The Lord of Miracles 2 August, 2020
For the past several Sundays, our Gospel readings have been focused on Our Lord’s parables as recorded by St Matthew. First, there was the parable of the sower, then the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and last week, a whole panoply of parables: the mustard seed, the yeast, the pearl. Our Lord used these parables to teach his followers about his vision of the kingdom of God. He begins each parable by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like,” and then proceeds to spin a short, simple tale, filled with memorable characters and striking action.
At least, these tales seem short and simple on the surface; but they hold hidden depths of meaning. That’s the way metaphors work: they reveal hidden truths by extending what we know; a woman baking bread, for example; into something we don’t know yet. They expand our understanding by using the known, to show us the unknown.
Our Lord was a master of this style, and parables make up approximately a third of his teaching in the New Testament. Teaching by parables is as powerful today as it was in the first century. We still use metaphors and similes on a daily basis to explain the world, to enliven our speech, and to help us grow in learning from what we know into what we don’t know.
But in today’s Gospel, we turn from parable to miracle, with St Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. Miracles, for better or worse, are much less convincing to the modern mind than parables are. But miracles happen around us still in different ways. They are extraordinary and unexpected actions, so people may be startled out of lethargy into worship. A dead man rose again; people marvelled. By contrast, numerous babies are born every day, and no one marvels. If only we would reflect upon life more carefully, we would come to see that it is a greater miracle for a child to be given existence who before did not exist, than for a man to come back to life who already existed. People hold cheap what they see every day of their lives, but suddenly, confronted by extraordinary events, they are dumbfounded, though these events are truly no more wonderful than the others. Holding the universe together, for example, is a greater miracle than feeding five thousand people with loaves of bread, but no one marvels at it. People marvel at the feeding of the five thousand not because this miracle is greater, but because it is out of the ordinary. Who is even now providing nourishment for whole world if not the God who creates a field of wheat from a few seeds?
Miracle stories were common in the ancient world, within Christianity and beyond. Telling and retelling stories of Our Lord’s miracles was an important way the early followers remembered and honoured him, and how they tried to share his good news with others. And the story we heard today — the story of Our lord feeding the multitudes — was perhaps the most important miracle of all.
It’s the only miracle included in all of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark like the story so much, in fact, that they each tell it twice, with slight variations: in one version Jesus feeds five thousand people, and in the other, four thousand. That means this story is told six times in the Gospels: and there are only four Gospels. So, it was an important memory for the early Church.
Each version presents the same dilemma: crowds have followed Our Lord out to a deserted place to hear him teach. When evening comes, it becomes clear that people haven’t come prepared. There’s not enough food — the disciples only have a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish — and the people are hungry. The disciples don’t know what to do. In some versions, as in Matthew today, they suggest that Our Lord should send the people away, to fend for themselves in the nearby villages. In some versions — again, as in Matthew today — Our Lord turns to the disciples and tells them: “You give them something to eat.”
“You give them something to eat” is the heart of this miracle. Our Lord is saying those words to us today, just as clearly as he said them to his disciples on the deserted shores of the far side of the Sea of Galilee all those centuries ago. There is a hungry world out there, and it is our responsibility, our duty, to feed them. This hunger is both spiritual and physical. And although it may look like there’s not enough bread to go around, the miracle we recounted today teaches us that, in fact, if we open our eyes, we will see that there is enough – that God has already provided enough bread to feed every last person on earth. It just depends on how you divide it up.
The miracle we heard today may seem simple on the surface: Our Lord is able to magically multiply bread and fish. But push a little deeper, and there are a few other things. One thing is the numerology: what’s the point of five loaves and two fishes. Well, the ancient world would immediately see that as a cosmic number, seven, made up of the two lights, the sun and the moon, and the five known planets at that time. That’s where we get the seven days of the week, named after the lights and planets. The miracle from the five and two point to a cosmic harmony that shows Our Lord being God of the heavens. The second point is that it’s really a parable about how we see the world. Is there enough to go around, or not? What does it mean to share this world God has given us? What kind of people are we going to be — those who share or those who hoard?
Both Matthew and Mark drive home this point by providing a prelude to the miracle story. In both Gospels, the feeding of the five thousand is directly preceded by the story of Herod beheading John the Baptist. The connection between these two stories might not be immediately clear, but here is how Mark and Matthew tell it: John has been in prison for some time for accusing Herod of adultery with Herodias, his brother’s wife. Herod throws a feast for his birthday, inviting his rich and powerful friends. Herodias’ daughter dances before Herod at the feast, which pleases him, and he tells her she can have whatever she wants in return. She asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter — and Herod obliges her.
Herod’s feast is exclusive, a private gala for the rich and the powerful, and leads to death. Our Lord’s feast is inclusive, a community picnic for the poor and the oppressed, and leads to life. Which party would you like to attend?
As often as we take the Eucharist, we re-enact Our Lord’s picnic on the lakeshore. Just like on that day, Our Lord takes our bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it with all who are hungry. And he is calling us to do the same with our lives – take the blessings God has given, break them open, and share them with others. Our Lord is calling us today: Come to the party where no one goes hungry, where there is bread and joy and life for all. Amen.
