All Saints & All Souls – 4 November, 2018
Today I would like to ponder grief and joy. We all know what they are and have felt them: grief at losing something or someone, joy in finding and loving.
They are opposites, but of course related. We need both to be able to tell the difference. We also cannot escape them in life, but will feel both.
In one sense this is why we organise the calendar of the Church in a particular way. Friday was the feast of All Souls, when we remember and pray for the dead, and also remember our grief. Today we keep, transferred from the Friday, the Feast of All Saints, when we remember those in heaven now.
Christians have had a long theology about these two days. In the early Church people just remembered the dead as the saints. In the early centuries there were no Christian cemeteries, the Christians were buried with their pagan neighbours in the cemeteries and on the days of anniversaries the relatives, pagan or Christian, would gather at the grave of a beloved and have a feast there. Pagans would pour libations to feed the soul of the dead. Christians developed the feast of the mass in memory of the departed.
But gradually, at the ending of the classical age, people started to worry more and more about the nature of the departed. Was everyone going straight to heaven? Even all the nasty ones? Most people were prepared to let the obviously good go to heaven and the obviously evil go to hell, the sheep and the goats that Jesus had talked about. But most people also realised that the vast majority of people did not fall automatically into either camp, they were the almost good and the almost bad, the middling people for whom most of us categorise ourselves.
It was in this time that a change started to happen in our theology and burial practices. People wanted more assurance that they could get to heaven. Christian cemeteries sprung up to show assurance that we would all go to heaven together. Also ideas about purgatory were developed: people who had not grossly sinned could be purged of their last imperfections and find entry into heaven.
In line with this grew the two festivals of the Church, All Saints and All Souls. All Saints commemorates those we remember in heaven. All Souls were for those we were not so sure about, those perhaps in purgatory. The dates for this partly reflected the dedication of early churches to All Saints, such as the Pantheon, in Rome. All Souls grew around the need to help the dead in purgatory, by saying prayers for their release and freedom from the last pains before entering heaven at the end.
However, these festivals also reflect earlier beliefs, that still shadow us in things such as Halloween, the fear of the dead, as if the dead were envious of us and seek to possess us to live again. Against these fears Christianity has long been opposed. Our Lord Jesus went down to the dead and rose again to show that the dead were not some closed evil company, but a place where even God has been. This is what we sometimes call the harrowing of the dead. Death ultimately is not a place of fear for us, for our Lord, the God of love, has been there. Do not be afraid, the dark realms can have no hold on us.
Now there is not the same obsession about the afterlife. People certainly still fear death, of that I am sure, but they don’t want to talk about it. Many just believe in oblivion, a wiping out at the end, and no life beyond. The sense that they can help the dead by prayers on All Souls has diminished. Even at the few non-church funerals I go to all fear and grief is kept away by happy pictures and a glowing report card on their life that often hides the reality that many people are just difficult and not easy to live with. But the presentations like to show we are all going to the Good Place.
But we still need to grieve. All Souls, and the customs of Christian funerals are designed to make the reality of death clear. It hurts. We will not make such friends again. We will not know such love again. Grief is part of the human condition and needs to be dealt with. We have to learn in our lives that grief is there, so we can face the tragedy of the world and help others in need. All Souls, with its black vestments, names of the departed and imitation coffin, are part of that process. We do not forget those whom we loved: and neither does God.
All Saints is the other part of that process: we grieve, but not without hope. All Saints is the joy of believing that God has offered a place in heaven for all he created. Today we think of the endless blessed in heaven whom rejoice in the presence of God. This is what we hope for. In contrast to the black of All Souls we have the white of joy and celebration, the colour of Easter and Christmas. We do not understand it. All we know that even the thief on the cross was promised paradise by Our Lord as he too died in pain. In the same way, we too, thieves and other sinners, look forward to that same paradise.
Simon & Jude – 28th October, 2018
Our Church does not celebrate celebrities. She celebrates saints. The distinction is an important one. The lives of celebrities are public exhibitions, sometimes too public. The notion of a hidden celebrity is an oxymoron, a nonsense. It is otherwise with the saints.
We may know a lot about some saints, but about most we know little or nothing. I am sure that none of that great company – not Simon, not Jude – would have it otherwise. We honour them for their very hiddenness. Simon was “Simon the Zealot.” To describe Simon as a “zealot” does not necessarily mean that he belonged to one of the terrorist groups committed to the violent overthrow of the Romans. That he was called “the zealot” simply means that he was zealous, maybe for the Law, or even perhaps a teasing and ironical nickname for the one of the twelve who in fact was the most relaxed and laid-back. We don’t know where he went after Pentecost, legend suggests Persia, where he died by being sawn in half, hence the saw is his symbol, Spain, Georgia and even that he was crucified in the market town of Caistor, Lincolnshire, on the road to Scotland. And why not?
Jude is “Jude the equally obscure.” He is, literally, “Judas of James,” that is to say, “Judas, the son of James.” Presumably he is to be identified with the mysterious Thaddaeus who appears in the lists of the apostles in Matthew and Mark A little letter with a lovely ending (“Now unto him who is able to keep us from falling . . .”), which just makes it into the New Testament, the tiny letter just before Revelation, the last book of all, is attributed to Jude “brother of James”. Legend has it that he preached in Georgia or in Persia with Simon, being martyred rather less spectacularly than Simon, with a club.
But all we really know about Jude is who he wasn’t. He was “Judas not Iscariot.” It is our Jude, not Judas Iscariot, who asks why it should be that Jesus reveals himself to some and not to others. Because his name continued to recall his unfortunate namesake, there was initially a resistance to invoking Jude. So he became “the saint of last resort.” But eventually “the saint of last resort” becomes “the patron saint of lost causes” (including, if you look it up, the Chicago Police Departmentand a popular soccer team in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and in that capacity as patron saint countless desperate people still turn to him. People plead for all things, “Please help me. I am unemployed, alone and becoming depressed about my situation. I need a job ASAP & please look after my dog.”
In the absence of historical evidence, speculation and superstition flourish. Neither, incidentally, is to be despised. Aversion to speculation can merely be stunted imagination; and the piety, however naïve, that begs St Jude to look after a dog is truer to the spirit of Christian prayer than the scepticism that can voice only devout banalities.
Our gospel addresses a community feeling helpless and alone. In John’s language, the Church is suffering the hatred of “the world.” We picture the Christian gospel spreading like a bushfire around the Mediterranean. That’s our view with hindsight. But there must have been many occasions when the Kingdom of God appeared as forlorn a cause as any taken to St Jude. The repeated warnings in the Gospels that, towards the end, hard times would come, reflect situations where those hard times were already being experienced. In the imagery of the New Testament, the last battle has already begun. The Jesus of John’s Gospel encourages a beleaguered church to see its afflictions as the wounds of the war that will truly end all wars, the divine engagement with sin, suffering, and death, the final outcome which is certain.
In many respects this imagery is that of Church surrounded by hostile enemies. Yet the Church is also a pilgrim people, moving through time, beleaguered indeed, with no home here, but trusting in God. We have the comfort though of the Spirit, and the saints who pray for us. We do not know them all, for they are not celebrities. But they are members of heaven, which is much more important.
So although he way may be hard, we do not loose hope. One commanding more authority than, for those of you who remember, Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army, tells us not to panic. The cause of the Kingdom is not lost, and can never be lost, but it is not best served by headless chickens. So rejoice in the company of saints, known and unknown, who listen and join with our prayers and cheer on our journey. May Simon, Jude and all the saints pray for us as we journey with our Holy Mother Church to our welcome in heaven.
Based on a sermon of John Pridmore in the Church Times.
Names – 14 October, 2018
There are three famous stories in the Gospel about wealthy people. There is the one today, about the rich young man, there is the parable of Lazarus and Dives (where both die, and Lazarus, who was poor in life goes to Abraham’s bosom), and Zacchaeus, the little wealthy man who climbed the tree to see Jesus.
What is interesting in thinking about these three stories is the use of names. The rich young man in today’s story is given no name. Zacchaeus obviously has one. In the story of Lazarus and Dives, when you read it, the two are contrasted but only poor Lazarus is named – we just call the other one Dives for convenience.
So in the three stories, only once does the wealthy man get a name, in the story of Zaccheaus, who takes Jesus to his house, entertains him, and then promises restitution for any extortion. So what makes him special?
Zaccheaus is the one who changes from meeting our Lord. He is the one who promises to give up half his wealth to the poor and restore fourfold any one he has defrauded. He is changed by his encounter with the Lord. In contrast, the other two stories are about the wealthy who fail to change: Dives never changes in life and repents only after death, and the rich young man in today’s gospel also goes away, turning down our Lord’s invitation to give away his wealth and follow our Lord instead.
So, the one who is named, is the one who is changed. Zacchaeus is changed – the others are not. They disappear into history, as examples of those who turn down the offer from God to change, successful in life and failures in eternity, disappearing into oblivion as nameless.
Consider now the wealthy young man needed to let go of his wealth to inherit eternal life. Our Lord knew that it was his true greatest burden and the young man did not have the strength to let go. It’s also interesting that he asks Our Lord what must he do to inherit eternal life, not obtain, but inherit, like the gift of unearned money from family. He may have made a name for himself in life, but as a result he is nameless to us who follow our Lord. Dives is also nameless to us from his failure to care for Lazarus in life. To follow our Lord is to become a name in God’s eyes, someone who has undertaken the challenge of letting go of what ever we hold most tightly and follow our Lord instead.
Now it is easy to make the Gospel story today about the perils of riches. But temptation is not only about money, it can be about a lot of things. Don’t simplify it. The hold of part of life in some way attracts each of us and binds us. It may be money, it may be status, it may be control: the permutations of temptation are endless. What each has in common is that we are held in some way.
Where you heart is, so is your soul. We can all be tempted. The call from our Lord in each is the same: that we need to renounce that which we hold most closely to find the freedom of following our Lord. We may still be good people even in thrall to our personal temptation – after all the rich young man only lacked one thing, he was not a bad man at all – but eternal life is more than just being good enough, it is about overcoming those temptations. It is about becoming detached from the what holds us away from God. We can know we can do this for three reasons:
Detachment from the goods and poverty are the indispensable condition for discipleship for three reasons:
1 We have faith in God who provides to us as a Father. If God cares for the birds and the lilies of the field, then God has even more care for each of us.
2 We have a need for fraternity, of being with other people: how can we continue to own all that we have, when we realize that all around us there are those who lack the necessary?
3 We have a need for freedom: if we are tied to too many things (and it is not just money) that absorb all of our time and our attention, how can we find the space and the taste for the things of God?
So today I want to encourage you all to fight with your own temptations. The way to start is always with little things, if you can succeed in little things, big things start to shrink. Remember that we can have faith in a God who knowns us, we have the need for fraternity with those in need, and we need a freedom from the burdens of the world. Then when you finally can renounce that which binds you most tightly, then you find you have followed our Lord, and eternal life is yours, and you have a name – the name in the Book of Life.
Our Lady of the Rosary – 7 October, 2018
Today the Church commemorates the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, a celebration that has its origin not, as it would seem, in simply a prayer, but in a battle.
On 7th October, 1571 a fleet of ships assembled by the combined forces of Naples, Sardinia, Venice, the Papacy, Genoa, Savoy and the Knights Hospitallers fought an intense battle with the fleet of the Ottoman Empire. The battle took place in the Gulf of Patras located in western Greece. Though outnumbered by the Ottoman forces, the so-called “Holy League” would win the day. This victory would severely curtail attempts by the Ottoman Empire to control the Mediterranean, causing a seismic shift in international relations from East to West. This event is known to history as the “Battle of Lepanto.”
Pope Pius V, whose treasury bankrolled part of this military endeavour, ordered the churches of Rome opened for prayer day and night, encouraging the faithful to petition the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the recitation of the Rosary. He led public processions saying the rosary in the streets of Rome. When word reached the Pope Pius of the victory of the Holy League, he added a new feast day to the Roman Liturgical Calendar- 7th October would henceforth be the feast of Our Lady of Victory. Pope Pius’ successor, Gregory XIII would change the name of this day to the feast of the Holy Rosary.
We might not feel comfortable at the association of the Mother of the Prince of Peace with the memory of warfare, strife and the troubled history that preceded and followed the Battle of Lepanto. But this feast was first understood as a celebration akin to what we commemorate D Day. Pope Pius V interpreted the event as the movement of Providence in favour of the Church and European civilization. He had no qualms in the assertion that the triumph properly belonged to the Mother of God and that in the midst of battle, her intercession had moved the “Holy League” to victory. Such warlike associations with Christian Faith and culture likely cannot be sustained today.
Thus, the true history of this day has receded into the obscuring mists of the past. In our present circumstances we celebrate the prayer of the Rosary, not the battle of Our Lady of Victory. We recall its efficacy as a source for meditation and contemplation and encourage its practice
For more than three years before that battle, Pope Pius V had laboured mightily to sound alarms about the deadly Ottoman build-up in the shipyards of Istanbul. The sultan had been stung by the surprising defeat of his overwhelming invasion force in Malta in 1565. The savagery of Muslim attacks on the coastal villages of Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece was ratcheted upwards. Three or four Muslim galleys would offload hundreds of marines, who would sweep through a village, tie all its healthy men together for shipment out to become galley slaves, march away many of its women and young boys and girls for shipment to Eastern harems, and massacre the rest, to strike terror into other villages. The raiders believed that future victims would lose heart and swiftly surrender. Over three centuries, the number of European captives kidnapped from villages and beaches by these pirates climbed into the hundreds of thousands.
The reason for this kidnapping was that the naval appetite for fresh backs and muscles was insatiable. Most galley slaves lived little more than five years. They were chained to hard benches in the burning Mediterranean sun, slippery in their own filth, often never lying down to sleep. The dark vision that troubled the pope during the late 1560s was of even more horrible calamities to befall the whole Christian world, bit by bit. The Reformation had divided Europe and weakened the ability to defend the Christians in peril.
In four hours, the battle was over. More than 40,000 men had died, and thousands more were wounded. The Ottomans had been surprised by the use of early cannons that had severely damaged their fleet. But most of the action was hand to hand combat by ships boarding each other. The Ottomans were not helped either by a sudden revolt by their Christian galley slaves, over 12,000, who heroically fought from their captivity. Never again did the Ottoman fleet pose a grave danger to Europe from the south. Even though the fleet was rebuilt in a few years, the Ottomans no longer had the skilled mariners to man it, nor the ability to raid for the galley slaves. The land armies would still advance until the last siege of Vienna in 1683.
As news of the great victory of 7 October reached shore, church bells rang all over the cities and countryside of Europe. For months, Pius V had urged Catholics to say the daily rosary on behalf of the morale and good fortune of the Christian forces and, above all, for a successful outcome to the highly risky pre-emptive strike against the Turkish fleets. Thereafter, he declared that 7 October would be celebrated as the Feast of “Mary, Queen of Victory.” A later Pope added the title “Queen of the Most Holy Rosary” in honour of the laity’s favourite form of prayer. All over Europe, great paintings were commissioned to honour the classic scenes of that epic battle. The air of Europe that October tasted of liberties preserved. The record of the celebrations lives on in glorious paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, and many others. Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish soldier wounded in the battle, recovered to become a novelist, poet and playwright; and he was so inspired by this battle that he incorporated elements of it in his own acclaimed novel, Don Quixote, the greatest work of Spanish literature. The apologist G.K. Chesterton, who wrote the original Fr Brown stories, far better than the present tv series, retold the story in his 1915 ballad, Lepanto.
So why are we celebrating this? History, I think should never be ignored. Those who ignore the lessons of history are fated to relive them. This battle was the culmination of centuries of struggle for Europe to preserve its independence from autocratic empires such as the Ottomans. Most of the brunt of this had been borne by the Byzantine Empire for centuries until its fall in 1453. The competing nation states of Europe had allowed Christianity to flourish and develop a plurality of ideas and technology that would define who we are today.
But we also celebrate this because of a picture in the church. Over in the Lady Chapel you will see one of our paintings, that of Our Lady holding a rosary. Fr Wise had this erected with Joan of Arc in 1918. That War was seen as a struggle to resist the might of Germany trying to establish a new empire that was based on militarism. These paintings reflect this: Our Lady of the Rosary for the battle against the Ottoman Empire, and Joan of Arc, for her heroic resistance to the efforts of the English to conquer her France. So, it was not just jingoistic Britishness. Fr Wise was saying that religion is needed to remind us of our freedoms. It is our commitment based in faith to serve each other and love each other, that is the best defence against tyranny.
That struggle continues. The debates about how we treat refugees or marriage equality all depend on our concepts of freedom and respecting the rights of others. Even the endless cycle of obsession about the America of Trump is in the end one about rights and freedoms, not only for Americans but for all people. As long as we engage in our faith we will be challenged by these debates, and as a result make the debate more open and interesting. When we retreat into our citadels of prejudice then we have lost.
Here is an excerpt from that great narrative poem of Chesterton:
The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
(This sermon is based n multipe accounts and is not all original)
Bread and Flesh -25 August, 2018
Anglicans being Anglicans, we like some order. So, we now share with our Roman Catholic, some Uniting Church and some Lutherans friends and probably a few other esteemed odds and ends, a common lectionary. We now call it the revised common lectionary, as we have been through some versions. Basically this lectionary follows the cycle of the three synoptic Gospels as we call them, synoptic, meaning with a similar eye. That is we work our way on a three-year cycle the gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke. By the way, we always call them the Gospels according to so and so, and the Gospel, which means good news, is, of course, the good news of Jesus Christ, and just told according to the writings of each writer. That’s why in the pew sheets you sometimes see in the references to next week’s readings things like OS21B, which means Ordinary Sunday 21 of the cycle, of the year B out of the three year cycle A, B and C.
Anyway, back to today’s Gospel. Poor old John does not get a year to himself. Instead, we get doses of him at different times of the cycle. John’s gospel is quite different in structure to the other three, and has more theological reflections. Well, today we get part four of a long discussion from chapter six of his Gospel about his flesh and blood.
We, some two thousand years away, find it hard to enter into the mindset of sacrifice that was part of the cultic norm of the ancient world. What you have to remember was that sacrifice of animals (or in less enlightened places, people) was standard practice. Every decent town in the Greek and Roman world would have a temple or two, where sacrifices would take place. The core of sacrifice was that the animal would be lead to the place of sacrifice, then its throat would be slit, and the blood poured out. The giving of the blood was the core of the sacrifice. The flesh would then be distributed in some way, or partially cooked.
The essence of sacrifice was usually, and especially for the Jews, the giving of blood. Blood was the life-force, and in it, the ancients thought, was carried the genetic pattern association. So, for Our Lord to talk about drinking his blood carries a clear cultic sacrificial meaning. The proper shedding of blood made a sacrifice: and hence the reason why it had to be done in a certain proscribed way: for the Jews this had to be of the right kind of animal by the right bloodline of Aaron in the right place of the Temple in Jerusalem. Interestingly, one of the strongest pollutants to a sacrifice, and hence the subject of many restrictions in Leviticus and Numbers, is menstrual blood: its dead female blood is placed in opposition to the shedding of life-giving blood by men. But that’s another story. But it’s another aspect of the dealing of the woman with the blood flow by Our Lord we heard earlier.
So for Our Lord to call for people to drink his blood is to make a clear sacrificial statement of his purpose. But the idea is abhorrent: Jews were forbidden to drink blood: it was life, the gift of God, and only God could take it in sacrifice. By telling them that they must drink his blood Our Lord is on one hand making himself a sacrifice and on the other hand putting the drinkers into the position of God.
Our Lord then twins this with the need to eat his flesh. Now this idea of flesh is one of John’s great points. The Gospel according to John starts with what is called the Prologue, a sort of poem and reflection on the role of Our Lord. “In the beginning was the Word” we learn, and the Prologue goes on to state in the great phrase that we recite every time in the Angelus “and the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” The flesh of Jesus is the flesh of the God made human. Once more we can apply the great maxim of the early church: he became human so that we could become divine. By taking his flesh we join into his resurrected stare: human and divine. His flesh lives: it was dead and rose by itself by the power of the resurrection to a new stare; in the same way we too are called to live. By eating his flesh we join in the future resurrection power.
Now if I have lost you by this stage don’t worry. What I am trying to say in brief is that the blood points to Our Lord’s sacrifice, while the flesh points to his resurrection. Over-simplifying we can say that by taking his blood we join in his sacrifice and by taking his flesh we join in his resurrection. However, both are needed: flesh and blood can only live together and both carry meanings of the other.
Now when some of the disciples heard this teaching they turned away, we learn, and no longer went about with him. The idea of eating our Lord’s flesh and drinking his blood was too much. So why did our Lord teach this?
In on sense, this is very important, because it illuminates how our faith life and even our scripture reading should be. Now some people see the church or the bible as complete rules on how to live life. Why God would want such a well-camouflaged set of rules is not addressed. But we don’t get a clear guideline for every situation. Instead we are left with a means of living with God: here by the promise that if we eat our Lord’s flesh and drink his blood we will have life. God gives us the means to live, but God also gives us free will, and therefore we have choices and must make those choices. It’s far, far easier just to hang onto rules; but our Lord gives us the harder task: live in me and work it out. As I have said before, baptism is the giving of the Spirit, not the giving of a lobotomy. We have to work things out at times.
So we can, as those disciples did, choose not to follow, to turn back and no longer go with our Lord. It must have been so sad for our Lord when they did that. John also records that lovely memory, the shortest verse in the Bible [in 11.35], “Jesus wept.” God will weep rather than impose solutions. Peter provides the alternative: we must understand that only in Our Lord do we find the words of eternal life, and we can go no other place to find them. A faith life is one of continual journey, continual exploration, a living in the faith rather than a catalogue of complete answers. The choice is ours, to turn away because it’s all too hard, and let our Lord weep; or to follow and grow in the words of eternal life, hard and confusing though it may be, but a place where we learn the love of God.
The Urgent Christ – 12 August 2018.
If you have never read any of the devotional books of Rowan Williams, you should. He was the last Archbishop of Canterbury and probably is the greatest archiepiscopal theologian since the late and great Michael Ramsey, also of Canterbury. One book Rowan Williams wrote is only a little book, called “Ponder These Things – Praying with Icons of the Virgin.” In it he discusses a few icons of our Lady and their meanings. We have a lovely icon here in this Church, in the Lady Chapel, of our Lady of Kazan, which is very beautiful and a copy of one of the great icons of Russia, which went missing at the revolution. There are a few contenders for the real icon out in the world, but that’s another story
One reflection that I liked particularly was of our “Lady of Loving Kindness,” also known as the “Eleousa.” In this icon the baby child almost scrambles up our Lady’s neck, in a great eagerness, and presses his face against hers. We have all seen the possessive way a child can hug a parent, and this icon captures some of this. The child Jesus looks at his mother. The face of our Lady, which looks rather haggard, looks at us.
The reflection that Bishop Williams brings from this icon is the great almost fierce love that Christ has for us is seen in the fierce love that the child has in the icon. Christ loves us not with a passive love, but with a fierce longing, like a child for its mother. Our Lady knows the fierceness and tragedy of that love, hence she sees the world with the weariness of knowing that the love of Christ will entail tragedy for her child, and also sorrow for her. For a sword will pierce her heart too. It will also be a sorrow for all that love Christ as well, as we respond to that fierce love of God.
Now that can sound rather surprising. We think of the love of God as something calm and gentle. Yet it is more than this.
We see this in the gospel today as well. Our Lord talks to people how he is the bread from heaven, the living bread that he gives, his flesh. It is all extreme language that the people do not understand. How can they eat his flesh? How can he be bread? Our Lord wants them to take him in a new and urgent way that they fail to understand.
There is desperation in such language, the eagerness of our Lord that people take him. Eating his flesh is not a passive kind of love, it is the same eager love that is seen in the Icon of Loving Kindness, an urgent possessive love.
Yet we do eat his flesh and drink his blood in this sacrament of the altar. We enter into his sacrifice and become his body.
Have you ever thought what is means to be part of the body of Christ? We are the body of Christ we say, but what does that mean? For me the best answer (and there is more than one answer to this question) is that we become more Christ-like.
Now becoming more Christ-like is a dangerous and terrible thing. For as we become more Christ-like we enter more fully into the mystery of the love that Christ has, in the Trinity and for us. As we become more Christ-like, we start to share that same possessive love he has for all people. The love of Christ is not only a gentle love; it is a rage that we hear in the cleansing of the temple; is the pity that we hear when he healed the sick; it is an abandonment that we hear in the cry from the cross. All this is the love of Christ. So we grow more deeply into the body of Christ, we find all these strong emotions in our love of the Church.
To live more Christlike is also a heroic life. We are called each day to enter more deeply into the mystery and suffering of Our Lord. It’s not easy. We become more and more aware of our failings and need for forgiveness. But that should never deter us. We only become more like Jesus by seeing how we so far from what he wants us to be, and then we start to understand the great gift of his love in his forgiveness.
Then you start to understand why the face of Mary has to be so haggard, why she has to look this way in the icon. She, the Mother of God, the God Bearer, knows what the love of Christ will mean to her and to the Church and to each one of us. All we who look to her and follow her will also find the tragedy of loving God.
That is part of the reason why we as Christians do not have a calm and steady prayer life. We commonly start a life of prayer with joy and a sense of presence. We find on our pilgrimage of life that prayer changes. At times we find the supportive love. At times we find aridness. At times we find a kind of rage. What we are doing as we grow in our prayer life, is that we are experiencing the fullness of Christ. Christ is not a warm and fuzzy light. He is the living God filled with the eager love for us, the emotions that we hear in the gospel. A prayer life can leave us looking as haggard as Mary if we wish to persevere in being part of Christ’s own body.
So, if you find that the language of the gospel today seems extreme, then think of what we do here at this mass, when we take our Lord’s own body and flesh. The love of Christ is a strong and possessive thing. If you find that hard, then you understand the way of the body of Christ, with all its difficulties that it calls us to live in a love life with our God.
In Mary we find the acceptance of Goad’s call, and the understanding of the tragedy of Christ, that love can even pierce one’s soul. That love calls us to live in his body with all its fierce love. Yet that love of God is the greatest love will find, for in that love we will find our fulfilment of creation.
Filling the Void – 5 August, 2018
Bread. It’s such a simple thing. Made usually from wheat it has formed part of our diets for millennia. We have evidence for the first unleavened bread going back 30,000, and the first what and barley started being cultivated 10,000 years ago. That’s a long association for us. We even have loaves of bread left over from Pompeii. They are not very edible now, but they still exist.
Bread is also what Jesus took and said was his body.
We are again this week on the discourses, or the talks, of Jesus in John’s Gospel about bread. You remember last week Jesus takes the fives loaves and two fish and feeds the five thousand. So what’s going on?
In John’s Gospel there is a long search by people for signs. They seek signs of the coming of the Messiah. There was a belief that the Messiah would come; and his coming would be seen by a variety of signs. Now not everyone was agreed about what the signs would be – some though the Messiah would be a military leader, but not all. The signs that were particularly looked for were the signs that had accompanied Moses, the Great Prophet, when he brought the people into the Promised Land. Now, during the forty years in the wilderness the people had ben fed by a heavenly bread called manna. Manna had been found each morning, and continued until they reached the Promised Land. So the re-occurrence of manna would be assign that pointed to Jesus being the Messiah.
This is the significance of the people being fed with bread: it pointed to the manna, in that it came from heaven and was not made.
There was also another bread that was important: what we often call the shrewbread, which was the bread that was put out in the Temple every day. It was the holy bread that the priests would eat and twelve loaves were made each day, to represent the twelve tribes. Even more important at Passover the altar, that the bread was placed on, was lifted up and shown to the people as the face of God as part of the celebrations. So there was a link between the presence of God and the Shrewbread of the Temple.
So when Jesus creates the bread for the feeding of the five thousand, he gives a sign that he is the Messiah.
But what happens next is that the crowd don’t understand the sign. They see the sign as one of abundance, of free food, and want to make him king to supply them forever. So Jesus slips away and the disciples cross the lake.
Then comes the discussion about the nature of the bread. The giving of manna by Moses is raised, and Our Lord says the manna came not from Moses but from the Father, from God, Our Lord then says that he is the bread of life, the great “I am” showing the divine name, identifying himself with God in that statement.
In the statement that Jesus is the bread of life Our Lord sets up the basis of what will happen when he says at the Last Supper, that this bread is his body. Drawing on the image of manna and shrewbread he identifies himself with God and makes the bread his flesh.
Now, eating flesh is abhorrent. In fact, Jesus’s insistence that people will need to eat his flesh and drink his blood would put people off – and Jesus does this deliberately. There are several ways of saying eat in the Greek, but the word that Jesus uses to is the word that is used for animals eating – he is asking people to guzzle and munch his flesh and drink. It is deliberately affronting.
This is where we come to the heart of ancient worship – sacrifice, the killing of animals or even humans to appease the gods. Even the sacrifices of the Jewish Temple were to appease God. The meat was then eaten – in the Temple by the priests and Levites; in the pagan temples often the meat was then sold on in the market. In the ancient world most of the meat that people consumed was associated with sacrifices. But of course, sacrifice had to be done over and over again to continue to appease the gods.
Now think about the crowd: they see the sign of the feeding of the five thousand, but search Jesus out for another sign. They see the signs but are not satisfied, they keep coming back for more signs. They have a craving that cannot be satisfied.
