Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
31st Mar 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Luke 15.1-3, 11-32. The Prodigal Son.
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. Luke 15.32
Luke gathers together in his gospel in the one place three stories of Jesus -- the parable of the Lost Sheep – the parable of the Lost Coin – and the parable of the Lost Son, otherwise known as the Prodigal Son. They follow each other – one—two—three. All these parables enhance and elaborate the theme of loss, each in its own way enlarging the dimensions of what it means to be lost and then to have found and to celebrate with great joy and thanksgiving. All of these parables tell us profound things about the nature of God, and of his unconditional love.
The theme of love and of loss is a key to our understanding of who we are. You know the old piece of unwanted advice given to someone after the collapse of a relationship: “Better to have loved and lost and not to have loved at all”. (From Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’). It is irritating because there is more than a grain of truth in it, and that love and loss walk hand in hand. But any saying which becomes well-worn is often used in an insensitive manner. And then there is the long tradition of singing songs which in a melancholy way, celebrate the idea of love as a parting of company and of a meeting again and of a keeping of faith. In the last World War, songs like ”We’ll Meet Again” and in the First World War “Goodbyee, Goodbyee, Wipe a Tear Baby dear from your eyee” struck a deep chord… Because death and unsureness intervened. Two statues in London railway stations commemorate the poignant quality of human separation and the hope of a return to meeting once more. The giant modern one at St Pancras International Station by Paul Day entitled ‘Meeting Place’ and the rather beautiful and moving bronze statue of a (departing) soldier by Charles Jagger on Platform 1 of Paddington Station and entitled ‘Letter from Home’ (see over).
Let us remember that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is seminal Christian Teaching and arguably Jesus’ most important parable. Important because it teaches us about God and about the extent of his love. If God is love then this must be a love which is recognizable for us and for our experience of life on this earth. It must be seen and known. As we look at the painting of the prodigal son by Rembrandt we come to know that this is no ordinary scene but shot through with much deeper meaning. The Father and the son are plunged into full light. This light reaches its most intense power as it shines on the father’s face and onto the sons shoulders as a blessing. The son who stayed at home is painted scowling down at this scene and standing in the half light. The father’s face is as we might imagine God the Father, infinitely kind and loving, as he places his hands in blessing on the son very delicately, almost with reverence. The love the father has shown the son, even as he experienced its apparent rejection is nonetheless returned to him. Love has won through and this is cause for rejoicing. The painting presents an icon of God the Father’s love for us all, we who have in the past found ourselves in the prodigal state. In the context of Lent, it is this same strong and unconquerable love which under vastly different circumstances will enable God’s own son, Jesus Christ to proclaim that “I and the Father are One”.
I once was once asked to take a Bible Reading Class at Pentonville Prison, and the chosen reading was the Parable of the Prodigal Son. About 50 prisoners came to the meeting and after some prayers and initial discussion we split up into three groups, with one group taking the part of the father, the other the prodigal son and the third the son who stayed at home. What ensued was fascinating. The parable encouraged the understanding of these three men from within the prisoners’ own experiences of their own fathers. Swirling around this story were feelings of anger at the favoritism shown to the prodigal son, of thinking about the father/son relationship generally and of differing accounts of its trustworthiness. Someone came to see this parable as the one which provides the Christian answer to all the earlier Old Testament accounts of sibling rivalry, as between Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, and of Jacob and Esau…But undoubtedly what was moving was the idea of a love from which a restoration to new life and of forgiveness could emerge. The hope of this for many prisoners was felt very deeply. Lost sons seeking to find a loving father. The gap between the experienced reality and the hoped for, perhaps impossible reconciliation with the father was expressed very movingly and even tearfully.
The theme of love and of loss and of the keeping faith is allied to the theme of love’s return. But this is no romance that is being playing out: it is no sentimental ‘weepie’. Because this love is who God really is. He loves what we are and longs for our reconciliation; come what may. The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that the prodigal Son guesses (perhaps in a calculating way) that his Father will forgive him. His return would be manipulative were it not for the fact of his willingness to ‘own up’ and to put a name to what has been going on and of his own unworthiness. To repent. He begs understanding. He has in a sense touched ‘rock bottom’ and now throws himself into his Father’s dependable care, just as his father’s understanding issues in joy and in the throwing of an extravagant party. His experience is a resurrection experience ‘This my son was lost and is found was dead and has come back to life. What a journey out! What a return!
