Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
8th Dec 2019
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT (Year A)
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree” Matthew 3.9
Last Sunday, Advent Sunday, marked the beginning of a new church year. In this new year, Matthew’s Gospel will predominate. Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ family tree leading back to the first man, Adam and through the lineage of King David. For Matthew the past and the present are interwoven in the life of Christ. He is led after all to see Jesus as the fulfiller of the past as expressed in the words of the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be here’:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
Out of Matthew’s love of the past emerges something which is very present. For the redemption of which the hymn speaks in the coming of Christ, is likened to the startling image of the axe lying ready to strike at the roots of the tree, against the blind allegiance to the past. His severest criticism is levelled at the ultra conservative Pharisees:
Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’
The essential call which Matthew makes is the one which is couched in the present tense. His call to us lies in the ‘now’ of our existences. Now is the time for an awakening in Christ to the new realities which have been established in Him. And it is in the person of John the Baptist, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, that calls for a spiritual awakening. A call to shake off the shackles of spiritual indifference and lethargy and to rediscover in and among us, and in and through the life of God’s Church to find more God.
Some while ago I met the Queen at Goodenough College and was reminded of the one politician who was permitted to address her simply as ‘Elizabeth’. He was Nelson Mandela, who was both among many other things, a visionary prophet of John’s character. Like John the Baptist centuries before him, the Man and the message were one. But they could only become one where the life which had been lived and the word which had been spoken had emerged out of a crucible of suffering and trial. The most important thing to say about both men is that they lived totally in the present and saw the present time, and not the past, as the time of transformation. This transformation, the promised coming of a new order, was to be realised in every human life. But it was not to be easy. It was to be offered in truth telling and in honesty. Both for Nelson Mandela and John The Baptist the repeated expression is one of repentance, and in Mandela one of courageous trust.
These two expressions are not so far apart. They both attest to the healing power of forgiveness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was the arbiter for the future of a battered and wounded and yet potentially vengeful angry and divided South Africa bore the direct imprint of Mandela’s way, which was to offer, at a time when victory over apartheid had been won, forgiveness and restoration for past criminal acts in return for truth-telling. This became the bedrock on which the new state was to be built. And its living roots lay in a Christian understanding. This understanding tells us that for life to be possible at all it must be God’s life, and God’s life is the one which seeks the renewal of hearts and minds and the restoration of mankind to the likeness and the being of God himself, and our true freedom. For the South African Truth and reconciliation Commission, the past was a nightmare, and an over-identification with the past and its horror had the power to maim and distort the present. But forgiveness and reconciliation and truth telling in the present had the power to heal and to transform. There could be no other way. And this Way was the one followed by John the Baptist in his wilderness every bit as much as it was imbibed and founded in Mandela’s mind and body and soul in that prison on Robben Island. It is best expressed in the watchwords which emerge out of our New Testament Reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans :
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is the One who, through the Baptist and through Nelson Mandela calls us out of self-satisfaction, out of ourselves and into active concern for my neighbour who will always represent ‘the greater whole’ and a bigger and more advanced humanity.
Here are Mandela’s own words, firstly in relation to a trial decision to put him to prison:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
(Nelson Mandela, words following the pronouncement of the death sentence against him).
For even now, and for us, as for John the Baptist, the axe has been laid at the root of the tree. At a time when political promises fly through the air, great and costly promises made to convince us of a ‘better’ Britain we come this morning to the prophet’s vision of a world transformed not by a barrage of semi-empty promises but by the a movement of a courageous heat and its passionate, resounding voice.
Sermon for Advent Sunday
1st Dec 2019
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2019
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen. Luke 21.36
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, involves us in a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Tesco the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”. In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, and a prolonged wait, peppered for the child with all kinds of promise.
But for adults waiting is often a much less ecstatic business. When I think about waiting my mind turns to hospitals. Patients start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some even await their own death. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits; most clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as one who waits and holds on with all the fearfulness and the terror of his own position in the waiting. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed.
But we do not wait in a vacuum. We wait in time. “And time will have its fancy” says the poet Auden , “tomorrow or today”. But as time goes by we can experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, expressed ominously in this morning’s Gospel, to ‘pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. But I think we would rather not know what might happen, yet we must face the possibility that we might be severely tested. I have just got back from a few days with my family. As time goes by, I value these family get-togethers more and more. We are none of us getting any younger and at this particular time it has been important to support my parents, whose health is very frail. We spend a good deal of time talking about the past, as family gatherings are wont to do, but there is the inevitable sense of family concern turning to the health of the older generation. Even though that is barely expressed it is as clear as day. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us that ”there is a time for everything under the sun” and the Season of Advent exposes us to what is in relation to what is to come. But even though the passing of time brings new challenges, some of them emotionally trying, we are urged not to be afraid. Praying for strength to survive is seen as an act of human survival itself. Spiritual awakenness is the mark of the Christian character. It echoes St Paul's definition of that faith which will outlast the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and which "...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". (1 Corinthians 13.7-8).