Now, if you are still with me, here we have two things that are never satisfied – sacrifices to appease the gods and the cravings of the crowd. Both cannot be satisfied.
Then Our Lord offers them fulfilment – they will come to him and not be hungry and they will believe and not thirst.
What Our Lord is offering is the end of the sacrificial system – God will be satisfied, and people can end their cravings. How – by belief in Jesus who becomes the sacrifice himself and fulfils the needs.
Furthermore, this bread is special: usually what we eat becomes us. Eating this bread makes us part of the bread, Our Lord, the Bread of Life.
That’s the technical part. What it means for us as believers is that we have found a way to escape our endless need for something to fulfil our emptiness. This emptiness may manifest by trying to have more and more money, or possessions, or addictions in some way – for part of the weakness of being human is want more and more. But if we believe in Jesus as our God he offers a way to escape this craving – believe in him. It is in the love of God we find more than enough and we can end our mindless pursuit of fame, money, power, drugs or whatever. The deep need for sacrifice is to fulfil our cravings and emptiness. Jesus gives himself – if we believe, we can be filled. The hole of emptiness is waiting, not for darkness, but the love of God. Our taking of the bread and wine here, at this altar, is part of the closing of the circle of sacrifice. The guzzling of flesh of sacrifice is over, it never filled the need. The emptiness remains – and only by taking God can we fill it.Jesus is bread, but he wants to fill the hunger of our hearts and not just our stomachs. He wants to fill the gnawing, aching emptiness that we try to fill with lesser things, to satisfy the longing or the boredom that we use substances of all sorts to quiet, to put an end to the grasping, fretting, worrying about having enough of anything that will in the end possess us, rather than allowing ourselves to fall into the hands of the one for whom we were made.
Abundance – 28 July 2018.
Let us start today by thinking about one of the maxims we live by: that there will never be enough to go around. There is never enough money to pay all the bills; there are never enough nice cars; there are never enough new televisions. We even take it to our emotional lives: there is never enough love to make the world go around. It’s called the belief in scarcity, and it is one of the foundations of our belief system in the world. It’s also a basic premise of capitalism and its economics, on how the invisible hand of the markets distributes the scarce resources of the world.
The question is – why are things scarce? After all, why do we all want the newest television, why do we all want to accumulate more money than we need? It’s a learnt response – we see what others want, then we too want the same thing. It’s the collective want that makes scarcity – it’s all of us wanting the same thing at the same time. It’s this collective need that brings scarcity that then drives competition and also drives violence as people compete for resources.
But is this how God organises things?
Let’s think for a moment of the Garden of Eden. In that Garden, organised by God there is everything. It is a Garden of Abundance, in contrast to the world outside where later they will have to work by the sweat of their brow. But what happens – the serpent, the craftiest of all creatures, convinces Adam and Eve that this is a shortage. God is keeping from them knowledge. It is the desire to have more, in this case in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that drives them to eat of its fruit. They did not need it: God had supplied everything. But they learnt desire, they believed in a scarcity of knowledge, and they ate. The rest you know.
But consider this – what if God still wants us to believe that there is enough?
This is the basis on which we can now consider the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand in the Gospel today. We are looking at John’s account – it’s one of the few times when John closely parallels the other Gospels. Beginning this Sunday, the liturgy interrupts the reading of the Gospel of St Mark, the gospel for this year, and for five consecutive Sundays it presents chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel. The reason for this is the willingness to explore the theme of “bread.”
Chapter 6 of St John’s opens with the narration of the miracle of loaves, giving us a beautiful example of Our Lord’s compassion for those who had followed him. Because of their desire to see his miracles and to feed with his word, they had even “forgot” to eat.
Our Lord is followed by “a large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” People are attracted by the power of the merciful Lord who cares for the sick and heals them. Our Lord, however, is not only a healer, he is the master. For this reason, he has climbed on the mountain like Moses, who had climbed Mount Sinai to receive the law of the Lord for Israel. However, Our Lord did not go to the mountain to receive the word of God, but to give it. That’s why he sits (in the original Greek text: he sits on the chair), not because he is tired, but because this is the attitude of the teacher who, when teaching, sits above his students. Matthew remembers Our Lord doing the same thing when he gives the Sermon on the Mount. In regard to the Gospel passage of today, it is useful to highlight the time of the year: it was close to Passover. It is springtime. This indication of the time of the year brings us back to the great story of the exodus, which began with the first full moon of Spring thousands of years ago, and to the many signs that God had done with Moses for the deliverance of the Jews on their way to the Promised Land. However, the reference to Passover pushes us forward and symbolically anticipates the gift that Our Lord will make of his Body and his Blood at the Last Supper.
There they are, stuck out in the middle of no-where, and there is a shortage of food. Our good Lord then asks Philip how we, the disciples, not the crowd, are going to but the bread. That must have been a nasty shock – suddenly thinking you were going to have to supply the food for this crowd. Philip is the good economist and rapidly works out that it was going to cost far too much – more than six month’s income. But it is a little boy who breaks the impasse – he offers five barley loaves and two fish. It’s important to note that it is a child, an outsider, a statusless outsider, who offers a solution.
Our Lord then makes the crowd sit down. I always think that this is an important point. When you make people sit down, they can’t rush, they can’t compete, they have to wait. Sitting people down means you are going to look after them, they are forced to wait.
Then the miracle happens. The crowd is fed. From the five loaves we hear, twelve baskets are left at the end. Numbers always point to symbolism – five the imperfect number to twelve the perfect number of the twelve tribes. It’s pointing that from the imperfect in Our Lord’s hands the perfect takes place.
The miracle here is that God supplies enough, or even more than enough: an abundance.
Part of the Gospel message is that God is always a God of abundance. God does not work on a system of rewards and punishments; you don’t have to earn God’s love. God has always enough love and then more. The message that Our Lord brought is that God truly has an abundance of love. We don’t earn salvation; we don’t earn the right to anything with God. God just offers us love. It is we humans who create shortages by our desires that lead to competitive shortage. The scarcity of resources is caused by our greed and need to compete. Then once our greed is activated we need to allocate and deprive others.
John is also challenging us to think who this Jesus is. We have Our Lord showing a perfect world of abundance with the gift of new heavenly manna like in the time of Moses. Yet it is still a man. The Gospels continually challenge us to try and understand who this Jesus is. But what this miracle is showing is that when people trust in Jesus there is an abundance and no need to be in competition and envious desire of what others have.
However, the result was that the crowd want to make Our Lord their earthly king, so they always have an abundance. But that’s not the message Our Lord wants, so he slips away. It’s a good point to remember: when we try to make Jesus into what he is not, Jesus will just slip away.
You may be wondering what happened to the fish. The Gospel only talks about the left over bread, not the fish. The reason seems to be in the symbolism of the bread, it will be used in the development of the idea of the bread of heaven in John, but’s that starts next week.
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the miracle that with God there is always abundance. That abundance will continue in his teachings and will ultimately be seen by the final abundance of all: that life itself will overflow death. That’s resurrection: the final gift of God’s abundance. That’s the good news.
Mary Magdalene, Apostle of the Apostles – 21 July, 2018
Whenever you want to start becoming confused about people in the New Testament, start with the Mary and James. They dot the pages of Scripture, making it hard to unravel who is who.
Well today we tackle one of the Marys, Mary Magdalene. Firstly, we have to remember that Mary was a popular name – it comes from the Hebrew Miriam, which was borne by the sister of Moses. Our translations since the Reformation have split names between the Old and New Testament – the Old Testament we now keep the Hebrew forms like Miriam and Joshua, while the New Testament takes the Greek Anglicised form, like Mary and Jesus, just to confuse you further. Anyway, Miriam became Maryam in Aramaic then Maria in Greek and Mary for us English speakers.
The New Testament has a few Marys to consider: Mary the Mother of Our Lord, Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala as the main ones. Mary of Magdala is the one today, which we call Mary Magdalene. Magdala means tower, and was the name of a town by the Sea of Galilee.
Unattached to husband, father or brother, Mary Magdalene stood out within the disciples in a culture where women were expected to live under male protection. When Our Lord said that prostitutes had a better chance of entering God’s Kingdom than his opponents did (Matthew 21:31), some people came to the conclusion that Mary Magdalene fitted the category. Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with the prostitute who washed Our Lord’s feet with her hair and Mary of Bethany and from then on the story really took off. It’s a powerful story of a reformed prostitute who becomes a saint: hence Mary Magdalene’s association with houses for reformed prostitutes as well as penitents, which is the reason why at St George’s she appears in the small window in the Oratory at the side, where confessions are heard.
Mediaeval imagination took that possibility and exploited it. Mary Magdalene was conflated with a much later Mary (Mary of Egypt), and given an wonderful trip that took her to Jerusalem, through conversion, and then on a trip on a rudderless ship guided by an angel to the south of France. There, it was said, after winning souls to Christ and destroying idols, Mary Magdalene retreated to a mountain cave, where she levitated when she said her prayers, and ultimately died on 22 July, her feast day.
Then you can also go into some weird stories that have it that Mary became Jesus’ concubine. That was a claim asserted by the Cathars, Christians who became the objects of an internal Crusade declared by Pope Innocent III. His zealous executioners destroyed the entire city of Beziers for the insult to Mary Magdalene, carrying out the massacre on her feast day in 1209. Imagination did not end with the Middle Ages. Pierre Plantard, a right-wing and anti-Semitic pretender to power in France after the Second World War, tried to provide evidence – in the form of faked parchments he deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale – that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had born a child. Plantard’s claims ultimately gave us the fiction of The Da Vinci Code.
The importance of Mary comes from one fact that all four Gospels agree: that Mary Magdalene was one of the women who stood at the foot of the cross. This small group of women stand in symbolic juxtaposition with the disciples, all of whom flee out of fear after Jesus is arrested. They remain faithful, devoted, living out of their compassion and basic maternal nurture. The disciples flee into the dark. Peter denies that he ever knew Jesus and lies about who he is. You have character in the women and worthlessness among the disciples.
Then in the Gospel of John, we have this very important symbolic story. After Our Lord dies and is buried and put in the tomb, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. In John, she comes by herself. That is significant. She sees the stone rolled away and goes to tell Peter and the other disciples. She is, symbolically speaking, the first witness to the resurrection. She is, in effect, the first ambassador of the Christian cause. That is why Mary is called the Apostle to the apostles.
The disciples come back, see the evidence that something has happened and are simply dumbfounded and don’t know what to think. They leave.
Mary is still standing there and has this encounter with the risen Christ. She is the first person to encounter the risen Christ. He calls her by name. She responds by saying, ‘Rabbouni’. There is a familiarity and an intimacy to this exchange that would normally be reserved for two men alone in that culture, in that era.
Mary is from is another tradition of women in the scriptures that we hear little about, a group that is never developed in traditional piety. They are the women who were the leaders in the early Church, who supported the community of the Church with their time, their service, their money, and their leadership.
We have the real Mary Magdalene in that group. As well as Euodia and Synteche that were the leaders of the church at Phillipi that St Paul addresses his letter to. There is Phoebe, the deacon, that Paul addresses in Romans 16. Likewise Prisca and another Mary, and Junias and Tryphaena and Typhosa, Julia, and Olympas. In fact, there are more women mentioned in that greeting to the Church in Rome than there are men who are leaders. Then there is Lydia, who is mentioned in Acts that helped Paul establish a mission church. Or Dorcas, a Church leader that Peter healed when she was very ill that developed a Church in Joppa. There is Apphia, one of the Church leaders that Paul address his short little letter to Philemon, named for the first man mentioned in it. These names sound perhaps unfamiliar compared to the names of the twelve, but they are New Testament women who helped bring the faith of the Risen Lord to the world.
Now there are those who construct some interesting feminist interpretations about all these women, and there are those who see the early church solely from a patriarchal viewpoint. The real point is that Our Lord empowered the people around him: fishermen, women and everyone he met. The story of the Church is the story of how people found a place and part of the ministry of Christ. Mary Magdalene is part of that story, a woman who helped to support Our Lord and became the first to hear of the resurrection. Our part today is just as important – Our Lord does not want the powerful in the world’s eyes to run his Church he wants the humble people of this place, the local Mary and Peter to do that here.
Stumbling Blocks and Power – 8 July 2018.
For those of you with good memories, I would like to refer back to where we were last week. We were here in this cold church, listening to the Gospel according to Mark, who was telling the story of the raising of the daughter of Jairus and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage. Well, today we go onto the next passage, when Jesus has reached his hometown of Nazareth. He has come from being the wonderworker and healer to his own town, to teach in his own synagogue.
However, and a big however, things are radically different here. The locals question him. They question where did he get all this? Where did this wisdom come from that has been given to him? Then they state the deeds of power that are being done by his hands, and is he not the carpenter, the member of a family known to them? And they take offence at him.
There are a number of issues been raised here. The first part is the question that is raised twice, about where did Jesus get this wisdom and power. We need to understand that this is the mental world of closed good. In worlds like this, only a finite amount of wealth and goodness exist. If one person gets wealthier, another person gets poorer. Similarly, if a person becomes wiser, then it implies that another person becomes more foolish. This is the origin of why people give signs to avert the evil eye – you can’t destroy it, you can only avert its course. So if Jesus has become suddenly much richer in wisdom, it implies that someone else has become much poorer in wisdom. The implication is, that as Jesus has come from this place, that this hometown is the place that has become more foolish.
The next point is that they talk about the deeds of power that are done, and, it continues to say, at his hands. Then they state his occupation as a carpenter. The term they use, “teknon” is wider than just woodwork, and can also mean a builder in stone, quite an important combination in the rocky hills of Galilee where houses would be built of wood and stone. The occupation is very much one that is done by the skill of hands, and is contrasted with the works of power done by those same hands. It almost implies a misuse of power – those hands were not meant to be used for power, but for wood and stone. Once more it raises the question, where did that power come from, and was it been taken from an illegitimate source? The hands then reappear again at the end of the passage when Jesus lays his hands of a few sick people and cures them.
So Our Lord then compares himself to the prophets of old, and sees himself being rejected in the same way. The word for offence is “skandalon” – we get scandal from it, and Paul uses it in his letters where he talks of the stumbling block that Jesus is. Similarly, the disbelief that they have, that Our Lord is amazed about, is the same word as Paul uses to describe the faithlessness of the Jews. What is being set out is that the people of Nazareth are the forerunners of how the rest of the Jews would be seen. I would want to qualify that statement in that this is written not as an anti-Jewish statement, for the early Christians were all Jews, but rather as a reflection that the early Jewish Christians had as to why the rest of the Jews did not accept them. The rejection in Nazareth foreshadows the greater rejection that is to come, or as John’s gospel puts it, he came to his own people, and they received him not.
Mark is laying in this passage an important prelude to how the believers of his time would face Jesus – that the Messiah would be a stumbling block, an offence that would divide the community. Furthermore, because of this unbelief, this faithfulness, no deeds of power can be done.
Now, it is comfortable to use this passage, as Paul does, as an explanation as to what has happened to the Jews. But Paul is much smarter than that; he takes this scandal, to be foolishness to the Gentiles as well. The truth about Our Lord is that he is always a stumbling block to our settled ideas about God. Jesus just refuses to conform to what we expect the Messiah to be. God is just much bigger than what we expect.
Now we don’t have the same issues about a closed world of wealth and goodness – we see wealth as being able to increase without limits. That’s thanks to our prosperity and the hidden poverty of the third world. We accept that God’s power is never finite, and always able to act in the world. But we do like to tame Jesus. We do like to make Our Lord a comfortable figure and not one that challenges how we operate. The scandal of Jesus is not to the unbelievers, after all, the Jews of that time were not that, but a scandal to the believers, the Jews and ourselves today.
The consequence of our unbelief is that Our Lord can do no deeds of power for us. Perhaps this is the greatest judgment on the Church today – not the disbelief of the world, but the unbelief of the Church of the radicalness of Jesus. Paul makes the point at the centre of the scandal is that Christ dies on the cross. That is what we have to accept: that God dies for us and shatters the myth of invincibility and becomes the victim for each of us.
So if we are to overcome the scandal, and our unbelief, we have to be at the foot of the cross and accept the radicalness of God dying for us and rising again, of not being the God we expect. We have to find God where we do not expect or accept. Faith is not one of preserving what we know, but embracing what we do not know: and we only can do this dangerous embrace because we trust in love.
One last point from the reading today: when Our Lord left his hometown he then sends out the disciples, two by two, like Noah’s animals being saved in the ark. He doesn’t give them powers to dazzle, just tells them to travel light, call out evil and heal the sick. Simple things. It’s very much how God operates, in simplicity.
This is something for us to remember as we move through this season after Pentecost: the Holy Spirit is God’s sharing of God’s-self with us: God’s empowering of us for the work of establishing God’s Kingdom, God’s way of living, right here in our own communities.
Besides all this, we see something in the story that is as troubling as it is interesting. Our Lord is unrecognized in his hometown. He is recognized of course, but he is not accepted as one who is deeply connected with God. Indeed, once they do begin to recognize him, they are offended by him. And it’s in this offense and un-trust, this unbelief, that Our Lord cannot work as powerfully as he would have normally.
This should concern all of us who claim to know who and what Our Lord is. The church is the hometown of Our Lord, as it were. Are we offended by him? Do we allow Jesus to be Jesus or have we domesticated him into a mere kindly carpenter? But Our Lord keeps leaving the familiar, keeps empowering others, and most importantly keeps showing up in strange places that are not his hometown.
That’s where we will most reliably find Our Lord, outside of the hometown. Of course, we meet in this space each week. We come for solace and strength. We certainly believe that Our Lord is present with us, especially in the mass; but Our Lord is also found outside, in the villages, in the world. Don’t you know that we disciples are always playing catch-up to the Risen Lord? Ever since that day when the women found an empty tomb, ever since then, we have been going to where Our Lord has gone ahead of us, into Galilee, into the villages, into our neighbourhoods. And once we go there, seeking him in the face our neighbours, he will be revealed, and we just might be empowered to do his work: healing wounds, preaching God’s love, and calling out evil.
Story in a Story – 1 July 2018.
St Mark today takes us to a unique story in his gospel. It’s unique, because instead of one story, here we have two stories interlinked, deliberately to make a point together. The Gospels are not written like a modern novel, with character development and plot. Instead, the Gospels are written around separate incidents about our Lord that are then constructed into the whole Gospel. Scholars suggest that originally the Gospels may have existed in short separate stories to allow easy telling or maybe even acting. Here St Mark has broken the usual routine.
The passage has our Lord arriving and being met by Jairus. Now when you get a name in the Gospels, you know you are dealing with an important person: names aren’t given out willy-nilly. This man is also important, he is one of the leaders of the synagogue. Jairus comes and begs Jesus repeatedly to come and save his little daughter. Now we hear that many people were healed by Jesus, but not all the healing are recorded: this one is because Mark wants to teach us something. So our Lord agrees, and a great crowd follows him.
Then we have the story in the story, which is of the woman with a flow of blood or haemorrhage. We are told that she had it for twelve years, and had wasted all her money on doctors trying to be cured. It is worthwhile to note two things. Firstly, she is given no name: this means she has no status. Secondly, she should not be out: women like this were considered unclean and should not be out in public. Yet she does out of desperation, and starts the relationship, by deliberately touching Jesus garment for healing: and healed she is.
Now by doing this she, however, is making our Lord ritually unclean. She would cause scandal by doing so. But our Lord stops, knowing that the power had gone forth from him, and asks who touched him. The woman, in fear and trembling confesses, and one can understand her fear, as she could be attacked for making others unclean by her uncleanness. But our Lord then says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed.” There is no scandal, instead there is healing.
The point to note is that her faith has made her well, and that she is now given a relationship. Whereas before she had no name, no connection to anyone, now she is called daughter, so is given status. Jesus not only recognises her healing through her faith but also gives her status: status as his daughter.
But in the meantime, the daughter of Jairus has died. While our Lord was dealing with an unnamed, unclean woman, the daughter of an important leader, Jairus, dies. But our Lord keeps on going, reaches the house and calls the daughter back to life. It is then we learn that the daughter is twelve years old, linking her with the twelve years of the unnamed woman. It is also worth while doing a little numerology here: count the number of people present at the healing, the three disciples, Our Lord, then Jairus, his wife and daughter, making seven, a number of perfection.
So what’s the point the story is saying. Firstly, it is that our Lord is not going to get caught up in the social distinctions of the world. He is going to cure the lowly, in this case the child daughter, a person of low rank who is not even worthy of a name, just a relationship; but even further, when someone even lower caste comes into the story, the woman with the haemorrhage, of no name or relationship and unclean, our Lord stops and listens to her story as being more important than getting to the daughter of a named man. The woman then ends healed, and enters a new relationship, as a daughter, in this case, the daughter of God. The two are linked: both as women and in the twelve years.
But there is an anther important signal in this pericope today, and that is the issue of the blood. Now the woman with the haemorrhage was bleeding continually. It is stated explicitly that it was a flow of blood. Now this made her unclean for society under the Law. Yet blood was also seen as the life force of a person. It was for that reason that sacrifices needed blood: it was that life force that was the most valuable that was therefore needed in sacrifice. Of course, then it would be the blood of our Lord that would eventually flow in a cursed way, dying on a tree, that would end the whole cycle of blood letting, because his blood would have a value beyond any demand of vengeance and need of human. The woman’s healing of her blood flow points to its divine reversal to come.
So often, people, who are the beloved children of God, are judged by society and found wanting. They are named in various ways as outcasts and treated as less than human. But until all of God’s children, the whole human family, are welcome at the table, we will be falling short of the kingdom of God. For those of us with a seat at the table, we can pray for the grace to see the world as God sees it and the courage to act.
But if you are one whom others have seen as unworthy and judged as lacking, know that God loves you as you are and wants better for you as well. You don’t have to even touch the hem of his garment. You only have to reach out your heart in prayer and offer God your pain and suffering. God wants to take that hurt and give you peace —the health, healing, and wholeness—he gave to a woman not named in scripture, but whose faith is unforgettable.
This is something we can all experience every time we gather for the Eucharist. In this Great Thanksgiving, Our Lord Jesus is the host. At this table, all of us are known and loved. We are all his children. In the meal of bread and wine, we are fed. Then we are empowered to share that same love with others.
A Sense of Time – Birth of John the Baptist 24 June, 2018.
The festival today is the celebration of the birth of Saint John the Baptist. Most saints we commemorate only their death date, which is their birth into heaven. However, the Church calendar includes not only the beheading of John the Baptist, but also his birth. The only other saint we do that is for Mary. However, this morning I am going to go off on a bit of a tangent.
The significance of today is that this is one of the old quarter days. Quarter days were once very important in rural life, being the times when rents and also tithes were due. Tithes were the sort of Church rates that people once paid to the Church to help pay the bills, a sadly long abolished practice as our treasurers will tell you. Anyway, on four days a year people paid up, on the Annunciation, 25thMarch, John the Baptist, today, the 24thJune, Michaelmas, the 29thSeptember and Christmas, which is the 25thDecember in case you have forgotten. Quarter days were part of the pattern of life that shaped how people lived. They were days of not only of payment of debts but celebrations of the passing of the year. They also coincided with the equinoxes and solstices of the solar year, for us this is the winter solstice.
Rural life and city life once moved to a different pattern to today. The seasons had enormous impact. Fresh vegetables were only available in season. Food varied depending on what was ready for harvest. People were very conscious of the changes of the seasons as it affected the whole way of living. Even the week was different. Sundays, or Sabbaths, were the only days off, and they were quiet days when hard manual work was not done. Many of you will even remember the tail end of these customs from your youth.
Even a sense of time was different. Until the mid 19thcentury people were not concerned much with exact time. Most people reckoned the time on the sun. That is why Church bells were so important – they gave notice that a service was soon to start. What changed the sense of time were the advent of the railways and the introduction of watches. Before the railways only large buildings had public clocks, which were often badly out of time. People used to give directions about time with regard to the clock, say 2 o’clock by the town clock. However, the advent of railways meant timetables, and trains need to arrive and depart in good time, and one uniform time zone for a whole country. So, railways brought the need for accurate timekeeping, and the old ways, of looking at the sun or not minding if clocks were out by half an hour, went.
Now, after that digression, the point. Today we live by clocks. We expect people to arrive when they say they will and we expect them to have an accurate watch. I start mass right on time, not just when I feel like it. Some of you may have heard about my esteemed predecessor here Fr Willoughby’s, lesson on that. We can, and therefore do, crowd our days with appointments that depend on accuracy of time. We are good at filing in our time with busyness. Time without work is seen as wasted time and we try and fill it. As a result, we no longer keep days off very well, instead we feel we must be doing things. Sundays are consumed by events and not quiet. Sport is stretched so football is staggered over several days, and parents spent the day running children around to another educational or sporting event.
The things that have been lost are a sense of time and a sense of space. We are no longer good at enjoying space, instead we are good at filling it. However, humans need a sense of time, rhythm, and space. It was not for nothing that God rested on the seventh day and told us to rest also. By losing a sense of time we lose a sense of what has been accomplished and what has been done; instead we are busy doing the next thing. No wonder people are so stressed.
Furthermore, we have denuded our calendar of a sense of time and season. Owing to modern travel and refrigeration we no longer notice the start of the fruit season. We therefore feel no need for harvest thanksgiving as the harvest never starts or stops. Midwinter passes without any difficulty or sense of time. What is left of yearly celebrations have to carry so much that they are overwhelmed and no longer enjoyment but periods of extra busyness – consider the stresses of preparing for Christmas these days.
The celebration of today of the quarter day, or winter solstice, of John the Baptist was a marking of a high point of summer or winter. It was a turning point of the year. People celebrated it and looked forward to the change that was coming. St John also says that Our Lord must increase, and he must decrease, which has been one reason why this feast is tied to the solstice, as this is when the length of sunshine changes, like John’s prediction. This festival goes back a long, long way and is tied into Christmas, which is the other solstice: and in the old Roman Calendar it is exactly six months apart, and the 24 June is six days before the calends of July, and Christmas is also six days before the calends of January. Our more modern calendars since the Middle Ages don’t count this way anymore, so we have lost the symmetry.
The message that I would like you to consider today is how much sense of time do you have? If you are frantically trying to fit everything in, when did you last allow a sense of rest? God works in time and wants us to rest in time. God makes things happen in their own good time, like the birth of John to an elderly couple. You only will see the hand of God at work if you give time to reflect and see it. Make time to rest, see the cycles of the year and enjoy it as it passes. On this quarter day, look and see the season go by, the darkest day is past at the solstice, and life will come again. Have a sense of time passing, rest, and enjoy what passes through our hands. For what is the use of having time if we don’t relax and see its enjoyment and the hand of God.
God Working – 17 June, 2018
Now we are back to our usual green Sundays we will be working our way through this year’s Gospel, which is Mark. Now, Mark is only a short Gospel, but probably the oldest of the four. It does not worry about Jesus’s birth and childhood, it launches straight into his ministry stating from the time of his baptism by John. Today we are in chapter 4, and Jesus is teaching by the use of parables.
The first thing to consider, is what is a parable? Some translators use instead of this word, “riddle,” which helps us understand. Riddles are something we play around in our mind to find a solution. Well, parables are designed like that, to make us take a message and play around with it in our mind to get a meaning. One of the problems of teaching is that it is hard to make the lesson stick in the mind of a student. Well, parables are a great teaching tool, because we take them away to chew over them mentally, to unpack the meaning.
Think in contrast to fables. Now fables are designed to teach a clear and easy moral or practical lesson. Who doesn’t remember the lesson of “The Tortoise and the Hare” (slow and steady effort pays off) or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (honesty is the best policy)?
Parables, on the other hand, are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult – whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe.
Our Lord describes the coming Kingdom of God in parables because he knows the reality it introduces is unexpected and that his hearers can’t really take it in all at once. Parables are in this sense like narrative time bombs. You hear them, wonder about them, think maybe you’ve got it, and then as you walk away, or over the course of the next day or so, and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home almost overwhelming you with its implications or blinding you with its vision.
We have two parables here, both agricultural ones. I think they are put together on purpose and relate to each other. The first is how the kingdom of God is like the seed growing: it happens by itself, and eventually the harvest comes and we can take it. God works in ways we do not understand, and the harvest will come, all we have to do is put the seed and let God take care of itself. That seems easy enough.
The second one seems like this, with the mustard seed: a tiny thing that grows into a bush big enough for birds to nest in its shade. Once again you think of God mysteriously taking what is small and it turns into something big.
Both these parables use the idea of seeds being planted. Usually, when we plant the seeds, they are buried in the soil. They dwell in the darkness. While in the darkness, they may absorb nutrients and go through transformation. How long will this transformation take place? We can guess, but do not know the exact timing. What exactly occurs in the darkness? We do not know. Will anything grow from the seed? We do not know that, either. We may tend to the seed passionately, but sometimes nothing grows from it. However, we have faith that something will grow from seeds and plant them anyway.
Actually, planting is a wonderful metaphor for our spiritual journey and spiritual growth.
When we first come to know God, it probably is because someone has planted the seed in us. We go to church to worship and listen to the messages, and to study the Bible and other teachings. We may join some fellowship, enjoy hospitality, hear and see the testimony of other Christians, and slowly understand the Word and the love of Our Lord. After planting, the nurturing takes place. Eventually, some may be moved to accept God, whereas some may not. How long will this transformation take place? We do not know. There may be great preachers or good priests who inspire people and plant the seed, but most likely it is a friend’s testimony that does so. The companionship of a regular believer can nurture us along our spiritual journey.
