Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
13th Oct 2019
Sermon for the Seventeenth 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 Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 2019
6th Oct 2019
The Sixteenth 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, first, first of all, abide in his presence. This is essential if we are to grow in His love. 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, and in it a stress, the stress of being at the mercy of a time consuming monotony, and the pent up coping with the frustration of it. There seem now to be more ways in which these stressful gaps in our existence can be alleviated. The mobile phone and the iPod are used by many where there are these vacant spaces in our existence; these places of inevitable waiting.
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 would have us deal with the hard facts of our existence. If we are to be called ‘faithful’, then we must indeed wait patiently 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 for its own sake.
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. May we find our true place of remaining or rest and stop and stay in His peace. Amen.
Sermon for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels
29th Sep 2019
SERMON FOR ST MICHAEL AND ALL ANGELS
HOLY CROSS CHURCH 2019 (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.
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 a coercive one… 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 Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2019
22nd Sep 2019
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 16.14 “You cannot serve God and wealth”
This morning’s parable introduces us to a dishonest man who is yet cunning and practical. He excuses his master’s debtors a huge percentage of their debt as if with one bold brush stroke. He is adept at covering up his tracks and admits that even though he faces the sack, it will be worthwhile to excuse the debtors so that he might still curry favour with them. All this is done not with his own money, but with his master’s! He is the original ‘crafty Harry’ and the text remarks drily that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. Even his own master seems to have a sneaking respect for him.
Parables like this one can often be read through their last line, which normally contains a pithy instruction. In this case it is, ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’. The purpose of this story is not to amuse but to instruct. ‘God is before all else’ it says, ‘and wealth is ephemeral’. In the words of the Beatles song ‘Money can’t buy me love’. In Jesus own time, as with our time, the contrast between the wealthy and the poor was all too painfully experienced. And there are many parables in the New Testament about the rich and poor : the widow’s mites, Lazarus and Dives, the rich young man who must sell all he has, and the man who built barns and was rich but the following day was dead, and so on…
There may never have been a time when the rich and the poor did not live side by side, at least before some kind of monetary or capital based system of living was being practised. Last week’s feast of St Matthew reminds us that Matthew was called as a rich man. Rich because his job was to fleece the poor people with heavy taxes imposed by the Roman Empire and to ‘take his own cut’. Hence all tax collectors were hated by the people at large. But in calling Matthew to be his disciple Jesus takes a very pragmatic view of Matthew’s wealth. He knows Matthew’s true worth and is not offended by his lifestyle, but rather sees God in him and chooses him.
My great uncle on my father’s side was a Canadian who had served in the First World War and been gassed and wounded. Unlike his British counterpart, my uncle was awarded a large sum of money in compensation for his injuries and with this capital sum, married my father’s sister and bought a farm in Cornwall. Many years later I remember him speaking with my own father in one of his fields and asking my father how much did he think he was worth? I can’t remember what my father replied but it was a sorry sort of question. The following week , however my uncle died and so the question of his monetary worth was no longer either real or necessary. This goes to the heart of the question. You cannot serve God and wealth. Money has been a curse to some but for most it’s a vexation. In some cases of course, great sums of money have been given for the greater good. There is the Bill Gates Foundation and in the last century great monies donated by John Passmore Edwards to provide libraries for the poor in the east end of London and in Cornwall. His famous one liner was “Do the best for the most”. Then there were great public benefactors like Andrew Carnegie, who provided for the establishment of concert halls and parks. It has only lately been discovered that the singer George Michael discreetly donated many millions of pounds to various charities.
The ‘other side of the coin’ is of course the present state of the world and the broad divergences between the rich and the poor. Often overlooked is the poverty in our own country which is all too close at hand, and the prevalence of loan sharks, food banks and indebtedness, often owing to gambling and at the extreme end of the scale, drug habit. We must consider the purpose of a Parable like the one we have heard this morning to provide some kind of Christian pointer to the way in which any relationship with God must invariably relate to my (poor) neighbour. Churches like ours are all too aware of the need to account for the financial and material resources at our disposal, and we have spent the last year and a half considering our future course and of drawing a balance between our financial accountability and our desire to commit to a charitable mode of existence. We hope that our new tenants, offering acting skills to young people, some of whom will come from poorer backgrounds, may go some way to fulfilling our Christian brief. With the establishment of room space alongside the drama school, Holy Cross will in the New Year, be able to offer community space to local groups who themselves help to enrich our sense of local community and develop their outreach through the auspices of the local church.
The Christian Churches seek to embrace an economy in which the love of God and the love of neighbour, especially our poor neighbour, are interrelated and indispensable parts of God’s view of things. The parable today draws a distinction between the existence of God and prevalence of wealth but the distinction is not a neat or convenient one. But what emerges is the real state of things and of a God who seeks us out and knows us, not primarily for what we bring to the table, or even our own estimation of ourselves, but for the love he has for us and the hope he wishes for a present and future which finds its true worth in Him.
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
15th Sep 2019
Sermon for the Thirteenth 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 as 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 shepherding of 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 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 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.