Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Trinity
19th Jun 2016
Sermon for Trinity 4 (Year C)
The Healing of the Gerasine Demoniac
It has been a tumultuous and tragic week. A week in which we have learnt of the gunning down of 49 persons in a gay nightclub in Orlando and of the stabbing and gunning down of one of our young MPs, Jo Cox, outside the public library in Birstall, West Yorkshire. We have also learnt, that though these terrible acts were motivated perhaps by bigotry against gay people, or motivated by anger at the political status quo, they were committed by two men whose minds were radically unbalanced. It is a commonplace to hear people speaking informally about ‘their demons’, but the fact of the whole area of ‘mental health’ on the one hand, and the presence of severe psychological disturbance on the other makes the majority of us feel uneasy. Our tendency is then to place it at a distance, and we are shocked when these violent disturbances are acted out by people who had seemed so apparently ordinary and whose inner demons, which had once remained unacknowledged, suddenly burst forth with a violent vengeance.
In Jesus’ time, demon possession would have been common place, and Jesus’ casting out of the demon-possessed man looks like an ordinary story. But it has a much larger significance than the one which merely establishes Jesus’ credentials as an exorcist. There was in his own time a ready acknowledgement that dark forces were at work in the world and that they could/should be recognised and named. There was no apparent difference in Luke’s mind between the demon possessed man and the world held under the evil force of Emperor and Empire. Life had become a kind of madness. The God of Trust had been dethroned. Jesus is the One who, coming from God both knows this evil by name and nature and can silence it, making its power devoid. The whole gospel account we read this morning echoes the words of the Psalm 65.7:
You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves,
And the madness of the peoples.
Luke has borrowed/included Mark’s story in his Gospel and this is to make a point of Christian Teaching quite plain: that Christ is come to establish a new Kingdom for God in which the dark forces of the present world, and particularly those of the oppressive Roman occupiers, are to be vanquished. Gedara was a town which opposed the Roman occupiers and had their people cruelly cut down, the ‘legion’ Luke mentions is the host of evil power in the man which is being vanquished by Christ but also a Roman army company; the ‘pigs’ who fall off the cliff are the roman soldiers.
In our own time we are witnessing particular transatlantic upheavals, with the emerging influence of Donald Trump for the Americans and the threat of leaving Europe, or Brexit for we Brits. I am amazed at the way in which, two thousand years ago, there existed such a ready acknowledgement that the powers that be, the political order of the day, should not only display signs of disorder and corruption, but should also be readily associated, in its worst incarnations, with mental instability and demagogic pretentions. More than this, it was demonic. We need to recover something of the strong mind in Luke’s Gospel which invites psychological reflection. This is the one which recognises the demonic. It manifests itself in a rigid mind set which plays on popular fear, which includes and excludes at will, and which feeds the gullible listener with what he wants to hear. The demonic thrives in the realm of its own god-like status and within its own strongly demarcated social and psychic territory. It doesn’t listen except to its own voice. It prizes its own zones of safety and acceptability above anything else. But this safety is self-invented and camouflages a whole host of fears and insecurities, which it determines to cast aside. One day it will be prepared to unleash the pent up frustration, which, hitherto unacknowledged, will likely be expressed in inappropriate methods of control and even in violent destruction and the casting aside of the consensus fidelium.
In response to the fact of demonic possession as a means of personal and social control, Jesus heals in Gerasa - in the gentile, Decapolis region. He goes out of his way, literally, to include the one who is most naturally excluded. He takes the role of God Himself as an enactment of what God is really like : The God who combines his unimaginable power with an unimaginable, all-embracing love; a God who holds out his arms to people who never wanted him, never asked for him, but who recognise that he has the unique power to face down the self-destructive enemy. In this vein, the Christian teaching is the one which has enlarged upon and put into words that love for which Christ went out of his way to show. It is also the clarion call to sanity and stability in a world which would tend toward the dethroning of God and the imposition of its own selfish will. It is no better expressed than in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians Chapter 13 and is the opposite of the tyrant’s vain posturing:
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
One of our former Vicars, Fr John Ball, was a paraplegic, a severely disabled man of small stature, who was loved by the Holy Cross parishoners, and whose life was fraught with difficulties and trials which were kept to himself,. He was a gifted poet and his inner life is etched out in a poem which appears on our website as our parish poem. It is not a poem designed to cheer, because it presents an astonishingly candid account of an inner life which reckons its own place within the order of good and evil, faith and despair, longing and fear…It is called ‘Orison’. ‘Orison’ literally means ‘communication with God’. In the poem, he instructs us that the Christian journey must involve traversing life’s territory as a kind of ‘holding together’ of all those things which pertain to God and to the emergence of the greater good. It is the counterpart to the emergence of the ‘disturbed person singular’. Here is the Jesus who has cast the devil into the sea whilst proclaiming the love which Father has for us all. Here is His and our own Orison, the communication of love (and sanity) from its one true source:
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.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Trinity
12th Jun 2016
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Trinity (Year C)
"Your faith has saved you; go in peace".
