Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
27th Sep 2020
A Sermon for Trinity 16 Year A
Be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. Philippians 2.3
Some time ago I attended two separate but complimentary events. The first was a Roman Catholic Mass in celebration of The Sisters of Mercy and for the anniversaries of the life vows of two of our sisters who work in the parish locally as ‘women at the well’. The second was a book launch. An old priest friend of mind has just published a book reflecting on a Christian mystical work named ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ whose anonymous writer does not mince words:
For I tell you this: one loving, blind desire for God alone is more valuable in itself, more pleasing to God and to the saints, more beneficial to your own growth, and more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you could do.
Both parties expressed the need to balance an active with a contemplative life. This is to live the balanced inner life which can adapt to what the old prayer book called the ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world’. And in the medieval period there was a sudden upsurge in a movement toward this contemplative way, in which ordinary, active life includes, as part of ‘one loving blind desire for God’ the prayer of the heart. Figures such as Mother Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton and Marjory Kempe were writing down their experiences of contemplative prayer in the emerging English language made popular by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. Their passion for God was earthed the in their everyday lives, that is in their ordinariness. Their piety was not otherworldly and affected. These were earthy figures and not plaster saints. Margery Kempe was plagued by sexual temptation and ran a brewery! The author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ is clearly a ‘tough cookie’, Julian of Norwich has survived a life-threatening illness and the Last Rites of the Dead and had plenty of life wisdom. It is to these people, honest in their view of themselves and yet rugged seekers after God, who startle us with their spiritual witness. Here is Margery Kempe:
She greeted the Vicar, asking him if she could—in the afternoon, when he had eaten—speak with him for an hour or two of the love of God. He, lifting up his hands and blessing himself, said, “Bless us! How could a woman occupy one or two hours with the love of our Lord? I shan’t eat a thing till I find out what you can say of our Lord God in the space of an hour.”
Through live experience, these very English mystics have passed on pieces of Christian wisdom hammered out of hard and struggling lives. Jesus refers to such individuals in this morning’s Gospel when he tells us that many surprising individuals are entering the Kingdom of God before the wise, the pious and the all-knowing. Our Christianity is always predicated on ordinary life, but we must wake up to the fact and the presence of God or deny Him.
This morning’s parable of the two brothers is the simplest and shortest of all parables. Jesus uses it to harangue the crowd of whom some have been apathetic followers, blind and stubborn in their unbelieving towards John the Baptist. He tells them, shockingly, that tax-collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before they do. Not only does Jesus say that the roots of their supposed faith have no depth. He declaims them in favour of rank sinners and outsiders. The meaning of the Incarnation, of Jesus coming in the flesh, is to make physical and plain the true purposes of his being as God in human form, and his is a wake-up call. The Christian calling is for us to become most truly alive. And to be truly alive is to be alive in the true likeness of God in what we are and what we are made to become. For we are God’s creatures, made in his own likeness; made to find our life’s true reconciliation in Him. We must not neglect such a gift!
In Carl Jung's psychology, what he calls metanoia indicates a spontaneous attempt of the psyche to heal itself of unbearable conflict by melting down and then being reborn in a more adaptive form. This is the very issue that Jesus addresses in this small parable. Of the Christian calling to adapt to the ways of God’s love, to be open to the possibility of adaptation and change. The two brothers both reveal different parts of our nature – the one active and responsive and the other sluggish, and careless. Jesus awakens us to the possibility of contemplative communion with God for the transformation of our minds and hearts.
Today, there is more need than ever for us to live life which contains a contemplative element, so that life does not blow us apart. It is necessary for us to find our own still centre. ‘ In every human heart there is a God-shaped space’ said Cardinal Hume. There are many groups set up in London to help you to embrace that process. And I am most willing to put anyone interested into the way of these life-saving, contemplative, prayerful groups, which engage more closely with the Word of God and strive to be more responsive to what God may be saying in their lives.
