Second Sunday before Lent

Collect

Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, give us reverence for all creation and respect for every person, that we may mirror your likeness in Jesus Christ our Lord. Post Communion God our creator, by your gift the tree of life was set at the heart of the earthly paradise, and the bread of life at the heart of your Church: may we who have been nourished at your table on earth be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s cross and enjoy the delights of eternity; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

Psalm

1  Blessed are those whose way is pure,
who walk in the law of the Lord.

2  Blessed are those who keep his testimonies
and seek him with their whole heart,

3  Those who do no wickedness,
but walk in his ways.

4  You, O Lord, have charged
that we should diligently keep your commandments.

5  O that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your statutes.

6  Then should I not be put to shame,
because I have regard for all your commandments.

7  I will thank you with an unfeigned heart,
when I have learned your righteous judgements.

8  I will keep your statutes;
O forsake me not utterly.

Psalm 119

Epistle

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Sermon on Second Sunday before Lent

“God-given growth” is the theme we have for today’s worship. It is easy to see how people grow, isn’t it? – The change from infant to adult is just one way to understand it. As christians we grow in many ways, but using Paul’s words, we go from babes fed on milk to adults feeding on solid food, or from fleshly to spiritual. How do we recount our own growing up? How, then, can we tell the story of our lives?

Normally we describe a time line and peg that line on a map of the globe, don’t we? This occurred to me again as I watched an episode of Star Trek as we were waiting for our supper to cook the other night. This is germane because Voyager was in what they called “chaotic space”. In that episode, there were no fixed points. Chakote was the focus for this episode as he was battling with internal and external chaos in that area of space they inhabited for the episode. In this episode, Chakote met up with his deceased grandfather, a holographic boxer and a groundsman of indeterminate, but older, age from the Star Fleet Academy, all amidst a strange landscape of his own dream quest. He was thrown into chaos, much like all of us at many points in our lives. Chakote must make order of this chaotic space and time in which he finds himself – much as each one of us has to make ourselves at home wherever we find ourselves: in other words, we endeavour to dwell in a world of meaning guided by some kind of ultimacy. We have to grow into this bewildering world which may reveal itself to us in such oppressive ways. Sometimes we don’t think this growth is God-given, do we? No, we are in the midst of chaos where there is only immediate danger, people and things stand in the way of what we we think are beyond ephemeral.

Last week, before we sat down to watch that episode of Star Trek, I picked up a small but, for me, significant tome, “The Dynamics of Faith”, in which the theologian discusses the various ways order is established in life, he describes this process through the expressions of faith within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. He outlines the range of the Church’s worship from a formal, sacramental type which morphs very slowly, but surely, into an absolutely free form of worship. The writer used other heuristics to explain how faith expresses itself in so many different ways, but this one is enough for me at the moment to get on with. This range of worship can guide our consideration of how we grow by examining what sort of worship allows us to feel comfortable as it challenges us to grow in faith, by reaching beyond the immediate.

The most formal and sacramental church in my experience is the Eastern Orthodox, which runs from the Russian through the Greek to the Coptic Egyptian. All its worship is focussed on the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is a very different worship when compared to the anglican holy communion. The language is ancient, not a modern vernacular, and no change in the liturgy is ever envisaged. The Russian church uses an ancient Slavic, the Greek church uses koine which is neither the ancient Greek of Homer, Euripides and Plato, nor is it anything like modern Greek, and the Egyptian church uses Coptic, and who among us has heard anything about that language revered as it is?

The rite of the orthodox church is absolutely fixed in a culturally acceptable form depending on where in the world you find yourself. The ancient ceremonies are respected and would be the same as 1,000 years ago and should remain the same 1,000 years from now. Why that is so can be relayed through a story I find revealing – the pagan Tzar sent a delegation to Greece to find out about christianity, and when it came back all they had to say was, “We have seen heaven on earth.” So, how could we expect any change in this formal, structured worship? Really, would we want to change anything of that revelation?

The other extreme is the Quaker Meeting. – When Friends meet, there is no liturgy, there are no symbols on display. In this worship one sits and waits upon God. There is nothing from any authority, everything arises from the movement of the Spirit, the spark of God, within each worshipper. How very different is this meeting house from the orthodox church building! There are no icons, no altar, no priests, no acolytes, no chalice, no paten. The Friends sit in a white room with clear glass in silence. There is no decoration, nor are there any officials.

Between these extremes lie so many other church groups. If we just look at our own communion, we anglicans show a great diversity of organisation and expression of our belief. Some of our churches, like ours here, are what is called “low” where you would not know the difference between those churches and a congregational or a reformed gathering, almost bordering on the experience of the Quaker meeting but we have music, movement and worship leaders of all sorts. Then there are the “high” churches where the priest and his acolytes and choirs obscure the sacred rites from the congregation, much in the same way as the iconostasis hides the sacramental mystery from the orthodox congregation gathered in worship. So within our own anglican communion there is great diversity of religious expression and we have to find our place in that very broad church.

Many have moved from congregation to congregation to find that place where we can feel at home – where no longer are we confused by the chaos of our thrown existence. We have established a world of meaning through the rites and symbols of a common language we share with our neighbours and friends. In other words, the world of each different church can serve us for a time, long or short.

But we do wander in our life journeys, don’t we? Sometime we find ourselves a place here or a time there. They may be very different sorts of spaces, don’t you think? When I was a child, I lived near Boston. When I went to university, I found myself in Chicago, then I came to this country, and here I have lived in big towns and small villages. In every place, I have had to make myself at home. My time line and my journey’s route are part and parcel of the story I tell of my life.

This wandering can be seen to be the same  sort of journey we have in faith. It would seem that sometimes we need the rigid structures of a fixed liturgy, where things all have their proper place and there are no surprises in our worship. At other times we need to have a freedom where nothing can be predicted – every moment is its own, and each is extraordinary. In both extremes we are free to engage with the ultimate concern of our lives. There is nothing to deflect our attention away from God. The emptiness of the Quaker meeting or the symbolic overload of the orthodox liturgy within the vault of heaven on earth both allow each one of us to grasp the ultimate care of our own lives.

We often feel as though we are in chaos where space and time make no sense, and so neither does our experience, but in this chaos we do find order, it grows within and without. The world is given shape and purpose and we discover the epiphany of our God in time and space for ourselves in the immediacy of experience.

