Don’t Demonise – 29th January, 2017
There is a saying that the past is a strange land. Indeed it is, one of the biggest problems we have when we read history is that we miss so many of the basic understandings of how things work. It’s a continual problem that we take to all our readings of history, and is just as true when we read the Gospels.
Well, the gospel today shows the great gulf that is fixed between our time and the first century of the Christian era. The verse where the passage ends only makes matters harder for us to understand. St Matthew is writing primarily for Jewish Christians, who had been raised to attempt to keep the laws and rules of Judaism. Some of them had probably been Pharisees before their conversion. The word “Pharisee,” like the word “righteousness,” is loaded with not always very complimentary meanings for us. We think of proud, intolerant people, filled with self-admiration for themselves and full of harsh criticism for people they believed to be sinners. But that’s because we are on the other side of history.
The Pharisees, which means in its origin as “Set Apart”, began their history as a reforming group, intent on bringing the Jewish people back to faith in their God. They believed that the best way to do that was to stress the Law of God, as given by Moses and elaborated on in the religious books developed over the centuries. In Our Lord’s time, some of these Pharisees opposed the teachings of Jesus because they thought he was undermining God’s Law. They saw him as a threat to religious purity. Not all of them opposed Jesus. Two are named as his supporters.
As the Church grew, she opened itself to non-Jews and developed her own teachings, and a great debate arose about the place of Old Testament Law in the life of Christians. St Matthew, who seems almost certainly a Jew himself, seeks to assure Jewish converts that Jesus hadn’t come to abolish God’s law. He records Jesus as saying that the whole law would remain in force forever. And yet in the gospel we just heard, he says that in keeping this law, we have to do much better than the Pharisees.
Is Jesus saying that we must keep the Jewish Law, all that stuff about what we can eat, or what we can do on the Sabbath? Are we to be like some people, perhaps we know a few, who think they are better, more moral, more upright, than the rest of us and are harsh in their judgment of others, intolerant of anyone who is different?
This rather difficult passage comes in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses gave the Law to Israel on the Holy Mountain, so now Jesus gives the law to his disciples and those who would follow him. He begins with a description of those who are happy or blessed. He will go on to expand, or “fulfil” the meaning of the Law. In the verses that come after this gospel, Jesus will warn against an anger that leads to violence. “You shall not kill,” begins with our dealing with what happens when we give way to anger, disgust, when we take offense. Jesus will teach us that we are to seek reconciliation with people with whom we quarrel, that we are not to “come to the altar” if we haven’t done all in our power to love our neighbour; for loving those close to us, those in the communities around us, is one of the commandments of the Law Jesus identified as the foundation of “all the Law and the Prophets.”
So what can we take home with us from the gospel today? Keeping the law of God is not a matter of feeling and acting as if we are superior to those who, in our judgment, fail to live up to our standards. We love God in loving others. St Paul often reminds us that the Law shows up our own inadequacies. We are in no state to judge others. But having received God’s love in Jesus, despite ourselves, we are empowered to help those who stumble. It’s not that we are to abandon all hope of perfection, of holiness. Rather it’s a matter of understanding that the road to holiness is the path of love, compassion, of caring and sympathy, of helping each other along that journey, stopping to assist those who have become tired, have fallen on the way, or who have given up in despair.
On the journey of faith, we are not appointed by God to shoot those who stumble, who fail to obey orders. We are called to go out of our way to care. The whole point of God’s Law is to urge us to put God and others first and to die to our own self-love and desire for self-preservation. When we demonise groups, even the Pharisees in the Gospel we fail. By the way, the Pharisees eventually went on to found the rabbinical movement tat saved Judaism after the destruction of the Temple – they were an incredibly successful group that preserved a whole religion.
Of course the strength to live for God and for others doesn’t come from attempts to keep God’s commandments. That strength comes from God, in Jesus, by the Spirit. We meet here today to receive that strength, that grace, not as the righteous company of God-supporters, but as those to whom mercy is continually given. When we leave this place to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we go as forgiven, empowered people, strengthened to keep God’s Law by loving all who we shall meet.
Hands for God – OS3A, 22nd January, 2016 9.30 with baptism.
There are many beautiful sights that I see. Joys of family, new babies, healings are some of the most obvious. The level of commitment of people is another. Those who come to this Church, for example, with steady devotion is another.
The commitment that I see in this parish from Christians is not always easily achieved. Lives have been strained by sickness, death, joblessness, children or a thousand other things. Yet I see lives of great devotion and hope, from people who have found in the times of crisis and strain, support and love from this parish community. People have been called to be disciples here, like the disciples in the gospel today. Like those disciples, I see people here working for the kingdom in quiet ways that help and support the faith of those around. Those disciples in the reading today, who were called, worked with our Lord in ministry for around three years, a ministry that seemingly ended in failure and crucifixion. They too must have despaired at times at the worth of the job they were called to do. So if we wonder at times at the value of what we do as Christians, or wish for instant results, we can take heart that the way of slow witness and presence is the way is the way that the disciples found as well. It is worthwhile also considering the size of the early Church. For example, the Corinthians, to whom Paul wrote the letter read today, only met in one building, and a house at that, and probably only numbered thirty to sixty at most. Numbers are not what Paul ever berates the people at Corinth about though – Paul is interested in the faith of the community, not how big the community is. That little community to whom Paul wrote bickered and fought, yet were the seed of the Church of the future, in the same way we too carry the future in our prayers today.
What we are doing now, here, in this city, is important. Our support and love that we show to each other and to those who come into this building are the Lord’s work.
What we are doing here today, baptising a baby, is stating also our hope in that future and the gift of the Holy Spirit to help that child in a life of belief ahead.
To be called by God does not mean that you are whisked away to some obscure job converting the heathen. God calls us to live lives in the world around us, lives as parents, friends, workers and a thousand other things. In each the call comes, with the demand that what we do and how we live, we do so with integrity and honesty. The disciples were called and followed, giving their all in following our Lord. In the same way, we too are called to give all in the lives we lead. Love demands a commitment that is never lukewarm, but a dedication. Sure, that will mean a few problems and arguments, like that little Church at Corinth, but for a Church to grow, and for Christians to grow, then we need dedication in our lives and love.
May we always be a community who give to those around. May we be people who answer the call in our lives to show love. And the good Lord will be with us in that calling.
Called to be Disciples – OS3 A, 22nd January, 2017. 8 am Only
Well, for those of you with good memories last week we started Jesus’s ministry with the story from the Gospel according to John, how John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God and two of John’s disciples then followed Jesus. We now approach that story again, from Matthew’s account. We are now entering the Ordinary Sunday season, as it is sometimes called, the regular Sundays that fill in the year around Easter and Christmas. As a result, it makes sense to start the whole story off by thinking and reflecting on how Jesus called his disciples, and how we are his disciples now.
The main thing to ponder, is what sort of community did Jesus want to start? One short answer may be the Church, the real Church with a capital “C”, that body of saved persons throughout time and space, not just our lot struggling here. We call that the Communion of Saints or the Church Triumphant, in comparison to the Church Militant, us fighting here.
Well, we can look at what Jesus started doing here today. He calls Peter and Andrew and calls them to be fishers of people. He then teaches in their synagogues; proclaims the good news of the kingdom; cures every disease and every sickness among the people.
So the result are people are called and respond immediately to be his disciples. He starts by teaching and healing. He wants a people who understand and are healthy.
Now the passage today also comes in Matthew from the temptation in the wilderness, when Jesus has that strange confrontation with the Devil. But consider in that passage when the Devil offers him the kingdoms of the world, which he has in his power to give to Jesus. Jesus rejects the offer, and now starts by building a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, that is to be different.
So how is this new way to be different? Well, we have seen in the passage today that the first thing he does is to teach and proclaim the good news. Jesus recognizes that the kingdoms of the world live in ignorance, the ignorance that is part of being held by the Devil. He ties this also by healing people, seeing that the spiritual health is linked to bodily health.
But there is a lot more that will happen here, which is why we have the whole story of Our Lord’s life. Jesus will show in his life a new way, where people come not to dominate, but to serve. Furthermore, the foundation of the Kingdom of Heaven will be his own death and resurrection. The new way will be one where people learn to die and rise again, and to serve and not to dominate. It will be a Kingdom where people fail and sin, but also recognise their sin and repent.
But this is where we need to look more closely at what Our Lord wants to replace. The Kingdom of the World is one that is owned by the Devil. It is where ignorance happens, where people suffer, and where power is domination. But most importantly, as we see by the life of Jesus, it is a place where the innocent are made the victims for the powerful of that world. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the lamb that is unjustly sentenced and put to death. The kingdom of the World is one that is based on injustice and victimisation that we all take part in.
