Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity
25th Jul 2021
Sermon for the 9th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. John 6.20
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 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 by nature communal; and we have always needed places of ingathering, and above all places where we can feel the power and the swell and the emotion which is raised in being together in one place. And, to draw upon the image of the lion, we may speak of the roar of the crowd. The Colosseum was a place where the early Christians were thrown to the lions, to be mawled and devoured by them for the entertainment of the masses. The architectural shape of the modern stadium is built as a cradle. It envelopes and surrounds and yet it also excites and overwhelms.
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. 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. They own 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 in us, but as a very predictable and understandable part of what makes us human.
John sets up the idea of the boat and the storm as identifying with the fact of 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 tactful kind of understanding of one another which accepts that whether we know it or not, life has not been plain sailing for any of us. It is a good paradox that it is in our shared experience of life and its vicissitudes that we may more surely understand what makes us human; that is understandable and forgivable. The opposite of this could be a Christianity that places us at a distance from the very humanity, which in us all, cries out for compassionate understanding and for the receipt of peace. A Christianity disconnected, that is, from our true humanity. 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. In this story he gets into the boat with them and journeys with them and they get to their destiny together.
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 like Shakespeare’s King Lear. What remained and what was revealed was also revealed to the blind man who had received his sight. Christ was revealed! Newton had come through the storm and he came to know that it was God who lay in the midst of the storm. God was in the eye of the storm. He was at the heart of the storm which is also the place of its still centre.
At the deep heart of all our defences, uncertainties, reluctancies, vanities and stubbornnesses; 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 life and our soul’s true wellspring. 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:
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…for He comes to declare himself to us all in the words
“It is I…Do not be afraid”.
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
18th Jul 2021
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 in their own push for human freedom despite beatings and torture and to win through. They helped the masses to acknowledge greater and abiding truths. Like lions, they held out for the greater dignity of us 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 ‘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 power its misuse. His mind is essentially a wayward one and his real person is 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 live or offer us that true freedom for which John and then the Saviour Jesus Christ lived and died for. People are wandering around our town and cities as we say ‘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 once spent a week on conference in Liverpool and we were at Anfield Stadium to watch the World Cup football 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 religion. John Lennon once said that the Beatles were becoming more popular than Jesus. Both men in their time had even now have immense pulling power and the admiration and the even the adulation of the masses. Lennon may have come closer to the truth when he penned the song ‘All you Need is Love’. But neither provides us with either the whole story or 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. And yet 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. Not this word desire, and not indoctrination.
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 bus1” You have to go back and change – at Penny Lane”. I left the bus full of the joys of Spring and scouse bewonderment.
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
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity
11th Jul 2021
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Trinity Year B.
John the Baptist and the call to repentance.
It is now a commonplace observation that with the advent of a truly multinational London there is a sense that the world has arrived here in a way it never has before. The coming of the Olympic Games in less than two weeks’ time will serve to signify on the big stage what is already apparent in fact. It will be seen in the arrival of foreign nationals whose compatriots already live here and who already regard themselves as Londoners. We are becoming led to the vision of a future world in which will see the enlargement and the dominance of massive cities, which will become whole worlds in themselves and yet related through the communications with the greater world around them. And so the world will become in a way small and yet will communicate with itself as never before. The hope is that this will introduce a true globalisation of interests and intentions and hope and peace, like the Olympic hope. One example of this is the recent defection of the Syrian foreign minister who can speak out to the listening world about how things are in Syria. He can tell it like it is. And he will tell it through what we call ‘twitter’. In the press of a single button, messages of hope, of warning and of instruction can be delivered to millions. The scale and scope of these things is awesome. But the danger with this communication is that it will largely be communication for its own sake – it will be useful, but it will not speak to the heart and the soul.