Let’s think again about the parables here today.. The first is about sowing grain to eat, a useful and productive plant – but the second plant, mustard, is a weed. Typically, as a weed it flourishes and grows, big enough for birds to nest in the shade. If only the good plants were so easy to grow. But the weed also flourishes. The kingdom of God is being used for something useful in grain, and also in something that seems a weed, like mustard.
Yet the mustard bush is useful. The birds of the air can make nests in the shade of the mustard plant – and here we have to think again, for the nests of birds contain eggs, which are food. The growing of a weed can attract birds which supply eggs for food, so from a weed can come the food that helps the person. Also, of course, the weed does give a good seed that can be used for flavouring.
What the parables are pointing out together, is that God does not work by our ordered neat ways. We have to trust first that something will grow. But God does not only provide the grain that we need for our daily bread, but also the unexpected, the weeds that grow up that attract the birds which then give us eggs. We do not know how God will take the things we do. We may be planting the seed that produces grain, but God’s kingdom is not going to be so neat and ordered: God is also going to take the weeds and turn them into something good. Also, they just happen – they grown in the background, you just let them be and they happen.
For me these two parables talk strongly on the greatness and slow presence of God in a world that is often evil. Horrific things happen: evil people commit acts of barbarity. Yet always, in the background, is the presence of God, slowly growing, turning evil into God, healing the horrors of evil.
The same thing happens with sin in our lives: we often do the stupidest thing, or deliberate evil, that can blight ourselves or our families. The consequences at times can be devastating, not only to ourselves but to our families. Yet, after it is all done, we ask for God’s forgiveness and we are given that and his grace, and the kingdom of God creaks into action and starts to build new ways and new hopes. God is never defeated. We may hope to scatter good grain on the ground, but it may turn out to be nothing but a weed, yet God will still take that weed and turn it into good. So, with these two parables, or riddles this week, think and ponder this message – not separately, but together, God taking the good seed and the weeds and still making the Kingdom of God.
The Search for Eden – 10 June, 2018
There is something particularly beautiful about the idea of Lord God walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, at the time of the evening breeze. The story of Adam and Eve, the Serpent, and the Garden of Eden is one of the greatest of stories of the Book of Genesis. It is also ancient, and versions of the story exist in other ancient civilisations. Genesis is not a book of explaining facts and details, but is instead a book of God, explaining why things are so. The story of the Garden of Eden is about two things: why we can tell the difference between good and evil, and why we suffer in the world. The fact that these two are linked together is not a co-incidence either.
The Lord God walks among the garden of Eden in the cool of the day, and Adam and Eve hear him and hide. They hide because they have just eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God had forbidden Adam and Eve even to touch that tree, or it was threatened, they would die. The serpent, described as being more subtle or crafty, had tempted Eve to taste of the forbidden fruit. The serpent tells Eve that she will not die if she touches it: but become instead like God. So, Eve wants the fruit, and eats it, and then gives some to her husband, who also eats.
Adam and Eve, in Eden, are placed in an ideal world. According to chapter two, their duty is to till the garden of Eden, look after it. In other ancient creation stories humanity is created to be slaves to the gods but here instead the only burden in to till the ground, and find company in each other. Furthermore, God is seen as one who walks in the garden and talks directly to them.
Then the serpent tempts them. No real explanation is made about the serpent, about what it was doing in the garden of Eden in the first place. Incidentally the serpent is never described as the devil, that’s our take on it. What is being said that God never intended to leave us totally protected – even in Eden there was allowed imperfection, the serpent was allowed to exist to tempt. It teaches us that there never has been a time or place totally away from evil. What did change in Eden was our knowledge of good and evil.
For to eat the fruit was to find out about good and evil, not just experience it. There is a lot of difference. An animal can experience good done to it or evil, but it does not know it, plan about it. The responsibility that we have as humans is that we alone plangood or evil. What we do in our actions is to create good, or create evil.
When the Lord God asks Adam what has he done, he dodges the question. Incidentally, this is the first question that God asks in Genesis. But Adam, being the first politician, blames someone else, instead of taking responsibility. He blames Eve. Eve, likewise, dodges, and blames the serpent. So, the theft is followed by lies – evil has entered the human heart. We now know the knowledge of evil.
Yet before they are driven from Eden, they also learn the knowledge of good. For the Lord God does not kill them, as threatened, instead he drives them out and, in a touching gesture, clothes them in animal skins. So, punishment is lenient, and God shows mercy, and gives them clothes. So, though they lie they learn mercy and compassion – they learn the knowledge of evil and God teaches them the knowledge of good. Adam and Eve exchange obedience for theology, as they start the quest for knowledge.
It is a common state of all civilisations that they yearn for a golden time. For us, as Christians, the story is of Eden. It is not presented as a historical fact – it is presented as a reason, in a story so we can understand. Yet we are left with the yearning in our lives for some Garden of Eden, a perfect time when we could talk to God as he walked by in the cool of the day. Some of the most ancient records we have from the dawn of writing talk about the times are not as good as they once were. It is a common thing to say that things were better when we were young. History is littered with people bemoaning the loss of the good times of youth. Literature is also replete with stories of a time long ago, a golden age. A time of Camelot and Arthur. We all have within us this strange yearning for a past age when we could see the Lord God walking by in a garden.
The story of the expulsion from Eden teaches two things – we can tell the difference between good and evil, we are not creatures who are bound by environment, and secondly, we have to take responsibility for our deeds, we can’t blame others.
At the moment the one application about this story can be seen in the debate about the dispossession of the aborigines. Whatever may have been seen as right or wrong when these deeds were done, it is clearly seen now that the deed was evil. That is the realisation of knowledge of evil. However, we do not take that guilt, for those misdeeds belong to others – we do not inherit our parents’ wrongdoings. However, we do enjoy the benefits of their deeds and we do have a duty to put deeds now seen as wrong right, as we would hope that our own children would attempt to put our own mistakes right. If we come to the knowledge that a deed done is wrong, evil, then we cannot blame others, like Adam blamed Eve, or we blame 19th century settlers – we then have a duty to try and put things right. What that means in terms of the present debate is very open. However, to continue the dispossession in any way is clearly wrong. We know, now, that wrong has been done, like Adam and Eve knowing in the garden. We therefore must try and take our responsibility to put it right.
After Eden humanity never heard the Lord God walking in the garden again, and the garden was closed. We are left with the yearning to try again to enter that garden. Yet the only way we can find that peace is by being responsible, of being like God in knowing good and evil, and acting upon it.
The Trinity – 27 May, 2018.
I love this season: sometimes we jokingly call it processiontide, as we have procession every Sunday for four weeks as we celebrate four great theological feasts: Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity and then Corpus Christi.
Each of these gives us a good dose of theology. Theology is something that gives us the reason for being and doing. That’s important. Why should we honour our bodies? Well, look to Ascension, with Our Lord accepting his body into heaven. Why should we believe we are guided into the future and trust it? Well that’s where we tackle the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. Why should we hold love and service to be given by God? Well, that’s why we are here today.
The first thing that we need to know for Trinity Sunday is that God is in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say that this is not three gods: so they are not autonomous distinct beings, but we say they are in a lesser sense three persons in the one. Now this is immensely important as it means that within the Godhead there is a community. The foundation of our faith is therefore that this is a community, which means that there is the ability to love and love back that signifies any community. Within a family there are parents and children with the ability to love and esteem the different qualities that each member of the family brings. So you immediately start to understand the nature of the Church and why we go on so much about love being our foundation. We, as the Church, cannot exist without being a community. We mirror the nature of God, therefore we cannot be unless we take in different members and attempt to love and see their different qualities. That is why there are distinct differences in the Church as well: we are not one body with equal abilities and roles, but the nature of our diversity, with clergy and laity, bishops, priest and deacons, all signify the different persons of God and the different gifts within the Church. When you see a body that everyone has exactly the same roles run a mile very quickly as it is the deadliness of enforced unity and nothing like God and godliness.
The next point to remember is that the Godhead holds together in love and service. The three are equal. Now this is important – it is not that we have God the Father ruling over God the Son who sends out God the Spirit as some sort of menial servant. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal. As they are equal the only way their love works is by continual service to each other. That is why the Church tries continually to make the point that we exist only to serve, not to dominate. Jesus makes the point time and time again to his disciples, that we show our love by service and not by lording over other people. Now we know that the church has laity and clergy, but clergy are not here to lord it over the laity, but rather to serve those around. Yves Congar, the Dominican theologian of the late 20thC, pointed out that there are levels of service we can see. As Christ served his disciples, so the clergy serve the laity within the Church. But then this goes onto another level, as the Church then must serve the world in the same way. The church exists as the bride of Christ, and as the bride we show Our Lord’s love and service in the world. That is why the Church must always in every age be where the needy are, whether that be the sick, the insane, the prisoners, the poor, the lonely. God does not give up on anyone, and neither must the Church give up on any person as well. Love and service holds the Trinity together and is the core of how we act in the world.
The last point I would like to state is that within God there is timelessness and change. Now, this seems somewhat of a contradiction: how can an eternal god have change, for change for us often signifies error and decay. Yes, God is eternal, and lives outside time, always present always loving. Yet at the same time God enters into time and changes. God sent the Son, Jesus, into the world to live as a human, subject to all the change and aging of who we are. So subject to it, that he let himself even die in pain and refused to escape from the cross. Therefore, although we deal with a timeless God we will continually learn the depth of revelation of what that means: the Church will change over time as it learns the riches of God. St Frances is meant to have said (and poor man he is credited with a lot of things he never said) that Scripture is like a lot of seeds that bear their fruit and flowers at different times. Therefore the Church shows forth the love of God eternally, but the means it will do this will change as it brings forth the fruit of its love and history in different ways.
So the three points you need to remember: God exists as one God in three persons, so we also exist in diversity but as one community. The Godhead is held together in love and service, so we as the Church exist by learning always the hard lessons of love and service with each other and the world. The last point is that God is eternal and yet changing so the way we see God is never complete, but always changing. So we get the answers of why we love and why we serve as Christians by Trinity Sunday theology.
Pentecost – Whose Miracle? – 20 May, 2018.
A long, long time ago, over 2,500 year, the Jews were in serious trouble. Their Temple, the centre of their kingdom and their religion had been burnt and they had been exiled to other regions of their conquerors and oppressors, the Babylonians. As the psalm put it, they sat down and wept in a strange land. There, in this time of exile, they had to define what it meant to be Jewish without a Temple. It was during this time, scholars believe, that they put together the final form of Genesis, the ancient collection of the legends of their race.
One story they recounted in Genesis was the story of why the human race had many languages. They told the story of how humanity, tired of trusting in God and honouring God’s name (which they were not particularly good at doing anyway) decided to make a name for themselves and build a tower, a tower that would be the greatest thing on earth. Perhaps they were thinking of the huge ziggurats that the Babylonians had made in their cities, great temples reaching up to heaven to proclaim their gods. But the God of Genesis scatters the people who had made this tower in their pride, and gives them instead a commotion of tongues, a babel (in the Hebrew) of tongues, as a sly reference to their overlords, the Babylonians. There, dispersed and suspicious of each other and full of misunderstanding, they would continue their wars and divisions.
Now let’s return to the readings, this time the story in Acts, this time only nearly 2,000 years ago: here are the frightened disciples, waiting fifty days after Jesus’s death. It’s also the great feast of Pentecost, the celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses so long, long ago on Mount Sinai and the presentation of the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and it’s a festival time in Jerusalem. As one of the three great Temple feasts the place would be crowded with everyone from everywhere.
Then, in that room, the power of the Spirit comes, and changes everything. The disciples leave that room behind, and go out into the crowd, who is wondering what is happened. What the crowd hears is a strange thing: everyone can hear the language that person knows: Latin and Greek and Parthian and a score of other languages that we stumble over their very names.
On that day in Jerusalem the curse of Babel was undone: not by the imposition of one tongue for all the people, not by having everyone speak the same language, but by the ability of everyone to hear. The miracle is not just a giving of tongues to the disciples, but a miracle of the ability to listen on the crowd. Everyone can hear.
Now this is important. Too often Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit is seen as a miracle of the Church. We celebrate it as our birthday, the day when the church started. But we often emphasises it as God’s gift to us, the believers. It’s part of a mentality that sees God working through us, the believers, who hold the truth and must teach it to the world.
But the truth of God, the truth of Jesus Christ, is that Our Lord came to save all people. The gift of the Holy Spirit was not just a gift to believers: it was a gift to the world. Everyone in the crowd on the Pentecost heard their native tongue. The giving of the Spirit was a gift to the whole diverse world and a sign that God would work and change everyone, not just the believers.
One of our great weaknesses as a Church is that we become too much of a citadel, too alarmed about the role of the world. Yes, there is great evil in the world, times of cruelty and indifference that can shock us to the core. Yet God still works in those dark moments. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not limited to an elect few. The idea that only a holy few exist undermines terribly our sense of God working in the world. We start to judge people in terms of worthiness and purity. God often works best not because we are perfect and holy, but through our brokenness. Where we have sinned and known evil is the meeting of the Spirit who gives us the grace that can change and transform us. Remember always the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a citadel of the perfect.
So where do we find the Holy Spirit today? – as at Pentecost, in the diversity of the world and our talents. We find the Spirit in the joy and presence of God in our midst, our prayer life and worship here at Church, our illumination of Scripture and the beauty of being. The Spirit moves still amongst us, giving us the insights and power and love and grace that we need for our lives and work.
Yet at the same time we are questioning like never before where the Spirit is leading the Church here in Australia. I’m just back from a meeting in Wangaratta last week, where we are wondering why we have no professions for our Benedictine community, but the Spirit is still calling oblates. Here in Adelaide we are seeing the collapse of the Anglican Church: just around this parish I can name Emmanuel at Wayville, St Benedict’s at Glenore, St Wilfred’s at Torrens Park, All Saints at Colonel Light Gardens that have all disappeared in the last twenty years. The list goes on and on the further you move away. People also tell me that they are not religious, but other people tell me they are spiritual. There is no easy answer to what future we have, where the Spirit is calling the Anglican Church. All we can say is that what we have known is passing away: what we will be is not yet clear.
We can deal with this with pessimism or with hope. The Jews sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept, but the shape of the Old Testament was born. The original Pentecost meant the end of the Jewish synagogue but the birth of the Church and a new way of being that was bigger than just being Jews. We must be careful not to become a frightened citadel, judging history by our limited understanding of the past and projecting our fears into the unknown future. But the Spirit still touches us and warms us to have hope in the Lord of history, our Saviour Jesus Christ, who knowns us and loves us.
Up, Up and Away – Ascension 12 May, 2018.
I watched recently again the film on Margaret Thatcher, called the Iron Lady. It’s a moving film, looking at her in old age struggling with dementia. At one stage she has to go to the doctor about some problem, and this very nice doctor askes her how she is feeling about the problems she is facing with her age. She gives a big sign and then launches into how she isn’t really interested about feelings. What interests her, she says, are ideas, that is what fascinates her, not what people feel, ideas are what engage her. But everyone wants to know feeling these days, not the ideas.
It’s an interesting reflection, and I understand she never is meant to have said those words. But it is interesting. We can become lost in empathy and forget the challenge and excitement of ideas. Well the next few weeks are about ideas in many ways. Today is Ascension, next week is Pentecost, then it’s Trinity, then it’s Corpus Christi. You need to put on your thinking caps for the next few weeks because this is where we tackle some good food of theology.
Today, I can give you what I am going to say in two sentences. The message is:
- God became human so we could become divine.
- What is not ascended is not healed.
Never let it be said that your Rector is not deterred by simple challenges of reducing the insight of the saints and theology of the church over the 2000 years to a Manuel of Christianity for dummies.
When we say God became human, we touch on what theologians call the incarnation: that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, becomes a fully human person. It is not that God appeared to be human, like some spirit, God was human, and was subject to our condition, of aging, hunger and all the demands of human life. But by dying, rising and ascending, Jesus finishes the great journey of God; he takes our humanity into God. This makes the point: our humanity is not a burden, but blessed. If God were willing to take on our human nature, then it makes the great affirmation, that humanity, in its physicality, is worthy of God: it is the great gift to us. But more than that: Jesus changes our humanity, he creates a new mutant: we are now no longer solely beings who live and die; he infuses outside time eternity with our lives. We are now creatures who are offered eternal life; our Lord’s divinity is mixed with our humanity to make us a new creature.
The Ascension here is an important event that we celebrate not just as a historical event. We don’t just celebrate the event of our Lord’s life as history: that belittles God. If we did that we would have things like the Sunday celebrating his first tooth and other idiocies. That’s not about faith; that is why the gospels just skip so much of our Lord’s life. What is important is the why of God, the theology. The Ascension makes the ending of the physical life of our Lord here. But the body is not discarded as a useless shell; it is taken into heaven, in the inadequate phrase of the gospels, where he seats at the right hand of God. What they are trying to get across to us poor limited beings is that he takes his humanity with him and it still exists in the Godhead. God takes our humanity with him, so that it is continually honoured by God and what we are is honoured as well. We are not a religion that can look as the body as a piece of evil: instead, we look on it as something honoured and accepted and part of God and changed by God.
Now the second point is that what is not ascended is not healed. In a sense this is the great warning of the ancient church. We live in a world that is imperfect and has evil. Our continual urge is to quarantine sections of our lives and societies as imperfect, evil, or sinful. Once we do that, we ghetto them, we can ignore them, or even worse try to eradicate them. It’s also called scapegoating, blaming something for all that is wrong. We do it with people, like the Nazis scapegoated the Jews, or we can do it with ourselves: if only I had not been mistreated I could have achieved so much, or if only I had been six foot two I could have led a wonderful life. There are much more relevant examples I assure you, how people choose some aspect to lay a blame. But we are warned: what is not ascended is not healed. What that means is that we have to take everything to God, if we seek healing for our sins and failings. God is interested in everything. So whenever we start to scapegoat, our Lord has the nasty habit of reminding us that he was the scapegoat for all time, and God will be with the victim. God will be with those persecuted. Furthermore, as long as we blame part of ourselves with our failures, we will not find healing. Awful things may happen in our lives: but God wants us to find in them his own presence so we can find healing. God is with our tears, and not just our joys.
That is why the second point is that what is not ascended is not healed. If we want healing, we have to let God take up us in all our failures and hurts. God does not expect us to come to him perfect: that’s missing the whole point: God wants us to come with all our imperfections because God loves us without preconditions. It’s love, not standards that God is all about. If we want healing, we have to let God take it all up: it all has to be ascended.
That’s why the Gospels make two points about Jesus after his resurrection several times: one that he is still human, you can touch him and he eats, and secondly that he still has the wounds, they are just not fatal. He is the living walking wounded healed God, all those contradictions in one. If you can get that all into your head in one go, you are getting there, but that should take a lifetime of contemplation and more to understand that.
So if you can’t get that in one go then just remember: God became human so we could become divine; and, what is not ascended is not healed. Or if that is too hard, and you have missed the whole sermon and just woken up, then just take the sound bite: today we celebrate that God has gone up to heaven, and we are riding on his coattails.
Being Good – Easter IV, 22 April 2018.
Now, some of you may have, or had, a dog. Well, if you have, you would no doubt have told the dog at some time, that he was a good dog. The reason – because the dog had done something good, like fetched your paper or not dug out your best pot plant. You call the dog good, because of his actions, or alternatively naughty when he does something bad.
The temptation then is that when we hear about the good shepherd in today’s readings, we see Jesus in the same way. We think Jesus is good because of all the good things he has done: he heals the sick and is nice to sinners and even dies for us. We tend to think of Jesus as good because of his deeds. He is the good shepherd because he has done good things.
But when you look closely at the original text today, the writer John deliberately does not use the phrase “good shepherd” in that way. Instead he uses a different form of good. Instead of “agathos,” which is good acting, he chooses “kalos.”
Now kalos is different. Although it has an overlap of good acting, it points to an inward quality instead. Its meaning can range from beautiful, noble, model to good. Jesus is good, not because of good deeds, but because he is intrinsically good. The quality is inside.
That is why the contrast with the hired shepherd is so chosen. A hired shepherd is paid to act, paid to look after the sheep. As such, he is a good acting shepherd as long as he is paid and as long as the risks are not too dangerous. Wolves are dangerous, so the hired shepherd balances the risks and saves his own life.
The difference is important in how we are as Christians. Christians do not do good acts for the sake of those acts. That’s the wrong sort of good; that is good in terms of appearance. What good acts we do are, in one sense, a co-incidence, as a result of us being right with God. Our acts flow from who we are, what we are, rather than any need to do them in themselves.
That is one reason why enclosed religious orders exist. Now if you concentrate only on good deeds, then enclosed religious orders don’t seem very useful at first glance. What’s the use if no one sees them? But that is once again looking at results, not sources.
Christians are called to become Christ-like. We are called to be good, not in good deeds, but good in person, good in the soul. We are called to live lives that continually test and refine us, and develop us, so that we are good in ourselves.
Then whatever good we do, we do as a result of being in tune with God. Good acts happen accidently in our eyes, but fulfil the will of God. We will be in the fight place at the right time, if we are right with God. That is when we do our good acts. There are many, many people who do good deeds: give money to charity, work at countless public initiatives, and help those in need: non-Christians can do all of these very successfully.
But that is not enough for us. For we believe that God created the world, and made it good, and that we struggle against evil to hold it and make it good still. That sort of goodness is different. That is the goodness of being a good person in spirit, and of being a child of God. That sort of goodness is innate, and can only be done by keeping a Christian life, of prayer and being with God, of taking the sacraments, so that we live as Christ’s body in the world, we are the good shepherd.
Then we tune into God and do what needs to be done to make the world right for God. Wee don’t do good deeds because we want to, we do them because God has placed us in the right sport at the right time. Those little things that are so essential that we may never know, even to being the person who says just the right thing when someone is down. They are the good deeds that flow from being a good person.
In another way, it also shows the beauty of holiness. Remember, the kalos shepherd, the good shepherd, is also the beautiful shepherd. We should have a beauty of holiness in our lives and in our worship. Sometimes people do not get why we do things in this way, with all the music and ceremony. But if you get the idea that there is a beauty of holiness, a beauty from being with God, then you start to understand why we worship in this way, why we offer the best in music, worship and buildings, for the glory of the God who is beauty itself. God is the beautiful shepherd, and we try and give to God the beautiful worship.
Our Lord is not the good shepherd in the same way as we have a good dog. But he is the beauty, the love the joy of our hearts instead. So keep on trying to be right with God, try keeping your prayer life going, your time with God, take the sacraments, so that you may develop as a child of God. Don’t worry about results, you are not a performing dog, you are a child of God trying to be a good Christian.
Peace and Wounds – Easter 2, 8 April, 2018
Here we are one week after Easter Sunday, the Sunday which we call traditionally Low Sunday, as we are all burnt out after Easter and want to take it easy. But the gospel continues with the start of the birth of the Church with the stories of Jesus rising from the dead.
There are two parts to the Gospel story today. The second part often overshadows the first, the story of Thomas, who needs to see Our Lord before he believes.
But let’s first go back to the first appearance. Jesus appears in the locked room where the disciples had hidden away. It begs the question why were they meeting. John records that all of them, with the exception of the three Marys and the Beloved Disciple, whom we take as John, had fled and left him to die. Presumably the news from Peter and John who saw the empty tomb and the appearance to Mary Magdalene had caused them to gather again. It must have been a very awkward meeting, with recriminations as to why they had abandoned Jesus when he was put to death. They were complicit with those who put him to death by failing to make a stand.
Yet it is to this bunch of failures that Jesus then appears. He does not pass sentence on them, but meets them as failures and greets them with “Peace.” In fact he greets them twice with peace, so he emphasises the need for them to be at peace. Then he breathes on them and gives them the Spirit and gives them the power of forgiveness.
Now this is the interesting point. It is the forgiveness and peace that makes a change. Now, the empty tomb by itself proves nothing. Even the appearance of Our Risen Lord does not necessarily make a difference – what makes is difference is that people change. The message of Jesus is only going to work if it can change people.
This is what happens. Our Lord appears and chooses to give his peace and his power of forgiveness to those who had abandoned him. The resurrection appearance to them is primarily about receiving peace and forgiveness after betrayal. It is making them into new people, people who have experienced the power of change, the power to find peace and forgiveness after betray and fear. Jesus does not choose those who are perfect – Jesus choses those who find forgiveness and peace to preach his message of peace and forgiveness to others. The power of the resurrection is the power to change – that is much more than empty tombs and appearances.
Then what do we make of the power of forgiveness: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” One can take this two ways. One is the power of judgment – that we can hold and bind. Or we can take it another way – that unless we go out and find those who need forgiveness it won’t happen. The second way means that the power to forgive becomes a matter of mission – that we, who have been chosen, not because we are perfect but because we are imperfect and know the power of forgiveness, have to find others to forgive, because unless we forgive then the power of forgiveness won’t happen.
Now, let’s tackle Thomas. We don’t know why Thomas was not hiding in the room with the other disciples earlier. Perhaps he was braver, and decided not to hide away in a room but go out and risk being arrested. But he missed out on the resurrection appearance. Perhaps he thought the rest of them were so grief stricken that they had lost their marbles and seeing things, while he got on with getting on with life. But for whatever reason, stubbornness, or hope, he did come along and caught up with the resurrection, one week late. We all have moments like that, when we catch up with the news after everyone else.
But what I always find the most interesting in this story is not the assurance that those who have not seen and believed will be blessed but rather that he is invited to put his hand in his side. This ties in with when they first meet, when Jesus meets the disciples and the first thing he does after saying peace the first time is to show them his hands and his side. For John the importance about the appearances of the Risen Lord are his wounds – Jesus appears in life again as a person who can touch, eat but also wearing the wounds of his death. His risen body is not a perfect body, but a body that carries the wounds of death.
This is an interesting reflection. The wounds that Jesus carries become the signs of his victory. Once again, it is the theme of perfection overcoming imperfection. Jesus lives again, not as a perfect being, but as a living person with wounds. In the same way, we as followers of the Risen Lord are not perfect, but rather we live with our wounds, we live with our imperfections.
For to be a follower of Jesus, is all about learning to overcome sin and failure and finding peace. Forgiveness is about the power to overcome evil and live with the consequences in peace. Peace with ourselves and peace with our community. The greeting of peace that Jesus gives is the greeting to the gathered disciples, and surely we find our greatest peace when we can live in community and learn to forgive each other and hold each other in love.
Yet even in our community, we learn the lesson of forgiveness is that we are a wounded people – wounded, but living, resurrected and with joy and peace. Our belief in the Resurrection gives us then the power to go and forgive and change, to move beyond locked doors to the world where we live our lives.
Seeing Jesus – Passion Sunday Lent V, 18 March, 2018.
We wish to see Jesus. Some Greeks who went to worship come to Philip and make that request.
Now some things about that are normal. They were Greeks, so they went and spoke to Philip, who with a name like that was of Greek background. We sometimes forget that the names of the twelve reflect quite a bit of Greek background, with names like Andrew and Philip, let alone the strange mixture in Bartholomew, with is really Bar, meaning son of, a Hebraism, and Ptolemy, a very Greek name. Philip must have stood out with him name and been easy to identify as a Greek, so these anonymous Greeks approached him.
But what were they doing going to worship at the festival? As Gentiles, they could not enter the inner courts, the best they could do was to enter the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost Court of the Temple. From there they could see the walls of the Temple, and the Temple itself rising above the walls, but not see the places of sacrifice in the Court of the Priests, nor the Holies of Holies that only the priests could see the curtain. As such they were permanent outsiders, always kept at a distance.
Perhaps that is why they make this strange request to Andrew. They do not ask to meet Jesus, or talk to him, but to see him. Now presumably they must have seen him from afar, but here they mean an encounter, a meeting. Yet they frame their request in terms of seeing.
Then when Jesus is told he takes up this theme in a very visual explanation, which climaxes in the statement, that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself. John records Jesus as taking the request to see him as a request to see his role – and his role is to be lifted up from the earth and draw all people to himself. Then, suspended between the earth and the sky, between heaven and earth, he acts as the bridge between God and humanity, a bridge that shows service and suffering and not control.
There is no such thing as simple gospel truth. There is no such thing as simply letting people hear Jesus and they would flock to church. You think about those who heard Jesus and still left him, because they found his teaching hard to understand, especially about the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Seeing is not believing. For all of Jesus’s miracles and teaching John records that only his mother and the beloved disciple were left at the foot of the cross: mark says that all forsook him.
Jesus responds with the request to see him, to understand him, with the vision of the glory of the Cross – by his death you understand. Seeing Jesus, really seeing him, means understanding that the Way of the Cross, the Way of Belief, means cost. The Cross, the Cross that hangs above us here in this church, that hangs alone on the high altar is not just a cross, but a crucifixion, stating that only in the pain and suffering can we find the purpose of God.
No wonder Jesus died alone.
Once, many centuries ago, in England, in the year 1373, within the time of the Black Death when about a third of the population had died of the plague, a mystic woman called Julian of Norwich had a series of visions of the crucified Christ. I’ve been to her re-created cell, attached to a church of St Julian’s (hence her name, as we do not know her baptised name) on the outskirts of Norwich. In one vison Julian tells of Christ saying: “Sin is necessary, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This is no simple optimistic message: it is an insight to the glory that is seen on the Cross. Glory does not come from avoiding suffering: glory comes in the midst of suffering.