The restoration of love is likened to the return to God after a long absence, or after an absence of care on our part: God is always, like the father he is, ready to welcome us back. His love is for us a restoration of our life’s experience to its place of truest order and of peace. It is a love that has never ever gone away. It is we who have gone away.
We may like the prodigals we are, choose to wander, and we are of course free to do that. We bear in mind, however, that God remains the place of our true return and its everlasting habitation. I is this note of joyful assurance the beckons us to enter into Christ’s Passion in the triumph of grace over adversity and of dependable love over the wayward heart.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Trinity
24th Mar 2019
The Third Sunday of Lent Year C.
1 Corinthians 10. 12 “God is faithful”.
In today’s reading Jesus recalls a human tragedy, of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, which killed 18 people, and with it the question which plays upon everyone’s lips. It is a question which honestly doubts the existence of a loving God because of the existence of impossible amounts of human suffering. And so we ask ‘Why suffering?’ Or, ‘Why does God allow so much suffering?’ The news this week of the three teenagers crushed to death at a party in Ireland, the thousands drowned in the floods in Mozambique as well as those slaughtered in New Zealand confounds any easy belief in God who stands for ever as the ‘easy answer’.
It is only natural that faith in a loving God is tested. It is not possible for the Christian to justify the existence of God apart from the fragility of our existence. Nor is it proper to use God as a tool to assuage grief. At times of great and unbearable tragedy and loss the voices of sorrow and anguish are not silenced, and many cry out to God to invoke his blessing on the dead and upon the suffering. Our Epistle this morning has St Paul remind us that in all this “God is faithful’. God is present both in terms of the present tense (here; now) but also present in the profound sense of ‘being in the midst of’ and truly ‘in and with’ the devastation after the storm that has broken.
In what sense then, can God, given the evidence to the contrary, ‘remain faithful’? God is not the One who changes the basic laws of nature and gravity. Jesus, God’s Son, beholds the world as he finds it, in all its beauty and brutality. Jesus enters into this world’s pain as he finds it. He is ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. He is a healer and a mender of lives. He does not come to magic away the pain and suffering that surrounds him but to point to the life in and beyond it. His healings are not just literal, final acts of proof for his divinity. Rather, they are signs that point the faithful to a new and larger understanding of their own existence. Jesus stays with so much suffering and struggle rather than avoid them either out of fear or for his own convenience. He accepts the cup of suffering, which will not ‘pass from his lips’. Jesus leads in the direction to which the fuller meaning of human existence tends. It is ultimately borne by Him on the Cross. His Cross can then make sense of our crosses, too. If God is Love then this is a love which will prove trustworthy because based on the truth of what we are and what this world really is. Jesus does not take away the fact of life as a running of risks and the endurance of trials and tragedies of many kinds. And along the way many will have lost faith – especially when things have felt forever irreparable and intractable and hopeless. But many too will ‘hang on in there’ not out of desperation but out of real hope and trust beyond any ready assurance.
On July 7th 2005, the day of 7/7, I found myself here in King’s Cross, in the middle of a group of people, transport police, firemen, chaplains and railway personnel standing one or two hundred feet above a hell. Down below, in the depths of King’s Cross Underground Station, I later learned, lay a scene of almost unimaginable horror. I remember the feeling above ground of the eerie silence that befell King’s Cross on that day, and the sense of dislocation, both emotionally and in relation to the quietness. Everything seemed out of place. But in all that awful strangeness something quite remarkable was beginning to take place. Helpers on the ground were going about doing their duty and doing it without fuss, thoughtfully and carefully. In and through the horror and the chaos there began the doing of ‘mending work’ - in the ordinary business of caring, reassuring, saving, listening; of the showing of basic human concern with generosity and of kindness. Of the training which was revealing itself on a day that should never have come. The Salvation Army personnel had set up a refreshment centre after commandeering McDonalds. All these kind human works, were, in the midst of this terrible event, for me, the revealing of the faithfulness and the gentleness of the living God, who, from within the heart of human devastation, was working through ordinary individuals. In this activity lay no cure or answer for all that devastation but at least the beginning of its mending. Archbishop Donald Coggan once said, “With the breaking comes the re-making”.
