Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C
25th Sep 2016
Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Trinity
1 Timothy 6.6-19
The word ‘ubuntu’ is an African word meaning ‘the essence of being human’. Ubuntu means that we need other human beings just to be human. The Zulu and Shona people of Southern Africa say: ‘a person is a person through other persons’—not apart from them. Ubuntu means that for us to do well, we need others to do well.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said that a person with ubuntu is one who is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others prosper, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong to a greater whole. Archbishop Tutu has also said that in South Africa, when they wish to speak well of someone they say, ‘So-and-so has ubuntu.’ So-and-so is a person who recognizes others as persons.
The rich man in the ‘Pearly Gates-type’ story that Jesus retold, did not have ubuntu. He didn’t recognize Lazarus, the man suffering at his gate as a real person. Lazarus ‘longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table’. But Lazarus went hungry. Or rather he was kept hungry by the rich man. The rich man suffered from what one song calls ‘the old ennui’ as a resigned boredom, an indifference. In this story you it is important who is named and who isn’t. In most stories, the rich and powerful are named and the ordinary persons remain anonymous. Here, it’s the other way around. Jesus names the poor man, Lazarus. The other—the powerful man—is referred to merely as ‘a rich man’. In fact, the ‘rich man’ is every person who has enough of the world’s goods—shelter, food, health care, education—yet who closes their heart to the poor. In Psalm 91 God says:
I deliver all who cling to me,
Lazarus calls to God; not only does Lazarus know God by name, but more importantly, God knows the name of Lazarus and rescues and honours him. God knows the name of the poor; God stands with them. There are many poor in the world today. Do we see them as real persons? As neighbours in need? Do we relate to them with a spirit of ubuntu?
How do we bring this parable into our present? Well, as Lazarus is named, so too, in the name of Christ, the social ills of our day and their causes and effects also need to be named. The appointment of a savvy economist to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 2012 has coincided with a critical (and Christian) focus on the challenging social effects of our national economy. Governments have always taken it for granted that it is a good thing for the economy to grow. With this growth, new opportunities are surely opened up for the lives of our people to be improved. But the evidence of what was once called a ‘trickle down’ approach to the economy, and of the predictable social benefits of a so called ‘healthy’ economy to the greater number of people, has proved faulty. There has been an increase in the number of those unable to pay their way. The rise of initiatives like food banks and credit underlines a situation in which the one economy, having recovered from an economic depression and secured historically low interest rates, has nonetheless witnessed raised levels of social inequality.
The existence of short term loan companies like Wonga and the exorbitant interest rates charged by the store Brighthouse are a scandal because they target the poorest citizens with the promise of an apparently easy quick loan or cheap payments for goods spread over long periods. A corner sofa that can be bought for less than £500 will at Brighthouse cost the buyer a staggering £3,120 as they pay £20 per week for it over 156 weeks! ‘The Evening Standard’ has in the past week raised attention to the huge amounts of food wasted by the supermarkets and attempts are now being made to offer this still good and edible food back to those who could use it.
A raised awareness of these matters and their character underlines the message of the Gospel which sets the naming of these things as central to The Christian Gospel. We must support efforts to act on the part of those, the poorest, for whom black or grey economies are in fact and in deed, radically exploitative. Ubuntu also means that ‘where one suffers, all suffer’, and our Gospel Reading sets this in relation to the salvation of the individual Christian and the community of which they are a part; The Church. ‘Yes’ to food banks, ‘Yes’ to credit unions. But we must also say ‘Yes’ to naming and challenging of a faulty economic system which would uncritically serve the well-being and prosperity of the ‘deserving many’ at the expense of the deserving few.
Let us pray:
God of life,
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
11th Sep 2016
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday of Trinity Year C
I received mercy, so that in me…Christ might display the utmost patience. 1 Timothy 1 15.
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 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 The Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, we are reminded of the interdependence of human relationships : all of us are to be involved in the active ‘shepherding’ or ‘looking out’ for one another. 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 has given 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. The recourse to the old and much loved image of the good shepherd still holds good. For 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, who sacrifices his time and who goes out of his way to seek out the lost sheep and bring them home.
At yesterday’s ‘Beating of the Bounds’ of the parish, a small group of five of us walked around our parish boundaries. We had prepared food for ten people and so it became possible to invite one or two wayfarers along our way to our afterwards lunch of bangers and mash and banana custard. In this way three addition people were able to enjoy a shared meal which they would otherwise not have been given. In this way we walkers were being the Church, reaching out to others rather than withdrawing into our own activity as a private club. It seemed quite right that if we were to consider our ‘Beating of the Bounds’ as an act of Christian witness, then some sign might be shown us which would test the theory! We must show a Christianity which is alert and responsive to God’s grace active in the present moment, especially as it prompts us to act outside our normal range of sympathies.
The images of the Cross and he Good Shepherd both have one thing in common. They both speak powerfully of the need for our reconciliation with God, and if with God, then with one another. 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 in Him. The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in all itself power and healing, is the sign of the good shepherd, crucified once and for all, and able to reveal to us in all its scope and depth, the outpouring of God’s mercy to us all, both inside and beyond anything we can confine or confound.
Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
4th Sep 2016
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 beloved and trusted helper for the good of the Church. And he describes this helper as ‘a part of his own self’. In Christian terms, 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, effects 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. Today will mark the canonisation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In our own time she, more than any other has embodied the giving of self to the other in costly and committed service. One of the drivers of her service lay in the ability to ‘see’ Christ in the eyes, the face, the life of the other.
I am just of the generation which looks back on a primary school education in which many of our teachers were unmarried women. “Please, Miss!” was meant literally. 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. A challenge to the prevailing idea of church going as being occasional, and if at all possible convenient.
The teaching of Christ comes to us through the energy and the example and the meaning of his own self-emptying, and calls us to that same willingness to offer the whole self to God in worship and service and not just the remnants of our nervous energy.
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, of how we relate to ourselves in relation to the world around us.
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 either of goods or religious experiences and become instead active contributors to the life of the world 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 possession 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”.