Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday of Trinity
17th Oct 2021
Sermon for Trinity 20 Year B.
Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45
"And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’”.
Had the sons of Zebedee been blessed with the gift of foresight they might have been more reticent about making their request of Jesus. They make it in the tenth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel. In the eleventh, Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Within days his glory is revealed. When it is, one man is indeed at his right hand, and another is at his left. But they are, all three, convicted criminals hanging on crosses.
It’s almost certainly not what James and John have in mind when they approach Jesus. They are presumably interested in a more conventional sort of glory: status and influence, affirmation and recognition, wealth and power – in other words, in the sort of glory that attaches to great leaders – whether great political leaders, great cultural leaders, or great religious leaders.
In the passage that we have heard from Hebrews its author outlines an understanding of earthly priesthood which is very different from - and altogether more sympathetic than - that held by the two apostles. But it’s a much more self-disciplined, demanding kind of leadership. It’s a leadership though, which acknowledges itself to be all too human and fallible and which has learnt to love and listen to this humanity and fallibility, and as we say, to ‘offer it up’.
Firstly, priests are priests because they are called by God, the letter claims, not because they take that honour for themselves but that they have responded to a calling not entirely of their own design.
Second, priests deal gently with the failings of others, the letter claims, because they are not ignorant of their own failings. Such a nuanced understanding of priesthood as divinely ordained yet distinctly human seems a long way from the brothers’ brazen request of Jesus and their rather bullish insistence that they are equal to whatever ordeal they are ever likely to face.
Thirdly, priests offer up prayers to God as an intermediaries between God and his people.
Prayer emerges out of the solidarity that the priest has with the people and is the ‘dialogue with God’ that acknowledges God to be the oputworler of our loives and their courses, and not we ourselves.
But the author does not rest there. His principal concern in the letter is to push further and articulate an understanding of the priesthood of Jesus. Like the earthly priests of his ancestral faith, Jesus is called by God. Like them, Jesus is fully human and able to empathize with the needs and the sufferings of the people. Like the, Jesus prays and offers up prayer ‘That they all might be One” John 17.21 Yet there is also a crucial difference between him and them.
Jesus gives his own life, in an act of what the letter calls “reverent submission”, and it is to this same submission that we see in what we might call the spirituality of Jesus:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Hebrews 3.5
The understanding of priesthood sketched out in this brief passage serves as an effective criticism of the ambitions of James and John –This brief passage with its threefold understanding of what we might call “Priestly” leadership provides an understanding relevant to all who exercise any sort of leadership, whether in churches or beyond them.
Priestly leaders are “called by God”, writes the author of Hebrews. Their ultimate allegiance is to God, not to any human ideology or human faction or human interest. Priestly leaders root their leadership in the values of the Kingdom of God, and their exercise of leadership points consistently away from themselves and consistently towards those values.
Priestly leaders are “subject to weakness”, writes the author of Hebrews. They should entertain no illusions about their uniqueness, their distinctiveness, or their infallibility. Their leadership serves others because priestly leaders know that they are not so very different from others. They practice above every other skill the skill of listening. It’s not an accident that in Orthodox icons holy men and holy women are always depicted as having very large ears, very large eyes, and very small mouths.
Finally, priestly leaders offer themselves in “reverent submission”, writes the author of Hebrews. They know that the goal of their leadership is not their own flourishing or even their own survival as leaders. The goal of their leadership is the vindication of the values they espouse in the service of the people among whom they belong. Their leadership and their authority are simply a means to that end and may be surrendered in its achievement.
For as Jesus says, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. Amen.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday of Trinity
10th Oct 2021
Nineteenth Sunday of Trinity
Everything is possible to God. Mark 10.27.
This morning’s Gospel reading continues to ask the same question. “Can I afford to be more generous?” The story of the rich young man appears to be one of the most straightforward and indeed the easiest to interpret. Jesus challenges the young man at the point of his greatest possessiveness. His wealth. And this is surely a story about the acquisition of money for its own sake and of greed? The reading and interpretation surely falls easily to hand? But the story has a more profound meaning: What might it mean to live the life we are made by God to live? The Gospel writer Mark places alongside finding and gaining material wealth the challenging idea of renouncing and of losing one’s self. It is with the idea of ‘unselfing’ rather than with that of calculated acquisition that life is made rich and productive and Godly. It is when we can give from within ourselves toward that which lies beyond ourselves the transformation of life in God’s image is made possible. For Christians, this is the basis of all our service in whatever capacity.
