Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Passion Sunday)
29th Mar 2020
Sermon for Lent 5 Year A The Raising of Lazarus
Jesus said to them, “Unbind him. Let him go free”. John 11.44.
The Raising of the dead man Lazarus, and his emergence, after four days out of the tomb, is perhaps the most spectacular of the signs and miracles of Jesus. John’s account places this event before that of the Passion of Jesus and it prepares us for next Sunday’s Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem and for His judgement, suffering and death. The raising of Lazarus is linked to the Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead. It also allows us to see that it is in Jesus that our own hope of the Resurrection from the dead is founded.
In Christ Jesus our lives, all that we are and all that we do, find their true meaning. He who has become one of us, lived as we do, has made holy all that we are and all that we do… He has made our joys and laughter holy, our daily tasks as well, and so too, our suffering, and also our dying. These are now holy things, sanctified because he has touched them.
Cardinal Basil Hume Seven Last Words.
You will see as you look around this church, that like Lazarus, all our statues, all those objects in the church that remind us of the glories of the Christin Faith, are bound in cloth, and some tied with ribbon as the tombs at the time of Christ were sealed. And these coverings will not be removed until we celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection on Easter Day. John’s Gospel and our coverings provide powerful scriptural and visual evidences for this time being a time when things appear to be winding down. The whole shape and form of the Church’s worship becomes graver and more stark and intense. We are being prepared for the saving events of the Christian Faith in the judgement, death and then beyond that, the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
We should not assume that what we are doing is either entering into a mere drama or paying lip-service to these things, or acting them out two thousand years after the events to which they speak. No, we are embarked upon something which is for us life-saving. If, as is potently cried in the funeral Service ‘…in the midst of life we are in death’, then we are expressing something which lies at the heart of our life’s experience. In the ‘league table’ of emotionally traumatic events, lying always at the top of the list for ever is the death of a loved one, normally a spouse. Both inside and outside marriage relationships there have been countless instances for which love and life have become for two loving correspondents a state of being in the one flesh. There have been relationships in which things have been spoken and shared which have been of inestimable value and of everlasting and deepest significance. There has been abundant love. And where there has been abundant love there has been abundance of hope. And when I place all these statements in the past tense, I have not reckoned upon the quality which may lie in them and in all relationships where deep love has been shared. It is that quality which even after the death or ending of such relationships, something sure and lasting has continued. The joy and pain of it have been mingled and mixed. “All that will survive of us is love” says Philip Larkin in his poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’. And this is resurrection.
No wonder then, that in this account of the raising of Lazarus, we find that smallest passage in the Bible; the one which says ‘Jesus wept’. We know that Lazarus was a very good friend. We are provided with a fascinating insight into the humanity of Christ. “See how much he loved him!” say the crowds. Jesus is in distress and our translation has it that ‘he gave a sigh which came straight from the heart’. If we have experienced these things we may wonder at times and ask the eternal question “Why?” It answer is found or rather discovered in Christ and in the very meaning of his coming, and in particular the compassionate and hopeful nature of his ministry, even to the dead!
This Raising of Lazarus allows us to recognise that the Christian Faith is one which rests on the certain hope of the Resurrection at the last day. This is a hope not founded on a philosophy or a superstition, but in Christ alone. We should not be ignorant in this matter but attentive to its profound significance.
…I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope…
1 Thessalonians 4.13
Finally, The Raising of Lazarus, in bringing us to this point of the realisation of our mortality and of the Christ as ‘The Resurrection and the Life’ of all things, is preparing us for what is and what is to come. In the formal sequence of the Church’s calendar, we are placed somewhere between the climax of the Lenten Season and the coming of Passiontide. The Raising of Lazarus, if it came to us as a piece of music would come as the ending of an overture. It would fill us with the hope of the resurrection of the dead even as we begin to approach the means by which this must come about. It is to next Sunday that we begin to turn, and of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem to the acclamation of the people and the waving of palm branches. All life and death will be met in him. But first we must wait. Wait in the joy and the painfulness of human being. We wait as those who are surely provided with the hope that is being set before us. We wait as those who are bound and yet surely set free.
Blessed are you,
O Tie that Binds
One person to another
In the miracle of love.
O Everlasting Moment,
O Hope That Never Dies,
Be with one devastated
By death’s visitation.
Be their life in death,
Their hope in despair,
Their promise of love everlasting,
Now and for ever.
Miriam Therese Walter
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)
22nd Mar 2020
Sermon for Mothering Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent)
This morning the Church observes not just one but three commemorations, namely the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment (‘Laetere’) Sunday and also Mothering Sunday. It seems eccentric that this should be so, and that a rare liturgical colour, rose , or pink, should set the tone for a Lenten Sunday which provides not for a deepening of intensity in our Christian observance of Lent but for an outburst of what in Latin is ‘Laetere’ or joy. Combine all this with Mothering Sunday and the sense of mid-Lenten eccentricity is complete. In typical English fashion, we keep the tradition of remembering and honouring our Mothers from days when servants, many of them older children or adolescents, were allowed this Sunday in Lent to return home to their mothers. If they worked in a big house, a kindly cook might well have baked Simnel Cakes as a seasonal offering for the servants to take to their mothers.
