Sermon for Advent Sunday 2014
30th Nov 2014
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2014
ADVENT SUNDAY SERMON
Stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. Mark 13.33
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, leads us to an understanding of the Christian Faith which involves a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Waitrose the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”. In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, and a prolonged wait, peppered for the child with all kinds of excitement and promise.
But for adults waiting can be a much less ecstatic business. When I think about waiting my mind turns to the hospital as a place of waiting. Patients start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some even await their own death. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits; most clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as one who waits and holds with all the fearfulness and the terror of his own position in the waiting. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness for what is to come. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed. And this is the Jesus we see as we turn in this new church year to Gospel readings from Mark : to the Christ who reveals the secret of his messiahship only gradually, who speaks in parables which are more often than not misunderstood, who instructs his followers to remain silent about what they have seen in him and who struggles with his God-given destiny. Something in Mark’s Gospel is being unfolded and it cannot be understood, then as now, in an instant. It involves a relationship of belief and of trust. The waiting is to be a waiting in hope. The tension in Mark lies between the waiting and the outcome of the waiting.
We of course wait in time. “And time will have its fancy” says the poet Auden , “tomorrow or today”. But it is as time goes by that we experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, as the Gospel reading for this morning puts it to ‘stay awake’ – awake to all that is around you and to that which gives meaning to your life and to the lives of those around you. This is done most truly in relation to Christ. We become awakened in Christ to the possibility and the potential of what lies all around us. This is because this is an awakening to ourselves as we really are. We are being called this Advent to listen, to wait, to hope, to give of ourselves as he did. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us that ”there is a time for everything under the sun” and the Season of Advent exposes us to that. Though the passing of time brings new challenges, some of them emotionally trying, even so we are asked not to be afraid. Mark’s Advent Christ is the one who makes possible the waiting as things unfold and come about without the need to control them or to explain them unduly.
BY R. S. THOMAS
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.
As the Advent Season progresses we make a journey from darkness and into the light into which Jesus is born in Bethlehem. We are led to it by the wisdom of the prophets, the message of an angel and the guiding of a star. But that is for later… For now the Holy Season of Advent points to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of attentive waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification. How rightly named is last week’s ‘Black Friday’. But there are times when we must step away from this. Advent speaks to us of a gradual unfolding as this morning we will light the candles on the Advent wreath. This is a sign of the time it will take to get to the coming of the birth of Jesus. But first we must wait. So let us wait; and pray; wait, and then see…
Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence. W H Auden.
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King
23rd Nov 2014
The Feast of Christ the King
Mine is not a Kingdom of this world…(yet) those who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.
To speak about the Kingship of Christ (as the Gospel writer John does) is to come to an understanding from a place of ambiguity: Christ speaks of a Kingdom ‘not of this world’, and yet by his own admission it is also a very this worldly-kingdom which lies ‘on the side of truth’. His very public responses to questions of earthly authority are invariably couched in the language of service rather than authority. The ‘higher authority’ which is God’s authority is found written ‘between the lines’ of what Jesus teaches the disciples in this matter:
Jesus summoned the twelve and said to them,
The summing up of the ministry and saving works of Jesus on this Feast of Christ the King point to a Kingship whose authority is to the world a necessarily hidden one. But its substance is clear enough. It is in the life of service both to our fellow creatures and in the natural service in the worship of God that underpins our true place on this earth. There is an authority at work here, but unlike the authority of the human will it is one which strikes at the heart of the human condition. It speaks of the deepest truth of our existence – and its brings forth the liberation of the human spirit rather than confines or limits it.
On 5th December 1931. The Russian leader Stalin ordered the blowing up of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, and even had it filmed. Built on the banks of the great Moscow River, Stalin had decided that it was to become the site for a new Palace of Supreme Soviets, and the winning architecture looked like a giant wedding cake. It was massive, and on top of its highest tower was a huge statue of Lenin, conveniently just a little taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty. But it never came to be built. The official Soviet History owed this to the coming of The Second World War, but the real reason was that the site for its construction, on the banks of the river, consisted of sand. Sand could not hold a building of such immensity. Stalin, was the man who built his house on sand! He had attempted to fill the apparent ‘void’ left after the destruction of a holy site, with concrete. However, the Cathedral has now been completely rebuilt on the same site, a site, yes, of sand, but on it built a building whose proportions lie in harmony with its natural surroundings rather than in opposition to them.