The Gospel according to John presents the world as a place where the powers of darkness rule. This is where the light has come into the world, but world knows it not. Our God does not come to us in glory against the world, as an outside figure – instead our God comes to us in the suffering of the world. God comes as a human being, a man, who suffers with us and for us. The true glory of God is seen in that suffering that invites us to take that same path.
We, as the followers of the Way of the Cross, are asked to see this. We are asked to see, and then to understand. Knowing Jesus is not a question of meeting, it is about coming to the truth, of truly seeing, of growing in faith through life. We are to see through the events of what happens to us, to see through them and see the true Jesus who calls us to follow him. Then when we see Jesus, we see him in all our problems and pains, all our worries, and come to the realisation that he is with us in all our sufferings as well. Then we understand that all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
The Bronze Serpent – Lent 4B, 11 March, 2018
Remember the Book of Exodus – for forty years the chosen people went on a wander around the desert before getting to the Promised Land. During that time that had to learn to live with trials and learn to trust in God.
But at times things went badly for them and they complained. At one-time God punished all their whinging by sending to them poisonous snakes. So, they came rushing to Moses, who pleaded with God, and God directed Moses to make a bronze serpent to be made and placed on a stick in a high place so that it could be clearly visible. In such a way, all those who looked at him were immune to the venom of the true snakes raging from all sides of the desert. By doing this, the Israelites were saved from death by poisoning.
On this Sunday, the bronze serpent that the Gospel mentions invites us to reflect on Christ the Crucified Saviour destined to become Risen One.
In the same way as it was ordered to Moses to raise the bronze serpent in the desert to save the Jewish people (and this became an instrument of salvation for those who were wounded by the bites of real snakes), today it is ordered to us to look to Christ lifted up on the wood of the Cross. Looking at the Crucified, Christians are saved from the poison of the spiritual serpent.
In the conversation with Nicodemus, of which today’s Gospel passage is a part, Our Lord unveils the deepest meaning of his death and resurrection: the Son of man must be raised on the wood of the Cross so that all who believes in him may have life. Therefore, if we want to save ourselves from the poisonous bites of evil, we must look to Christ who spreads love from the Cross.
Looking at the crucified Christ with eyes purified by pain, allows us to see God’s love for us and to believe in love.
Looking at the crucified Christ and following him taking our cross every day, makes us become people who love as God has loved us.
That’s why at this holy season of Lent the crucifix becomes the dominant symbol, that is why the crucifix is put over the high altar for us to contemplate, with its shadows on each side suggesting the two who were crucified with him. It calls us to a way of hope in our pain, that in all our crosses, we take just a shadow of his cross which he carries for each and every one of us.
Let’s look at the Cross to let it enter not only in our eyes but also in our hearts and our lives. Let’s look at the Cross to become witnesses of the crucified Christ. When we look at it, wherever it is displayed, we are reminded of the possibility of salvation for life. The cross is there to tell us that, if we believe in the Gospel and in what Jesus did and said, our life is saved and becomes a healer for all those who are close to us.
On the cross, Christ has given his life because he loves us. The contemplation of such a great love brings in our hearts a hope and a joy that nothing can tear down. We, Christians, can never be sad because we have met Christ, who gave his life for us. But the Cross is not only to be looked at with adoration, it is also to be embraced. In all the suffering we endure, we find in the cross the only support that takes on that pain.
What is then the cross?
For Christ, it was not the instrument of death, but of the manifestation of his “exaggerated” love. The Cross is the synthesis of the whole life of Jesus, lived for love and by love.
With Christ, the Cross becomes a synonym of love. Therefore, the sentence of Christ “Whoever wants to follow me, must take his cross and follow me”, can be rewritten “If someone wants to come with me must take on the yoke of love, all the love of which he is capable, and follow me “.
Of course, we will experience that love has a price: the price of the gift of self. Love also has its thorns and wounds. These do not obscure love. They purify it because it is a love that does not possess the other but exalts him and makes us happy because it is an experience of belonging and of being loved. It is in the gift of oneself that there is true joy.
Dear people of God, we have now come to our half way point of Lent. We celebrate with our rose vestments and our mothering cake, as we mark our half way point. Holy Mother Church always likes us to celebrate and rejoice. But the road to Easter is now before us. I encourage you all in this last part of Lent, Passiontide, to look at the cross and do not be afraid to follow it. If you have shirked Lent now is the time to embrace it again. If you have avoided the call of the cross now is the time to pick up your cross and follow Our Lord again. The poisonous snakes of the world are still out there to add their venom to our lives. Look up and see our Cross of Salvation to find our healing.
The Anger of God – Lent 3B, 4 March, 2018.
In a world of conflict, there is a much discussion on how peoples of different faiths and beliefs should live together. There are the cleansers, who believe that the best solution for any society or area is to remove all who do not believe in what they do, and create, by force, a society that is al of the same belief. In our own Christian history this has been tried several times, with the idea of Christendom, leading to campaigns of expulsions and persecution against heretics, Muslims and Jews. To be fair, the most extreme persecutions did not happen in the Middle Ages, when generally, despite occasional communal violence, recognised minorities were accepted; but rather arose in the time of the nation states at the time of the Renaissance and after, where religious dissent was seen as undermining civil authority. However, that is another story.
In our more modern history the urge to cleanse society of opposing religious views has been seen most markedly in our cultures with Nazi Germany and the totalitarian Communist regimes of the 20th C. However, we still see such extremes as with those following the Wahhabist Muslims that originated in 18th C Arabia, and inspires the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The fear of religious clash has seen a growing reluctance to display religious difference in public. The debate over the rights of Muslim women to wear the veil in public has been one of the most notable debates over this. Yet this has also affected things like public displays of religious behaviour or events of sectarian origin, such as Corpus Christi processions and Orange Day marches.
Into all this today we have the story of the cleansing of the Temple, where our Lord loses his temper. He did not lead any organised campaign, like a petition for the removal of the money changers and sellers: he took a whip of cords and drove them out of the Temple, and overturned their tables. It was violent direct action.
So what do we make of all this?
What does our Lord make of all this?
One interesting thing is how often our Lord takes direct action. Although he might have a sharp tongue, such as calling people a brood of vipers (a lovely phrase) or hypocrites, he seldom takes direct physical action. In fact, his whole life indicates the opposite: his willingness to die when he had the power as God to stop anything, is an exemplar of humility and non-violence that has inspired countless generations of Christians. So why does he take such violent action in the Temple?
The trigger point seems to be that this is the Temple, where people are required to come to worship God. The requirements of worship were sacrifices for particular forms of worship, and also payment of the temple taxes. However, the taxes could only be paid in kosher currency: the problem with most of the Roman and Greek currency was that it had images of other gods on it, such as pictures of Caesar who was given divine honours and worship. As such they were considered sacrilegious, and not appropriate in God’s Temple. All these things made worship expensive: buying of sacrificial animals and currency conversion. Any of us who have bought currency overseas knows the pain of losing money in conversion costs.
But they made worship costly. They made worship difficult, especially for the poor. Worship was restricted by the rules.
This is the point. The whole purpose of Christ and his life was to show a new way of worship, a direct way of belief through him. That is why he will be the suffering servant and let himself be taken and killed so this can be achieved. This is why the curtain of the Temple will be torn at his death, from the top to the bottom, to show that the old barriers have been removed, from heaven to the earth. This is all done because our Lord loves us all so much he wants us to find this new and easy way to the love of God and not be caught up in rules and restrictions. Things that separate us from the love of God are hated by our Lord, because the love of God is there for all people and must not be fenced in and restricted. The Temple of God is the Body of Christ and is freely offered to all people.
So, what do we do in return? At times we forget the priceless offering of God, that great gift of God given by the suffering and death of our Lord. We become blasé about God’s offering to us, his great sacrament. We come here to take his body and his blood each week, the reason we have gathered since his death those centuries ago. Yet we take it all too often as our due, and not as his priceless gift.
Lent is not only a time for fasting, prayer and almsgiving, it is also the time to live again the way of the cross, when we follow our Lord’s suffering and sacrifice, a way that he did because he loved us. In return, we hope to understand more deeply this way of love, and love in return. We need therefore to love more deeply this great gift of the sacrament here, to prepare for it, to give space and quiet before mass in preparation, to remember to give our best in worship, and to give thanks after for its great gift. We also need to love his body in the world, to see the suffering around us and on the television, and pray over it and became angry over it: that despite all these centuries great evil continues to be done: the innocent are held without justice, women are sold into sexual slavery even in our own country, refugees struggle to find homes and evil people still rule too many people.
Today is saying to us: don’t be complacent; righteous anger has its place.
This is not the anger of narrow-mindedness. This is not the anger of seeing the people who are different and believe things differently to you. Our Lord coped remarkably well with Gentiles, Samaritans and even tax collectors: I suspect he would even put up with us. What he did not cope with was those of his own faith who made a life of worship of God difficult. God does not seem to want a world of uniformity: but God does want a world where we love our neighbour, tolerate our differences, but hate all things which deform the image of God found in each of our souls. So love God: love his sacrament, prepare for it and give thanks for it, and love his presence in the world and defend those who are enslaved by the evil and powerful.
The Vision Thing – Lent 2 B, 25 February, 2018.
Some years ago, the American president, George Bush, talked about the need for “the vision thing.” Inelegant in expression, he was trying to say that to make people commit, that had to have a vision of what they were achieving. The Scriptures in Proverbs put it a little bit more poetically, in that they tell us that the where there is no vision, the people perish.
Organisations and people need a vision thing. Yes, our organisations are into vision statements, but they are so often banal and bureaucratic, hardly worthy of the description vision at all. So much of our corporate life is taken up in targets and rules rather than clear visions of help and need. Even the church hierarchy loves us to do vision statements, imposed from on high, instead of the harder work of helping us where we are.
Anyway, let’s get back to the vision thing. The reading from the Gospel today is all about the vision thing. Mark has his account of the transfiguration as we call it. Peter, James and John go up onto the mountain with their friend and master and suddenly find their Lord changed, altered, into a creature of light, talking with the ancient prophets Moses and Elijah. What do we make of this story? What do we make of this change, transformation, transfiguration?
There are two different ways of understanding this story. The first is that Jesus was altered, and everything else stayed the same. This would mean that it was an alteration in how Jesus was. However, this presumes that we normally see things in the right way.
The second way is to understand that it was Peter, James and John who were altered. It was they who suddenly saw our Lord Jesus Christ as he really was. What altered was how they saw the world, not the way Christ was.
The second view has an important difference. It means that the supernatural world is always there, but we are limited. It is as though we have some sort of spiritual colour blindness, only seeing the world in its dullest material way, and not in its spiritual colour.
This explains why we suddenly have flashes of realisation, of suddenly seeing a normal situation with new eyes. People sometimes tell me of some particularly moving situation, when they see perhaps a moment in the garden in a different way, or see a person with a beauty they never saw before. What is happening is not that the place or person is changed, but rather for a moment we see things as they really are, charged with the grandeur of God. It is a moment when our spiritual colour blindness is lifted and we see the world in its spiritual colour. Our way of seeing is altered to see it how it really is in God’s way. The spiritual life gives to all of us moments of clarity and beauty when we see the wonder of God.
If we realise that it is us who have the blindness, the limitation, then we start to understand what we must do. For if we saw the transfiguration of Jesus as something that Jesus did, then we would be waiting for the world to change for us. But when we realise that it is our blindness at fault, we realise that to see the world how it really is, then we are the ones that need change. It is our blindness that fails to see God around us, not God neglecting to give miracles.
The starting point to work on this blindness starts here with the Church. Every week we come here, and we take this bread and wine. But it is not just that. For we come to the altar with the belief that we are taking Jesus’s body and blood. We are coming to take part of God. We are coming to be joined to God. We see only bread and wine, yet we know there is a divine reality behind what is happening.
That is why, week after week, this sacrament is offered to all people. More than any fancy sermon, good music or fellowship, the heart of our worship has to be in the bread and wine. For in that we touch a reality beyond ourselves. We see bread, touch wine, but know the words of Jesus, “this is my body,” “this is my blood.” There is nothing more sacred that that. That is why we must pray each week that we may be blessed by this sacrament, that it may transfigure us, that we may see God’s way. That is why we must seek always to be touched by the wonderful thing that comes into our lives, the true body, true blood of Jesus. May we find ourselves open to the real beauty and presence of God in the world. The world is a very dull place if we never see it in its true colours. Let’s not ask God to change, let’s ask that we may change and see the world as it is meant to be, transfigured into what Jesus is. It’s our vision thing – to see God where God always is.
That’s why when you look at icons of the transfiguration you see some wonderful insights. If we were a church with an overhead projector I could show you a few. That the light comes from Jesus. But usually around the light coming from Jesus is a dark space. The reason is that in one understanding on what is happening is that Our Lord is being changed not by the light of the world, but by uncreated light, the light of God that we cannot see because it is not in the world. So he comes out of what we cannot see with our senses, hence the dark matter behind his gleaming presence. We see Jesus only through the light, which is transformed by his body, we see the glory of God only through what he has created, in the person of Jesus and in the world, which is only a shadow of what we cannot see.
This vision thing is more than appearances. The vision of who Jesus really is gives to his disciples the vision and courage to be who they are. Peter, James and John are with him at the transfiguration. They will also be with him in the garden on the night he is arrested. This vision of glory they will learn from, and the suffering of the last night they will also hold. The Lenten readings of the first and second Sundays always hold a balance: lent I with the theme of temptation in the wilderness, and now, Lent II, with the vision of glory. It’s Lent and life in a nutshell, wilderness suffused with moments of glory. Christians need those visions to give us understanding. In all our troubles, in our agonies in the garden we will also remember the vision of the transfiguration. We are the people of God who hold on to the glory of God in all our troubles. We hold onto the vision that changes in our sacraments and worship and then take it to our own moments of despair. Because we have seen his glory we will never forget. We have the vision thing.
Ambrose and All the Crazys – 11 February, 2018
Let me start today by talking about Ambrose, the saint, after whom a huge variety of people have been named and even one dog here in Fr Peter Thomson’s time. Born as Aurelius Ambrosius he was aristocratic Roman who became bishop of Milan in Italy in 374 and died there in 397. Besides being one of the people who popularised antiphonal chant and wrote some stunning hymns that we still use even in our chant group here, he was one of the most important bishops of his age.
The reason for his importance was twofold. The first was location, location location, as the salespeople put it. The Emperor at that time in the Roman period lived at Milan, as it was a more convenient place to govern the empire. So, anyone who was anyone lived there at the time and Ambrose as the bishop of the city had important connections.
Secondly, he was important because what he did with the Church in Milan. Now this is where it is going to tie in with the reading from the Gospel according to Mark.
Once again, we are in Mark 1, and we are dealing with how Mark presents at the start of his gospel the challenge Our Lord makes to the ideas of holiness and cleanliness. Jesus continually attacks the boundaries between what is seen as clean and unclean in his world. Mark also points how this challenge will also attack the idea that there are boundaries of holiness that exclude people as less holy. At the start of Mark, we have an expulsion of an unclean spirit in the synagogue, then the healing of Peter’s mother in law, and now the healing of the leper. Note that the leper asks not to be healed but to be made clean: the issue is all about cleanliness in a society obsessed about who is clean and unclean. Our Lord is moved with pity and reaches out his hand and touches him. Mark draws out the action by putting in that he reached out, not just touched him, it is a deliberate act of Jesus. Now, touching an unclean person normally makes a person unclean, but the reverse happens here, Our Lord’s action cleans the man, note the word again, not heals. Jesus then orders the man to go to the priest to offer what the Law commands. Now, a leper, as unclean, cannot go to the Temple – the Temple excluded all who were not healthy males, so the sick, lepers, eunuchs and women could not go into the court around the Temple. By going there, a person had to be very sure they were clean. Jesus is asking the man to go to the holy place and show his cleanliness, pointing to the link between holiness and cleanliness that is to develop in this gospel.
This gets me back to Ambrose, several centuries later. The Emperor of that time, Theodosius, had quite a temper. Now cities in the ancient world were likely to have riots now and then, and in one of those riots, in Thessalonica in Greece, the Roman Governor was killed by the crowd. So, Theodosius sent in the troops and massacred a few locals, in fact 7,000 of the city, which is quite a massacre. So Ambrose would not let the Emperor come to communion.
So why did that matter? This is where you have to understand how the church worked in Milan and Ambrose’s genius. This is the church of the capital. Now Emperors always needed places where they could be seen by the populace, that’s one of the reason that gladiator games were so popular and important, it was a place where an emperor of other bigwig could show off wealth and power. Remember, no newspapers or other publicity was around, you needed to show yourself in the flesh and that you have power in public if you were to be known. In the late Roman Empire however, things were changing, and the church increasingly became the one place where all classes of people could come. Coming to Church was important to an Emperor because he could be seen by anyone and everyone.
What Ambrose had created in the city of Milan in the church was the single point where all ranks of people could come. Therefore, the refusal of the Emperor made it impossible for him to be seen by all classes, and eventually, Theodosius saw the point after a few months and did penance for the massacre and was re-admitted to communion.
Now the point about all this that Ambrose had made a community around the Church where all classes of people could come. It was a place that the emperor could not politically afford not to come. This is an important legacy from the Gospel, in that we don’t exclude groups from coming into our churches. The Church is, as I repeat myself, a hospital of sinners not a haven for the holy. A good church should always have the mad and the crazy people coming in.
Now that’s not always easy. But we don’t come here just to be with friends, we come to be with all of God’s creatures, no matter how crazy they may be. That means that they will have drug problems or criminal records and at times can be frightening. I deal with them and I can tell you that I don’t always feel safe. Yes, we need to work with how we deal with them at times. But only by having such people will we be the sort of community that Mark saw Jesus wanting. A community of love and service and not power, that does not deem people holy or unholy, clean or unclean. Fortunately, at St George’s we have never been without our crazy people. God bless them. It’s also a problem for the wider Church, where we seek to make a safe community and yet a welcoming community of sinners – we don’t have an answer there.
Now Ambrose had his own failings as well to be fair to history. But he was also a heroic defender of how the church should be, not just a place for the powerful and wealthy. So, he is worthwhile remembering today, and we should not forget anyone or any dog named after him either.
Nunc Dimittas – Candlemas 4 February, 2018
Well, this is the end of Christmas. Not forever, I assure you, for another Christmas will be here on the duly appointed date of the 25th December, as long as people remember the child in Bethlehem who was God, but this is the end of Christmas for this year. Over forty days ago (for we cheated a bit and moved the festival to the Sunday) we celebrated the birth of our Saviour and Lord, then twelve days later the coming of the Magi who brought the three gifts, and now, forty days after we conclude the season of Christmas with the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, known much more simply as Candlemas.
Now, we call it Candlemas because we bless candles on that day, for this festival is also known as the Purification of Our Lady, for forty days after a child was born a woman would undergo a service of purification, that made her ready for worship again. At these services in the past, which we adapted into our Anglican life and called the churching of women, the woman would hold a candle as a symbol of her purification. The light burns in the darkness, showing our purity. So, by conflation with the old rite of Purification we get the name Candlemas, and we have a lot of fun lighting our candles and blessing our stock of candles for the months ahead. At St George’s we get through a few candles as you can imagine too.
But the core of the service that is happing in Scripture is also what is called the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. By right, the first-born male of every creature belonged to God. Every creature had to be redeemed by a payment or put to death. So, Jesus, being the first-born, had to be presented to God and redeemed by a sacrifice in his place. The core of it is the redemption, by money usually, but Luke emphasises the physical bringing of the baby Christ to the Temple itself.
It’s interesting to think that the season of Christmas is concluded by the substitution of a sacrifice. Now as we leave the Christmas season behind we start to enter Lent and Easter, with the Gesima Sundays before Lent ready to start. Owing to the early nature of Lent this year we only get time to fit in one Gesima, that of Quinquagesima next week before we launch into Lent. The Gesima Sundays look forward to Lent and the notions of Sacrifice that we will deal with in Lent and in particular Good Friday.
But I want to think for a moment on the nature of sacrifice. For the Old Law was dominated by the idea of Sacrifice – as long as there was a Temple sacrifice had to take place, God was worshipped by the proper preparation of sacrifice. Sacrifice is the giving of life to God, giving and then taking by death. The notion of sacrifice is deeply imbedded into our culture – the idea of offering life and taking it to appease the gods.
It is interesting then that Luke includes this story of Jesus being brought to the Temple in the context of sacrifice. Luke makes it clear that this was a moment of sacrifice and redemption. Luke is starting the whole story leading to the cross with the sacrifice there. From the start of Jesus’s life Luke is preparing the idea that what we need to come to terms with is the nature of sacrifice.
So, why do we sacrifice? The answers are many, mainly about the need to appease God. But other commentators see a deeper level in our blood lust and the need to channel this desire to take life into manageable worship. Others see our need to scapegoat people, to identify those we think different and evil and then exclude and kill them as part of this need. Sacrifice is not an isolated phenomenon, it occurs in most cultures, from the ancient Greeks, to the Chinese, to the bloodthirsty Aztecs of Central America. Sacrifice is deeply ingrained in our cultures.
Yet the bloodlust remains. The turtledoves or pigeons will be sacrificed. The sword will piece the heart of Mary. The foundation of the sacrifice that will take place later is foreshadowed here, in the presentation in the Temple.
There is also another point. Mary is told, the that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. Sacrifice is going to finish, and instead, people are going to have to deal with conscience. At the end of Luke, we hear that after the crucifixion the spectators are suddenly aware of something about themselves; they beat their breasts. Conscience and consciousness are closely related. The real evolution of consciousness has to do with the workings of conscience. The people have to face their role in his death, their conscience. Doves won’t solve the problem. Neither will money or any modern substitute. Each of us must face our conscience before God for our role in the damage we do to others.
There is one last point: St Paul tells us that we are the Temple, too, so we too wait continually for the coming of the Lord in our midst. If only we had the joy of Simeon and Anna when Our Lord comes to us in the sacrament today, to our temple of the body, and the blessings of life. We think, too, of Simeon and Anna, nearing the end of their lives, and the fulfilment of their hope in the Messiah. There is something very moving about the way in which their long fidelity is portrayed in the gospel. Every night at Evensong or Compline the Church sings into the darkness the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, and affirms our faith in the Light that enlightens the gentiles, just as they affirmed, at the end of their lives, their undimmed hope and trust. Christ’s light must pierce even our darkest, dreariest moments — the times when faith seems hollow and we cling on by our finger-tips. And when we cannot, we know that the rest of the Church will, for that is the meaning of the Communion of Saints here and now.
St Francis de Sales – 27 January, 2018.
Let me tell you today about Francis de Sales. He was born into the era of the Reformation, in 1567, in Savoy, which is in France near the Italian and Swiss border. For those of you interested in dates, Luther started his protests in 1517 with his famous ninety-five theses at Wittenberg in Germany, Elizabeth I came to the throne in England in 1558 and the Council of Trent, which started the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation, met last in 1563, so by the time he was born the modern religious map of Europe was well and truly established.
Now he was a good student at Paris and then became a Doctor of Laws Padua, at that time Part of the Republic of Venice, as it would be for a long time. However, he wanted to become a priest, which he duly did in 1593.
He joined his local diocese, which was called the Diocese of Geneva. The big problem was that this diocese no longer included Geneva, for the reason of the Reformation. The Reformation in Europe had meant the change in many ancient dioceses. Some became Reformed: for us the whole church became Anglican. But in Europe in some places some sees changed completely, such as in Germany, but in other there were contending parties. In Geneva the City had became a famous Calvinist stronghold under Jean Calvin, and the bishop, still claiming to be that of Geneva, moved across the lake into the Savoy region opposite, under the control of the Roman Catholic King of France.
Jean Calvin had died in 1564 but his legacy was immense. In his lifetime he had written and re-written his famous theological book, the Institutes – the basis of what we call Calvinism. It still required reading at our Anglican Moore Theological College in Sydney. It is a massive work, taking the conclusions of earlier theologians such as St Augustine to a logical collection in the theory of pre-destination. In its mature form of double predestination, it taught that the elect from God are chosen and are the elect and will enter heaven, and the others, the approbate, are doomed to hell.
Now it can be a very hard and depressing doctrine that seems to leave us with no free will, hence the rather odd treatment in our own 39 Articles of Religion, 17, which warns of its dangers. Francis was very aware of this doctrine: as a student aged 23 he had suffered a long depression after a seminar on the subject that was a great crisis for him. As he lived in the neighbourhood of Geneva, and the great Calvinists, it was a doctrine he would have to be very much aware about.
However, he came to the conclusion that whatever God had in store for him was good, because God is love.
Well he then was ordained, and worked amongst the poor in part of the old Geneva Diocese, and ended up being Bishop of Geneva in 1602. One of his great legacies was a book he wrote: “Introduction to the Devout Life,” which is why he ties in with the second reading today.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he makes the point that each of us should lead the life to which God has called us. Now we can take that as a sign of our predestination – we are stuck in our lives through the choice of God’s will and cannot change it. St Francis de Sales takes it a different way. He sees us as the living plants of the Church, and we bring forth the fruit of our ability and vocation. It’s not appropriate for a bishop to be stuck in some enclosed monastery and try and run a diocese, nor a father of a family to give away all his money when he has a family to support. In each person’s life there is scope for our vocation to live a devout life. Our devotion brings us to wholeness – it complements what we do and beautifies our vocation and our employment. Our devotion, our worship, our love of God works with the state we are in life. They are not in a conflict, but a natural balance.
Francis de Sales is teaching a way of living that is for each person in normal life: not a specialised way of life for a few. It’s what Paul is getting at as well – be free from anxieties. We all live lives that can be difficult – but we are not to become obsessed with what we are not doing. St Francis puts it this way: our devotion is a spiritual sugar, which takes away the bitterness of self-discipline. Our devotion counteracts the poor person’s discontent and the rich person’s smugness, the loneliness of the oppressed and the conceit of the successful; the sadness of the one who lives alone and the hectic-ness of the one who lives in a life of swirl. Devotion gives us balance.
St Francis died Lyons on December 28, 1622. He was especially influential in the revival of French Catholicism in the seventeenth century, but his works have appealed to Christians of other traditions. His Introduction to the Devout Life was praised by John Wesley, and C.S. Lewis referred to the “dewy freshness” that permeates the book. Because of this wide influence, Frances de Sales is commemorated in the calendars of the many Anglican churches. We keep his feast day on 24th January, when he was buried, as the day of his death is rather crowded with saints already with Christmas.
Finally, the other great thing I like about St Francis de Sales is one of his famous comments about how to teach people, for he was a great teacher and used little popular tracts as a way to reach people: he said it was easier to attract flies by a spoon of honey than a whole barrelful of vinegar. I think he was thinking in part of the fear of predestination. It’s a good maxim for life – be balanced and show people the love of God by honey and not by vinegar. Love wins over fear always.
Change – OS2B, 14 January, 2018.
Change is the theme in the readings today: change from one way of living to another. The first reading is from the Book of Judges, and is the start of the story of Samuel. It’s maybe from around the year 1000 BC. Then we have the Gospel reading and Paul writing to the Corinthians, which makes it early 1st C AD. Today we look at how change happened over this period.
The story of Samuel starts his life living with the Ark of the Covenant at Shiloh. But the Ark will be taken into battle and captured, before being returned. It will then languish and not return to Shiloh, before David takes it again. The capture of the Ark signifies that it is not an all-powerful talisman.
The big change here is the start and ending of the Temple. Samuel is the last of the Judges – he will anoint Saul and David, and start the Jewish Kingdom and the erection of the First Temple. The Jews will radically change their society to live under a king and to have a central place of worship in the Temple with all its ritual. Samuel marks the start of the transition of Jewish life to a new Temple based worship.
Jesus and Paul are of course living before the famous Jewish Revolt in 66 AD. They mark the ending of that very life. For the Jewish revolt led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. The Temple would not be re-built, and Christians and Jews would develop a spiritual life without a Temple focus.
So Samuel marks the transition of a cultic crisis – the change of worship and organisation to a kingdom and a Temple, and Jesus with Paul mark the change from the Temple worship to another. The Temple is the sandwich between the two eras.
So, what is the point of the Temple? The Temple gave a focus on how to live. It gave rules on what to offer and how to be clean and live a life that was pleasing to God. It gave a structure on how to organise a society – with a king who obeyed and an altar for sacrifice. It marks the transmission of Jewish life from a series of prophets, often violent, who arise and impose leadership on the tribes and the scattered worship with places like Shiloh and the Ark to another form, with an organised and hereditary kingship and organised and structured Temple. The older way of chaos under the prophets moves to a more organised and hopefully less violent kingship and Temple. Samuel helps them move to a new way.
Yet a 1000 years later the structure was no longer working. The Temple, mark 2, was there, yet one faction of Jewish life increasingly controlled it. The country had no king – the last dynasty with kings like Herod were not of the right family, nor had there been a king of the House of David for centuries. The country was ruled by the pagan Romans, and before them Greeks. The old way was no longer working, and Jesus and Paul prepare for a new way.