Christian Faith is tested in the keeping of those questions which cannot in this life have ready or easy answers. The message to us at this stage in the Lenten season is that God remains and his mercy lies ever before us. The Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner….’ has now become the prayer of Humble Access, the way of communicating our need in the acknowledgement of God and ourselves as just we are; just as we find ourselves. There is too the reaching out for God’s mercy as though it were a living stream. As the Prayer Book reminds us, ‘We know of what we are made’ Carl Jung once said ‘Bidden or not bidden, God is present’. God is indeed present and faithful. He, above all others, knows of what we are made. Our trust lies in that mind which is God’s alone. We stand for ever in need of God’s loving mercy. We maintain such faith not as ignorant of the question of human suffering but in realization of its reality – its gravity and normalcy. Jesus holds before us a costly love which stands as faith’s ultimate challenge : the love which for St Paul ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things endures all things’. (1 Corinthians 13.7-8).
This is the love which has a correspondent. This is the love that never ends. This is the Way of Christ. This is our necessary Cross.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent 2019
17th Mar 2019
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent Year C 2019
“Observe those who live according to the example you have in us” Philippians 3.17
In the Gospels, the very word ‘Herod’ stands for the evil enemy. It may seem crude at first that we speak in this way. But Lent sets up a progress which is the unfolding of the saving Passion of Jesus Christ, and in it, much animated opposition and death dealing violence is to be revealed. Our Gospel this morning continues from last Sunday, in which Christ countermands the wiles of the devil in the wilderness. In today’s Gospel narrative Jesus must confront the world’s evil forces, in which the devil resides. One of the devil’s names is ‘the ancient enemy’. And there is a real sense in the Passion narrative in which Christ’s Cross – the ultimate emanation of God’s sacrificial love is to have its respondent both in its willing acceptance and equally in its violent rejection. In his Passion, Jesus must contend with these forces and win through.
The city of Jerusalem for Jesus is the place of impressive religion but also the place of the doing to death of the truth tellers, the prophets. Jesus gazes over the Kidron Valley at the great city and weeps over it and longs for the emergence of its true and undivided humanity. He likens this hope to the hen as she gathers her brood of chicks under her wing. In using this gentle pastoral image amid the forces set against him, we come to know that the journey which Jesus is to make is truly epic. Jesus coming as ‘God’s great goodness’ unleashes an opposite kind of reaction – an evil opposition. Herod is an obviously key for evil in the Gospel account, but the enemy also lies in the human character and its negative capacities, particularly those which collude with the devil to divide, to maim and to destroy. The power of Jesus lies in his capacity to remain the compassionate and human healer that he is in the face of real opposition and to remain God’s faithful Son. His coming is also an exorcism. Simeon’s prophecy reminds us that in Jesus ‘the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare’.
The two pieces of news from the other side of the world this week, of the sentencing of a Roman Catholic Cardinal for child abuse and the killing of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand make up this category of evil. Hannah Arendt famously spoke of a ‘the banality of evil’ and in the context of these events of there lies the simple fact of great destruction wrought by individuals who last week may have been sitting watching the TV and drinking a cup of coffee; their ordinariness or even their precise status a perfect kind of camouflage. One of the perpetrators Brenton Tarant, described himself in his’ manifesto of hate’ as ‘a regular white man from a regular family’. In both these instances, however, There is the attempt to place a dagger in the ordinary hearts of persons at worship in holy places. The violence is the more apparent as it took place in religious and peaceable environments.
It is no easy matter to live with the unsettling issues that emerge out of these atrocities and to respond in a way that is truly responsive and effective. The issues are hugely challenging. As we return to the Passion of Jesus Christ in the Gospel message of Lent, we find One who is at all times working and speaking for the reconciliation of opposites, One who is not swayed by the forces of evil that surround him. Jesus’ whole sacrificial offering is the one which has the power to reconcile us with ourselves and to God. It is done as one single strong act of constant love. This reconciliation is achieved by his Church in the passionate living out of the Christian Faith and the remaining faithful to Christ’s message of love.
It may often seem as though the outward means by which the world sees Christian or religious faith is overlaid solely by formal acts of worship. In the West, it has been common for observes to state that the Christian religion, manifested by church going is in sharp decline and therefore become increasingly irrelevant. But this is overly objective view is not as important as the fact of the practice and the faithful commitment to the Christian Faith on the part of the many. Of the desire to come to worship and to make that large space available in the longing for God and for that reconciled world for which his Son Jesus Christ came to live and die. The practice of the Christian religion for the many is a commitment to honour and love that which makes sense of our lives and our world and our true nature. It enkindles a spirit of gratitude. The view of the Church or for that matter practising Islam may be seen by many in the west as too particular or decidedly peripheral, but the real point is that religious practices which espouse a view of humanity from a place which is compassionate, respectful and spiritually grounded come in fact to represent the world’s great beating heart. It is our God given vocation to stand up for the Christian Gospel of radical, sacrificial and expensive love and to live, however falteringly and imperfectly, according to the God-given example that we are being given, in Jesus’ Name and in mindfulness of his Glorious Passion.
Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
10th Mar 2019
The First Sunday of Lent Year C
“The Beginning of Lent and the Necessary Temptation in the Wilderness”
Jesus, full of the holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by The Holy Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Luke 41, 2.
At the beginning of the Lenten season the Church helps us to we see the Christian Faith from a more searching and interrogating point of view. But it is God who is doing the searching and interrogating! This is suggested as we are sent into the wilderness with Christ. Of course, here in London, we are thousands of miles away from the kind of sandy, rocky desert which Jesus inhabited. We should remember too, that in First Century Palestine, the desert was never very far away from the town. Even today it is amazing how soon on leaving the city of Jerusalem you meet the desert only as it were a few miles down the road. But for Jesus then and for us now, the idea of the desert place still worked on the human mind. It was seen as a place and an experience in which one might find clarity of thought and vision untrammelled by the distractions of town life, but equally it was a place of unremitting intensity and harshness. It was for all these reasons that in the life of the early Church, the so-called desert mothers and fathers made their homes in caves and practised rigorous lives of prayer and self-denial. The idea of the wilderness or desert is the one which suggests severe physical and spiritual challenge. For Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, this challenge was inscribed in the people’s memory in the ancient search for The Promised Land, and of Moses leading the people through great travail to a place of final sanctuary. But before this could happen, they understood that Moses entered Mount Sinai for forty days and nights before receiving the tablets of the Law. Jesus’ habitation of the wilderness over this forty day period, the period we call Lent, is set alongside the Giving of the Law and begs the question of what kind of new law or provision does Jesus offer?
The Gospels never deny the abiding truth of the Old Testament tradition. But their message is plain on one basic point. This is that all Jewish scripture and its promise now receives its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, and in the manner of his whole being: his teaching, his actions, his example and above all in the God-givenness of his destiny. We soon come to know that this destiny will end in his freely going to his own death. By these means, we come to understand Jesus temptations in the wilderness over a forty day period as a movement of divine love. Jesus’ ministry is not automatic, it is offered in fll consciousness and with the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. The desert experience is an extreme form of personal and spiritual testing. But it is also a gentle period of stepping aside, of waiting, of contemplation and of preparation. If Jesus is to be Christ the Saviour this testing must take him to the very limits of his own estimation of things and beyond them. There must be an engagement with the evil that may always assert itself on other side of the good. The acknowledgement, is made that even in the desert, there exists the light and the shadow component in the mind of Man. There is the need to understand these things and, acknowledging the burden that human freedom of choice often sets upon us, of the importance of coming to know the good and of deciding in its favour. In his respect we may see the temptations in the wilderness as establishing the right kind of moral frequency through which Christ overcomes the ancient divisions the threaten to divide and separate us, and which unsuccessfully threaten his intention.
The Temptation in the Wilderness also assumes the existence of the Devil. These days, The Devil is no longer in the forefront of the Christian mind. The expunging of the idea of the Devil or of the existence of evil from consciousness (apart from in horror movies) leaves a vacant gap which leaves our minds dangerously closed off to the existence of the demonic and the fact of evil. A full consciousness of the power of evil and of evil influence is essential for a balanced view of our world, where the simple analogy of light and its casting shadow allows us to see that as humans we want to see ourselves as people who wish good to prevail, but we battle with forces which are malign, cruel and inhuman. It is certain for Jesus that in order to enter the human condition as it is found, he must understand the nature of human wickedness and frailty, and in the temptations by Satan, the recourse to self-aggrandisement, spiritual pride and self-will. The devil tempts us and tries to tempt Jesus and what he believes to be his weakest spot. The devil’s temptations are not crude but subtle – he wishes to appeal to any misguided motives Jesus might have. Jesus has rejected the devil’s temptations in the wilderness but he and we are introduced into the kind of world Jesus has come to save – one which both welcomes and condemns him.
The Church has always wanted Christians to instruct themselves in the way of self-knowledge. In doing this it observes the essentially divided nature of the human condition. But at the same time lies the discovery of the certainty of the mercy and forgiveness of God through the honest recognition of our condition: The Prayer Book Confession expresses it well : “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have not done those things which we ought to have done and there is no health in us. But thou O God, have mercy upon us…” Jesus is in the wilderness to tell it like it is. To remind us that there is much to understand about the human condition in all its complexity and waywardness, but also much to understand and to forgive, both in ourselves and in those around us. The Christian grounding is the one which internalises and keeps them in heart and mind according to what has been called ‘the ground of our being’ and which can see life as containing both light and shadow.