Communications at the time of Jesus Christ were of a very different order. The Judaean society of which Jesus was a part greatly prized a tradition of religious faith and understanding which was based on an oral, spoken medium passed on through the generations and revealed in scripture. Moreover this was shared by clusters of what we would now consider to be very small communities over a very long period of time. This tradition, enshrined in the Old Testament, provided a sure guide in the understanding of a God who was unnameable and yet recognisable. He was recognisable in his dealings with men and women, and he revealed himself primary in his chosen people Israel, and in the promises he had made to protect them and provide them with a future. At the heart of this tradition of God’s involvement and promise was the existence of the Old Testament prophets. These individuals were called by God to speak on his behalf to the people. They existed as God’s voices, warning and directing the people. They were foretellers of the future : they called the House of Israel to a renewed sense of its own destiny, and this came very often in the form of dire warnings of terrible things to come if the people did not mend its ways. (Jeremiah 26.23) They would also instruct the people in their religious duty, whether and would openly voice the displeasure of God in a society that was going to bad, or turning away from what God had destined for them. When Jesus in Matthew 16.3 criticises the Pharisees he does so from their boasted ability to show the fate and destiny of people from the movement of the stars. “But” he observes “You do not discern the signs of the times”. So Jesus is saying that prophecy, once the powerful guide of the community, has become blunted and meaningless. He is calling for a prophecy which is the one which truly discerns ‘the signs of the times’ with a deep understanding of the presence of God and of how God’s present speaks to this world in its present state. The Church must surely need those prophets who can speak in this way, especially in an age when we communicate so much, but give ourselves less space and time to reflect upon the meaning of is said and shared. If words are to outlast their speaking they must speak to that part of our nature which is God-seeking.
John the Baptist put an end to prophecy as he proclaimed the coming of the Christ. It was because he, more than any other prophet, who embodied his message and died for it. He was confused in the popular mind as a Christ figure. But his communication was one primarily of command, much in the vein of the prophets before him. In this command was the stubborn and insistent message that he was not the One, the Christ, but the forerunner, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, the one who realised his role as subordinate to Jesus “He must increase but I must decrease” John 3.30.
And what lies at the heart of St John the Baptist’s prophecy? Well, it is not possible to make this any simpler than to say that it lay in his call to repentance, the call which is the one great incarnating and humanising call. The call to say ‘sorry’ married with the call to self-examination and to the confession of sins. The call to forgive and to receive forgiveness. The call to keep it real. This was a radical departure from the old religious observances and duties and the goal of righteousness. This teaching was for the transformation of the individual soul and of whole communities. This was the communication of healing grace. This was lasting. It was a message which spoke directly to the heart and the soul of mankind. ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ ‘Repent, for the transformation of body and mind and soul into the likeness of God your maker, the merciful One, the giver of all grace and peace’.
Yesterday I visited one of our members, Joan, in a nursing home. I was led into a small sitting room where tea was being brewed. I had brought a Waitrose lemon tart and we shared it out. The women, all of whom were there for respite care, were all fairly anxious about the future. I was not dressed as a clergyman but when asked told the ladies that I was Joan’s Vicar. And then something broke into the conversation and it immediately became a conversation about God, and of how each woman in turn was able to tell the rest of us about how important Christian Faith was to them and of how much the life of faith meant to them in the present. This was very moving because unsolicited and honest. The fact of the experience of a life of faith, which is also a life of trusting in God and of ‘telling it like it is’ as a routine and undramatic and practical repentance. A real relationship with a real God, which even from the point of view of older age and a certain weariness and resignation, still existed for them as a light and a hope and a joy. I could tell that this was so, because as they spoke their faces shone. It was for this that John proclaimed repentance and upon which faith is sustained and enlarged. It is this, I believe, which will carry us joyfully and hopefully into our future, come what may.
The Moon in Lleyn RS Thomas
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea's
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint's name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth's
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
4th Jul 2021
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Trinity Year B
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.
The so called ‘God Particle’ has recently been discovered. It claims to be the particle upon which all physics rests, and can be thought of as the mainstay of all creation, without which it would never have existed. But it is interesting that the Name of God should be called upon in this way. A little girl asked her father this week ‘Who made the world?’ He explained to her about the God particle and was not sure whether the earth had been created by God or sprang up out of a kind of physical chain reaction, all on its own. So then, the little girl said, ‘So the particle made the world, then, didn’t it?’ whereupon her mother intervened to say to husband and daughter. ‘Yes but remember who made the particle…’ The mother was speaking of course from the point of view of faith, but which nonetheless takes us beyond the limits of what can be proved.
