Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
29th Jul 2018
Sermon for the 9th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. John 6.20
People have often felt secure in great numbers and in enclosed spaces. When you visit the Colosseum in Rome its stones speak to you of the terror that was once practised within its great pock-marked walls. As you walk into the amphitheatre it is as though you are walking into the jaws of a great lion. It is a place whose atmosphere eats you up. Beautiful it is not. Intimidating it certainly is. Like it or not, such great amphitheatres, or as we call them now stadiums, tell us something we already know about us – that we are tribal, and we have always needed places of ingathering; places where we can feel the power and the swell and the emotion which is raised in being together in one place. But this kind of tribalism is often prey to the emotion of the moment and not to a deeper and more real sense of being together.
What a different scene is represented to us in the Gospel reading this morning, in which the disciples are together in a little boat in a storm and who see Jesus walking on the water and bringing calm. But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. The Gospel writer John understood what we must know to be the case – that in life there is no one place of absolute safety and certainty. The psychoanalyst Jung would often speak of what he called ‘life’s vicissitudes’, as though they were a natural and normal part of the experience of life. We might say that life is not all plain sailing. Things don’t always go smoothly for us. Sometimes we might feel ‘all at sea’. Sometimes life has and does take us into choppy waters. The Old Testament writers experienced these vicissitudes in many ways, and the psalmists in particular sent up their cries and their sighs. “Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord” Psalm 130.1 The psalmist owns an experience of life in which such internal turmoil is deemed natural and inevitable and to be accepted not as a part of something abnormal but as a very predictable and understandable. Jesus recognises this too, and in so many of his encounters he greets us with the words “Peace be with you”.
John sets the figure of the boat amid the storm with finding faith in God amid the storms of life and not apart from them. The boat is a figure for our life together and our need for one another, and the Christ who walks upon the waters is the One who has come to communicate what we have called ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’. In the church we need to begin practising a strong and human understanding of one another which accepts that life has not been plain sailing for any of us. It is in our shared experience of life and its vicissitudes that we may more surely understand what makes us human; and come to a realisation in truer compassion of that which is understandable and forgivable. This must proceed out of inner peace which can only come through prayer and through deeper reflection.
The opposite of this could be a Christianity that places us at a distance from the very humanity which cries out for compassionate understanding and for the receipt of deep peace. Yesterday I met some ‘Mind the Gap’ Christians who seem so sure of who is a child of God and who isn’t, Theirs is a Christianity that expresses itself so literally that it denies us our freedom to be. The ‘gap’ for them is the one which exists between their kind of believers and their kind of unbelievers. Theirs is a Christianity which must exist as a fortress or super defended battleship, just like the selfish ego ready to defend its territory at variance from the common good all around it. The real gap is the one which exists between a Christianity of the heart and a Christianity of the will. It proceeds out of its own emotional insecurity rather than out of any genuine love for common humanity and its many foibles. The message of the gospel this morning is of the Christ who has come not to deny our own fears or to banish them for good but to recognise them and to meet them. To give peace and to offer understanding and forgiveness, and so to set us on our way.
In the little town of Olney in Buckinghamshire there is a Newton and Cowper Museum. And this is a museum dedicated to two hymn-writers who compiled the so-called ‘Olney Hymns’. But they were more than just that. Cowper was descibed by Coleridge as ‘our best modern poet’, and John Newton wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’. He had been a ship’s captain, and was heavily involved in the slave trade. During a storm, the sea was so bad that for the first time in his life he prayed. The storm as it were cracked open his old self and tore it out of him. Christ was revealed to him! Newton had come through the storm and he came to know that it was God who lay in the midst of it.
At the heart of all our defences, uncertainties, reluctance, vanity and stubbornness; at the heart of all our struggles and doubts and failures there lies God, the God who has made us and who even now seeks for us that reconciliation which is our soul’s true wellspring. The God who in Jesus brings always his strong peace. And so it was for Newton, and the crowning expression of his experience of God as a man born blind is given to us in the words of ‘Amazing Grace’.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
And then the sobering words of his friend George Cowper which call for a simple trust in the God who makes things plain:
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
May the God who visited the disciples on the choppy waters of their existence also visit you, to give you that amazing grace which was first realised on the Sea of Galilee and which held the disciples together. For they like we, in and of God, find ourselves, all of us, in the same boat…
He comes to declare himself to us all in the words
“It is I…Do not be afraid”. Receive my peace, passing all your understanding. May God’s deep peace inhabit your inmost being.
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
15th Jul 2018
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Trinity Year B
Herod feared John , knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.
Mark 6. 20.