The Church seems at first to have made things even more complicated by offering us a choice of two Gospel readings. One is Simeon’s prediction to Mary that her child Jesus would suffer and that ‘a sword would pierce her own soul’. The second Gospel takes us to the Cross and to the suffering Christ, who even from the place of agony encourages a new and future relationship between his beloved disciple John and his Mother, Mary, “Behold thy Son” and “Behold thy Mother”.
As we begin to understand these Gospel accounts we find that they are complimentary and speak of all those things which Lent, Mothering Sunday and Refreshment Sunday express. And it is this: Any experience of a close and loving and committed relationship is at some time or another going to demand of us a costly love. The Gospel message swings between love as consolation and as desolation. Any mother or father or husband, wife or lover knows how painful it is to have to have to relinquish, to let go or to suffer the death of one who has been our life and our love. Such an experience strikes at the very heart of what we are. For parents this might commonly involve the son or the daughter who leaves home as a young adult and away from the childhood home, just like the Victorian child servant. Equally there are times when the young, having ‘fled the nest’ themselves feel homesick and very alone. For others in middle age there may come the death of a parent or parents. For some, the break-up of a past relationship continues to be painful and some of its effects do not seem to be relieved with the passing of time. For the elderly there are the many little and bigger losses that come with encroaching frailty and the loss of faculties once taken for granted, and of the deaths of contemporaries.
The two Gospels offered allow for an understanding of human loving which inevitably involves pain. But this is not to be the end of the matter. We are reminded that, even from the Cross, our Saviour Jesus Christ offers new life and proclaims aloud that even out of great sadness and even death, the possibility of new relationships and new understandings and new hope is being promised by the dying Saviour on the Cross. ‘Behold thy Mother’; ‘Behold thy Son’. In the Cross life and death mixes and merges in the one sacrifice. God’s life and our lives and loves mix and merge in the one faith, the one hope and the one love. In the same vein the prayer for the mixing of wine and water at the Eucharistic Offering outlines Christ’s sacrifice for a deepening of trust in the outpouring of time with the healing of wounds. ‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity’. This is a prayer which perfectly betokens the love of God as one which is always offered to share. The promise of this sharing is that it will be renewing and transforming.
I have been reminded, after this week’s catastrophe on Westminster Bridge, that new relationships may emerge among those who experience the terrible pain and distress of death and destruction, with those who also stand alongside and with them, ready to offer their trained and disciplined human skills and compassionate care. God’s love remains constant and present in any and every danger but it is heartening to see practical love in action. In it, we see the formation of new hope and trust in our common humanity, especially as we saw the medical team attempting to give the perpetrator of the horrors the kiss of life. We witness such actions as they counter the malicious evil with dedicated care and professionalism.
The great holy English mother, Mother Julian of Norwich observed that “The dear gracious hands of God our Mother are ever about us”. This might seem fantastical given this week’s circumstances, but nonetheless our own instinct as Christians is find love’s meaning in God and to remain steadfast in the faith to which we are continually being called. We are called, beckoned to come to God, just as the servants journeyed out for the day to meet their own mothers and to enjoy the communion of their love. This is the ‘laetere’, the integrated life of love which Christ which this morning speaks to us on the Cross through the lives of his Mother, Mary and the beloved disciple, John. “Behold thy Mother, Behold thy Son. The Cross still beckons us at this time, and through our mid to late Lenten observance, we are being drawn inexorably not toward death alone but for the sake of our souls’ ultimate salvation.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
15th Mar 2020
Sermon for Lent 3 (Year A)
“Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did”. John 4.39
The dialogue with the woman at the well is a reminder of the sacramentality of conversation. You know what I mean: English people are adept at talking about the weather. An Italian may talk about his family and a Russian about the meaning of life. We have ways of ‘entering into conversation’, and many of our conversations are very small and not full of much great meaning. But all conversations are living encounters, and over a great deal of time, the deepening of our fellowship has proved to rest on the conversation as a meeting place for the expression of our lives and what they contain. They can be truly life-giving, and through them understandings may be deepened and enlarged. Some of the people who have come to church have come as a result of getting to know someone each day and merely saying ‘Good morning!’ Some have come to Christ through a rigorous process of long conversation and soul-searching. Come what may, there is a sense in which while we worship God in His Church, we come to divine the divine presence and find that it stands for the discovery of God in our lives. As Jesus assures the woman and us at the well, it is the drinking of that spiritual water which satisfies a longing far deeper than we know…
In the Church’s scheme for our Lenten readings, the element of place or situation in the Gospel contributes to its understanding. Christ is revealed as Son of God from different locations to both enlarge and to deepen the full significance of his presence. We began with Jesus in the wilderness on the first Sunday of Lent; we are with him on the mountain top for the Transfiguration and now we find ourselves in quite a different place, beside a well outside a small town called Sychar. There we meet Jesus and a Samaritan woman who gives him water at an historic old well gifted by Jacob, The Father of the Nations. It is at this place that, through the witness of ‘the woman at the well’ we come to divine the presence of the Jesus once tempted in the wilderness, transfigured in our presence and now recognised as Son of God. All this happens as we overhear a conversation. The conversation dwells on the oddness of their finding one another, in which Jesus’ discloses himself as Messiah, and establishes a new teaching:
“God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth’.
