Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent
17th Feb 2019
Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent
The Collect for this morning:
O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men and women: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When Christians speak of the heart they are never romantic. The heart for the Christian is the place of decision making, of conversion. The heart is the centre of our personal gravity as it finds that true centre in God. But our Old Testament ready has the human heart as “devious above all else” The so-called beatitudes, blessings given to the ones who come close to God in actions that proceed from a deep roots.
Today’s collect asks that we may be given grace to love what God commands and to desire what God promises. This is no romantic or idealised love but the willing response to the love of God in which ‘true joys are to be found’. It is in communion with God that we find our true selves and the true meaning of our lives. Amid the many ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world’, the collect continues in the hope that we may find our true rest in His ‘eternal changelessness’. This teaching calls us to attention. It is a deeply spiritual teaching. It calls for a relationship with God which is profoundly rooted and committed. This is a far cry from the romantic love which is as we say ‘away with the fairies’.
In the call to rooted and grounded love. Scripture reminds us to be persevering and steadfast. Paul reminds the Corinthians that beyond their petty factions, their personal vanity and their worldliness they are, nonetheless ‘God’s field; God’s building.’ (1 Cor 3.9) They are his creation and part of his plan. God has made them and the love for his own creatures never ceases, even though they are ‘still of the flesh’. But strong hope lies in the people themselves and in the solemn pledge of their perseverance in the Christian Way.
“Spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover that the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty may be more fully revealed. It is of course very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. And people can only dream of doing such a thing. For this hope to be fulfilled it is necessary that a solemn decision be made by us - whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love.”
The Rt. Rev’d. Dr. Richard Chartres, former Bishop of London.
It is more important than ever, when public debate over serious issues like Brexit is overrun by personalities bearing opinions that are ill conceived and ill-advised or that are charged with more heat than light, that we need to keep our heads. Christians are not airy-fairy thinkers. Our view of life is tempered by the message of Christ which is God’s love for this world and his care for every part of it. For what we are being called to this morning is none other than the complete Christian spiritual life which will always be tested by the world we inhabit.
It is to help us, then that Jesus does not speak of God’s love without his own strong vision of a world transformed by that love. Above all he sees human love as God’s transforming agent. He turns the expected order upside down. His beatitudes’ are reserved for the poor, the persecuted and the suffering. Shockingly, Jesus cites the lives of the Old Testament prophets in their cause. They were persecuted and even put to death for the cause of right. Consequently the people of human consequence, serving their own needs before the needs of others are remembered as they have always been looked up to, even in the time of the prophets. In speaking as a prophet himself, Jesus job is to point the way, to describe a world in which God’s Kingdom, which is not quite of this world, is to come into being.
The Bishop of London’s Visitation last month concluded at 5 pm with a final meeting in which she echoed the view that the future existence of the Christian Church – its heart - would be more than ever informed and determined by the voices, the stories and the lives of the poor. The poor of this great city of London: economic migrants, coupled with the great diversity of religious, ethnic and social backgrounds and languages bids us in the twenty-first century to love diversity and difference not as a tidy piece of political correctness but as the acceptance of the challenge to love with more heart and more imagination than we ever have before.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent Year C
10th Feb 2019
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent Year C.
When he had finished speaking he said to Simon ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch’ Luke 5.5.
One of the first paintings I ever saw was hung in pride of place at the entrance hall of Plymouth Museum, one of the many museums of ‘civic pride’ up and down the country built by the Victorians. This Painting was of a large fishing boat stranded in wet sand, and spewing fish around it everywhere. The scene was serene and peaceful; bathed in the bright clear light of an early Summer morning. Trestle tables were laid out on the sand where fisherwomen were cutting and filleting the fish. The idea of hanging the painting there made you feel the water’s majesty, glistening around you. The effect was always to delight and to refresh you as you came in out of the busy street.
Our Gospel writer Luke has often been depicted in religious art as a painter, often with a palette in his hand and a painter’s brush and ready to paint pictures and ikons. It is not likely that he was a painter; but there is ample evidence of his ability to ‘paint’ pictures using words. His words add depth and colour and lustre to what he writes. And in today’s Gospel reading he paints a picture for us using the background image of a crowd of people away on the shore and pressing in on one another, eager to see Jesus. And in the foreground is a large lake, from which Jesus addresses the people. Between background and foreground, between land and water, lies the boat where Jesus is. This is the place where the movement of the people, the teaching of Jesus, the putting out into the deep and the miraculous catch of fish is concentrated.