The Pearl of Great Price – 26 July, 2020
On Friday last, in Turkey, in Istanbul, the museum of Hagia Sophia reverted to use as a mosque.
This is one of those moments when something has changed.
Istanbul was once, Byzantium, the capital of the last part of the Roman Empire. It was built by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, who modestly called the new city Constantinople, in 330, and as befitted a Christian city, it had a great cathedral, as well as a great palace. The palace was a wonder as well, there was even a special room for the Empress to give birth, lined with purple stone, hence the phrase to be born into the purple. Constantinople became known as Byzantium, and it finally was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, who made it their new capital.
One of the first things they did when they conquered the city was to turn the cathedral, called Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom, into a mosque.
This cathedral is a marvel. I know many of you have seen it – it has a huge dome, rising from a great square, pieced by a row of windows before the dome, a marvel of architecture. It was built in the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the 7th C and it is a wonder. Its shape was immensely influential as the centre of Orthodox Christianity. Western churches follow the older Roman basilica shape of a long church with squared ends, but this marvellous building is centred on a great dome. Whenever you see an Orthodox church with a dome, you are seeing the ghost of Hagia Sophia.
So the great Cathedral became a mosque for centuries, and Byzantium became Istanbul, a wonderful Muslim city, and many new mosques were built to rival Hagia Sophia, including the great Blue Mosque, immediately adjacent.
At the end of the World War I the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, and a new movement seized power in Turkey, led by a man who would be known as Atatürk. He was a famous soldier as well, who had defeated the Allied campaign at Gallipoli. He wanted to end the dominance of religion, especially in Istanbul where the rulers, titled Caliphs, has a spiritual power as well, and one of his actions was to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. As a museum it would no longer be seen as a sign of conquest of Muslim over Christian.
So it remained then. The great mosaics, from the time of the Emperors, were uncovered and restored. It was one of the great attractions of Istanbul.
But now it has reverted to being a mosque. There is no shortage of mosques in the city. It is a deliberate statement by the current government that Turkey is no longer a secular government. It is restatement of Turkey’s Ottoman past. The action is particularly offensive to Orthodox Christians, such as in Russia, the Ukraine and Greece, who know this cathedral as the great lost church.
Our Lord today talks of pearls of great price. Well, this Cathedral is a pearl of great price. Our Lord says in the Gospel today, that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. It’s a great risk putting so much value into one thing. But because it has a great price, its significance becomes stronger, hence the use of Hagia Sophia as a mosque again.
But Our Lord was not thinking of great cathedrals when he gave us this parable. In the gospel today the parable of the pearl of great price falls with two others. The themes of the three parables are interesting. The first two are centred on a treasure and a precious pearl: man’s great dream is to find something precious that gives meaning to life. There is a search or even a non-search, an unexpected encounter with something that has a very great value. There is, therefore, a finding. However, the emphasis of the parables is on another point: on the decision. Indeed, both those who seek – the merchant seeks and finds – and those who do not seek – the peasant is not looking for the treasure, he is only working the field and finds it – are called to make a decision regarding what they have found. And this decision is dictated by joy. Joy is the strength of decision.
This joy makes it worthwhile to deprive oneself of everything in order to own them. In these parables we find well presented the two extremes to bring together and within which to make our most important decisions because they make our life truly evangelical: grace and responsibility. Grace lies in the fact that the treasure and the precious pearl exist, and we are given the possibility to find them so that their search is not in vain. Responsibility lies in the fact that the “received” gift must be kept and shared.
Once he has found the pearl, the man full of joy goes away, sells all that he has and buys the pearl. Joy is the first treasure that the treasure gives. God seduces us because God speaks the language of joy that makes us move, haste, and decide: joy that lasts is a sign that we are walking correctly and on the right track.
We advance in life not because of short spurs of will, but because of a passion for a discovery of treasures, for where our treasure is, so there our heart will be. We advance because we fall in love and for the joy that it brings. Those who live are the ones who advance towards what they love or towards whom they love: Jesus Christ.
The discovery of the pearl makes us lucky merchants. We should not be too proud of that because, ultimately, it is a gift from God. A gift should be not a source of pride, but of gratitude and responsibility. We must give thanks to the One who made us “stumble” into a treasure, indeed in many treasures along many roads and in many days of our lives. If we look at our lives one thing is clear: we have tried extremely hard, we have looked in many books and among many people, but we have not found anything better. Nothing is found which is better than the Gospel and the Church. To sell everything for Christ is the most profitable deal of our life because that act did make it intense, vibrant, passionate, joyful, at peace, and, I hope, at least a little useful to someone else. We understand that giving to Christ is equal to flourish. To choose Christ is not a mere duty, it is to choose a treasure that is the fullness of human life, peace and strength, surprise, charm, and resurrection. God is not a requirement; God is the Pearl.
