Sermon for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels
29th Sep 2013
SERMON FOR ST MICHAEL AND ALL ANGELS
HOLY CROSS CHURCH 2013 (Year C)
“God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world”.
God in heaven: at least something’s right. But surely there’s more: God is also with us, God is also among us and between us and God is also within us. Today’s great festival draws our attention to heaven, to the presence of the God who is transcendent, beyond our knowing, and majestic, glorious, the God worshipped by the saints and the angels. The heavenly vision which this encompasses is expressed most profoundly in the words of the Sanctus, which is deliberately placed in the Mass before the great and climactic Prayer of Consecration.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord
God of power and might
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
So much for the God who is somewhere out there, above us and beyond us. But this festival also draws our attention to God’s presence which, in the power of his Spirit is here, he is now with us, and in us… This God is the one ‘who is ‘blessed’ by us as the One who comes in the name of the Lord Jesus. He is the God who has come down from heaven to dwell among us and to reveal himself in His Son. It is only when this earthly Christ is admitted that praises or hosannas are offered to ‘the highest’; or to heaven. Thomas Merton, the 20th century Cistercian monk, wrote of God’s presence within us:
“At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives. This little point of nothingness is the pure glory of God in us. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”
‘God in us’ is also the God who acts beyond our immediate control and yet for our own being. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that,
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
If we try to go it alone as Christians, we run great risks of going astray. The Church understands the work and role of the angels as assisting in mediating the presence of God with us and amongst us. The presence of the angels remind us that God’s work on our behalf is a co-operative work and not coercive… The angel Gabriel is God’s messenger to Zechariah and to Mary in Luke’s nativity stories in Luke 1. In St Mark’s Gospel, we hear of a young man in white at the tomb, telling the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead. We see Peter’s guardian angel in action when, as recounted by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, he is freed from imprisonment and restored to the Church Acts 12.12. This love and care of angels for the Church extends, Jesus tells us, more generally, when he says of children, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18.10).
So our thoughts are directed back to heaven, where the angels who bring messages of love and care for us here on earth also constantly see the face of God and seeing him love him, and loving him worship him. In this way God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven as The Lord’s Prayer reminds us. It is impossible to imagine what heaven can be like, since our own vision is limited.
One day, one day, by God’s grace and if we persevere in faith, we shall see as we are seen and know as we are known. In heaven, in the very presence of God himself, we shall join the song of the angels and saints, the eternal worship of those who rest in God’s being without let or hindrance and who experience the fullness of joy in his presence. We shall then no longer need to sing the Sanctus; we shall inhabit it and live in it.
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday of Trinity
15th Sep 2013
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday of Trinity Year C
There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Luke 15.10
On this day, when we prepare for our Patronal Festival and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we should remember something very significant. And it is this : that there was a time during the first three centuries of the Church when the Cross was not its central sign. It was thought that the suffering and dying Christ on the Cross was too dreadful and sad and shocking a sign for would-be converts. Instead the dominant image was of Christ the Good Shepherd, and there is a wall painting in one of the Roman catacombs which is dated 250 AD which has Christ with the sheep around his neck and carrying a bucket. Christ is represented as a kind of second David, the clean shaven young shepherd who became Israel’s first King. But this image proved to be inadequate. Once the Church had suffered and lost many of its followers to martyrdom it became evident that The Cross and its message of the saving death of Christ had become by far the most meaningful symbol for the Church. The Cross was of deeper significance because it spoke not only of a bond of pastoral love and attentive care but of a love which through the crucifixion had broken down the barrier which separated life from death. It was an image which carried with it a whole raft of human emotions and weight. Above all, it was a hopeful sign because it carried the weight of human sin and failure with it. It was a potentially transforming sign because in the death of Christ on the Cross was considered life giving. The Cross was the mark, the means by which Man was restored to God the Father through the life-giving sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It was a sign of hope over defeat, of life beyond death, of sacrificial love and its outpouring. St Paul will remind us in this evening’s second reading that,
…now, in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought close by the blood of Christ. So you are no longer aliens or foreign visitors, you are citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household. Ephesians 2.19.
