Sermon for Advent Sunday 2020
29th Nov 2020
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2020
ADVENT SUNDAY SERMON
Stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. Mark 13.33
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, leads us to an understanding of the Christian Faith which involves a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Waitrose 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 excitement and promise.
But for adults waiting can be a much less ecstatic business. When I think about waiting my mind turns to the hospital as a place of waiting. 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 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 for what is to come. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed. And this is the Jesus we see as we turn in this new church year to Gospel readings from Mark : to the Christ who reveals the secret of his messiahship only gradually, who speaks in parables which are more often than not misunderstood, who instructs his followers to remain silent about what they have seen in him and who struggles with his God-given destiny. Something in Mark’s Gospel is being unfolded and it cannot be understood, then as now, in an instant. It involves a relationship of belief and of trust. The waiting is to be a waiting in hope. The tension in Mark lies between the waiting and the outcome of the waiting.
We of course wait in time. “And time will have its fancy” says the poet Auden , “tomorrow or today”. But it is as time goes by that we experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, as the Gospel reading for this morning puts it to ‘stay awake’ – awake to all that is around you and to that which gives meaning to your life and to the lives of those around you. This is done most truly in relation to Christ. We become awakened in Christ to the possibility and the potential of what lies all around us. This is because this is an awakening to ourselves as we really are. We are being called this Advent to listen, to wait, to hope, to give of ourselves as he did. 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 that. Though the passing of time brings new challenges, some of them emotionally trying, even so we are asked not to be afraid. Mark’s Advent Christ is the one who makes possible the waiting as things unfold and come about without the need to control them or to explain them unduly.
BY R. S. THOMAS
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.
As the Advent Season progresses we make a journey from darkness and into the light into which Jesus is born in Bethlehem. We are led to it 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 attentive waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification. How rightly named is last week’s ‘Black Friday’. But there are times when we must refuse this. Advent speaks to us of a gradual unfolding as this morning we will light the first candle on the Advent wreath. This is a sign of the time it will take to get to the coming of the birth of Jesus. But first we wait. So let us wait, then; wait and pray; wait, and then 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 Feast of Christ the King
22nd Nov 2020
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King.
"My Kingdom is not of this world" John 18.36.
Today’s Solemnity of Christ the Universal King always occurs on this the last Sunday of the Church’s Year. It provides a powerful reminder of the kind of authority which is known in Christ. By placing his divine authority alongside what we understand to be kingly powers, we learn of a kingship which reverses the accepted notion of grandeur and deference and distance. This kingship is one which is spelt out in this morning’s Gospel. It is one which expresses in the being of Christ a real active, disinterested and unselfish love. It is one which increasingly runs counter to the culture where human acquisitiveness and the cult of self is predominant. It calls forth resources of human generosity above the interests of acquisition or self-will : The Christian Gospel proclaims an ethic of care and disinterested love while at the same time directing our minds and hearts to the source of it all which is Jesus Christ. It is before all else an embodied Gospel. And it is for this that Jesus was born.
As we love the other so we love Christ himself and Christ as God. Love is not dictatorial. It invites us into close relationship with the Saviour and with our fellow men and women. This became recognizable in Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who even though experiencing as we now know, dark and difficult periods of emptiness, nonetheless articulated her care for the poor always in terms of the realisation in their faces, their lives and even in their diseases, the person and being of Christ himself. Christ’s is a kingship whose reign has been borne out of the Cross. It is a sovereign gift which is always to be given, poured out, even and perhaps especially when the cost of that giving is great.
Jesus reigns from the cross as a King. 'For what,' Pope St. Leo the Great asks, 'could be more royal than a soul which by subjecting itself to God becomes ruler of its own body?'
A man crucified, who says, 'Father forgive them'; an executed criminal who can promise heaven to a thief. This is a man who is a ruler, a man in charge of himself, ruling from the cross. So Jesus is king, whether the crowd approves or not.
We have a king who hopes we will follow him and so follow His teaching, but Christ the King never coerces us. It is always the paradox of true love. This love will wait, it will hope, it will never dictate, it will never intervene, it will always allow for free choice. This is unlike President Assad of Syria who has often said that only violence can restore order. It is for this, his own order that he is prepared to kill his own people.
When Jesus laid aside His garments to wash the disciples feet John 13.4 . He was symbolically laying aside his external outer layer of personality which had covered his inner being. Only when this happens can transformation take place. It is the shedding of those things no longer needed. Our outer actions transform us for good or evil, but will come from decisions made within our own hearts. This King we follow shows us that we are not to tread down or doubt or do violence to the good that is in us, so that his transforming love might be enabled in us. Jesus reminds us that God's influence on us all is an influence that will in the life a tested and tried faith, prevail.
