Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas
30th Dec 2018
The Feast of the Holy Family 2018
Bear with one another… Colossians 3.13
It is natural at Christmas for The Church to be observing this Feast of the Holy Family. For Christians celebrate at Christmas the coming of Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God With Us’. God sends us his only begotten and beloved Son. And the Christmas story unfolds in a journey made by a family. Significant events mark the way: the arrival at the stable in Bethlehem, the delivery of the child, the visit of the shepherds and the wise men, Joseph’s dream and the decision to escape from danger and into Egypt. All is held within the bond of love and courage that exists within that one small Holy Family.
This morning’s Gospel reading has us fast forward twelve years to the loss of the boy Jesus in the Temple. This, you might think, seems a strange and sudden departure from the Christmas narrative. But its purpose is sure : it places the life of Jesus, the Jesus we proclaim as God, firmly within the patterns and the rhythms and the events of life within a human family. And it’s within the experiences of a close and loving family, that deep veins of life are lived out. Our sense of identity in adulthood is inescapably shaped by our experience as members of our own family. And family history has played its own part, and contributed, to our adult existence for good or ill. There is much evidence of how families have failed and have left brokenness and sadness in their wake. Many families are divided by misunderstanding and an unwillingness to forgive. But equally family life has given strength and joy and hope and we have carried the goodness of it forward and been glad for it.
It is not possible for us to find our true identity as solitaries. Some kind of interdependent life is necessary if we are to grow as persons. And the attempt to fix our lives according to our sole wishes and gratifications often proves joyless and useless. Many who have driven themselves into this way of living nonetheless reach out (perhaps very tentatively) toward some kind of communion with others. It becomes necessary that there exist communities of hope, which welcome in those who seek to find a place of belonging. We are as a human race, made for community. It is the Church’s task to be the ‘Body of Christ on earth’ and to offer to our members places of honest welcome and real belonging. And in this endeavour there is the desire to respect the individuality and the true worth of every person who comes through the door. On this feast of the Holy Family please pray that The Church may offer a place of big and broad family life and a truly open community. This is a family that we have not chosen but one which we believe God has chosen for us.
The second aspect of this story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem grows out of the first. Jesus grows in stature as he is nurtured by what we may call his three families; the first as son of Mary and Joseph, the second, held within the Jewish family of faith of which the Temple is home, and the most important, and the third the relation Jesus has, even as a twelve year old boy, with God. It is revealed in the Temple with the elders as Holy Wisdom, and it becomes clear that this is no ordinary boy, but one with a manifest destiny. The story of his being apparently ‘lost’ by his parents and then found in the Temple serves to further emphasize that Jesus is destined both in the ordinary life of a carpenter’s son in Nazareth and as the bearer of Godly wisdom. He is ‘found’ by his parents while at God’s service, which will take him away from them. This story echoes the one which refers to Samuel hundreds of years before Jesus who served God in the Temple and whose life was dedicated to listening to the Word of God.
As we enter into a New Year, 2019, it seems entirely appropriate for us to be honoring the Holy Family and spending time thinking about the idea of family. In our own time, the idea of family has become enlarged and made both more simple and complex. But its identifying marks are ones which speak of nurture and love and understanding and belonging and stability, and sharing and forgiving – ‘…bear with one another, that you may fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6.2) . There is a call here for the Church as the family of God on earth to be more of the kind of society which encourages our co-creative potential. A place of healing and of transformation. ‘Better Together’ was the title of a book written out of a potentially divided city, Liverpool, in the 1980s.
It’s a good message for the coming New Year, both at the local and global level.
Sermon for Midnight Mass of Christmas 2018
24th Dec 2018
Midnight Mass 2018
It is refreshing that we should all be here in church at midnight. Tonight we join Christian congregations of billions around the world, as the night deepens, and we welcome a new day which brings to us all a sense of renewal and refreshment and enjoyment as we witness the Birth of Christ. Even the House of Commons takes a break from the agony of Brexit to observe Christmas as a time to stop and, most importantly, to rest. Amid all the uncertainty that we have to live with we, like the shepherds, we now ‘stop and stay’ to wonder at those things that came to past two thousand years ago, and which come to life for us in tonight’s liturgy of Midnight Mass.