It is important to consider that all take part in the injustice of the world. Now, that meant in the death of Jesus that the Jews were not alone to blame, nor the Romans, but that all connived in his death and even his disciples did not stand up. The death of Jesus is about all taking part in it, all being complicit. In the same way the World still makes us all complicit in its structure of power. We all are tainted by the injustice of the world, by the cheap clothes we enjoy made by sweatshops, by the good life we enjoy while the majority of the world lives in poverty and a thousand other things. I don’t need to go through them. But we have to be clear to ourselves that we are part of the evil in the world.
However, all is not lost, that’s why we call it the good news. We do exactly as Our Lord did. We teach. We show the evil in the world and fight against it. We make the little changes in our lives, like being careful about what we buy and what we eat, so that justice is done. Ignorance is a tool of the Devil, and we must teach and show it to be. We also try and bring healing, like Our Lord did. Healing from illness, and healing from the all too many other sorts of illnesses people suffer from, many of them form the delusions of their minds. Often healing is done by simply living with God: showing that good lives can be lead, that love can be faithful, that a happy life does not depend on being rich.
But the real core of the Kingdom of Heaven has to be Our Lord: so we have to continually follow his way and carry his cross. We have to continually learn to die so we can rise again. We have to learn to sacrifice so that new life can begin. We have to let go so God can come in. We have to spend time with God: in the sacraments, Scripture and prayer. All this is a hard lesson that we will never stop learning.
So today we start by listening to the call of the first disciples’, again. We must go back to that time and time again when we forget that we too are called. Matthew, and even more strongly Mark, keep saying how people respond immediately to that call. The call of God calls from us a response that is immediate, because it is love calling to our life and we can do nothing else if we are true to that call, the call that overcomes the darkness of evil still calls, if we listen.
Two Lambs – OS02A, 15 January 2017.
Today I would like to tell you the tale of two lambs.
The first lamb I want to tell you about is the Lamb of Abraham. You may remember the story, Abraham was commanded by God to take his son, his only son, and sacrifice him on the mountain. So Abraham took his son, Isaac, and when his son asked him what they would sacrifice he only told him that God would provide. Then Abraham took his son, bound him, lay him on the wood and prepared to kill him as a sacrifice.
The God intervened and told him that was not necessary, and directed him to a lamb or ram in a bush nearby that was caught. Abraham took that lamb, and sacrificed him instead.
Now the importance of this incidence is that it marks a clear change in sacrificial needs in the pre-history of Israel. Human sacrifice was not practised again by them; in fact, they would see it as abhorrent. But other races, even the Romans at times of crisis, would still sacrifice humans. The reason for sacrifice is that it appeases the gods. People need to keep God happy, so they offer what is precious, and the most precious thing was life itself, and human life was the most valuable.
So that’s the first lamb I want to talk about.
The second lamb comes from the passage we heard today in the Gospel, when John calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus would be seen as the perfect lamb that would offer his life as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, and would die meekly like a lamb on the cross. So the need of sacrificing lambs at the Temple would cease with the sacrifice of the perfect lamb.
Now, the odd thing about this imagery, is that a lamb replaces a human, with the lamb replacing Isaac the son of Abraham, and then a human replacing all lambs, with Jesus taking the perfect lamb. It’s a lovely mirror imagery.
But the weakness is why Jesus must be sacrificed. Now this is where we start to think about why did Jesus die, what we call the atonement. If we see sacrifice as appeasing an angry God, then we start by sacrificing any human, then we go to lambs, then we go to a perfect human. The problem with all this is that why should God be angry with us? Now we do make mistakes, we do commit sins. But it’s not enough to say that we need to appease God for our sins, because that gives the image of God as an angry God. Much of our theology of what we call the atonement, why God dies for us, is based in ideas about either an angry God needing satisfaction, or a legal God needing the laws to be satisfied. That’s part of our inheritance though Augustine, Anslem and Calvin, but that’s another story that I will tackle in the Lenten studies for those interested. What the Gospels present instead is a loving God, a loving God who loved us so much he gave us his only Son.
Instead of thinking about angry gods wanting vengeance we should start to think about us as beings who by shame try to make good our sins by offering something precious. God always is there to forgive: that is what love is about. We offer precious things like other humans, but God does not want us to take life. So God directs us to offer lambs instead. Finally, God sends the Son to teach us a new way that shows us that even this sacrifice is unnecessary: and God then allows his Son to die as a victim of our anger and injustice. But to show that God is not one of vengeance, God does not punish us for killing his only Son, God has his Son rise to life again to show us that the way of vengeance and anger is only a phase, and that true forgiveness and new life lie beyond.
Now we can start to ponder what John the Baptist says today: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John sees Jesus as the ultimate lamb that finishes all the sacrifices of lambs in history. But a lamb was sacrificed for a person sins: this lamb takes away all sin, note how John says the sin, not sins of the world. The sin of the world is the need for vengeance, the need to sacrifice to take away our shame. Jesus as the perfect sacrifice takes all that sin away. There is no need of vengeance, there is only the need for love.
It is also worthwhile to consider, that where in the past we offered the lamb to God, God now offers the Lamb to us. We offered the lamb to appease the anger of the gods: now God offers the Lamb in his Son, to appease our anger. It is God’s offering of the Son that takes away the sin of the world for in that we realise the extent of the love of God in that God withholds nothing from us, not even his Son.
That is why when we come to communion we use those words, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It is the Holy Mother Church inviting her children to see that in the bread and wine, we take the body and blood, of the ultimate sacrifice for us, the Lamb of God. All thoughts of vengeance and appeasement are finished, instead we are presented with the love of God that withholds nothing. We are invited to come and receive him, not that we are worthy, but instead to be healed of the insanity of the cycle of vengeance and sacrifice.
So we travel in history for the lamb of Abraham to the lamb of God, a story of two lambs completing the need of sacrifice.
The Holy Name – The Circumcison, 1st January, 2017.
There are always numbers in the church. We celebrate the forty days of Lent, which is actually more than forty days. We talk about the twelve days of Christmas, ending on Epiphany. We also regularly talk about Octaves, eight days, or seven if you ignore the first day. Octaves are well marked with often special starts and ends; or if a Saint’s day falls mid-week, it can be moved to the Sunday in the Octave, which we regularly do for St George here. Anyway, it is on the eighth day of Christmas that the church celebrates the Holy Name of Jesus.
We celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus on this eighth day of Christmas because it was on the eighth day that Jesus was circumcised and received this name. This story is told in a single verse of the gospel we just heard.
The shepherds, summoned by an angel, have visited the baby in the manger. They return home, praising God for what has happened. Then comes the focus of today’s celebration. “After eight days had passed,” we hear from the gospel, “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
“It was time to circumcise the child.” Following the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph have their child circumcised on the eighth day. Thus he becomes a participant in the covenant, a son of Israel.
Circumcision brings with it the shedding of blood. What happens to Jesus on his eighth day is the first small step in the shedding of his blood for the redemption of the world.
His blood will be shed abundantly when his life draws to it close.
- In the Garden of Gethsemane he will pray so urgently that his sweat will resemble clots of blood falling to the ground.
- Blood will drip when he is scourged with whips by Roman soldiers, and when they press a crown of thorn branches deep into his head.
- Blood will drip as he carries his cross on the long walk to Calvary, and when spikes are driven through his feet and hands.
- And blood will drip even after he is dead, when the sharp point of a Roman lance cuts into his heart.
The blood shed at his circumcision is only a small beginning, the promise of what awaits him.
But something more than circumcision happens to Jesus on his eighth day. He receives his name. Among the Jews, circumcision is when a boy is named. A Jewish boy is named by a ceremony of blood, a Christian starts by a ceremony of water: it makes you ponder John’s description of Jesus dying on the cross, when blood and water flowed from his side, John perhaps seeing a new way of Jews and Christians living in Jesus.
The name Jesus receives is heavy with significance. It is the Greek version of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who leads Israel into the land of freedom. The name means literally “The Lord is salvation.” This is the name that Gabriel, at the Annunciation, tells Mary to name her child. It is the name that Joseph is told to name the child by an angel who appears to him in a dream.
And so it is not a name thought up by the baby’s parents. It is a name that comes from God. The name of the Saviour, the salvation he brings, and he himself all come from God.
