Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
28th Aug 2016
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”.
The teachings of Jesus are either in parables, and come to us through the medium of a story, or they are more graphic, and set down an understanding of life drawn from human memory. Most of them are simple, like this morning’s gospel reading, which is a teaching on humility. Humility is to be the mark and proof of the Christian life, because it enacts the living of life from its true perspective. Jesus uses the idea of set places at a banquet to put into reverse the accepted order of class or caste or honour. Jesus challenges us all to live in the way of Mother Earth as its ‘humus’ and to recognise our common humanity as the true earthing of our being. The earth wire on an electric plug prevents the damaging short circuit. We use the English expression ‘salt of the earth’ or ‘down to earth’ to signify someone who is really human. This is not the false humility like Uriah Heep’s which is full of guile. It is a drawing back from things in order to experience their meaning more fully and in their proper depth. The poet Seamus Heaney had the soil of Ireland in his finger nails, and rather than rail against the Northern Ireland conflict, which was at its height when Heaney was writing at his height, he used the image of the thousand years old bodies, dug up in Irish bogs, to write about time and the consequences of living out of time.
He once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head’ whenever politics was discussed. Though he left the countryside and taught English first in Belfast and then in Dublin as a young man, he did not forget his farming roots. He fondly remembered watching his grandfather cutting turf for peat, and taking a bottle of milk to the old man who would straighten up just long enough to drink it before bending over his spade again. He pictured himself working in the same way, digging out words with the nib of his pen.
This for me is humility. Heaney was a great believer in what he called ‘learning by heart’. Especially learning poems by heart. And the Christian Faith lays great store on the heart as the place of strong understanding and discernment. Humility is the ground, the grounded place. It is the place where lies our true centre and personal, spiritual and moral equilibrium, our sense of balance and perspective and our true humanity. It is the place where we may ‘learn by heart’. We are asked to return once more to this state of true humility. This is not a place of weakened or thin humanity, but one which is most fully alive to the world in which it is living, and, one which shines that same strong searching light on the world and its vanity from a truer perspective. Hence humility has been termed ‘the cardinal of all virtues’.
When Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom of God on this earth, his is very much leading where the poet follows on with the learning of the essential and wise things ‘by heart’, the leading of the deeply active/reflective life, the weighing of words and the celebration of their meaning and depth. Above all in Kingdom teaching, strong attention is placed on our lives on our own state of becoming and of the close relationship between the observation of things and the consciousness that as Yeats, once said, ‘everything we look upon is blessed’. The Kingdom is that place where life itself, wherever it goes on, whether as kind or brutal is in God always waiting for its own transformation into his likeness and being. Waiting for that which belonged to Heaney, ‘of the benediction of God’s kindness’.
A true and decent humanity never discards this possibility, and nor should we…
In this church we recently welcomed Sister Theresa Pountney, who has just celebrated 50 years as a Church Army sister. During that time she has served Anglican Parishes in Central London and always been at the heart of ministries which were imaginatively Caring Compassionate and Confident. Some years ago she worked alongside the then Fr Richard Chartres in Pimlico and at a recent service to celebrate her 50 years he declared that she had been his ‘tutor’ in the Christian way of life because her approach was so joyfully confident and yet never wanting to put itself forward or lead in a way which might have felt impeding to the smooth operation of God’s Holy Spirit. Above all, hers has been a giving and a generous ministry, and it still continues! Her visit to us was as part of the celebration of her 50 years as she has embarked upon a 50 stop tour of the London Underground, She has been getting off at places and church communities and praying and meeting the people in them. So for King’s Cross St Pancras Station read ‘Holy Cross Church Cromer Street!’
For us, Sister Theresa has provided a typically spontaneous and fun way of making the one important declaration we can make as a Church: that in us, in our churches and in the outworking of their mission and ministry, Christ himself is declared to be alive and active in our midst, and the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit, of love and joy and peace are being made manifest in them. I should say that Theresa’s fondness for Holy Cross was borne out of her coming to us 10 years ago, when, in the first week of my time here she came with a group of us on our first ‘Beating of the Bounds’ and was the prime mover in the starting up of our drop-in Friday group, which is still going strong.
Jesus uses the example of the places at the banquet where the meal is suffused with the atmosphere of humility and generosity. This example points to the promise of the Heavenly Banquet, where our generous and loving and God invites us in. This vision is the one which is the ultimate culmination of the Eucharistic feast which we celebrate this morning, whose purpose is to allow us to see God present among us in His Son Jesus Christ and to recognise the likeness of Christ in one another and and ourselves as servants both of Christ and one another. This can only be done as a casting aside of our own selfish instincts. This however, becomes a call to the active recognition of God’s presence in the world and to give to others what we have received in God – our very selves. As the chorus of our offertory hymn will remind us, we follow that living and happy contradiction, a servant King.