But even more than that: we are Our Lord’s pearl. We are the treasure and the pearl that he buys back his life given totally to us. He is a merchant and farmer who searches in the field of our life: for each of us, for all our brothers and sisters. He renews our hearts, and the heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh, a good heart, a caring heart. It is our field that matures treasures in ourselves and for others. It is it that which makes the rose of our world bloom. He is our pearl if we risk it, and we are his, that he has already risked his own death to buy. God loves each and every one of us – so much so that God would send his only Son to walk among us and as one of us. So much so that God did not let us get away with killing his only Son, but returned him to us, so that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, Our Lord himself is in the midst of us, calling us to return to the God from whence we came. We come from love. We return to love. And love is all around. God is love and loves us even more than the merchant who gave everything for the pearl of great value.
Which takes us back to that other pearl, Hagia Sophia. This conversion of the museum into a mosque is a bit of politics for Turkish leaders to shore up their own base. At the same time, it has made the world a less safe place, by making peace between Christians and Muslims even harder. The pearl of great price is not really that cathedral though. The pearl of great price is the peace that passes all understanding. We are charged to find that pearl in the horrors of this world. That is the decision we must make. We are living now in a world under great tension. We are not to be deceived by short term politics and lose sight of that pearl of peace.
Catholic Renewal – 19 July 2020
Well I’ve been your priest here now for 18 years, and I’ve never preached on this subject at both masses. I’ve occasionally done the 8 am owing to bishops or clergy not liking to get up early, but I’ve always missed having my say.
But thanks to covid 19 you don’t get a guest preacher today, you don’t get a parish lunch, you get me.
So here’s my take on being Catholic.
The Anglican church is a unique hybrid in the Western churches. On one side you have the Roman Catholics, and the other side you have the Protestants, whose originals lie in the divisions of the 16th C and perpetuated since. Not all Protestants date from that time: Lutherans and Presbyterians do, but Methodists and Charismatics came later. Hill Song is just the latest in a long, long line. Not all groups have survived: the Shakers, with the celibate, simple lifestyle have gone, and the Quakers are an endangered species, the Anabaptists with their destructive revolution were exterminated by the Lutherans and Catholics together, and there are dozens of others. Some of you may remember the Liberal Catholics who once had a church here in Wayville just up the road, another dying species.
But we Anglicans were caught in the middle of the religious upheavals. In the 16th C we had Henry VIII who had a fight with the pope, then his son Edward VI who was a strong protestant, then his sister Mary who was a strong catholic, and then Elizabeth I who realised that compromise was necessary to give peace to England. It was her genius of compromise, that set up the Anglican Church, as a body that would take in a breath of tradition, from evangelical to catholic. During her time there were puritans who refused to even make the sign of the cross on a child’s forehead in baptism, to Queen Bess herself, who had her chaplain say the new rite in the Book of Common Prayer in Latin in her chapel, wearing the old vestments, that our catholic tradition still uses.
As a result, our church has always had a particular tension and dynamism between catholic and protestant. We rejoice in in our protestant tradition in Scripture and the independence of conscience: Queen Elizabeth said famously that she would not make windows into men’s souls, and was not interested in strict conformity, as long as people did not imperil the state. Then there were those Catholics who treasured a wider tradition, and realised that the Anglican Church was just part of a wider tradition, that included East and West, Orthodox and Roman Catholics.
Now being Catholics means that we recognise that we are part of a wider tradition. It has caused us grief in the last few decades. As the local churches have redefined what ordination and marriage mean, we Catholics have argued that these matters should not be decided by a few local churches, but our part of our wider tradition that means consulting and reaching an agreement beyond a local synod. This has not been easy, but we have also failed when we have not learnt to accept gracefully and honour the decisions of the Body of Christ in this place. We have also fought to make our local churches realise our greater commitment to a wide stream and action that has infused the Body of Christ through the ages, from Our Lord washing the feet of the disciples, to the Benedictine monks setting up the schools of the early middle ages, to the Knights Hospitaller of the Crusades setting up the first medical care, to St Francis of Assisi kissing the lepers, to the simple work of feeding the poor from our food basket at the Hutt Street Centre now. Or the theology of St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages with the insights into the Sacraments, to the Anglican Richard Hooker at the end of the 17th C providing the first great Anglican theology defining us as a via media, a middle way between Roman and Protestant, to the wisdom of two great 20th C Archbishops of Canterbury, Ramsey and Williams. Or the worship of the Church continuing, from the Middle Ages into now, by the preservation of cathedrals and their music and tradition, that worship and prayer are a rich stream of which we are just a small part.
So, what does it mean to be a Catholic today, here at Goodwood? It means we have a commitment to worship that is based on centuries of tradition, deep springs that the saints have hallowed as opening to God. We do not invent worship every Sunday – for us it is like the wheel, once discovered, always there. I feel sorry for my protestant pastor friends, devising a worship plan each week. We have the mass. That’s the plan: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The mass is enough. That is why when the church was closed because of the pandemic we still had the mass here each day, lifting our thoughts and bringing our needs to the throne of heaven which consecrated in the bread and wine the real presence of Christ in the world.
It means that we have a commitment to those around us, the poor and the needy. For some this will be social action, protesting that black lives matter, or walking against abortion, or helping refugees. For others this may just be buying that extra carton of long-life milk to put in the basket at the back of the church to go to some needy soul in our city. In good Queen Bess’s words, we don’t make windows into men’s souls, and how each one of you feel called to act and live out Our Lord’s call to serve is for you to answer.