In this respect we either grow, we respond to God’s grace going before us in the ordinary and the everyday, or not bother at all, in which case, as for the refusal of love, a vital part of us actually dies…
Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
20th Sep 2020
Sermon for 15th Sunday after Trinity Year A
Christ will be glorified in my body, whether by my life or by my death. Philippians 1.20.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has roots that go back as far as the fourth century. No less a person than St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine was a woman ahead of her time. She made the great journey from Rome to The Holy Land, and had teams of people excavate the site of the little hill in Jerusalem, believed to be the place of crucifixion. Legend had it that three crosses were unearthed, and a large church was built over the sacred site. The Church of the Holy Sepulcre remains there to this day. The wonder of this piece of history is that The Emperor’s mother, three centuries after the death of Christ, should have been an such an ardent Christian and amazingly, an archaeologist. The larger point is something that we must admit. This is what theologians call ‘the scandal of particularity’ in relation to the life of Christ. He was born at a certain time and in a certain place. The same stones which surrounded Jesus two hundred centuries ago can still be seen and touched today. The same terrain and horizons, beckon, with the city of old Jerusalem sloping down toward the temple and the deep Kidron Valley, over which Christ wept over the city. The crucifixion has in a real sense, been unearthed.
The most shocking aspect of this ‘scandal of particularity’ is the means and manner of Jesus’ death on the cross. It really was like this, that the Lord of life should die should an ignominious death. How strange in a way that people wear the Cross, the instrument of human torture, around their necks. How odd it is today that you can reach the hill of Golgotha even by a short cut which leads you through a shop selling meat and spices, and trace old passages and which bring you to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcre and then into to a small community of Ethiopian Orthodox monks, whose poor, bare cells inhabit the roof space. The feeling of disclocation is very much with you as you trace these routes around what was once called Golgotha, and at the same time commune with the Christ of faith.
For Jonah in our first reading it is the dislocation of knowing that the being and the mind of God lies beyond anything he can possibly fathom and yet God is close and loving. It ill behoves us as Christians who call ourselves ‘Christian Church’ to suppose that we have somehow domesticated God, fixed Him or put him in a kind of box. For God shows Jonah is beyond any attempt we might make to place him, or identify him as a kind of Christian formula. And yet God is Jonah’s closest friend, because he knows him better than he knows himself and still holds out his love for him. Despite all human signs to the contrary, Jonah is the one whom God has chosen to love and to call. His calling is particular and sure.
This sense of powerful calling is taken up in the second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul is writing this letter from prison. In it he meditates upon his own life and death. The dislocation for him is the one which makes him feel that Christ has overcome the ancient superstition which separates life from death. The Incarnation is about our life and death. For Paul, to live is Christ and to die gain. But while this might seem high-flown rhetoric, Paul is realistic, resigned and philosophical about the life he must leave, with all its responsibilities and duties. His dislocation is presented as a dilemma which will not have its resolution in this world. This is echoed in Hamlet’s speech ‘…to be or not to be…?
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1
Our Holy Gospel tells of the workers in the vineyard who started work at different times but who each a paid a denarius. Here Jesus presents us with another part of the dislocation. This is the one in which the effect of our own calculated judgements about our status and worth is thwarted by the God who is other than what we might make him out to be. Rather like Jonah. We do not need to worry or fret about these things. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard Jesus points the way, through the labyrinthine paths of the wanderings of the mind and heart and will, to Christ himself, and in being surely led to Christ and called into his service.
Saint Teresa of Avila
Lines Written in Her Breviary
Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.
H. W. Longfellow (translator).
For Paul in prison, this must mean that he is passionately and joyfully resigned to whatever life, or rather God, might have in store for him. For Jonah, this must mean he must continue to hold faith in the God who remains above and beyond anything or anyone that can be imagined. For both these men these are no mere factual observations. They emerge out of a faith which accepts the particulars of life while holding to the God who reveals himself to them through ‘the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…’.
In the film, ‘Victoria and Abdul’, Queen Victoria befriends a Moslem servant, who brings to her life a refreshment and girlish joy so lacking in her court life and her duties as Queen Empress. In one scene she berates her existence as an old woman who is sick and sorrowful, anxious, power driven and saddened and depressed by life. What to do and where to turn? The servant Munshi Abdul reminds her that all these things are there, but they are as nothing to the call to not waste time in a depressive way, but to continue on our way obedient to the call of service, reaching beyond ourselves to find ourselves. This is what lies in the message of the Cross of Christ. Jesus is the One who went willingly unto death, passing through and beyond all the arguments that might have prevented him from achieving it. In his obedience to the Father’s will he makes the once and for all and vital disclosure of God’s love. In turn this is a revelation of the kind of faith which is required of all of us. It must surely be a faith which can withstand the tests that both time and chance and dictate. It must be a faith which has not domesticated or put into a place of convenience that same God who is at one and the same time both known to us and yet importantly beyond our knowing. This is the place where we find the God of our beginning and our true end, our life and death. “Christ will be glorified in my body”, Paul says ….”….whether by my life or by my death”.
