Sermon for Mothering Sunday (Lent 4)
10th Mar 2013
Sermon for Mothering Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent) Year C
This morning the Church observes not just one but three commemorations, namely the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment (‘Laetere’) Sunday and Mothering Sunday. It seems eccentric that this should be so, and that a rare liturgical colour, pink, should set the tone for a Lenten Sunday which provides not for a deepening of intensity in our Christian observance of Lent but for an outburst of what in Latin is ‘Laetere’ or joy. Combine all this with Mothering Sunday and the sense of eccentricity is complete. In typical English fashion, we keep the tradition of remembering and honouring our Mothers from days when servants, many of them older children or adolescents, were allowed this Sunday in Lent to return home to their mothers. If they worked in a big house, a kindly cook might well have baked Simnel Cakes as a seasonal offering for the servants to take to their mothers and Simnel cake will be offered after Mass this morning with the usual tea, coffee and toast.
But where is all this taking us? The Church seems at first to have made things even more complicated by offering us a choice of two Gospel readings. One is Simeon’s prediction to Mary that her child Jesus would suffer and that ‘a sword would pierce her own soul’. The second Gospel takes us to the Cross and to the suffering Christ, who even from that place of agony encourages a new and future relationship between his beloved disciple John and his Mother, Mary, “Behold thy Son” and “Behold thy Mother”.
As we begin to understand these Gospel accounts we find that they are complimentary and speak of all those things which Lent, Mothering Sunday, Laetere and Refreshment Sunday express. And it is this: Any experience of a close and loving and committed relationship is at some time or another going to demand of us a costly love. The Gospel message swings between love as consolation and as desolation. Any mother or father or husband, wife or lover knows how painful it is to have to have to relinquish, to let go or to suffer the death of one who has been our life and our love. Such an experience strikes at the very heart of what we are. For parents this might commonly involve the son or the daughter who leaves home as a young adult and away from the childhood home, just like the Victorian child servant. Equally there are times when the young, having ‘fled the nest’ themselves feel homesick and very alone. For others in middle age there may come the death of a parent or parents. For some, the break-up of a past relationship continues to be painful and some of its effects do not seem to be relieved with the passing of time. For the elderly there are the many little and bigger losses that come with encroaching frailty and the loss of faculties once taken for granted, and of the deaths of contemporaries.
The two Gospels offered allow for an understanding of human loving which inevitably involves pain. But this is not to be the end of the matter. We are reminded that, even from the Cross, our Saviour Jesus Christ offers new life and proclaims aloud that even out of great sadness and even death, the possibility of new relations and new understanding and new hope is embodied by the dying Saviour on the Cross. ‘Behold thy Mother’, ‘Behold thy Son’. In the Cross life and death mixes and merges in the one sacrifice. In the same vein the prayer for the mixing of wine and water at the Eucharistic Offering outlines Christ’s sacrifice for a deepening of trust in the outpouring of time with the healing of wounds. ‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity’. God’s life and our lives and loves mix and merge in the one faith, the one hope and the one love. The message this morning is that we should not reject these things.
One great English mother, Mother Julian of Norwich sustains this as she observed that “The dear gracious hands of God our Mother are ever about us”. The short-lived Pope John Paul I was to affirm that God was in a real sense our Mother as well as our Father. “God is our Father, but even more He is Mother” he said. It is when the love which holds our lives together is tested that faith is challenged to the uttermost. At such times to we embrace or neglect the love that God offers us? As a loving Father or indeed Mother God is everlastingly compassionate for us and for the establishment and the replenishment of the divine love in us. We are to come to God then, and not to go it alone. To come to him, as the servants journeyed out for the day to meet their mothers and to enjoy the communion of love, the ‘laetere’, the integrated life of love which Christ speaks to us on the Cross through the lives of his Mother, Mary and the beloved disciple, John. The Cross still beckons us at this time and we are being drawn inexorably toward it. Thanks be to God.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
3rd Mar 2013
The Third Sunday of Lent Year C.