It is difficult for us all to know in each of our own lives how precisely things will turn out. We may often find ourselves fretting about the future. I remember the one great regret expressed by someone of one hundred years old that they had spent so much time worrying and wasting energy and time over things beyond their control. Even so, the world’s cup seems perpetually to be half full and half empty, and we, as its citizens are called upon to accept more and more dire uncertainty as a fact of life. A grace once said in Yorkshire after dinner could well be spoken in homes up and down the land this Christmas:
Thank you Lord for what we’ve had/ It could ha’ been better, but times is bad.
And yet like those things in our own personal lives which remain unresolved or incomplete Christians are being called as we pass through things temporal, so may not lose sight of things eternal. This is the broader picture which places our lives and the life of our world in the profound context of God’s creative, purposeful and everlasting love .
There is uncertainly in the story of the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph are themselves travelling to Bethlehem as displaced persons, and there is no certainty that they will find a place to stay for the night, there is no telling how Mary’s confinement will take place or under what circumstances, and no telling how things will turn out for them in the shorter and the longer term. King Herod poses a perpetual threat even to their lives. And yet it is within these circumstances that God chooses to reveal himself. The child, whose coming was predicted by the prophet Isaiah is to be born in this way and in no other way. The travails of this and of every age will find in this birth a place of truth. From the carol ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing!
That place of truth is to be found in the stable at Bethlehem, in the sight of the babe, wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger; in the journeying and the vision of the shepherds and of the wise men and in the company of the angels. In the name Emmanuel, too, the name which means ‘God-With-Us’. For Christians this is iconic and permanent: for it is through the child Jesus that ‘the woes of sin and strife’ and all that remains unresolved will find their true outcome in God’s deep and lasting peace. .
Such peace is not bought cheaply but at great cost. It is brought about in and through the constraints of the time and not apart from it, as in some kind of spiritual dream. It is established in all the uncertainties and struggles of our existence. This peace is experienced in the glory of God shining in the face of the infant Jesus. It is come as sure and recognisable. The medieval theologian William of Saint Thierry once said that God – from the time of Adam – saw that his grandeur provoked resistance in Man, that we felt limited in our own being and threatened in our freedom. Therefore God chose a new way. He became a child. He made himself dependent and weak, in order that love might manifest itself vulnerably. Now – this God who has become a child says to us – “You can no longer fear me, you can only love me”.
In the birth of Christ the human soul, long suppressed, weighed down, burdened by the fear of the unknown and the woes of sin and strife, may now find joyful utterance as it reaches out to God in faith and in joy:
Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethleh
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018
23rd Dec 2018
Sermon for Advent 4 Year C (2018)
“The almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His name”. Luke 1.49
As a child I remember my Sunday school teacher. She was very short and stout and used to sing from her hymn book using a very large magnifying glass. This was because she was partially sighted and wore a glass eye, which seemed always to gaze at you with the completest and fiercest attention. She looked rather like some portraits of Henry VIII with a face that was at once big strong and determined, but she could be gentle and kind, too.
This same woman taught me the Christian Faith and was tireless in her determination that we children should know the contents of the Bible. When we returned to church there was a question and answer session with the curate, and we were awarded stamps for correct answers, and stuck each stamp in our attendance books with the name of the particular Sunday on it. It often falls to the most unlikely of persons to be given the title of ‘magnifier of the Lord’ – someone whose example and bearing brings God and God’s love nearer.
