Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
28th Sep 2014
Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
Be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. Philippians 2.3
Some while ago, I attended two separate but complimentary events. The first was a Roman Catholic Mass in celebration of The Sisters of Mercy and for the anniversaries of the life vows of two of our sisters who work locally as ‘women at the well’. The second was a book launch. An old priest friend of mine had just published a book reflecting on an old Christian work named ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. On both occasions there were declarations made about the need to balance the active with the contemplative life. This is the life which responds to what the prayer book calls the ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world’. In the medieval period there was a concerted movement toward such a contemplative existence. Its effect was transformative. It added another dimension to the practice of Christian Faith. Names such as Mother Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton and Marjory Kempe recorded their experiences of contemplative prayer an emerging English language made popular by Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. What these figures did was to earth the experience of God in their everyday lives. They express the difficulty of living the life of prayer and of being obedient to the life of God’s spirit with the toughness, the vagaries, of life itself. These were very earthy figures and no plaster saints. Margery Kempe was plagued by sexual temptation and ran a brewery! It is to these people, honest in their view of themselves and seekers after God, who present us with such a vivid picture of their struggles. Through their lived experiences, they have pass on to us a raw Christian wisdom hammered out in hard and struggling lives. Jesus refers to just such individuals when he reminds us that many surprising individuals are entering the Kingdom of God before the wise, the pious and the all-knowing. Even prostitutes get to know the Kingdom before the all-seeing and all-knowing religious.
This morning’s parable of the two brothers is the simplest and shortest of all parables. In the parable, both sons say one thing and do another. But the one remarkable son is the one who has a change of mind, a metanoia, who wakes himself up, who is alive and attentive to the situations and the relationships; and the whole world which makes up his existence. He recognises that the decision to respond in action to the promptings of the heart is a sign of life and love. The love which of Jesus speaks expresses co-dependent. It accords with the being, the nature and the purposes of the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ and wishes to reveal himself to us in our daily lives. To refuse this communication is to stand idle and impotent while life passes by…It is to be isolated from the sources of goodness and grace which come from God. But many do refuse! In such a way they rejected John the Baptist. And in rejecting him, they rejected the hard fact of the need for repentance, for the life which must break itself open, which must adapt and renew itself, and which must refresh itself from the source of all life, God himself. The contemplatives of the Medieveal period, The Sisters of Mercy, and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing knew all these things, and they each of them have leave their own living witness to posterity.
In Carl Jung's psychology, metanoia indicates a spontaneous attempt of the psyche to heal itself of unbearable conflict by melting down and then being reborn in a more adaptive form. This is the very issue that Jesus addresses in this small parable. Of the Christian calling to adapt to the ways of God’s love, to be open to the possibility of change. To recognise the love of Christ as, in human terms, coexistent and co-dependent. The sons both reveal different parts of our nature – the one active and responsive and the other sluggish, and careless. How is it at all possible to do what Jung asks of us? I think it must mean that we place alongside our active, busy lives, the embrace of the comtemplative life which informs and gives substance to our active or everyday life. There is more of a need for ever for us to live lives which contain a contemplative element, so that life does not blow us apart. It is necessary for us to find our own still centre. ‘
In every human heart there is a God-shaped space’ said Cardinal Hume. There are many groups set up in London to help you to embrace that process, including ones which meet here in King’s Cross. I am most willing to put anyone interested into the way of these life-saving, contemplative, prayerful groups, which engage more closely with the Word of God and strive to be more responsive to what God may be saying in their lives. Jesus proclaims in our parable this morning the need for us all to grow and to develop as Christians and not to ignore the great riches of grace and mercy that have been given to us. To love and to be united in love, with a common purpose and a common mind.
In this respect we either grow or die…
Sermon for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
14th Sep 2014
Sermon for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Year A)
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.
Today in this church, dedicated to the Holy Cross, we do something which many might find strange. We glory in the Cross. We celebrate its significance for the Church as a sign of salvation. And we do this with a certain and unequivocal joy; that this terrible means of torture has become the means by which Christian Faith is best understood and secured and enjoyed.
Above our high altar are inscribed the words, “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of Jesus Christ”
The apparent strangeness of this joy lies in the discovery of the Cross as a sign of contradiction. The Son of Man was the One who had attained earthly and heavenly knowledge, but our readings make it clear that such knowledge was too much for the world. It was to be refused. God sent his Son Jesus Christ to overturn any predictable or safe ordering of his wisdom. Instead he offers to the world the demanding contradiction of the God whose Son serves, suffers, dies and rises again. God shows us (the Cross is a ‘showing’) that he is not immune from human being as it is lived out across ages, differing circumstances and across a whole range of human responses. God, even on the Cross is still Emmanuel (God-with-Us) and the Cross strikes at the very heart of our existences in their very particularity.
As we reflect upon our own lives, we may wonder why we both live life and suffer life? How we live with our losses is more revealing of our human character than how we enjoy our gains. I met a friend this week whose reaction to the news of another friend, a very sick person in intensive care, was to speak gravely about the brevity of life. Of life’s course felt to be a very real kind of tragedy. The experience of life’s brevity is the bumping up against the truth of our being and of the challenge we face in the wake of its recognition:
“Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” William Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5.
The Cross lies at the heart of the Christian experience precisely because it stands as a living contradiction. And yet it yields hope for a fallen world because it is an outpouring of love from God, its source. It is the medicine and the balm for all ills because it is offered not as a palliative to human existence but as its true source. The God who gives life is the One who has in turn sacrificed Himself in and through his Son, Jesus Christ. John the gospeller recalls the well-known account of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness on a staff for the people’s protection against evil. This sign can be seen on all our ambulances. For the Christian the vertical staff is the one which speaks of the heavenly and the earthly powers. The story transposes into the narrative of The Cross of Christ in the phrase ‘lifted up’. Lifted up as a sign of contradiction, but a sign for us all to see and comprehend nonetheless.
The well-known hymn which we shall sing this evening ’Lift High the Cross’ is set to a tune which makes this lifting up, a joyful and passionate thing:
“Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim
Let all the world adore his sacred name!”
The tone of joy and exaltation is always present in the Church. In the Roman Catacombs, everywhere, thousands of irregular crosses have been carved into the cramped stone walls as graffiti. As you look upon them (and try to count them!) your heart quickens - you catch a little of the passion and joy invested in making the sign of the Cross. The crosses range across the walls like confetti. They dazzle and delight. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is the one which speaks of the life-giving power of the Cross as the new standard for life on earth. It is a standard which speaks to us of selfless love and the promise, through its signature, of life and hope in and through the One who laid down his life for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, whose promise for us is then as now, an indelible one.