This is the witness to Christ which is fully of aware and cognisant, of the reality which is the God in whose presence all other things find their true meaning. The woman at the well acts as an interrogator, and the conversation she shares with Jesus as she offers him water from the well is truly sacramental. Though its outward form signifies one understanding, its deeper meaning speaks of the spiritual gift which has been given to all mankind. This is the ‘water’ ‘poured’ down upon us and is God’s response to the longing of the human soul. As St Augustine once said of God “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”.
It is possible, given the glories of the English language to find many meanings or nuances within one word. In this instance we have two strong suggestions from the word ‘divine’. Firstly, the word ‘divine’ speaks of God. In an old and often said prayer we say ‘may the divine assistance remain with us always…’ The story of the Woman at the Well, her conversation with Jesus and its outcome allow us to ‘divine the divine’. The Samaritan woman divines Christ. Secondly, divine can mean to ‘discern’ or to ‘find out’. Imagine the water-diviner with his willow stick, plodding around large pieces of land until he finds the place where a well may be sunk. He cannot know this unless this odd piece of wood moves and shakes in a particular way. It is both a scientific and unscientific process by which water is ‘divined’ and deep reserves of water found underground.
The vocation for The Church is to ‘divine’ the meaning of our times and to set them within the life of Christian Faith.
Fr Christopher – A Meditation on Life in Central London :
Many are drawn to the idea of the City as a place of changes and yet also as anonymous. It is possible to conceive of the city as both radically anonymous and yet at the same time a place of crowded movement and change; a place which offers a blindingly vast range of choices and encounters but with little experience of a still centre. This represents a gap wherein lies the individual’s sense of purpose in life as a kind of longing. For many, there remains, whether consciously or unsconsciously felt, the existence of God and the searching for God... In every individual there lies a prayer. It is the prayer of life, It contains within it all your hopes and fears, your joys, your dreams, your longing… the whole of your life’s purposes and its future too. It is the prayer which makes it possible to reach out beyond what is known and to find the God who has made you and who even now provides for your future.
But for most people this prayer remains unspoken. It is unheard and unheeded. How can I know this prayer, and to speak it and to hear if it remains unuttered? Or if there is no one to whom it can be addressed? In today’s London there need to be those places, inhabited by those people, the people of God, who form a ‘divine society’. Within such a dedicated society can be uttered the prayer of my life, an encounter with the world, blessed and hallowed by its Creator and its sustainer. The prayer, which like the woman at the well represents ‘the divining of the divine’ is us like her finding that the Saviour we seek lies directly before us. He is ‘the divine assistance which remains with us always’…
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent
8th Mar 2020
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent Year A
Jesus and Nicodemus
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Where do you come from? This question has a huge impact on the way in which we relate to people, how we ‘see’ them. It beckons the opening up of the human heart and an attentiveness to the reality of the other person. It forms part of the subtext to the conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus (John 3.1-17) in this morning's Gospel reading.
And so where do you come from? There is also another question ‘…so where are you really coming from?’ In this morning’s Gospel Reading, John points out that Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader, a religious teacher, a son of Abraham. That is who Nicodemus is, this is where he comes from. He is a high class, knowledgeable intellectual and he is interested in status, and so we find he gives Jesus status as one ‘come from God’. ‘We know you are from God’ says Nicodemus ‘because of the signs you perform’. ‘I know you are of God because no-one could do the things you do unless God were truly present’. 'I know...' But does he?
Jesus will show Nicodemus that he comes ‘from God’ in a quite unique way. He will remind Nicodemus that it is not the place and position of your natural birth that determines your relationship to God’s kingdom, but a new birth, a birth from above. The opportunity to see the kingdom of God does not depend on coming from the right place, whether by natural privilege or status or by chance, but upon God’s free gift of new birth and His offer of new being, through the Spirit. The initiative and purpose is always His.
