Sermon for the Feast of All Saints
30th Oct 2016
A Sermon for All Saints 2016
Daniel 7.1-3; 15-18; Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31.
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 honour. And as we honour the Christian saints so we honour the Christian calling, which is to a life consecrated and dedicated in the service of Jesus Christ.
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. In the south east corner of our church we have a statue of St Jude, who, because of his name was rarely prayed to. But because of this he became known as ‘the saint of lost causes’. And he gives us the clue we need to fathom something of the meaning of the lives of the saints in everyday life in all its many facets.
The saints 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 both with possibility and perplexity. These were never ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived in a very real and challenging circumstances. 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 saint’s names, and in Cornwall there are strange names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, St 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. It is a way which can be tough because it expresses itself counter-culturally. 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 and dedication of lives that seek and find God over years and years as a single act of witness in Jesus Christ. The expression of this consecrated life have been many and various: displaying 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. Then there was St Benedict, who 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 because they are God immersed and God-led. But they rely, importantly, not on their strength alone, but in the mercy, forgiveness and healing they receive at God’s hands. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Holiness is a quality of experience we sense strongly and intuitively. Perhaps, as well as the saints of Christian history, there have been people you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and that strong purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of the sanctified life. Or perhaps you have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or within a community of prayer, 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 a true sense of spiritual refreshment. The holiness of this place reveals itself apart from the matter of its architecture or of furniture, light or proportion. It is something felt to exist beyond the sum total of its parts. It lies in the prayers that have been made in this place for well over a hundred years, the prayers of many hundreds of lives for which this place has been a house of God, and, a sanctuary, a place of encounter with the God who has speaks and who calls. The outpouring of so many hopes and fears in this place, the prayers, the human activity and the worship go to make up the strong intuitive sense of this place as a holy place. But it is of course more than this. It is none other than the presence of God in this place which seems saturated in the bricks. The saints and the idea of the sanctified life is a reminder that here we participate in that which is holy, and we hope that this holiness becomes folded into our everyday lives as an agent of healing and transformation. St Paul called his church members ‘saints’ as a way of encouraging them more fully to live the life to which they were being called and to establish, once and for the fact of the holiness of the Church.
The following great prayer, simply called ‘The Sanctus’ or ‘Prayer of Holiness’, embedded in the Eucharist, is one which tells us that our worship of God is a participation in that which is holy. For God is holy, and the worship we offer Him is for the sanctification, the transformation, the making holy of the ordinary stuff of our lives. And so we say of him:
Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,
Who was, and is and is to come!
Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity
16th Oct 2016
Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity Year C
Luke 18.1-8 : “Never lose heart”
Jesus instruction to us this morning is the one which would have us never lose heart. He knows that to hold to faith in God even unto our death and through life’s challenges is no small matter; but our salvation does depend upon it. His parable introduces us to two people who are trying to communicate with one another. But they seem to be speaking from two different premises. We learn that the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading has no faith in God or Man. He has fallen into a kind of spiritual boredom or ennui. But for his plaintiff, the nagging woman, this is not an option. For her, there is everything to play for. Her persistence gets the better of the lawyer as he finally acceeds to her demand on his time and attention. She has broken through that part of his nature that has now become receptive, awakened and alert, but it has to be admitted that she has also worn him down.
This parable does not contain the poetic and emotive charge we find in the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. Its meaning is not very obvious and it doesn’t seem very profound. Far more profound is the Old Testament Reading and Jacob’s wrestling with the nameless stranger at the Jabbok River. He, like the woman, also breaks through because he has prevailed. But his is a meeting with a figure he experiences as God Himself. But in both readings we find the idea of a passionless existence set against one which has found a reason to struggle after a passionately held goal. Jacob actually sees God in his struggle, even though he cannot name Him. The plaintiff woman merely wishes to get justice, but both are seen in the same vein. For Christians, passion in the life of faith is so vital. It rests on the idea of losing yourself to find yourself, or indeed God. To enjoy our relationship with God is to enjoy it passionately, like the women saints Teresa of Avila and Mother Julian of Norwich:
God, of thy goodness, give me Thyself;
for Thou art enough for me,
and I can ask for nothing less
that can be full honor to Thee.