It means we have a commitment to think. The Church has produced great thinkers and saints who have revealed the nature of God. Once we taught that there were two types of knowledge: revealed and discovered. Revealed was that learnt from God in revelation, as such it was the higher form as only God could reveal that. Then there was discovered knowledge, that which we learnt ourselves through time and experiment. The Church has always had an appetite for knowledge, we have fought and bickered over what we learn, but we still try and learn. Never leave your brains at the door of a church, that’s an insult to the God who created us to think and wonder.
In means in particular that we are rich with the gift of the ages. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, who died in 1600, famously said that the Anglican Church is like a three-legged stool, with one leg of Scripture, one leg of reason and one leg of tradition. He also clearly saw that the Anglican Church was only part of a wider tradition; is was a small letter c church, not The Church. We are the constant reminder to the rest of the wider Anglican church that we should never be insular and think we have the answers: our debates on sexuality and ordination should be part of a wider debate. We also remind them that tradition is not the dead weight of the past, but the voice of the departed in God’s hands, testifying to what was the work on the Spirit in their times that continues to ours.
I wear these robes here each mass because they are part of those reasons. Some clergy throw them on as work clothes without a prayer, but I pray them on, because they mean something. This whole church, with all its shrines and beauty, with its wonderful music testify to a wider tradition and life to invite you into that wisdom. It all means something. This Sunday reminds us that we are Catholics, part of a greater whole, part of the tradition of the saints, with those saints cheering us on and aiding us with their prayers.
The Reckess Sower – 12 July, 2020
The parable of the seed is a well-known parable. It seems clear, about those who are the good ground, others who are the rocky ground, and others who are choked by thorns. After all, we see the example so clearly around us. Those who start the faith journey with good intent, but drift over times, who find their good intent to be a Christian choked by the thorns of other demands. Yet there is another dimension in this parable that is worth looking at.
Think for a moment to whom Our Lord was telling this parable. He is telling it to the crowds by the lakeside. These were not rich people; most would have been small time farmers themselves. Therefore the parable is particularly apt, for it relates immediately to their own experience. As small farmers, they would plough the land, sow it and reap it themselves with their families. They would know their small plots intimately; they would now where the good soil was, and know where the bad soil was. They would know where the rocky ground was, for there they would have to be careful ploughing, so as not to damage the plough.
Note in this parable both the good and the rocky ground is sown. This would ring a bell with his listeners, who being poor, would try and plough all the soil they had, to try and get a crop, to hope that some would grow.
Yet in this parable, ultimately there is something that does not make sense. For the sower in this story does not sow just the good soil, but also soil so rocky that there are patches of rock, as well as patches where there are thorns and even the path. This sower seems like a rank amateur. For a good sower, using precious seed, would only sow where there is an even chance, but what this sower is doing is simply reckless, throwing seed everywhere, good soil, rock, paths and thorns. Seed is going everywhere. No thrifty farmer would sow seed like that. Only farmers who are reckless, or desperate to get a crop, sow seed like that.
Therein lies an important point in this parable. For this parable could be called the parable of the reckless sower. The growing seed is explained as faith, yet we have to also look at how we get the seed of faith. God is the sower of seed in this parable, for only God can give the seed of faith. God sows seed with abandon. God knows of what we can be like, with the potential of being rocky or filled with thorns. Yet for God the chance of seed growing outweighs the poorness of the soil. Therefore he sows seed everywhere in the hope that the seed will somehow grow and flourish. The seed of faith is not given just to those who are likely to respond, but in every conceivable circumstance. God sows seed with recklessness and desperation that the seed may take. If God sows like this, so should we in our attempts to sow the seed of faith. We are not to be disheartened at our efforts to join in this sowing. We are not to be disheartened if we try and plant seeds in difficult family situations, where we see little hope of the seed growing. If God can be a reckless sower, then so can we in our efforts to sow the seed of faith in those around.
The problem always is, how do we sow the seed of Christ? What do we do so that our seed is planted? Well, if God sows seeds with such recklessness, so we by our lives must sow seeds in the same way. Perhaps the best way is just by providing a model. If we can show by our lives, our commitment, our ability to live a life of faith we start the process. Then we have to inspire others so that they can see what they can become. If people can see that faith could alter them, make them different, then the seed is planted, for the model is there. It is not easy, but this is one good method of bringing people to faith. The starting point has to be with ourselves, in living lives that show our Christian commitment. We have to show how we are living this, in our lives of prayer, Bible reading and commitment. If we start by this, we can then start to inspire others to see how their lives can be altered. Once that is done, then the seed is growing.
We need the to sow the divine seed of life in the earthly heart of those around us, increasing the awareness that God lives and wants us to live. God is glorified when people live fully and when there is a positive and rich experience in our life. God is not glorified when people are mortified, when people die having lived stunted lives. God is glorified when we live, live in the glory of God, full of hope and the knowledge of eternal life. “I came that they might have life, “says Our Lord, “and that they might have it more abundantly”. This is why our Redeemer sows life in us and calls us to do the same for our brothers and sisters.