In this morning’s Gospel we learn of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, in St Luke’s Gospel. How like Luke the physician to include the fact of the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting! The baby’s kick draws from Elizabeth a blessing and a prophecy; that what has been promised to Mary by the angel is to be fulfilled, and that Mary is ‘Mother of my Lord’. The exchange between the two women contrasts the ordinariness of their meeting in the little Judean hill town with the coming of salvation promised by God spanning across past, present and future time. Mary responds not meekly and demurely as with the annunciation from the angel Gabriel. Here, in Elizabeth’s company, she bursts into song, and the song is called ‘The Magnificat’. St Augustine once said that to sing is to pray twice, but to sing is also to experience a deep joy and the sense of the spontaneous joy in Mary’s Magnificat is very apparent. Mary sings of the favour God has shown to her, and of her own lowliness. She boldly declares herself to be most blessed over future generations, and then she speaks of God who through her own ‘yes’ makes immediate and present something that is expressed in the past tense:
‘He has scattered the proud’, ‘He has raised up the lowly’, ‘He has brought down the powerful’ ‘He has filled the hungry with good things’ and ‘He has sent the rich empty away’…
The Magnificat is a songful cry from a lowly peasant girl who has recognised and accepted God’s call for her life. Mary not only magnifies her God like my teacher with the glass eye; she sings the Magnificat in the joy of the fact that God will, through her and through the child she will bear, magnify God to the world ‘throughout all generations’. Though we are still in purple, though Advent is still with us, the note of impending joy is well and truly struck.
‘Of the Father's Love Begotten’
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore! Prudentius (348–413)
As we continue to reflect on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, two things emerge. The first the idea of the visit or visitation offering something momentous and surprising. The second is the idea of a relationship that emerges between the divine and the human disclosures. During the Christmas season, there will be many visits to friends and relatives. People will be travelling to get back to family or friends, or travelled to get away on their own. The promise with a visit is that the encounter will be gracious. Visiting has been very much a staple of the Christian ministry, and it would be a pity if our Christian ministry, both ordained and lay, were to forgo home visits and replace them with grand mission strategies which did not touch the hearts and lives of the many.
As a priest, I find myself visiting many people whom I hardly know and am welcomed unquestionably into people’s homes. I am invited into a special place of trust and it is a privilege to be shown family photographs and to talk in the comfort of the home in a way not so easily possible in other environments. The promise with a visit, and its encounter is what I understand to be ‘the sacramentality of conversation’, and of good conversation allowing for trust and understanding in our knowing of one another. Mary’s sings her Magnificat as a song of joy in the experience of the God whose presence is rich in loving mutuality. St Athanasius reminded the Church that “God became human so that we might become like God”. He visits us through Mary’s child-bearing – He expresses himself in ‘lowly’ form so that we can understand our own relation to Him as one of beckoning trust and of intimacy.
As we come to the end of this Advent Season, typified as one of hopeful waiting, we come also to its climactic point this morning in the Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat. A simple visit to a cousin in a small village in the Judaean hillside leads us into the joy of Christmas as the divine presence and the simple humanity of the narrative mix and merge. “God has become like one of us so that we might become like God”. God’s disclosure of himself is not only one of word and song but also of life, a life which is about to come to birth, as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. The Almighty has done (and is doing) great things for us, and Holy is his name.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent ('Gaudete')
16th Dec 2018
The Third Sunday of Advent 2018
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year C)
In today’s gospel we once again meet John the Baptist. John is invariably defined by what he is not: he is not the light; he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. He is unworthy to tie the sandal of one coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the one he proclaims will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and the priests and Levites do not recognize him. The English court composer Orlando Gibbons composed a breathtakingly beautiful piece entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ which pictures John in a series of questions about his identity, most of them answered in the negative. And the emphasis on the negative identity of John alongside his passionate avowal of ‘The One Who is to Come’ serves to make his prophecy suspenseful and telling.
But John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from his 'being not' what Jesus is, his prophecy is passionate and embodied. The man and the prophecy are one. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am one the voice of one crying in the wilderness’. No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John has.
And in acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, he links us to the prophecies of our first reading today, that joyous vision of the good news of deliverance. The whole passage overflows with joy at the vision is of a just king who frees the oppressed, comforts those who mourn, repairs ruination, and hates all the sin and wrongdoing which disfigure the world; a God who makes an everlasting covenant with his people, and promises them that they are the people whom the Lord has blessed. This is John's task as a witness, to proclaim, to testify to, this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is amongst you. And this note of joy or rejoicing is so apt for today, as the wearing of this pink vestment signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season. The Latin word gaudete is one which signifies rejoicing.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? We rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness here at Holy Cross Church. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones whom Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its living tradition, in which the love of God is its meaning.