The rich young man enjoyed his time of spiritual ease. He came to Jesus as the religious dweller of a good post code. Churches are now growing across the world, containing congregations of great number, in which a new Gospel of ‘Rich is Godly’ is preached, while the minister might well own a private jet and is drive about in a limousine. There is seen to be no irony in this… He is a kind of hero. But his riches cut him off from himself. The rich young man lives in the spiritual equivalent of a gated community away and apart from the spiritual mainstream. Jesus stands before him as the presence and the voice of God. He lacks one thing, this young man : the spirit of self-emptying or unselfing. To ‘move on’ he needs to ‘move out’ and even to ‘get rid’.
London is one city which bounds many towns and villages, each with their own identity. It is like a giant patchwork quilt of differing communities, and you can get this delightful sense of wandering through districts as they appear to you in their distinctive character. There is much speculation about where and how these identities are located and where they meet; where and what is King’s Cross, where and what Bloomsbury, where and what the romantically sounding Fitzrovia. And the estate agents talk this up. They like to talk up easy access to the Brunswick Centre, with its ‘shopping opportunities’ and now the King’s Cross identity begins to take on a veneer of luxury living with mention of the St Pancras Chambers, the new 5* hotel. A cold and derelict tract of wasteland has been turned into a gleaming mini-metropolis. A London postcode for estate agents can tell you all you need to know about a distinct where WC1 sounds and means something different from NW1, as the Euston Road separates them and where this separation was once known as ‘The Dead Sea’. But inhabiting the fascinating patchwork of districts are countless lives being led, and all of them asking, whether they express it or not, deep and searching questions about the meaning of life and of its truer purpose: “What is my life really all about?” “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is the great unuttered, unanswered prayer of modern life. Its exaction holds for us now just as it did for the rich young man.
Mark tells us that the rich young man went off ‘on his own way’. The story is left open ended. Did he or didn’t he sell what he owned to follow Jesus? The story suggests that he didn’t. We are told that he left ‘disconsolate’. Jesus had been the sun breaking through to illuminate the field of his dreams but it was felt as a bright obscuring light. It was the cold light of day, and more than the young man could bear. Christ’s command is not coercive, arguing the believer into a corner. No: ‘it knows of what we are made’ and expresses what is true to our existence and to the love of God. .
Finally, this story comments upon this offer of eternal life in the present by sticking on to it two post-it notes : the first that it is hard to see or to enter this Kingdom and to realise its beauty if you are ‘hurrying’ or ‘hankering’ after that which does not bring ‘eternal life’. Today’s gospel reading is a call to a radical and interior dispossession and a trust in what remains – a continuing call to enter into a relationship with him to manifest the true purposes of God in our lives and through us into the lives of others. Jesus tells us that ‘…everything is possible with God’. God can use our indifference, our desire to domesticate and tame him and use him for our own ends. He can use our weaknesses, our good and bad faith and our base passions and transform them. We are not as self-sufficient as we suppose. In fact it may be our brokenness and our vulnerability that brings us closer to the Kingdom of God than our self-possession. The gift was always greater and more valuable for its having been given. The gift was all the greater because given freely, not thinking of the self only.
“ To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing. To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing. To come to enjoy what you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not. To come to the possession you have not, you must go by a way in which you possess not. To come to what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not.”
St John of the Cross.
How can it be possible to ‘sell all that we have?’; to take that risk on what might feel like self-annihilation. The One who knows is the teacher, the Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is the One who has gone ahead and died for us. He is the One who has made possible the transformation of our human condition as we look beyond ourselves to find ourselves – in Him, the One who makes everything possible.
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday of Trinity
3rd Oct 2021
THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF TRINITY
‘God…for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists’.
Today is set aside for us to spend some time thinking about the creation. Our readings speak to us about God as our Creator. We are reminded that God ‘has given everything its place in the world, and no one can make it otherwise’. Never before have the questions surrounding the created order and the earth’s manner of survival been more urgently sought and expressed with the effects of global warming, deforestation and the spending of irreplaceable fossil fuels. These represent permanent losses. They are very uncomfortable realities because they challenge our sense of place as inhabitants of planet earth. They challenge us to become more aware of our true place in the created order and to a recognition of our proper responsibilities. If we bear within ourselves the likeness of God then so does our earth and now it seems we are witnesses to its becoming scarred and diseased. For Christians this offers the reminder that we inhabit this earth and we see it as God’s creation. It seems we must care.