When Paul speaks of these things he reminds us, that however we might choose to describe God, there is the realisation that he is the provider of our existence. His presence is over all his creation and yet also beyond it. His influence is both unfathomable and yet present. Yung once famously said ‘Bidden or not bidden, God is present’. When we speak like this we are seeing faith as a kind of waiting, as a gradual awakening to the possibilities that God holds out for each one of us. But above all we exist in a relationship of receptivity. There is nothing we can do or accomplish that will increase God’s love for us his creatures. As his creatures our attitude both in prayer and worship and in life is one in which we offer him as the words of the Confession tell us ‘…ourselves our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto God’. We empty ourselves in order to be receptive and to receive him. It is in this way that St Paul reminds us that the power of God is made as he puts it ‘perfect in weakness’. The reminder is always given that we are, when all is said and done, very mortal, and our life’s experience belongs to our mortality, which is also our being in its natural and very vulnerable state.
This week I have encountered two experiences of this mortality at opposite ends of the age spectrum. The first is the experience of an old woman whose health is breaking down under the influence of her own age and a multitude of medical conditions. More and more questions are being asked about how much care she will need, and she now has to admit that she has become entirely dependent upon others to shape her day and provide for its basic needs, even to getting up in the morning. It is both terribly sad, and speaks of a life being reduced to less and less freedom. However the God particle might be described or designed, aging is built into the created order at every level, and there is no escaping the cycle of living and of the end to a single life, whether it be a human life or a leaf on a tree or an exploding, dead star. As one man put it ‘ageing’s not for wimps’. But because we are not living in a laboratory, but a world of life and love we do not respond to these things without being deeply affected by them. An experience of another person’s mortality is also and inescapably an experience which speaks of our own mortality and it leads us to embrace the message of these things not only with our brains but also with our hearts. For the one coming to the end of a life under conditions of great trial and suffering we would want to show the love and the understanding that we should like to receive. We would want to offer our care. Whilst the particle might explain the physics, it cannot explain the meaning of life in all its strange depth and fullness.
My other experience of mortality at the other end of the scale was of meeting a very small child whose daddy was taking her for a walk down Whidborne Street. The child was obviously not quite used to walking and though on her feet, she was still a bit wobbly, but seemingly delighted at this state of affairs. I spoke to her father and then held out my hand towards the girl for a handshake. At first she refused, a bit confused, took two paces, turned back towards me and held out her hand. There must have been a time, almost eighty years ago, when the sick and suffering old lady would have held out her hand and wobbled about on funny little legs which had started to walk.
In Jesus we believe that the divine compassion for all our lives has been made real and apparent. This is not like the scientists who speak merely of existence, however marvellously or exactingly they put it. The Letter of Paul reminds us of the power and purposes of God expressed in our human weakness and of the God who speaks to us in and through our humanity in all its facets and perhaps especially in the truthfulness of our own being, which is also the vulnerability of our condition. ‘Bidden or not bidden; God is present’. This has been most powerfully expressed in the recourse to non-violent forms of demonstration and the refusal to answer violence with violence. But the anniversary of 7/7 must remind us that in the face of global terrorism non-violence, wherever possible will be matched by an absolute kind of watchfulness on the part of those who are tasked with the defence of peace. It will also call for a proper speaking out against false indoctrination and the barbarity of blind violence in all its forms and a willingness to fight the forces of such destruction tooth and nail.
Finally, the saying about power being made perfect in apparent weakness may stand as a very proper message for the existence of this church as a messenger for the bringing of peace, in which so many visitors, week by week come into this holy place to be with God, to say prayers. We cannot tell what these prayers consist of; what is their shape and form and content, but we can tell that these prayers come from the heart, from the deepest part of the person, that place where God’s own love and influence may touch those places of our deeper vulnerability, and of our loving and longing, our most cherished hopes and our deep disappointments and frustrations.
It may suffice that these prayers are said, and their meaning and content are left behind in the form of a burning candle; a mark and sign of the reality of faith and the existence of another kind of God particle, one hidden and yet still very much alive.
The Bright Field
by R. S. Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that aw