What Christianity is offering is a new way based on the incarnation, or enfleshment, of God in humanity. God has taken on human form in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, our desires are to follow those of Christ – we are to live by how Jesus wants, not by our own misplaced desires. Desires will still tempt: and in our prayer life we need to acknowledge them, and in one way, visualise Our Lord helping to build a wall between them and ourselves to help overcome them, but these desires never give contentment.
That is why Paul gets so ratty about fornication here. He places our bodies on a par with that of the Temple – the centre of Jewish life, and the replacement to be. It’s a question of desire. What is our desire – to go to a prostitute or to go to Christ? The endless and never satisfying forms of sexuality will not bring contentment. What brings satisfaction and fulfilment and growth is a life following Christ.
This is the point about the exchange between the two disciples and Jesus in the Gospel reading today. Our Lord asks what they are looking for, they reply, rather strangely, where are you staying? The point is, what they are asking is more than where he is physically living – the words are sometimes translated as abide. It’s the same word that has just been used for John the Baptist saying the way the Spirit of God, like a dove, descended and remained, or abided, in him. Jesus also talks about abiding in the Father using the same word. There is the link between the dwelling of the Spirit and the dwelling the disciples are looking for. It’s not a question asking for an address – it’s a deeper question as to what makes Our Lord tick. The disciples are asking Our Lord to show them who he is, and that is why Our Lord invites them to come and see. John often has Our Lord asking one question, and the disciples answering with another question, but Our Lord then moves to meet the disciples on the level they are asking. So, he ask them what they seek, they ask where does he stay, and he answers their question at their level. God will always meet us where we are, and then move us to a deeper level of seeking.
For us it’s the same question – what makes Our Lord tick – why do we love him and follow him. The reply is still the same – come and see. We have become Christians in different ways – some from an experience, some from a lifelong sense of belonging to a church, some from the love that has been shown – but to each of us we are called to abide, to live in Jesus. This is the new Temple for us, the new presence of God. Yet living in Jesus is not an address – it’s a continual experience of coming and seeing what he calls us to do. The Temple, with its rules about how to live is gone. What we are offered instead in a new way, a Temple of the Spirit, a Temple lived in Christ and ourselves in communion with him. Unless we see the point of the Temple, that pink elephant, the need to have God dwell in us, then nothing makes sense.
Happy Songs for Sad Times – Christmas Day, 2017.
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home and his own people received him not.” — John 1:10-11
One of the joys of ministry this year has been the Chant Group that our newly-wed music director set up over a year ago. We learnt some great music, and being such ancient music, it usually has quite a lot of history to go with it. One of the hymns we learn was the Veni Creator Spiritus, an ancient hymn from 9th C. In our group repertoire, that’s almost yesterday.
But it was also used in a very famous moment of history in Paris, that most elegant city. During the Revolutionary Reign of Terror from July 1793 to July 1794 religious and royalists were rounded up for death. One group arrested were sixteen nuns of the Compiegne Carmelite convent, situated fifty miles north east of Paris.
As they were approaching the place of execution on the Place de la Revolution, now known as the Place de la Concord, the nuns could be heard over the snarling of the mob, especially the sounds of the “September Mothers,” a gang of screeching women stirred up the crowd; the nuns could be heard singing the Salve, Regina and the Veni Creator Spiritus, and the Regina Coeli Laetare: hymns to the Virgin and to the Holy Spirit. Veni Creator Spiritus was also the hymn that was sung at the time religious took their vows, and it was fitting as they had vowed to be faithful to those vows even to death. They continued to sing from the scaffold itself, and every time the guillotine fell the sound of song became fainter, until there was only one voice singing, which stopped abruptly with the thump of the blade; but in that moment of silence the Veni Creator Spiritus began again, pure and clear from the very midst of the September Mothers, a little voice, strange and unnerving. Then the mothers found Blance de la Force, and trampled her to death.
“He came to his own home and his own people received him not.”
This story is told in Francis Poulenc’s opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on a novel by the French writer Georges Bernanos, based in turn on a short German novel by Gertrud von Le Fort, published in 1931, on the eve of the Hitler’s reign of terror, and called, The Song at the Scaffold.
Why do I give you all this literary and musical history? It’s a lot of fun, and look it up on YouTube one day. Also, it reminds us, at Christmas of the power of weakness.
Blanche de la Force is a noblewoman who joined the convent as a girl. She found that she could not live the demanding life of the Carmelite order and left the convent in some disgrace and more self-disgust. The cause of this failure was her overwhelming fear. She clearly had mental problems that we currently would call paranoia, bi-polar disorder, or something else, but she believed that she had been chosen to share the fear of Jesus, which he suffered because he bore the dark horror of all human sin. Hers was an acute case of sharing the sufferings of Christ.
“But to all who received him he gave power to become the children of God.”
Blanche received him at the most difficult level of his being and became his child, and in the end her fear bore witness to her faithfulness.
So, let me at last deliver the Christmas message. Our access to God is proportionate to our vulnerability. We must be open to God and to others, and that means being willing to suffer with or for others, to be dependent on others and therefore to be vulnerable to them. Yes, vulnerable even to their fears. Only in vulnerability to others will we become strong in ourselves, because it is the other who gives structure to my one. The phenomenon of one alone is less than one, while the phenomenon of one vulnerable to the other becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and it turns fear into fortitude.
Blanche’s name de la Force means “from strength,” which in the light of her behaviour of abject fear seems to be a cruel irony, until we discover that she had more fortitude than most, being able to inhabit the agony of Christ and to witness in a way that exposed the pathetic weakness of the power of the guillotine. She showed the force of vulnerability, the power of openness and risk, and the true meaning of that much-misused word “love.”
God took the risk of love when he laid himself in our human arms as a defenceless baby. Many of us hand him back, or refuse to take the baby in the first place, but those who do take him become the children of God. They accept the Son of God become the doers of love, accept responsibility for the other in openness and vulnerability, and thus become the strong few by whose fortitude in the face of love’s risk and the pain of rejection, help us fear-ridden fortresses survive, not fully human to be sure, but not utterly bereft of love either.
Dear friends, as usual we have not done more than scratch the surface of the Christmas truth, but rejoice nevertheless, because love is making yet another appeal and another offer; take me in your arms and care for me, and you will discover love, which is simply the description of how much we need each other, just to be, who we are. We cannot carry the key to our own identity in our selves; someone else has to carry it. Ultimately this baby carries it, so take him.
“He was in the world and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” John 1:10, 14.).
Based party on a sermon by Robert Hamerton-Kelly.
The Christmas Story – Christmas Midnight, 24th December, 2017.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The Gospel according to Luke starts the account of Jesus’s birth with those words. Saint Luke is painting his story about Jesus by making contrasts.
Let’s think about Augustus. He is the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in that world. So powerful that one of his titles is “Son of God.” Acting as the Son of God, Augustus declared that his whole realm should be counted, measured, an act of control and power coming out from Rome. And it causes Joseph, poor old Joseph, his little subject, to go to Bethlehem, which was nowhere. You have this juxtaposition of all this Roman power and these two, simple people who go to this out-of-the-way place, and there the saviour of the world is born, and born into a lowly situation: “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” This is the gospel in miniature. This is why we are here tonight. There’s three things here about the birth that tell us everything about the gospel:
(1) There’s no room in the inn. It’s in the nature of Our Lord, the Messiah, that he is always the one left out. He’s the stone the builders rejected. That there’s no room in the inn is not incidental to the story; this is what the Messiah, Our Lord Jesus is. There’s no room in Rome, so go to Israel. There’s no room in Israel, so go to Nazareth. There’s no room in Nazareth, so go to Bethlehem. There’s no room in the inn, so go out to the shed where the animals are. Out, out, out, out…. Our Lord is the one left out. The real truth breaks in on you when you recognise the stone the builders rejected that becomes the cornerstone. Our Lord continually lives on the outer, and we find him most easily when we explore those reasons, in grief, or pain, or poverty.
(2) Who first gets wind of this? The shepherds. We have to shake free of those nice Christmas cards scenes. Shepherds in the first century represented something like bikers, socially. They were the unwashed, unscrupulous. People locked their doors when they came into town. They had the social mark of gypsies, with a very low social status. Luke always turns the social order on its head: Luke is always interested in the women, the outcast. And so the angel appears to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid!”
(3) Shepherds can find the child by two signs: swaddling clothes and a manger. Think about those swaddling clothes: culture. They bind and hold a new born baby: I saw a picture just this week of a new born baby wrapped up so tightly that you could not see any thing but a little pink head. The bands of cloth were used to shape the child physically, a way of physically forming the child. When we say that Jesus takes on human form, this story shows us that it includes being enculturated. Culture shapes us spiritually. Jesus, too, was a product of culture and not just nature. It is not like today in which we apologise for culture. Mary wouldn’t look over to Joseph and say, “Well, maybe we should let him decide for himself. Let’s not cram anything down his throat.” We think that somehow the blank slate is preferable. Jesus himself is swaddled; he’s enculturated. He’s a baby of that time and place.
Then that manger, that feeding trough, a place where the animals come to eat. At the end of the gospel the disciples of Emmaus find Jesus in the breaking of bread, at an eating place. Where do you find him? These shepherds will also find Jesus in an eating place. Easting is such a human, such a necessity of life. Jesus will always be here for us, and relevelled in joining us for the most basic human things such as food.
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I always like how she pondered them in her heart, not head. The heart is the base of emotion. The head is that of intellect. The Gospels are not superstition, nor are they dry logic. With Our Lord, you always need to ponder him in your heart. In the end, there is no dry logical answer. Nor is they just pure emotion. Belief in Our Lord has to be a continual pondering in our hearts. We sometimes assume that there’s an end to pondering, a point at which you have things figured out. With Our Lord, there is no conclusion to the pondering. Pondering is a way of life that is synonymous with faith. That’s what the Good News is all about. Pondering, pondering and pondering and finally finding out, that behind it all is just the love of God who wants to come to us. Comes to us by being a child, comes to us by being vulnerable, comes to us tonight, if only we are humble enough to let the humble child into out lives.
Humility – Advent 3, 17 December, 2017.
It’s Rose Sunday today. That’s why these magnificent vestments are being worn, in this lovely shade of pink. That’s why there are roses embroidered all over them as well, in reference to this day. We only get these colours out twice a year, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which we call Mothering of Laetare Sunday, and today, the third Sunday of Advent, sometimes called Guadete Sunday. The Latin names are just the first words in Latin of the entrance antiphon that is sung when I come in, which means Rejoice.
Why do we have it? Well, is our holiday break in Advent, when we are meant to lighten the mood, away from the sombre themes of death, judgment, heaven and hell. Its origins of way, way back to before Christ, to the habits of the ancient Roman Republic. This time of the year there is winter, when there was not field work, and in Rome this was the time that the elections were held for all the public offices, like consuls and tribunes, as this was the time that an agricultural society could take off and electioneer. So, when the church arrived in Rome it adapted to the custom of the early Roman Empire, by that stage, which still had elections at that time. In the early church the members of the congregations elected the clergy: and that term meant then not just priests and deacons, but also the lesser offices of lectors and doorkeepers, there were seven in total. So it was done at this time, before the midwinter feast, which became for us Christmas. Elections should not be done in a sombre mood, so Mother Church lightened the mood for the day, so off with the purple and in with the pink rose to show the change of pace. Hence the antiphon, rejoice that is sung at the start of high mass.
But back to the readings. Today we tackle John the Baptist. If you ever go into an Orthodox church you will see a screen separating the nave from the chancel, usually it’s covered with icons, and as a result is called the iconostasis there is always one of John the Baptist there at the right of Jesus. In the Orthodox rubrics, he is always placed there because he was the prodromos, the one who pointed the way to the Messiah. “I am not the Messiah,” John said. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” And then John went even farther in saying of the one for whom he prepared people, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
There is something to be said about knowing your place. In politics or in business, underlings, even those with distinguished titles, sometimes forget their job description and say things or cut deals which only their superiors are allowed to do. It’s fun watching the underlings of President Trump playing this game saying in a comment something which seems to say what the U.S. President has not yet said, or worse, might not want to say. John the Baptist did not have this problem. According to tradition, he was a first cousin of Jesus, yet there were no problems with jealousy or confusion of role. As a forerunner, he challenged people to think about their moral failures so that when Our Lord appeared on the scene they could appreciate his message of forgiveness and love. Because John understood his role, the need for Jesus was advanced.
Humility gives more than it asks
John’s role in today Gospel is therefore worth our consideration. John so depreciated his status that historically he seemed to disappear from the stage once Jesus arrived. That’s how John saw his role as forerunner or herald, but some who had come to appreciate his charismatic personality may have thought otherwise. Groups of John’s followers are documented in a variety of early Christian settings.
Not only was that not John’s stated intent, however, but there is much to be said for that quality in humility that gives more than it seeks. John describes his humility in servant-like terms. He isn’t worthy to untie the thong of his master’s sandal. The sandal, usually a flat, undyed piece of leather, was in constant contact with the dirt and it was the one spot where touch could show the unworthiness of the disciple for the master.
There are many humble gestures that Christians might be called upon to use in order to demonstrate their own humility before Our Lord in a John-like way. Touching feet clad only in sandals made dirty by dusty roads may be symbolic, but washing them and putting body lotion on them is an ancient custom familiar to us from Our Lord washing Peter’s feet and Mary’s anointing of Our Lord’s feet. However, such humility, in our shoe-clad society, encourages us to ask with what measure of love we might reach out to show our appreciation for others rather than calling attention to ourselves. The Advent-Christmas season often has us sharing cards, gifts and foods with friends, neighbours and relatives. However, it’s one thing to be caught up in the spirit of the season, and another regularly to ask, “How might I be a forerunner/ambassador to Christ every day?” The mark of John’s humility was that he pointed away from himself and to the Messiah. We might ask ourselves how our actions could encourage someone to consider Jesus. A cousin of mine sends out a short, daily, online devotional thought. Sometimes It’s a question that a prodromos should ask: What did I do or say today that made a person ask about Jesus?
It was St Francis who captured the essence of this humility is assuring that “in giving we receive” and it was his Master who taught us that in giving to others we shouldn’t let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. (Mt. 6: 3-4) The essence of Christian humility lies in giving more thought to how another may discover Christ through our words, actions and shared feelings. The essence of Christian humility lies in keeping our focus on Our Lord, and looking for him in the face of a stranger.
This does require a reversal in our all-too-human need to see ourselves first and to consider how a caring action may affect our personal need, our wallet or our comfort level.
John, however, on the occasion in our Gospel lesson, not only recognized the importance of pointing others away from himself and to the Lord. He also knew that having found the Lord who alone could forgive, love and free him, he was happy to play second fiddle.
So, we to, must continue to learn the lesson of humility, to rejoice and wear our pink roses, and learn to be a prodromos, and point others to Our Lord and Saviour.
The Good News – Advent 2, 10 December, 2017
Well, we have started our new Church year last week, with the Gospel according to Mark, and today we even start at the start of Mark, chapter 1, verse 1. Typically for Mark, we get no padding – no nice stories of Jesus’ birth, but straight into the core of the story. Mark is the shortest Gospel, and the writer does not go in for padding.
So Mark starts with what he sees as the important first thing – John the Baptist. John is not a cuddly thing to start with, dressed as he is in camel hair and leather, eating locusts and honey, preaching his message in the wilderness. He was not a comfortable figure and his message was not always easy – I suspect most people rather regarded him like we regard those preachers in the Mall – a bit of a pain. At least he did not have a megaphone.
So why did Mark start off with the message of John the Baptist? To those who would listen to the whole story of the Gospel, (and perhaps this Gospel was originally told in one session as a story, or even a play), the listeners would learn that a sticky end was in store for John. His preaching put the powerful off side, and eventually he would be put in prison for his condemnation of those powerful, and finally be beheaded. He was not a success.
Yet the start of the Gospel today has him at his peak, with people, we learn, from the whole Judean countryside, (who could be counted as country bumpkins perhaps), and even all the people of Jerusalem, (the city sophisticates), were going out to hear him and being baptised. This is John at his best and most popular.
Yet the Gospel would then chart his fall.
However, the Gospel story would then take up with the ministry of Jesus, a story that would have echoes of John’s ministry, with a similar impact at first, but then a gradual loss of popularity, until Jesus too would be arrested and all would flee leaving him to be condemned and to die, on a cross with only the women watching: another story of failure in the world.
Yet we are here – we who believe in Jesus and are members of his Church.
So why do we remember failure? In Mark, more than the other three Gospels, the failure of disciples to understand and to follow is starkly put. Furthermore, we suspect that originally the Gospel ended with the news of the resurrection, but the last disciples, the women, who had stayed to the end, did not respond with joy and proclamation, but instead ran and hid, ad even did not tell others the news. Mark keeps on telling the Gospel, the Good News, as a message of human failure.
Yet the church is here today.
The Gospel story that Mark wants us to understand, the Good News, is that people fail – but God doesn’t. The disciples failed, but the Church grew. We don’t make the best of our lives, we aren’t the perfect people, we aren’t the super wonderful people that we should be. Instead we get carried away, we join in the latest thrill, like coming out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness, but when the going gets tough, we are not even in the category of the tough.
However, if you listen to the end of Mark to the last failure, you realise that this story is told by those who had failed. The Good News is told by failures, those who did not stay by the Lord. The Good News is that people find forgiveness and move on. Jesus comes not because we are perfect, but Jesus comes because he knows we have our failures and need to learn to live and overcome that failure. To overcome failure we need to practise forgiveness. The Good News is that forgiveness is part of Christian living. Then the Holy Spirit moves and things happen.
One call of John the Baptist is to make straight the paths of the Lord. John’s preaching and our Lord’s ministry will all be about how to live a path for the Lord, that is here called straight, and also called narrow. That path is the one we learn to follow between moral bankruptcy that occurs when we no longer make any moral striving to live better lives. The other side of that narrow path is the rigidity of applying rules and regulations, and ignoring the gift of grace and freedom that Christ offers us John certainly told his listeners about both failures! But John and Our Lord teach us a way of living in grace and love to keep us on our narrow path where we can experience and deepen our spiritual life. Deepening that spiritual life takes time, effort and a lot of grace. That’s why we are here, to receive the grace of our Lord’s presence in the sacraments and to deepen that love.
That is part of the reason why we are baptised. We are baptised because we want to have that power of being forgiven from that love. To become a child of God is to let the Holy Spirit work in our lives to learn to exercise and receive the power of forgiveness. The world does not work because we are perfect – the world works because we learn to deal with error and sin and forgive and get on with it. The ability to forgive and receive forgiveness is what marks us out as followers of Christ. Don’t become a Christian to be perfect – become a Christian to live with our own imperfections. Then we learn to be tolerant and loving we will let the Holy Spirit work in the world. God succeeds, and that is the success we need.
Facing Death – Advent 1B, 3 December, 2017.
Today we start on the fun topic of death. Now just normal death, but Christian death with joy. Just in case you had forgotten this is Advent 1, when we talk about the four last things we all must face, death, being the first. I will be interested to see who remembers the other three things at the door: judgment, heaven and hell. The last three I will leave for your own reflections, as they flow on from death, and we have enough to ponder about death. By the way, taxes as one of the last things don’t appear on the Christian list. Now, the majority of people don’t cope very well with death. They also don’t cope well with the idea of growing old. We are obsessed about youth and living rather than a Christian life which is about living with the gift of the moment and preparing to face death with joy. Our culture continually reinforces our desire to be young, healthy and wealthy. Death is treated as a failure.
Now, what I mean about facing death with joy is that we believe as Christians that death will give us to Jesus, our hope, and that we believe in the resurrection of the dead so we will meet again our loved ones and find the purpose and reason of life in God’s love. In the Litany which we sing here in Lent and there was one line in the 1662 BCP version, in particular that asked us to be saved from a lot of dreadful ends, such as “lightning and tempest, from plague, pestilence and famine, from battle and murder, and from sudden death:” it is now much more simply “from famine and disaster; from violence, murder and dying unprepared, Good Lord deliver us.”
Now many of us would love a sudden death, just going to sleep one night and never waking up. We fear the indignity of long drawn out death, the hanging around in hospitals while we lose control over our bodies. So why was the litany including sudden death as something to be avoided? The reason why sudden death is included in the list of nasty ends is that the framers recognised the old problem of dying suddenly and, also, unprepared.
Being unprepared is something that we should not be. That’s what Advent is about in part. Part of our prayer life is our nightly prayers where we ask God to look after us during the night, and if we die, for God to accept us in love and mercy. Being unprepared for death is that we have left the world in a state of deliberate sin, with grudges and failures for which we know we should ask forgiveness. Sudden death was the death that gave us no time to make our peace with the world and God. So often when we wait at the bedside of the dying we find that the person is waiting for someone still to come before that person can let go and die. Dying in peace is the ability to let go, to say our farewells and to make our amends so we can face God.
Dying prepared is also the ability to recognise forgiveness. I run across people who accuse Christians of hypocrisy because of one reason or another. Often what they fail to realise is that the Church is the hospital of sinners who need Jesus’s love, and as a result we are filled with the oddest people who sin and fall and rise again. Our acceptance of so many people who don’t do what they should is seen by outsiders as hypocrisy. What it often is, is the working out of forgiveness, of knowing that God loves us so much and is always ready to forgive. Thus the Church is filled with the proud, the greedy, the lustful and all the sinners of the world. As it should be: but with one crucial difference: these people have seen the power of forgiveness and are trying to do something about their sins and failure. We do this so they can face death with the assurance of forgiveness and love.
So many in our culture these days find life incredibly boring. The same routine, the lack of feeling worthwhile, the feeling that al we are doing has no worth. Yet the gift of life is the great gift of God to us, to have intelligence and a soul to see the good or evil we do each day. The facing of death, to be prepared for death, paradoxically gives meaning to life. By seeing each day as our last, when we may need to face judgment for our lives, gives an immediacy to what we do now. Grudges cannot be borne and carried on indefinitely when life is about to end. Putting off the need for change and repentance cannot be done when we face our end of lives. Death is the great trumpet that calls to us not to dally, but live each life in the love and hope of God. God gives to each of us this day, this time: death confronts us with the choice and judgment of how we use it.
This is not to belittle death either. All death is hurtful for us, no matter how old or poor the person is. We all mourn those whom we love and share no longer. Yet the love of God assures us that there is life offered after death, and tears will be wiped away with Jesus’s loving hands. Our grief has the assurance that death is not the end but Christ waits for us with love. That’s the difference, and that’s why we have Advent.
Sheep and Goats – Christ the King, 26 November, 2017
I have had fun putting together the sermons for the last few weeks. Often the readings for these three weeks seem so comfortable, the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the talents and the judging of the sheep and goats.
But I’ve also been reading a lot of the newer theology that has been coming out that looks at how Jesus came as the ultimate victim, the scapegoat, that attracts the anger of the world so he becomes the perfect victim. By doing this, he removes our ability to justify scapegoating. We, as Christians, cannot pick on others and victimise them to make ourselves feel superior. Jesus is the victim of all times, and it is our duty, and a result of our love of Our Lord, that makes us stand with those who are victimised: the poor, the refugee, the prisoner, the weak.
We have now come to the end of the readings that form the last teachings of Our Lord before his arrest. We heard the parable of the foolish virgins, when I suggested that the meaning here was that the foolishness was in not trusting to wait for the bridegroom to enter into the wedding feast. Last week we had the parable of the talents, where I suggested that this was not a parable where you should see the Master as God, but rather a warning about entering into unjust systems, like the Master’s unjust ways of reaping where he did not sow.
Now we have the separating of the sheep and the goats. This is another text that is well used, particularly in the protestant tradition where we see the judgment of God at the end of time vindicating or sentencing each one of us. It’s a justification of many a hellfire sermon.
But like so many texts it is worth looking at more closely. Remember this about the ancient world first: they thought more in terms of groups rather than individuals. The Church has always remembered this, that we are together the body of Christ, and we do not flourish as prickly individuals, but rather as a community, the body of Christ, with different members and skills.
So, let’s look at the beginning. This is no parable: this is a clear statement of what Our Lord tells his disciples’. The Son of Man will be in his glory, the nations will gather before him, and he will judge. The problem is with our translation today, what he will judge will not be the people, but the word used is ‘them’, referring to the nations. The Son of Man will judge the nations for what they have done. This is a judgment on how nations rule, not on individuals, a theme so beloved from our late mediaeval pietism. Furthermore, it is not in some far distant time at eh end of the world: Our Lord appears before Caiaphas, the high priest, in Chapter 26, just after this section, he tells Caiaphas that from now on, not some never-never future time, but from now on, he will see the Son of Man seated on the right hand of God and coming in glory. This is a judgment that is being made now about the nations, not so final personal judgment at the end of the world.
So, what is being judged? It how we treat the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. These are all told to be members of our Lord’s family. It’s a list very similar to the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, those who are the blessed. The nations who do this will be the sheep and sit at his right hand, those who do not will be the goats on the left and enter into punishment. As Our Lord finishes his public teaching, Matthew refers it back to the Beatitudes at the start.
Judgment should be defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma. The judgement here is presented in terms of how our society, human relationships, acts towards victims: those who hunger, who thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned. Those who have understood this, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them. It is the crucified and risen victim of Jesus who is the judge of the world, and the world is judged in the light of its relationship to the crucified and risen victim.
Then we have the fire-and-brimstone language. But remember Our Lord used it to warn his countrymen about the catastrophe of following their current road, a wide and smooth highway leading to another violent uprising against the Romans. Violence won’t produce peace, he warned; it will produce only more violence. If his countrymen persisted in their current path, Jesus warned, the Romans would get revenge on them by taking their greatest pride, the Temple, and reducing it to ashes and rubble. The Babylonians had done it once, and the Romans could do it again. That was why he advocated a different path, a rough and narrow path, of nonviolent social change instead of the familiar broad highway of hate and violence.
Belief in the afterlife, it turned out provided a benefit for those who wanted to recruit people for violent revolution. They would promise heaven to those who died as martyrs in a holy war. That connection between death in battle and reward in heaven helps explain why the Pharisees joined with the Zealots and became leaders in a rebellion against the Roman empire in AD 67. Their grand scheme succeeded for a time, but three years later, the Romans marched in and crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was devastated. The temple was reduced to ash and rubble.
And history has taught us time and time again that the false promises of eternal life are used to justify holy violence.
After that failed revolution, the Pharisees charted a nonviolent path of teaching and community building. They paved the way for the development of Rabbinic Judaism, which undergirds the various traditions of Judaism today. Their story demonstrates that neither groups nor individuals should ever be stereotyped or considered incapable of learning, growth, and change.
That’s the real purpose of Jesus’s fire-and-brimstone language. Its purpose was not to predict the destruction of the universe or to make absolute for all eternity the insider-outsider categories of us and them. Its purpose was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change – using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace.
This passage should not be read as our personal judgment at the end of time. Jesus is the God of love, and never frightens people into loving him. This is a warning for the nations, for how we build our societies.
In the Beatitudes blessedness entails living a deliberately chosen and cultivated life not involved in the power and violence of the world. Of course, this makes the one living it immensely vulnerable to being turned into a victim but that too is blessed. In this week’s famous sheep and goat passage, judgment centres on how we relate to those blessed in the Beatitudes. Ignoring them continues the pattern of human division and separates us all from wholeness and joy; a kind of eternal punishment. In Our Lord’s story those who understand that culture creates victims yet choose to stand with them find themselves serving Christ though they did not know it.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Where the world makes sheep and goats, Our Lord makes disciples and lovers.
The Third Slave – 18 November, 2017
Now remember: for the Church the calendar starts with Advent. So today and next week are the last Sundays of the old year. For this, in our three-year cycle, we are doing the last teachings of Jesus in Matthew before he is arrested. Last week today and next Sunday all form part of one chapter.
Last week we looked at parable of the foolish virgins, and I suggested there that the foolishness may have not been not having enough oil but in running off at the last moment to get more instead of trusting the bridegroom to take them in as they were. Today we go on with the next parable, the parable of the talents.
The parable of the talents is a tricky parable. Like the last parable, it can be taken in different way.
The usual way is to take the parable meaning with the master being the image of God. The master gives the slaves the different talents, and goes away, then returns and makes an accounting. Those who did well with the talent get rewarded, and the third slave, who hid it in the ground, gets punished.
The lesson that is taken from this parable is that we should use our talents and take the risks to make more for our Master, who is God. The English word for talent is taken from the usage here in this parable, and now means our skills, and not just money.
However, there is another way of looking at this parable, which is also interesting. Most of the parable is not taken up with the first and second slave who do the right thing, but with the third slave who hides the money then explains his lack of action on the basis that he knows his master is a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he does not scatter seed. The slave is not afraid of losing the money, but of the master. The master does not deny the charges, and proceeds then to judge the third salve harshly and throws him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In one way this reminds me of the parable of the wedding, when the wedding guest comes without a wedding garment, and is also thrown out by the king. In both these parables, one is left feeling rather uneasy that the master and king are not very nice characters and a strange reflection on how we see God.
There is also another theological problem in this parable: the suggestion that the talent should have been at least left with the bankers to raise interest. Interest from money loans was usury, and was forbidden for Jews, and even Christians for the first half of our history. Why would the master, if that is God, suggest usury, which is immoral?
With today’s parable we should also consider that the originally hearers probably would have identified most with the third slave. Masters were commonly grasping and unjust, trying to get their last bit of value from their slaves. Why take risks and make more for such a master?