The point, though, to come back to, is to recognise that God sows with abandon, and so we must also sow with abandon. The purpose of the sowing in the parable is to get a good crop, and lives of faith do reap good crops. The lives of saints are those lives that have often inspired others, given models that people can see that they too can be like, and then wish to do so, giving the harvest many times over. What we see as rocky ground for our faith, may be so, but remember that this does not stop God sowing. God does not make commercial decisions about giving his love and the seed of faith, and neither can we.
The Right Yoke: 5 July, 2020
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. Translation is always a tricky thing, and sometimes the translators choose words that blur over some of the subtlety. The same word is used for the story of the Centurion and his “slave” also in Matthew and John uses it in his letters, when he talks to the disciples as children. But here, that’s why the children 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. Our Lord does not want us all up tight trying desperately to be good: . Our Lord 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.
Small Deeds: 28 June, 2020
We have now finished our great feasts such as Trinity and Corpus Christi, and our Gospel readings go back to the Gospel of the year, in this case St Matthew’s. We are now following the tenth chapter where we have been reminded to follow the apostles into the world, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to move into the fields ready for harvest, and to pray for more workers. We have been warned that we will not be treated well on our mission and that it will create division even in our own homes.
Unlike St Luke’s Gospel, St Matthew makes no mention of the actual mission itself; we don’t know if the disciples went out or what their mission experience was. Scholars believe the omission is to highlight Our Lord’s speech as a direct address to the readers. We are included in the audience, left not so much with an historical report of what occurred in the ministry, but with a description of its own ministry. As we end our time in this chapter, we learn that our role in the mission is not only as those who are sent out; but also as those who receive others on the mission. The focus is on welcoming. Our Lord uses the word “welcome” six times in this brief passage of only three verses and points us to the importance of hospitality in furthering the Kingdom of God. We are called to consider more deeply what it means to welcome one another. It is this that has so influenced our monastic life too in the Rule of St Benedict.
On reviewing the list from verses 40-42, we realize that this welcome can be. and ought to be, practiced by us at any time, no matter what circumstances or crises we find ourselves in. We also come to realise that our welcoming does not need to consist of large, heroic acts. Any simple, basic acts of kindness, even glasses of water, we offer as genuine welcome for one another are all that God requires of us. All we need do is look around to see who is in need and try to do something about it.
This theology of hospitality perhaps reaches its fullest Christian expression in the final parable Our Lord tells in St Matthew’s gospel, the one most of us remember as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In that parable, Our Lord reminds us that the way we treat those who are most vulnerable among us is, ultimately, representative of our response toward Jesus. Within the parable, Our Lord refers to these vulnerable ones with whom he identifies as “the least.” So, St Matthew’s gospel, as a whole, reminds us that righteousness goes well beyond our relationship with God. Whether we are deemed righteous has a great deal to do with how hospitable we are toward one another, especially those who are most vulnerable among us.
God people, we are called to promote compassionate welcome that motivates us to trust, to be open, and to share. At the same time, we need to exercise caution to avoid manipulating others and seeking personal gain. We set out with good intentions to form caring relationships, yet when left to our own devices, we sometimes fall short of creating and sustaining the kind of relationships that help us to become the people God has called us to be. Often times, pride, ego, self-doubt, hopelessness, and other sentiments get in the way and keep us from truly connecting with each other, except in self-interested ways. We need God’s grace to help us with living into compassionate welcome with one another and extending genuine hospitality.
Regardless of their origins, the disciples were encouraged to identify themselves with the little ones in the world, who in turn, are called to serve other such little ones. Our efforts to welcome and love the little ones are important because Our Lord sees it and receives it as worship. When we love the little ones, we love Jesus. In welcoming one another into our hearts, Our Lord tells us that we are welcoming him into our hearts: welcoming God into our hearts. It’s the old paradox, that it is in giving that you receive. It is in losing your life that you find it. It is in welcoming others that you experience Our Lord’s welcome.
All the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but strengthen the relationships that are most important to us, so the life of faith is also made up of many small gestures: gestures like making a phone call to ask how a friend or stranger is doing, dropping off groceries for the elderly, reaching out to the lonely and most vulnerable among us. According to Our Lord, there is no small gesture. A cup of cold water is the smallest of gifts, a gift that almost anyone can give. But a cup of cold water is precious to a person who is really thirsty, in some instances, the gift of life itself. Our Lord does not specify the nature of the reward for those who help little ones, but in the kingdom of God, the smallest service brings with it eternal reward for the giver.
There is a lovely story about Bishop Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town in South Africa. He grew up under the apartheid laws, where people were segregated on colour. He recalls=ed one day when he was out walking with his mother when a white man, a priest named Trevor Huddleston, tipped his hat to her — the first time he had ever seen a white man pay this respect to a black woman. The incident made a profound impression on Tutu, teaching him that he need not accept discrimination and that religion could be a powerful tool for advocating racial equality. Small things, but immensely powerful
The smallest of good deeds: a little thing done in love. The cup of cold water is the symbol of that. It doesn’t take much to be hospitable, welcoming, and accepting of other people. A cup of cold water replicated in a host of other simple, small deeds. Our Lord tells us that every single one of those small deeds is important – even eternally significant. It doesn’t take much; every one of us can achieve these things, and every one of us can make that difference. We can find God in those smallest of good deeds.
