Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent
23rd Feb 2014
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent
“…but seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” Matthew 6. 33.
As we continue on these Epiphany Sundays we are given more and more gleanings from the Sermon on the Mount. And with these gleanings we explore the theme of what Christians have called have called ‘glory’. God’s glory is all around us and exists as the voice of the Creator which speaks to us much needed words of life. This is his provision for us and the resources we need for our soul’s survival. But all too many of us remain unaware. One of the ways in which we fail to heed God’s provision for us is through our own worry and distraction. The tired soul displaces its natural spiritual energy and distances itself from the very source of its own being. The Gospel this morning with its mention of the lilies of the field, the birds of the air and the hairs on the human head all remind us of those things which have already been provided by God and which remain definite for us and unchanging. They are figures for our return to God as the centre of our being and to a place of deep peace.And yet it’s entirely possible for us to even in the face of all that has been provided for us, to remain stubbornly attached to worry and anxiety. Of course our worries are real enough, but neither is God’s provision to remain unheeded. It is real, and has become real in Jesus. So, then, what directions does this Gospel give us to return to the true source of our Christian being?
Well, we often feel the need to as we say ‘get away from it all’ and to experience an alternative environment where we may rest and find refreshment. Particularly to those places where we may ‘get back to nature’ perhaps to the countryside. If the city is the ultimate place of worrying stress and distraction, then the country, and the pastoral scene offers the opportunity to enjoy nature for its own sake, and where beautiful surroundings prevail, to give ourselves also the time to see things in close up and in detail. To marvel at the beauty of the created order and to see its detail, its colour, the way it transforms itself and the way in which it speaks can offer a healing experience which transforms us. But Matthew takes the message further and speaks of the Christian life as a partaking in the very glory of God himself. This is a glory which is taken into the very heart of the person. It is the glory of the presence of Christ who as the Son of the Father, is the very continuing expression of that divine Word of creation which was spoken ‘in the beginning’. Matthew proclaims this as we are invited to consider the birds of the air and lillies of the field. Consider not only means to ‘work out’ but to enter deeply into the fine detail. And with this the reminder that even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these! But their existence and their feeding; the glory that is birdsong and the beauty of the field comes from the source of all being, God. It is an expression which comes to us from a divine source. And it is always there for us to return to the source of all being and to find in this place the very source for renewal of life and for its enrichment.
The message that emerges from this teaching allows us to make contrasting observations about the modern popular media and particularly of its tendency toward an enhanced and misdirected self-consciousness. We see the increasing number of popular TV programmes which have people showing extremes of emotion as a matter of course : screaming, exclaiming, and crying bucketloads, shaking with fear… and then there are the tabloids and their obsession with the lude and rude behaviour patterns of the celebrities. All this is leading down the pathway toward a kind of emotional free fall, and this is entertainment as distraction, transference, as emotional disonance and as hyperactivity which is shallow. In this there is no stillness, no time for reflection (most popular programmes assume an attention span of 4 seconds) and it not very human. It stands to place before the audience continuing and sustained amounts of hyperactivity. And the music which feeds all this to the consumer is the one which is nerve janglingly discordant. And yet in the city there are tranquil places too, galleries, churches, parks…and there is music and there are people who continue to invite us to consider the beauty and the range of the created order as a place and as an expression for our healing. But lying deeper is God, its source. the maker loves what he has made and who desires its healing.
I was staying the other week in Walsingham, and for the first time there was actually TIME to consider this place away from the crowdedness which is the National Pilgrimage. And there was opportunity, which, given time, and peace and rest, to see more, to feel more and to receive more from these surroundings. I witnessed in the graveyard of the parish church a piece of what I would call ‘visual poetry’. It came to me in the sight of two graves. Both of these graves were situated outside the church’s west door. One a headstone, made of stone, of Fr Hope Patten, with a beautifully decorated coat of arms. The other grave of his clerical teacher and mentor, a former Vicar of Holy Cross Church, Fr Francis Baverstock standing as a battered wooden crucifix only. The simple, poorer grave of Fr Baverstock stood nearer to the church wall and yet was raised slightly higher than the grander one made of stone. I had not known that these graves existed in this place; nor did I know that they were placed next to one another. Both these priests served this church together for two years from 1913-1915. It was a marvellous thing to behold the arrangement of stone tablet overseen as it were by the wooden cross and of what I felt that signified. There was time to think of these things, and in the time and the place and the space for a deeper reflection on the meaning of these things and the relevance to where I was standing. And Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel to take time and to ‘consider these things’…To really consider them…For in Christ , if we can perceive and know these things, we have already passed into a state of truer or contemplative being. This is a place where we may, not just for ourselves alone, truly listen and see. We may then come to realise in one another that stillness and centredness which is the source of our being, God Himself…
Suppose a river or a drop of water, an apple or a sand, an ear of corn, or an herb; God knoweth infinite excellencies in it more than we. He seeth how it relateth to angels and men, how it proceedeth from the most perfect lover to the most perfectly beloved, how it representeth all his attributes. God the author and God the end is to be beloved in it. Angels and men are to be beloved in it, and it is to be highly esteemed for their sakes.