It is also worthwhile to note that most of the length of the parable revolves around the third slave, indicating that this is the relationship we should concentrate on, not the first two slaves.
The alternative way of looking at this parable is that is a parable on the unjustness of the present world. The master is unjust. We do not have to see the master as a God-figure in this parable. The first two slaves buy into the system and do what they expect the Unjust Master wants. It is the third slave, who does not enter into the system, who confronts the master who is the hero. The heroism here is not making the money for the master, but by standing up and telling the master that he is unjust and returning his money unused.
Matthew’s addition that the third slave is to be cast into the out darkness is also a clue. If the third slave is the hero of this parable, then what is the purpose of the darkness here? Well, the same word for darkness reappears the very next time in a few chapters on, when Jesus is dying on the Cross and darkness (the same word in Greek) covers the whole land. This is the darkness where people weep and gnash their teeth because Jesus dies. So the slave here is being represented as a disciple of Jesus who faces the unjust structures of the world by confronting the master with his harshness – it is he who is the hero of the story, not the two slaves who conform and take part in the master’s plans. The master is the unjust world of the now that exploits, not the Kingdom of God.
This interpretation means that what we are being taught is not to put our best skills to work – but rather to think about how our skills are being exploited by others. This is not nearly as easy to ponder. We all take part in a world that does exploit and uses its wealth. We live in ease and comfort because most of the world does not. Our continuing need for a high standard of living and our exploitation in the past has created our privileged position. How are we being bold to face our unjust system and denounce it?
Earlier this year I also mentioned a 20ht C American theologian William Stringfellow. He challenged Americans to not be complacent about their capitalism, and the way that many Americans saw it as a sign of God’s favour. Instead he talked about how we are subject to the powers and temporalities of the world, and we are all partakers of unjust systems. As Christians we have to take a jaundiced view of how we live. We are the wealthy few of a rich country in a world that is hungry and poor. We cannot afford to be complacent. In the same way, perhaps we need to re-read our parables, and see them as not supported our need for approval for useful ways we have used our wealth, but instead as a warning that we are taking part in unjust systems that exploit others.
Who’s Foolish? – 12 November, 2017.
The problem when you hear a familiar parable like today is that you don’t hear it any more. You have heard the story time and time again, so that its ability to surprise you has disappeared, and it just washes over you like an old and comfortable blanket.
Well, the Parable of the Ten Virgins today is a bit like that. We have heard it time and time again, about the five who waited with their lamps ready and spare oil and the five who were foolish and were not prepared. The bridegroom comes, and the five prepared ones go in with him and the five foolish ones rush away to find oil and come to late and are turned away by the bridegroom.
Now, before we tackle the actual parable it’s worthwhile looking at where this falls in Matthew’s Gospel. We are in Matthew 25, and as Matthew only has 28 chapters you know we are coming to the end of his teaching ministry. These are his last days teaching, and now Our Lord is no longer teaching the crowds, he is teaching the disciples. Matthew wants us, who are also disciples, to listen to these parables as Our Lord’s final instructions to us on how we are to live as his disciples in the world. It’s an important teaching period.
Now let’s look what is around it. Chapter 25 has three sections and we are going to be dong the next two sections during the next two weeks. Today it’s the parable of the foolish virgins. Next week it’s the parable of the talents and then the judgment of the sheep and goats. In each of the parables there is a division between those who do right and those who do wrong.
Now today the division is between the wise and foolish virgins. Our translation we use here has them as bridesmaids, but the original Greek just calls them virgins. The translators have decided that since the bridegroom is the one they are waiting for, they must be bridesmaids, a fair enough call. But it leaves us with one big problem: why are the so-called bridesmaids waiting for the groom?
Now, in every wedding you are likely to go to, there is a clear gender division. The groomsmen wait on the groom and the bridesmaids wait on the bride: men with men and women with women. It was the same as far as we know in the ancient world. No bride wants the groom to come with competition of other women. The bride watches over the completion by having them look after herself. Bridesmaids do not go out to meet the groom.
So when you start to talk about ten virgins going to meet a groom, your alarm bells should be ringing. This is no normal wedding.
Now, we don’t really know what these virgins are meant to signify. The word virgin is only used in relation to the prophecy to Mary, that a virgin will conceive and bear a child. In the Old Testament virgin women were considered a bit of a failure by not having children. So are the ten virgins, meeting the groom, honoured women or desperate wallflowers trying a last catch?
Now let’s consider why five were foolish and five wise. We know what happens, the five wise had enough oil, but would not share it with the five foolish who did not have enough. We tend to read the parable in that the foolish were foolish for not having enough oil, as they rushed away then to find oil and as a result they did not meet the groom.
But, there is another way of reading this. Remember, the groom did not know the virgins beforehand. Let’s think of them as wallflowers wanting to go to the party to meet eligible men, a sort of biblical bachelor party. Those virgins are waiting outside because they want to go to the party and the bridegroom is their only way of getting a ticket inside. So what’s the foolishness here?
The foolishness may not be that they did not have enough oil, but they did not trust the groom to take them to the party as they were. Because they rushed away trying to be perfect catches with a good store of oil they missed the introduction to the groom going to the party and therefore missed the chance to go in with him. The foolishness is not in not having enough oil but in not trusting the groom to take them as they are. The parable is trying to teach the disciples in that they have to trust in the Lord, the groom, whether they are prepared or not.
Now the other way of taking the parable is that the foolishness is not in being prepared with enough oil. But, you see, when you take it that way, it becomes a rather smug parable. We are left in identifying with those virgins who are always prepared and not going to waste their oil on foolish virgins who ask for some spare. I rather find those virgins rather smug and self-satisfied. But think about how it teaches you to be Christians. You must be well-prepared and if not, then God’s going to throw you out of heaven. It’s a rather self-satisfied view.
The reality about Christian life is that we are never well-prepared. That’s the point. The point is that Our Lord died for us as sinners, badly prepared and doubting people, not as perfect people. The point is that we are not perfect, we don’t have our oil supplies ready. What we need to do is to just trust the Lord. You can’t trust other people, they are going to be like the virgins who are generous enough to share their oil. We are waiting for the groom to take us into the party. When the groom comes we just have to trust he will take us in, not try and make ourselves better prepared. If we try and make ourselves perfect at the last moment we are going to miss the ride to the party. That’s the point. Our Lord is coming at a time we do not know. But when he comes he will take all who wait for him, weather ready or not. We don’t earn our way into heaven. We don’t have to have the oil ready. All we have to do is to be there. Waiting for the Lord is enough.
Principles and Laws – 29 October, 2017.
I have some history, you know. Once, I studied law at Sydney University and was eventually admitted as a solicitor, proctor and attorney of the Supreme Court of NSW. Nowadays they just call them, much more commonly, legal practitioner, but there was a reason for the way to admit us with these three titles. For a proctor practised ecclesiastical law, which includes admiralty and probate, while solicitors practiced in the court of equity and attorneys in the courts of law.
Now this distinction, between solicitors and lawyers, touches what I want to preach about today. For the Courts of Law were governed by what is often called black letter laws: either the acts of parliament or the common law, that is the customary law of the land or court. This was a question of interpretation – you had the act of parliament or an older case for the common law, and the court just interpreted if it applied or not. However, the problem, with lawyers, is that we can get stuck into some rather odd interpretations, and sometimes what is applied can be archaic or even unjust.
To deal with this problem of unjust application of laws, people could throw themselves on the King’s conscience – that is, to make a personal plea to the Crown, as the King was considered the source of all justice. The Monarch delegated this hearing of legal appeals to a Chancellor, who in early times was often the King’s confessor, who acted on what was fair, rather than the strict interpretation of the law. So, for example, if a person committed fraud or duress in having a contract drawn up, the person would find himself bound by the legal terms, but could have the contract voided in equity as unjust.
For this is always the problem with any society or body of laws: you have rules and regulations, but they are not always just or current. Times change: new technologies happen or new ways of people living, and people and societies have to learn to adapt and work out new rules. For example, identity fraud, of either one’s credit details or internet account, is a problem that did not exist thirty years ago. We usually find that there is someone who has done something that seems to be wrong, but there is no legal bar – so there is a hurried rush of legislation to catch up and cover this offence.
Now the same thing happens with religious rules. You can make as many rules as you like, but they are not going to cover every situation. As long as people change (and history teaches us that they always do} then the ethical problems will change as well. No system of rules is going to cover everything.
That is why the rules of religion need to be reduced to a shortened ethical principle. The Ten Commandments are the summary of the Torah for the Jews. However, they are seen as not covering everything. The passage today makes two principles that can be applied to ethical situations – it is the core principle that can be the basis of any system of law. The two great commandments create two fundamental ethical principles that we can apply in life: what does God want us to do here – to love God in this situation and to love our neighbour as ourself.
It is interesting that Jesus says that on theses commandments hang all the law and the prophets. In Jewish thought, particularly Hassidic thought, the world hangs on the Torah, The Law. (The Hassidic Jews arose in the area we would roughly now call the Ukraine, and developed a wonderful theology of a personal God communicated through their Rabbis.) By this the Hassidic Rabbis mean that the world is a manifestation of the principles of the Torah. The basis for this is that God’s Law is the fundamental reality that the world, coming later, is only a manifestation. The world operates, and the earthly rules of the Torah operate, on the universal deep Torah, the existence of God himself.
But Jesus does not say this: he says instead that on the two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets; that is all the core writings of the Old Testament. These two commandments are the basis that cause all the Old Testament to be manifested – they are applications of this foundation. So instead of the world being founded on the full set of the Law, the Torah, the Old Testament is the manifestation of these two ethical principles. Principles, not a complete law, are the basis of Scripture. In Jesus’s eyes, once you understand this, you understand why the Law can be set aside by Jesus in favour of the deeper application of principle. The reason: because love is always more powerful than rules, and loves is the core of these two principles.
These two principles then, loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself, are what God wants us to do. From this we can form the whole of our relationships in the world. But it is also a reminder to us, that all laws are just manifestations of principles. A law is only just when it conforms to these principles – if the law does not conform to these two we are to reject it.
That is why in traditional English Law, Equity, with its principles of justice, always overcame the Common Law. Principles must be more important that rules. For us too, we must base our lives to answer the question, what does God want us to do: with the answer of loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
Rendering Our Image – OS 29A, 22 October, 2017
This Sunday we come across one of those phrases that has had a lot of usage. We heard the Gospel passage today as: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Many of us there will know it in the older and more poetic form: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Now, for many places this is a good introduction to the notion of giving, of particularly money, but this is not a good point to start with, for the passage has many more implications. Look at the context. A coin, a denarius, is what Our Lord asks to see. This is the Roman coin, adapted from the earlier Greek version, with the image of the Caesar on it. If it were a newly printed coin, it would be marked, “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of divine Augustus, High Priest”. Below these words, the image of the emperor is pressed into the metal. To any good Jew, the coin itself was an abomination. It violated the first commandment by claiming that Caesar had divine pretensions, and it violated the second commandment by containing an image of this false god. It was cursed.
Look at the people who are there, too. Two important political groups in Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the Herodians, are ganging up on Jesus. It’s a strange partnership; the two groups didn’t like each other at all, but Matthew in his gospel loves to double up people and groups. First are the Herodians; they were supporters of Herod, the puppet King of Israel who was nothing more than a Roman lackey. Herodians would have a great investment in obeying Roman laws and paying Roman taxes. Then we have the Pharisees, who, as religious purists, would object strongly to paying taxes to any pagan king and especially to a king who, like Caesar, claimed to be of divine lineage.
At the same time, the crowds, who were watching the debate, also had a stake in this. They didn’t like either the Romans or their taxes, and they frequently showed their dislike by rioting. They would be very unhappy at any answer that seemed to approve of the taxes.
Next, there are the soldiers, who were watching the crowds. They were Romans who were paid by the taxes in question. They didn’t much like the crowds, who had a penchant for rioting and whose rioting they had to control. Finally, it was Passover time—the most likely time of the year for a good riot about religion, the emperor, Rome in general, and Roman taxes in particular.
In other words, this was not an abstract debate about either political philosophy in general or the relationship between Church and state. It was a perfect set-up, a very clever trap. The intent of the question was to ensure that Our Lord was either arrested for treason by the Romans, discredited as a false teacher by the Pharisees, reported by the Herodians, or lynched by the crowd as a traitor to his own people.
Now, note how OurLord asks the disciples of the Pharisees, the ones who asked him that curly question, to bring him a coin used for the tax, not anyone. So those who bring him the coin, are the ones who have it, the disciples of the Pharisees. So it is they who are technically in breach of the Law, by carrying a coin with a graven image. Our Lord likes to wrong foot the perfectionists out with their own game. If you play at being perfect, expect to be caught out – as always, it is the sinners, those who know their own imperfections who come to Jesus for solutions who get the blessings, not the picky ones.
This is why Our Lord makes the point: whose head is this, and whose title – the older translations talks whose image and whose inscription, which captures the command against images in the Old Testament. The Greek word uses “eikon,” from which we get our word icon. Now an icon is more than a painting, and carries the living presence of God or of the saint – not just a photo or likeness but a window in to heaven, a presence of that person. That’s why images are traditionally banned in the Jewish and Muslim traditions, they carry another likeness of a created being into worship. However, Christians have set aside this prohibition, because as Christ came down to become one of us so he has sanctified our image, the very image that God created in the beginning that God declared to be good. We accept images in worship because Christ has sanctified images, as long as we reserve worship to God alone.
Now this is the point: when Our Lord asks whose image it is on the coin, he uses the same word in the Greek as in Genesis, icon – when God made humankind he created us in his own image. The image is of a ruler, but the image is only of a human being, one made by God.
So, when Our Lord then replies to their answer that the image is of Caesar, he says, in the old translation, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” He is once more making them feel deliberately uncomfortable. Last week we talked about the parable of the wedding feast, and how it can be read that the Temple is now occupied by the good and the bad, that all who were listening to him in the Temple area were compromised by living under Herod and the Romans. Once more, those who carry around the Roman coin with an idolatrous image are living in a compromised world: saying they obey the law but technically in breach.
Our Lord is saying again to the people listening in the Temple area: that they all live in a compromised world. They live in a world where there is the holy and the profane, the Temple and Caesar, and there is no escape. The problem lies in He is not saying don’t pay the Temple tax, he is not saying using another coin, he is not neatly dividing the world into the secular and religious world.
The solution lies in that word, image, icon. Caesar is made in the image of God. Jesus was always critical of false distinctions between the world and the Temple, remember the purging of the money changers. Religious rules should not be unnecessarily burdensome. It does not really matter what is on the coin, as long as the intent is right, and even Caesar is made by God.
Our Lord is always looking for a deeper relationship to exist between us and God. One that is not hampered by rules: one that is characterized by love. It’s not a matter of paying tithes or so much of our income that puts us right with God. That’s just quibbling. What is the point is how we are with God. We are the ones in the image of God. We have printed on our souls the waters and cross of baptism that mark us the coinage of God. What are we to render to God – our love, that very same love stamped on us by our Creator making us in his own image.
So instead of thinking of how we pay off God with money, we have to look to our lives how we honour that image, that icon of God in us. This can only be done by a life lived in Christ, a life centred in love, a life centred in the Body of Christ, his sacraments, his Church. This can only be done by praying and sacrificing – unless we learn to give of ourselves so it is a sacrifice than we just tip God. That’s our challenge in life. God has given us a gift in these lives of ours – what we do with our lives is our gift back to God.
The Parable of the Guest Without the Wedding Robe – 15 October, 2017
Today we have another parable. Often it is read as the King being God, who invites people to the wedding banquet for his son, Christ, but they don’t come, so he then invites all and sundry, so eager is he to have his hall filled with guests. Then he throws out the man who does not come prepared, as a warning that we must prepare ourselves for God.
But there are always a few problems with this way of looking at the parable. The king is not so nice, he murders the first lot of guests who don’t come, the son never appears and the whole thing with the wedding guest who does not wear the right clothes is a bit odd.
Let’s look at this again with a bit of history of the time. First, peasants of that time did not think that kings were automatically the good guys; from bitter experience. Then there is a particular piece of history to recall. Herod the Great is a character known to us from the birth of Jesus. He was a nasty piece of work. The Holy Land had been ruled by descendants of the Maccabeans, who were pious Jews, and had some independence. However, in the century before Christ they had become under Roman indirect rule, and one ruler was replaced in a revolt by a man called Antigonus. Herod obtained the support of the Romans, became engaged to wed Antigonus’ niece who was also a granddaughter of a high priest and returned to claim Jerusalem offering forgivingness and preservation of the city if they accepted him. However, the Jews in Jerusalem rejected Herod’s claim, saying he was only a half Jew and not a proper king. They ignored him, however, to their peril, for Herod then came with the Roman army, laid siege to the city and took it in 37 BC with a suitable massacre. During the siege, he went to Samaria and married his bride, returning as a newly-wed husband to finish the siege. Poor Antigonus surrenders to the Roman general who was going to send him to Rome, but Herod intercedes that he be killed in order that his new kingdom will be safe for Herod’s sons. So Antigonus is sent to Antioch and killed there. Herod then murders his rivals and appointed his own cronies as High Priest. Herod was a lavish builder, and the place where Jesus is said to be saying this parable was the part of the Temple Mount built by Herod
So, when Jesus starts to talk about a king, it’s easy to think that his hearers would think about Herod who had built this section of the Temple. This parable starts differently to the others here, we heard is as “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who…”, but it can also read “the kingdom of heaven may be made like a king who..”
So let’s think of how this parable can be read. The king here is not God, but the usual nasty Herod. Herod had come to Jerusalem inviting them to take him king as he married a member of the royal house. However, the people of Jerusalem declined the offer and rejected him. Then King Herod, like in the parable, comes and burns and destroys the people of Jerusalem. He then fills Jerusalem with his own people, similarly to the parable.
Now if you think of the parable in these terms then the rest of it starts to become clear. The new people of Jerusalem are like the good and bad in the parable, who have been forced to come to terms with living under Herod, and then the Romans. They have compromised. They are like those who have been forced to come to the wedding feast. Here they were those who came to Jerusalem after the wedding of Herod to his token bride.
Then we come to the passage:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.
Who is this man that does not have a wedding garment? What the king is annoyed about is how someone has come and not shown respect to his forced wedding banquet. The speechless may not been that he could not talk, but rather that he did not speak. So, the guest who came and showed disrespect by not conforming did not answer back to the king. The king then, in Herod’s typical way binds him and throws him into the darkness.
Now the prior ruler, Antigonus, was also bound as a captive and taken away to Rome. But think ahead also to what Jesus does. He also does not answer the chief priests when he is before Pilate, he too is silent. When Jesus dies on the cross, there is darkness over the land, just as the king throws the guest into the outer darkness.
So, let’s consider what this parable is saying on this interpretation. The kingdom of heaven has here been like what has happened to Jerusalem. It has been taken by force. The rightful kings are gone and now false kings, Herods and the Romans rule. The people here are forced into celebrating this like a wedding feast, where the guests were “invited” but forced by the slaves to come. The guest without the wedding robe then becomes someone who challenges the king, hence the rage of the king towards him and why this section is so long in the parable. This is Jesus, who challenges the legitimacy of the compromise that those in Jerusalem have made.
It’s interesting that the very next part of the Gospel, which we will look at next week, also talks about divided loyalties with the coin with Caesar’s head.
This parable can be read not about the generosity of God who invites everyone, but also murders those who spurned his invitation and throws the unprepared into darkness, but about the powers of the world who attempt to take the kingdom of heaven by force. Matthew also refers in 11:12 how: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Matthew is showing us a Jesus who condemns the world for trying to pervert the kingdom of God which should be about love and forgiveness, and instead create an unjust world where people are forced to obey. It is a kingdom of Heaven that has been seized by force. However, it will be challenged by those who reject the demands of conforming, in this case the guest who does not wear the wedding robe, by Jesus who will become the perfect victim. Others may be frightened and conform: but Jesus will challenge and be killed. However, we know then as Christians that we too find our power to resist by knowing the power of resurrection.
The Unexpected Harvest – OS27A, 8 October, 2017.
As we come to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, which has been our main Gospel during this season after Pentecost, we are forced more and more into an encounter with Our Lord. The passage today lays things out quite plainly. The story of the vineyard, based on an old song which we heard part of in the Isaiah passage, has become an allegory in which things stand for something else. The vineyard has become God’s people; the vine-dressers are the religious leaders; the son and heir is the Gospel message of Our Lord; the murder his rejection; the threat that the kingdom of God will be given to others bringing forth fruits of the Kingdom, an indictment against the church.
The challenge in hearing this passage is to decide where we would place ourselves in the story. With whom would we identify most closely? Our Lord could be bringing good news or bad, depending on your point of view! If we are a loyal person in the pew hearing this story, we could feel troubled, especially if our church seems to be in decline. We could wonder, is God is really working more with other churches than with ours? Are the things we value the wrong things to be concerned about?
If we are a member of the clergy, this parable could bring doubts to our mind. What have we done to deny the Gospel, and how have we avoided those who perhaps needed the Good News of Jesus most, but somehow didn’t quite fit in?
Perhaps you can identify with Jesus being the rejected heir. Have you ever been told you’re not needed anymore? Have you been ignored or left out of a group you really wanted to be a part of? Then you have felt the kind of rejection Our Lord experienced when he came to his own people and they spurned him. You could not be in better company!
And today everyone is awed by the rapid growth of the Church in other parts of the world. While developed nations in the West seem to be losing strength in the established churches, thousands of converts come to Christ every day in Africa and Asia. Is God really giving the Kingdom to others because our Western culture in its race to wealth and success is unable to embrace it anymore? Things are, however, different from the way they were in Our Lord’s time.
Despite what we would like to believe, the church has very little influence in our culture today. Religion is seen as private matter, and the Churches are little sway.
We are people called to proclaim Good News, to tell the story of Jesus and introduce others to him. That is primarily done by the way in which we live, the ethics we have, and the moral behavior we demonstrate.
Our difficulty may be that we’re still trying to be the faith of the culture; we aren’t; and the sooner we accept that the freer we will be. Church is much less a social custom than it was just a few decades ago. People who become Christians today are more likely to do so out of conviction than custom.
We are seeing the collapse of the old parish system. In the cities now people travel to churches to choose the one that suits them. Some churches grow, many others are in decline.
While there are individual reasons why each of these churches is growing, the point is that some are; and they are located in very different parts of the Western world. People are hearing the Gospel, it is transforming their lives, and they are inviting others to join them.
Now let’s return briefly to that parable of the wicked vine-dressers: If they stand for religious leaders, they stand for those who would benefit their own circumstances from religion. They would be people who seek power, wealth, and recognition through the Church. They would be men and women who have the answer to every question, never encouraging the faithful to struggle with Jesus for their own understanding. They would be leaders who want to take over others’ lives and tell them how they should live. There are plenty of examples in modern culture, from cult leaders to corrupt evangelists-and some church officials.
The point Jesus is making in this parable, however, applies to everyone. We are entrusted with the Gospel, and whenever we forsake the Gospel it will be given to others to share.
The honesty and integrity of our faith is based not so much on whether we do or do not do certain moral behaviors, but whether we have shared the Good News with others. The judgment of Jesus will be based on the fruits of our faith, not on our personal purity.
If the Gospel were really transforming our life, wouldn’t we want to offer it to everyone else? By our baptism we are vine-dressers as well. Our Lord is asking us to apply the Good News in our life so that others will see it; and Our Lord asks us to share it with those whom he has given us as friends.
The Other Angels – 1st October, 2017.
This morning we celebrate the feast of St Michael and all Angels. It’s an ancient feast of the Church, to remind us that we are not alone as God’s creatures, that there is another mysterious plane of life occupied by the Angels.
Now angels have had their ups and downs in history. You will, no doubt, be very familiar of some beautiful images from the Middle Ages. In the 18th C it was the Age of Enlightenment, and angels had a bad press as being superstitious. Then the Victorians loved them in the Romantic movement, and our cemeteries are littered with images of weeping angels. Since the rise of neo paganism and the ebbing of the Age of Enlightenment angels are now everywhere.
But today I would like to talk about another aspect of angels. St Paul in Romans 8 talks about how nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, not even powers or temporalities. For there are not only good angels out in the world, but also other creatures as well.
In the second half of the 20th C there was an American theologian called William Stringfellow who was also, at times, an Anglican, or Episcopalian as we are called in the USA, who developed a theology around the theme of powers and temporalities. He examined what life was now like in the 20th C. that century saw the rise of new forms of capitalism, especially after the WWII, with the growth of American power. Industrialism in the 19th C had started the urbanisation of our culture, so by the 20th C the majority of people were no longer living in the country but instead working and living in cities. As a result, the normative for most people was not small farms but working for some sort of corporation. If I asked most of us here today what you worked for or had worked for, it would be law firms, schools, or companies, some sort of corporate structure.
Yet from my conversations with so many of you, most people hate especially the politics of corporations. The endless regulations and controls that stifle our enjoyment and creativity, the paperwork and reporting that are a drudgery. In the huge industrial corporations, the 20th C saw the rise of unions that helped to negate the worse of capitalism, but still left many a worker frustrated by a lack of independence and creativity.
Stringfellow identified these corporations as the powers and temporalities of Scripture. He believed that these bodies were part of the world and although many good people worked for them, ultimately they are part of the culture of death and sin. By this he meant that these bodies ultimately do not exist for our salvation, but exist instead for money or power. They promote greed, or youth, or delusion in one form or another. They promise life to us in some way: more money or freedom or beauty or grand finals, but in the end, they use us up and throw us away. They are the evil powers and temporalities of the world that chew us up with false promises.
Now this is a very negative view of our culture. But Stringfellow did not want us to see angels as cuddly things with wings, but also the other side, the dark angels of power that exist in our world. He did not see American culture as being God’s promise to all people, but instead as part of the struggle of good and evil. When you consider some of the great corporations of history, we know that in the end greed or change sidelines them. Where is the East India Company today? What happened to the computer companies such as IBM or Wang? Remember the State Bank? Eventually these bodies fail because they are not linked with the eternal values of God. Some bodies last a lot longer, such as charities that run schools or even churches, but in each of these we battle the world and the nature of powers and temporalities that are not godly.
Now that leaves all of us in a bind, because we all work for these bodies. But Stringfellow is telling us that we must not be taken in by the false promises of these powers: they are not given by God. They cannot give us eternal life and the love of God.
So, what do we do then?
Stringfellow argued that our problem is that we do not have a sense of vocation. Now this is different from work. We all work, we need to work to make money to exist in our culture. But work in one sense has to be unimportant as Christians. We are called to be Christians, to love and serve the Lord in whatever we do. What is important in life is not what we do, but what we are. We are loving people, we are forgiving people, we are Christians. This is what our vocation is, to learn to live as the children of god wherever we may be.
Therefore, we live in this culture and work within these powers and principalities, and are not to be hoodwinked by their false values. These are the evil angels that mislead us. We will never find satisfaction with their values.
Instead Christians are called to find vocation. Now vocation comes from the word to call in Latin, vocare – to call. Therefore, how we live our lives in our workplaces is far more important. Are we showing Christina values in how we share our lives there? Are we living with our colleagues in love and forgiveness? As people called to love and forgiven it may be far more important to be nice to someone in the tearoom than make money that day. We may need to model the virtues of selflessness to those who work under us or are taught by us. We are called to be Christians, we live lives in response to that vocation. The workplace is where we live out that vocation.
Now Stringfellow also had a lot to say about the churches how we had lost our power to shine in the world as places where Christians could be inspired. He argued that the churches had become refuges for escape from the world instead and had lost the voice of prophecy. That’s another big issue. In one sense, it comes down to angels again. The archangels like Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are lights that shine out to us of the love of God and god’s concern for the world. That’s what the churches should be. That’s what we should be. The dark angels, the powers and temporalities of this world are the ones who hide their evil with rules and regulations and a culture of death. That is part of the nature of evil: it is hard to separate it, to see it clearly, to understand its intent. Instead we are caught in a web that makes each of us complicit in its plan.
One last point: in legend, the Devil is also called Lucifer, and he too was once an archangel. But he fell from heaven and now rules this world where we struggle. The name Lucifer means light bearer. Now we no longer see him as light, but he conceals himself in darkness and we do not see or understand how evil works. He is the father of lies, as another title, and his name is now a parody of what he should be, a clear light to lead us. So in the world we will struggle with darkness and struggle to find the path of God. But on this day when we remember the creatures of light, the holy angles who join our worship, we must also be aware of the nature of the evil angels, the powers and temporalities, that also exist around us. We escape them by living lives of vocation where we hear the call of God, and not ones of work that serves the designs of death.
Our Lady of Walsingham – 24 September, 2017
This is a story of a place and the Mother of Jesus, Mary. Throughout history, Mary has appeared to people in different places, usually out of the way places, a bit like Nazareth which was a small and unimportant town in Our Lord’s time. Anyway, in the eleventh century, when this part of the story begins, the village of Little Walsingham was a thriving place, located mid-way between Norwich (then England’s second city) and the wealthy town of King’s Lynn.
Richeldis de Faverches was a Saxon noblewoman, married to the Lord of the Manor of Walsingham Parva. He died leaving her a young widow with a son, Geoffrey.
At this time there was a great deal of interest in the Holy Land and people undertook long and often dangerous pilgrimages there. Christian armies were soon to be engaged in a number of Crusades to liberate the holy sites from Muslim control and it is believed that Geoffrey eventually joined one of those Crusades as an expression of his Christian faith.