We have to remember that the roles of those who welcome and those being welcomed are interchangeable. We are all called to be Christ to each other. Our Lord sends us to share the Good News, to alleviate human suffering, to meet real needs, to work miracles of love and healing through acts of kindness, even cups of water. We are called to remember that we, too, are to go as people willing to receive those same acts of kindness. When we welcome one another, we discover the reward that comes from the deep hospitality found in God’s welcome of us.
Whoever gives you even a cup of cold water will most definitely not lose their reward.
Based on a sermon by the Rev’d Marcea Paul of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, Texas.
Waiting in God’s Time: 21 June, 2020
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing make you afraid,
All things are passing,
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is lacking to the one who has God –
God alone is enough.
These words, from a meditation by St Teresa of Avila, are a great summary of today’s readings from Scripture. They all speak to us about the gift of patience. We are taught that patience is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but it can feel like a heavy burden. People often mistake patience for submission in the same way they mistake kindness for weakness – and they walk all over you. But as usual, we must look beyond the surface. God has a greater message in store.
Some truly great people in the history of Christianity have been walked over in this way. Just as one example, St. Teresa herself, is famous as a theologian, reformer of the Carmelite Order, and spiritual adviser to the great medieval Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross. But Teresa’s ministry was not well received in the community that she loved. Her sisters had grown lax in faith and practice, she called for reform, and their response was to throw her out of convents that she herself had established. On one occasion, she was turned out at night in the middle of a rainstorm. Dressed from head to toe in her coarse wool habit, she got back into her donkey cart and was riding along when the wheel of the cart hit a ditch and the cart turned over, dumping Teresa into the mud. She sat there, in mud-soaked wool, looked up to heaven, and said, “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder that you don’t have many.”
But frustrated as she was, Teresa clung to God. One of her meditations on the Disciplines of the Holy Spirit talks about how we must not be deceived by the appearance that evil triumphs over good, for sometimes, as she wrote in her usual pithy style, “God uses the Devil as a sharpening-stone for Christians.” Teresa not only taught this lesson, she lived by it. She did not give up on God, even when her sisters fought her every step of the way. She kept on teaching what she knew to be the truth. Eventually, she won out. Her desire was not to be right, but to be faithful, and God blessed her efforts. Today, the very same saint who was treated so cruelly is known as a Doctor of the Church – an exemplary teacher and thinker – while the nuns who treated her so badly are long dead and unknown to us.
Teresa understood what the prophet Jeremiah was talking about and what Our Lord is teaching in today’s Gospel. It’s a lesson you could put in very simple words: Sometimes, when things go wrong, you just have to sit back – and wait. Don’t be afraid, and as Our Lord says today, we are worth more than many sparrows for God. Waiting in patience when things go wrong, and even family and friends seem against you, is what Teresa did, and it’s at the heart of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord himself. The way of Christ is to take on suffering, and he endured persecution wordlessly and embodied the triumph of God over evil while waiting upon God. This Christian example is not a sitting back that does nothing. It is not passive submission; it is an active waiting that is grounded in ultimate faith in the righteousness of God. Neither is it surrender to the belief that nothing can be done about the wrong; it is understanding that it is God who, in the words of that other great mystic, Julian of Norwich, makes all thing well.
When you do everything that you know to be right and then sit back and wait, you imitate the long-suffering God who has been watching all along, watching patiently and mercifully, waiting for people to do what is right. When you do all that you can and then sit back and wait, you see that when people refuse to understand, God comes forward to do what only God can. And if Scripture teaches us anything, it is that when God acts, all kinds of things happen.
So, yes, we must be patient because the God, we serve, is patient. But the patience of God is a mysterious thing that comes in mysterious ways. We do not know how long it will last. We do not know how the solution will come when God steps in to make things right. The only thing, we know for certain, is that it is very good idea to be on the right side of God when it’s time for God to act. Scripture teaches us that misery is waiting for people of ill will, but miracles happen for those who walk by faith.
Scripture gives us lots of examples to follow. An old, wandering nomad with no home to call his own ends up with children and great-grandchildren and a great land in which to enjoy God’s protection. A parade of persecuted refugees walks to safety on dry land in the middle of a sea. A woman in labour away from home with no place to bear her child is given warmth and shelter in a place of animals. The One who is killed for speaking God’s truth is raised from the dead and goes on to prepare others to witness to God’s triumph. The God of the Scripture is a God of miracles – and they happen in our day, too.
So, we do not strike back in the darkness of our own anger and impatience and arrogance. We do not take the problem into our own hands, tempting God by enforcing our own solutions. Instead, we turn to God with the truth in our hearts. God will protect and shield us from harm, while dealing with the wrong in God’s own way and time. We have to be patient, as we have bene patient over the last few months, waiting for the end of all the restrictions.