When Luke writes about Christ as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, we are still on the receiving end of sound Christian teaching. The simple image carries with it a message which tells us something essential about the Christian God. This God is endlessly compassionate. He is after all, love. He does not just display the qualities of love. He IS love, and as love does not love partially or particularly. His love is for all humankind. And this love is not static but one which is full of life and promise, one which seeks out the lost. The three ‘lost and found’ examples Luke gives us are The Prodigal Son, The Woman with the Lost Coin, and the Shepherd and the Lost Sheep. Luke is describing an experience of the love of God as the discovery of something unexpected – the finding of new and transforming life in an experience of the love of God. The recourse to the old and much loved image of the good shepherd is very apt here. I say this because one of the greatest tests for The Christian Church lies in the call to seek out the lost, the ignored, the despised and the rejected and to offer them the love of God which is the shepherd who bothers, sacrifices his time and goes out of his way to seek out the lost sheep and to bring them home.
The images of the Cross and the Good Shepherd both have one thing in common. They both speak powerfully of our reconciliation with God. The Church exists for the healing of humankind, for the mending of broken lives and for the bringing about of that oneness with God which was once lost and now can be found.
Sermon given by The Revd. Canon Jeremy Haselock for the Parish Patronal Festival 2013
15th Sep 2013
Sermon for Holy Cross Day 2013
“In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time.
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.”
John Bowring’s 19h-century hymn is a standard favourite, and not just in Lent and Passiontide, and we frequently sing it with enthusiasm and gusto - but what can it mean to “glory” in the cross of Christ? It is unequivocally St Paul’s advice to us, as he writes to the Galatians: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free.”
When St. Paul wrote, the world was thronged with crosses, rooted outside cities, bearing all of them the bodies of slowly dying men. Four hundred years later the world was still thronged with crosses, but now they were to be found in the very centre of cities, lifted in processions and above altars, decorated and jewelled, and bearing all of them the image of the Son of God.
Charles Williams, an Oxford contemporary of J R R Tolkein and C S Lewis, wrote a chronicle of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. He called it The Descent of the Dove, and in it he crafted an amazing purple passage on this amazing turn of events: “It is not surprising,” he wrote, “that Christianity should sometimes be regarded as the darkest of superstitions, when it is considered that a thing of the lowest and most indecent horror should have been lifted, lit, and monstrously adored . . . . The worship in jungles and marshes, the intoxication of Oriental mysteries, had not hidden in incense and litany a more shocking idol. The bloody and mutilated Form went up everywhere; Justinian built the Church of Holy Wisdom to it in Byzantium, and the Pope sang Mass before it on the hills where Rome had been founded. The jewelled crosses hid one thing only – they hid the indecency. But original crucifixion was precisely indecent.”
That we should glory in the image of a dying man on a gibbet is surely extra-ordinary. Perhaps we are inoculated against the horror and the indecency by over familiarity. Perhaps the images we have over our altars today conceal perhaps necessarily the ghastliness; they may preserve the pain but they lack the degradation. I think we are so accustomed to seeing the image of the crucified that it requires a real effort of will of sometimes even a shock to make us realise what a fearful image we venerate on Good Friday or glory in on Holy Cross Day.
But for the early Christians and in many centuries after the recognition of the Faith as the state religion of the Roman Empire, the cross in which they gloried was bare – not a gibbet for a dead criminal but the springboard for a risen Lord! The Fathers did not separate the event of Golgotha from the subsequent resurrection of the Lord. For them the Cross was never the sign of a sad memory, but always a symbol of the presence of their crucified and risen Lord. At first a symbol of belonging to Christ – hence the signing with the cross at Baptism, the cross became a symbol of victory and triumph.
When the emperor Constantine was striving for military domination over his former co-emperor and partner Maxentius at the Battle of the Millvian Bridge, he famously gained inspiration from a vision in the heavens of a glittering and bejewelled Cross which bore the legend - in hoc signo vinces , in this sign conquer. Placing this sign - incidentally it was probably the type of cross we call a Chi-Rho, the two Greek letters which begin the word Christ - placing this sign on the standards of his legions, he triumphed over his foes and went on to raise his new faith to the status of state religion for his empire. In hoc signo vinces was not just the battle cry of a soldier Emperor but of a rapidly expanding Church.