It is possible to crack open a piece of unpromising rock and to gaze upon the skeleton of an animal that lived on this planet 500 million years ago. This is truly awesome! Charles Darwin gazed in awe but also came to a scientific conclusion: he realised that the created order was in a continual state of becoming and adapting, and that each species grew and changed according to its environment, and it grew and changed over impossible stretches of time. It was therefore possible to trace the origins of Man’s existence back through millions of years of development from ape-like creatures. Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ rocked the certainties of the Victorian Christian mind-set. It lay bare, like that 500 million year old skeleton, a reality that was raw and uncomfortable and yet strangely awesome. The foundations of the thinking about who you were and where you had come from were well and truly shaken. The questions of our existence were bigger and tougher than anyone had ever thought possible. But nonetheless this new science did not shake the minds of those who, through faith in God, were seeing the world from a deeper perspective and that our existences were not to be explained by science but understood it and through the light of faith in the Creator, God.
The language of ‘Genesis’ a name which signifies the tracing of our origins, speaks of where these true origins lie. And when we have traced the outline of our origins in God, we discover one thing about our existence and its meaning : that we are not the sole providers of our existence. We can work out how things are but there remain many unanswered questions about why we are here, who we are, and what we are in relation to one another. These questions belong uniquely to the human race, and they are questions which remain only partially answered. There are questions we ask ourselves which only find their answer through the passage of time. Life presents itself as factual (remember ‘The Facts of Life’) and yet it is also mysterious and strange. Even the person we know and love the most can seem a mystery to us at times. What would human existence feel like if in our relations with one another there were some complete kind of knowing? It wouldn’t somehow be human, would it, even with artificial intelligence!? Likewise human existence cannot be explained away in a theory. St Paul reminds us of this in his ringing hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 that,
“Now we see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood”.
If the proof for all human living is not exacted out of mere scientific enquiry but emerges out of God, then we come to see things in a new perspective. It echoes the words of George Herbert’s famous hymn ‘Teach Me, My God and King:
A Man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth through it pass
And then the heaven espy.
It offers a way of describing the Christian Vision which are offers a deeper sense of things, drawn not from reason but from contemplation. There is much that cannot be certified or proved. So much must be understoood other than just the provable. The Christian way of seeing things is a special way of seeing. It is a kind of sustained gaze, a sustained examination and contemplation of things so that in this seeing, ordinary understanding may deepen faith.
There has been one rare example of a person who managed to convey these deeper things in his own manner of living.
St Francis, whose feast day we celebrated a few days ago, is important to Christians as a radical. As a child I remember our church and its statue of St Francis stroking the feared wolf of Gubbio, the one he had tamed. St Francis was for any child a favourite saint because of his love of animals and of the natural order. But underlying this was Francis’ gift of seeing and experiencing the natural order as bearing the likeness and the love of God. He was intensely aware that written into the created order was the image, the imprint of the divine likeness. He often gave the earth’s elements a gender as in ‘brother earth, sister moon’ because for him an experience of creation could only be a deeply personal experience. Where there is deep prayer so there is a certain sensitivity to the fine details of our created order. As you looked upon the creation, care for it, and learn to love it, you are in a sure way at one with its Creator. This is a spiritual response.
For Francis this went further, to acts of charity to the poor, the homeless and the hopeless which were encounters with the divine love as it was found in Jesus Christ. This was a putting into action that Christian vision which made God real and apparent in the present. In such an exchange God could be known and recognised for his own sake. He could be made visible. This was an incarnating of the love of God in a way which was recognisable. It was radical because it was uncompromising. And it is still radical. The call we still have, centuries later is the one in which through our own acts and decisions we can make God real in and with and through the One who has made all things as the writer of the Hebrews puts it in our second reading ’God’…’for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists’.
Let us make a pledge in this Eucharist. As in our worship we give ‘worth-ship- to God, so too may we give ‘worth-ship’ to those all those with whom we have contact and to all those we have to deal, so that God may prove indeed to be our ‘all in all’. For God is no theory, he is as real as you are and as our world is.
Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
22nd Aug 2021
12th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life”. John 6.60.