As it is written in psalm 30: “weeping comes in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” This is the Good News of the Gospel, this is the faith that carries us through, and this is God’s own response to evil and sin in this world. So, when troubles come, do just what you know is right and pray for protection. Then sit back, wait, and watch God bring deliverance. Teresa’s words are a message of ultimate triumph: “God alone is enough.” So as we come to the Altar of Grace, let us come with spirits lifted and hearts grateful for the patience and providence of our Lord.
The Trinity: 7 June 2020
There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But maths, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.
Holy Mother Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Our Lord Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God. It started when, among other things, when Our Lord walked on water and stilled the waves of the Sea of Galilee. That isn’t normal human behaviour. Then his resurrection showed conclusively that this man was indeed God. Then Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the maths ever since. But to help the maths, tradition gives us the Creeds, from the early Church the Apostles’ and Nicene, and later the Athanasian, to make us remember what it means. The Apostles’ Creed goes way back to the early days of the Church, and is the statement of faith for those being baptised, to show they understand who God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed came later, originating at a Council at Nicaea near modern Istanbul in 325, at the time of the peace of the Church after the great persecutions, to help unite all the different Christians by remembering how God was. It was originally a profession of faith for bishops to make sure they understood. The Athanasian Creed came later for us Westerners in the Middle Ages
But let’s reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Our Lord and the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the sinful woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7:47) The Pharisees were incensed because Our Lord, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Our Lord had, in fact, done what only God could do. Before he died, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Our Lord breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20:22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2:38)
The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin, forgiveness and love. In the Old Testament, in spite of some outbursts of anger, God claimed to be a God who was full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the sinful woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But God’s mercy did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Our Lord and then in the disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.
We have to remember that nothing is more true, life-giving and comforting to us than the presence of the Holy Trinity in our lives. Nothing, in fact, can exist or act or become perfect without the three divine Persons, without God, so that Saint Paul does not hesitate to say that “in him, in fact, we live, we live and we are” (Acts 17:28).
God is near and we think far away. It is in reality and in events and we seek it in dreams and impossible utopias. That’s like getting lost in a maths problem and not coming back to the application.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great African theologian of the 5th C, said that we are led to a God who “Lover (Father), Beloved (Son) and Love (Holy Spirit)”), a God who is love and dialogue, not only because he loves us and converses, but because in himself is a dialogue of love and therefore forgiveness. But this not only renews our understanding of God, but also the truth of ourselves. If the Bible repeats that we must live in love, in dialogue, and in communion, it is because it knows that we are all “images of God”. To meet God, to experience God, to speak of God, to give glory to God, all this means – for a Christian who knows that God is Father, Son, and Spirit – to live in a constant dimension of love and forgiveness. The Trinity is a truly wonderful mystery: revealing God to us, it has revealed who we are.
Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own anger. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s mercy and love. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.
Who Sinned? – Lent IV, Sunday 22 March, 2020
That long reading from St John about the man born blind is always very current. We only need to look at the news to ask the disciples’ question: “Who sinned” and thus caused this to happen? Today, let’s set aside most all of St John’s wonderful theology and his powerful metaphor with spiritual blindness, focusing on this question: How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow totally undeserved suffering to exist in the world that we believe God both created and loves? Why has God allowed this virus loose in our community?
The question about why always occurs; it’s been around since people started thinking about what it means to have only one God who is just, loving, and good. So far, there have been no really satisfying answers; no nice, neat conclusions. But the question persists, it has to: to ask this is part of what it means to be a thinking, engaged person. Things that happen must have a reason, an explanation: they have to make sense, if we’re going to understand them.
Let’s look at the story. Our Lord sees a man blind from his birth. His disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There it is, that hunger for some explanation in the face of tragedy, pain, and suffering, especially that which apparently make no sense, that we can neither understand nor justify. We also ask, why has this person got the virus?
We know about this question. We know that much of our pain, and the pain in the world, is hard to understand. It’s like the fate of the man born blind; it just happens. So, we all ask our own versions of “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” We ask why there is so much pain; why people, especially good people, get sick or get hurt when it isn’t their fault. We ask why so many die so young. We wonder why families so often do not work out the way they should work out, the way everybody wants them to work out. We wonder about this virus. We wonder about a lot of things.
The disciples wanted to understand this tragedy, and with it, other tragedies. Now, if the man had become blind because of his own carelessness, or if someone else had blinded him on purpose, then it would still be a tragedy, but it would make more sense; it would be easier to deal with. But that’s not what happened. Now we would invent conspiracy theories: it was the Chinese who invented the virus, it was the Iranians, it just certainly was not us. So, the disciples ask.
One of the traditional answers in Our Lord’s time had been that tragedies such as this are a case of God visiting the sins of the parents on the children. Both the Books of Numbers (14:18) and Deuteronomy (5:9) say this quite specifically, and it had become a common proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The parents sin; the children suffer. While this isn’t particularly reassuring, it is at least something; it does offer an explanation. It shows how God, who has to be a part of everything, could also be a part of this.