At significance points in history the people who have made a lasting difference have been those who have challenged the vice-like grip of tyrants and the empires of will and force. We may name the English saints Thomas à Becket and Thomas More, who both challenged the naked authority of their sovereigns, Henry II and Henry VIII. Then there have been three figures in the twentieth century, who like John the Baptist have proclaimed their message of radical peace from a place of deep conscience and from prison : Mahatma Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela. Their names will live for ever because of the way in which as single persons with singular consciences and single voices, minds and hearts, they managed to challenge the vast powers ranged against them. They managed to call for for human freedom despite beatings and torture and they won through. Like lions, they held out for the greater dignity of all humankind against the power of the oppressor.
It seems at first strange that we should include John the Baptist among these modern prophets, but he shares with them, or rather I should say they share with him, the vision of a world transformed in the likeness of its Maker. In our first reading from Amos, we learn that Amos is called to the status of prophet from his own job as a herdsman and 'a dresser of sycamore trees’. God raises before Amos a builder’s plumb line before a wall. God, holding the said plumb line, was aware that something was wrong with the society and that it was, as my Cornish father would have put it, ‘out of truth’. Little Amos is called to put it right, and how might Ghandi, Bonhoeffer and Mandela have felt themselves to be so ‘little’ in relation to the titanic struggles to which they were severally bound. But they responded, as did Amos to a deeper call to a more profound response in the longing for a better world.
In today’s Gospel reading, setting out the drama leading to the beheading of John the Baptist, we know that John has been outspoken about King Herod concerning the latter’s marriage to his own sister-in-law, Herodias. John dares to declare openly that this marriage is invalid under the Jewish law. At first it is not Herod but Herodias who wants to have John killed. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. She feels degraded. She knows, as we do, that Herod has an acknowledged respect for the Baptist, knowing him to be ‘righteous and holy’. The ‘dance of death’ that she stages is the one in which she knows her husband’s weaknesses through and through. Her daughter’s dance elicits a promise from the King that he will grant her anything she wants, even up to half his kingdom. He little expects her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. We see the contrast between John’s message of repentance and its call for a set of values which are truthful and morally binding with Herod’s lasciviousness and foolishness. John’s is a costly discipleship of faith and trust and self-sacrifice, Herod’s is attracted to these values and influences, but he is easily seduced. He follows too much ‘the devices and desires’ of his own heart, which have become warped with misuse. His mind is a wayward one and his real person grievously split.
This Gospel reading is a satisfying tale which concerns the ‘goodies and the baddies’ of the Gospel story, but its real meaning hits home when we come to consider the abiding worth, the depth and the integrity of God’s Word set against what St Paul was to call ‘the powers and principalities and rulers of this present darkness”. Paul’s appeal to the faithful was simply to their desire for the truth of things which had revealed itself for him in Jesus Christ. That same appeal to desire that same moral truthfulness is still vastly important.
In our own time, it is not too difficult to name those aspects of our common culture which are spiritually deadening and which do not give life or offer us that true freedom for which John and then the Saviour Jesus Christ lived and died for. People are wandering around our towns and cities ‘on empty’ without actually realising it. However, they, like Herod recognise, perhaps vaguely, that there does exist a body of spiritual and actual truth, but it is not recognised as residing in the Church or in Jesus Christ. Instead it is acknowledged in ways which seem sound but which are in fact diffuse. John’s testimony is the one which ultimately convinces because of its grounding in reality.
I have spent the last week on conference in Liverpool and we were at Anfield Stadium to watch the England v Croatia match. The Club Chaplain gave a very inspiring talk in which we denied the oft quoted Bill Shankley who once said that football was more important than life or death. John Lennon famously declared that the Beatles were becoming more popular than Jesus. Both men had immense pulling power and the admiration and even the adulation of the masses. Lennon may have come close to the truth when he penned the song ‘All you Need is Love’. But neither men provides us with the complete picture. Herod’s partial recognition of who John the Baptist really was gives evidence to the fact of a deeper resonance; a more profound meaning. It is that without God we are nothing. God is no tyrant and urges us to come to know Him from the point of view of our desire for the deeper truth which underlies our existence. Note this word desire. God does not exercise duress.His appeal is to that which is already within us.
The story of Herod and John the Baptist and the dance of Herodias’ daughter is a tragedy but a necessary one. For in it, the true nature of things is being established and revealed for all posterity. Paul reminds us in Ephesians that “with all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time”. Ephesians 1. 10. God is to be for the faithful ever 'in our ears and in our eyes', as the manifest presence. It is God who gives life and hope. God’s presence and love is the perpetual challenge to that temptation for us to become that which we are most emphatically not.
When I was in Liverpool I got on a bus that I thought would lead me back to the Hope University Campus. After a long while I went to the driver who with great emphasis told me “You’ve got on the wrong bus!” You have to go back and change – at Penny Lane”. I left the bus full of the joys of Spring and scouse wonderment.
Oh, Penny Lane - like the words of God in scripture.Living words for real life. May you be always in our ears and in our eyes:
Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back
Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies