Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
26th Jul 2020
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity Year A 2020
And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit”. Romans 8.28
The Coronavirus has put paid to many events which were once confidently and obliviously planned, the most obvious being the postponement of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. In my home town of Plymouth the postponement of many events planned to commemorate the 400th anniversary sailing of the The Mayflower in 1620 to the so-called ‘New World’ is a significant one. The celebration was to have paid homage to the breathtaking courage of the one hundred and thirty odd persons, among them the so-called ‘Pilgrim Fathers’. They set sail to a place as then barely known and in a small ship which in the face of the vast and unpredictable Atlantic Ocean was a floating death trap. But they did arrive at their destination in what is now Plymouth Massachussets and Plymothians were to gather at the Mayflower Steps to remember this epic voyage. Every country has a ‘golden age’ and in Plymouth both the age of Sir Francis Drake in Elizabeth I’s reign and the Pilgrim Fathers in the reign of her successor James I stand proud. It was an age of learning and of daring.
The epic voyage of the Mayflower was made possible by The English Reformation in England during Elizabeth’s reign and the proliferation of differing Christian types of witness which ensued. Above all the arrival of the Bible translated into English and the advent of the Book of Common Prayer were signs of this opening up. The Pilgrim Fathers and their brand of isolationist Calvinist Christianity lay in contrast to the state of things in England in which the Prayer Book, allowed the common man, woman and child for the first time to enjoy a beautifully written though standardised guide to daily and Sunday worship. At the heart of this Book of Common Prayer lay strong guidance both for corporate prayer with its beautiful and poetic verbal expression, for the first time in the English language! One of these beauties lies in the prayer which we say each Sunday, simply called ‘The Collect’, which as the name suggests, collects up the thought for that particular Sunday. The collects are prayers which contain highly condensed material, expressed very ably and concisely and which manage to be both spiritually elevated and yet also completely common sensible.
This morning’s collect for the 7th Sunday after Trinity asks God to ‘graft into our hearts the love of God’s Name’, to increase in us true religion’ and finally to ‘nourish us with all goodness’ and then the verbal sealant ‘to keep us in the same. The collects manage to both raise us and bring us down to earth. They are the product of a new religious order which takes our human nature and the lives we live very seriously and they address us very directly and honestly. They are a product of great learning and insight but also great spirituality. They echo the words of Paul that the same God, “who searches the human heart, knows what is the mind of the spirit”.
Firstly ‘to graft into our hearts the love of God’s name’. When I was a young child both my Church of England primary school at St Peter’s in Plymouth seemed always to be a place of story-telling, both the classic children’s stories from Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm as well of course countless stories from the Bible. All this allowed we children to immerse ourselves imaginatively in stories which though colourful (and many improbable) contained strong, guiding, moral messages which were to become a natural part of our thinking and acting lives later on. In our church it seemed to me that the Word of God was so elevated and yet spoke to what St Paul continually referred to as that deeper place, deeper than thought, the heart. And so ‘learning by heart’ and taking on human knowledge ‘by heart’ and receiving that word as a continual practice was, happily for me, a staple of Christian worship at the local church level, and it has never ceased to offer spiritual nourishment at times of great challenge.
Secondly, ‘Increase in us true religion’. The word ‘religion’ has become in our own time a contentious one. Larger numbers of people describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ This may either be that religion is for them a word which denotes a kind of subservience, or a commitment which takes them into the realm of beliefs which they cannot in good conscience truly espouse. Then there is the fact that world religions, especially Christianity and Islam, have a poor track record in the keeping of the peace. When this collect was written in the mid 1550s ‘true religion’ was a new concept, but it dared to express the relationship between real religion and its outcome in the life of the individuals and communities which were its human representatives. Religion should be seen and known to be humanly true not only in its doctrines but also in the lives of those for whom it was ‘Christ personified’.
Which brings us to the third part of our collect prayer, that we ask God ‘to nourish us in all goodness’. It is interesting that when this prayer was written, the idea of human goodness and of good acts incorporated into the worship of the church was never expressed so directly. The former Latin use could not convey the immediacy which Cranmer intended. Cranmer is not as the former priests exhorting the people to a more ardent piety but a leader of a very contemporary church ‘earthing’ the Christian Gospel and instructing the people in the ways of simple human goodness and of acts of goodness. And yet the previous instruction to ‘true religion’ assumes a root source which emerges out of a life of prayer and of worship and of passionate belief, without which Christianity remains without source and direction.
As we Christian pilgrims journey through this exceptionally difficult and challenging period in the life of our world, let us, as God’s pilgrim people, draw inspiration from our collect and its spiritual genius. Let us now, like the Pilgrim Fathers then, put out to sea, the sea of faith and, make our own journey as the Elizabethan would say, ‘with good courage’ :
Graft in our hearts of the love of thy name, O God, increase in us true religion nourish us with all goodness, and keep us in the same. Amen.
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity
19th Jul 2020
The Sixth Sunday of Trinity Year A
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Genesis 28.17
The Christian always expresses a delight and a respect for material things and for our common humanity. At the same time all our readings this morning imply that God’s attentive love and his guiding Holy Spirit are always with us. Material things are set out in scripture to convey spiritual realities. In today’s Old Testament Reading the account of Jacob’s dream of a ladder ascending into heaven is deeply visionary. It stands as a testimony both to Jacob’s faith and the strong sense he has of God’s presence and purpose. This prompts him to bless the ground upon which he receives God’s vision “How awesome is this place! He says “This is none other than the house of God, this this is the gate of heaven”. These words are inscribed upon a modern east end church, St Paul’s Bow Common which has defied the outcries against 60s architecture and won a major prize recently. Its Vicar, Duncan Ross, alluded to the great promise of joy that the right use of architectural space and the play of light and darkness makes upon the individual. Jacob would have been proud!
God is always and everywhere present and always unchanging. He is not just a PART of the natural order, he IS the natural order. And when we admit this we then look to place ourselves like Jacob in right relationship to our own human being. “In every human heart there is a God-shaped space’ said Cardinal Hume. We begin to ask ourselves where our true peace is to be found. And our response is to recognise it within our own selves.
In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul describes the whole of creation and our common humanity as ‘groaning inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free’. And in the Gospel reading of the growth of the wheat and the tares Jesus develops around the relationship of God and the believer the image of the sower who plants the seed on ground full of weeds and on good grain. This is a proper image for the spiritual life, in which, as if we did not need reminding, life finds us struggling against the odds as the wheat grows with the choking weeds or tares. This current period of the gradual end to lockdown is very critical because we cannot be sure that we are doing this too quickly. At the same time we have this year experienced two spring times. Though we are now beginning Summer, spring is in the air as the curious return to the new normal sees only a gradual reopening rather than a full one. In the continuing uncertainty, The Church needs to enable people to tell their coronavirus stories. It needs now to offer the right healing resources for those for whom the experience of the past few months has taken a great toll. Our church is ready to offer God’s deep and strong peace and there will be opportunities in the coming weeks, once we are retuned to Holy Cross Church building in two weeks’ time, to put this into real practice.
For some time now at Argyle Primary School we have been teaching the final year pupils simple meditation skills. We decided to support our children at this crucial part of their schooling and when they are readying themselves to go to what so many of us call ‘big school’. We have together begun to wonder where we might find stillness and calmness when life around us becomes changing and demanding. It has been possible to draw upon the simple skill and technique of meditation to allow ourselves that proper space and critical distance from our demanding lives. It involves the practice and purposefulness of stillness and of silence. At first it seems that the idea to do this might be beyond the means of children of ten and eleven years of age. It is equally a challenge for adults. We can be so distracted! In the old days teachers were always barking at children to keep silent and even rewarding silent children as they were “seen but not heard….” But meditation is deep peace. It introduces a creative rather than an imposed silence.
In the action of meditation we are giving God our time when he gives us all his time. ST Paul reminds us that when we cry ‘Abba, Father!’ we express that calm intimacy which is God’s gift to us who seek. That act of what some have called ‘centring down’ allows us a means of embracing more deeply, even with the occasional distraction, the peace that lies both within and beyond us, and to inhabit that peace of God ‘which passes all understanding’ This is an action which allows us to become calm and responsive rather than defensive and reactive.
We may say that to bear within us the seed of the Word of God is as ‘the grain become the full wheat’. It’s to experience and then to communicate from our own inner being wells of deep creative peace. This is the peace that sets our lives, our world and ‘all the changing scenes of life’ into their true perspective. This is the peace which is transformative for our life together…As Jacob reminds us in his place of joy:
“How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven”. Here are the words of an ancient Celtic prayer for personal peace, so much needed in these challenging times:
Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the gentle night to you
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you
Deep peace of Christ, of Christ be with you.
The light of the world to you
Deep peace of Christ to you…
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
12th Jul 2020
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace” Romans 8.5
The contrast drawn between flesh and spirit is ancient and certainly not accidental. Language relating to ‘the spirit’ will suggest an invitation to come to know and experience God as a reality. More than ever Christianity finds itself set within a sea of unbelief and is confronted by a whole new generation which remains, by and large, unchurched. Many find the idea of spirituality positive - but mere religion delivers a negative charge. Many baulk against what they call ‘organised religion’ and even those who call themselves Christian-minded, do not necessarily want to go to church. In response to this many clergy choose to ‘dumb down’ Christian services to appeal to the lowest common denominator and offer distraction, emotion and a sense of security. This approach might yield some increase in human numbers but turns out to offer ‘thin’ experience. It satisfies at the ordinary level but does not feed and strengthen the soul in the longer term. It offers a sense of security and uplift and even ecstatic and emotional experience but its expression is sensual rather than spiritually grounded. It refuses to be confronted by the God who is not biddable.
I don’t think any of this is new. The impetus of Jesus’ teaching regarding the sower and the seed is the one which responds to the very real and existent spiritual ambivalence of his own day. But it also reminds us of the gift of faith which is as present as the seed is to the sower. Jesus knows at the very least that he is not ‘preaching to the converted’ but to a people whose lives are tough and whose outlook is realistic and who will not be fobbed off by religious platitudes. Having said this they are a people do seek after God, in their own way they have ‘ears to hear’ – they like us, have an instinct for a spiritual teaching which rings true both for their lives and for their understanding of God. The Church in our own time must not ignore the fact that its central task is not to find numerous ways to attract new followers but to teach and to practice the Christian Faith that from the perspective of the spirit rather than the flesh. It must learn once to be a Church whose actions and outreach emerge out of a contemplative and prayerful base. The pattern of Jesus’ teaching is the one which understands the realities of life but which offers no easy consolation, not a way out but a way through all that comes our way. It is for Christ that the Church sustains its life and this is Good News for all who come to seek God.
If the spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his spirit that dwells in you. Romans 8.11
The recourse to the Church is not as a bunker but as turning a key to a door that leads out to new life. A sure pathway has been provided by Pope Francis. It is the one which expresses the never ending presence of God’s mercy. There is a ready acknowledgement here that Christian lives, are not different from any other lives. Christians who have found faith have not been magically relieved of life’s pain and conflict and complexity. Pope Francis found the image of the Virgin who unravels knots a particularly compelling one since it does not simplify our view of the Christian life but makes it more complex and interesting. It acknowledges the many ways in which we experience our own past as rough, tough terrain which is in sore need of understanding and of healing. Our human nature is understood NOT from the starting point of its perfectability but from an understanding of its vulnerability and hence the need for God’s loving mercy. We come to God, we turn to Christ from the starting point of the little that we are and the need we have of understanding and healing. The words from our Gospel ring particularly true, That which is of the flesh is death, and that which is of God’s wellspring of mercy is spirit and is life.