O, what treasure is every sand when truly understood! Who can love any thing that God hath made too much? His infinite goodness and wisdom and power and glory are in it. Thomas Traherne.
we beseech thee mercifully to receive
Prayer Book Collect for the Epiphany
Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent
16th Feb 2014
Third Sunday before Lent
Year A (2014)
“The letter kills; but the spirit gives life”. 2 Corinthians 3.6
There have always been many ways in which children have been dragooned into good behaviour. I remember my parents always telling me “Do as you’re told!” and I guess it was right and good as a child to feel both the rebuke but also, looking back, the good fortune to have parents who had a positive idea of what was right and wrong. They had been taught by their own parents and were passing it on to me. In a relationship of love and of trust what seem like tedious orders or commands become influences for good and they are utterly necessary. You only have to comprehend the damaging effects that a broken home can wreak on the mental health of a child or young adult to realise that order and stability, strong boundaries and good kind moral influences are essential if the child is to grow up with the sound development of conscience and a good heart.
The readings this morning provide a kind of sandwich in which Old Testament and Gospel make comment about the necessity of commandments, and many of these are formal and not to be contradicted. It is strong parental guidance if you like. The writer of Dueteronomy invites his listeners to become their own good parents as he exhorts them to “…choose life so that your descendants may live, according to the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him”. This is set alongside Jesus’ teaching on the Mount, in which the goal of life, which is reconciliation with God, is set against the kind of behaviours which mitigate against this, including, uncomfortably for many divorce, anger, insult, adultery, swearing oaths and offending God in countless other ways. “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” Jesus says. It was a common expression but it makes its point very forcibly. In between this sandwich of readings is the ‘filling’ provided by Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth. For Paul, the problem of wilful misconduct derives from human nature itself and he does not bother to analyse this. He does not wish to place the members of the Corinthian Church on the psychiatrist’s couch, even if they could all fit on it! No, he makes the point that “If anyone is in Christ they are (to be) a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5). The point for Paul is that to be Christian, to call yourself Christian, is to declare to the world that your life’s influence is the spiritual one which derives its sustenance from Christ. It is not a life lived solely on the basis of what Paul calls ‘the flesh’. It is a life transformed in the experience of Christ. It is the reconciliation with the Father which was sought by the Old Testament people and enshrined in their Ten Commandments. It reveals itself.
But meanwhile Paul knows only too well that life must be lived ‘as we find it’ and among people as we find them. The Church of Corinth is no great model of Christian living and Paul knows this, too. Corinth was a large sea port and a conduit for all the ships crossing the Mediterranean. It was multicultural and multinational. It was a thriving, bustling city which contained every kind of person, and a lot of low life, hustlers, thieves, prostitutes. It was like the old King’s Cross on a bad day. Any kind of organised living was always waiting to degenerate into arguments and fights. Many were out of their minds. It was a battle for survival, and into this mix there is St Paul and his preaching of Christian Faith. He is a good pastor and a kind and wise parent. He doesn’t barrack them for their faults, but writes his advice to them in the broadest terms. For him the letter of the law was one whose influence could be killing, but the true spirit of the ancient law and of normal morality was the one which came not by dictation but through the knowing of God in Jesus Christ in the life of the Holy Spirit. This was the transforming agent, the loving influence which could speak not to the logic of its own moral argument but through the love of Christ which was God incarnate. And so while Paul chastises them gently for their divisions, he reminds them the reality which is Christian faith now sets their lives on a new trajectory. The emergent truth, the reconciliation with God, issues forth in our serving that truth with our very lives. In this lies true freedom, and in this vein he can say to the recalcitrant Corinthians “We are God’s servants, working together…You are God’s field, God’s building”. (1 Corinthians 3.9).
Perhaps you long occasionally for a ‘blood and thunder’ sermon rather on the fashion of an Ian Paisley, in which the preacher rains down hell and fire onto you, and you leave feeling thoroughly chastised and mind-boggled. So much investment has been placed on the ‘fear’ of the Lord, but little attention to its negative attributes. The real ‘fear’ of which the Bible speaks is the one which is like the child who has come, much later on, to honour his parents for their sharp words but their doggedness in living as uprightly as they could. The keeping things on the right track was always very important. The Christian Faith is inevitably a calling ‘upwards’, to what may seem like impossible goals. Life in the Church does not suppose that these goals are easily attainable, but we certainly benefit from the vision that they provide. We have in the life of the Church and its sacraments the way forward in the keeping us on the right track. We, like the Corinthians are being urged this morning to play our proper part.