My conclusion is that God-given growth allows us to move from the milk of the flesh to the solids of the spiritual. Always, however, this growth throws us into a world not of our own making, but one in which we must find our life’s compass, by which we must reach our ultimate concern. We should never be deflected by immediate problems, but always we grow into God, from a fleshly infancy towards a spiritual maturity. This is the God-given growth we explore through life.

Amen

Candlemass

Collect

Almighty and ever-living God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh: grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Lord Jesus Christ, light of the nations and glory of Israel: make your home among us, and present us pure and holy to your heavenly Father, your God, and our God.

Post Communion

Lord, you fulfilled the hope of Simeon and Anna, who lived to welcome the Messiah: may we, who have received these gifts beyond words, prepare to meet Christ Jesus when he comes to bring us to eternal life; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 3:1-5

Psalm

[

1    The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it,
the compass of the world and all who dwell therein.

2    For he has founded it upon the seas
and set it firm upon the rivers of the deep.

3    ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord,
or who can rise up in his holy place?’

4    ‘Those who have clean hands and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to an idol,
nor sworn an oath to a lie;

5    ‘They shall receive a blessing from the Lord,
a just reward from the God of their salvation.’

6    Such is the company of those who seek him,
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.

]


7    Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

8    ‘Who is the King of glory?’
‘The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord who is mighty in battle.’

9    Lift up your heads, O gates;
be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

10    ‘Who is this King of glory?’
‘The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory.’

Psalm 24

Epistle

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:14-18

Gospel

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

   according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

   and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Luke 2:22-40

Sermon on Candlemass

Here at the end of the Christmass and Epiphany season we encounter the Nunc Dimittis as part of our Gospel reading. Here we are coming to the end of celebrations, just as Simeon admits he is coming to the end of his life. This Song of Simeon is a biblical canticle which is so very familiar to us from Evensong, and, for some of us, also familiar from popular culture. For me it is so poignant as the opening of Smiley’s People when that chorister made his impression on a world-wide television audience. At that time our choirmaster talked about the significance to evensong which these words have for the overall architecture of the worship. So let us recall Simeon’s words:

‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace,

   according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

   and the glory of your people Israel.’

Just what did Simeon see when he gazed down at the child in his arms? How can he relax into a final departure just because he saw a child in a mother’s arms coming for his presentation at the Temple? How could a baby-child be the “salvation” of a nation? Simeon “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” He typifies many in Israel, perhaps even many in this country, who long to rid themselves of any tyranny – foreign or domestic – in order to set up the theocracy envisioned by OT prophets and Hebrew–Jewish history.

In so much of the Levant, the notion of God ruling a nation, either in person like the Pharaohs in Egypt or through agents like the Babylonian satraps, is a given. It is a government of order, because divine rule is imprinted on the world, and kept literally. With this background of expectation of a theocracy, when Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand, we should not find it strange. Last week I spoke about the first words Jesus declared, quoting Matthew “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Here we have confirmation of that expected reality – Jesus is declaring the expectation of a theocracy in Israel. Simeon would have confessed that he held the symbol of that real hope right there in his arms. In the child he has seen the reality of God in the world: in the child, his own and his nation’s salvation is beheld. It is a salvation declared and prepared in the eyes of the world. This is a promise Simeon affirmed in his canticle as Simeon declares that Jesus will be a light to enlighten the whole world, whether Jew or Gentile. For the Jew, however, this child is to be the glory of Israel – the glory of God, which is far beyond mortal ken – but in him the hopes of all people will be fulfilled.

That is my summary of the historical background to this passage. I will now pay homage to the revelation of that choirmaster when he set out the framework of worship in a way that leads ultimately to the words of Simeon. Everything up to that point of evensong introduces the high drama of the glory of God in the world. He said that the singing of the canticle should reflect the drama of the whole of the worship in itself.

From the modest and quiet tones of the opening, as the humble servant of the Lord awaits his death peacefully, volume and expression becomes greater and greater until “glory” is sung. At that point we should be singing fortissimo, to be declaring all the meaning and significance of that vision of light and salvation for the world. Nothing should be held back in our expression of the depth of our faith. We should be like Paul pondering the height, the depth and the breadth of the love of God, and our conviction that nothing can keep us away from that reality. What else but fortissimo could possibly do when we proclaim the rule of God in the world?

This coincides with my understanding of those first words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew which we heard last week. Jesus is asking for the whole of our lives. After all, the two commandments he enjoined on all demand nothing less. How can we love one another except with the whole of our being? How can we love God in any other way?

Simeon has declared this reality of faith as he holds this child in his arms and we proclaim our understanding of it as we sing of the light to the world which enlightens even the Gentiles because it truly is the glory of Israel. Finally, salvation is acknowledged in the temple for all people to grasp for themselves, just as Simeon held that child and declared that his life was complete as he gazed into the eyes of that baby. Now Simeon’s life is fulfilled because God’s promise of salvation is a reality in his arms. He fears nothing and can let go of everything as he holds that child. Don’t we all feel this when we are given a new-born to hold? Isn’t all of life spreading before us in the form of the child in our arms?

At that moment, however, we are caught short. We have to turn to our God, we have to acknowledge that the very kingdom of God is just there, just beyond our grasp in the baby as that child now begins its own quest for salvation, just as we did so long ago.

Here again the historical background and our present reality drive us into a brave new world of theocracy, a government by God of his people. Once we grasp that, once we realise that God is the source and final resting-place of our very being, then we can sing with Simeon about the final glory of God here in the world.– Or can we? The words of Malachai echo at the back of my mind from our first reading –

The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Can we stand with equanimity like Simeon, or even with his joy at the sight of this child? When we see this messenger of the kingdom, the dawning of the glory of God, can we be be hopeful? When I look over the whole of my life to this point, am I proud of it all? That is the question the prophet poses? Can I endure the heat of the light of the sun of righteousness? When those temperatures soar, can I cloak myself in the camouflage of the crowd around me and disappear? Can I endure the light cast on the world when HE appears? That prophet suggests not.

We are at the last moment of existence, when all is summed up for our lives – all the good and all the bad we have done is weighed and considered there in front of us in the child. We hope that we can, like Simeon, depart in peace because we have dedicated ourselves to the kingdom which is declared in the innocence of the child in our arms.

Let the nunc dimittis be the song for our lives. Let our lives declare the enlightenment of the world as the glory of God here on earth in word and deed. I pray that this Candlemass will be our presentation to God, as we celebrate Jesus’ own presentation in the Temple.