Paul Vallely’s biography of Pope Francis is entitled ‘Untying the Knots’ and the writing of this biography is not from the point of view of an ascending scale of physical or spiritual ‘achievement’ but instead sees his life’s ministry as a flawed one in which grave mistakes have been made and owned. Pope Francis admits to all this in a spirit of repentance, sure in the mercy of God, and ready to come to God each day as a Christian who is both penitent, and as the hymn says, ‘ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven’. Refreshed and healed. Made new to serve Him. The ancient breach between the flesh and the spirit is being healed through Christ’s merciful future providing love. We are being called to set our minds on that which is of the Spirit, and which brings life.
The parable of the sower and the seed is a reminder that the Word of God comes to the individual’s often faltering Christian faith in a rough, tough human environment. The seed of Christian Faith, planted in human hearts, is the one which, in the face of the dead hand of atheism and the sure measurements of social science, stands for lives which may find a real feeding and a real meaning from their very source, God himself.
Author: From the Didache (1st Century)
Father, we thank Thee Who has planted
Thy holy name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus Thy Son to us imparts.
Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,
Didst give man food for all his days,
Giving in Christ the bread eternal;
Thine is the pow'r, be Thine the praise.
Watch o'er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in this broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
5th Jul 2020
Fourth Sunday of Trinity Year A
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart’.
There are three qualities our Blessed Lord seeks in those who would be his followers. Jesus looks for simplicity, he looks for faith, and he looks for trust. It’s clear that he values simplicity in his disciples when he says, "I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and have revealed them to little children”. God’s grace is given in humility: in simplicity of heart and mind.
Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free
'Tis a gift to come down where I ought to be
And when I am in the place just right
I will be in the valley of love and delight
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend I will not be ashamed
To turn, to turn will be my delight
'Til by turning, turning, I come 'round right.
The event which was the occasion for this remark of Jesus was the return of the 70 disciples after they had been sent by the Lord to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick and to cast out demons. These disciples were ordinary folk like you and me; but they opened their hearts to God’s grace, allowing him to work through them. When they returned, they were full of wonderful stories of success. "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" Jesus gives praise to the Father for revealing his power through them and the effectiveness of their witness.
In simplicity lies true freedom. It is an acknowledgment that we have been made in God’s image and we reflect that image in our own readiness to be open and seeing and hearing and in our dealings with others. It means that we return to that docility of spirit whose mind and heart is listening and alert and receptive. St Paul can say that this is a garment we must wear:
Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering… Colossians 3.12.
Our Gospel reveals secondly that Christ looks also for faith in his followers. He makes a tremendous claim in this passage. He claims to be the Son of God: "All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." Nowhere does Jesus make a greater claim than this. No one can know this unique relationship between God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ except those "to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." My favorite hymns are those which express something of our unknowing either after the fact of life and also in the face of the greatness of God. “How shall I sing that Majesty”, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”, “Jerusalem the Golden” and others have all been written to express the strong sense of our own basic unknowing. But this is not a place where all hope and longing is excused. No, in the faith of Christ our hope and our longing is mixed and merged with what in God we cannot know. Faith makes possible what we might call ‘a passionate unknowing’.
When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, and this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God… Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love.
The Cloud of Unknowing
Thirdly, The Lord Jesus looks for trust. He wants us to trust him enough to give him our burdens and to receive his refreshment in return: "Come to me, all you who labour and are (burdened?) heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
This image of a yoke is a very beautiful one. A "yoke of oxen" was always a pair of animals joined together by a smoothly shaped piece of wood. This was the yoke. It was placed on the shoulders of the animals and fastened under their necks. By means of this simple apparatus, two oxen (with minds of their own) could work together, accomplishing with half the effort a difficult job such as plowing a field or pulling a heavy load. Typically, the two beasts of burden would be matched in strength and temperament and share the burden together. The yoke is that which is emblematic of a burden shared “bare one anthers burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ”. In this we adopt the servant’s role, and the gentleness and meekness, especially in the face of human antagonism or resentment if transforming of relationships because it is a transforming of their understanding.
Today, once again, we hear this generous invitation from our Blessed Lord: Learn from me to be simple, "for I am meek and humble of heart." Learn from me to have faith, because I have revealed my Father to you. And learn from me to trust, because "my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
Let us then learn these things, that we may fulfil the great words of St Augustine “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in thee’.