We would miss the significance of the name of Jesus if we took that name as only a label, a way to distinguish one person from the next. The name of Jesus points us to who he is, who he is for us: the Saviour, the one who delivers us, rescues us; leads us, as did the Old Testament Joshua, into a land of freedom, a different way of life.
The name of Jesus has long been held to be holy and special. The old Anglican canons, or laws, asked people to bow their heads at the name of Jesus, a custom we maintain here at St George’s.
There are three great prayers in Christianity: the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer.
The recitation of the Holy Name of Jesus is the third great prayer. One famous form of this is the continual recitation of the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There is a lovely and famous book from the eastern tradition called “the Way of the pilgrim” which became popular is the mid 20th C, about a pilgrim who travels through Russia in the 19c learning and living this prayer, saying it continually. The practice of learning to say this prayer over and over again is one of the great calming prayers of our faith. It is a prayer we should try and make part of our spiritual life for the challenges of our lives.
A new year lies before us. We do not know what it contains. But we can pray with devotion the Holy Name of Jesus.
- Perhaps some of us will die during the new year. We can leave this life at peace with God, with the name of Jesus on our lips.
- Some of us may face great trials. We can meet them confidently, with the name of Jesus on our lips.
- Some of us may experience wonderful joys, new opportunities, unique blessings. We can express our gratitude, with the name of Jesus on our lips.
A new year lies before us. May it be for each of us a year when we pray our Saviour’s Name with faith and fervour, a year when we discover that this world can be a very different place through the power of the Holy Name.
Based partly on a sermon by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker of the USA.
Cribs – Christmas, 25th December, 2016.
I hope you admire our crib over by the door. It’s very beautiful and getting a bit of age to it. One of our parishioners made and painted the scenery to go with it, and thanks to our friendly electrician we’ve just updated the lighting.
Cribs are fairly recent inventions. St Francis of Assisi, that great saint and lover of animals invented them roughly seven hundred years ago. He also invented the stations of the cross. He wanted people to see and understand what it meant for the Our Lord Jesus to be born in a family. He was worried that people heard and heard the story but it had fallen on dulled ears – people did not experience what it meant.
When you look at the crib it brings several points home. Think about who comes. Not the wealthy folk of the town, but the shepherds, who live out in the fields, little better than the homeless and probably just as smelly. Then there are the wise men – strange foreign characters, not the respectable local rich people, who were probably enjoying a good meal and warmth at home. Don’t; forget the angels as well – hardly the usually people to pop in on a family.
In fact, anyone who turns up is decidedly odd.
Then have a look at the location. We have in our crib here a more open scenery, but usually it’s depicted as either a run-down inn or a cave. Actually, there are two traditions at work here, the run-down stable symbolising the decaying religious certainty of the time, of sacrifices that took place time and time again but never solved the guilt and worry of the world. The second tradition has it in a cave, arising from a Greek understanding of Scripture, but also pointing to the cave that Jesus would one day be buried in, the entrance to the underworld.
Whatever version you know or see, it’s not the normal place to stay in, let alone a child be born into. No nice little semi-detached bungalow in the smarter part of Bethlehem. Scripture tells us that this was because, in those famous words, there was no place at the inn. It was make do, the only thing around. But it certainly wasn’t suitable.
The last thing I want you to notice is the smallness of it all. The original crib of St Francis was life-size, but over time we’ve shrunk it so many houses have tiny little ones that sit neatly on a small table. But smallness is the last lesson we need to ponder.
God could have come to us in any form. God, the creator of all, could have come in glory and angels and still be small. It’s as if God has tried as hard as hard to become the smallest thing around us. Not a great angel with a sword of flame. Not a six-foot prophet with a huge beard. But a helpless baby, the smallest of the small for everyone.
Therein lies one of God’s clearest lessons. God wants to be loved. Why? Because God loves us. It’s hard to love an angel with a surd of flame; most angels seem to start their message in the gospels telling people not to be afraid: fear is a much more natural response to something as otherworldly as an angel. Six foot prophets with long beards are hardly cuddly as well. But babies: well it’s only one step up from giant pandas and koalas, everyone must love and smile for them.
God wants us to love. The nature of God is love, a love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that rejoices to share that love with all creation. A love that is not based on fear, but on the small detail, the quiet place, away from the comfort of the over wealthy and the overly comfortable. A place where foreigners can come or vagrants may visit. A place where we can come when we feel foreign and out of it, or away from home and comfort.
My dear people of God, there is all too much hate in the world. We worry about the violence of terrorism, the mindless hate of people who commit suicide and destroy others with them. The hate that can see cities like Aleppo reduced into ruins. The hate and fear that divides communities and allows extremists to obtain power.
Love is the great gift of the world that God has given us. It calls for the strength to forgive and walk away from hate. It calls for the determination that no matter how one is persecuted we will not abandon our hope that love is still greater. It causes us to seek the source of how we can love when others walk away, the source that we find when our hearts are at rest in God.
The last lesson we need to take away from the crib is remember to keep things small. God started with us as a small baby. In our own lives, we start being Christians in the small things of life. Small things like honesty and integrity and manners. We can’t solve the big things of the world. But we can solve the small things, like being nice to the difficult relation this Christmas or trying a small act of forgiveness. If we start on the small things, like a baby, the big things will come along and be much easier to deal with.
St Francis made the first Christmas Crib to make this story of love and openness clear to all who saw it. Words are never enough, actions are always more powerful. I pray that each of you here tonight may also see and understand the love of God, and have the strength to act on it.
God’s Plan: Advent 4A, 18th December, 2016.
We will be singing today that great Advent carol, “O Come O Come Emanuel.” It’s based on what are called the O antiphons, that is the sentences that are used for the Evening Prayer of the Church, used after the start of the second part of Advent. We’ve been looking at them in the Gregorain Chant Group as well. That started yesterday, with a special mass called the Golden Mass, as it is meant to be done by candlelight. It’s very pretty if you ever get to see it. This year with all the wiring problems it was necessity.
From that day on the readings in the Gospel turn to the stories of the birth of Jesus. The one we read that day was the passage just before the Gospel today from Matthew, a long family tree of Jesus often thought to be one of the most boring passages of the Gospel.
At the risk of boring you as well, I would like to briefly mention it, as it sets up the passage we heard today. Matthew recites the family tree of Jesus, noting fourteen generations from Abraham to the establishment of the kingdom with David, fourteen till the fall of the kingdom, fourteen from the deportation to Babylon to Christ. Matthew sees God moving in a great cyclic plan. But in between those three sets of fourteen men, the forty-two fathers from Abraham to Jesus, he inserts four of the mothers in addition to Mary. These four mothers: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (“the wife of Uriah”). What do these four have in common? Some seemingly sexual impropriety in connection with them or the conceptions of the sons in the line of David. So the story of Jesus’ birth follows as the story of a seemingly improper conception. Mary is found to be with child before she and Joseph are married, and so “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” What a scandal! But Joseph is a righteous man, that is, he plays by the rules of sacred society. Into this scandal comes the angel in a dream, who basically tells Joseph to drop all of this self-righteousness, because God is doing something special through this child.
So in all these cosmic plans of God, Joseph feels scandalised because the baby is not his. I love this passage when you think of it this way. God works through countless generations but at the last moment there is a hold up because Joseph is put out. So Joseph is told in a dream to not be afraid. In other words, get over it Joseph, it’s ok. Then we have Joseph, like the John of the coat of many colours, forgiving, and the baby will be called Jesus. We have a little hiccup here because we have the Greek name here, but it’s the same as Joshua, then one who led the people into the Promised Land.
God’s purpose is to include all. The story of redemption, the story of God’s reuniting of divided and scattered humanity after the judgment of the flood and the fragmentation and alienation of the tower of Babel (Genesis 6-11) began with God’s act of calling Abraham and Sarah and the promise of blessings for all peoples through them (Gen 12:1-3). As “son of Abraham,” Jesus is declared to be the fulfilment of God’s promises to the Gentiles.
This inaugural note of inclusiveness corresponds to the inclusiveness of the whole genealogy. Since ancestry and inheritance were traced through the father’s line, reference to women in a genealogy was uncommon, but not unheard of. Since all of the women mentioned are involved in some sort of questionable sexual behaviour, it has often been suggested that this was Matthew’s apologetic response to non-believers’ insulting versions of the story of Jesus’ birth from the virgin Mary. It could well be that, while not apologetic, Matthew is interested in affirming that the plan of God has often been fulfilled in history in unanticipated and “irregular” ways, as was the case in the birth of Jesus from Mary, and that Matthew is interested in showing that God worked through irregular, even scandalous ways, and through women who took initiative, like Tamar and Ruth. Yet the main reason for Matthew’s inclusion of these women corresponds to one of the Gospel’s primary themes: the inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of God from the beginning. All of the men in Jesus’ genealogy are necessarily Jewish. But the four women mentioned, with the exception of Mary, are “outsiders,” Gentiles, or considered to be such in Jewish tradition. Just as the following story shows Jesus to be the fulfilment of both Jewish and Gentile hopes, so also the genealogy shows that the Messiah comes from a Jewish line that already includes Gentiles.