Amen

Sunday, Epiphany 3

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit and set all your people free to praise you in Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Almighty Father, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: may your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness

   have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness –

   on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation,

   you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you

   as with joy at the harvest,

   as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden,

   and the bar across their shoulders,

   the rod of their oppressor,

   you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah 9:1-4

Psalm

1    The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?

2    The Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

4    One thing have I asked of the Lord
and that alone I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,

5    To behold the fair beauty of the Lord
and to seek his will in his temple.

6    For in the day of trouble
he shall hide me in his shelter;
in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me
and set me high upon a rock.

7    And now shall he lift up my head
above my enemies round about me;

8    Therefore will I offer in his dwelling an oblation
with great gladness;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

9    Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call;
have mercy upon me and answer me.

Psalm 27

Epistle

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Gospel

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

    ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles –

    the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,

    and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Matthew 4:12-23

Sermon on Sunday, Epiphany 3

Years ago, there was a common cartoon showing a dishevelled man with scraggly beard and long hair holding a sign which read, “The end is nigh”. Occasionally we would even see such a person on our own walks through town, wouldn’t we? What did we think when we heard the call to repentance from this street-corner prophet? This is not too far-fetched an image because I was listening to the news the other day, and there was a report from the economic gathering in Davos. One of the participants said that now was a time of hope, not one for listening to prophets of doom, that we should not listen to those nay-sayers in this time for country and planet. I wondered what had he heard? Who was that prophet that called to him? I, for one, don’t think he was listening to our reading for today, do you?

Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

Was this fellow listening to these words with which Jesus began his ministry? It might be nice to think so. Just how did he and how do we hear what Jesus proclaims in these words to us today? Is Jesus just a prophet of doom? Is he negating all that there is in the world, everything we know and love? I imagine he can be heard as if he were a Jeremiah or a Job, only speaking about the worst of all possibilities. Why is this? Why is Jesus the villain for the worldly who enjoy luxury, those who indulge themselves while forgetting the network of care they should develop and maintain? Jesus prophesied in his own generation and offended the rich and powerful then. His words echo around the corridors of power and the hills where we walk. If anyone is listening, we should hear his Word of warning today.

Jesus proclaims loudly, “Repent!” That is the very first word out of his mouth in the gospel. So what do we think when we hear that word? Is it a word of hope, or is it a word of condemnation? Are we afraid of this word and its meaning? So let’s start with the dictionary meaning for the Greek word – metanoia – it is  “repentance, a change of mind or heart, regret”. In the Greek rhetorical tradition it is a technical term – it means “after-thought [or] correction”.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speaking. I think most people have encountered rhetoric when they listen to their leaders and friends. They listen to new meanings of words as they are proposed in order that they might be convinced, or more often as they are failing to be convinced, by preachers and politicians – you know, those people who use words in very crafted ways in order to garner your good opinion, to convert you to their camp.

So when the rhetorician says, “Repent!” he or she is trying to correct your opinion – to have an after-thought which concurs with his or her own. The preacher and the politician are eager for you to change your mind – to give up old habits for the sake of a new way of life, which is the way of life the preacher or politician advocates. In the case of the politician, the change of mind is a mark on a ballot paper, but the preacher makes a much more serious demand on your conscience – the preacher wants you to change the whole of your life, to regret the evil of the past, the mistakes of the present and to act well in the future. The preacher promotes a life of righteousness – a life worthy of God and one’s fellows – a life of charitable love.

That is a more demanding meaning of repentance, isn’t it? – Repentance transforms the whole of life, rather than being just a change of mind or a mere regret. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? – Because I am here, draped in these peculiar robes, speaking from this lofty position. I hope I might be one of those preachers who create a rhetorically smooth narrative to convince you that righteousness is the only course to steer through the Scylla and Charybdis of worldly temptation.

This preacher has no personal agenda – I cannot benefit from your doing what is right and I gain nothing if you regret with loathing all the evil you may have done in the past. This preacher’s exhortation to repentance does not immediately help the economy or the government in any way – and I certainly don’t get anything out of it.

The only benefit of repentance in this full-blown definition is to the hearer of the prophetic word, when he or she has converted life to the narrow path of righteousness, the way of life in which the hearer will always have a clear conscience. Obviously, the marketeers and politicians don’t have any investment in that bank. Rather, they are happy with the “crowd” mentality, where no one regrets, when everyone “goes along” with everyone else as the easiest course of action, when “they” have made up my mind for me. As Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The preacher calls all into question. What if everyone had that momentary “after-thought” of repentance? What if everyone examined their conscience daily and repented of the mistakes they had made during that day? What would life be like then? Would the blatant misbehaviour we deplore continue day by day?

If everyone acted in line with their conscience, awaiting the Day of the Lord as Paul did so long ago, awaiting the Last Judgement, or whatever you want to call it – if everyone repented in that whole- hearted way the preacher advocates, wouldn’t the world be different? Would anyone act with selfishness? Wouldn’t we all act out of altruism – where the other mattered more than my personal wishes? In fact, would my own personal wishes ever matter at all again?

The implications of the preacher’s call to repentance are far-reaching. They don’t just end when the revival meeting tent is taken down and folded up, or when we leave this building. The preacher’s call promises so much more, doesn’t it? Whether it be Jeremiah or Jesus or me, the preacher declares “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” That, I would say, is the consequence, and the reason for, all repentance. This promise of the kingdom provokes fear and loathing in some, but ardent expectation in others. Which are we here and now?

Perhaps those former feelings of terror were provoked in that speaker I heard on the news. I think his conscience was pricked by the words the prophets utter then and now, and yet, sadly, he yields to his own negative reaction in the manner of the crowd of every age, ignoring what is happening. – Perhaps the last of days is here right now – fires raging, earthquakes, plagues of locusts, plagues of diseases, fear for the planet’s ecological integrity, human society in tatters, and individuals all around us breaking down. Everything the prophets have feared at one time or another seem to be happening today. Why was that commentator so vitriolic against the prophets of our own time – just as so many took against Jesus? We must examine our own consciences; we need to change our minds as those persuasive speakers propose; we need to repent of our sinfulness and yet still hope. I think we need to act for the kingdom of heaven to come now and right quickly because the end is so very near.

Amen

Christmass 2 – The Baptism of Christ

Collect

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Heavenly Father, at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son: may we recognize him as our Lord and know ourselves to be your beloved children; through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Post Communion

Lord of all time and eternity, you opened the heavens and revealed yourself as Father in the baptism of Jesus your beloved Son: by the power of your Spirit complete the heavenly work of our rebirth through the waters of the new creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

1    Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

2    He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;

3    a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

4    He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5    Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

6    I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,

7    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8    I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.