On 7th February in the year 1649, following the execution by beheading of Charles I, the office of King in this country was abolished once and for all. But only 11 years later his son King Charles II, was restored with much fanfare, and shortly afterwards Charles I was canonised by the Church in England as a saint, something before and since unheard of. There are two churches in my home town, Plymouth, a staunch follower of Oliver Cromwell, named after the beheaded Charles I after the Restoration of the monarchy. One is simply called ‘Charles Church’ which was gutted during the Second World War and now forms the centre-piece of a roundabout in the city centre. Monarchy in human history has suffered mixed fortunes and has been unpredictable. The gloves Charles I wore on the day of his execution can be seen at Lambeth Library and are a poignant reminder of his demise. Now monarchies are thinly spread and often associated with the condition of exile rather than rule. In this country The Queen’s role as head of the nation is important for the social and cultural functions it fulfils. It is a long distance away from Charles I’s insistence on ruling by divine right.
The Queen’s role includes (as the Royal Website puts it) : “…providing a focus for national identity, unity and pride; giving a sense of stability and continuity; recognising success, achievement and excellence; and supporting service to others, particularly through public service and the voluntary sector. All is now drawn in broad brush strokes. It appears less as a function of power and yet positively as one of symbolic and actual significance and very much as a complimentary and stabilizing presence in our nation to the politicians, the great and the good and the powers that be…But nonetheless its existence remains inseparable from the existence of God and at her coronation the Queen was solemnly anointed to bear her role of service in a rite very akin to the rite of ordination. So solemn, in fact was this rite, that in 1953 it was hidden from cameras and the public in Westminster Abbey. It was holy. Covered by a golden canopy. Its significance renders for the British monarch a meaning far beyond the limits of the modern job description. Its significance, as for the Christ the King, allows us to see that real earthly authority, the one that really influences, combines real human presence with the call to holiness from which it is nourished. Consecration carries and brings forth the means of dedication and enables its fruits to last in honest duty. We are left in no doubt in this morning's Gospel that this consecration is a consecration in and with and through the person of Jesus Christ.
And so in many ways we understand the Kingship of Christ as one that is a Kingship both of this world, and importantly beyond it. It is one which receives its proclamation and anointing from the place of his own offering and his own kingdom teaching. This teaching and instruction, coming from the wisdom of the cross, is the one which offers to posterity the highest ethical standard for the Christian Church. It is one which is rooted in active and disinterested love. Only in this way can the Kingship of Christ be deemed credible. ‘As you did it to the least of these my brethren you did it to me’, says the wise and gentle ruler. Christ the King rules through vulnerability, His own and ours. This is the King whose outstretched arms embrace His death as he embraces us in ours. This is the king who longs to be with us in every aspect of our lives, but allows us not to invite Him into our lives. This is the king who never gives up on us. This is the great and marvellous message at the end of the Church’s year and the Gospel’s final flourish before we turn again and wait for his coming in Advent.
Almighty and eternal God,
you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
and will that they live together
in peace and harmony;
so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ's just and gentle rule;
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Advent
15th Nov 2020
The Second Sunday before Advent Year A
The Parable of the Talents
“For we consume away in your displeasure”. Psalm 90.7
“For you are all children of light” 1Thessalonians 5.5
The long series of Sundays which have all been after Trinity have now become Sundays before Advent. Following the many Sundays ‘after’ Trinity’ there is now comes a slowing down, and then a call to listen to what it is to live the Christian faith in a state of alertness, of readiness and of expectancy. The well-known parable of the talents is placed within this framework. Christ is come to transform our lives in relation to one another. He has come to challenge those who, as the Psalmist puts it ‘consume away’ in God’s displeasure. I have here single words used to describe Holy Cross come from a group of us meeting here at yesterday’s Vision Day. Each word was offered by each individual group member as a deep reflection on what this Church means to them. Each word is an expression of trust and hope. We are called to be watchful against those elements which undermine The Faith and try not to succumb to a ‘knock down’ view of the Church which has fallen prey to a lack of faith and trust. St Paul reminds us that “We are all children of light” and so we walk with Him who is Light.
The parable of the talents tells the story of three men, all slaves of the one master, who is about to leave the country for some time. He gives each of them different sums of money: one five, one two, and one only one talent. The first two slaves make money by trading and investing. The third simply digs a hole in the ground and buries it. On the master’s return, he readily rewards the first two for their trustworthiness. For they have doubled the original gift. The third answers him back with cheek, deriding the way in which the other two have gained money but refusing to respond to the master’s original request. He, the one with the one talent, surely had the least to achieve to warrant the same approval as the other two? But he refuses. He is obdurate and makes nothing of what he has been given. This is a difficult parable with no obvious interpretation since it seems to reward the making of money for its own sake.