This is our God, The Servant King
He calls us now to follow Him
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to The Servant King…
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
21st Aug 2016
“What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God” Hebrews 12. 22.
The wonder of modern travel is that we can experience the great cities of the world as never before. They have all become so accessible. It now becomes possible to clamber aboard a train from King’s Cross Station, a mere eight hundred metres away from here, and find ourselves in the centre of Paris in the space of a little more than two hours! . The visiting of countries at shorter and longer distances from one another invites an experience which provides not only for ‘a change of air’ but often a different dialect or a different language, history, architecture and mood. Such experiences of change can ‘take us out of ourselves’ and reinvigorate us.
This morning’s second reading is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, and it takes us to a new and revitalising city destination. The Letter to the Hebrews was written early - in the year 63 or 64 and before the Destruction of the Temple and it speaks about Jesus as the mediator between God and Man. This was new. But it used language and thought forms which were old, Jewish and traditional (‘coming to Zion and to the Temple and its tabernacle) and yet combining them with thinking that was new and radical. The writer sets out the provision for the transformation of the Christian community as it was emerging out of its Jewish inheritance. Now it had appeared on the world scene as a divine society, and Mount Zion, a former holy place name, now becomes what the writer calls ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’, which now promises a radical social inclusion never before seen before. The ‘New Jerusalem is envisaged as a divine society, the City of God. The city where God’s life is being lived. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, twenty centuries later was to speak of the Church of God on earth as “A divine society, with Christ as the glory in the midst of it and the Holy Spirit as work within it”.
This emphasis is important. This new Christian community emerges like a butterfly from a chrysalis. To speak of the outworking of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and of the hope of glory is to establish once and for all a church is dynamic. It moves and grows and expresses itself fully involved in the contemporary world. Its calling is to be Christ in the world for all time. It must be both unchanging and strong in its faith so that it can adapt to the changes and chances of this fleeting world. In this country, our modern cities, London, Manchester, Birmingham dominate the economic life of the country where for centuries the all the important cities were also centres of Christian influence with their Cathedrals: Canterbury, York, Lincoln, Exeter, Durham. The one kind of city displaced the once dominant influence of the other. Our English Cathedrals remain important as spiritual centres, but it is the parish church, and especially one like ours, which speaks of the relationship ‘on the ground’ with the local society, and which has a care for all people who live within its boundaries. In our case Holy Cross Parish is a dynamic multicultural social hub, and the Christian Faith, our church’s reason for being is one which reaches out, which welcomes the traveller and the needy and proclaims the Christian Faith day in and day out.
In this church we have a group which meets here every Friday. What started as a church-sitting group soon turned into one which felt itself closer related to our visitors than we had at first thought. It was decided that we should offer a service and provide for guided tours, offer tea and coffee and even counsel and advice. This grew not from some kind of plan worked out by a church committee but grew out of our keeping company with one another.
It has become a mark of this group’s recent existence that we regularly find ourselves asking about those who have not come or who are away for a while, and wonder how they are? There is a ‘looking out for one another’. This is a small group of people out of whose regular and dedicated meeting has emerged a looking outwards and a genuine reception for the outsider. It has not been planned to the nth. degree! Now we welcome Iraqi refugees and a visiting priest some while ago was delighted to be able to converse in Arabic. There are some American expressions which are not easily translated into (proper!) English language but which nonetheless put things more succinctly and say things in a much more laid back way while conveying the real essence of things. One of these is a favourite of mine:
“We just get to hang out”
Yea, ‘we just get to hang out’. But for the writer to the Hebrews and Christ’s own telling of the guests and their place at table, this is Christian teaching about the quality of community life that it expresses. And the influence of God runs through its life as a golden thread.
I always feel blessed by the Eucharist when I go to foreign countries and hear the Mass said in a different language. Despite the language barrier, the shape and form and substance of the service remain the same as for here Holy Cross. Even though a foreign language is being spoken, the experience of receiving Christ in the Holy Sacrament is always powerful and resonant and immediate. Despite the difference in sound, and like a blind man seeking inner sight, I have seen and heard and felt the sensation of a Church at worship, and I come to know that this is no ordinary of vague thing, but the Church of God at work, reconciling the world to itself. I remember these words of TS Eliot from ‘Little Gidding’:
If you came this way,
Holy Scripture has reminded us today of the City of the living God, a place of radical inclusiveness, of generous welcome, and of the wonder that resides in the communal and of its capacity to look beyond itself and the narrow confines of its own desires and to give itself purposefully, patiently and expensively for the world God loves.