9    See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm

1    Ascribe to the Lord, you powers of heaven,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2    Ascribe to the Lord the honour due to his name;
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

3    The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders;
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.

4    The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation;
the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice.

5    The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;

6    He makes Lebanon skip like a calf
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7    The voice of the Lord splits the flash of lightning;
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

8    The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe
and strips the forests bare;
in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’

9    The Lord sits enthroned above the water flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for evermore.

10    The Lord shall give strength to his people;
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Psalm 29

Epistle

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Acts 10:34-43

Gospel

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Matthew 3:13-17



Sermon on The Baptism of Christ

“New things I now declare” we heard from Isaiah. What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Brave New World”?

We use this phrase to describe a very different world – not our everyday. We have all used it, haven’t we? Sometimes we use the phrase appreciatively to extol the virtues of a new situation, or a new vision. When we envisage a place where people treat each other well. Or when nation will speak peace to nation. These are brave new worlds – they are so very different to what we normally experience. Our normal world is one of mistrust and ill-will.

However, we very often use the phrase negatively as well, don’t we? The world where people are treated even more badly than normal, as if they were cogs in a machine, like the character in Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times. We all have felt this oppression either at school or at work, when everything is regimented and controlled, not for our sake but for the convenience of the others. This is the brave new world we often have in mind when we use the phrase.

But today I would like to use the phrase with that positive meaning – to denote a world where there is infinite possibility, when we can go out and never fear but always be fulfilled. This is a world which does not have much to do with what we know – this is a world of hope. That brave new world is just beyond our reach, but we always strain to grasp it, don’t we?

It is a world we feel we should be able to lay hold of because we believe in its reality. That is our very nature as human. It is a world promised us with baptism. “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” This voice echoes in our ears from the moment we believe just as it echoed around the Jordan valley long ago. When I rise from the waters of baptism, the promise of the Kingdom is mine, that I have become a child of God, a person who should ever act out of the love upon which my heavenly father has acted towards me. My life has been transformed because I hear that voice and I begin my entry into a brave new world – a world of love and hope.

However, my limited nature binds my hands and I cannot grasp the great prize through my own efforts. I am burdened by my own limitations and I could so easily dip into the slough of despair, but for my faith, that hope for the best of all possible worlds, my own brave new world. This phrase has been in the front of my mind because I picked Aldous Huxley’s book up the other day and I have been reading it during the past week. He takes everything he knows to task: the political system, the economic system, state religion, personal belief, the way people escape from reality, even love in all its aspects is examined through the novelist’s eye. One paragraph struck me the other day as a fruitful place to begin some theological reflection, one which centres itself on our sentence from the gospel. It describes the brave new world which we hope will be ours, that world in which we can say “Abba, Father” because we have heard that voice which calls us by name as children. Huxley writes about family in these words.

Our Freud had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life. The world was full of fathers – was therefore full of misery; full of mothers – therefore of every kind of perversion from sadism to chastity; full of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts – full of madness and suicide.

Is this the picture we have of “family” – of our own siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers? Are we part of a “Manson Family” ready to take part in unspeakable events? Is our familial inheritance something which hinders our lives in the future? More frighteningly, could the “family” of the local Church be one which could be described by these words of Huxley? (After all, it has happened in the Church universal and particular.) I would say Huxley’s sketch of the family is an accurate description of a dysfunctional family, much like so many local communities struggling to carry on despite their unacknowledged failings. We should probably leave it at that and be thankful of all the safeguarding measures now in place in public life.

This leads me to another train of thought. There has been a criticism of “traditional” language which has been levelled at the patriarchy of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, which castigates it for describing God as “father”. – With these words of Huxley, however, echoing in our ears, we must accept such censure on our traditional language, especially when we have not transformed the words into symbolic deeds. How can we accept such words uttered at baptism, when they do not transform the world into the vision we have? The feminist, linguistic critique is accurate, but as you know, I am not a literalist. I see language as symbolic, as pointing to a meaning well beyond what we have here in our hands.

Such a use of language should impose a great moral burden on each and every one of us when we speak.

And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

If I am the son in this passage, if I am a child of God, then I am bound to act in a way which is pleasing to my brothers and sisters, my siblings, and to God. When I was married, I stood before the great congregation and the altar to declare my love and dedication. When clerics are ordained they enter their orders because it seems right to the Holy Spirit and to us, the people whom they will serve.

If we are the children of God, then something is expected of us. We must transform the world into something new and brave, don’t you think?

So… – What is our vision of the world? Are things becoming very tangential to what life ought to mean? Does the child-like pleasure in a summer’s day become jaded as we grow because we cannot enjoy it in an unalloyed manner? You are no longer children – we are told that time and again, so we should not stand and stare with those bovines of the poem. Rather must we be blinkered and shake within the jangling harness of expectation as those horses do in Houseman’s Shropshire, or more diabolically as the people do in Plato’s cave?

What is the Brave New World we wish to bequeath those who will inherit the wind which has blown us to this point? As children of God, we must walk along the road and tell of the good news we have heard, we must continue our journey to that promised land and invite others to join us in the heavenly banquet. As God’s children, we have a great responsibility to surpass the rather dull expectations of the world of the past, to transform the dull grey of this transitory world into the colourful joy of an eternal, future kingdom worthy of the name, “brave new world”.

Amen

First Sunday of Christmass

Collect

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity;who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God in Trinity, eternal unity of perfect love: gather the nations to be one family, and draw us into your holy life through the birth of Emmanuel, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Post Communion

Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son shared at Nazareth the life of an earthly home: help your Church to live as one family, united in love and obedience, and bring us all at last to our home in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,

   the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,

because of all that the Lord has done for us,

   and the great favour to the house of Israel

that he has shown them according to his mercy,

   according to the abundance of his steadfast love.

For he said, ‘Surely they are my people,

   children who will not deal falsely’;

and he became their saviour

   in all their distress.

It was no messenger or angel

   but his presence that saved them;

in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

   he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Isaiah 63:7-9

Psalm

1    Alleluia.

      Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights.

2  Praise him, all you his angels; ??

   praise him, all his host.

3  Praise him, sun and moon; ??

   praise him, all you stars of light.

4  Praise him, heaven of heavens, ??

   and you waters above the heavens.

5  Let them praise the name of the Lord, ??

   for he commanded and they were created.