From the Fourth century onwards the cross is often found adorned with precious stone. In early Christian sculpture, mosaics, decorative schemes and even on sarcophagi, this jewelled and adorned cross becomes central, not as a memory of Christ’s suffering and passion but as the glorious confession of his victory. The cross is a throne, the crown of thorns is transformed into victor’s laurels and God reigns from the tree. This is the very theme and inspiration for the great hymn of Venantius Fortunatus we shall be singing in just a few moments at the Offertory: “The royal banners forward go,” which was written in France in the late sixth century to celebrate the arrival of a relic of the True Cross at the royal monastery in Poitiers. It is full of all the victorious resonances to be found in the church decorations, mosaics and sculptures of the time. It also overflows with the nobility and pageantry of the ecclesiastical ritual adapted from the ceremonial of the late Roman and Byzantine Imperial court. “The Cross shines forth in mystic glow,” he writes, “the universal Lord is he/who reigns and triumphs from the tree.”
This cross is the cross of glory which dominates the apses of so many great early Christian basilicas. Above the altar in Ravenna, for example, the great cross seems to initiate the transformation or transfiguration of the whole cosmos. The cross is lifted up into a heavenly world to become the centre and focus of a new heaven and a new earth. This is the cross in which it is rather easier to glory, and we should. This is the transfigured tree, the sacred wood which we have venerated this day and this is right and fitting. Contemplating its cosmic power and mystery, however, we must resist the temptation to forget the gibbet. As we commemorate the Exaltation of Holy Cross we must never forget the horror. Our traditional altar crosses, bearing as they do the tortured figure of the dead Christ, remind us that the glorious cross became a symbol of victory and transformation only because of what happened in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon in the year AD 30 or thereabouts.
To coin a phrase, the glory and the gory are inseparable. We must hold the two in tension and nowhere is this better achieved than in an Anglo-Saxon poem from our own shores, written at about the same time that Venatius Fortunatus was hymning the Crux Fidelis and the Vexilla Regis in Poitiers. The unknown poet has the last word:
Listen: I will disclose the deepest vision
to bleed on its right side. I was overwhelmed with sorrow,
drenched with heavy blood, sometimes it blazed with treasure.
But I lay there a measureless time
Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
8th Sep 2013
Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C
“None of you can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions”. Luke 14.33
Our understanding of the life and death of Jesus Christ lies in a key Greek word ‘kenosis’ which allows us to understand the whole offering of his life as a self-emptying one. In Paul’s Letter to the Philemon we have a moving account of how Paul, even while a prisoner in chains, is prepared to send away his most loved and trusted helper for the good of the church. And he describes this helper as ‘a part of his own self’. And as we reflect upon the meaning of this we come to understand the relationship between the offering of love with the bearing of burdens and the renunciation of self that comes with it. No love was ever real without the life of love being in the words of a Shakespeare sonnet ‘borne out even unto the end of time’. If Christ’s ministry was to be at all effective and lasting, then the teaching of Christ had to be more than just prescriptive or gestural, it had to communicate itself to the deepest levels of human consciousness and it had to be borne out in the action of Christ’s own suffering and death.
It is within this context that the challenge to give up our possessions is being made. And the example of Christ carries with it a call for us to take stock of what we possess and how he have possess it, what we use and how we use it, and what we seek to possess apart from those considerations of how this will affect our relations with others. And this is seen in the rise of a 21st century call to be responsible as consumers for the life and the health of the planet and of the planet. More than ever, my actions, and the way I consume, affects the life of the planet and of my fellow men and women. The reach is global and communal. The self-emptying of Christ is not an individual act on his part, but one which has a direct bearing upon the life of the world. And the call to dispossess lies side by side with the call for live more communally and less selfishly.