Let it be for us, too…
Sermon for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
13th Sep 2020
Sermon for Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross 2020
“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.
Schoolchildren from Argyle School have regularly visited this Church to learn about The Christian Faith. and they happen to be almost entirely Muslim. In this context it’s telling that our dedication to Christ’s Holy Cross is really so visible and emphatic. For the Cross is the one place, the one meaning and the one significance that separates Muslim and indeed Jewish understanding from the Christian one. The Cross of Christ is not saving for Jews and it’s scandalous for Muslims. Why after all should one who is proclaimed as Son of God die so ignominiously; what kind of a God is that? What can all this mean?
One boy some years ago looked up at the huge cross above me and very directly “How did he get there?!” We might reply, “Good question… “Yes… and why did it have to be like this?” The victory of the Cross is for Christians a strange victory that takes us into deep spiritual waters. For what is being proclaimed in the Cross is not so obvious to most of us. For many it shows the contradictory nature of the ‘good’ God. This brings us to the idea of the Cross as a kind of scandal : Whoever won a victory by such suffering and death? In order to respond to such a question we can follow the Bible passages set for us this morning and then by them, piece together an understanding. We will be following a route that encircles and embraces Christ’s own via dolorosa, his sorrowful way…A route that will show us why St Paul can say that we are ‘created in Christ’.
In our Old Testament reading we journey in the desert with the people of the Exodus, with Moses as their leader. The people have lost patience, even though God had promised through Moses that he would be faithful. God is not only interested in their fate, he is also engaged in it. But they are disgruntled and are given the sign of the fiery serpent set on a stand. A banner to lead them and to be with them, A sign of divine assurance and of healing against all evils. This same standard, the serpent entwined around a vertical staff, with the Cross of Jerusalem, attaches itself to the name badge of the St John’s Ambulance and is seen on our ambulances. The Cross is the preeminent sign for Christians, not just as emblematic of The Church but the sign which communicates the idea of the crucified Christ in one profound spiritual message – that you now have to lose your life in order to find it. To lose your life is in contradictory fashion to embrace those things which you cannot have or possess, especially immediate gratification and quick fixing. That your own suffering and failure, the holding on while so much remains unresolved or incomplete is a vital part of your spiritual journey and key to your spiritual maturing in Christ. The Jesus who laid down his life on the Cross gives us the living sign. It is to be etched into the Christian psyche and given expression in word and deed. This sign is the one given at Baptism. It is to be given expression in confidence and steadfastness; in the Christian ‘holding on’. This poem, in our website from a former parish priest Fr John Ball, who was also a great poet. This is a poem asking God to help him keep going:
It is the holding together that is hard –
The resisting of the centrifugal forces
Acting on mind and heart
That break the tenuous links of thought and feeling.
And then there is the fear (which on black days
Transmutes itself into a dark seducer
Parodying hope) that the next revolution of the hand
Upon the sadly common clock
Will bring the final, the inoperable rupture,
and burst the dams of past
And future pains.
It is the holding you must help us in:
We cannot enter heaven in fragments
The gates will not allow of that.
And you must give the means to keep it
If you love us, as I fear you do.
Father John Ball,
Parish Priest, Holy Cross Church,
The Cross helps us to hold on to those things which are vital for us just as Christ Himself held on to the very end. In this spiritual holding on we are embracing a more profound set of realities. We are living within the circumference of Christ’s deep, brave hope.