1 Corinthians 10. 12 “God is faithful”.
In today’s reading we learn of a human tragedy; the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, which killed 18 people. With it lies the question which plays upon everyone’s lips. It is a question that seeks to doubt the existence of a loving God because of the existence of vast amounts of human suffering. Why suffering then? Or, more pointedly, Why does God allow so much suffering? At 9.15 a.m. on Friday 21 October 1966, a waste-tip slid down a mountain into the mining village of Aberfan in South Wales. In its path was Pantglas Junior School. The children had just returned to their classes after assembly, when a great tide of waste engulfed their school. One hundred and sixteen children died, and five of their teachers. The hymn they’d sung in assembly was "All Things Bright and Beautiful".
The whole nation was numb with grief, and with the grief came incredulity. At such a time the idea of Christian Faith in a loving God is tested to the uttermost. And it becomes (rightly) impossible to present any kind of reason for justifying the existence of God from any formal argument. That would be a kind of sacrilege. But the question remains, who is the God who seems to permit the disasters that have happened and their terrible randomness and needlessness?
It is important to realise what God is not. He is not the One who changes the basic laws of nature and gravity on which our lives are founded. Jesus is to show us the way not around or apart from a state of suffering and of struggle but to lead us through it. This is the very stuff of life and this is the direction to which the fuller meaning of human existence tends. It is borne by Christians on the Cross. For Christ has gone ahead of us to show us that this is must be His Way. It is his Cross and becomes ours, too. This is not to deny the realities of human existence but to embrace them and also to suffer them. If God is Love then this is a love which has been and is and will prove trustworthy. But this is not to be glib and nor is it to make this seem in some sense automatic or easy. It does not take away the fact of life as a running of risks and of tragedies and trials of many kinds. And along the way many will have lost faith – especially when things have felt so broken up they seem for ever irreparable. Others live with the inevitable. Cliff Minett, who lost two of his three children in the Aberfan disaster, said: "It doesn't matter if it's one year or 40 years on - the pain is just the same."
In what sense then, can God, even in the midst of all evidence to the contrary, ‘remain present’? On July 7th 2005, the day of the London bombings, I found myself in the middle of a group of people, transport police, firemen, chaplains and railway personnel in a kind of hell. Down below, in the depths of King’s Cross Underground Station lay a scene of almost unimaginable horror. I remember the feeling of the eerie silence that befell King’s Cross on that day, and the sense of radical dislocation, both emotionally and in relation to that eerie quietness. Everything seemed strange and out of place. But in all that awfulness strangeness something quite remarkable was going on. Helpers on the ground were going about doing their duty and doing it without fuss and doing it thoughtfully and carefully. In and through the horror and the chaos was the doing of ‘mending work’ in the ordinary business of caring, reassuring, saving, listening; of the showing of basic human concern with generosity and of kindness. A Salvation Army sister set up a station and served teas and sandwiches. All these things, were, in the midst of this terrible event, the revealing of the gentleness of the living God, who, from the heart of human devastation, was already working through individuals for a realisation of the trustworthiness of human love. And in this lay no cure for all that devastation but something which contributed to its healing. Archbishop Donald Coggan once said, “With the breaking comes the re-making”. An experience of human living is inevitably an experience of living with its brokenness and the need for its healing is all too evident.
A young priest in a church near the village of Aberfan on that terrible day in late October 1966 was called upon to preach the evening sermon. And he found he could not preach at all. That is to say he could hardly put any words together. It was a sermon communicated with barely concealed sobs and half formed and nervous outpourings. Perhaps that was all that could realistically be offered? This was the honest; the real offering in which lay the break down of any glib or easy argument for the existence of a loving God. Christian Faith is forged over the years in the keeping of those questions which cannot in this life have ready or easy or final answers. The message to us at this stage in the Lenten season is that God’s mercy lies ever before us, and the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner….’ has become for the Church the prayer of Humble Access, the way of communicating our need in the acknowledgement of the givenness of things and of the availability of God’s understanding and mercy with our need of it.. This is why, even after Absolution we continue to say ‘Lord, have mercy’. Perhaps what we bring to this Eucharist is our brokenness. We ask for healing and mending in God's good time. For as the psychoanalyst Carol Jung once said ‘Bidden or not bidden, God is present’. God is present and faithful. Christians believe and maintain such belief not ignorant of the question of suffering but in its very presence. God in Jesus holds before us costly love as faith’s ultimate challenge : that is, the love which for St Paul ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things endures all things’ even in the face of pain. (1 Corinthians 13.7-8). It's a tall order! But this is the love that never ends. This is the Way of Christ. This is the Cross. This is being laid down for us as we approach the mid-way through Lent. Grant us, O God, sufficient grace to mark these things and to take them into our very being.
