and that someone might find it and have it, delighted at the thought of a lovely orange ball having arrived out of the blue. I wondered though, if my voice would be loud enough to say “Would you please give me my ball back?”
As I write about this, over forty years later, I realise both then and now, I am ’hotwired’ to place an imagined and reflective interpretation on what was at base a child’s real loss and a disappointment. And this opens up the meaning of what John calls ‘the message of eternal life’. This is not a phrase, like many phrases in holy scripture, which begets immediate understanding. And so John offers us a clue as to the direction in which we are being taken when he tells us that ‘the flesh has nothing to offer; it is the spirit that gives life’. The difference between life’s particulars and the hope which lies in it and yet beyond it. This is the spirit of God which, residing in us, can provide the deeper sea, the broader scope and endless horizon.
Thou art a sea without a shore
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere
The message of Christ is not all ‘sweetness and light’. In John, if there is light, it is the light of Christ, his gaze, which burns into the individual consciousness and leaves its mark. It is the light which searches us out and knows us. Echoes of Simeon’s words are heard, namely that Jesus is the one in whom ‘the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare’. Jesus is concerned not with exteriors but his gaze is the one which shines a light into the deep places of the heart and mind, and this has left some seekers after God with an all too real sense of their own vulnerability. ‘This is intolerable language’ says one of the followers, ‘How could anyone accept it?’ We must stay in this difficult place if the alternative is to place Christian teaching as nothing more than a kind of romance.
And yet Jesus’ gaze is also the loving gaze, which longs for our spiritual homecoming, for the maintenance of what lies true in us and for what will last. We know we are in need of healing and yet we draw back, all too often defensively. And yet the ‘message of eternal life’ is loving and confiding. It longs to provide for future. There is nothing to fear, though we do flee when against our better nature, love’s welcome is all too real and all to revealing.
There are many who come to King’s Cross seeking something out. It is the draw of the station, acting like a magnetic field. The massive inflow and outflow of human traffic speaks to us of life as connected and yet also anonymous. But contained in the sea of humanity, flowing in and around this place, are the lives of the many with their hopes and dreams, their joys and disappointments, their stresses and their anxieties and deepest longings . Each person in the sea of humanity is a whole life as flesh and spirit. There is something more to life than getting to the next place. There is in each one of us the unspoken prayer which is our hopefulness and our life’s truer purpose, and it is from this place that eternal life receives its human echo, in the words of Peter:
“Lord, where shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life.”
St Augustine of Hippo:
“Therefore, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you were in me; or rather, I would not exist unless I were in you ‘from whom and by whom all things exist….” (Confessions, I.2).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“Someone said to me this week, I don’t want you to sell me the Christian Faith like an insurance policy. I don’t want you to tell me that Christianity can make me stronger and better than I might be at present. I want to tell me of the Christ who comes to me at my weakest and most vulnerable moments, who is with me when it feels like all others have deserted me…who is my way, my truth and my life. It is in this observation that the message of Christ lies, inviting acceptance of this word and belief in it. In it is implied the already known idea of selling all you have to buy the pearl of great price…”
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
2nd Aug 2015
9th Sunday of Trinity
…and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world. John 6.51.
Our Gospel from John explores the theme of Jesus as the ‘Bread of Life’ and the source of our sustenance. The drama of John’s Gospel is its underlying theology; especially the one which surrounds Jesus’ identity with the so-called ‘I am’ sayings. The ‘I am’ phrase had previously only been used a way of identifying with God the Father, who could not be directly named. When Jesus proclaims ‘I am the Bread of Life’ he promises the Church a sustenance which had in the past only been given only as manna in the desert, or in this morning’s first lesson as the provision of bread to the people of Moses in the desert (Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15) . Now such sustenance has been given by the Father to the Son. He now is our ‘Bread of life’ and his offering of himself, his ‘flesh’ is given for the life of the world. In Christ our lives find their true belonging and their sustenance. This is a belonging which derives from its natural life source; God the Creator. And it feeds us and sustains us even when we do not know it.