So what do we learn from this complete passage. Firstly, God works by a divine plan and order that is beyond us. Forty-two generations is a long term plan. Then we learn that God does not use just the righteous and seemingly pure – God uses Rahab and other odd people, foreign women even, for God’s plan takes in all peoples, and all sorts of people. It’s a lesson for what the church should really be like. Then we learn that God works through the oddest ways, even dreams, to bring us messages. God does not have any such thing as a standard way of giving us suggestions. Finally we have to learn to be like Joseph; learn to get over the self-righteousness and just do God’s will.
Citizenship of the City – Advent 2 5th December
There are two Saint Augustine’s that good Anglicans need to know about. They both have been influential in our history, and if you know any one called Austin, it comes from these saints. The one most Anglican churches are dedicated are to St Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop there, who started his ministry there in 597. Justin Welby, for whom we pray here as the spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, which is a lot different from a Pope because he can’t really tell us what to do, is the 105th successor to the first Augustine, nearly 1500 years ago.
But the one I want to mention is St Augustine of Hippo, which is in modern day Libya. He was a great theologian and writer and his greatest work is a book called “The City of God,” although his autobiography, “Confessions” is one of the great spiritual classics a well. He wrote “The City of God” in response to the sack of Rome in 410 by the barbarian Visigoths. It was a profound shock to the Empire – the great city of Rome has been a symbol of their culture and many saw the sack of Rome as a judgment on them for abandoning their ancient gods. The old gods had protected the city was the idea, by abandoning the gods their protection had failed.
Augustine wrote that there are two cities that humans deal with in their lives. There is the human city, the City of Man, the image of the present, often of power and exploitation, that constructed mighty Rome, that by its very nature will be subject to the power struggles of the world. Then there is the City of God, that heavenly city wherein we are called to be citizens. We try to be the citizens of the City of God, while we struggle with the citizenship of the City of Man.
You can’t make the city of man into the city of God. When you try, it’s always a deception. There is the old story of a zoo once that decided that it would have a zoo of peace, where the lamb would live with the wolf. So every day they showed the wolf and lamb living together. A visitor asked one of the keepers how they did it. “It was very simple,” he replied. “We just buy a new lamb every day.” It can only be done by deception.
It is worthwhile thinking of this image and its theology. The story of humanity is the story from the Garden of Eden to the City of God, the City of the Lamb, in Revelation. The journey of humanity is from a garden to a city. We are on a pilgrimage between the two. We are not in the city yet.
It is this citizenship that is behind the texts selected for our readings today. In Isaiah the vision is the time when the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together; an image of peace instead of typical conflict. Isaiah sees a time when the world will be at peace, instead of the conflict of his time, when Israel was hemmed in by the mighty powers of his time, the Egyptians and Assyrians, whose molesting armies continually threatened their lives. Isaiah sees a time of peace, the reign of God, or the City of God.
The New Testament readings also take up this theme on who is called to this city; who are the citizens of the City of God. Paul makes the point in Romans that Christ has come for the circumcised and uncircumcised. Citizenship of the heavenly city is not that based on blood, but on calling.
Then we get to John the Baptist. He is the last of the prophets, seeing the end of the world as imminent, and violently states that those who are worthy of the City of God are not those who are just the children of Abraham: far from it, for God is able to raise children of Abraham from the very stones, but rather those who are bearing the fruit of repentance.
So what are the fruit of repentance that make us the citizens of that heavenly city? How do we walk the distance between the Garden of Eden to the City of God?
Well, one theme for Advent is the contemplation of the end times: death, judgment, heaven and hell. This is the gate to the heavenly city: we cannot enter that City in life, and we must pass through our end and resurrection to be citizens of it. The realisation that we end here is an important part of our spirituality and why we use it as the major theme of Advent. In the words of our Eucharistic prayer after the consecration, we eagerly await Our Lord’s coming in glory. Christians believe that meeting God is truly the most defining moment: it is the test of our fruits of repentance in John’s words. Our lives are looking to that moment of judgment: our lives are lived looking forward to the coming in glory.
This looking forward to our meeting with God therefore gives another meaning to the present times. What we do now and hold now must be judged on that. We have to live lives now in preparation: we have to become better Christians each day: the struggle to be the citizens of that heavenly city must be a struggle that we engage in. We see our end and judgment; not as a doom that leaves us in depression, but the joyful completion of our lives and meaning. That is why in our old churches like here, you pass under the great image of the dead Christ on the cross at the end of the nave, to walk up to the living God in the sacrament of the altar. We want to be citizens of the City of God. Therefore we try and live our lives in a way that gives meaning to that citizenship.
Now, many in the world have no hope of a future, and live a life that only has gratification now. That is why we love having too much, and want more and more: it is the acceptance of the now and the defining time. But our time is to come; we must be wary of endless abundance and satisfaction now. We are, after all, on a journey form that Garden to a City, we must not settle down too comfortably and forget that we have to travel light. Others may forget and pretend that they are already in the City, and believe that the world is being made perfect here. They are those who confuse the City of Man with the City of God. The world is not founded on that City, and all who place their hopes on that City of Man ignore the underlying violence and inequality at their peril.
This world is fundamentally incapable of being the City of God. Despite our comforts we know that we enjoy it only through the gross inequality of the world and the violence that protects our peace. We. The Church here, the Church Militant, are the pilgrim people of God on our way to that heavenly City, the City of God. We must face our own ending to enter into those gates. Therefore travel with the hope of entering that gate, and don’t become too bogged down with the present. Struggle with it, rail against its injustice by all means, as we must, but our joy, our hope awaits us in the future: it gives us the peace and courage we need now. At this Advent contemplate our end times, not with doom, but with joy of the God who waits us to welcome us as a citizen of that city of joy, the City of God.
Ready State for God – Advent 1 A, 27 November, 2016.
I grew up in country NSW, in an area that was very heavily forested. In summer, when I used to bush walk, I always had to be careful of the snakes. Now our snakes were not the Tiger Snakes here, but the Red Bellied Black Snakes: not as aggressive snake, but still very poisonous. So I use to walk carefully, and usually make a fair amount of noise. The noise would also warn the snake.
Now and then a snake would be disturbed by the noise, and usually it went one way very quickly, and I went another way very quickly. Both of us were warned.
This walking while making a noise is what is sometimes called by experts as a “ready-state,” as I am always ready for a particular situation. Ready-state is not only a way you live but can be applied to a variety of ways. A good ready-state in an immune system for example would be the ability to bounce back from an illness quickly and completely.
In a person, a ready-state is characterized by the ability of that person to enter into just about any situation with equanimity and openness. Fragility, on the other hand, is the opposite of ready-state. Ready-state is not about being anxious and hyper-vigilant, but is instead about mindfulness and well, readiness.
Most of all ready-state is due mostly to advance-work, namely: training. Consistent, intentional training, over time, allows for the ready-state.
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus is reminding us that not even he, nor the angels, know when God will come. Some like to think that God will come in terrible retribution with flames and violence. These people look for signs in international politics and weather patterns that God is coming to judge and destroy the world. This is the Day of the Lord, the great apocalyptic coming of God to be with the creation fully. The reason that so many doom-sayers with signs that say, “The End is Nigh,” say what they say, is because the prophets and gospel writers, even Jesus, used language like this: great tribulation, division, floods of fire and water.
The point they are trying to make, is that when God comes to be fully wedded to creation, the existing order of things will be reversed. Instead of violence and oppression being used to secure economic and political flourishing for some, the Kingdom of God will be established so that peace and justice will walk hand-in-hand.
These reversals of the worldly ordering of life is a trademark of God’s presence and it always comes as a surprise because that kind of life, one marked with peace, justice, presence and love can be achieved in the here and now.
Jesus, in today’s reading, is calling us to be awake and prepared for it. Jesus is reminding us of the importance to be in a ready-state for God’s coming. This is part of what Advent is all about. Advent, it turns out is not, is not, a countdown of shopping days until Christmas but a reminder of the ready-state, a call to training our spirits for God’s arrival.
The Christian tradition recognizes that God has come, and will come, to be with us in three distinct ways.