This morning’s readings explore the meaning of forgiveness, whether it be the forgiveness shown by the prophet Nathan to King David for the murder of Uriah the Hittite - or of Christ to the woman who, in a dramatic reversal of David’s story has been anointed by a prostitute whose tears fall onto his feet. There can be no more telling contrast between Israel’s greatest King and the woman with ‘a bad name in the town’. And yet in this contrast, we see the frailty of human nature with that of the subversive and transforming intervention of Christ’s forgiveness: Nathan said to David “The Lord, for His part, forgives you your sin, you are not to die” Jesus says of the woman “Her sins, her many sins must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love…And he said to her, “Your faith has saved you, go in Peace”.
Notice that the forgiveness she is given is placed in the past tense. The welcome love that she has shown is a grace, a gift through which understanding and forgiveness is made possible in the present: ‘her faith has saved her’. As a prostitute she has offered him a prostitute’s welcome as she uses her tears and her hair to wash and anoint him. She ranks alongside the widow and her mites in giving what is specially and only hers to give, all she knows. And for Jesus, this is a distinctive mark of a working faith. There is so little judgement here, only understanding. Jesus does not offer this understanding as a mere reaction to what he but sees deeply and has great compassion. Christian forgiveness recognizes the complexity and fragility of human nature with the generous mercy of God whose continuing desire is to restore us into his likeness and to inhabit his peace.
It is no easy thing to forgive others, especially those who have hurt us, to really forgive, from the heart. It might feel like going against a big part of our nature, and so is not realized easily… We are often too stubbornly wedded to our own pride and its companion, fear. And there is no ready answer to this, except for the Christian emphasis upon healing. We need healing communities which take the human being seriously and which can offer ready understanding, and encourage mutual self-acceptance and tolerance. A healing community is a community of faith which has the capacity to heal and be healed in the one communion bond of trust. But for us in the Church this is not a work which can be realized in our own strength alone, but in the strength of God alone and in His Name and through the Name and the love of his Son, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he may use us as powerful agents of healing, for as the poet William Blake once put it,
We are put on this earth a little space to bear the beams of love.
The work of the South African truth and Reconciliation Commission, following the atrocities of the Apartheid Regime, remains instructive for us. It charted a way of forgiveness for a whole nation – a fractured and torn South Africa. It offered a distinctly Christian means of forgiveness in action at the national level. How to heal a nation? How to restore the nation’s moral equilibrium? People wanted to forgive and to reconcile but they also wanted to hold people accountable for past atrocities. Archbishop Desmond Tutu argued that to have offered a general amnesty to the perpetrators of murder would have been to practice amnesia, denying an experience which was brutalizing and violent and which would haunt both perpetrators and victims unless it was thoroughly acknowledged. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission therefore offered amnesty for specific crimes committed, but only to those who pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility for their actions. Remorse was not a requirement for amnesty, just an admission of guilt, but this admission of guilt had to be made in public and it had to be put into a form of honest words.
In practice, perhaps surprisingly, most people did express remorse and most victims did want to forgive - he describes one victim pleading with the perpetrators of crimes to come forward because they wanted to forgive but did not know whom to forgive. Archbishop Tutu claimed that forgiveness gives people resilience to emerge still human despite efforts to dehumanize them, and that the oppressor was as much dehumanized by his actions as the victim. But Archbishop Tutu also reminded the world that alongside the basic pursuit of human justice, true forgiveness deals with the past, with all of the past, in order to make the future possible. That is a significant contribution The Christian Gospel can make to the difficult questions we all face today. As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little”.
Forgiveness is for the remission of sins – For it is by this that what has been lost and was found is saved from being lost again. St Augustine.
Never forget that the key to the situation lies in the will and not in the imagination.
So much of what we have found impossible to forgive is based on hurts and betrayals and perhaps misunderstandings from a past that is carried around as unwanted baggage and felt as a wound. Many would say that it lies within the realm of psychotherapy and analysis to treat such things in a properly formal and scientific way. But science doesn’t supply all the answers – and the psychologist is not in the business of offering forgiveness. But it is possible to come to the re-telling of the life story as found in renewed relationships and to find new ways of telling old stories from within communities of Christian Faith. We may begin to realize that nothing in our experience is written in stone, and that new life can become possible for all of us in the unlikeliest of ways and in the unlikeliest of places and among the unlikeliest people. In this there is the hope for life transformed within the context of Christian communities like ours at Holy Cross.
We begin to learn to forgive as we begin to understand and act on that understanding. For us this is to find life in and through the Cross of Christ. New life for The Church is now and always mediated through the Christ who has ‘been through it’ and redeemed our fallen world. For Christ is the One who has offered forgiveness to the woman who is able to anoint him even from the point of her own greatest need; the need for understanding and forgiveness. If truth and reconciliation was made possible for her, even more, in Christ does it now become possible for us, too…
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Trinity
5th Jun 2016
THE WIDOW OF NAIN
The Second Sunday of Trinity
1 Kings: 17 v17-24
Luke: 7 v11-17
Jesus’ walks into a funeral cortege on his way into a town called Nain.