But there is a deeper meaning. Here is a warning against the squandering of the life we have been given. Jesus is calling us into life’s true meaning, which is in right and loving relationship one with another. The getting of any selfish gain which denies or ignores the need to respect human relationships is a doomed endeavour because it based on greed. The gifts which God has given to each one of us are for our own sakes and not to be squandered. They are most squandered when we work from selfish motives which ignore the obvious and necessary demand for the greater good; the moral and ethical demand. The economic depression of eight years ago was a result of such behaviour, and things have not changed a great deal, and the lure of cheap gain remains seemingly unrelinquishable.
I have been watching a marvellous documentary from the American Public Broadcasting Channel which details the life of the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his early presidency in the 1930s he was tasked with leading the United States through an unprecedented economic depression, which devastated the country’s former prosperity and placed 14,000,000 unemployed. ‘Depression’ became the byword for all the country’s ills, economic, social and psychological. Many thought, like his predecessor, that nothing could be done. Many thought that Capitalism and democracy would wither on the vine and that anarchy must follow.
Roosevelt’s genius lay in placing human understandings and relationships before simply moving money around. This gave accountability and probity. Roosevelt’s New Deal was to involve the whole country and to imply an understanding and a trust and a working together, hand in hand, to rebuild the country’s social and economic and physical infrastructure from the ground up. He was fond of saying that the trying out of the ‘alphabetti spaghetti’ initiatives he instituted was at least better than doing nothing. The enemy was atrophy borne of fear. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” he said in his first inaugural address as president:
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Many things have emerged from our vision days, one of which is the declared readiness that this Church should advance and grow, not out of an interest in gain for its own sake, but out of our own glad and confident responsiveness to the Christian Call. As we acknowledge the privilege of the custodianship of this Church at this time, each one of us is being called to do what we can to secure its life and future for posterity. This is not just to be an act of caretaking but of active compassion. It was significant yesterday that a lone Russian wayfarer, Roman, (accidently) came into the crypt while we were having lunch. In the middle of our mission discussion we were able to offer him a place at the table and some food, a small gesture for us, but a significant marker of our express desire to continue to offer welcome and sustenance to the local poor and not to ignore the stranger at our door.
Roosevelt’s greatness lay in his understanding of the suffering and the difficulties of the common American, with whom, in the midst of devastating depression, he had embarked upon his New Deal. He was to lead his country through The Great Depression while recognising the negative aspects of blind human consumption. He had vowed to restore America to its own people. The message of the Second Sunday before Advent is that we, The Church are called to be watchful and active in restoring the Church in the likeness of the active and mindful compassion of Christ. This is the trust that we have been given in this church of ours under God.
It is to a ‘new deal’ that the Second Sunday before Advent now points, even to our Saviour Jesus Christ. He it is who calls us away from mindless material consumption and into in the full life of his freely given grace; ready to find ourselves in one another and in Him, for the sake of His Kingdom on earth, where his true likeness may be readily recognised.
Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2020
8th Nov 2020
Remembrance Sunday Sermon 2020
“…and so we will be with the Lord for ever”. 1 Thessalonians 4.12
Remembrance Sunday occupies a sea of human experience which spans life and death and suffering and loss with the promise of the life that yet awaits us. It is in this vein that St Paul promises, no matter how challenging are the demands of the present time, that “we will be with the Lord for ever”. He echoes the phrase that Jesus uses so often of the life that has been transformed by God’s indwelling presence. He calls it ‘eternal life’. And this ‘eternal life’ is to be found in the present time.
Now is eternal life
If risen with Christ we stand
In him to life reborn
And holden in his hand
No more we fear death’s ancient dread
If Christ arisen from the dead.
GW Briggs (1875-1959) NEH Hymn 114.
Like many other sons and daughters of Second World War veterans, I could never, as an inquisitive child, get my father to speak about his war experiences. I only later learnt that, on demobilisation, as it was called, the combatants were firmly told not to share them. And so my father collected his de-mob suit and a small payment and as the old war song went “packed up his troubles in his own kit bag”. I have felt since that the medals he won were medals for a war experience which was very difficult to assimilate. But he had made what was the necessary sacrifice of his young manhood on behalf of his country and had been tested to the uttermost. I have honoured him in my own heart and mind for all that could never be expressed, but for much I hazard a guess, that was very significant.
The Christian Faith is predicated on sacrifice - the reaching out beyond the life here to the life beyond in the giving of oneself for the sake of the other without recourse to obvious personal reward. The many war memorials across the world with the 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. Each one will always matter, for each one gave their life for the greater good.