St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians reminds the people that they were once without God and without hope. But he does not despair of them and declares before the Ephesian people that “we are God’s work of art” The Cross too is God’s work of art. Like many works of art it confronts us and it questions us. It will not always comfort us. It is not a work we would automatically place above ‘the mantlepiece of our minds’, but it does speak of those things which compose our own uncomfortable ‘facts of live’ which may confound and disturb us. St Paul is a passionate believer in the possibilities inherent in human nature and he speaks against what my old spiritual director used to term ‘splitting’ - of human lives split off from their real source and so unable to thrive. He challenges them ‘…to live the good life as from the beginning as God had meant us to live it’. The Cross for Paul is life, hope and refreshment because it takes us to the place of our own true indwelling and healing. The Cross is past, present and future. We embrace the life of which it speaks even as St Paul now invites us into God’s household of faith and trust; a household we have in fact already come to inhabit.
Finally, our Gospel reading points us to the fact of the Cross as being the one sustained communication of the identity and purposes of God. Look at the Cross and you find that the God of love is the One who imparts that love from a place of necessary trial and suffering. This is the kind of love which takes us to the heart of our human being as we begin to recognise a way of knowing God in and with the trials we too must suffer. “We all have our crosses to bear” said one woman “And none of them are little ones”. The loving, willing compassionate sharing of pain and suffering proves healing and enables new life to emerge as if from nowhere. This is a profound mystery. If you and I are the sum total of all the loves we have shared and received, so too in Christ we are the sum total of all that that we have bravely born, of all that we have given and not known, of all that we have been - perhaps unrecognised by ourselves. In this lies the willingness to realise the creative potential of our vulnerability. This is to own ‘Christ in us; the hope of glory”. Col.1.27.
This Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross joyfully celebrates the Cross. We at Holy Cross are proud of our dedication; arguably the most godly dedication of them all. The scandalous Cross has the power to hold us fast. Jesus Christ holds us fast as we trace the pattern of his life and suffering in our own lives and in the lives of others, for as St Paul reminds us “If we have become one with him in a death life his, we will surely become one in a Resurrection like his”. Romans 6.3
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
6th Sep 2020
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“Love is the answer to every one of the commandments”. Romans 13.10
When we read from St Paul’s Letter to The Romans, we understand this to mean that all Romans were being addressed. All the people, no matter where they were coming from. It is never a Letter written to a select group. The genius of St Paul lay in his ability to communicate to the largest number of people while remaining true to the basic meaning of the Christian Gospel. The language he uses is direct and basic. What binds the Church together from within itself is no secret or complex set of religious rules. ‘Love’ Paul says is to be the Church’s meaning and the true mark of its identity. And once he declares this to be so then he lays a great demand upon his listeners everywhere. For there can be no love among us unless there is self-examination and repentance, and the awareness of our own need for healing and of reconciliation.
The preeminent ministry of Jesus Christ, the mission given Him by God the Father, was the ministry of reconciliation. To be a Christian is to live in that ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. Forgiveness and healing doesn’t say that there was no sin. It doesn’t excuse hurt or sin. What it does do is heal us. And this is the prophetic task set by the Church. The recognition and the obedience of the call to be active reconcilers. And the best way of understanding the call to reconciliation is to see Christ as the One who takes into himself energies of all different kinds, many of them malevolent, distorted and vain, and through his own being transforms these energies. In human terms, this movement must derive from our own willingness in to be honest with ourselves and honest to God. The world needs communities of hopoe which convey deep trust in the human condition as it is found and as it finds itself in need of healing grace. These communities prove to be transformative.
Certainly, given the times in which we live, that ways of healing and reconciliation are desperately needed, both in our personal lives, in our national life, and globally as well. If you want to know what God's will is for you, it all begins with the power that Jesus is giving us. We are called to love. And we are called to forgive. Not just as a community of believers, but also as a community of mankind.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20
King James Version (KJV)
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.
Some time ago, I attended a meeting in the Town hall at which two hundred Camden folk were gathered in the aftermath of riots in Hackney. The meeting was marked by contributions from police, politicians and community leaders. It gave different constituents time and space to express their general opinions and grievances concerning our modern society and life in this part of London. There didn’t seem to be a consensus as to what was really wrong; whether blame should be attached to the parents, the looters, the rioters themselves, or the state of our society. And there was a vital ingredient missing in the debate. This was some comment on how people behave if they have no recourse to those moral, spiritual and hopeful influences which enrich and inform an inner life. And particularly, I mean the influence of an active and hopeful faith. One of the tenets of the Twelve step Alcoholics Anonymous is that “I will give my life over to a power greater than myself”. Though this does not explicitly mention God, Christians know this to be the case.