As the Advent Season progresses we make a journey from darkness to the light in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem. This light is the end point of human longing, for it is the light which brings God to us in human form, Jesus Christ. We are led to this light by the wisdom of the prophets, the message of an angel and the guiding of a star. But that is for later… For now the Holy Season of Advent points to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification. This is can lead to a numbing of the senses, and there must be times when we willingly lay this aside and consider that place where truer life is to be found. Yesterday we spent a quiet day at the Benedictine Centre for Spirituality in Cockfosters. We allowed ourselves to inhabit brief periods of protracted and sustained silence and found there in the words of Meister Eckhart that sense of God which sustains:
"Nothing is so like God as silence".
Advent speaks to us of the gradual unfolding of the divine disclosure as this morning one of our children lights the first candle on the Advent wreath. This is a small but vivid marking of that time which will lead us back to God through the birth at Bethlehem. But first we must wait. We must wait and quieten ourselves to remain alert to the One who is present. Await his coming if necessary in passionate silence. So, then let us wait; and let us pray; let us wait, and then let us see…
Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence. W H Auden.
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Advent
17th Nov 2019
The Second Sunday before Advent
Jesus is God of the Living and the Dead.
Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to Him all of them are alive”. Luke 20.38
In today’s Gospel we have Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees, who denied resurrection, and it is revealing. It is written by Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. He writes for the life of the very early church. Luke is certain that the Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead is crucial for the life of the church and not to be discounted. His thoughts echo those of St Paul who had declared “…and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching is in vain, and your faith is also vain.” Corinthians (15.17) The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the Church’s ‘calling card; its birth right.
The Christian Teaching we receive is not one subject to ‘knock-down’ or irrefutable arguments. It is the revelation to the faithful of the divine scheme of things. In this respect, the resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes the transforming event. Of course, the life of the world to come is unimaginably different from what we know in the here and now. But Jesus is firm in his knowledge that the life to come is as sure as ‘the angels in heaven’. The defining story of the Old Testament is the one in which God reveals his sacred name. At the burning bush, Moses speaks about the God as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ Luke 20.38. In God, life and death are not separate; they are seen and understood in the one light. But ultimately it is Jesus who will once and for all time bridge the unfathomable divide separating the living and the dead through his own rising. And so in Romans, Paul can come to say that “If we are one with Christ in a death like his, we shall certainly be one with him in a resurrection like his”. Romans 6.3.
Jesus is saying that to view the dead as, well, dead, is a mistake. We need to see them as God does, in the light of his resurrection. ‘For to him all of them are alive’. The Book of Wisdom reminds us that ‘In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their going from us to be their destruction. But they are (now) at peace, and their hope is full of immortality’. Wisdom 3.1-9. So if those we loved and honoured are forever alive and present to God, then they can and should be to us too. We were reminded of this strong fact in the Commemoration of All Souls, and on Remembrance Sunday which we observed last week.
In the Christian Church, we not only remember the dead, we pray for individual souls, too. This our way of continuing to care and recognize the bonds of love that death can never break. We could say that death shows us God’s way of gathering up this life’s fragments of human life so that nothing is lost. All is becomes one in Him.
This is a hope which may sustain when darkness days comes, and there is uncertainty as to what life may hold in store for us in this fragile world of ours. In hope, we pray that the Spirit of the Living Lord may rise upon and overcome those times when we are anxious. We come to this Eucharist to celebrate the risen Christ here among us. And because of the word he speaks to us today, we do not come here alone, but in the company of all who are in heaven, who rejoice with us, if on another shore and in a greater light. In bread and wine, we are one with that innumerable company we do not see, but who are our companions in faith, who travel with us towards the perfect vision of God.