For Richeldis, however, the life of prayer and good works was rewarded by a vision in the year 1061. In this vision, she was taken by Mary to be shown the house in Nazareth where Gabriel had announced the news of the birth of Jesus. Mary asked Richeldis to build an exact replica of that house in Walsingham. This is how Walsingham became known as England’s Nazareth. This small house, not much bigger than our little oratory here, became the Holy House. Mary also told her:
“All who are in any way distressed, or in need, let them seek me there in that little house you have made at Walsingham. To all that seek me there shall be given succour. And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my salutation when St Gabriel told me I should through humility become the mother of God’s Son.”
Around this small house her son Geoffrey left instructions for the building of a Priory in Walsingham. The Priory passed into the care of Augustinian Canons somewhere between 1146 and 1174.
It was this Priory, housing the simple wooden structure Richeldis had been asked to build, which became the focus of pilgrimage to Walsingham.
Pilgrims travelled all over the then known world during the later Middle Ages, which was a golden age for this travel. They went to Jerusalem; they went to Rome; they went to Spain, to Santiago de Compestella. But those places for the English were very expensive, and many who could not afford to do that went to Walsingham, “England’s Nazareth,” for the representation of the holy house of Nazareth brought the Gospel home to the people.
Royal patronage helped the Shrine to grow in wealth and popularity. The first king to come was Richard the Lionheart. He came there to honour God, to seek the prayers of the Mother of Jesus, and to drink of the water from the spring that had appeared at the time when the Holy House was built. The last was Henry VIII, who finally brought about its destruction in 1538. It then stayed in ruins and time went by the village of Walsingham, which became a backwater.
God, however, is not mocked. In God’s good purpose, that shrine of Walsingham which meant so much to the culture and the religion of England for five hundred years, has been restored.
Fr Hope Patten, appointed as Vicar of Walsingham in 1921, ignited Anglican interest in the pre-Reformation pilgrimage. It was his idea to base a new statue of Our Lady of Walsingham on the image depicted on the seal of the medieval Priory.
In 1922, this statue was set up in the Parish Church of St. Mary, and regular pilgrimage devotion followed. From the first night that the statue was placed there, people gathered around it to pray, asking Mary to join her powerful prayer with theirs. This work of intercession continues to this day. For those of you who have been there, it is deeply moving to see the written prayers of the countless visitors.
Throughout the 1920’s, the trickle of pilgrims became a flood of large numbers, for whom eventually a Pilgrim Hospice was opened and in 1931, a new Holy House encased in a small pilgrimage church was dedicated, and the statue translated there with great solemnity. In 1938 that church was enlarged to form the Anglican Shrine.
After nearly four hundred years, the 20th century saw the restoration of pilgrimage to Walsingham as a regular feature of Christian life in England and beyond.
Our part in the story comes with our statue here. After Fr Wise retired in 1940 the school here had a problem, money was short and there was the war. So, Fr Morellee, the priest, asked the sisters of the Community of the Holy Cross to come here from Broken Hill and teach in the school. This they did for a few years until the Mother, Monica, died, and the order disbanded. However, they brought with them their beautiful statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, and left it here for us when they departed.
We are not sure when this stature was carved, but we think it may be the earliest, or even the first, one outside England. It certainly is one of the most beautiful. But since it has been here, people have asked the prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham, and Mary has joined those prayers to her son for healings and help. For the hearts of the ordinary people of God are crying out for the sort of faith and personal warmth they can find by associating themselves with the prayers of the holy Mother of Jesus.
Indeed, at this time in the history of our Church in Australia we desperately need those prayers, and we must ask her to join her prayers to ours for our Church. We need the touch of the divine as we are bogged down in the dullness and banality of life and the lack of vision that comes from a people who no longer see God. Places like Walsingham and the countless other shrines of Mary help us to reach beyond the evil blandness of life to the joy and hope of a God who does unexpected things, who sends his Son to us, who asks a girl called Mary to be the bearer of the promise of love and forgiveness.
Pray at this shrine for families that are being torn apart by domestic violence in these days when courtesy is not known, and children grow up in a social jungle where the law of tooth and claw seems to be able to prevail.
Pray at this shrine that Jesus may be presented to us, to our own hearts, and to the hearts of those who do not yet believe.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Conflict – 10 September 2017.
There is an old saying that the first fight happened in the church when Jesus chose the second disciple. When we read the New Testament, we are certainly made aware that the apostles didn’t always get on well together, and Paul spent a lot of time ticking off the churches he founded.
Conflict is part of human nature, sadly. Peace is a precious gift that all too often flees. In the last few weeks we have been watching again the ramping up of tensions in Korea. The battle on the ground there finished in 1953, well before quite a few of us were born. Yet no peace treaty was every signed and we have been living with an armistice ever since, and it still has the potential of escalating into full conflict again.
In Matthew’s text for today’s Gospel, Our Lord addresses personal conflict by urging people to resolve their differences directly first, and then, if necessary, to bring others into the discussion. We aren’t given details or examples. Our Lord’s mission is to create committed communities of believers that will witness God’s love to this world.
There are some basic premises at work here: One is that Our Lord teaches that God loves all God’s children and that our need to be right is not always helpful. This reminds us that all of us, have a Higher Power who is not taking sides.
Churches are communities of people. They usually function well. Some have very strong central authorities, and others work better with leadership by consensus. And all of them, from time to time, have conflicts that arise between members. Sometimes, there is no solution sadly. As a priest, here, I feel that shame deeply.
Sometimes conflict in the Church is not on a local level. This week our General Synod has been meeting in Queensland. I always like how conferences in winter meet in Queensland not Tasmania. It has been looking into a number of conflicts such as how we ignored the conflict about child abuse for far too long. We all realise that now to our sorrow.
There were some boring things at General Synod. There were also some very good things. The General Synod passed an apology on how it had treated gay and transgender people. It looked at a way of developing a conversation about allowing same sex marriage – far too late for any relevance to the public debate. Yet the next motion then went on to condemn the Scottish Church for allowing same sex marriage and that the Scottish Church has put itself out of communion with us as a result as its actions are “contrary to the doctrine of Christ.” At least it was watered down to the “teaching of Christ” in one part and did not declare that they had put themselves out of communion with us. However, it’s very hard to have a conversation about same sex marriage in the Church when you already have declared your opinion about the doctrine of Christ in the next motion.
Our Lord today is emphasising the continual need for meeting and talking. We need to be able to listen to those who are different to us, and not jump into condemnation. It’s the sign of health in a parish and diocese.
There are countless ways to evaluate the health of a parish or diocese, and some are better than others. Every place has its own style of life that is built into its identity and history, and it can be difficult to change if it is unhealthy.
The passage from Matthew for this Sunday concludes with a well-known teaching: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” This is always heard as a reassurance that God desires us to be in community, whether small or large. Being alone is not necessarily bad, but it can lead to isolation and arrogance. The Divine Trinity is a God of relationships, a dynamic force that empowers our spirituality and grounds us in faith. The Trinity models what our relationships are to be: fully in unity and desiring of diversity.
Depression in parishes or dioceses often comes from our tendency to allow only like-minded or similar types of people into the community of believers. Things become static and nothing challenges us to grow and become more like what God desires the Church to be. The healing of depression comes when new relationships are formed. Vitality comes when new people enter the scene, new ideas are introduced, and we listen and explore together. The same can be said for workplaces or families.
Our Lord does not envision the Church to be a place of contention and conflict. But we know stories of his disciples and from the Book of Acts that the early Church experienced a lot of tension and disagreement, even among its apostolic leaders. However, as the church expanded into the Greco-Roman civilization in the West, it had to take on and embrace different norms and customs, as it does even today. The challenge for the Church will always be to find and implement new ways of proclaiming the Good News. When we are engaged in that enterprise, when we are more concerned about serving others than survival, there will be less conflict and more delight in the people that God sends to us and sends us to. The health of any parish rests on its sense of mission, and its willingness to be flexible and welcoming, as Christ welcomes each of us.
Images of God – Dedication Sunday, 3 September 2017
Let’s go back in history today to the 8th C of Our Lord. In China the great Tang Dynasty was at its zenith, a period of expansion and prosperity that had succeeded the Han Dynasty. In Europe things were different. The Roman Empire had fractured in the 5th C, with the Eastern part becoming rejuvenated and is known to us as the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, also known as Byzantium, but the Western part had collapsed into what is sometimes, and unfairly, called the Dark Ages. England was about to enter a period of chaos with the arrival of the Vikings at the end of the century, burning and looting and destroying the small kingdoms of England.
But in Byzantium, another controversy had arisen. The Empire had been under pressure with the rise of the new Arab Caliphate, based at Damascus, preaching their religion of Mohammad. The Empire was under attack: Egypt had fallen a century before and now all Africa along the Mediterranean was in Muslim hands. Then the Arabs moved north threatening the borders of what we now call Turkey.
So why did this happen? The Empire was Christian, and believed they ruled with God’s approval. Had God withdrawn his favour? What had they done to offend God?
Now, one of the things that separated Christians from Muslims, and Jews, was how Christians dealt with the second commandment, the prohibition against images. Christians in the East had developed a devotional life around icons, pictures of Our Lord and the saints. In contrast Muslims and Jews had no such images. Was God angry with the Empire because they used images, and gave victory to the Muslims because they didn’t? The Emperors moved against the use of icons, destroying many and prohibiting their use. The controversy about this went on for about a century before it was finally decided that Christians could use images: Our Lord had taken on human form and therefore used our human image himself, so we could use such images as a way of worship and veneration.
Now, all this seems a long, long time ago. But it deals with an issue that is still at the heart of our worship – how do we use things in honour of God? After all, God is so remote in one sense, that any depiction is really just a pale shadow of the reality. If we are an imageless religion, we are like the Muslims, who in their strict form have no images at all in their mosques and worship towards a niche facing Mecca. Mosques are open clear spaces where everything can be seen, in contrast to the darker Orthodox churches with their hidden spaces. In Mecca there is the stone, enclosed by a cube, covered with black, a symbol of God. No other image exists – even the house of Mohammed was pulled down by the extremists a century ago in case it became a distraction. It is this distrust of images that still drives the IS extremists to destroy any other image.
Now consider this: we still live in the pull between those who believe God can have no representation and those who believe we can use representations. There are good Christians who believe that the best way to worship God is without any distraction that can lead the mind away, for that is idolatry and a breach of the 2nd Commandment. Then there are those who rejoice in the use of our skills in the glory of God: hands up, St George’s Goodwood.
In one sense in comes down to how we regard ourselves. Now we can see ourselves as separated from God. But we can also see God reaching out to us to bridge that gap, most notably in the person of Jesus, who comes to us in human form. Jesus sanctifies our humanity, and takes our humanity into his divinity. Therefore, what ever we do for the glory of God is accepted by God as a sign of our love.
But there is more than just this: it is also the realisation that God uses our symbols and works to show God’s own glory. This is the point of God coming to us in human form: God reaches us through our humanity and our human works. God wants us to explore the symbols that we use to see something of the depth of God. Symbols are important because God uses them. That is why, for example, Matthew tells in his Gospel that God sent dreams to tell messages: dreams can point to divine revelation. We do not need to stand naked and alone before God: God clothes us with symbols for our delight.
In a Church then we deliberately use these symbols to touch God. Through sacraments we find God, but also in the beauty of our worship, the music, the liturgy and our prayers, we proclaim a God who is holy and loving. But there is another point about how we use the image of our Church – it is God wanting us to be involved. God gives us all this creativity and skills and asks us to use them for the glory of God. Every voice, every skill is here for God. We can be terrified before God: we can dare make no image worthy of that divine image. But then we forget that God has sanctified our efforts by becoming one of us and invites us to use these skills.
A church is therefore one of those strange meeting places of God and us. It is a place more than anywhere else we try our best for God to show our love. Every little bit helps. We build in beauty and we also dust and keep clean to show our love. Our voices sing of his glory and our hands polish the pews. In all and everything we show our love for God. Here we see in a place well loved some of that love that God has for us as well: of music and beauty and good order. Our church also reflects the mystery of God: it is not an open barn where all is seen in one glance, it needs to be explored and lived in, like our understanding of God.
After a century of conflict the iconoclastic controversy in the empire resolved itself and images were embraced as a means of seeing God. The Orthodox still celebrate this day in Lent every year with a Sunday called the triumph of Orthodoxy. It is still a choice for us: do we embrace our skill sand lives as a means of glorifying God or do we regard them as suspect and unworthy of God? Do we treat our churches as a convenient place to come together or of a place that reflect the presence of God, full of beauty and life?
Our Faith inside the Boat – 2 August, 2017.
Sometimes today’s gospel lesson is interpreted along the lines of, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat.” The interpretation goes like this: Peter had the right idea when he got out of the boat, quite literally stepping out in faith. Peter, like all of us, is invited to step out into the storms of life where Our Lord calls us to take courage, leave the safety of the boat, and come to him. If we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus firmly on him, we will not sink, despite the wind and the waves. If only Peter had not become distracted. When he kept his eyes on Jesus, he could walk on water. When he got anxious and side-tracked Peter, whose name means “rock,” went down like a stone. Jesus wants us to be bold in our faith. Jesus wants us to walk on water, dream big, take risks in our lives. If we can just be faithful enough, we will succeed.
Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the Church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. It has become another phrase along the lines of “thinking outside the box.”
No doubt Our Lord wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission. No doubt Jesus wants us to have the gift of faith. He’s the one who reminded his followers, “With God, all things are possible.” He’s the one who told some fishermen to leave everything to follow him. He’s the one who tells us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for his sake, that if we have faith even the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that mountain, get up and move, and it would. When the resurrected Jesus stepped out of the tomb that first Easter morning, he really outdid himself in thinking “outside of the box,” didn’t he? No doubt, Jesus wants us to take risks, be bold, do outrageous things for the gospel, step out in faith and follow.
But is that really what Our Lord really wants us to hear in this particular gospel lesson? One thing that’s true about Matthew’s gospel is it’s interested in community. It’s really interested in figuring out what it means to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together. Matthew really isn’t interested in great heroes of the faith, singular individuals who go above and beyond. If, like Peter, they go swinging their legs out over the side of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples behind trying to row and manage in the storm, we’re likely to see such an individual take a few steps and then plunge beneath the waves, surely to drown, if not for the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus who always, always, reaches out to save, even when we get confused and fearful and full of doubt.
So, I wonder if when Our Lord says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” the meaning isn’t, “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith,” but is, instead, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”
The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the Church, and no wonder. Even the word “nave” which is this section of the church, comes from the Latin word for ship, “navis.” The roof of the nave sometimes, like here, looks like an upside-down wooden boat. When wind and water and sailors cooperate, sailing is grand. Sometimes, though, life on the ship can get routine. The same chores need doing every day. The wind doesn’t always do what the sailors want. A large crew means a variety of people, which means a variety of ideas and personalities. The ship’s mission can be jeopardized by those who are tempted to set sail alone, or mutiny, or jump overboard. But any problems on the ship have more to do with the sailors than the Captain – with a capital C, as in “Christ” – because the Captain has provided for the ship. The Captain gives Word and Sacraments, the community of sailors, and even gave them their seaworthy ship to guide them into the ultimate safe harbour. Christians have long treasured this image of the Church as a ship: beautiful, but vulnerable; seaworthy, but subject to storm and winds and waves.
In today’s gospel it says, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.” Jesus would meet up with them again. First, he was going to take some time by himself to pray.
But a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives, and Our Lord doesn’t wait for them to get to the other side. He comes to them, walking across the water, the very picture of God that they knew from their Scriptures. Jesus would not leave his disciples alone in the boat to perish in the storm, but comes to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Then there’s Peter. And while we usually just skip right to impetuous, enthusiastic Peter, faithfully thinking outside the box, jumping overboard and pulling off an amazing stunt, if even just for a moment, what Peter actually does first is say something. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you …”
There are only a couple of other times in the whole gospel when someone addresses Jesus with “if,” and they’re not pretty. The devil does it three times to Jesus when he tempts him in the desert, “If you are the Son of God,” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, people mock him, calling out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And here, Peter, good old Peter, joins his voice, “If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid. Of course, you’re afraid in the midst of a storm. But why did you doubt? Did you really think I wouldn’t come? Did you really think I wouldn’t save you? Did you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever, ever leave you alone?
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus and Peter get into the boat. The wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”
Matthew’s whole gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples. The resurrected Christ himself appears where he said he would meet them. And Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. Even then. Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. They worshiped. But some doubted.
That’s not where the story ends, though. Even still, in the midst of their worship, even to those who doubt, Jesus gives a command and a promise. The command is this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then he gives to them a promise, all of them: “And remember,” says Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Storms will blow up in all of our lives. But Our Lord has not left us alone. The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease is still with us. He still has work for us to do. And yes, it will mean stepping out in faith, but not getting out of the boat, not going it alone, not leaving the community of disciples. The purpose of a ship is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.
There are plenty of adventures ahead, and Jesus will bid us follow. And he will say to us, in the midst of any storm, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Based on a sermon by Chris Sikkema.
The Gamble of being a Disciple – OS17A, 30 July, 2017.
Today we tackle one of those pesky parables of Jesus. Parables can be hard at times, probably because we listen to them with dull ears, having heard them time and time again. Also, they use images that are not common to us, things like mustard seeds, treasures in fields, pearls and fishing are not things we do every day.
But think of it to those who first heard theses stores, the congregation of Matthew all those centuries ago, living in a city close to the needs of the world. They would have been the farmers, fishermen and merchants that easily made sense of what they heard. I wonder if Jesus came today he would tell us parables of the vacuum cleaner, or mobile phone, using those day to day objects that shape our life.
Firstly, a little about the structure of these parables. They follow the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, which present Jesus giving a new way of living, like Moses coming down the mountain to give the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. Then we are presented with seven parables, a number of perfection in Scripture, like the seven days of creation.
Now let’s look at the images he uses. A mustard seed comes first: here it’s a type of weed, no one would sow it willingly yet this is what Jesus says here. Yet out of this crazy act comes this tree where birds will nest, which by the way are not there as beauty objects but as good bush food. Then we have the leaven being hid in the flour, turning the flour into good bread. Then we have the treasure being found in a field: it’s like winning Lotto you want to own that field, like you would want to own that winning ticket. Then the wonderful pearl that the merchant wants to own. Note for both of these two they have to see everything they own to buy the field and the pearl: the kingdom of heaven means giving up everything to take the chance. Then finally we have those fish: everything is sorted out at the end and the good separated from the bad.
Now there are a few things that the parables are teaching here. One is that the weirdness of life. Bad seed like mustard seed can bring forth good things like nice food in birds. Weird things like leaven, whose operation was not understood, can make flour turn into great bread. Our Lord is saying we don’t understand how life works. But that’s not to worry us. God will work out the good and the bad at the end of time; just let it be and it will work out. The second parable in this series, which we miss this week, tackles that as well, with the command to let the good what grow with the weeds until the harvest at the end of time when the angels will do the sorting. We are not to go around trying to paint things evil and things good and making our decisions. God knows what is good and bad, we are to live our own lives and not go around judging others.
The next thing is that the Kingdom of Heaven involves a risk. The farmer has to sell everything he has to buy the field and the merchant his goods to buy the pearl. Learning to follow Jesus involves a risk, we have to learn to give up what we have at times to take on God’s work. That’s not easy. What if the farmer went back to the field where he hid the treasure and it was gone? What if the merchant went back to buy the pearl and it was already sold? There is risk and the need to hurry to take the chance of getting the great treasure or pearl.
Let’s also think about what the risk means for us. There is always a risk in being a Christian. Today it means that people just thinking you are mad or supporting an institution that is involved with prejudice and worse. How many people think you are mad or worse because you come here on Sunday morning? Or even worse, it you are found out that you come here for a mass on a day that is not a Sunday. Reputation is a risk for us.
Finally, there is a little sting at the end of these parables. We have the passage that the scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. It can also read that every scribe who has become a disciple of the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a master of a household who throws out his old and new treasure. Now remember that Matthew was probably one of the rabbi class, one of those Scribes, who often are coupled with the Pharisees as the opponents of Jesus. Perhaps here Matthew is having a sly dig at people like himself, who had learnt the old wisdom of the Scriptures and the new wisdom of the age, who now had to risk everything to learn the new way of following Jesus. Matthew continually tells us that Jesus came not to abolish the Scripture but to fulfil it, so that the new way of following Jesus is not just the old way of the Law, or just a new way, but a completion. Perhaps Matthew is trying to teach his church that to follow Jesus is to take a risk always, a preparedness to let go of things we have to accept new ways. Perhaps it is also a challenge to learn to live with what we see as evil in our midst and let God work it out at the end of time. That must have been especially hard for those who understood certain people to be unclean under the old laws, but then every age has those we think of as unsuitable. Finally I think Matthew was trying to tell his people that we had to let go of all treasure, old and new, to take in the new wealth of following Jesus – yes, it is a risk, but only by doing this can we truly be disciple.
What’s in a Name – Sermon for the Ordination of Richard Burr to the Priesthood,
29 July, 2017
I’m rather fond of saints. I would also like to say that I rather hope that also, saints are rather fond of me, too. Saints are great inspirations for ministry. When I started my ministry at my present parish of St George’s Goodwood, I had several saints’ days around the time for my induction. There was St Catherine of Siena, mystic and teacher who died in 1380: she famously told the pope that it was time he had to move back to Rome. The good archbishop decided against that day, perhaps because he didn’t need any more people telling him what to do. Then a few days later there was the feast of St Athanasius: a good Egyptian saint who did in 373. He famously was outlawed by the Emperor several times because of his unbending orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the Archbishop didn’t like that date either. What he plumped for was the feast day of Julian of Norwich, mystic, teacher, who died around 1417: a lovely woman whose most famous words were “and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It’s a mantra I have found very useful in parish life and meetings.
But today we have Martha, Mary and Lazarus, a good inspiration for any priest, I think. Let’s think of Martha: the one who famously asks Jesus to reprove her sister for not helping her in the kitchen. Dear Father, you will endlessly be a Martha in your ministry. The gifts of the Holy Spirit that you have received will be stretched not only by tenderly anointing the dying, giving forgiveness and healing through absolution, but also by washing the dishes in the hall after morning tea and sweeping the hall after a parish function when everyone else has gone home. Martha was also a great cook. Our good Lord’s ministry is so marked by eating; in some parts of the Gospel he seems to do nothing else but go from one meal to another until he becomes the bread of heaven himself: and your own ministry will be marked by learning to given hospitality, to serve the outcast and unwanted. Dishes have to be done Father, and you will need to say a few prayers to Martha.
Then Mary, lovely Mary, who wanted to sit at our Lord’s feet and listen. A priest is a person who listens, a person who listens to God. So much of ministry will seems to be about forms and duties, annual returns and emails, mission statements and rosters, sermons and pew sheets. But Our Good Lord never asked us about paperwork, but he does ask us to listen. At times, you need to just sit and listen to Our Lord. Sometimes that will mean remembering to read that book that should be read so you will stay fresh of ideas, sometimes it will mean sitting in a kitchen with an old parishioner and listening to her life and bad breath. Sometimes it will even mean listening to your bishop telling you things you need to hear. We are called to be listeners, Father. This will not always be understood. Your churchwardens may want you to run from place to place with a mobile phone that never stops. Make space in your life Father for time to listen. Make space in your life for prayer in church. Ask the prayers of Mary to give you the strength to sit and listen.
Then we have Lazarus. This feast is sometimes commemorated as only Marth and Mary, but Lazarus has gradually crept in. I’m mightily pleased he is here today for you Father. We need to remember Lazarus. Lazarus is sometimes talked about as a sign of the resurrection of Christ, but we when we do we can forget that Lazarus was not resurrected. Lazarus did not rise to a life eternal. Lazarus was called from the dead to live and die once more. We even learn in John that the authorities planned to put Lazarus to death because people were believing in Our Lord because of what had happened to Lazarus. He was brought back to life to become a creature of notoriety, a man wanted by the authorities so they could put him to death again. Father, the bad news is that you will die many times in ministry. There will be situations that despite all the best will in the world things do not work out. There will be times when it is your own silly fault. At times your body may just give up and you cannot go on. But today you are being made a priest: it’s called an indelible spiritual character, which is like a stain you can’t get out in the wash. What happens today marks you as a priest forever. No matter what happens, you will be always a priest: and you will learn that means dying many times and learning to listen again to the words of Our Lord to Lazarus: come out! Come out from the disappointment, come out from the disaster, come out of the tomb. When Lazarus came out, he found that Our Lord and his family were there for him. Ministry is like that: we die at times, but if we believe we will hear the voice of Our Lord calling us to come out of the tomb we have entered. Ministry surely is the triumph of hope over experience, that Our Lord will take us to a new life. We never know where that ministry will call us: and we can be continually surprised where that ministry will lead us. Lazarus is a good saint to have Father, for those hard moments in ministry, because Our Lord will never give up on us, and each time we die we will have the chance to hear the voice of Our Good Lord calling us again. Pray to Lazarus as well Father. Then Father, we can come out and go on to new life, new ministry, new hope. Lazarus is the sign of hope in our ministry; we can live again.
Finally, Father, there is another name to remember for this feast day. This is your day, Father, it is Richard’s day. For the rest of your life you will have this day to remember and give thanks to God. You cannot, nor can anyone else, undo this day. As sure as the saints are entered into the heavenly host you too are entered into the priesthood. You will grow and question, you will slave like Martha and listen like Mary, you will die like Lazarus and rise again: but in all of these things you will be called to live the Gospel life. In your retreat, Father, I asked you to remember one word: focus. Focus is the Latin for the hearth, the fire of the home. A fire in an ancient house was the centre, the place of cooking and warmth that could never be allowed to go out. When people travelled they took a little piece of the fire with them: when they discovered a frozen stone age man in the passes of the Italian alps a number of years ago they discovered he was also carrying, wrapped carefully in leaves, a little ember from the last hearth, fire, ready for the next time he stopped. Your focus now is the fire of God given to you in this special way through being ordained a priest. You will take this focus with you through your ministry and question in all things: how am I here a priest of God in this place where I am? How am I Martha; how am I Mary; how am I Lazarus; but most importantly how am I Richard the priest of the church of God?
Father, you are now to be made a priest. You are called to occupy that strange hinterland between the secular and sacred, the temporal and the eternal, acting as an interpreter and a mediator, embodying and signifying faith, hope and love. You will be both distant and immediate, remote yet close. You will be called to close the gap between God and the world. You will be called to be a man of the world and a citizen of heaven. You are called to be a focus for your people, a fire of God, a Martha, a Mary, a Lazarus and most importantly, Richard, the priest of God.
In the interests of being a guest preacher and making sure I don’t give too short a sermon, Father, I give you this poem by Reginald Askew for your ministry:
Give us a man of God
Father, to pray for us,
Longed for, and insignificant,
But excellent in mercy,
And ordain him
Someone who loves the mystery of the faith
Whose conversation seems
Credibly to come from heaven
A poor man, a hungry man
Whose hospitality is endless.
Give us a preaching man,
Father, who doesn’t know how to fake,
A free man, on holiday
In this parish, a still man
Good as an ikon
With a heart full of treasure;
Someone to talk to
When death comes here,
A fellow countryman of birth and death
And the dynasty of our family,
Whose eye has missed nothing.
Give us a man without sanctimony
Father, to handle what is eternal,
A private citizen among miracles
Not his, modest
Capable of silence
Someone who reminds us now and then
Of your own description
And another kingdom
By the righteousness of his judgement
Or some grace in what’s done
In laying down his life even
For his friends.
Wheat and Weeds Growing Together – Pentecost 7 23 July, 2017
We are all aware that there is evil in the world. The nightly news makes that all too clear. Despite unparalleled prosperity of the last century there is still poverty, civil war and terror in the world. Even in our own suburbs people live in fear, of being cheated, or attacked.
There is very little calm as a result. Even the Church has evil within, our own sins that have tarnished our public image, or just the besetting sin of bureaucracy turning the kingdom of God into reporting agency.
So why does it happen? What do we do about evil?
The gospel today is about sin in the world. The wheat is sown, yet as it grows weeds are seen in the crop. When the servants ask the master how the weeds came, they are told that an enemy has been and thrown in the weeds.
The response to the servants is that they want to go out and collect them immediately. The problem is that the weeds are hard to tell from the wheat. So the Master says to leave it there till the harvest.
Note that the servants are not aware of how the weeds arrived. It’s the same in the world – we don’t know how the evil often arrives – we are suddenly aware of the evil in the midst, but by that time it is too late. The origin of evil is one of the mysteries of the world and of faith. Living as humans just doesn’t give us the perspective to understand the origin of evil. There is no way to understand the way evil starts. How can fully explain the origins of so much of the evil in the world today? We are left with the bland statement that it is the work of an enemy. Evil at the end cannot be explained away. All we can do is acknowledge that it is there.
The problem is to tell the difference between good and evil. In the wheat field the Master tells it is hard to distinguish wheat and weeds. So the Master says to leave both till harvest.
The servants had wanted to purge the field, but the damage they would have done would have damaged the crop. Good wheat would have been destroyed along with the weeds – good would have suffered with evil.