6  He made them fast for ever and ever; ??

   he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

7  Praise the Lord from the earth, ??

   you sea monsters and all deeps;

8  Fire and hail, snow and mist, ??

   tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;

9  Mountains and all hills, ??

   fruit trees and all cedars;

10  Wild beasts and all cattle, ??

   creeping things and birds on the wing;

11  Kings of the earth and all peoples, ??

   princes and all rulers of the world;

12  Young men and women,

      old and young together; ??

   let them praise the name of the Lord.

13  For his name only is exalted, ??

  his splendour above earth and heaven.

14  He has raised up the horn of his people

      and praise for all his faithful servants, ??

   the children of Israel, a people who are near him.

      Alleluia.

Psalm 148

Epistle

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,

    ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,

       in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’

And again,

    ‘I will put my trust in him.’

And again,

    ‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:10-18

Gospel

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

    ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,

    Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

Matthew 2:13-23

Sermon on First Sunday of Christmass

How many actually believe this story of the “Massacre of the Innocents” is literally true? I ask this because yesterday was the commemoration of the Innocents and today we have read the account from Matthew. I also ask this because as I was flitting about for some help, I came across a blog which asked “Is the slaughter of the innocents true?” So now you know why I am asking this question today.

Who believes in the literal truth of this story? Well, I for one, do not believe it literally, but I do believe it should speak to us today – and that, I am sure, is a completely different proposition.

Let’s begin with this statement:

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked [by the wise men], he was infuriated.”

This places the story right in our own time, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t we all a bit like Herod at times? Don’t we all get so upset when things don’t go to our own precise plan? I wonder, were there arguments in your house on Christmass Day when someone crossed someone else – when someone did not get their own way? Isn’t this the same thing (but on a very much smaller, and more innocent, scale)? Isn’t the same thing happening today that happened in Jerusalem and Bethlehem all those years ago, when those sages from the East visited Herod, when he wanted them to return to him to tell him the whole story? But they did not return to Herod and Herod had a royal tantrum. He got so mad that he condemned babies to death. It would seem that his fury knew no bounds.

Why? – Why did Herod go on the rampage?

That internet piece I read pointed me in the direction for an answer to this historical question. The writer described Herod in all his parts, good and bad – that is, those parts he could touch through written records. After all, written evidence is so much more easily accepted than guesswork, when it comes to history and biography. And that is the proof upon which my blogger depended.

As a matter of fact this blogger suggested that Herod should really be called “The Great” because of the public work projects he completed. One such project was the port of Caesarea which features in later history. This port was constructed by Herod along that straight coast of the Levant, that area in which there is no natural harbour. So we can all agree that he did some good in his time. But ……

On the negative side, we need to remember that the house of Herod was one of great, internal conflict, for in the manner of eastern potentates, Herod had many wives and there were many children, and quite a few sons. All of them had a claim to the throne. Such were the times, that there were plots and counter-plots – I suppose the gossip of the court read much like the news reports from parliament today, or the English court gossip of the medieval period. (Just imagine the rumours in Henry VIII’s court!) Everyone wanted the prize of the throne, but Herod, like so many political figures, was not one to give it up to anyone – and I don’t think anyone was disposed to wait until it was handed down. Herod believed everyone wanted to usurp him. What to do? My blogger said that Herod had those pretenders to the throne killed – that he killed his own children. Imagine that!

When we read that “all the children” had been slaughtered, we imagine hundreds of children – perhaps even thousands of children – were killed in Herod’s pogrom. Someone had done some statistical studies on the area over which Herod ruled, and specifically they looked at the region of Bethlehem. They estimated the population, and with actuarial tables came to the conclusion that there were probably only about a dozen boys of under two years of age in the whole region – who might have been killed at that time. So the later, medieval picture which we inherited of hundreds, perhaps thousands of murdered children is an extreme exaggeration. However, this memory is one of the utter desolation of the bereaved, the story of one man’s inhumanity. How could a father condemn his own, or anyone else’s, babes in arms to death? Why would a king kill so many innocents?

However, I think it is very easy to believe this story of massacre against the name of Herod – that tyrant who wanted to keep the throne at all costs, in spite of those great public works, but because of the byzantine machinations in the  privacy of the palace. I think that is the real background to the story. I think that is how the history of the slaughter of the innocents came about. Herod was a paranoid tyrant who wanted to keep everything for himself.

When they took that different counsel and fled homeward far from Herod, wouldn’t those dark machinations of the palace lead to the story of his purported killing of any young boy-child. So was the story we have in Matthew a conflation of what happened in the palace and the fear of the populace?

The truth is – Herod does kill children. That is a fact. But did he go after the King of Kings globally? Did Herod pursue the child whom we adore as the saviour of the world? In that madness, did Herod eliminate so many tens or thousands of children? I don’t think it matters whether that number is historically accurate. However, I do think it matters to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that such a human delusion is chronicled in the mythos of the Church. This story of the fury of Herod must be comprehended in the light of our Christmass Day’s reading of the Gospel of John. We heard, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The darkness of Herod’s madness did not destroy the light of the world, and we remember its victory through the story of the massacre of the innocents.

It just struck me that perhaps we might want to remember the innocents in another spelling – instead of “cents” we need to replace it with “cence”. I think we need to remember that the child in our own hearts is ever at risk from persecution by the world around us. Perhaps we should flee with that child to the desert in order to preserve it. Certainly we should defend the child in us just as Joseph and Mary obeyed that voice for Jesus’ sake as did the Magi.

Amen

The First Sunday of Advent

Collect

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, as your kingdom dawns, turn us from the darkness of sin to the light of holiness, that we may be ready to meet you in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Post Communion

O Lord our God, make us watchful and keep us faithful as we await the coming of your Son our Lord; that, when he shall appear, he may not find us sleeping in sin but active in his service and joyful in his praise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;

all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah 2:1–5

Psalm 

1    I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’

2    And now our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem;

3    Jerusalem, built as a city
that is at unity in itself.

4    Thither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord,
as is decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.

5    For there are set the thrones of judgement,
the thrones of the house of David.

6    O pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.

7    ‘Peace be within your walls
and tranquillity within your palaces.’

8    For my kindred and companions’ sake,
I will pray that peace be with you.

9    For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek to do you good.

Psalm 122

Epistle

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:11-14

Gospel

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Matthew 24:36-44



Sermon on The First Sunday of Advent

“It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Don’t we hear this all around us? Haven’t our leaders been saying this to us for many years now? Our political leaders have talked of nothing else than everyone accepting their own positions in order to see what is in our best interests. Our religious leaders have always asked us to awake from the same sleep from which Paul asked the Romans to shake themselves.We have been accused of  slumbering under the torpor of the everyday. So how can we wake ourselves up to the light of day, the light of goodness and mercy, the torch of righteousness?