What the Collect for Christ the King expresses is the just and gentle rule of Christ based upon an experience of God which is a communication of at one ness with the divine and the human. It is natural to our existence:
Almighty and eternal God,
The Divine Liturgies of the Russian Orthodox Church were resumed in the restored Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2000. The Cathedral stands as a testament to ‘just and gentle’ rule of God and to the resilience of the Russian spirit.
I was speaking to someone yesterday who is ready to be quite frank about his Christianity. Without being awkward at all, he will, when the occasion feels right and natural, speak about the importance of Christian Faith. But he has admitted that most often he is met by a wall of indifference and even antipathy. Christianity is not deemed to carry authority. It seems not to command attention. This is often because his listeners are convinced they have no use for it. The connection is not made with the life of the human soul. This is because the framework around which modern life revolves is so often a surface one - the one bound to self-sufficiency and its partner consumerism. It is often difficult for the modern day enquirer to engage in a conversation regarding Christianity because it lies out of the range of possibility, too many people no longer have an inner spiritual mind or practice from which to understand what Christian Faith.
In the Twenty-First Century, it will be more important than ever that the Church is a servant church, one in which church communities are places of understanding and of sanity, of community, of truth-bearing and of prayer, who witness to Christ through the offering of their time and patience and who are seen in the wider community to be places of natural ingathering. In such a way the presence of Christ is seen and known, and churches become as it were the natural places of enquiry and of approach. They are above all hospitable places where all receive welcome, where all are included and where all may find space to be themselves. Above all churches exist to unite all people in the coming together of the divine and the human agencies and to find rest and reinvigoration from source. They live under the just and gentle rule of a different kind of King.
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Advent
16th Nov 2014
The Second Sunday before Advent Year A
The Parable of the Talents
“For we consume away in your displeasure”. Psalm 90.7
As the Second Sunday before Advent, this Sunday has followed a long series of Sundays which have all been after Trinity. And so we go from the after to the before. If the church calendar were a vehicle cruising at top speed, there now comes a slowing down, a necessary call to attention as we approach a critical point of departure in the holy season of Advent. Traditionally, this ‘slowing down’ has the Church examine what it is to live the Christian faith in a state of alertness, of readiness and of expectancy. The well known parable of the talents is placed within this framework. It is placed in Matthew’s Gospel before the Passion of Christ. It is distinctly prophetic in its call for an awakening of the senses : a wake-up call. Christ is come to transform our lives in relation to one another, and this invites a response from us. The questions for Christians persists : Am I in a right relationship with myself and my world? And the interrelated question Am I in right relationship with God? The parable seeks to provide an answer.
The parable of the talents tells the story of three men, all slaves of the one master, who is about to leave the country for some time. He gives each of them different sums of money: one five, one two, and one only one talent. The first two slaves make money by trading and investing. The third simply digs a hole in the ground and buries it. On the master’s return, he readily rewards the first two for their trustworthiness. For they have doubled the original gift. The third answers him back with cheek, deriding the way in which the other two have gained money but refusing to respond to the master’s original request. He, the one with the one talent, surely had the least to achieve to warrant the same approval as the other two? But he refuses. He is obdurate and makes nothing of what he has been given. This is a difficult parable with no obvious interpretation since it seems to reward the making of money for its own sake.
However, there is a more serious point, which is made through the example of the third slave. The point is that Jesus is calling us not just to moral and religious understanding. He is not a Middle Eastern Guru but the Saviour of Mankind, and as such is calling us into relationship one with another. The getting of any gain which denies or ignores the need for human relationships and human understandings is a doomed endeavour because it in itself it is an empty thing. The gifts which God has given to each one of us are not to be squandered, and they are most squandered when we work from selfish motives which ignores the obvious and necessary demand of the greater good. The depression of seven years ago is a result of such behaviour and it is hoped that lessons have been learnt at great cost
I have been watching a marvellous documentary from the American Public Broadcasting Channel which details the life of the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his early presidency he was tasked with leading the country through an unprecedented economic depression, which devasted the country’s former well being and placed 14,000,000 unemployed. ‘Depression’ became the byword for all the country’s ills, economic, social and psychological. Many thought, like his predecessor, that nothing could be done. Many thought that Capitalism and democracy would wither on the vine and that anarchy must follow.