I am just of the generation which looks back on a primary school education in which all our teachers were unmarried women, old enough even in the early sixties to have experienced the aftermath of the First World War and the dearth of eligible young men. Please, Miss! And my first teacher’s name was Caroline (or as I later came to know her) ‘Carrie’ Peat. Miss Peat, who told us wonderful stories, gave us months old sweets from an old glass jar if one of us deserved commendation, awarded us sticky coloured or even silver or gold stars, and who went to church. Years after my infancy this same Miss Peat would, we all knew, walk two miles to church, come rain or shine, well into her early eighties. Never failing, walking with the elements. A woman who had remained a spinster, who lived alone, and walked to church, and yet a bright, shining, faithful and vigorous spirit. One of a breed of indomitable spirits from that generation. And I can see her walking as a prayer of active service and as an act of heroism. Walking in all weather, sometimes in driving rain. A challenge to the complacency that is in us all to commit ourselves to something other than that which is simply convenient.
The teaching of Christ comes to us through the energy and the example and the meaning of his own self-emptying, the willingness to give of the self for the life of the world. For the maintenance of our true health.
Some time ago, I read a ‘Times’ headline which said “Religious leaders say prayers as glacier begins to slip away”. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Shinto and Jewish leaders had offered joint prayers from a ship moored a few hundred yards from The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier in the Arctic Circle, the probable source of the iceberg which sank the ‘Titanic’, and which is now melting, moving continually at 2 mph southwards and a powerful symbol of the speed at which global warming is advancing. It seemed strange to say prayers over a melting glacier but of course something else is going on here. The melting glacier speaks to us of the planet earth become strangely vulnerable to its own elements. If it were a sick patient, the problems would be manifest in liver and kidney trouble, heart murmurs and high blood pressure. All symptoms of an unhealthy lifestyle and a poor diet. And yet it is also remains unbelievably beautiful and we have learnt to love it. And so the prayers are being said in the space between the awful realities of holes in the ozone layer, ruptures in the ice cap and earthquakes and for the earth which to which we owe so much. And the prayers are said for us to wake up; to take on a new responsibility for what we consume and how we consume it.
What is being called for is a new and spiritual consciousness of our surroundings and a real will to empty ourselves of lives based on conveniences which are all too easily bought and consumed but which yet have a ruining effect on the larger environment and which widens the gap between the world’s rich and poor. And as with the planet so with the lives of men and women everywhere. Lying at the heart of Jesus teaching is the call to dispossess ourselves of those things whose possession limits our own lives and the life of the wider community. Above all else we must learn to forgive. The self-emptying of Christ is no empty gesture, but one which is vital to our understanding of human interrelationship and interdependence – he gives himself so that we might have fullness of life in one another. In the dispossession, the letting go, the self-emptying, lies the pathway into renewal of life; of the finding in the giving away of these things the experience of a new kind of freedom. We stop being merely consumers and become instead net contributors to the life of the world community which sustains us. Always and everywhere you will find yourself within the life of the community in a way you will not through the studious husbandry of your own chattels or the privatisation of your own desires.
We can only truly possess in life what we have already learnt to dispossess. This is what scripture tells us. Here lies one of the many paradoxes which belong inexorably to a Christian understanding of life. This is brought to us in the self-emptying Christ, It becomes ‘the pearl of great price’ and ‘the treasure hidden in earthen vessels’. These, it is suggested, are to be bought at a different cost and in a different market. They belong to what is lasting and ultimately, real. “None of you”, says Jesus, “can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions”.
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
1st Sep 2013
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”. Luke 14.10.
It’s a strange and compelling coincidence that in the same week that the British government has lost a motion on a decision for military action in Syria, the poet Seamus Heaney has died. We might well imagine a world of difference between the life of a poet and that of a politician. But we judge on what must be the case of the matter. It is typical for most people to consider politicians as above all practitioners of a dark and devious art. But this of course is not always the case. We equate politics with deviousness. But that is not always the way it is. But most people would find it harder to consider the life of a poet, and of what kind of person they imagine a poet to be and of what kind of life they might live. There is no one template. But the possibilities are endless. The Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny described Heaney on behalf all the Irish people. He said “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as people”. He was a Catholic Irishman from Londonderry and yet he was every Irishman. A citation he was given in 1995 for The Nobel Prize for Literature read “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. Our former poet laureate, Andrew Motion commented that to read Heaney’s poetry was to “feel the benediction of his kindness”. The actor Liam Neeson has said that with the death of Heaney “Ireland had lost a part of its soul’.