In our own time the offering of our lives as a sacrifice for the good of the other and the good of the whole society and even for the good of the world, still holds true. As we begin another period of Covid ‘lockdown’ we are being challenged to respond to this emergency with love and imagination. The Christian churches are determined that this period should not take us back to the lockdown of March to August. We are determined that our churches should remain open for prayer. The leaders of our church have inaugurated this month of November as one of prayer, and you will see topics for prayer on our news sheet and signposting to the relevant websites. The Archbishop of York has called the doing of prayer a “letting God into the room of our consciousness’. When we are at prayer we make ourselves open to God’s inhabitation and the transformation of our minds. When we establish a pattern of prayer, however simple, we invite spiritual resilience. Prayer will be the bedrock upon which acts of Christian generosity both on behalf of ourselves and others. At a time of grave crisis, prayer is the place of deep wisdom, described in our first reading this morning.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
And one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care.
The proper demand, when we are under the pressure of events, is to move away from our own anxiety and into a place of strong peace which is God. That is not to say we run away from the place of testing and trial nor is it to say that we belittle the trials and tests that are demanded of us. But it is to embrace another way, another route through which we may be spiritually renewed in joy and in hope. The practical compliment to the recourse to prayer is the life of self-sacrificial giving for the sake of the other; for the greater good. The prevalence of anxiety and the threat of despair are counteracted by the trust in our humanity and the capacity we all have to attain to eternal life in the present.
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 to an understanding of the power of human self-sacrifice in the present and in this and every age. Christ has shown us the Way and in Him our hope remains, in the words of the Wisdom writer, ‘rich in immortality’. As Dylan Thomas poem ‘And Death Shall have No Dominion’ promises:
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 hope that resides in the human spirit.
Commemoration of All Souls 2020
2nd Nov 2020
All Souls Sermon 2020
“Praying for one’s departed loved ones is a far too immediate urge to be suppressed. It is a most beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”. Pope Benedict XVI.
At this particular time of the year in the first days of November, the Church seems to wrap itself in the lives of those who have gone before: On the 1st November in the lives of all the saints, which we celebrated yesterday. As the days in November wear on, we come to that moment on the 11th hour of the 11th month as Armistice Day is observed. And then there comes Remembrance Sunday and the wearing of poppies… Today’s All Soul’s Day is the Church’s Day of the Dead, and forms an inseparable apart of the general commemorating and remembering of the dead which we do at this time. Its purpose is to keep in mind of what we know as already. That there is a fine veil that separates life from death. Similarly, there is a fine veil that separates us from those who have gone before us, and especially those whose lives we came in the past to know and to love. They are a part of us and their influence upon us is with us there for us in the present and for all time. They remain in our hearts.
Life is of God’s making and it is sacred. This is vital for our understanding of who God is. As God’s creatures we stand in awe of the grandeur and the mystery of what he has made and how he has made it. The true meaning of life lies beyond mere speech. No wonder, then, that the appropriate response in the remembrance of the dead is one of silence. The Two Minute’s Silence speaks to us clearly in our busy world more than ever and in ways words cannot express. Silence holds the tension that exists between the living and the dead. Yet another tradition in the remembering of the dead is the writing down or the reading out of the names of the dead. We may imagine the war memorials, with their thousands of names, the books of commemoration and condolence, as well as the engravings for those known and unknown on countless memorial stones, including our own. At this All Souls Mass, the long list of the names of the dead, known by you and I both individually and severally is solemnly read out. It is stands both as a list of the dead and a declaration of our faith in the one who has risen from the dead – Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In his great poem ‘The Wasteland’ TS Eliot, recovering from a nervous breakdown, described a crowd of commuters crossing over Westminster Bridge in the year 1921:
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
He observed them; a people recovering from The Great War; most of them suffering the deaths of their menfolk: sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. And the feeling is one of immense sorrow and loss. And this is a sorrow that Eliot describes as a kind of emotional and actual ‘undoing’. “I had not thought that death had undone so many” he says. Death and the brevity of life and the loss of a loved ones still comes as a kind of raw pain; an undoing. Another poet, Dylan Thomas writes a poem which is an elegy for his dead father and bids us ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It expresses a passionate anger that must form a part of the sense of impotent rage at a life gone from his midst, and the terrible loss of it. This too, forms a part of the human experience of death. But the Christian message is the one which, in the light of Christ’s death and Resurrection, is always one of hope. Death does not have the last word.
This Commemoration of All Souls on this day each year, 2nd November, is, as Emeritus Pope Benedict once said, “…a beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”. However faint are our powers of recollection and however frail a hold we have on the life of the world to come, we nevertheless feel the strong influences of love and thanksgiving for those who have gone before us. We pray tonight continue on our life’s journey in faith and hope, so we may be maintained and sustained by the One who made us and loves each one of us as Christian souls. He is The One who came to show us the way through death and into life eternal, even Jesus Christ our Lord our alpha and omega; our beginning and our true end. Amen.