Roosevelt’s genius was that same genius which we find in Jesus’ parable of the talents in placing human understandings and relationships first. This gave accountability and probity. Roosevelt’s New Deal was to involve the whole country and to imply an understanding and a trust and a working together, hand in hand, to rebuilt the country’s social and economic and physical infrastructure from the ground up. He was fond of saying that the trying out of initiatives that were deemed good and hopeful was better than doing nothing. The enemy was atrophy borne of fear. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” he said in his first inaugural address as president:
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Roosevelt was speaking not only as President of the United States, but as a late sufferer of polio, who fought for many years to gain some kind of physical control over his withered and almost useless lower body. He could only ever become President if he could convince people that he was not a pathetic victim of the polio disease, but a live, vital, strong and hopeful leader. This he achieved not only by his own efforts alone, but at Warm Springs in Georgia, where for years he took the healing waters with hundreds of polio victims and found new life. He did not bury his God-given talent. The famous Roosevelt up turned head was no longer associated with the superiority of youth. His had become a looking up to new hope and new vigour and new joy, but written on a face which had overcome so much suffering and which caught the light of its healing. Someone had said on his return to front line politics. “there has been a miracle here”.
Roosevelt’s greatness lay in his understanding of the suffering and the difficulties of the common American, with whom, in the midst of devastating depression, he had embarked upon a new deal. He had lead his country through The Depression in recognising the negative aspects of blind human consumption and calling them by name.
It is to such a ‘new deal’ that the Second Sunday before Advent now points, even to our Saviour Jesus Christ. He it is who invites us to become not just consumers of life but active participants in the full life of his grace, and ready to find ourselves and the full vitality of our own lives in one another and in Him. Amen.
Sermon for the Commemoration of All Souls
2nd Nov 2014
All Souls Sermon
“Praying for one’s departed loved ones is a far too immediate urge to be suppressed. It is a most beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
At this particular time of the year in the first days of November, the Church seems to wrap itself in the lives of those who have gone before: On the 1st November in the lives of all the saints, and then as the days in November wear on, we come to that moment on the 11th hour of the 11th month as Armistice Day is observed. And then there comes Remembrance Sunday next Sunday and the wearing of poppies… Today’s All Soul’s Day is the Church’s Day of the Dead, and it forms an inseparable part of a general commemoration and remembering of the dead. Its purpose is to keep us in mind of what we know as Christians already: that there is a fine veil that separates life from death. Similarly, there is a fine veil that separates us from those who have gone before us, and especially those whose lives we have come in the past to know and to love. They are a part of us and their influence upon us is for all time.
For the Christian, life is of God’s making and it is sacred. And this is vital for our understanding of who God is. As God’s creatures we stand in awe of the grandeur and the mystery of what he has made and how he has made it. The true meaning of life lies beyond mere speech. No wonder, then, that the appropriate response in the remembrance of the dead is one of silence. The Two Minute’s Silence speaks to us clearly in this busy world more than ever in ways words never could. In the silence is communicated that place where the living and the dead hold communion. Yet another tradition in the remembering of the dead is the writing down or the reading out of the names of the dead. We may imagine the war memorials, with their thousands of names, the books of commemoration and condolence, as well as the engravings for those known and unknown on countless memorial stones. And at his All Souls Mass, the long list of the names of the dead, known by you and I both individually and severally is solemnly read out. It is stands both as a list of the dead and a declaration of our faith in the one who has risen from the Dead – Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In his great poem ‘The Wasteland’ TS Eliot, recovering from a nervous breakdown, describing a crowd of commuters crossing over Westminster Bridge in the year 1921:
Eliot observed them; a people recovering from The Great War and and most of them suffering the deaths of their menfolk: sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. And the feeling is one of great sorrow and loss. And this is a sorrow that Eliot describes as a kind of emotional and actual ‘undoing’. “I had not thought that death had undone so many” he says. Death and the brevity of life and the loss of a loved one still comes to us as a kind of undoing. Another poet, Dylan Thomas writes a poem which is an elegy for his dead father and bids us ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
It expresses a passionate anger that must form a part of the sense of impotent rage at a life gone from his midst, and the terrible loss of it. This too, forms a part of the human experience of death.
This Solemn Commemoration of All Souls on this day each year is in the words of a Pope “…a beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death’. However faint are our powers of recollection we nevertheless feel in our own lives the influences of those who have gone before us. We feel there is more here than words can express, even for an Eliot or a Dylan Thomas. At this time each year we remember the dead in faith and in thanksgiving. And we pray that as we journey on, so we may be sustained and maintained in hope by the One who made us and loves us as Christian souls. He is The One who came to show us the way through death and into life eternal, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sermon for the Feast of All Saints
1st Nov 2014
A Sermon for All Saints
Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24.1-6; Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44.
The Feast of All Saints is one of the most important of the Church’s year. It is what is called a ‘moveable’ feast, and can be ‘moved’ to the nearest Sunday, where it can be given its due significance.