Finally, more than ever in the modern world, where so much is relative and so little is valued at the real and deeper level, the flesh remains just that, the flesh; corruptible, mortal, frail, prone to its own weakness and limitation and limited. But Paul reminds us in Christ that his life-giving spirit is present for each one of us, to kindle and re-kindle that vital spark which is the goodness and mercy of the God who sent his Son to sacrifice himself for our new life. This is the God who as the kind parent rebukes and blesses us in equal measure because his being is a constant reminder of his desire that we should be reconciled with him. His message to the planet is the one understood only in relation to Christ, “Choose life, so that your descendants may live according to the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him”. It is the Spirit of the living God (in Christ) which gives life, and none other!
HOLINESS on the head,
Light and perfection on the breast,
Harmonious bells below raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.*
Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest :
Poor priest ! thus am I drest.
Only another head
I have another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest :
In Him I am well drest.
Christ is my only head,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me e'en dead ;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new drest.
So holy in my Head,
Perfect and light in my dear Breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come, people ; Aaron's drest.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)
2nd Feb 2014
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Today’s great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple marks the beginning and end of a whole epoch.. Its focus lies in the meeting between two contrasting couples. The first is the young couple Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus and the other the old couple who live in the Temple - Simeon, the old seer, and the prophetess, Anna. This is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was routine and traditional to present a boy child and for the mother to be ritually cleansed after the birth of her child. There is the strong sense of the arrival of new life and the departing of an old order.
Luke paints this message on the largest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. Here, between these two couples is a meeting of two ages and two faiths – the one, the Jewish Faith symbolised by priest and Temple is advanced by the presentation of The Christ child. The prophet Malachi, in today’s Old Testament reading tells us that ‘The Lord you are seeking will suddenly enter his Temple’. The Old Testament Man Simeon is privileged to become more than a bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries. The child is to be “a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of god’s people, Israel. And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meet the new born baby and in this meeting to foretell God’s glory.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
As the hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’ says, the child is for us and for Simeon and for Anna,
Fulfiller of the past
This is a Feast Day of Candles; Candlemass. In it there is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple, and in the carrying of candles, bring to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. A coming to life in us of things done and spoken long ago, and the holding in our hands as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people. But there is more than this – As the Christ was presented to Simeon and to God and the world, so we in the procession present ourselves to Christ as his lights. We as the Church revivify the echoes of passion and of prayer that echo down to us from the Temple chamber. The fulfilment of the past is granted in the utterance of Simeon, and in this happening there is another thing, which is the interlocking of human destinies. If Simeon is right, then ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ is a light which is the Creator’s light, shining on all people, and not just the chosen few or a hidden minority. All life is here.
This is the sensational message which Candlemass, the Feast of Candles offers us. That Christ is both fulfiller of the past and hope of things to come, and that all of us in Christ are set on a shared destiny. The light is the light of holiness and of truthfulness for us all. Like a bell, it rings for us and it rings true. The light is not shaped and confined but the light which bathes all who would come to faith in the truer purposes which God has prepared and communicated to all who love him.
Once, a few years ago no, an act of vandalism was perpetrated on this church, as black bin bags full of rotting food were poured out in large quantities outside the church, The sight of this rotting food and the arrival of masses of ravenous pigeons was in a real sense hideous and a little shocking, The notice board was smashed into pieces outside the church. This act was done by someone deranged, and very angry. It was done with immense anger. And that thought was shocking, too. I was called to the scene a few hours after this had happened. It was awful, and yet then it yielded something interesting. Many people, many who have never been to church, came up to me to say how distressed they were that this sort of thing was done to ‘their’ church. Some came up to view this scene with heads half bowed in grief. A young woman, finely dressed came up to me to offer to clear up. When I saw how well dressed she was and that she was going to work, I assured her that it was Ok. And then she said ‘God bless you!’ and walked on. I have been left with mixed feelings… Some of these feelings have me rejoicing at the power and influence of a church building, which however apparently unused or unvisited by people, nonetheless stands for something that is meaningful and important for them, and at a level more profound that would appear at a casual glance. Another young man saw the rubbish and noticeboard as a kind of art work, which was both provocative and moving for him. It expressed something. But above all it was the ownership of ‘their’ church building which was interesting.
When we speak of the meeting between Mary and Joseph with Simeon and with Anna we speak of the interrelatedness of human destiny, and of how salvation is to be recognised not only within the confines of a Temple or Church building but also as God’s light which shines upon all his people. It speaks also of the interrelatedness of all things, and of the way in which the call to Christian faith is also an invitation to commit to a shared human destiny.
For us in the Church, the effect of the Presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple has been to provide identity for the church and to draw us together with our interrelated fortunes and our experiences of the real in the here and the now of our existence. And in this we see the glory which has been prepared for us from long ago.