So then, as we approach the Lord’s altar this morning, let us pray for a deepening of love — love for the Lord, and love for the gifts He has given to us, including those neighbours He has placed into our care. Let us pray for a realisation of that spiritual energy, Grace, the catching up with the God who has already caught us up and who beckons us into creative communion with him.
St Augustine’s Confessions Chapter 10, 27:
Too late have I loved Thee, 0 Beauty so ancient and so fresh; too late have 1 loved Thee! For behold Thou wert within me, and 1 outside; and 1 sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made. Thou wert with me and 1 was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to me to break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and 1 drew in my breath and did not pant for Thee: 1 tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.
Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
30th Aug 2020
Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all”
The graphic story in today’s gospel tells of a Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman who as a foreigner, successfully challenges Jesus’ intention to minister to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ only. This woman is a rank outsider. She crashes into the party where the invited and the included are those deemed to be righteous and for whom the inheritance of faith in God was sacrosanct. The Jewish inheritors of the old covenant covenant which had given them exclusive rights and access to Rabbinic teaching. But the woman’s presence reveals the down-side of this righteousness. For it excited in them feelings of ethnic cleanliness, which hardened itself against any who stood outside the community of the chosen.
Jesus, as a rabbinic teacher, stands awkwardly in the middle of these racial tensions both as a Jew himself and as an inheritor of the Jewish tradition. But crucially we discover that he is ready to give ground. He knows from deep within that the gift of faith; the Kingdom of God is latent in all and possible for all. It has not been parcelled out to the practising religious alone. This woman, comes from a territory unvisited by strict Jews. But she is bold and confident and is not put off. She gives Jesus due respect, using the title ‘Lord, Son of David’. She contradicts his assertion that he has come only to Israel and that the good food of the inheritance should not be thrown to the ‘dogs’. And in a gentle play on words like ‘dog’, which were and still are in the middle east used as insults, the woman turns the play on words to her own good use and appeals to the witty idea that even (real) dogs are permitted to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table. Jesus commends her for her faith. The word faith here is being used as a kind of forthrightness, a kind of keen wit and intelligence borne of necessity; a kind of passion. One comedian once said that in order to have a sense of humour and to make humour work you need also a strong sense of proportion. She might be saying, even to Jesus, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’.
This Gospel reading and this strange, insistent, interesting woman provide a timely reminder of the need to challenge the forces of prejudice, hatred and anger that bedevil our world even as we commemorate the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. The shocking and terrifying footage of a black man, Jacob Blake, gunned down in his won car with his children in the back seat is a depressing reminder of how little has been achieved from the promising message delivered all that long ago. We may say that this is a problem for the gun toting USA but the Church of England has had to own up to institutional racism and re-examine its own perhaps subtle but nevertheless innate prejudices also. Meanwhile, the hope of the black community and for others who feel outraged and excluded day by day lies bleeding on the world’s pavement.
The summons to defend basic human freedoms is as urgent now as it was at the time of Jesus. In a multicultural and perhaps fractured world, Jesus, like us, was immersed in the potential conflict of interests that such a situation threw up.
The Canaanite woman prompts us to consider the enlargement of the household of faith. She reminds us that such widening of understanding and trust is necessary to the very integrity and honesty of the Christian Church, and ultimately for the freedom of the world.
Jesus is manifestly Son of God. In him, we come to know that it is the Creator’s will and purpose that all are given free access to his love and mercy, beyond the imposed confines of human will and the vanity of fundamentalist ideology. As the hymn reminds us, there “There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy”, not just for we of the household of Christian Faith but for all who, seek God from the bottom of their hearts. Human freedom, the freedom to live and to thrive, in peace and harmony, must never be taken for granted. It must be proclaimed daily, defiantly and fearlessly. All are ultimately included. We must welcome the critical stranger as Jesus did, for she will always deserve our attention.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice,
Which is more than liberty.
F W Faber (1814-1863)
In August 1963, Billie Jean Brown knew that Martin Luther King Jr. had just delivered a powerful, momentous address.
Her then-employer, Motown Records, recorded King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 57 years ago today at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., releasing it later that year on an album titled “The Great March on Washington.”