The other day I was staying in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, from where you can see the tallest spire in England. The Cathedral is a stunning sight, and walking around the west front, you see before you hundreds of saints, each contained within their own apse, and all looking vaguely alike. And perhaps this is the image we have of the saints, mostly bearded men, gazing down at us from their isolated places and lost in time.But the facts of the matter are otherwise.
Today’s Gospel reading of the raising of Lazarus seems at first a strange reading for All Saints Day but this feast is, after all, about the powerful commixture of life and death and resurrection contained within John’s narrative. It is a new kind of identity that John celebrates, echoing the words of St Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die gain”. (Philippians 1.21) The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb, still dressed as a corpse, is one of the most startling occurrences in the New Testament. It speaks vividly of there being something new at work in the ministry of Christ. It speaks above all of the promise of the resurrection of the dead. The French word for resurrection is resussité, literally ‘resuscitation’. Death is not only for the Christian a biological certainty, it is also a summons to new life in Christ. Christians speak of dying to self as a way out of the self-centred, tomb-like existence which is the burial of our gifts and our love. He calls to you and to me as he did to Lazarus ‘Come out of this place of death; allow the power of Christ to resuscitate you, to breathe new life into you. Die to live! John Donne, a former Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, likened his spiritual life to the battering of an Autumn tree. The Christian life involved a necessary life and death struggle:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
The crucifixion and death and resurrection of Christ is the once and for all, final summons to attain to what St Paul called ‘”The measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13), and this is where the saints come to help us. They provide markers or directions for us. They remind us that the Christian Faith belongs neither to a ‘goodness religion’ nor to a religion for super humans. Sanctity issues out of lives which have been marked by doubt, disillusion, suffering and struggle. The saints remind us that the Christian journey is real and loaded with possibility. They are not ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived a very real, difficult world. In the film “Nixon”, Anthony Hopkins plays the former president as a tortured and ruthless power maniac. In one scene, Nixon gazes up at a painting of John F Kennedy. He speaks to the painting thus “When people look at you they see themselves as they want to be, when they look at me they see themselves as they are”. Perhaps our working definition of a saint must combine both these observations?
The idea of the saint came from a tradition of venerating the mortal remains of Christians who had left their mark on the memory of the Christian community. The first of these were the early Christian martyrs who died in Rome, including St Peter and St Paul. Once churches were built they were called after saints names, and in Cornwall there are names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, Thomas à Becket was made a saint only four years after his death. RS Thomas the poet reminds us as he looks upon his old church in remote West Wales that ‘the parish has a saint’s name that time cannot unfrock’.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith may not be an easy faith to live out but it is an essentially human way and not a conveyor belt for the turning out of plaster saints. Do not believe the certain kind of Christianity that makes faith seem guaranteed and easy; it is not. I do not find being Christian easy at all. The Church teaches, however, that we are here not for short-term spiritual gain but for the long haul, in faith terms ‘till death us do part’. Christian witness is about the sanctification, the blessing of lives that seek God by what someone has called ‘the absurdity of faith’ that exists alongside life’s vagaries. This is the kind of faith that came to St Augustine as the guilt over the enforced separation after 16 years from the partner he never married and the later death of their sixteen year old son. This is also the absurd faith of St Teresa of Avila, who on inspecting a room offered to her as a chapel declared that it was not big enough, and took a sledgehammer and smashed down the wall only to reveal the startled neighbours next door. You didn’t argue with Teresa; a woman who had survived the Spanish Inquisition would not have been a pushover under any circumstances.
St Benedict wrote a rule for the community we call the Benedictines and it has long been valued as a Christian model for its understanding of human limitations and its love of unity in the Christian fellowship. Nonetheless his basic rulings on human behaviour are forthright:
Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.
The saints are human, just like us. The call to Christian sanctity is the call to live lives which are generous and loving and which reveal the Christian Faith to be transformative of the human condition. It can be seen and known in our actions. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Perhaps, however there have been people that you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of a sanctified life. Or perhaps you yourself have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or a community, like this church.
I never enter this building without feeling a sense of awe. I always feel my heart miss a beat. This is a place, a sanctified space, where I have, maybe like you, found and re-found a sense of belonging in the love of God, and that Lazarus sense of being spiritually resuscitated. At the heart of all we do and all we are to become in the life of God is that prayer which is a witness to the holiness of God and his Church.
It is a prayer for the sanctification of our own lives, too:
Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,
Who was, and is and is to come!