Jesus’ little boat is like one of those magnets we used to use at school which lies at the centre of a force-field of energy shown by an arc of iron filings. But this particular energy, Luke tells us, is divine energy, the same energy ‘which was God’s from the beginning’. It is an energy which is essentially spiritual, though drawn from life. St Luke is getting us to read his narrative from this raised perspective, in which ‘the teaching from the boat’; ‘the putting out into deep water’; ‘the filling of the boats to sinking point’ and the command to ‘be not afraid’ have a meaning which is not just about fishing! It provides for us a visual imagery through which a spiritual message is being spoken.
We are asked to read this scene some way behind Jesus and raised high so that we read this Gospel as it were from above; from the perspective of God himself. God, then, looks down and beholds what is happening. We see this in the paintings of Salvador Dali, and especially in his 1951 Painting Jesus Christ of St John of the Cross, where the crucifixion is seen from way above Christ’s head (see over). We are asked to see what is happening from a new and thrilling perspective.
The message of the boat on the Sea of Galilee is about God and about us. It provides for a picture of the Christian calling in which we are being called to become ourselves from that place which lies both within and beyond our own wants. There is a William Blake drawing with a man looking up to the moon and a ladder which leads to it. The man looks up to the moon and cries “I want! I want!” If our lives are based solely on what we want, of ‘asking for the moon’, surely life succumbs to selfish materialism? Its spiritual counterpart is the one which begins to look out of a self-centred atomised world and toward the needs of those around us. We reach out form our own selfish world to find others and so in turn find our true selves in them. This is a mystery. “Love is the difficult idea that someone other than myself is real” said Iris Murdoch.
The ‘putting out into the deep’ suggested by Luke’s Gospel Reading is living life not by the ‘Me! Me!’ principle but by discovering deep within ourselves the spiritual resources to become as Christ would have us become; turned toward the reality of the other, from a deeper awareness of the life around us and of the necessity always of love : God’s love is as invisible arms that reach down into the deep to find what is there, and has always been there. He calls you in his Son Jesus Christ ‘to put out into deep water’ as he did in Galilee all those centuries ago. To pay out our nets into the waters both to trust in his provision and rejoice in his increase. This morning St Luke the Gospel writer has not only told us what this might mean. He has painted it in our minds and hearts.
Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
3rd Feb 2019
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2019.
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 extends and enriches the vision of the prophet Malachi that ‘The Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple’. In his prophecy lis the meeting of past and present realities; a meeting between Mary, Joseph and Jesus and old Simeon and between the Jesus who is presented to us this morning. In it, we are given a picture of the God who is close to us and who beckons us into his presence.
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, lies a great sculpture of the Virgin and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. It is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. The sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing behind her infant, with her hands open towards us in a gesture of generous giving and openness. The child at Mary’s feet has his arms open to greet us, waiting to hold us and embrace us. The image carries for us a meaning far beyond that of just any mother and child. It draws us toward it like a magnet because it speaks to us in the way it communicates the strong purposes of God in and beyond the surface meaning of stance and gesture. It has an everlasting quality in the way it promises something profoundly human and eternal. In it lies the promise of the presence of a God who is close by; very near us. He is not a God who is inert, but rather, One who beckons.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event is made clearer to us in the telling of a second or background narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Both are elderly. This couple provide a contrast in time and in place to the young family Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two couples, Luke tells us that 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. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the blessing and the cleansing ceremony there includes a meeting and a greeting and taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meeting the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
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’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story 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 of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, claim ownership of those things which this meeting offers, for our world's posterity.
As the Christ was presented to God, to Simeon and to the world, so we in our procession present ourselves to Christ. In turn Christ is presented to us, just as he is and just as we are, rather like that sculpture in Cavendish Square. This is ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as the hymn reminds us. This is the God who is very close to us, as one prayer has it ‘closer is he than breathing; nearer than hands and feet’. Let us then enter into this closeness with God and abide in him, as he abides in us. At least let us be open to the idea of his closeness and open our hearts to greet him. Let be present to the sureness of his being, just like Simeon.
Another sculpture across Cavendish Square and down a side road takes you to John Lewis’ store in Oxford Street where Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture ‘Winged Figure’ is also a beckoning presence. It offers a response in kind to Epstein’s 'Mother and Child'. The little walk across the square and into Oxford Street might tell us that this beckoning God is for ever present to us. We are invited now to seek him, and if possible to find him, just as Mary and Joseph and Simeon did all those years ago. Go and see for yourselves. After all, it's not too far away...