And if I ask anything that is less,
ever Shall I be in want,
for only in Thee have I all.”
― Julian of Norwich
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.”
― Teresa of Ávila
Following what we may call this Passionate Way, we make a stand against the life of spiritual boredom and of the descent into the life of relativism, of self-absorption, and of distractedness and of ‘atomization’. There are many aspects of modern living which draw us into an atomized state because they are automatic, reflexive and non-essential to our existence. They are radically self-absorbing and non-productive. Their rewards are basic and fleeting. The opposite of atomization is the call to Christ which is the glad and willing engagement in the life of the other in real and personal relationships. The Christian Way constitutes a truly awakened mind, body and soul. For out of Christ’s own body, out of his Passion, there has flowed streams of living water, bursting up into everlasting life. This divine energy is meted out to us in and through our own willing response, both in the communication of prayer and in and through this act of worship in which God’s own self is given and received in the Body and Blood of his Son, Jesus Christ.
In the ‘Passionate Way’ we need human examples to help us. I have known some great Christians, and the ones I’ve admired most have been those who have what seems like a joyfully determined approach to their lives, and have become the pillars that hold the church up and examples of Christian witness to others. They manifest the love of God in a way which can be recognized. They have become, in God, truly what they were made to be; truly themselves. One of these is a ninety-three year old Benedictine monk who is a popular father confessor figure. Accepting the awkwardness of the contract which binds the one who confesses their sins to the one who offers counsel, here is a man in whose presence you already feel forgiven even before a word or an expression of repentance is being made. I don’t know how he ‘does’ this. But of course it’s not that he ‘does’ it; rather that he IS it.
The second of my passionate Christians is a group of Christians… But before I tell you, you might begin to see what kind of passion I am commending to you. Not the base meaning of passion as all emotion and no substance but a passion which is deeply human and compassionate and joyfully and practically Christian. The Passionate Way offers what someone has been called ‘a diagram of God’s grace and of the glory which he wishes to reveal through that same grace’. My group of Christians are ten martyrs who come from all over the world. They are twentieth century martyrs and their presence is immortalized in stone likenesses above the west door of Westminster Abbey:
St. Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Abp. Janani Luwum, St Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Abp. Óscar Romero, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi and Wang Zhiming.
Each life is one dedicated to the ‘Passionate Way’ of Jesus Christ, whose own Passion was their vision and their goal. In these stone images we are being reminded of the gift of faith and of its realization in our own lives, and if and when we fail to see or hear God or bear witness to God in our own lives, we must still nevertheless, out of that passion which remains in us, ‘never lose heart’. We must persevere. We must dedicate and rededicate ourselves in Christ’s Passionate Way. For it is from the movement of the human heart that all Christian Faith proceeds and it is in the action of the heart that our salvation is being won in Jesus Christ. We must not lose sight of this nor ever forget it for His sake, who is our life and hope. Amen.
Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
9th Oct 2016
Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity Year C
Holy Cross Church Cromer Street
Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so. Anna Warner, c.1860.
The old Sunday school hymn reminds us that our knowledge of the love of Christ has been revealed to us not only in the Gospels but through the entire Bible. The Old and the New Testament complement one another, speak to one another, and together they allow us to understand something very important. It is this: that though Jesus was born and lived in ‘New Testament Time’, the meaning of his teaching can only be completely understood in relation to the centuries of Faith (Old, or former Testament) shown by the people of Israel who preceded Him. And so we find in St Luke’s Gospel (17.11-19) an account of the healing of a group of lepers which finds echoes in the healing of Naaman the leper in the Second Book of the Kings (5.14-17). Jesus knows how important it is to look back in order to look forward. This provides the contact and the perspective of his salvation teaching.