The great crucifix in All Saints Church – The Church of the Ognissanti in Florence, Italy has recently been cleaned and restored. It lay for many years in a storage room in the church, collecting dust and dirt until it was almost unrecogniseable. But now all is revealed. Revealed in fact to have been an original work by the painter Giotto. What was remarkable about Giotto’s genius painting was the layering of colour and also the painting of mood and emotion to an extreme degree, even though in matt and where the colours invariably appeared very flat. The cleaning took four years and now it appears to us as it did over seven hundred years ago, as a minor miracle, a vision of the glory of God shining in the face of the crucified Christ. Giotto would have argued about the resurrection and the last things as did the Saducees. But One look at his painting, a crucifix, offers you both the terribleness of the Cross with the promise of the life to come burnished in its gold and deep blue lapis lazuli. Meditate upon this Cross, he seems to say, and in and through all its meaning, even unto death, the resurrection hope is already being revealed to you. Life, death and resurrection become in Christ entirely comprehensible as one single unity and for us who believe, one reality.
Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2019
10th Nov 2019
Remembrance Sunday 2019
Their hope was rich in immortality. Wisdom 3.4
Remembrance Sunday remains with me as a very vivid memory from my childhood, some fifty years ago. In my home town of Plymouth the Act of Remembrance took place on the vast esplanade which provides a dramatic high platform overlooking a wide expanse of sea. And it was on this platform and from a Plymouth that had been completely rebuilt after the ravages of the blitz, that the old soldiers marched. The guns from the nearby barracks on the Hoe boomed out to sea and their echoes returned. The two minutes’ silence was held in an intense atmosphere which was full of human dignity in the deeply felt remembrances and the sorrow.
Standing back from this memory, I had once felt sure as the years passed, this Day of Remembrance for the War Dead would spend itself with the passage of time and with the deaths of the combatants of the World Wars. But this has not been the case. For this Sunday strikes a chord in the human heart. Remembrance Sunday is much more than the sum total of the observances that take place. It occupies a sea of human experience which spans life and death and particularly suffering and loss with the hope 'rich in immortality'. It brings us in touch, yes with the brutality and the futility of war and the sorrow of loss but also the eternal worth of human of human life and human sacrifice. If we are to speak of God’s presence in the face of war, we might own that, even amidst the horrors of suffering, there emerge so many acts of amazing self-giving. The word ‘sacrifice’ is brought strongly to bear, not only as the giving of life unto death, but also the daily offering of dedicated and willing service in many acts of willing self-sacrifice which constitute another laying down of life.
These are of course Christian figures of speech – the reaching out beyond the life here to the life beyond, and the transformation of the human condition in a life which gives of itself to the other. The book of Wisdom declares this an expression of a hope ‘rich in immortality’. The many war memorials across the world call to us today with their seemingly endless rows of names, with each name a whole life, a life of hopes and dreams and cares and joys and pains. And as the poppy petals fall down into the Albert Hall each year at the Festival of Remembrance each petal represents one life given. Each one counts; each one was significant; each one gathered up and made present to us in the falling of the red petals.
God’s very being, ‘bright with immortality’, is with us now. And in a world in which war and the waging of war still remains a reality we ask ourselves as Christians how we are to understand this Remembrance Sunday in relation to life in the early twenty first century? We commemorate this Sunday only days after the Christian World commemorates All Souls, the Day of the Dead. In London the dead leaves fall to the ground and crunch underfoot as nature accompanies the hallowing of the dead and the poppies are seen everywhere. The present day vocation for the Christian is to proclaim a life that has not succumbed to the deadliness of a world turned in on itself, with a closed mind and a stone heart, but to the bright hope that resides in our co-dependency, and in the call to serve one another in our full and challenging humanity.
This is our way forward. It lies in the proper honouring of the human condition as it is found, and a patient preparedness to sacrifice our own selves for the good of the greater whole. The Christian Gospel and the teaching of Christ is before else a summons to our own wholehearted response. Deadness is there in the life which has withdrawn into itself and which takes no risks and avoids having any demands made upon it. Abundant life is there when it is given away, sacrificed in disinterested love for the other. The life of Jesus has shown that victory over the powers of death is won in the offering of our lives for the greater good which is God. We may do this in perhaps in little ways. But they are all of them significant.
Sometimes large amounts of sacrifice have had be given for the sake of the good, and for the peace of the world. This day reminds us that the self-sacrifice of the many in the past may lead us on to an understanding of the power of human self-sacrifice in this and every age. In this way we contribute in the present as they have in the past to the eternal worth of human sacrifice and for a hope 'rich in immortality'.
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ - Dylan Thomas
Written between the wars in 1933,
Thomas's poem takes on a broad theme of remembrance and the eternity of the human spirit.
Sermon for All Saints Sunday 2019
3rd Nov 2019
A Sermon for All Saints 2019
The Feast of All Saints is one of the most important of the Church’s year. It is what is called a ‘moveable’ feast, and can be ‘moved’ to the nearest Sunday, where it can be given its due honour. And as we honour the Christian saints so we honour the Christian calling, which is to a life consecrated and dedicated in the service of Jesus Christ.