But there were problems with this answer. It just wasn’t right. Many of the great thinkers in Israel’s tradition, notably the prophets Jeremiah (31:29) and Ezekiel (18:2), had flatly and very specifically denied this. They had insisted that God did not skip generations, that God treated people as individuals and not as heirs of someone else’s sin. We don’t inherit our parents’ sins. So, there was a contradiction in the tradition. It was a puzzle.
By and by, some other rather ingenious teachers came up with an interesting alternative. Perhaps, they speculated, a child could sin while it was still in the womb. Being born blind would be punishment for that sin. Again, while this was a really weird explanation, it was at least some sort of answer. There was some justice to be found, some sense to all of it, even if it wasn’t good sense, even if it felt less right than the earlier answer.
So, when the disciples asked Our Lord their question, they were asking Jesus to choose from the two standard, traditional answers to the ancient question of “Why?” They were asking for an answer to the ancient cry for meaning and justice.
It’s important to realize what Our Lord does when he responds to this question. First, he rejects both options. In doing this, Jesus is rejecting all answers that explain the question of “Why?” He doesn’t say, “No, that is not the reason, but this is.” Instead, and this is very different, Our Lord refuses to make sense of this situation by explaining it in terms of either the divine will or human sin.
So, he rejects the explanation that bad things happen because the victims are bad, or because the devil makes them happen, or because people don’t have enough faith, or because they don’t pray correctly, or whatever explanations people had come up with before and have come up with since. The virus is not a punishment for our sins, nor were the bushfires before that, nor 9/11 before that, nor the tsunami before that. Neither Our Lord nor the Christian faith offers any clear, rational, sensible explanation of senseless suffering. Neither Jesus nor the Christian faith gives us answers to the problem in the way we want answers.
Instead, we’re left with the brute fact that we live in a world that really isn’t fair, a world that is marked by ambiguity and inconsistency, a world that is dangerous, a place where strange new viruses break out. We live in a world where tragedy happens for no apparent reason to people who do not deserve it. The point is not, that if we just have enough faith then these questions won’t matter, or we’ll somehow understand without an answer. The questions do matter, but we will never understand to our satisfaction, and it doesn’t do any good to pretend otherwise.
But that’s not all what Our Lord says. He says two more things. They are not answers to the question of “why,” and we make several important mistakes if we treat them like answers. The first occurs when Our Lord says of the man born blind that through him, the works of God can be made manifest. That is, the place to look for God in this tragedy, or in any tragedy, is not at the front-end of it, causing it to happen. God won’t be found there, sitting in heaven, passing out cancer cells, birth defects, earthquakes, strokes, corona virus and blindness like some hideous dealer at a cosmic casino.
Instead, the place to find God is in the middle of the mess, in the very worst parts of it, working there to bring forth something new, not something that fixes the mess, but something that redeems and transforms it. The God who is found there, the God who is active there, is the God who has wounds on his hands and feet and side. Remember the Resurrection story with Thomas – those wounds are still there. It’s the God who knows, who cares, who remembers what suffering is like, the God of the Cross, the God who shares our suffering and pain and who takes it into himself in the vastness of his compassion and love.
Remember, please remember, this is not an explanation of what happens. God didn’t poke the man’s eyes out before he was born, so he would be handy for Our Lord to use as a sermon illustration. That’s not the point.
Instead, the point is that God can be found in very real ways, even in transforming ways, in the very heart of undeserved and inexplicable pain. That’s the first thing Our Lord says.
The second thing Jesus says is this: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” Notice that Jesus says “We.” We must work the works of God. Tragedy, pain, and suffering are also calls to ministry and to service. This may or may not be a call to fix whatever the problem is – often, we simply cannot do that – but it is always a call to reach out and to care. It is always a call to discover, to bring, and to share the presence of God in the heart of the tragedy.
Note that this isn’t an explanation, either. Terrible things don’t happen so that we can have an opportunity to minister and serve. God doesn’t work that way, either. But the call to such ministry and service is part of Our Lord’s response to the reality of tragedy and suffering: not a justification for them.
These two things are what Our Lord says to the question “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They’re also the way Our Lord responds to our cries for explanations.
For us Christians, what makes sense out of the world’s and our suffering is not answers or explanations. Instead, what makes sense out of these is the presence of a God of compassion and love, along with the opportunity to serve. What makes sense out of tragedy is not that we understand it. Instead, it’s that God has taken it upon himself, and that God is present in it and through it, and that God calls us to love him, and to serve him, and to find him, in our own pain and in that of our brothers and sisters.
So this week, and the weeks ahead, as I am forced to abandon this pulpit, be kind to those around you. Keep in your prayers those who have difficult jobs: not just those in the hospitals, but also those poor young people being harassed in the supermarket because they can’t stock things in time. The bus drivers we deal with. Tell the coffee shops you are going to that you are supporting them. Be proactive. It’s not the end of the world. And the good news is, that with all the stocking of toilet paper, we have never have had such clean bottoms as now.
We don’t have explanations we want for why it happens. But God’s not picking on us. That’s the truth. And it promises that we matter, that our service and care are important. It promises that we are never alone, never forsaken. God is indeed with us, even in the very heart of the very worst. Do not be afraid. That’s what we hear from God, time and time again. And that is enough.
Based partly on a sermon by Fr James of Texas.