The two healing stories, of Naaman and the Samaritan leper, belong to one another. Both speak of the love of God as inexhaustible and healing. Our proper response to God’s ‘graces freely given’ is surely to be one of gratitude and thankfulness. Like many words, ‘gratitude’ is one which has lapsed, perhaps owing to an attitude of subservience ‘ever so grateful’. But grateful, like the Spanish word ‘gracias’ comes from the word grace and is spoken as the happy acknowledgement of a gift that has been given. The importance of the leper who returned to Jesus is his realisation of the infinite love of God which he has found not on his way to Jerusalem, but which in Jesus Christ, has been the love of God walking at his side all the time. It is in the person of Jesus himself, as the giver of divine healing, which marks the new departure in God’s provision of healing for his world. This is a distinct and personal movement.
Both Naaman and for the unnamed Samaritan leper who returned to thank Jesus have one thing in common. They both seek to express their deep thanksgiving for what they have received at God’s hands. Thanksgiving for Christians is the prerequisite for spiritual openness. It speaks of a care and an honouring of the divine Giver and shows a spiritual attentiveness, a respect and a humility. Thankfulness in this respect may be both a gift and a source of healing at one and the same time.
We can experience this grace ourselves. There is a prayer of thanksgiving which we can practice day by day. This is not a prayer written down in a long form of words. It offers itself instead as a habit-forming prayer which finds us quieting ourselves on a daily basis and making a slow mental list of those things for which we wish to give thanks. We may go back in the day that has been hour by hour and take note and reflect upon those things for which we wish to give thanks. This is a prayer which raises our consciousness and allows us to practice what St Ignatius Loyola called ‘the examen of consciousness’. This kind of praying makes us aware that to know God is also to be in receipt of the gifts of his Holy Spirit; of love and joy and peace. These gifts are certainly gifts which we may actually experience. Practising the ‘examen of conscious thanks’ is surely much to be preferred than excusing our unheeding forgetfulness. We may soon find that the list of things for which we give God thanks just grows and grows. This brings joy. Importantly, it puts us in a place of thanksgiving, and allows us to inhabit it. It gets us used to being thanksgiving persons. I remember the seemingly quaint prayer from my childhood memory which yet which speaks of the basic need to be thankful and which, as it were, teaches it:
Thank you for the world so sweet
Thank you for the food we eat
Thank you for the birds that sing
Thank you God for everything Amen.
And then the more basic,
For what we are about to receive
May the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.
We place ourselves before God as joyful recipients of his divine giving. In turn, we receive the joy of knowing the God who is a giver; the God who is our provider. We respond to the grace and generosity of God which is freely given to us, and which heals us and helps us to be reconciled to our worlds. So many people complain about their lot, in oh so many ways; ways which are either obviously manifest or barely concealed. This complaining comes from an inability to practice the mindful acknowledgement of the gifts that have been given and consequently the lack of a graceful experience of thanksgiving that might emerge out of its receipt. The practice of the presence of God, the ‘examen of consciousness’ is calling us.
In the Gospel account Jesus does not promise instant healing for the ten lepers, but merely orders them ‘to show themselves to the priests’. The fact that they are healed ‘along the way’ tells us that Christ’s healing gift is given freely and whenever he chooses in time and space. It is also given in this both cases to foreigners, outsiders, to Naaman the Syrian and to the Samaritan leper and even to persons like you and me. God’s choosing may be unexpected or even unconventional but it is never haphazard. It is directed at us and we must be awakened to this fact. We may be just able to communicate our thanksgiving. For when we speak of God as the ultimate Provider we also speak of a relationship with Him which is exercised in freedom and without duress. It is the life we have been looking for, the living of life in trust from its truest source, God Himself. Let’s not take too much for granted. Let’s not spoil ourselves in our forgetful ingratitude and in the postponement of our thankfulness. We live only because God lives in us as gift and as Grace in His Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
‘It is by grace that you have been saved; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God, not by anything you have done. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it’. Ephesians 2.10
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
2nd Oct 2016
The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C.