This is unnerving for the Nicodemuses of this world, and those who in Oscar Wilde’s words ‘…know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. But it may well be good news for those who feel that life has dealt them a tough hand, for those who feel trapped by circumstance, those whom society tells they have been born in the ‘wrong’ place. Jesus proclaims that God is able to break open the seemingly closed boundaries of the present, creating hope for many. So like the wind, which 'blows where it wills', people from every walk of life are coming to see the Kingdom of God (v8). This very point was picked up by James Cone, distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Writing on the powerfulness of the slave or negro spirituals, he argued that the slaves discovered a new sense of dignity in the promise that their relation to God was not defined by the circumstances in which they found themselves, or by cold fate. The luck or otherwise of birth had no influence on their relationship to God. This didn’t mean that their roots were unimportant, but that the closed circumstances of their slavery did not have the final say on who they were. They could give vent to the full range of their emotional power under great duress and could express the hope for a new kind of world articulated so powerfully in Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.
Even if we begin to accept Jesus' promise of new birth in the life of God’s Spirit, the question remains as to how this new birth occurs, how this new identity is received. Jesus words tell us that in fact it is very simple. He offers two responses in this passage. Firstly, he suggests that he comes from God in a unique way (v13). His words call to mind the Word of God in Isaiah 55 that comes to earth and returns to God bearing fruitfulness. For Jesus, the same result will see his being 'lifted up' on the Cross. Jesus refers to a story in Numbers 21 in which the Israelites are afflicted by poisonous snakes. Moses is commanded by God to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole in the camp. Any who looked at the bronze serpent would be healed. All they actually had to do was to look at the bronze serpent. All they had to do was to trust in God’s promise. Nothing elaborate, nothing especially complicated. Simply trust in God.
This is how Jesus now begins to portray himself. This is truly where he is coming from. Like the bronze serpent, he too will be raised up (v14), in his crucifixion. All that is needed is for Nicodemus and for us to look to Jesus and trust. That is the heart of our salvation. We could say more prayers, we could read our Bibles more and more, we could engage in penances. None of these things would be bad, but Jesus shows us that salvation, the heart of the Gospel, is much simpler; simply look to Jesus, especially his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and trust in him. This is where our Gospel Reading is taking us this morning. To a place of new understanding and of conversion. It was difficult for Nicodemus and it is difficult for us because it suggests the laying aside of unhelpful defence mechanisms and a letting go of cherished and small securities.
The writer James Cone showed that for many of the slaves, the sense of their Christian dignity fuelled a real and subversive resistance and energised their struggle for freedom. Christ’s spirit secured for them a real dignity, out of reach of the fickle hands of human circumstance and the capricious rage of the tyrant.
Actor and singer Paul Robeson performed "Deep River" accompanied by a large male chorus in the 1940 movie The Proud Valley.
"Deep River" is one of the five spirituals included in the oratorio A Child of Our Time, first performed in 1944, by the classical composer Michael Tippett (1905–98):
D E E P R I V E R
Deep river, my home is over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don't you want to go to that gospel feast,
that promised land where all is peace?
Oh, deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
1st Mar 2020
The First Sunday of Lent Year A (2020)
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4.1
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. 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 desert offered a real 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 the place of final sanctuary. But before this, 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 of Lent, is set alongside the Giving of the Law and begs the question of what kind of new law or provision does New Testament Scripture envisage?
The emphatic message of the Gospels is the one which has not denied the worth and truth of the Old Testament tradition. But it is plain on one basic point. This is that all Jewish scripture and its promise now receives its fulfilment in the One man, 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 come to know that his destiny will end in his freely going to his own death. So now, 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 and destiny are not fixed but have to be worked out, and worked out very painfully. They must involve a desert experience as an extreme form of personal and spiritual testing. 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.
The Temptation in the Wilderness also assumes the existence of the Devil. The Devil is no longer in the forefront of the Christian mind. It’s because people were wedded to the notion of the crudeness with which they were offered images of the devil, many of them stretching from the high medieval period in which punishment by devils were a commonly illustrated theme. The fear of hell-fire its companion piece. But the expunging of the idea of the Devil or of the existence of evil from consciousness leaves a vacant gap into which Christ’s ministry and work as defeating the devil is left unheeded. 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 act very often with mixed motives. It is certain for Jesus that in order to enter the human condition as it is found, he must understand the nature of human frailty, and in the temptations by Satan, the recourse to self-aggrandisement, spiritual pride and self-will. Jesus has rejected these things in the wilderness but he will be accused of these things by the angry mob, under whose despising he will be condemned to die.
The Church has always wanted Christians to instruct themselves in the way of self-acknowledge. In doing this it observes the essentially divided nature of the human condition. But at the same time open up the possibility latent in 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 contradictoriness, but also much to understand and to forgive, both in ourselves and in those around us. The Christian grounding is the one which has studied these things and internalised them. That lives 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 finally to have 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, must follow where he has gone.
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.