Sermon For The First Sunday of Lent
17th Feb 2013
The First Sunday of Lent Year C (2013)
Jesus, full of the holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by The Holy Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Luke 41, 2.
At the beginning of the Lenten season the Church helps us to we see the Christian Faith from a more searching and interrogating point of view. This is suggested as we are sent into the wilderness with Christ. Of course, here in London, we are thousands of miles away from the kind of sandy, rocky desert which Jesus inhabited. We should remember too, that in First Century Palestine, the desert was never very far away from the town. Even today it is amazing how soon on leaving the city of Jerusalem you meet the desert only as it were a few miles down the road. But for Jesus then and for us now, the idea of the desert place still worked on the human mind. It was seen as a place and an experience in which one might find clarity of thought and vision untrammelled by the distractions of town life, but equally it was a place of unremitting intensity and harshness. It was for all these reasons that in the life of the early Church, the so-called desert mothers and fathers made their homes in caves and practised rigorous lives of prayer and self.-denial. We may say, then, that the idea of the wilderness or desert is the one which immediately suggests severe physical and spiritual challenge. For Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, this challenge was inscribed in the people’s memory in the ancient search for The Promised Land, and of Moses leading the people through great travail to the place of final sanctuary. But before this, they understood that Moses entered Mount Sinai for forty days and nights before receiving the tablets of the Law. Jesus’ habitation of the wilderness over this forty day period, the period of Lent, is set alongside the Giving of the Law and begs the question of what kind of new law or provision does New Testament Scripture envisage?
The emphatic message of the Gospels is the one which has not denied the worth and truth of the Old Testament tradition. But it is plain on one basic point. This is that all Jewish scripture and its promise now receives its fulfilment in the One man, Jesus Christ, and in the manner of his whole being: his teaching, his actions, his example and above all in the God-givenness of his destiny. We come to know that this destiny will end in his freely going to his own death. So now, by these means, we come to understand Jesus temptations in the wilderness over a forty day period as a movement of divine love. Jesus’ ministry and destiny are not fixed but have to be worked out, and worked out very painfully. They must involve a desert experience as an extreme form of personal and spiritual testing. If Jesus is to be Christ the Saviour this testing must take him to the very limits of his own estimation of things and beyond them. There must be an engagement with the evil that may always assert itself on other side of the good. The acknowledgement, is made that even in the desert, there exists the light and the shadow component in the mind of Man. There is the need to understand these things and, acknowledging the burden that human freedom of choice often sets upon us, of the importance of coming to know the good and of deciding in its favour. In his respect we may see the temptations in the wilderness as establishing the right kind of moral frequency through which Christ overcomes the ancient divisions the threaten to divide and separate us.
The Temptation in the Wilderness also assumes the existence of the Devil. The Devil is no longer in the forefront of the Christian mind. It’s because people were wedded to the notion of the crudeness with which they were offered images of the devil, many of them stretching from the high medieval period in which punishment by devils were a commonly illustrated theme. The fear of hell-fire its companion piece. But the expunging of the idea of the Devil or of the existence of evil from consciousness leaves a vacant gap into which Christ’s ministry and work as defeating the devil is left unheeded. A full consciousness of the power of evil and of evil influence is essential for a balanced view of our world, where the simple analogy of light and its casting shadow allows us to see that as humans we want to see ourselves as people who wish good to prevail, but act very often with mixed motives. It is certain for Jesus that in order to enter the human condition as it is found, he must understand the nature of human frailty, and in the temptations by Satan, the recourse to self-aggrandisement, spiritual pride and self-will. Jesus has rejected these things in the wilderness but he will be accused of these things by the angry mob, under whose despising he will be condemned to die.