Unfortunately, Paul does not tell us how to wake up – he only describes the life of a person who no longer dreams in the darkness of despair. Paul only gives an exhortation to the the characteristics of someone who lives in the light. “Let us live honourably as in the day,” Paul writes to the Romans. Paul is using language which we don’t use nowadays. What friend has asked us about honour lately? What political leader has demanded honour in the bear pit of the House of Commons? What bishop has castigated the population by using honour as his cudgel? I am not sure that any have – what about you?

Here we are at the beginning of Advent, when we should be looking forward – toward the future of the King, who has a pedigree like no other, who speaks with authority and who has performed what no man has done – miracles. All of this is the past, the past which should teach us about our future.

Paul decries everything which we do in our sleepwalking – he condemns  “revelling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarrelling and jealousy.” I don’t blame him for condemning the everyday world where  these seem to be standard behaviour.

We only need to pay attention to the news and its coverage of the election campaign in order to see “quarrelling and jealousy”. If we look further, where private lives are exposed, we can see “debauchery and licentiousness”, can’t we? And then to find “revelling and drunkenness” – I think we need only look at advertisements for supplying everything for Christmass Day, all the food and drink we need for that big party, whether it is for the family or all those friends we have. We are cajoled into getting all the best food and drink, in other words to indulge ourselves.

Do we really think we are innocent of the sinfulness with which Paul accuses the world? Haven’t we all fallen into that abyss of heinous behaviour at some point in our lives? I know that I have – I remember having had too much to drink on occasion, I confess my love of the table and my snacking is well known by my wife who tries to curb my gluttony. However, I hope I have been innocent of jealousy and quarrelling, though I am guilty of a sharp tongue all too often.

However, Paul is right, isn’t he? We do spiral down into sinfulness from time to time. That is why Jesus bids us to be ever-watchful, to await the arrival of the Son of Man. We are asked in the Gospel reading to be vigilant, ready for the last day, that day when one is taken and the other is left, whether in the field or at work. What will the sum of our deeds be on that day when the judge weighs them up? Will we be found wanting? Will we have failed to do the good we ought to have done?

So, who will be left behind on that day Jesus warns about? – Who will take their place in the train following the Son of Man as he sweeps through on his world tour of judgement into the final resting place on the last day? Who will be left behind in the field alone, or indeed at the work-bench, on that terrible day, when only the grace of God will bear us up and away?

So, let us take Paul’s admonition seriously and keep our vigil by living honourably. Let us do what is right in the eyes of the Lord, keeping those instructions and commandments for which all the nations move to Jerusalem so as to understand as the psalmist says, “There are set the thrones of judgement,” and so we should “be glad when they say to us, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Let us stand in the halls of our God “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” When we aspire to stand there, we will be able to keep vigil. That is when we find ourselves awake in this world. We will have learned about our duty to the ultimate source of life in the face of those ’round about us, those to whom we have shown our integrity.

Again we return to the reality of Paul’s words here, don’t we? – that we can live honourably amidst the evil that happens all around us. That is what marks our lives, in our acts the instruction of the Lord has been revealed, so that we are characterised as honourable. We have natures so very different from the everyday which shatters all around us. We have seen the promised land – we are now awake to what is real because it is so very different to the shadows we too often revere in what may be our less than honourable lives.

Paul speaks to us in a way that compels to a radically different life. This honourable life is sharply differentiated from that sinful life, isn’t it. The excessive behaviour of our everyday existence, those things we reckon as acceptable – for instance, the jealousies and quarrelling which are played out in the traditional media or in social media where the depths of quarrelling and jealousy are regularly plumbed. That has been forsaken for the good life of quiet peacefulness.

Paul is convinced that we can rise above such awful behaviour. He tells us we can act honourably, in spite of the fact that the crowd says the opposite. Sometimes, however, and in spite of itself, the crowd may say the right thing. For instance, when the they have said, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” There the lessons of the Lord can be learned, lessons so different from what the crowd wants us to learn, the lessons of honour. It is possible to accept the invitation of Isaiah, in spite of our base nature.

This advent, let us ponder the invitation of the psalmist and Isaiah, when he cries out, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Let us walk into that honourable future in the company of the saints. Let us process into the presence of the Lord, in the train of the Son of Man.

Amen

The Second Sunday before Advent

Readings

Psalm

1    O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.

2    The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.

3    He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

4    Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

5    Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

6    With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.

7    Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

8    Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy

9    at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth.

10.    He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 98

Epistle

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.

For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.

Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Gospel

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?"

And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately."

Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Luke 21:5–19

Sermon on The Second Sunday before Advent

A little while ago we heard this – “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” I wonder, who could possibly take exception to this exhortation in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians? Doing right is what everyone wants to do, isn’t it? Paul wants us all never to stop in that endeavour. Personally, I don’t think anyone should ever weary of such a high ideal.

After all, who would want to do things that were to another’s detriment? Who would spend any energy on doing anything which would not be good for themselves or their families? And even those who act in ways which compromise or even harm others might say they were doing something for “a greater good” – we need only look at figures like Adolf Hitler or Pohl Pot to find confirmation of that fact. We might argue about what “the good” actually means. We would not agree with the actions that so many have taken which have hurt others. However, I think we would try to persuade them to act differently. In the end, wouldn’t we say that such people are deluded and they, in fact, pursue evil ends when they injure others? That sort of activity is not what good people intend, is it? I don’t believe such actions would pass the Hippocratic standard of “doing no harm”. This is a rather simple moral maxim which should start us on the narrow road to the good life, the road which is not paved with intentions, but it is cobbled with substantial actions. Such an ethical system would be the foundation of a good life. If it is possible for doctors swear to that oath when they begin their medical practice when are let loose as physicians on the public at large, then it should give more people hope that they could do so. It should give us heart to live well ourselves, don’t you think?

I would say Paul is arguing that everyone should live a full life, a life of activity and engagement in the world. Paul relates this engaged activity to what keeps us alive. He says everyone should work to keep themselves fed – that work benefits not just myself, but those around me as well.