The Rev’d. Barbara Glasson was given the opportunity to put this into practice. Given by the Methodist Church a small old shop in a derelict part of Central Liverpool she was asked to ‘make something of her situation’ and to create around this unpromising situation a church. She was an experienced pastor, but had always worked within church situations that were essentially formal and predictable, and that had structure, services, formal duties and a sense of occasion. Now she was pitched into the unknown. But given that this was Liverpool, and lying somewhere close to the heart of Liverpool’s shopping district this was a place where all sorts of wanderers, all kinds of different people passed by. The derelict shop was then refurbished with a little money and set up as a drop in. Most of those who came in were spiritually homeless and in dire need of that same ‘Bread of Life’ of which today’s Gospel speaks.
It was some time before Barbara realised that what lie at the heart of this kind of informal city church lay a ministry divested of its usual structures and stripped down to the bare essentials. God was to be discovered through every human encounter – through the meeting of those people who would drop in as strangers and fellow travellers. This wasn’t just a ‘drop in’ but a church whose minister was found to be there at all hours watching and praying and waiting. This was a church was an ‘inside out’ kind one. The centre was to be lived out in prayer and in fellowship and supported by a bare superstructure. Rather like the Medieval Cathedrals, whose high walls and gigantic interior spaces and beautiful windows were held in place by a whole skeletal structure of flying buttresses which lay outside of the interior. And all through this time she was reaching out and befriending many of those who would not have found a place of belonging in any other way: ex-drug users the single homeless, and a whole range of individuals wanting to stop and to stay. One day she bought a bread oven and each day she and her followers made bread each day. And the bread was shared over lunch and a few loaves distributed to those who needed them. And it was in the making and the sharing and the eating of the bread which told you all you needed to know about the provisionality of life, and the importance of finding our life in the lives of others in others in the welcome of the stranger. The provisional is a key word which speaks of course of a provider but also of the unpredictability of things.
In contemporary life, many promises are made for the consumer which cannot possibly be satisfied, particularly the buying into the illusion of a life oblivious to its brevity. In this vein a Company of Funeral Directors offers a funeral pre-payment plan entitled ‘Dignity in Destiny Limited’. My mother was shocked to discover that as she ordered a burial plot for my dead father, she had also to face the fact of its providing a second ready-made space for her own remains. Dreadful that in the death of another you come face to face with your own mortality. Barbara Glasson reminds us that “….life dawns on us as we grow in self-awareness. We do not know why we are alive but with every breath we breathe we experience life as a given. Sometimes we are thankful for it and sometimes it scares us witless”.
If Jesus, ‘The Bread of Life’ is our sustenance, it must be a sustenance that is given ‘just as we are’. And in the middle of how things actually are. Life is not all black and white, ready-made as a kind of pre-planned insurance policy just like the assurance of ‘dignity in destiny limited’ . It contains so much is unpredictable, confusing, difficult to bear and to understand, and containing far less fixity and security than we would wish. It is, in short, provisional. It was with this in mind that Barbara advanced the idea of her bread-baking church. The Church which had turned itself inside out was the church which lay open to the elements and took a risk on its own existence.
In such a way we at Holy Cross come to receive the Sacrament at this altar. We come simply to be fed and to acknowledge our need of this feeding. We come to receive life from the source of all life:
Bread of Heav’n on Thee we feed,
For Thy flesh is meat indeed:
Ever may our souls be fed
With this true and living Bread;
Day by day with strength supplied,
Through the life of Him Who died.
And coming as we do from an Anglo-Catholic tradition we remember that the restoration of the sacramental tradition in the 1850s was purposeful. At its heart lay the embrace of the experience of being fed sacramentally with the body and blood of Christ. It was to re-establish something felt to be lost : that before our worship was ever ceremonial or occasional it was first and foremost a living encounter with a God, who in Jesus Christ – the life of the world – feeds us now and ever more, wherever and with whomsoever we find ourselves.
As this broken bread was scattered as grain upon the mountains, and, being gathered together, became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom; for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
From The Didache
Barbara Glasson I am Somewhere Else Publ. D.L.T., 2006.