Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany 2020
26th Jan 2020
Epiphany 3 (2020)
One thing I have asked of the Lord that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
At the beginning of each year I have often gone off to spend a few days in a monastery. It always feels like a good time to get away for a few days and to be quiet and get my head straight – it has become for me a time of reflection, and a kind of spiritual detox after the rush and tear of the Christmas festivities. I used to visit a monastery, which is about two hours from London. It would always took me about a day before I could get quiet and to ‘centre down’. I would then begin to hear things that I don’t hear in my usual distracted state. I would begin to see things a bit more clearly and notice things that would otherwise pass me by.
Life today, whether we live it alone or in family groups, with partners or friends, whether our lives are frantically busy or whether we spend more time alone is said to be more stressful that it’s ever been. This stress can gnaw away at us, and sap vital energies. The ‘phone might ring and it could as easily be a friend or loved one who is offering a welcome ‘hello’ or as possibly the offer to reconnect you to another gas supplier at a discount rate, or a wrong number. A letter through the door might be sent with loving greetings or it might be another one of those letters offering you a platinum or diamond credit card, telling you that you have only to subscribe to Reader’s Digest and you could win a holiday for two in the Bahamas. All sorts of things can go wrong during the day and many of them are seemingly inescapable.
After my first day at the monastery this time I became aware not only of the quietness but also of the fine detail of my surroundings, and in particular of the way in which the monastery chapel is built. It’s actually only twenty years old but it resembles an old medieval barn; made entirely of wood. It has huge wooden oak beams and buttresses held together by wooden pegs which have been hammered in at strategic places. The whole structure has been made from seasoned and matured oak, which when originally used for building I’m told is really quite soft. It has to be weathered and is left out of doors for two or three years before it’s used. The oak is an organic material which expands and contracts with the atmosphere and then hardens, and then becomes very hard and becomes a tough skeleton that will is likely to last for centuries. I was reminded of the hymn to God as ‘the strength and stay upholding all creation’. The skeletal planks are held together and underpinned by flimsy little wooden pegs or wedges, and these are placed strategically where joints need to be secured. And these joints are more than capable of holding up and holding together the strong pressures and forces that push against them. Just like the human body. The apparent cracks that you see in the wood aren’t cracks at all but wooden stretch marks. This is a result of the building’s having expanded and contracted. It literally grows into its place. It lives!
That barn, that place of worship, was a visual sign for me for the existence of the Church as a body of faith and an organic whole. It was like an upturned boat or the inside of Jonah’s whale. What holds us together is the unity God gives us in this Holy Eucharist with the diversity and the particularity of our existences and our own loves. The Church is not just a secret sect, a holy club, a society of friends, or a company of religious junkies. We are the body of Christ, knit together, bonded and united and made into an organic whole in this celebration of Holy Communion as we are receive Christ under God’s roof. It is in the wholeness, the completeness of God that our lives find their wholeness and completeness. The Creator and the created (you and me) become one, and as this union is formed, as it is experienced in worship, so it allows the faith and hope and love in us to be built up, not withstanding the odd signs of wear and tear. This morning’s psalmist expresses this great movement as a prayer of desire, a desire that he live in the house of God all the days of his life. The poet William Blake puts in human and practical terms when he says, “We are put on this earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love”.
In the middle of this service we share a sign of peace with one another, a greeting; usually a handshake, and this is begun when the priest says ‘We are the body of Christ. By one spirit we were all Baptized into one body. Let us endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace.’ This unity and these bonds are like those wooden pegs that hold the structure together, and we shake hands or sometimes wave if someone is marooned by the pews or even now and again there is a hug (or at the extreme end of things a peck on the cheek!). These are our signs of peace. Life today places us under inevitable and often great strain, and the reaching out, the offering of the hand in the sign of peace is an expression of solidarity with the those outside of yourself, the wider community, whose members who have all at some time or another suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and who are like you also ‘bearing the beams of love’. Commitment to the Christian community and the giving of the self that goes with it has brought great richness of experience and increase of love and enlightenment and peace in its wake. But crucially it celebrates and goes to the heart of life as it is lived. Christians aren’t idealists. This is the way of Christ. It is in his teaching. We are as a living Church his body on earth. We are ‘bearing the beams of love’.
It is the holding together that is hard –
The resisting of the centrifugal forces
Acting on mind and heart
That break the tenuous links of thought and feeling.
And then there is the fear (which on black days
Transmutes itself into a dark seducer
Parodying hope) that the next revolution of the hand
Upon the sadly common clock
Will bring the final, the inoperable rupture,
and burst the dams of past
And future pains.
It is the holding you must help us in:
We cannot enter heaven in fragments
The gates will not allow of that.
And you must give the means to keep it
If you love us, as I fear you do.
Father John Ball,
Parish Priest, Holy Cross Church,
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2020
19th Jan 2020
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany
“They said to him “Rabbi” (which translated means teacher), “Where are you staying?” He said to them “Come and see”. John 1.39
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus beckons us find God in The Church both in its worship and in its company. The life of the Church is the embrace of a spiritual journey and a shared destiny. This is the Christian adventure upon which we are all embarked, and which remains for the making of our lives. The tone of this morning’s Gospel is breathless and exciting and involves two encounters between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. The pace of the narrative continually quickens itself, and makes the action appear something like a dance, in which the persons involved appear and disappear and then reappear, and in which they meet and then leave one another. But the mood of the piece is excited and joyous. The encounter with John the Baptist and Jesus is significant because it provides a marker for the end of one whole era and the beginning of another. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. It is as though he is saying. ‘Prophecy has now completed its task'. 'The true and vital end of our prophecy is now with us. The Messiah, this Jesus, is the completion of our prophetic utterance’. Now things can move forward in a new way.