St John’s Gospel is the Gospel which is written for the Church, and which raises practical issues of basic understanding and faith, especially in the face of human conflict. And this morning’s Gospel Reading confronts us with what John has called ‘the message of eternal life’ and of the challenge of its falling on deaf ears, and the possibility of its being lost. ‘The simple question/plea of the disciples, ‘Where shall we go to?’ suggests that God is at the heart of human life’s meaning and that we are to come to him as the source of life. I well remember as a young child on holiday in August taking a new orange ball onto the beach. As I got to the sea’s edge I threw the ball into the sea and swam after it, but the waves soon took it out, and then there was the sad admission of its being irrecoverable. The sea had taken it away from me. It was awful to see it float away, so visible among the blue/grey sea, seemingly quite happy to bob up and down and to be on its way, being carried out on the current, further and further away. And then I imagined that it might arrive in another place and that someone might find it and have it, delighted at the thought of a lovely orange ball having arrived out of the blue. I wondered though, if my voice would be loud enough to say “Would you please give me my ball back?” But it might be received by another as a gift from the sea…
So much for my little bereavement. But as I remember this, over fifty five years later, I realise that it opens up a message in a bottle – the meaning of what John calls ‘the message of eternal life’. This is not a phrase, like many phrases in holy scripture, which begets immediate understanding. And so John offers us a clue as to the direction in which we are being taken when he tells us that ‘the flesh has nothing to offer; it is the spirit that gives life’. This is the difference between life’s brute or sad particulars and the hope which lies beyond them which is imperishable and everlasting. It is that spirit of God which, residing in us, can provide the deeper sea, the broader scope and endless horizon for our spiritual navigation here on this earth:
Thou art a sea without a shore
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere.
This is the challenge of the teaching of Christ for John. And the disciples find this teaching difficult and we can sympathise with them, but the call to Christian Faith is never easy or synthetic. It is all too challenging and it calls us to embrace the full-on reality of our human condition. This is especially true especially when it feels that life itself and life’s hope is being countermanded by forces which seem to be killing of our trust in its goodness. Jesus summons his disciples us to the life which is the hope that God holds out for all of us. For it is God who is reality itself. God is the light which may shine in the darkest of human experience.
The events of the last two weeks have revealed too much evil, of the gunning down of by a deranged killer of his own mother and of a father and daughter out on a walk; the random killing of passers-by as they go about their lives in Plymouth, as well as the guns held aloft in by the Taliban at the airport in Kabul and the fear of the trapped people there – both have revealed a little more of the darker side of things. In the numbed confusion of reactive feelings we hear this morning the words of the disciples as they are encouraged either to hold fast or deny their teacher:
“Lord, to whom should we go? You have the message of eternal life!”
The message of Christ is certainly not all ‘sweetness and light’. In John, if there is light, it is the light of Christ, his attention, which enters the individual consciousness and which leaves its indelible mark. This is also God’s light which searches us out and knows us. Echoes of Simeon’s words are heard, namely that Jesus is the one in whom ‘the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare’. Jesus is concerned not with exteriors but his gaze shines a light into the deep places of the heart and mind. He may come to us when there feels when there is nowhere else to go. He has left seekers after God with an all too real sense of their own vulnerability and the seemingly impossible task of keeping the faith. ‘This is intolerable language’ says one of the followers, ‘How could anyone accept it?’ …We must stay in this difficult place of brave, committed and persistent faith which Jesus teaches as God’s own ‘way forward’. For it is the spirit of God which brings life…
God’s gaze, both upon his world and upon us, is a loving gaze, which longs for our spiritual homecoming, for that which lies true for us and for what will last, for that which is ‘eternal life’ in the now of our existence. We know we are in need of healing and yet we draw back, all too often defensively. And yet the ‘message of eternal life’ is loving and confiding and discreet. It longs to provide for all that is truly needful for us. John sets up in the Gospel the tension between that which pertains to the flesh (life ‘without’ God) and the spirit (belief and trust in the promises of Christ). There is, in coming to Christian Faith. (we ‘come to faith’ of course at every moment) the realisation in the words of the Psalmist: ‘Thou hast searched me out and known me; thou knowest my down seating and my uprising, thou knowest my thoughts long before’ (Psalm 139). There is, in holding on to that faith which God has given, nothing to fear. The call to advance on the life of faith is a call both to courage and to the embrace of all that we have to bear as we say; ‘Honest to God’.
St Augustine of Hippo:
“Therefore, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you were in me; or rather, I would not exist unless I were in you ‘from whom and by whom all things exist….” (The Confessions, I.2).