Finally, The Wilderness Experience is the one which is seen as the preparation for Christ’s ministry. It is assumed that the world of men and women is that strange mixture of light and shadow. If the Christian faith is to provide that way of looking at the world which offers humankind ‘a way back’ to our created splendour, then Jesus Christ as the bringer of new healing must be the one who has encountered all the worst that the world can throw at him, and prevailed. In all this, we are being given a powerful reminder his morning that in Jesus we have a Saviour who has gone ahead of us to restore us into the image and likeness of God himself. We too, this Lent are being called to that place where he has gone before.
The words from ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ John Henry Newman.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2019
6th Mar 2019
A S H W E D N E S D A Y S E R M O N
The appeal that we make in Christ’s name is : Be reconciled to God.
1 Corinthians 5.21.
Ash Wednesday comes to us as the offering of an invitation that we find difficult to accept. It is the invitation to enter a wilderness and to meet Christ there. This is the desert which is founded on nothing, an empty place. It is the place which invites the emptying of self. And it is in the emptying of self that we may discover in Jesus a way back to God, and our reconciliation with Him. And so the desert becomes the place of utmost Christian instruction. It invites the offering of ourselves to advance in the hope which God has set before us. We are not offering who we think we are, what we do, or what life demands of us but ourselves only. Lent asks us this question: Is my life based on the satisfaction of a myriad of human desires, and if so, how is it that such satisfactions have not entirely satisfied? The desert is the place we go to find out why this is so, and we go with Jesus as we acknowledge and experience God’s generous and sustaining love, forgiveness and restoration. Lent begins here…we may give things up or take things on but the essential call is the one which would recognise that God is before all else.
What might we be like if our own wanting were to issue out of God alone? Christ goes into the desert to decide for God and to reject those things which are not of God. The act of deciding-for-God is vital. We find it written into one of most popular English books ever written: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. The overcoming by Jesus of temptation in the wilderness has set Lent upon its centuries old course. It sets us on our way, too. It does this not by the imposition of a whole series of restrictions, even though certain restrictions on our wanting may prove beneficial. It does it in Paul’s appeal that above all things, we should ‘be reconciled to God’, become one in Him, and accept Him as our life’s true meaning and purpose.
This morning as we offered ‘ashes to go’ on Euston Road I was aware of the joy certain individuals felt in recognising that the cross of Christ was being shown there on the street and that the anointing with ashes was being offered for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are a simple reminder of the basic nature of our mortality, of the finiteness of our existence. We are to be reminded that ‘we are dust, and unto dust we shall return’. Notice this word ‘imposition’; an unsettling word. As the ashes are imposed upon us there is a call to act. In particular, to act quite apart from what may feed the body but in fact starve or hurt the soul. The Ash Wednesday message cuts to the heart of what we are, mere mortals, but then calls us forward to what God has made us to be. This is liberating as we free ourselves from the imposition of our own wills.
I observe two things about this morning’s anointing in the street. Firstly that if the Church makes itself vulnerable and available, then this will be blessed. The street for the Church can be the place of radical witness. Secondly, when we place our trust in God in the Rite of Imposition of Ashes on this first day of Lent, we proclaim the power of the Cross, which lies in and through and above all things and all people in the showing of God’s particular kind of love. What does this love look like? I hear you say. I say, we say in the Church, “It looks like this!” It looks like a cross made of ashes which reminds us of who we are and draws us closer to what God would have us be”.
It may seem strange that the injunction in today’s first reading is one which asks us to hide our piety from others and to wash our faces when Ash Wednesday sees us display on our foreheads the black, ash cross. But this cross is there not to tell the world how pious we are, but of the God we acknowledge. He is over all things, and because he is over all things, our mortality, our own living and dying find their true end in Him. As St Paul reminds us “If we have become on with him in a death like his we will become one with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6.3). But for now, on this challenging Ash Wednesday, the Church’s forward progress is well and truly set down.
Ash Wednesday proffers an invitation that we receive only with reluctance. This is the invitation to come away to a place of deeper knowing through which, through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, we may advance in the hope which he has set before us. It is never too late to make a beginning and to start, with a reminder of our mortality, and then to come to Jesus, the source of all life and meaning. Jesus, the one who emptied himself of all but love… Henri Nouwen.