The other day I was staying in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, from where you can see the tallest spire in England. The Cathedral is a stunning sight, and walking around the west front, you see before you hundreds of saints, each contained within their own apse, and all looking vaguely alike. And perhaps this is the image we have of the saints, mostly bearded men, gazing down at us from their isolated places and lost in time. In the south east corner of our church we have a statue of St Jude, who was rarely prayed to on account of his unfortunate name. But because of this he became known as ‘the patron saint of lost causes’. And he gives us the clue we need to fathom something of the meaning of the lives of the saints in everyday life in all its many facets.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith belongs neither to a ‘goodness religion’ nor to a religion for super humans. Sanctity issues out of lives which have been marked by doubt, disillusion, suffering and struggle. The saints remind us that the Christian journey is real and loaded with both possibility and perplexity. These were never ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived in a very real and challenging circumstances. In the film “Nixon”, Anthony Hopkins plays the former president as a tortured and ruthless power maniac. In one scene, Nixon gazes up at a painting of John F Kennedy. He speaks to the painting “When people look at you they see themselves as they want to be, when they look at me they see themselves as they are”. Perhaps our working definition of a saint must combine both these observations?
The idea of the saint came from a tradition of venerating the mortal remains of Christians who had left their mark on the memory of the Christian community. The first of these were the early Christian martyrs who died in Rome, including St Peter and St Paul. Once churches were built they were called after saint’s names, and in Cornwall there are strange names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, St Thomas à Becket was made a saint only four years after his death. RS Thomas the poet reminds us as he looks upon his old church in remote West Wales that ‘the parish has a saint’s name that time cannot unfrock’.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith may not be an easy faith to live out but it is an essentially human way and not a conveyor belt for the turning out of plaster saints. It is a way which can be tough because it expresses itself counter-culturally. Do not believe the certain kind of Christianity that makes faith seem guaranteed and easy; it is not. I do not find being Christian easy at all. The Church teaches, however, that we are here not for short-term spiritual gain but for the long haul, in faith terms ‘till death us do part’. Christian witness is about the sanctification, the blessing and dedication of lives that seek and find God over years and years as a single act of witness in Jesus Christ. The expression of this consecrated life have been many and various: displaying the kind of faith that came to St Augustine as the guilt over the enforced separation after 16 years from the partner he never married and the later death of their sixteen year old son. Then there was St Benedict, who wrote a rule for the community we call the Benedictines and it has long been valued as a Christian model for its understanding of human limitations and its love of unity in the Christian fellowship. Nonetheless his basic rulings on human behavior are forthright:
Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.
The saints are human, just like us. The call to Christian sanctity is the call to live lives which are generous and loving and which reveal the Christian Faith to be transformative of the human condition because they are God immersed and God-led. But they rely, importantly, not on their strength alone, but in the mercy, forgiveness and healing they receive at God’s hands. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Holiness is a quality of experience we sense strongly and intuitively. Perhaps, as well as the saints of Christian history, there have been people you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and that strong purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of the sanctified life. Or perhaps you have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or within a community of prayer, like this church.
I never enter this building without feeling a sense of awe. I always feel my heart miss a beat. This is a place, a sanctified space, where I have, maybe like you, found and re-found a sense of belonging in the love of God, and a true sense of spiritual refreshment. The holiness of this place reveals itself apart from the matter of its architecture or of furniture, light or proportion. It is something felt to exist beyond the sum total of its parts. It lies in the prayers that have been made in this place for well over a hundred years, the prayers of many thousands of lives for which this place has been a house of God, a sanctuary, and a place of encounter with the God who has speaks and who calls. The outpouring of so many hopes and fears in this place, the human activity and the worship go to make up the strong sense of this place as a holy place, a place of truth. The presence of God in this place which seems saturated in the bricks. The saints and the idea of the sanctified life is a reminder that here we participate in that which is holy, and we hope that this holiness becomes folded into our everyday lives as the influence for our own healing and transformation. St Paul called his church members ‘saints’ as a way of encouraging them more fully to live the life to which they were being called and to establish, once and for the fact of the holiness of the Church.
The following great prayer, simply called ‘The Sanctus’ or ‘Prayer of Holiness’, embedded in the Eucharist, is one which tells us that our worship of God is a participation in that which is holy. For God is holy, and the worship we offer Him is for the sanctification, the transformation, the making holy of the ordinary stuff of our lives. And so we say:
Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,
Who was, and is and is to come!