This tradition is not to be bargained away or undermined by the recourse to the secular mentality or the so-called ‘new atheism’. This is a buying of conveniences and does not address us as free and fallible human beings. It is because everything belongs to the lowest or median human common denominator. It is a joyless, controlling dictat, what Pope Emeritus Benedict has called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in which everything except God is addressed and there is no message addressed to us in the deepest part of our being.
In this church a cause for rejoicing lies in the many people who come here to visit, and that moment at which they find themselves in awe of what they see. This building has real drawing power and helps us to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, God’s presence as a close and distinct reality, conveyed in the architecture of pillars, arches, steps and the play of light and shadow, the glint of gold, and then the feeling that this is no ordinary place but filled with prayer and a sense of what is called ‘the numinous’; filled with an indefinable spiritual quality. Remember that John came as a witness to this same light. This then proves to be a place where time spent in prayer here, in often an almost empty building, proves to be one in which God is regularly found and known. But equally John the Baptist sounds in Advent the note of coming judgement, and that it is right for us to call for ‘a church turned inside out’ and onto the community we serve in our mission plan.
John the Baptist gifts us the entire Christian perspective. He is the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but something which is with us in the here and now. It is a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories.
This is gaudete; this is our joy. That we have found God in the Church and that he was and is and will remain for us, our true life’s meaning and its ultimate worth, our freedom and our hope.
Sermon for Advent Sunday 2018
2nd Dec 2018
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2018
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen. Luke 21.36
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, involves us in a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Tesco the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”. In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, and a prolonged wait, peppered for the child with all kinds of promise and of course, gratification.
But for adults waiting can often be a much less ecstatic business. Gratification must be deferred or refused for the sake of the good. When I think about waiting my mind turns to hospitals. Patients (well named) start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some even await their own death. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits; most clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as one who waits and holds on with all the fearfulness and the terror of his own position in the waiting. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed.
But we do not wait in a vacuum. We wait in time and we wait on God. As time goes by we experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, expressed ominously in this morning’s Gospel, to ‘pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. I think we would rather not know what might happen to us, yet we must face the possibility that we might be severely tested. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us that ”there is a time for everything under the sun” and the Season of Advent has a quality of expectation of what is to come. We are urged not to be afraid. Praying for strength to survive may be seen as an act of human survival itself. Remaining faithful in a real and spiritual awakenness to the surrounding realities is the mark of the Christian character. It echoes St Paul's definition of that faith which will outlast the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and which "...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". (1 Corinthians 13.7-8).
When Christians wait they wait in faith and hope, and not as though it waiting were useless. Advent is calling us to wait in the hope of the coming of Christ. We have, in the words of Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘great expectations’ and so as we begin this Advent season we are already catching small glimmers of what is to be revealed to us. And our weekly Sunday Bible class this Advent of 2018 will remind us of those who in scripture tradition have committed themselves to waiting. Waiting while God has seen fit to bless their destinies from what seem at first hidden starting places. But their very modest circumstances combine with the magnificence of their utterances. Their witness enlarges our knowledge of who God is and what his purposes reveal in Abraham and Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and ultimately Our Lady, Mary, Mother of God and bearer of God.
For now this Holy Season of Advent points to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of contemplative or useless waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification which turns out to be unsatisfying. The refusal of waiting can lead to a numbing of the senses. A kind of awful dulling or sleeping. There ought to be times when we lay this refusal to one side and consider the place where truer life is to be found. Meister Eckhart wishes for expression of God’s affirmation to make sense, and so he says,
"Nothing is so like God as silence".
When we appreciate this we awaken ourselves to God’s presence. Advent speaks to us of the gradual unfolding of the divine disclosure as this morning one of our children lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. This is a small but vivid marking of that time which will lead us back to God. We are being called to wait. Not in a state of dull abjection but on the God who speaks to us in silence and who awakens the soul.
So, then let us wait; and let us pray; let us wait, and thus awakened, let us see…
Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence. W H Auden.