Paul boils everything down to the basics of life, doesn’t he? – And life means that we eat, doesn’t it? Paul talks about a good life in our passage, what anyone would call a “productive life”. He connects work with the fact that we eat. He condemns the idle for not contributing to that greater good of a community that needs to be fed, literally or symbolically. And he commends himself and his fellow-workers wherever they find themselves because they have never been a burden, and in fact they may have benefited the community in which they have found themselves because of their hard work, whether as a tent-maker or a preacher.

In Philemon Paul writes that the thief should become a productive member of the community, at work for the good of others, perhaps an artisan creating goods for those around him. The thief must reform himself and do what is right, to produce something so that others benefit and he can keep himself well, for instance in feeding himself and his family. Paul is arguing against idleness of any kind. The benefits provided by the active worker, are not just material, they benefit the whole person: body, mind and spirit

When I just lend a listening ear to someone in distress, I have contributed to that person’s welfare – even if I have done nothing but make a cup of tea so that he could unburden himself, or that she could formulate all the real questions she had about the situation.

This is what I take to be the basis of a pastoral theology, that is to say – reflexion on God has led me to be a part of a community in this very active, harmless way.

I think you can find the foundation of this practical theology on the greatest of virtues which Paul commends. I think all of his writing about love – αγαπη – makes the same point. Love is this same force in life, a positive creative force which impels the person towards others for their benefit, not one’s own. I have to admit, though, love is the greatest benefit in my own existence. Love feeds everyone in no uncertain terms, exactly how, I am not sure, but in love I am sated – I need nothing.

In a strange way this satisfaction leads me to Jesus’ words in the reading from the gospel.

So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

If we really have not tired of righteousness in our lives, or accomplishing mercy and justice, why do we need to worry? Even if the world reviles us, it is not because we have done harm. It is not because we do not love dispassionately as Jesus did. Who can despise anyone who lets “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” as the prophet commands. Does such a life really demand my condemnation in the sight of the world? Who in the world would condemn anyone whose purpose is justice and righteousness, or love and mercy?

“Do not be weary in doing what is right.”

We come back to this statement again on the basis of Jesus telling us not to worry about refuting the world when it reviles us.

What could happen to us if we were silent in the face of people upset because we did something good? Wouldn’t our silence only condemn their hypocrisy? We have nothing to be ashamed of if we live this good life of doing no harm. We certainly would have no embarrassment if we were to do good deeds for the whole of our lives. Everyone would know, wouldn’t they? – even if our Facebook page makes no mention of it.

“Do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Paul has to be right in this command and exhortation, which he sends to the Thessalonians in this epistle. Don’t you agree? I am sure he is also speaking to us. We, like the Thessalonians, have the idle among us, but that doesn’t mean that there are not the good intentions which surround those cobbles of righteous deeds on this road to heaven. We need to commend Paul’s message here as a new way of doing no harm amongst this generation, don’t you think?

Amen

Sunday, All Souls

Collect

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship
in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

God of holiness, your glory is proclaimed in every age: as we rejoice in the faith of your saints, inspire us to follow their example with boldness and joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God, the source of all holiness and giver of all good things: may we who have shared at this table as strangers and pilgrims here on earth be welcomed with all your saints to the heavenly feast on the day of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: ‘As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.’

Daniel 7:1–3, 15–18

Psalm

1    Alleluia. O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.

2    Let Israel rejoice in their maker;
let the children of Zion be joyful in their king.

3    Let them praise his name in the dance;
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and lyre.

4    For the Lord has pleasure in his people
and adorns the poor with salvation.

5    Let the faithful be joyful in glory;
let them rejoice in their ranks,

6    With the praises of God in their mouths
and a two-edged sword in their hands;

7    To execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples;

8    To bind their kings in chains
and their nobles with fetters of iron;

9    To execute on them the judgement decreed:
such honour have all his faithful servants.
Alleluia.

Psalm 149

Epistle

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Ephesians 1:11–23

Gospel

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,

   for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

   for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

   for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

‘But woe to you who are rich,

   for you have received your consolation.

‘Woe to you who are full now,

   for you will be hungry.

‘Woe to you who are laughing now,

   for you will mourn and weep.

‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:20-31

Sermon on Sunday, All Souls

I would like to consider our collect for today because there is so much to learn from it. – I would say there is both complex theology and simple hope for us to explore.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:

The image of knitting together a group of people is one that comes up in all sorts of discourse, doesn’t it? You hear of sports teams being so tightly-knit that each one instinctively knows what the other will do in any circumstance. The emergency services also work as tightly knit units, don’t they? They have to, so that more will be saved because of their well-coordinated work. Communities are the same. Everyone in the community is able to support each other. No matter the circumstances, whether it is helping when someone has a cold or is in the deepest of mourning at the loss of a partner, each one of a community that is knit together will be able to offer succour to another. I will offer my ear to someone who needs me to listen, or I will lend my arm to those who need a weight to be lifted. But this knitting together means that one is bound to the other – after all that is the nature of something knit, isn’t it? The ramifications of such an image roll on and on, if we were to think hard on it.

But that is only the first phrase – and we haven’t even considered the one addressed by our petition – “Almighty God”. This first part of the collect has so much more in it, doesn’t it? This part of the collect is the address, the salutation of our prayer, which sets out our relationship. We address God as full of power and might, the almighty, whose power affects “the elect” the next significant phrase we encounter. It is a heavily weighted theological term, isn’t it? “The elect” is a phrase that can cause division within communities. Who is “elect”, “chosen”, or “set apart” from the rest? Who is so very different, so very elevated from the mass of humanity, that their fate is so very exclusive? How are they chosen? Why is my ownmost possibility so very different from someone else’s? Don’t we both aspire to the Kingdom of God? Why will my neighbour attain those hallowed halls and I be excluded? But then, why should I attain those hallowed halls and my neighbour be excluded? This is the image of “the elect”, isn’t it? Some are taken in and others are left behind. The elect have a different end to everyone else – at least that is the story we have been told time and again, perhaps that is what we do hope. ‘Election’ is, theologically, a very difficult concept to grasp, as far as I am concerned, but it is so very tempting. However, I wonder about this principle of exclusion which is incorporated within it. When and how does one become one of the elect? Why are the elect fundamentally different to everyone else?

These are the questions we have to ask, if the anglican principle of the State Church is to be upheld. If we are the elect, then who is to be excluded, because everyone in the parish is by definition part of this one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church which is the paticular church here in this place. Everyone belongs and the name ‘elect’ must apply to everyone. So, should we ever forward the concept of an exclusive “election”? This is a very fraught question in these perilous times.