That’s so often the result in the world – the problem is that evil is often not clear. It’s hard to work out at times what is evil until its fruit is clear, let alone work out who is evil. The when we tackle evil we have a tendency to paint people as evil, rather than actions. We demonise people and then we react by treating the people as evil, rather than the cause. I am saddened by how people are maligning Cardinal Pell, as though he were already guilty. Yes, the system has its faults, but no matter what one thinks of the Cardinal, and I am not a fan of his, he deserves a presumption of innocence. People are demonising him.
The end result of the parable is that the Master tells people to wait, to look after the field and wait till the harvest when the weeds will be separated. It is not an easy answer. It tells us that ultimately, the separation of evil from good must be left to God.
So what to we do when we are confronted with evil? All we can do is to be clear that it is evil: to state what we believe; to distinguish between wheat and weeds. The servants watched the field and saw the weeds, in the same way all we can do is to acknowledge a weed when we see it: to look at the evil, not at the person.
Part of the reason for this is that evil has a way of being very hard to distinguish at times. We can point to evil; then it disappears until next time. In the end all we can do is to see the evil, point to it, but leave judgment to God. Never become fixated that something is evil – be prepared to let things change and good come through.
An example of this can be seen in Jesus’s ministry. Consider the disciples who would have been there while Jesus gave this parable. Judas was there as well. Yet Jesus never excludes Judas, for he too had a part to play in the story of the cross. If Jesus were in no rush to weed out Judas, then who are we to be in a rush to exclude what we see as evil. There is no such thing as a totally evil person – as long as they live they is the hope of good coming through. That is why judgment of what is good and evil belongs to God, and to the time of judgment when God will decide.
Furthermore, in ourselves we always have to recognise the presence of our own evil that lurks in us waiting for a moment to strike forth. When we see evil in others, then remember: that but for the grace of God there we could be.
Let us not be in a haste to paint people as evil. Judgment belongs to God, all we can do is to state when we believe we see evil, and try and help to allow change. That’s not an easy answer, but evil does not have an easy solution. Just trust God to work things out.
The Right Yoke – Pentecost 5, 9 July 2017
When you look at the Gospel passage today there are two themes in it that I would like you to ponder: the children in the market place and the yoke.
I’ll deal quickly with the children in the market place, because it’s a fascinating passage. The word used there, paidon, is more than little children, it can mean young adults, and what may be happening there is that they are young actors in the market, doing dramas. That’s why they are playing flutes, dancing and wailing. The significance for us is that is how some scholars think the first gospel, Mark, arose, from a market drama. It’s only a theory, but that’s how the sayings of Jesus may have first been put together as a drama piece for performance. Our Lord is making the point about people: they see life passing by, in this case the witness of John the Baptist, but they don’t enter into it, but treat it like a drama. It’s always a problem: we see the spectacle of Jesus’s life and death and life shown here week after week, but we become spectators, complacent; and don’t enter into it as life.
Anyway, then we come to the next passage I want to deal with, the line “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It’s a great passage that is used a lot of times. But it does capture such a bigger picture that I am going to break one of my rules and concentrate on it.
But let’s zero onto two words: “yoke” and “easy.” If you remember anything from this sermon I want you to remember these two.
Yoke is number one. Now when the old Jewish scholars talked about the Law of Moses they often called it the yoke. It’s a good word, because the old Law had a world of rules to show people how to live their lives. It gave a certainty in working out what was right and what was wrong, the ability to do things that God would want you to do. Now yokes are those wooden harnesses they like to put on oxen that allow a few bullocks to work together and pull the plough. Remember that in ancient times and in fact well into the Middle Ages most ploughing was done by oxen, not horses. When you harness oxen together you unite their strength and allow them to work as a team. So it is with the Law. By everyone following the Law we live in a society that follows God. The thing that Our Lord did not like about the Law was that it had become too full of laws that were too restrictive and finicky, the Law was no longer filled with love and freedom.
So Our Lord wants people to take on his yoke, which will give rest for our souls. Our Lord is teaching us that there are new ways to live that free us from becoming scrupulous about rules and regulations, but instead are to all about love. We are to learn from him, for Our Lord is gentle and humble in heart and we can find rest for our souls. Jesus does not want us all up tight trying desperately to be good: Jesus wants us to love and be gentle, and find rest in our lives.
Okay, that the first word of “yoke” done. Now let’s look at the second word, “easy.”
Now the first thing to learn about the word “easy” is what it is not. He does not mean that is easy like when we say a test was easy, or the road was easy. That’s not it at all. The word here is “chrestos” which means sort of good or kind. This is where you need to think like a farmer. Yokes are easy not because they are light or something like that, but because they fit well. Have you ever tried to wear a dress or shoe that is too tight? Well, that’s what’s going on here. If a yoke is made badly it’s not easy because it doesn’t fit properly, it likes trying to wear a bathing costume a size too small. A yoke is easy because it fits properly.
Now this is where we need to think what does a well-fitting yoke means. It means a yoke that is designed for us. Our Lord is telling us to look at what we are burdened down with in life. Are we having a badly fitted life, with responsibilities which we are not coping with because we are not meant to carry them? Or are we doing the opposite, not taking on responsibilities that we should? For the proper yoke is easy and the burden is light: God has made us and knows the burdens we are meant to have in life and never, never gives us more than we can bear. It’s our own silly selves that take on the wrong jobs or avoid the responsibilities that God wants us to have.
Now being a Christian is not easy, easy in the sense we normally use it. That’s why I hate the wrong use of this passage. Being a Christian can be very difficult at times. Why – because if you really believe that God has made each and every person in God’s own image you have to weep over the folly of people and the world that distort and ignore the precious gifts of souls. You have to weep over the torments that people put themselves and others through. But the only things that makes sense of it all is the belief that Our Lord has taken on this world with all it’s pain and knows and shares that pain and still loves each and every person.
The yoke is easy and the burden is light because Jesus makes it uniquely for each one of us. The only way we can work out what that yoke is for each of us is to learn to pray and listen to God. That’s why there is a little pun going on here with the word “easy.” Remember: the word in the Greek is “chrestos.” That’s a whole lot similar to “Christos,” Christ. It’s hard to listen to the difference in Greek and it’s meant to be hard: chrestos, Christos, chrestos, Christos – it’s meant to sound the same and that’s why a rather obscure word is used, in fact it’s only used a few times in the whole Gospels. The only way we find what is well fitting, easy, is Christ.
Then there is another little thought to think about: Jesus was a carpenter. One of the jobs a carpenter would have had to do for those farmers so long, long ago was to make yokes, and a carpenter could only do that by knowing the ox and shaping and carving that yoke till it fitted properly. Well, think then of the Son of God, Jesus doing that in Galilee so many centuries ago. You know what: Jesus is still doing that now for our yokes now so that they are easy and the burdens are light.
Welcoming – Pentecost 4, 2 July 2017
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”
Just so we get this straight: whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes your friend or neighbour or family member or work colleague or politician or mother-in-law or next-door neighbour or chatty seat companion on a bus or the grocery checker or barber or the kid who hit your new car with a ball…and so on and so forth…welcomes God? We could have fun with this! But would there ever be an end to such a list of those who are welcome? If there is an end to such a list of who is welcome, what does this mean? And if not, well- what does that mean?
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. And whoever welcomes any one of us welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.
The message we hear in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew was important enough to Jesus and to the early church that some variation on this theme shows up in each gospel, and often more than once. Also in Matthew’s gospel from chapter 18 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” and from chapter 25 “The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, …you did it to me.’” Mark includes similar verses. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares that “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” The Jesus in John’s gospel, in true poetic style, declares in chapter 13 “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
There are numerous other examples and variations throughout the New Testament record. The bottom line emphasis seems to be on inclusion, reciprocity, welcome and doing for others – all those things it takes to build up community, to include the stranger as neighbour. If we can believe the record of today’s lesson and so many other passages, Jesus and the early disciples and later apostles put a high value on welcoming and proclaiming the presence of God thereby.
Pause for a moment and think about what we’ve been hearing about the dangers of Moslems and to the present day about division, exclusion, keeping people separated, kicking people out.
There may be legitimate and compelling reasons to consider the economic impact or national safety issues in such things, but if an inhospitable, exclusive attitude goes along with these ideas, then they are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus who talked so very much about welcome, inclusion, hospitality.
Hospitality is a primary ethic of the cultures and peoples of the Middle East even now. There is joy in welcoming, there is the belief that it is desired of God, the welcoming of strangers who are strangers no longer, but beloved friends, believing that in welcoming people into one’s home they are earning their crown in heaven, doing as God would have them do in welcoming the living God among us.
Such an understanding of hospitality, of the obligation of welcome, dates back to well before the time of Jesus. It was a matter of survival and community health which translated into the religious understanding of what God wants of us. Where and how do we experience such welcome today?
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”
Is this what we hear? Or do we hear, instead, words of separation, words of breaking relationship, words of opposition and repudiation?
So many of the ugly attitudes playing out on the world stage and in the evening news have spilled over into our popular culture, showing up in a variety of television shows with comments about the increase in bullying not only among children in our schools, but flowing out into our neighbourhoods, showing up in stepped-up immigration strictures, among other things.
Where is our witness to welcoming others, and thereby welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him?
Last Thursday was the celebration of the feast of Peter and Paul. They did not agree on many things, didn’t get along well at times, and went their separate ways in the proclamation of the Gospel. Peter insisted that the early believers must follow Jewish ways, must be circumcised, must hold to the Law. Paul’s vision led him to distant lands proclaiming faith in a risen Christ and urging believers to conform their lives to that faith. What they had in common, though, was the conviction that God had visited humanity in Jesus, and that Jesus had brought something new and remarkable to humankind demonstrated in a way to live, a way to relate and a way to witness to God’s love, and they both understood that the welcome of God was an invitation to a place in God’s kingdom.
This week we also saw the results of the last census of last year. We are becoming a less religious society. We are also becoming more diverse as people come here not just from the UK, but India and China. Let us also ask ourselves what Jesus meant in telling us over and over again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).
We may believe differently about the details of faith, as Peter and Paul certainly did and as Christians are wont to do. We may understand what being Australian is differently; we have always held a variety of opinions on things.
But for us as Christian Australians or Australian Christians, the question of the day growing out of this gospel text asks: What does it mean to welcome, and how do we do that? What does it look like in our churches, in our neighbourhoods, in our national policies, in our very attitudes? For we are Christians first, as citizens of God’s kingdom, living that faith in a context of privilege and challenge.
Jesus didn’t say that we have to agree on everything, but he pretty clearly told us to be welcoming. Like Peter and Paul, we won’t all agree on everything. And as Australians, we have to grapple with what it means to live in a country that is less Anglo-centric and less Christian.
Christian people are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God. Can we at least agree on that?
As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, when we welcome strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware.
Based partly on a sermon by The Rev’d Machrina Blasdell of Park University, USA.
Sermon on the 170th Anniversary of the Consecration of Bishop Short of Adelaide
25 June, 2017
Archdeacon Emeritus Michael Whiting
Our gospel today is part of the second discourse in S. Matthew of Our Lord to his disciples concerning their mission in and to the world; a mission not just to the people of Israel but in time to the Gentiles as well… and the guiding thought of that mission? Have no fear…are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one will fall to the ground apart from your Father… so do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
If God cares for seemingly insignificant animals, Our Lord is saying, how much more so will God care for human beings. For all of us called to take our faith to others there is often a justifiable reticence and sometimes fear. This is so until we recall that at every moment we are accompanied by Our Lord. As in verse 39 of today’s gospel – Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. We are to trust, for our actions in mission can only ever be for the glory of God, and for no other purpose.
This gospel reading is most apt at this time. Next Thursday, 29 June, is the Feast of St Peter and for this Diocese a day of some significance. It will be 170 years, on that day, since the inauguration of the Diocese of Adelaide in Westminster Abbey. On the 29 June 1847 Augustus Short was ordained and consecrated as our first bishop. The creation of the new Diocese was only possible because a young heiress, Angela Burdett Coutts, donated the necessary funds.
A few months earlier, in January of 1847, on a bleak winter Saturday morning, while at breakfast, Short had received the invitation to a colonial episcopate frm Archbishop Howley of Canterbury. Short often referred to Providence in his life — the grace of God opening his path ahead – and no occasion was more unexpected, nor more intriguing, than this invitation. Providence was calling him, (as he later described in 1882); and following the principle I had previously acted on in life, viz., to follow the path opened to me rather than “choose my way”, he consented because trust in God was fundamental to his faith and its practice – I wrote to the Archbishop to accept the see of Adelaide — I prayed that I might do right & tho’ sorely tried with evil & backsliding I prevailed and have had no misgivings since — on the contrary have felt holy courage and firmness of faith in Christ & trust in God’s Providence such as I never felt before.
During the 1830s and 1840s there was much revival and reform in the United Church of England and Ireland; not least, in the rapidly changing ecclesiastical landscape, was the astonishing expansion of the British Empire. As settlers from the United Kingdom spread across the globe, the issue of church organisation and continuity became paramount. Bishop Blomfield of London led the cause for new bishops for the colonies and on that day in 1847, four new bishops were consecrated together: Augustus Short for Adelaide, Charles Perry for Melbourne, William Tyrell for Newcastle and Robert Gray for Cape Town.
This was a momentous occasion for the English Church and its colonial life, and the scene was described with some enthusiasm in the Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal (‘Consecration of Colonial Bishops’ 1847). The Abbey had been selected for this service because it was ‘decided that the Consecration should be public, and in the face of the Church’. Sixteen hundred tickets were issued thus ensuring as grand an ordination service not seen in London for generations.
It is impossible to convey the interest and the heart-stirring felt by those who witnessed it. Our strong feeling was that it was a day worth having lived to see: — to have lived to see four additional Bishops sent out to lands far off, partly by the piety of one member of the Church [a reference to Miss Burdett Coutts] — partly by the self-denial of a Prelate, himself for some years labouring in a distant colony (a reference to Bishop Broughton of Sydney who offered half his stipend for new bishoprics) — partly by the devotion and aid of the members of the Church — this was much to be thankful for. But to see these Bishops set apart for their high office in the face of sixteen hundred persons — to witness the devout earnestness and reverent attention of that great congregation, and to partake with nearly eight hundred persons of the Holy Communion — was a comfort, a privilege, and a blessing, which, as we have said, could be fully appreciated only by those who were present.
Bishop Blomfield preached and he addressed the mission of the four men as they went forth:
Who are the men whom our Church sends out, to tend and to feed the distant corners of her fold? Are they not those, who are in the actual enjoyment of competency and comfort here, with the prospect, it may be, of a reasonable share of those rewards which the Church has to offer to the learning and piety and diligence of her ministers? And what is there to tempt them to enter the work to which they are called — that of the most arduous and responsible of all offices — invested with no dignity but that which is purely spiritual; clothed with no prerogatives but those which carry with them a preeminence of labour; endowed with no measure of this world’s goods but that which may barely suffice for a maintenance?
Augustus Short was forty-five. He and Millicent had five children, and had experienced the deaths of two others. He was a foremost scholar from Christ Church Oxford yet knew lonely a ittle of colonial South Australia. Just over two months later, on 1 September 1847, the family embarked for the sea voyage to their new world. Short’s own diary conveys a final word: 1 Sept … embarked at ½ past one. It was a serious & solemn moment but I was not moved to tears of parting. The ladies had tears in their eyes but the greatness of the cause would not let me cry. I felt even cheerful. The world was all before me & Providence my guide. On board the novelty of the situation drew my thoughts from separation — so passed the first evening at Spithead.
Bishop Short was small of stature but became a giant of South Australian history, and the Anglican Church in Australia. He laboured for an amazing thirty-four years as our bishop only retiring in his eightieth year when ill-health was taking its inevitable toll.
Short fulfilled the instructions of Our Lord in today’s gospel – he showed little fear, he held to a deep and abiding trust in God, and he did in so many ways lose his life for Our Lord’s sake, then found it anew in a mission that endures for us today – we see it in schools, churches and parishes, in a cathedral and a theological college, and in farsighted financial and organisational arrangements. He could easily, after a reasonable time, have returned to England and the comforts of the established Church. Instead he chose to lose his life `for the sake of Our Lord’s mission in South Australia, and in the process, he was to find it anew.
Augustus Short often spoke of Providence in his life. He grew to believe that his destiny revolved around obedience to God, trust in His Providence, and assurance of His love.
So now, with obedience, trust and love before the One God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most justly due, all glory, majesty, authority and power, now and forever. Amen.
Seeing the Reality – Corpus Christi 18 June 2017
Things change a lot over time as we grow older. Every day when we look in the mirror and think back a few years, or decades, we are very much aware that we don’t look, or move, like we used to.
I’m also dealing with a mother at this time who is slowly suffering from dementia, and learning to live with the changes that involves. Many of you have had similar things with parents, husbands or wives, as we deal with loving a person who is no longer the same. The person changes and starts to lose memories of who I am, but we still recognise and love the person as we see past the dementia to the person we love.
Here we face the classical definition of what makes a being. We think of a person in two ways, who they are and what they look like, the substance or essence and the appearance. Both can be subject to change. Anno Domino, the course of time, will change our looks. Sometimes accidents also do, rather violently. Most of us may have suddenly been faced with a person after many years and don’t recognise the person at all. It’s only after a while, perhaps, we remember and recognise the person from who they are in their substance, their character.
Then there are the times when their substance changes: maybe through a stroke that alters the personality in some way, or through drugs. We sometimes say that they are not the person they were – yes, they look the same but we have recognised a change in whom they are as a being, in the substance. It’s often a more disturbing change, it worries us more, for we tend to count this as more integral to whom we think that person is.
Now let’s think about dealing with Our Lord. Jesus came to us and lived as one of us. He had an appearance and a character, a personality, a substance, which his friends recognised as their friend. At times they found this appearance changing, such as the transfiguration when he became whiter than everything else. Then after he was killed he appeared again, but at times they found his appearance very disturbing; they did not recognise him at first, or he appeared with wounds that had been part of his torture but did not seem to cause him pain any more. Sometime they wondered if he was a ghost, someone without a true body, so he invited them to touch him and he ate in the presence to prove he was a real body.
Yet after all this he told them he had to leave them so they could receive the Holy Spirit. Now that Spirit, by definition, was not going to be a person, a substance that they would see and touch. But he also promised them that they could eat his body and drink his blood and be part of him: physical impossibilities and also revolting. Yet he seemed to place immense importance on this; that they had to be part of his body in this way. Then, when he knew his life was coming to an end, on the very night he was to be arrested and the day before he would be killed, he took bread and wine and said that this was going to be his body and his blood and they we were to take this and do it in his memory. To make the point even clearer, on the road to Emmaus, he kept his friends from recognising him, of recognising his appearance or substance, until he took bread and broke it. Then they recognised him in the breaking of the bread (not at the breaking, but in it itself) and his physical form disappeared. The substance of how his friends recognised him was now in the bread and wine.
Now this truth on how to see Our Lord and friend Jesus is immensely important. We are challenged to learn to see him not by appearances but by the deeper reality of substance. That’s why we have this feast today, which we call Corpus Christi, the Latin for Body of Christ. It’s a time when we think on how we see our Lord Jesus. We are being asked to see the world in a different way, not to judge it and understand it just by its appearance: that’s too shallow. After all, it’s not how we deal with our friends. We really deal with people by recognising their substance. So God calls us to understand that this is the truer reality and makes this permanent sign in our midst by being presence in the substance of the wine and bread. God saying to us; don’t be taken in by appearances, don’t judge a book by its cover, all those truisms we hear. Because the reality is much deeper and stronger when we see the real presence in the substance, the spiritual reality beyond what time and matter dresses it up in our world.
Now, once we start to understand that appearances are just a passing fashion we then start to understand that we are to look more deeply into all life. We start to see Jesus in other ways, in Scripture we listen to, in the beauty of the world, in the silence of prayer, in the joy and tempo of music; all these things point to God in our midst. We also start to seek Jesus in those around us, in our families and love, in our friends, and even in the poor and misfit who teach us the tolerance we need so we understand the tolerance that God deals with us.. So many lessons await us when we start to loo beyond what things look like in appearance. But this calls for a deeper way of living, and that’s why we need our sacrament here so we become, by taking the bread and wine, eating his body and blood, part of his true body beyond any appearance.
On earth there can be nothing more precious to us than this bread and wine because it is the body and blood of Christ. That’s why we worship with all the beauty we can muster. That’s why we offer this as many times as we can, not only on a Sunday but every day. It’s the only way we can escape the delusions of appearances in the world and find the true heaven behind. That’s what we celebrate today.
Now I don’t know if my mother’s dementia will reach the stage when she no longer recognises me, but it may. But I pray that we will meet again in heaven when we will not recognise each other by what we look like as flesh and blood but as the full divine creatures God wants us to be. But until that day the only way I can learn to see the reality of what lies behind this appearance is to take this bread and sine and find in it the true presence of the body and blood of my God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The Trinity – 11 June 2017
Theology is sometimes thought to be hard, and sometimes it is. But let’s start by saying that theology is about understanding who we are at our deepest level, as children of God. But in the end theology is about living it. Consider parenting: parenting may be hard to explain but you never get a certificate to practice it, you live it out in families.
What you need to know about the Trinity is really straightforward. Revelation has shown God to be three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They instead of diving into how that all works out, go instead to think about how it holds together. The Trinity is best approached by how it moves, rather than breaking it down into parts. It’s like a car: what you see it how it moves, and for most of us we never care how it works until it doesn’t. For what holds the Trinity together is the love of each for each other: God the Father loving the Son and Spirit and so on. It’s that loving dynamic that gives movement to God and vitality. Too often we think of God as something static, some strange set of thrones sitting endlessly in heaven. But God’s all about movement, the movement of love, sometimes called the dance of life, that makes God explosive and active in pouring out love. It’s love which is the key: the love of God outpouring so much that it creates the universe and life to share that love. Evil is the two opposites: chaos or rigid uniformity, both of which we need to fear; God is instead a dynamic order, endless different and creative, that comes from the movement of the three in one.
Another way to think of the Trinity is by a dance: not one of those dances where everyone bobs up and down by oneself, but one of those folk dances where everyone holds hands and goes round and round. The dance is made by everyone together, not by individuals. Or another way from St Bonaventure, a mediaeval Franciscan, is that of the water wheel. The wheel, carrying three buckets, fills and empties, fills and empties unto eternity. There is the constant emptying of the God-self and the constant filling up, world without end, Amen.
Now that we have done the hard bit, let’s look at the consequences: how does the Trinity affect who I am and how I pray? This is far more immediate. There is a great gap between how we look at our spirituality and how we often approach the rest of the concrete world. If you are going to do the shopping you get organised: you have a list and transport. If you are going to train or go to the gym, you have goals: better health and less weight perhaps. But in our day-to-day life we set goals and tests to achieve what we want to do.
When we come to spirituality, however, we are often aimless. Many people never have a disciplined life of prayer, a regular time to pray, because they can’t see the purpose of it. The reason why people don’t pray is because they don’t see the need. But instead, let’s think what is the purpose of having a spiritual life and prayer. Now we can give many reasons: we can say the purpose of prayer is to make us more like the person God wants us to be. That’s a mouthful. But let’s just think about that in terms of the Trinity and god. If the core of action in God is love, then the purpose of prayer is to make us more loving.
Now this is a good test: for often we get caught in other patterns of life: to be wealthier, to achieve more, to look better. But, if the real test of who we are, is the test of the Trinity, then we have to ask ourselves: how am I better showing God’s love? How does love pour out from me I the manner that love pours out from the Trinity?
Then we get a reason for spending time in prayer every day. We start by loving God, the basis of any prayer, to just think about God. Prayer always has to start with God. Then how have we failed that test of God, how have we failed in love? That makes confession obvious. How have we not loved God and our neighbours. Then we can start to bring people to God in love: those on our hearts; our families; our friends in need; our departed ones. Prayer is always about love, that core of the Trinity. But prayer is also an active thing, which is what God is about.
But another point about spirituality: it’s not about us. The nature of God being Trinity is that God is three persons in love. In the same way, prayer is all about building our love for others, for building that relationship of love that mirrors that of the Trinity. Then you start to see how prayer transforms itself into action: it’s not good enough just to sit there and pray, eventually we have to take our love out and do something with it. This means service, helping the poor, fighting evil. It’s all about action, which is all about God. That’s why it’s important to think of the Trinity in not the terms of what it is, but what holds it together. It you concentrate on the love of God then you start to have a dynamic way of infusing your spirituality.
So prayer is just the working out the essence of the Trinity: that we are to live more deeply in the love of God and show that love. We show it by seeing how we have fallen short of love, bringing those we love to God, and bringing that love we have to others in action. It’s all about love, which is all about the trinity, which is why we are here today. So we don’t need to worry about how God the Father relates to God the Son and God the Spirit nor the controversies about if the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or just the Father. That’s all the mechanics. It’s like a light globe: you can find out how it works with electrons or you can just turn it on and enjoy its light. Well that’s the secret of the Trinity as well: don’t get bogged down in how it works: just let its love light you up.
Pentecost – 4 June 2017.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, which by its name points to something to do with 50. Well, it is the 50th day of Easter, and it celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit and the foundation of the Church.
However, when we hear the reading from Acts, it is clear that the day is not a new creation, like Christmas, but an already established festival in the Jewish calendar. In the Jewish calendar it the week of weeks, that is, the completion of seven times seven plus one, making of course fifty. It starts with the Passover, when the lamb is offered in remembrance of the passing over of the angel of death, and for us Good Friday, the offering of the spotless lamb Jesus. The Passover was also the offering of the first barley at the start of the harvest, when the barley is beaten and made into the first bread. Then for Pentecost the Jews celebrate two things again: the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Sinai and the completion of the barley harvest. So the third layer of meaning, that we celebrate, the giving of the Holy Spirit, is built upon the foundations of the giving of the Law and the conclusion of the barley harvest.
However, to make things even more complex, Luke in the Acts of the Apostles clearly builds upon a number of stories from the Book of Genesis, and in the passage today one underlying reference is to the story of the Tower of Babel. Now in that story the peoples of the earth come together to make with one language to make a name for themselves, in contrast to the name of God, who then confuses their language and to stop them making all things possible. Two of the stories in Genesis have the theme of God stopping humans becoming gods – the first, the expulsion from Eden least they eat the fruit of the tree of life, and here, at the Tower of Babel, least they make their own name and stop at nothing. The story of the Tower of Babel is about humanity wanting to become gods, to have their own name and be in rivalry to God.
However, Luke, the master storyteller, is also touching upon another theme from Genesis. When the world was created the spirit hovered over the face of the deep, and when man and woman were created from the dust of the earth God breathed into them the breath of life. Breath and wind are the same words in the Greek. So the coming of the spirit refers back again to the story of creation in Genesis.
But Luke does not stop there, the whole passage is full of references. Mary is present, as a symbol of the Ark of the covenant, for as David leapt before the Ark in the Old Testament so did John the Baptist leap before her in the womb of Elizabeth – the word is the same in Greek. The House is filled with fire, and the Temple is usually referred to the house. The tongues of fire are divided upon them, an odd word in Greek but refers to a prophecy of Zechariah. It goes on and on, and shows that a fulfilment of prophecy has been accomplished. The Spirit that comes is the Advocate, who reveals the old prophecies as a truth that points to the new way.
So with all these references echoing we come to the story of the first Christian Pentecost today. Those group of frightened disciples, the eleven and others, including Mary, in a locked room are filled with the Spirit, and go out with courage and conviction and change the world. Creation breaks forth again with a new breath, the new law is given to them in the Spirit and Babel is undone – a common understanding of tongues reverses the fragmentation of that tower of mythic memory.
When I reflect upon Pentecost I think we need to do a bit of linguistics. Pentecost was a time, an event, in History. But we, as Christians, need to think of Pentecost as a verb. We need to be pentecosted. That’s what happened in that locked room so long ago.
Like the disciples, we the church can sometimes crave the safety of locked doors, locked hearts, and locked minds. Behind locked doors, we can find comfort in the familiar, but if we truly seek to follow Jesus, we know that no locked doors will keep him from appearing in our midst and compelling us out in the world. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these,” are words of promise if we are open the moving of the Spirit in our lives, in our church, in our world: if we are pentecosted we can change and say, “Come Holy Spirit.”
Being pentecosted is dangerous because it means that we must be open and vulnerable, willing to be challenged and changed so that we can seek and find Jesus in the ones we serve. “Come Holy Spirit” means that we must become open to the transforming power of God in our lives. It means that we will find ourselves standing with those on the margins, on the edges, on the outs.
Our simple prayer, “Come Holy Spirit,” is the first step towards saying “yes” to God’s desire in our life, to being pentecosted.
But do we really want to be pentcosted? Jesus, after his Baptism, found himself driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. The wilderness, where things happen, where we are forced to face ourselves laid bare. Do we really want to be filled with that Spirit? The Holy Spirit makes things happen, compels us out into the world to find Jesus present in our sisters and brothers. She opens our eyes to more clearly see Jesus in those we would rather keep at arm’s length, the ones we are more comfortable serving from a distance, from behind the security of locked doors and the safety of a comfortable life.
Now I don’t know how God is calling you, how God wants each of you to be pentecosted. But I do know this: God never gives up on any person, and is continually calling us and moving us from safe places to God’s places. The continual calls of prayer and forgiveness are hard lessons we will be called to listen to as we are pentecosted. We can refuse and walk away. God always gives us the choice. Or we can listen.