The first coming of God was when God walked with us in Jesus of Nazareth. We will celebrate that coming in a few weeks at the Feast of the Incarnation, otherwise known as Christmas.
Another coming of God is the final coming which Jesus makes mention of in today’s reading, when God and creation will be as they were meant to be, fully united. The strongest image the Bible has for this union is a marriage between God and creation and, make no mistake, heaven is coming to Earth (Rev 21).
The third coming of God happens between the first coming and the final coming of God, between the coming of Jesus and the final marriage of God and creation. This coming of God is the daily visitation: God with us in our prayers, finding God in our neighbours, seeing God in those we are privileged to serve.
What we see in these three visitations is that all of them are the hoped for Day of the Lord. Each of these visitations carries with it the reversals of the normal, worldly order but also the loving and just presence of God.
How are you in a ready-state for God’s coming? How then can we be awake and watchful for the coming of God, whether in the final coming of the daily visitation of God?
There is a telling portion of Scripture that happens when the disciples have just seen Jesus ascend into Heaven. The disciples are looking up, dumbfounded. Finally, some angels appear and ask, “Why are you looking up, trying to find him?” The implication is, “Don’t look up to find Jesus, look out, look in.”
Jesus is always one step ahead, going into the city, into Galilee, into life, we are meant to seek and find him there. That’s how we stay ready for God’s coming, we daily, hourly stay on the lookout for God, not in the clouds, not in the powerful events of the world, but in the quiet, domestic ways that God visits us. God may indeed someday come in the clouds but it more than likely will come in your life.
Advent is a reminder of the ready-state, be awake and ready for God. This is why Advent tends to be described as preparatory, not just for the great celebration of Christmas but for the final coming of God and also for the ever-present daily visit of God with us in the here and now.
God is not as deadly as the snake, but God is as disruptive to our normal hard-hearted ways as a snake can be. Be ready, be awake because the love of God will disrupt and turn over our comfortable notions of how things ought to be. God will send us into the waters of justice, peace, presence and love. It can be disorienting, but if we have trained ourselves to be ready, then we might work with God to establish God’s Kingdom more deeply in our hurting world.
Based on part on a sermon by Fr Josh Bowron. Bowron of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC.
The Penultimate – 13th November, 2016.
I want to start this sermon by saying that the word for today is “penultimate.” It’s from the fine old Latin word paenultimus that means “next to the last.” Not the last, not the ultimate, but next to that, before that. The penultimate things are not the ultimate things, but the things that are a step down from them, things come before them. Even better, for those of us who have been learning our vulgate Latin pronunciation at the Chant group it’s easy to pronounce in Latin.
Penultimate is a great word to hear and ponder as we listen to these wonderful Biblical stories about the end of all things, about “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” and the day of the Lord burning like an oven, and how not one stone will be left upon another. We always hear stuff like this as we get close to Advent; it’s good for us, and these saying are really all about that little word.
Let’s start with the temple in Jerusalem. In the first century, the temple was absolutely the centre of Jewish religion, history, culture, civilization and civic pride. Here all the Jews could go. In its thousand-year history, the Temple had never been as glorious, as extensive, or as popular as it was when Jesus and his disciples visited.
Yet Jesus was ambivalent about the Temple. At times he seems almost hostile: he drove out the money changers and the animals, causing the sacrifices to stop. The Tempe was a centre for Jews: but still a place where divisions mattered: Gentiles were separate from the varieties of Jews; men from women, and priests from laity. Even God was separate: hidden away behind the curtain in the holy of holies. Jesus continually taught about a kingdom of heaven where Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles could enter, certainly not a temple. Also, he seems to want to end the whole notion of sacrifice, that blood offering of animals can transfer our responsibility for hate.
There are two things that Jesus predicts in the Gospel today. The first is, that the Temple would soon be completely destroyed – that not one stone would be left upon another – which is exactly that the Romans did about 35 years later, after an unsuccessful Jewish rebellion.
That’s the first thing Jesus says. The second is more subtle: as he predicts the destruction of the temple, and the chaos that goes with it, Jesus also says, (again quite correctly) “the end will not follow immediately.” The Temple will crumble, there will be problems, but things will go on pretty much as before. There will still be much to do. There will be people to help, and evil to resist, and prayers to say – just like before the Temple was destroyed. So, the Temple falls, but “the end will not follow immediately”.
That must have been a hard thing to hear. It was almost impossible for any Jew to imagine the destruction of the Temple. What would be even harder to imagine was the destruction of the Temple and the rest of the whole world not coming to an end right then. After all, everyone knew that the Temple was the ultimate thing, the final thing: if it went, everything else was sure to go, too.
But that was wrong. The Temple was not the ultimate thing after all, it was only one of the penultimate things, something that was next door to ultimate, maybe, but that’s all.
All of creation did not hang on it. The main thing, the one truly important and indispensable thing, is God, and what God is up to. Everything else is penultimate.
Everything else takes a back seat. Everything else can – and will – crumble to dust. Anything else can, and will, crumble to dust. The fate of creation hangs on none of them. Who God is and what God is up to: this is what abides, this is the main thing. This alone is ultimate.
It can be difficult to remember this. When the Temple actually fell, (and the world did not end) the fledgling Christian Church in Jerusalem (as well as many Jewish groups) faced a huge crisis of faith.
Many people then simply could not separate what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to them from what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to God. For many, the Temple’s fall was devastating, and seemed to prove God false. They had confused the ultimate with the penultimate.
But Jesus left something instead of the Temple – a new way of living through his body, through his sacraments. It was a way that all people could enter, as St Paul puts it, Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave. The Temple made distinctions: Christianity was not meant to do so. The Temple meant transferring our guilt and hate into sacrifice: the taking of bread and wine was meant to overturn sacrifice and make us a community based on love.
Now, of course we failed. We have made our churches at times places where wealth matters, or race, or sexuality. But we can never forget that at the heart of our faith is our God as the victim, making it impossible for us to persevere in our prejudices.
We all also have our temples, our penultimates. We all have our own ideas of what is indispensable to creation – these may be personal things, or religious things, or social things, or cultural things, or election results, things we cannot conceive being otherwise, or doing differently, or losing – things we cannot imagine that either we or the world or God could ever live without. After this week when those of us who believed in the liberal Western tradition saw the results of the election in the US, it’s very much a time for us to take stock of the world and our assumptions, and also our commitments to what we believe in if our system of toleration and inclusion is to last.
But also, every now and then, we need to be reminded that these things are not quite ultimate.
It’s very important to be able to make this distinction—to be able to realize that our special concern, our pet project, our current passion, is not really the same thing as the kingdom of God, or the will of God. This whole business of the last things, the end of the world, all of that is here to remind us that our stuff, no matter how important it may be, our stuff is not ultimate. It will all pass away. Remember that word…penultimate.
Instead, it is who God is and what God is doing, right now among us, that is of ultimate importance. Nothing else matters nearly as much, nothing else will matter for so long. The point is not to hang on tight to what we have. The point is to keep our eyes and hearts open, and our hands busy at what we need to be about.
Partly based on a sermon by Fr James Liggett. Liggett of Midland, Texas, USA.
Salvation has Come – 30th October, 2016.
Being in a crowd is always an experience. Everyone wants to see something, and there is a jostle and push to have a good view. At this time of the year I remember once going to the Melbourne Cup. I joined the vast crowd in the position well away from the end, where the wealthy had the members stand. Being where I was, I did not see much – I remember only seeing the tops of the jockeys and a lot of dust as the race went by. Usually, in a crowd, there is a sense of companionship and rivalry as all strive for the best position. Yet usually, the crowd is not malicious. Children are let through to the front so they can see. There is a sense of fair go to allow all to see.
That is what is unusual in the Gospel reading this morning. Zacchaeus was a short man yet the crowd froze him out. They used his shortness to gang up on him. The reason why was because he was disliked. The crowd disliked him for his job and money. I suspect usually they did not get a chance to dislike him openly, but in a crowd they could push and shove and little disliked Zacchaeus was pushed away – no one was to blame, but no one was sorry that he was left at the back with no chance to see.
Now normally I suspect that Zacchaeus would not have bothered competing with a crowd. With his money and influence he would have arranged things otherwise to get a good view, some sort of members stand elsewhere, some window of a friend who was happy to oblige a rich and important man. This time there was no time, and Zacchaeus was left in the cold.
A man like him would usually just walk away. Yet Zacchaeus did something unusual. He climbed a tree.