God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1.6-8. 13-14.
God’s call is the one which would have us abide, stay, rest; remain in his presence. This is essential if we are to grow in His love and if our relationship with God is to be mature.. Last Friday evening I was waiting in a queue at King’s Cross Station for a rail ticket. The queue was long, and as each person intended to make enquiries before buying a ticket, and as the whole process was lengthy, so was the waiting. One man had entered the wrong queue and had probably been waiting for twenty minutes only to be told that he had been in the wrong queue and must join the other. And no, there was no way he could go to the head of the other queue as that would be unfair on those who had waited there already. His reaction was as might be expected one of controlled fury. You could sense in this long queuing a vacant space, the space represented by the waiting, and in it the stress of being at the mercy of a time consuming monotony, and the pent up frustration of it.
On the tube and in a carriage of twelve people, I noticed ten reaching for mobile phones to play music, games or attempt a text or Email. Only I, it seems was sat there gazing into space. ‘Mind the gap’ we are warned as we climb on and off the tube, but how do we mind the gaps, the vacant spaces in our existence? Is it desirable to be so often and so much distracted? Is it possible to inhabit the empty spaces and to accept them; or do they find us anxious and irritable? In his book ‘The Stature of Waiting’ William Vanstone observes that “…Our experience of waiting… comes home to us as we speak of our frustration and, in doing so discloses our assumption that the waiting role, the condition of dependence, the status of patient, is somehow improper to us, a diminution of our true function and status in the world, and an affront to our human dignity”.
There is something of this frustration in the Gospel when the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. This is a request to jump the queue. It is refreshing that the apostles are all too human in this respect.It is natural for us to want to short cut inconvenience, and to alleviate the strains and burdens under which we live. But equally there is something in the Christian Faith, which would have us deal with the hard facts of our existence, in the sense of both its meaning and its sense of non-meaning. If we are to be called ‘faithful’, then we must indeed wait while God’s purposes are unfolded in our lives in and through God’s own time, his koinonia, and not ours. He is ready to speak to us before we speak to him. We must wait on God while the deepest and most urgent questions of our lives hang in the balance. The Christian who offers the easy answer to God’s apparent lack of communication and replaces it with his own voice has not known or experienced the waiting. Our human existence is not a fast moving action packed play or film or novel, but one punctuated with proper silences, gaps and discontinuities. The play ‘Waiting for Godot’ burst onto the West End stage in 1955 and its action and inaction operates at this very level, and speaks to us from deep within ourselves as we find in our existence this very measure of meaning and non-meaning, and the unanswered question about why we are waiting, who are we waiting for and, importantly when will the waiting come to an end?
The example of Jesus Christ offers us a complimentary view – that Vanstone’s ‘stature of waiting’ is made present to us in the waiting or the Passion of Jesus Christ, even unto his own death. ‘Passion’ here does not mean exclusively or primarily ‘pain’: it means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of the situation; being the object of what is done. This is in effect a brave, faithful stillness; a being present to the present, present to ourselves and to one another, and yes, to God. For the Christian this passion has issued forth out of silence as a prayer of contemplation, a willingness to abide in His presence.
In this church, when the open the doors are open and the bell is rung, numbers of people come in. And this is significant. We cannot know what prayers and hopes and wishes and anxieties are contained within the silence of this place and its invitation to stay and to pray. But we do know that it is in and through the silence, the gap, the empty space, that God speaks. This offers what one writer on prayer, Alan Ecclestone, has called ‘A Staircase for Silence’. Human lives which may find in this holy place a sense of belonging and of contact both with the divine presence and the wider praying community. The well-known prayer which priests and servers say before this service ends goes like this ‘May the divine assistance remain with us always and may the souls of the faithful through the mercy of God rest (remain) in peace. When all is said and all is done, may we find at the end of our lives that true place of rest and remain now for ever in His peace. Amen.