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
1st Aug 2021
9th Sunday of Trinity
Jesus said to them “I am the bread of Life”. John 6.35
Our Gospel from John explores the theme of Jesus as the ‘Bread of Life’ John’s Gospel surrounds Jesus’ identity with the so-called ‘I am’ sayings. The ‘I am’ phrase had previously only been used a way of identifying with God the Father, who could not be directly named. When Jesus proclaims ‘I am the Bread of Life’ he promises the Church a sustenance which had in the past only been given as manna in the desert. Jesus is now our ‘Bread of life’ and his offering of himself, his ‘flesh’ is given for the life of the world. In Christ our lives find their true belonging and their sustenance. It feeds us and sustains us even when we do not know it.
I was drawn some years ago and entering upon the ministry here at Holy Cross to a little book ‘I am Somewhere Else’ by a Methodist Minister, Rev. Barbara Glasson. She was given the opportunity to put this ‘bread of life’ theology into practice. Given by the Methodist Church a small old shop in a derelict part of Central Liverpool she was asked to ‘make something of the situation’ and to create around this unpromising situation a new and different kind of church. She was an experienced pastor, but had always worked within church situations that were formal and predictable, and that had structure, services, formal duties. Now she was pitched into the unknown. But given that this was Liverpool, and lying somewhere close to the heart of Liverpool’s shopping district this was a place where all sorts of wanderers, all kinds of different people passed by. The derelict shop was refurbished and set up as a drop in. Most of those who came in were homeless and on the margins and in dire need of that same ‘Bread of Life’ of which today’s Gospel speaks.
It was some time before Barbara realised that the situation (God) was calling her to a ministry divested of its usual structures and stripped down to the bare essentials. God was to be discovered through every human encounter – through the meeting of strangers and fellow travellers. This wasn’t just a ‘drop in’ but a church whose minister was found to be there at all hours watching and praying and waiting. This was a an ‘inside out’ kind of church. One day she she was offered a bread oven by a nearby bakery which had closed down she had it set up. Each day she and her followers made bread. And the bread was shared over a soup lunch and a few loaves distributed to those who needed them. And it was in the making and the sharing and the eating of the bread which told you all you needed to know about the provisionality of life, and the importance of finding our life in the lives of others in others in the welcome of the stranger. The provisional is a key word which speaks of course of a provider but also of the unpredictability of things and so the importance of the present moment and the need not to act for the fulfilment of God’s promise and to enact his eucharistic life today.
In contemporary life, many promises are made for the consumer which cannot possibly be satisfied, particularly the buying into the illusion of a life oblivious to its brevity. In this vein a Company of Funeral Directors offers a funeral pre-payment plan entitled ‘Dignity in Destiny Limited’. My mother was shocked to discover that as she ordered a burial plot for my dead father, she had also to face the fact of its providing a second ready-made space for her own remains. Dreadful that in the death of another you come face to face with your own mortality. Barbara Glasson reminds us that “….life dawns on us as we grow in self-awareness. We do not know why we are alive but with every breath we breathe we experience life as a given. Sometimes we are thankful for it and sometimes it scares us witless”. But we must always act as though new life in the present was entirely needful.
If Jesus, ‘The Bread of Life’ is our sustenance, it must be a sustenance that is given ‘just as we are’. And in the middle of where we are and of how things actually are. Life is not all black and white, ready-made as a kind of pre-planned insurance policy. It contains so much is unpredictable, confusing, difficult to bear and to understand, and containing far less fixity and security than we would wish. It is, in short, provisional. It was with this in mind that Barbara advanced the idea of her bread-baking church. The Church which had turned itself inside out was the church which lay open to the elements and took a risk on its own existence, but which was confident and bold in its expression.
In such a way we at Holy Cross we are nourished and empowered as we receive the God’s bread in Jesus – his ‘Bread of Life’ in the Holy Sacrament at this altar. We come both to be fed and to acknowledge our need of God’s feeding. We come to receive life from the source of all life:
Bread of Heav’n on Thee we feed,
For Thy flesh is meat indeed:
Ever may our souls be fed
With this true and living Bread;
Day by day with strength supplied,
Through the life of Him Who died.
And coming as we do from an Anglo-Catholic tradition we remember that the restoration of the sacramental tradition in the 1850s was purposeful. At its heart lay the embrace of the experience of being fed sacramentally with the body and blood of Christ. It was to re-establish something felt to be lost : that before our worship was ever ceremonial or occasional it was first and foremost a living encounter with a God, who in Jesus Christ – the life of the world – feeds us now and ever more, wherever and with whomsoever we find ourselves.
As this broken bread was scattered as grain upon the mountains, and, being gathered together, became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom; for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
From The Didache