Now they may have been a few catcalls to Zacchaeus that day – wealthy men don’t climb trees, and I wonder how long since Zacchaeus had climbed a tree. But Zacchaeus was desperate, so desperate that dignity did not matter. He wanted to see.
And he was seen. He was welcomed by our Lord. He was to have our Lord to his house.
I expect that crowd was not happy. Here was this man of faith going to eat with the wealthy and hated. Maybe our Lord lost a few friends that day who thought he was not being holy enough.
Yet Zacchaeus continues to surprise people. After climbing a tree, now he gives away ill-gotten gain. It is a day of the unusual for him. He knows that this is his chance, this is his moment to put things right. He will never be a tall man, but he can be a good man. That is why he wanted to see Jesus. He knew that his life, though comfortable, was wrong, and he knew that he would never be content. This Jesus was a chance in a lifetime to make a lifetime change. He might have been a little man, but he stood tall as he made his promises for a better life. Jesus knew this and knew that this was the moment when a good man could be born. So he stopped with Zacchaeus and had lunch, and a soul was saved for the kingdom. That’s how Luke delights to show people: the most improbable, the most unlikely people, are all called into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Luke ends by pointing up something which is also pointed out in that passage about the Road to Emmaus. There the two travellers thought they were the hosts and Jesus their guest, only to find that he was hosting them. Part of what the presence of Jesus in the midst of people feels like is just this curious inversion of perspective. At the beginning of our story here, it is Zacchaeus who seeks to see who Jesus is, working around all the complexities of his relationship with the crowd so as to get a glimpse. But from the moment that Jesus looks up at him, calls him by name and tells him he must spend the night in his house, it is clear that the whole relationship has been inverted. Not only is it, once again, the apparent guest who is the real host. But all along, it was Out Lord deliberately seeking out this particular person, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’s seeking of Jesus had been real, if still embryonic; it was the seeking of someone who was tied up in a very complex pattern of desire. Perhaps the beginning of Zacchaeus being found lay in the fact that, as part of his lostness, he had had to begin to detach himself from the immediacy of crowd desire, just so as to be able to get a look at Jesus. Even that detachment, leading to his moment of unexpected vulnerability, is part of the process of his receiving the love which recreated him, is part of what being sought and found by our Lord feels like.
Now for each of us the story also applies in some way. For we too stand on the road each day as our Lord walks by. We may be the crowd, wanting to see the spectacle go by. Or we may be like Zacchaeus, desperately aware that something in our life is wrong and we need to touch the holy to change. Or we may be a bit of both, a little Zacchaeus, going down a track that gives us worldly comfort but spiritual death, and a little every one in the crowd, not too bad, not too good, not too interested.
But our Lord still walks by, seeing not the crowds but a soul in need. Our Lord still walks by; wanting to stop with those who need is most. And the crowds still grumble, because our Lord does not stay with them, but stays with those who seem the strangest choice.
When is the Lord staying with you?
The God You Believe In – OS 30 C, 23rd October, 2016.
I would like you to think today of the saying: you get the God you believe in. You believe in a god of anger, you get an angry god. You believe in a god of prosperity, you get a god of prosperity.
The problem is: who is the real God? Because you can argue that the other way: you believe in a god of love, you get a god of love. But which gods are false gods and which is the true God?
Now, we have enough false gods from our own history. People have justified so much evil in the name of God: play around with Scripture enough and you can get anything. This is why we have to be careful of how Scripture is used, and why we Anglicans, or at least the mainstream ones, do not believe in a Church based solely on Scripture, but also on tradition and reason.
So let’s look at the Gospel today after that warning. We have two characters: a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now as soon as we make these titles we start making judgments; we think of the Pharisee as bigoted and ultra-religious, and the tax collector as the goodie. But we listen to this story through our own history of interpretation. Pharisees were good religious people, devout, and probably provided the core of the early Church. Tax collectors were never liked, they are the eternal boogie-men, those who make us pay money to the government.
What the Pharisee gets wrong is that he knows who God is. He gives a list of the things God does: not liking thieves, rogues, adulterers, or the tax collector. He then says what God likes: fasting and tithing. He has God worked out.
But then we get the tax collector. He does not start with a list of what God likes or dislikes. He just starts with himself. He just sees who he is, with his faults, and sees he is a sinner in need of God.
The Pharisee has God wrong. God is not about who is better than, smarter than, prettier than, richer than, holier than whom. God does not discriminate, God does not compare us with one another. The Pharisee was bound by his dedication to the Torah, and that would be a beautiful thing but his theology suffered. He had God wrong. The God who blesses the religious person is a God who can be manipulated. A God who recognizes the selfish perceptions of our zeal would have to be a god of wrath and violence and justice and judgment. In short, if God is like the Pharisee thinks God is, most of us are in deep trouble, as we fall far short of this one’s righteousness.
The prayer of the tax collector is well known: he seeks forgiveness. This is the God who answers, this is the One revealed in the character of Jesus. The tax collector is not expressing some poor old “woe-is-me” syndrome; he simply and honestly acknowledges himself for how he acts. He sins, therefore he is a sinner in need of mercy and healing.
The God that Jesus is trying to teach here is a God who is interested in each of us. Not because we are better or worse than others, but because we are just his child. Love of God is not some sort of competition with others, of some way to make us better. We believe in Jesus and come to Church because we just want to experience that love, despite all the failings we know we have. Church is a place for honesty with oneself. Holy Mother Church is a hospital for all people, not a preserve of the perfect. The problem comes when we make it so happy and wonderful we can’t afford to cry and show our wounds.
One thing I love about St George’s is how the oddest people come here: something attracts them; they feel God is here. Sometimes people just knock on my door at strange hours wanting to light a candle. Sometimes at a weekday mass you spot a strange person hiding behind a pillar trying to get enough courage to come to the altar. There are a lot of damaged people who come here, thank God. They drive me batty at times, but I still thank God. They find here that this is hospital for their needs.
The passage today comes on a series of lessons that we have been dealing with in the last week about prayer. It is important to pray. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, as Christians we believe that the world does not exist by itself. We hold that the world, the universe and all creation was made by God. Its existence is not dependant on the laws of nature – its existence is dependent on God. Therefore, the only way we touch what is truly real is to pray, to touch and listen to God. If God sustains the world by love, then when we pray we touch the true reality. Think of it. The whole of creation is held together by the will of God that makes it and sustains it. Prayer is the way we enter into the true reality.
The next important thing is that prayer is the only way to change. Prayer in the end is not a private activity. When we pray we take our needs to God who, if we open up to him, will then change us and those we take to him. Creation continues in the alteration of the world by prayer. We go to God in prayer, he takes us in prayer, and sends us back in the world altered. How can we not change after we meet our maker? We may not see the change, we may not know how our prayer is altered, but does a light bulb know the electricity that makes it shine?
Before I start any task I pray. Whenever I finish the day I pray. I ask for guidance before and thank God after. At times I want particular results which I may or may not get. The best I can hope is that in the end I have done God’s will – that my prayer has opened me or others to God so that the underlying foundation of the world effects it change – that God orders it for the betterment of all.
That is why it is so important that we pray together as a community. Our needs and hurts that we bring together here strengthen us. The Church is held together by the little voices we bring that make the greater – we come as individuals but leave as the body of Christ – strengthened by each other.
Never, never think that prayer is a private job. By praying for each other we strengthen each other.
We have to be careful in the Gospel story today is attaching labels to the characters in the story. Once you start thinking the Pharisee is like some other denomination or religion you have fallen into the trap of knowing what God is all about. Don’t do it. What the Gospel is teaching us again is what we should be like. In prayer we need to come to him as sinners in need of healing. In Church we come here as failures in need of healing. But in all circumstances we come not with self-pity. It’s no use endlessly blaming ourselves. That’s wallowing. It’s also telling God we can’t be improved, we can’t be justified. We come as we are, and God takes us as we are. Yes, we could come as better presents to God, but that’s not the point. We have come to God, and God will always take us as the child of creation we are.
Our Lord tried desperately to teach his disciples about this sort of God, a God who accepts people. However, it’s easier to believe in a god of vengeance and anger and prosperity. But Our Good Lord goes on to take the way of poverty and lowliness by his death to show us that this is the way that God has chosen. So don’t god for false gods, don’t presume to work out God. Just come as the child that God wants.
Persistence – OS29 C, 16th October, 2016.
Some people think that prayer is some extraordinary strange experience, reserved for a few Christians and other selected weirdos. But I am here today to tell you that prayer is something that is natural and normal, part of who we are.
The first thing to get over is that prayer is a set collection of prayers at a particular time. Yes, we do have them, but they are only one type of prayer. Prayer is much, much more than that.