The Church has always wanted Christians to instruct themselves in the way of self-acknowledge. In doing this it observes the essentially divided nature of the human condition. But at the same time open up the possibility latent in the mercy and forgiveness of God through the honest recognition of our condition: The Prayer Book Confession expresses it well : “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have not done those things which we ought to have done and there is no health in us. But thou O God, have mercy upon us…” Jesus is in the wilderness to tell it like it is. To remind us that there is much to understand about the human condition in all its complexity and contradictoriness, but also much to understand and to forgive, both in ourselves and in those around us. The Christian grounding is the one which has studied these things and internalised them. That lives according to what has been called ‘the ground of our being’ and which can see life as containing both light and shadow.
Finally, The Wilderness Experience is the one which is seen as the preparation for Christ’s ministry. It is assumed that the world of men and women is that strange mixture of light and shadow. If the Christian faith is to provide that way of looking at the world which offers humankind ‘a way back’ to our created splendour, then Jesus Christ as the bringer of new healing must be the one who has encountered all the worst that the world can throw at him, and finally to have prevailed. In all this, we are being given a powerful reminder his morning that in Jesus we have a Saviour who has gone ahead of us to restore us into the image and likeness of God himself. We too, must follow where he has gone.
The words from ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ John Henry Newman.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday
13th Feb 2013
A S H W E D N E S D A Y
The appeal that we make in Christ’s name is : Be reconciled to God. 1 Corinthians 5.21.
Ash Wednesday comes to us as the offering of an invitation that we find difficult to accept. It is the invitation to enter a wilderness and to meet Christ there. This is the desert which is founded on nothing, an empty place. It is the place which invites the emptying of self. And it is in the emptying of self that we may discover in Jesus a way back to God, and our reconcilation with Him. And so the desert becomes the place of utmost Christian instruction. It invites the offering of ourselves ‘…to advance in the hope which God has set before us’. In a drawing by William Blake a little man looks up to the moon, connected to earth by a ladder and cries “I want! I want!” Lent asks us this question: Is my life based on the satisfaction of a myriad of desires, and if so, how is it that such satisfactions have not satisfied? The desert is the place we go to find out why this is so. A place of encounter with God and of reconciliation with Him. Lent begins here…
What might we be like if our own wanting were to issue out of the the mind of God? Christ goes into the desert to decide for God and to reject those things which are not of God. The act of deciding-for-God is vital. We find it written into one of most popular English books ever written: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. The overcoming by Jesus of temptation in the wilderness has set Lent upon its centuries old course. It sets us on our way, too. It does this not by the imposition of a whole series of petty restrictions, even though certain restrictions on our wanting may prove beneficial. It does it in Paul’s appeal that above all things, we should ‘be reconciled to God’.The imposition which we receive for Lent is the imposition of ashes. The ashes are a simple expression of the basic nature of our mortality, of the finiteness of our existence. We are to be reminded that ‘we are dust, and unto dust we shall return’. Notice this word ‘imposition’, an unsettling word. As the ashes are imposed upon us there is a call to act. In particular, to act quite apart from what may feed the body but in fact starve the soul. The Ash Wednesday message cuts to the heart of what we are and calls us forward to what God has made us to be. This is what St Paul called ‘the upward call of God in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3.14). He calls us out of ourselves and the calling is divine, or ‘upward’. This is the call to live our lives in a way fashioned not by chance or of determination, but by God.
Too much of modern urban life involves an exhausting and over-stimulation of the human senses. The hectic tide of getting and spending, the billions of daily mobile ‘phone calls which introduce and reintroduce dizzying levels of talk and information stress create a cacophony. In the concrete jungle existence can pull against contemplation. There is less waiting patiently. We have not learnt to be still, and so are in some separation from where our life’s true source actually lies. And so we need to act for the sake of our soul’s survival. I met last night with a group of businessmen who expressed as a matter of course their sense of living without a sense of source or centre. One of the many paradoxes of Christian Faith is that the reconciliation we seek is the one which emerges out of the desert, the place of longing, the place where God is heard to speak, the centre of our being and our life’s true heart. This is a holy place, which issues out of the recognition of our mortality and its limits with the turning to Christ in faith. Come with the Church this Lent, and let us make another beginning…Let us go to that place where he has gone before and now bids us come, too…
Ash Wednesday proffers an invitation that we receive with reluctance. The invitation to come away to a place of deeper knowing through which, through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, we may advance in the hope which he has set before us. And it is never too late to make a beginning and to start as we mean to go on, with a reminder of our mortality and to come to Jesus, the source of all life and meaning. The one who emptied himself of all but love… Henri Nouwen.
Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Lent
10th Feb 2013
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year C
“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. Luke 9. 29
The Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Luke a theatrical effect, but a reality which introduces notes of awe and of wonder and draws us into itself. For here we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. The Transfiguration is a meeting with the Jesus who has become Christ. It happens right before our eyes, and to see such things is to experience God’s glory. The glory is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals a terrible secret - of the Christ who is the fulfiller all things, even unto death and resurrection. The secret is disclosed in dazzling white and also within thick shadow and dark cloud. Even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August, this Gospel reading is purposefully set before us as a key text for the coming of the penitential season of Lent. In this context, the mountain of Transfiguration is the place of amazing appearances, and yet also of stark realities; of terrible truth. It points to the Cross even as it manifests the glory of God. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be here’, there is already a strong sense of foreboding:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
This terrible truth-telling in the Transfiguration shows us that there is always the danger of not seeing the other side of things; of the essential gravity of our existence and the seriousness of human suffering, of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness and the experience of much pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. Jesus takes this Cross upon himself and it is the Cross of Jesus which is the glory that God reveals in the mountain-top. This is a strange and difficult kind of glory. It is the one which brings us into contact with the living God. Its message comes as a double-edged sword, the one which the Letter to the Hebrews describes as
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder then, that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. There is no easy consolation offered here. Instead comes the invitation to find our truest humanity in Christ and to find it through ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world and of its brokenness’. This is to begin to be honest with ourselves and toward God. To recognise life’s essential gravity. To begin to find in God that active love and the mercy we need if life is to be transformative. For we cannot stay on the mountain. It is a place of revelation and a necessary point of departure.
In The Louvre, the French National Art Gallery in Paris, visitors invariably head towards one great painting, The Mona Lisa. She gazes impassively through bullet proof glass and is constantly surrounded by her own paparazzi – with cameras and continuous flashes of blinding white light. She has become like the namesake Madonna, a superstar. It is difficult to get near her. But with all the adulation, one wonders what is going on? What is it that is happening when thousands of tourists take photos constantly? There seems to be a manic rush to record it all, and while the photographer is snapping away to ignore the resonance of what is being photographed and its real presence. The photographer is very unstill. There is the attempt to put an atmosphere or an object in the pocket. To capture it. To possess it. To take it away. The Transfiguration offers us the opposite of the blinding camera flash and the image you can put into your pocket. The appearance of Jesus in white light on the mountain-top is God’s revelation to his people, you and me, of his merciful love. In all we have to do or to suffer, God’s presence lies before us as and with it the promise of his holiness to surround us and to inhabit our inmost being. His face shines to show us the light of the revelation of the fullness of God…What is real is not looked at from exterior vision but from within the truth of what has appeared…
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
But how are we to bear true witness, especially as we approach the beginning of Lent? The Church offers us as individuals a way forward in the practice of Sacramental Confession. To tell it like it is. Though it has been derided and caricatured and is less practised by many, its effectiveness is very real. The costliness of our being more honest about what we are and what we do wrong is often too humiliating to bear. But this is a necessary humbling, a Cross, which provides us with an effective remedy. It provides a pathway to the restoration of the soul, often so damaged and maimed by our own essential pride. It is an attempt at an honesty from which new life may emerge. And it is more than matched by the matchless mercy of God. We trivialise this aspect of our lives at great cost to the integrity of the Christian Faith. The Transfiguration opens up on honesty to reality. It is what St Paul called
The light of the fullness of the revelation of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ”. 2 Corinthians 4.6.
It is a revelation of what lies most true for human nature. It provides the marriage between what the Old Prayer Book in its General Thanksgiving called ‘The means of Grace and the hope of glory’.
So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Edwin Muir (1887-1959)