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.