The Church of England funeral service poses this question from the Psalms ‘In the midst of life we are in death and to whom can we turn for help but to you O Lord?’
In our very diverse and multifaceted world one of the constant and universal human experiences is loss. We lose someone precious to us, someone upon which we rely and depend, and it changes us for ever. Losing someone we love is the hardest thing we may ever have to face. Loss makes us question the meaning of life. Losing someone is radically disorientating. Instead of stepping easily into each day things suddenly feel more hostile or uncertain. And the greatest loss of all can be our sense of hope
Such a loss breaks our heart. Hearts can indeed break and they heal slowly. The shock of discovering that someone has ‘left’ us makes daily life a struggle and one needs a lot of courage. Our first reading this morning was another story about a mother, the widow of Zarepath (in 1 Kings 17.8-24) losing her son, and we could hear within it some of the out-workings of bereavement. The mother is angry, ‘What have you against me, O man of God?’ She wants to blame someone. ‘You have come to cause the death of my son!’ And Elijah, equally shocked by the threat to this child, starts bargaining with God. There’s no formula for how we’ll each of us cope with our own sorrow but I think we all recognise that walking through the valley of the shadow of death is a terrible journey.
The funeral which was coming out of Nain that day, on its way presumably to the city’s burial ground, wasn’t dealing with a kind death. A woman who’d already lost her husband was now burying her son. This is a story about the power of compassion in the face of an unkind death. In Jesus we are offered the face of the Christian God whom we worship, and the chief characteristic of that God is that He is compassionate. He is merciful in dealing with human frailty. Jesus doesn’t avoid this funeral; he doesn’t avoid the widow of Nain’s anguish and he identifies with her grief. Here is not a God who remains aloof when we are in the vale of tears but very close to us, approaching, that he may draw alongside us and stay with us.
Jesus puts compassion first. Every society adds to death its own rituals and taboos and religious sensibilities: it’s the way we help ourselves cope: so one of the taboos of that Jewish community in Nain would have been that a dead body was not to be touched. It would have made anyone touching it ritually unclean. And so it’s hardly surprising that when Jesus steps forward and touches the structure bearing the body it stops everyone in their tracks. He touches, as we often want to touch, to recognise that this isn’t a corpse but this woman’s son. At the heart of any funeral are living relationships. Jesus will not let the conventions and expectations surrounding this death get in the way of a compassionate response. We cannot raise people from the dead but we can respond to loss with an attentive and compassionate heart. We might lack imagination, we might lack intimacy with those grieving but we can still practice compassion.
As a hospital chaplain at Charing Cross Hospital, a busy General Hospital, I had never stopped to wonder what the term ‘General’ might incorporate. In experiencing something of that same Jesus, who touched the bier carrying the body of the widow’s son at Nain, there were some very sad and demanding encounters. Three different kinds of funerals stay in the mind. The first, the funeral and burial of babies who had been born prematurely, then the funerals and burial of the remains of those whose bodies had been used for research and then the funeral and burial of those who had died of AIDS. Each one involved in one way or another, taboos about what was deemed clean and unclean or what was deemed worthy of ordinary human compassion and what was recognized as an immense loss. Each sad event challenged in different ways our capacity to cope and to understand to bear with these things and to have compassion. It was moving to see a small group of people attend the funeral of the remains of someone who had given their body for research perhaps up to two years after their death. It was moving to see that though they had come to commemorate a death, they had also come to respect and to give honour to that living relationship of love which was still a part of their real lives. It is hard to imagine that only in the 1980s was there a concerted effort to recognize that the loss of a premature baby was deemed worthy of appropriate funeral rites. And in another way, the funerals of those who had died of AIDS were often emotionally challenging and even angering and shaming to families who were being asked to bear a grief the like of which they had not been prepared, with the likelihood of misunderstanding and of rejection as well as affirmation and commemoration were always possible. Above all, like the widow of Nain, who, grieving her son, wonders at the awfulness of losing a member of a generation expected to survive her?
In the story of the Widow of Nain Jesus shows himself to be compassionate especially in that place where life and death come together. He is shown to us as truly the Son of God : who at all times and in all places is a life-giver. He is the one who accompanies us in all we are and in all we do as a compassionate friend and He is the One who alone is able to breach the chasm that separates grief and hope in life and death.
In the breaking comes the re-making.
Archbishop Donald Coggan.
So death will come to fetch you? No, not death but God himself. Death is not the horrible spectre we see represented in pictures. The catechism teaches us that death is the separation of the soul from the body; that is all. I am not afraid of a separation that will unite me for ever with God.
St Teresa of Avila.
And thou, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath, O praise him, alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God, and Christ our Lord the way hath trod.
O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluya! Alleluya! Alleluya!
St Francis of Assisi.