Only a humble man could be given such accolades. Only someone, who spoke the truth, as we all understand it in its most profound sense. In today’s Gospel we are given the simple figure of the instruction in humility. It is the parable of the invitation to the wedding banquet and of two pieces of advice, the first one is to the guest to take the lowest seat, so that he may be called higher. Secondly there is the advice to the host, instructing him to invite those he would never imagine inviting, the poor, the lame and the blind; in other words beggars who could not re-pay the invitation in kind. On its own the parable would be quaint were it not for the context in which it is being delivered. Related as it is to the life of Christ and his Gospel message, it becomes for the Church a parable for the values of the Kingdom of God. The earthly banquet equates to the heavenly banquet as the occasion which sees the gathering in of those who have been invited to the feast, the place in which the divine and the human life finds its place of understanding and rest. But this parable also has ‘teeth’. For when Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom, and where this parable points to the quality of humility, so a strong and searching light is cast on those types of behaviour where human pride is to the fore, and where there is recourse to take, if needs be by an act of greed, or force or vanity, the higher place where we may assert our own right to be ‘on top’, our own privileged place of right, at the expense of others, no matter what. The juxtaposition of the poet’s death and the vote on war is therefore a powerful sign for our own times, a telling one. Only a life of deep reflection is capable of recognising that which is most profoundly and most humanly true. It was Bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh who instructed us “to live the examined life, which tests itself for its own prejudices and assertions. For only then will we prevent ourselves from gaining knowledge for its own sake while at the same time throwing away its key”. Only a Heaney could put in a form of poetry the underlying truths that lead to a government motion on the use of bombing in the cause of an apparent right:
Who would connive
In civilised outrage
Yet understand the exact
And tribal, intimate, revenge.
The word ‘humility’ signifies, as with the poet Seamus Heane, a very grounded closeness to Mother earth. It relates to the Latin word ‘humus’ meaning earth. It is not the false humility which is full of itself. As a farmer’s son, he had the soil of Ireland in his finger nails, and rather than rail against the Northern Ireland conflict, which was at its height when Heaney was writing at his height, he used the image of the thousand years old bodies, dug up in Irish bogs, to write about time and the consequences of living out of time.
He once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head’ whenever politics was discussed. Though he left the countryside and taught English first in Belfast and then in Dublin as a young man, he did not forget his farming roots. He fondly remembered watching his grandfather cutting turf for peat, and taking a bottle of milk to the old man who would straighten up just long enough to drink it before bending over his spade again. He pictured himself working in the same way, digging out words with the nib of his pen.
For me is humility. Heaney was a great believer in what he called ‘learning by heart’. Especially learning poems by heart. And the Christian Faith lays great store on the heart as the place for all our decision-making. Humility is the ground, the grounded place. It is the place where lies our true centre and personal, spiritual and moral equilibrium, our sense of balance and perspective and our true humanity. It is the place where we may ‘learn by heart’. We are asked to return once more to state of true humility. This is not a place of weakened or thin humanity, but one which is most fully alive to the world in which it is living, and, one which shines that same strong searching light on the world as it is in its own state of vanity. A word which at the same time means proud and also empty or fruitless.
When Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom of God on this earth, his is very much leading where the poet follows on with the learning of the essential and wise things ‘by heart’, the leading of the deeply active/reflective life, the weighing of words and the celebration of their meaning and depth. Above all in Kingdom teaching, strong attention is placed on our lives on our own state of becoming and of the close relationship between the observation of things and the consciousness that as Yeats, once said, ‘everything we look upon is blessed’. The Kingdom is that place where life itself, wherever it goes on, whether as kind or brutal is in God always waiting as we might say ‘in potential’, waiting, as it were, for its own transformation into his likeness and being. Waiting for that which belonged to Heaney, ‘of the benediction of God’s kindness’.
A true and decent humanity never discards this possibility, and nor should we…