The Christian Faith, unlike the old faith, is now one lived in mutual and shared witness. The faith of Christ is now lived in the here and the now of our shared existence. It is to be conveyed to others and to the world by the company we have always called ‘the faithful’. It is a sharing and a communication of that same Good News which gladdened the heart of John and his followers and which now gladdens us. They follow Jesus from a little distance and then ask him where he is staying? He answers them by not answering them. He doesn’t in fact tell them where he will stay, but instead invites them to “come and see”. This word ‘stay’ is used in its most profound context, as meaning not only staying for a while in a house, but ’staying’ as pertaining to the whole of one’s existence. The place where I remain, the place where my roots lie, the place of stillness and strength. It is in this vein that the poet TS Eliot’s prayer goes like this – “Teach us to love one another and to sit still”. Again, the word ‘sit’ like the word ‘say’ has a much deeper meaning. In the same way my father, a Cornishman, would often remark that if a picture or something was not hung quite right it was ‘out of truth’.
O strength and stay upholding all creation,
who ever dost thyself unmoved abide,
yet day by day the light in due gradation
from hour to hour through all its changes guide;
Grant to life's day a calm unclouded ending,
an eve untouched by shadows of decay,
the brightness of a holy death-bed blending
with dawning glories of the eternal day.
Hear us, O Father, gracious and forgiving,
through Jesus Christ thy co-eternal Word,
who with the Holy Ghost by all things living
now and to endless ages art adored.
“Where are you staying, my Lord?” What is your life like?” For John, the writer of this Gospel, the response “Come and See” is the same one which the Church of the first century offered to those who would come to Christian Faith. It is not the one which finds itself lost in explanation and fine religious detail. It is not one which is lost in exclamation and misplaced ecstasy. No, it is the one offering the invitation to find Christ in the Church, the Body of Christ, and to embark upon the Christian faith in a spirit of adventure and anticipation. “Come and see” - find yourself in one another; find what in your heart of hearts you are looking for; find something in the deeper channels of your knowing mind. I still find myself saying “come and see” to the many who wonder at this Church and make their own faint enquiries. I know I can’t describe the real Holy Cross Church as well as I can describe its history and architecture. But the invitation to “come and see” is as full of promise today here in this place as it was all those hundreds of years ago when Jesus beckoned his enquirers.
Some years ago now, this Church saw in mid-January the funeral rites of two very different characters, Elsie and John. Elsie, was a staunch believer in the Church and John, a complex character but no less staunch and no less colourful. The one service for Elsie, a Catholic Requiem Mass with all the music and liturgical grandeur we could muster, and then John’s very simple service. Elsie’s service with its traditional style and mellifluous music, and John’s Quaker hymn ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple’ and going out to Gene Kelly and ‘I’m Singin’ in the Rain’. Two quite different persons, but both loving the Church, and both giving and receiving from the Church’s treasure house, which is the faithful witnesses and the one commitment that made them what they were. Of the sense of belonging to a community of incomplete persons. Both Elsie and John had this in common : they had both, in their own unique ways, come to God and to what they both saw in the Church, as incarnate glory, as shared witness, as Christian companionship along the way, as walking along the road to their own freedom and in the company of the church as a cloud of witnesses – call it what you will. But on this day theirs had been the response to the reply that Jesus makes to us now “Come and See”. “Come and See” and what you will see and what you will know will be for your life’s sustenance and its true meaning and worth.
The love of God remains one which never coerces, it invites and beckons us to see what is already there and to reveal it to us as we are given the eyes to see.
TS Eliot from his poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ – “Teach us to love one another and to sit (remain) still”.
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2020
5th Jan 2020
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2013 (Year C)
Depiction of the Magi from The Church of St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 550 AD.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek word epiphanos, and it has two meanings. The first of these speaks of ‘a sign’. The sign is something shown, a manifestation of something new and startling. It is revealed in the birth of the Messiah, which summons our three wise men to find the sign which had been promised by Isaiah and announced by the angel Gabriel; of the appearance of the longed-for Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”:
The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands
and in a manger laid.
The appearance of the infant Christ provides a second epiphany. This is the epiphany of conversion as a sudden and new perception of realities. It is what Eliot means when he tells us that the wise men returned to their places "no longer at ease in the old dispensation". It tells us of the renewing effect that the showing of the sign has upon those who witness it.
Fear not to enter his courts in the slenderness
of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine
Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness
these are the offerings to lay on his shrine.
Epiphany calls us to true and undiluted worship of our Saviour. The Magi travelled from afar in search of the truth. When they found that truth in Jesus, they were bowled over by it. Their lives were changed. A very early Christian wall painting shows the three Magi walking towards Christ and His Mother as though they are in fact dancing in perfect synchronisation. The clue to its understanding is the fact that it is painted on the walls of a catacomb, the place where early Christians buried their dead. In this setting, we are walking not towards Bethlehem but rather towards Jesus the Lord who will come one day to judge both the living and the dead. If that is so, then you and I must walk both with eagerness and with integrity. You and I must offer lives that are shaped by our quest, by the grace of the Lord Jesus whom we serve and to whom we come. And we must respect what we believe to be our Christian vocation and not betray its importance. Our lives must find their expression rather as a dance in synchronisation and in step with the One who keeps time...
Just as the magi travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too follow that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts to the place where we see and we know Jesus and where we bear witness. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our own being and of the deepening of our witness. To speak like this is to speak of the Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs but as a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us as something vitally necessary for us.
The Story of the Three Wise Men is not just one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in Eliot's ‘old dispensation’. It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God and his relation to us as remote. God has in Jesus come to us in flesh and blood, has come to us as a pauper child, has come through his life on earth to raise us all into the likeness of God Himself. We are to respond as did the wise men:
O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness
Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"
J S B Monsell (1811-1875).