Prayer, at its best, is living with the consciousness of God. It’s not about set times of intensity, which we all should try, but it’s the ability to life with the consciousness that we are with God.
Let’s think about prayer as being in love with God. Now when you are in love with someone, you have moments of great intensity and other times when you wish they would just tidy up after themselves. It’s not the same level of intensity every minute, every hour, every day. Love changes over the time of a relationship, as we find different levels of connection. Well, prayer is like that as well. We love God. Sometimes with great intensity and attention. Other times when we would rather prefer it if God left us alone so we could get on with life. Other times almost with hate for the disappointment or grief we have in our life. But in all of this we still remain connected to God. That is a life of prayer. It is being in love with God.
That’s why Jesus tells this rather strange parable today in the gospel. It comes after the disciples have asked him to increase their faith [17:5] and the passage that we had last week, about the ten lepers who were healed, but only one, a Samaritan, turned back to give thanks [17:11-19]. He goes on after today’s parable to teach about some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous [18:9] In all these stories he touches again on the way of faith and prayer, that we need to have faith, and be thankful.
Yet today’s parable is not some set prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer, but instead a rather strange story about a unjust judge who tries to ignore a widow who continually complains to him. In the end he listens to her just to shut her up. Her persistence makes him listen.
The lesson to that is that prayer is something that is persistent. We have to keep going with it. That’s what I mean that prayer is like being in love; we keep on going with love, through the good and the difficult, because we love someone, faults and all. So it is with prayer. We keep at it, we keep being conscious of the place of God in our lives. Like the widow, we don’t give up, and keep on seeking God in our lives.
Once we understand that, we start to understand formal prayer times, times when we sit down and talk to God in a structured way. Those times are the bookends to our spiritual life. We engage with God in a formal sense, to adore him, confess our faults, thank him, and ask our supplications, in the ACTS structure I suggested last week, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. But it does not really matter what you do: as long as you do something that gives structure and reflection. Furthermore, the importance of set times of prayer is in the silence: prayer at those moments is a conversation, when you not only bother God but let God talk to you.
Living a life of prayer is a persistence in seeing God through our whole life. The widow did not just bother the unjust judge at the set times: she kept continually coming, so end the end he listened to her. That’s why we have to reflect every day and see the hand of God in our lives, so we stat being aware of God’s presence. Now I am not just talking about cute birds in trees and pretty sunsets; this is about seeing God in a whole life, even in the tragedy of life. God’s not just a pretty picture like a chocolate box. Our best theology of life and prayer is when we see the suffering Christ in the victim and horror of the world, that moves us to help and prayer and reach out to Christ in the tragedy of life. If we only see God in the chocolate box covers, we have made a false god who is no use to use in our despair and grief: but God came and lived as one of us, to share life in all its horrors as well. That why we have theology to see God: that’s why we need to look around and see God in all we do, all we love, and all we touch, so we can make God part of our lives. That’s what persistence of prayer and life of prayer is all about: seeing God in everything and becoming infused in the love of God.
Prayer is a wonderful gift that we can live in our lives: it is the experience of finding God in all we do. It is the companion of our loneliness, the theology of our lives, the simple meeting of God and finding God every day. We need set times to help and guide this prayer. We need thankfulness so we can see what God has done to us already. We need persistence so we continue to find the hidden God that we have neglected and turned away from in our lives. We need love that can be filled with the prayer life of being with God.
Contentment and Healing – OS28 C, 8th October, 2016.
There are some awful whingers in the world. You probably have met a few as well: perhaps in the supermarket, when they carry on long and loud conversations that make you heartily glad you are not part of their family. If they are part of your family, you have my sympathy. People who feel they need to complain about everything and anything: he whinger.
Well today is a day to give thanks that Christians are not naturally whingers. Today’s gospel is all about giving thanks for what is given to us.
The ten lepers in the Gospel today all plead for healing, and Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. In faith they turn and go, and on the way they find themselves healed. But only one, a Samaritan, then turns back to give thanks to our Lord for the healing.
So what’s the difference with this one. He not only finds that he is healed, but he sees it, and understands it, in other words he is converted, he gives thanks to God: he recognises God’s action in the healing. Our Lord then assures him that his faith has made him well, a slightly different word that implies saving as well as health.
The Samaritan is different in that he takes his healing to a different level – he reflects on it and is moved to give thanks. Not only is he physically changed, from a leper to a healthy person, but he is spiritually changed, he sees God in the healing and is moved to give thanks.
The other nine are still healed – but they have not spiritually changed. That is the difference.
It’s interesting that Jesus says to the ten to go and show themselves to the priests, not priest. Is Jesus seeing already that they are different beliefs: nine would go to the Jewish priest at the Temple and the Samaritan would go to his priest. But then consider what the Samaritan does: he does not choose his priest, but returns to Jesus, seeing in him his new priest. Also consider the fact of the healing of the ten. When they are all lepers they live together ignoring their differences. When healed they are restored to their religious differences: healing in the body exposes the fault lines of their religions. Yet the Samaritan is the only one who takes the healing in gratitude and gives thanks, seeing Jesus as his new priest.
The Samaritan leper has become instead a modal of the new faith in Christ – he is filled with the grace of thankfulness of what God has done. That is why the Gospel uses a different word here from when the leprosy left him: he is not only cleansed, but also healed and saved. He has had a double healing.
This is the point about having a sense of thankfulness and grace in our lives: it makes us different. We can, at times, obtain health, but we rarely obtain thankfulness for where we are. Yet thankfulness is the secret of contentment in life.
There is a dreadful curse in our consumerism to take more and more. The greediness comes form a sense of inadequacy, a lack of contentment. We are not content within ourselves, and therefore we revert to rivalry with each other to show superiority. We therefore need the bigger car, the better house, whatever that helps who we are better. Yet we do this by discarding what we have already. We do this so easily because we do not give thanks for what we have already. We know that this system is unsustainable yet we seem to be locked into this disease.
Obtaining a sense of thankfulness is the escape. When we find the presence of God is who we are and what we have, we find the contentment of peace. Not only that, we become more readily an instrument of God, able to do God’s will. We learn to be grateful for what we have and not obsessed by what we do not.
So learning to give thanks is important, and we can teach ourselves this by prayer. One of the old simple ways of prayer that we are taught is to remember the letters ACTS: that is when we pray we should adore God in A, then confess our faults in confession in C, then give thanks to God for what we have received in T, and finally ask God in our supplications for what we need, in S. For thanking God is an important step before we can really work out what we need. If we don’t appreciate what we are given, how can we use whatever new gifts our Lord can give. Our God is a rather frugal God – he only gives his Son once for all, and tends to expect us to make good and durable use of the gifts we are given. We cannot do that, unless we appreciate them, and we can only do that by reflecting on what we have and learning to praise God for those gifts and continue to give thanks.
It’s a horrible thing to end up in life as a grumpy old thing whinging and boring our friends and family. But that’s not how God wants us to be. We need to continually learn to give thanks for all the gifts we are given, the beauty and the friends and the life and our faith in Jesus. We can do this if we remember to search and see the wonderful things the Lord has given to us every day and give thanks for those wonderful gifts.
Parables – 26th September 2016 OS 26 C.
The first temptation most everyone who hears this parable faces is the temptation to do theological dentistry. That is, to try to pull the teeth of the parable. That’s usually done by saying that we are not like that rich man and we don’t act like he acted. Then we say that the real point is that we have to be sure that we are nicer than that nasty rich man in the parable. So the issue ends up not being about wealth at all, but about being nice, or being nicer than the rich man. Such a conclusion is almost always a relief. After all, it very neatly gets us off the uncomfortable subject of wealth and back to the more comfortable business of comparing our behaviour to that of people who do not exist. It’s easy to do well in such comparisons.
Unfortunately, that approach just won’t work. It won’t work because a simple truth is that (although we sometimes have real problems balancing our personal budgets) we are rich as the world sees it and knows it, and Lazarus is at the gate. Lazarus is at the gate here in this community, and he is at the gate around the world. That’s just the way it is.
From the beginning, from the time of Moses and the prophets, God has insisted that people like Lazarus are very important, and that the way we treat the poor will somehow be directly connected to the way God deals with us. There is no way around that. That’s what Amos is talking about when he speaks of judgment upon the whole nation for the indulgences and the sins of the rich. God is very clear in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that judgment has much to do with compassion and justice made real in terms of service to the poor. The way we use our money, and the way that its use affects both us and the people around us, matters very much. It is still very hard to get through the eye of a needle.
But as real and as powerful as that is, I doubt if it is going to inspire either you or me to sell all we have, give it to the poor, and set up shop begging outside the door of some local rich. The allure of Abraham’s bosom is very seldom that strong. And while such renunciation is not the answer, or the only answer, to the crisis described in the parable, we must never forget that the central point of the parable has to do with being rich, and the dangers and consequences of that. That is one way, and the main way, that the parable is about us.
There is also another way that this parable can be about us. Consider the idea that very little of consequence was altered for the rich man when he died; but the reality that was always there was made considerably clearer. The rich man was in hell because that’s where he chose to be, and that’s where he chose to stay. If he was surprised, it was only because he was not particularly perceptive.
Did you know that in all the parables of Jesus, Lazarus is the only character who is given a real name? One big reason for this is to deepen the contrast between him and the rich man. While everyone knows Lazarus’ name, as far anyone can tell, the rich man had no name. We often give him the name Dives, which means riches, but that’s us giving respect. Even Abraham referred to him generically. I suspect that the rich man had no name because he saw no need of one. Names are part of relationships, and they matter most when we move away from ourselves and toward others. Names are really not all that important if you are totally wrapped up in yourself, take little notice of anyone else, and avoid important relationship with God or with other people.
Lazarus was at the gate, diseased and being licked by unclean dogs, and the rich man had to step over him to go out. But there is no sign that the rich man engaged that reality. There is no sign that the rich man’s life was affected by Lazarus or by his pain. Instead, the rich man lived totally in his own little world.
There was no room in that world for the reality of Lazarus, or the reality of Father Abraham. There was no need for them, or for anybody else we know of. So there was really no reason for the rich man to have a name, to be located in terms of relationships.
Living like that is living in hell. Living apart from others, and living apart from God, and living apart from your deepest self – a self that can only be discovered in such relationships – living that way is living in Hell. That is how the rich man lived before he died, and that is how he lived after he died. He was nameless, and isolated, and in a place of torment – whether he knew it or not.
This is why Father Abraham did not say who it was that fixed that great chasm between the rich man’s isolation and Lazarus’ consolation, the chasm one was allowed to cross. Think about that. There is really only one person God would allow to dig such a terrible ditch, (God doesn’t do things like that). That one person is the rich man himself. Had he not dug it, it would not have been there. That is true of all such ditches.
Who knows what might have happened if the rich man had decided to leave the hole he dug for himself and to reach out to the world, and to the people around him. But even at the end, he could see no farther than himself and his own. “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” It never occurred to him that he might be the one who needed to move, or that Lazarus could ever be any more than an object, a thing to follow his orders, a slave to him and his family. As in life, so in death, he was determined to stay in the place he created, and to step over, or on, Lazarus.
Again, the real reason the rich man was in hell was that he chose to be. One of the real dangers of his wealth was that it allowed him to live a life that was empty, arid, and isolated, to dig a ditch no one could cross; it allowed him to do all that and not even notice that it was happening. But his life was that way before he died, and not much important changed after he died. (That’s part of what it means to say that you can’t take it with you. It means that whatever wealth hides will be revealed.)
That’s another part of the connection between riches and judgment; another way the story might be about us. Riches can do a wonderful job of allowing, or even helping, us to dig a ditch that no one can cross. The rich man had no name because he lived as if he didn’t need one. That was not good for him nor is it good for us.
What are we to learn from Jesus’s story? Beware of ditches we dig. Beware of being so impressed with our own views, our own possessions, our own intelligence, that we can’t be reached by love and in particular, God’s love. Be careful about that sort of self-justification that thoroughly separates us from God and each other, so that another or others become invisible and in your eyes, die.
A final thought on a grim story. On at least one point, the rich man might well be right, and Father Abraham wrong. Moses and the prophets really are not enough, not for most of us, not for most of the time. But it doesn’t end there. There is one who has come back from the dead, and offers us, not all sorts of hard work to do, and not threats of judgment or destruction. Instead, we are offered and promised the incredible and unstoppable love of God. A love that can even leap over the ditches we dig ourselves. And that love is there, and we are called to it; and we still have time to be convinced.
Based partly on a sermon by Rev’d James Liggett of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Big Spring, Texas.
Theodore of Tarsus – Sermon for Patronal Festival St Theodore’s, 18th September, 2016
When you are tackling the problem of patron saints, you have two options. The first is the historical one; give them enough history till they are bored about it, and hope they are inspired. I come from St George’s Goodwood, where St George is such a vague historical figure that the guest preacher rapidly runs out of historical facts and is soon into the realms of dragons. I soon know if the guest preacher mentions dragons in the first two minutes there is going to be a lot of padding to come.
So let me indulge the first issue first, who was St Theodore. Now till recently we only knew what the good old Venerable Bede told us in his great history. But in the last twenty years things have rapidly changed. A scholar did a lot of research and worked out some obscure manuscripts we have were also written by Theodore. The manuscript is called the Laterculus Malalianus and it is a dry old thing but helps gives us some of Theodore’s theology. For without that we are left with not much at all.
Okay this is the information we know. He was born in Tarsus in 602 where Paul came from, probably studied in what was then Syria in Edessa and may have been a refugee living in Rome. He was a bright boy and probably was involved in some of the great theological disputes of the time. Because of the problems in the Western part of the Empire, what we would call higher education in the Latin part had disappeared, so all the best educated clergy came from the Eastern parts like Constantinople. So when someone sent the Pope a new theological definition, the Pope usually called in the best Greek thinkers in Rome to give him a hand with the translation and explanation, and Theodore seems to have been one of those people. He was living as a monk in Rome, nice and comfortable, well regarded.
Then the pope had a problem. The English church had sent their new man to Rome to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Now, this was a real treat, as it showed that the English church was wanting Roman approval. However, when the poor man, with the lovely name of Wighard, arrived he promptly died of the plague. So the Pope didn’t want to tell the bad news to the English so he decided to find a substitute, and that was poor old Theodore, who was then 65, which was a good age for those times. So Theodore was consecrate archbishop, and sent with another monk called Hadrian, back to England, which was a long journey in those days, walking and riding all the way. In fact it took over a year owing to problems on the way!
Now I won’t bore you with all the details of what he did when he reached England, but he was a busy man visiting everywhere and getting the church going. He had only five bishops when he arrived, as most of them were dead of the plague, so he had to find new bishops, and as we know in Adelaide, that’s not always easy finding the best people. So he found new good men, monks, and reorganised the dioceses to helped make the church easier to run with more bishops.
He was also an interesting thinker. Now Hadrian was sent along to keep an eye on Theodore, according to Bede, in case his Greek ways corrupted the church. But we know now from his works that his way of teaching was different, and much more like we like to understand Scripture today, free from lots of analogies, with was the popular way at the time.
It probably helped that he was Greek. Sometimes churches get too lost in rivalries, and the English church had that problem at his time, as England was not a united England but a series of little kingdoms always fighting, so as Theodore was an outsider he was acceptable to all factions.
Theodore finally died aged around 87 or 88, which for a busy man of his time was frankly amazing.
Well that’s the biographical details. But that’s not enough for someone to become a patron of a church. The reason we, or whoever built this church, choose patrons is that we want a saint who will look after us: think of it as a friend in heaven. We ask our friends to pray for us, we ask our parish to pray for us, and we ask saints in heaven to pray for us as well. Theodore became known as a saint over time, especially when they found out his body had not decayed when they were moving a few centuries later. So he was revered as someone who had a life so holy that he was now in the company of heaven and could pray for us. I must admit he was not a fantastically popular saint, he was never a Mother Teresa of his time. This is the flip side of being a foreigner: you don’t have the place he was born in or grew up, so there were less sites in England to make a cultus around him. When you try and find out what places have been dedicated to him, you mainly find places from the 19th C when it became popular in Anglican circles in the colonies to name churches after good English saints so as not to confuse people into thinking they were Roman Catholics.
So here we are today. For good or bad, we have asked Theodore to look after us and for good or bad we have survived. We don’t know the future: all we can say it’s probably going to be nothing like what it is now, as it’s not very much like when this church was built. We may miss our young in the church, or the full churches of yesterday. I bet Theodore missed Tarsus and Constantinople and Rome too when he came to the backwaters of England. We may feel tired and old, but then here we have Theodore starting a new career as Archbishop of Canterbury at 65. But what we have in common with Theodore, and what our children in faith will have in common if they are to be here in the future, is a faith that trusts in prayer, prayers of Theodore and the saints and all of us here, that God loves us and knows our future and promises us forgiveness nd joy and peace, whenever we turn to him.