Then we should move on to the next phrase –

one communion and fellowship in the mystical body

This phrase should take us weeks to discuss, and I do not think this ten minute slot could ever do it justice. Weeks of constant conversation and theoretical argument would never reach any comprehensive and universally accepted outcome. We need to explore this over against our understanding of the elect and the Church, don’t we?

But let us test the concept of ‘communion’ and its companion ‘fellowship’. Many thousands of pages have been printed, many more thousands have been written in essays and diaries, and hundreds of thousands of hours have been spent in reflection, on the subject of this ‘mystical body’ which, I believe, is the revelation of communion and fellowship – of how the elect appear in the world.

The notion of “the mystical body of Christ” calls us to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, doesn’t it? This symbolic language incorporates the communion and fellowship of the Church’s liturgical action and experience. Don’t we feel at one with each other during the sacraments, especially, say, at the peace in this worship, or in collective prayer? That is an ineffable event, isn’t it, but I think we would all say it forms the basis of our fellowship and communion, that it leads to our participation in the mystical body, even if we can only point vaguely to it, hoping that others will see as we have seen..

All of this salutation to God has been a preparation for the formal petition of our collect. This is a spiritual preparation and has hinted at what will be our ownmost wish.

Grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you

I wonder how many of our contemporaries would recognise “virtuous and godly living” as the marks of the course of life that leads to “inexpressible joys”. After all, don’t most people desire the easy life of luxury and idleness– they conceive of the  “inexpressible joy” of winning the lottery or without any effort making more money they could ever spend, even if they tried just to give it away to friends and family.

What is our most earnest desire? Is it really that life of the idle rich? I do not believe that is the case, because I am sure Paul was right when he said that everyone wishes to br productive for the sake of other people. We can see this as we pray through our collect, can’t we? Don’t we petition God, to “grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living”? Is this the course of life our contemporaries heartily desire? No, only a few of us do that. After all who is willing to undergo the trials and torture of a St Ignatius of Antioch? Or who wants to undergo the experience of a death by slow wasting disease? These are the lives of the saints – these lives of “all virtuous and godly living” are so very different to the mass of humanity’s aspirations for their lives. So maybe we are the elect, who wish to live these extremely rare lives of “virtuous and godly living” Maybe we are the elect who choose to undergo lives which are so very difficult, lives which ultimately do lead to “inexpressible joys”. These are the lives of saints, people plucked out of the ordinary to experience the holy, the mystical communion with all of humanity, who offer it to us as the new generation of “the saints”, to all those souls we remember and celebrate today.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 18

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us your gift of faith that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to that which is before, we may run the way of your commandments and win the crown of everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

God, our judge and saviour, teach us to be open to your truth and to trust in your love, that we may live each day with confidence in the salvation which is given through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

We praise and thank you, O Christ, for this sacred feast: for here we receive you, here the memory of your passion is renewed, here our minds are filled with grace, and here a pledge of future glory is given, when we shall feast at that table where you reign with all your saints for ever.Post Communion

Readings

Old Testament

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Genesis 32:22–31

Psalm

Psalm

1    I lift up my eyes to the hills;
from where is my help to come?

2    My help comes from the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.

3    He will not suffer your foot to stumble;
he who watches over you will not sleep.

4    Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.

5    The Lord himself watches over you;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand,

6    So that the sun shall not strike you by day,
neither the moon by night.

7    The Lord shall keep you from all evil;
it is he who shall keep your soul.

8    The Lord shall keep watch over your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth for evermore.

Psalm 121

Epistle

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

2 Timothy 3:14–4:5

Gospel

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Luke 18:1–8



Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 18

One of the most difficult passages for the present generation is this –

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Do you think this generation grasps the necessity of all this education, for reproof and correction? The days of the switch and cane are gladly gone far into the mists of time, the reproof and correction we need are example and maybe the well-timed, sharp word. Teaching is something that is not really on the agenda nowadays, as everyone just stares at screens large and small, on the table or concealed in their hands. No one is willing to raise their eyes to any one else, let alone a teacher, are they?

As for “training in righteousness” – is that really something anyone today understands, let alone whether anyone would pursue such a programme? Righteousness is something left to the monks and nuns of centuries ago who have nothing to do with this world of deals, laws and offers. “Training for righteousness” sounds too sanctimonious, too old-fashioned, for modernity. Just think whether you have heard anyone talking about “righteousness” recently.

I wonder “Why?” Why doesn’t anyone delve deep into the realm of ethics to make the world a better place? Why do we bob along on the surface accepting everything as it is? Why, oh, why, do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Why are we doomed to moral failure here and now? So many questions loom out of our reading the Bible, don’t they?

The substance of this passage from the letter to Timothy is certainly foreign to conversations in the 21st century. The lessons of the bible are not the instructions of our contemporaries, are they? Profit and exploitation are the opposite of the mind-set of the Bible. People then were also subject to the same temptations as now. The pursuit of profit at the cost of humanity is the mark of the world of today’s commerce. It would seem that slavery, modern or ancient, is a sign of a morally bankrupt attitude.

How do we escape from these wicked chains of the world? How can we negate the world’s evil propensities? What will break the spiral of despair for the sake of what is right? This is not a new moral dilemma. I suppose it has to be through education in the very broadest sense, the point being made in our epistle – though that sort of teaching does not seem to be part of our modern culture’s curriculum.

We have to acknowledge the place of that Other in our lives – the teacher. Who might that be – my friend, my mother, my father, my neighbour, the stranger with whom I had that fleeting conversation? Any other person in our experience could be that teacher of righteousness, that very important figure in the history of religions, if only we would plumb the depths of life in all its fullness. With that teacher everything changes for us.

Let’s try to understand this through an alternative collect for today, which is

God, our judge and saviour, teach us to be open to your truth and to trust in your love, that we may live each day with confidence in the salvation which is given through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Truth and love are ineffable, we cannot put our finger on them, can we? However, on our better days we will confess the truth, won’t we? We will declare our love to anyone who will listen. We know that all of this comes from elsewhere. The truth is not something we make up – it has to bubble up into our lives – like love, truth just pops up, it is inspired.

The Bible is there in our background, as one of our sources for truth and love. And it has been there for a long time. Somehow the Bible has come into being, with its source beyond the everyday world we inhabit.

I think that we are like the Bible, don’t you? Inspiration has flooded over us and we are transformed. For instance, we are now full of confidence because we know of truth and love – we know of our salvation, don’t we? We are truly living that life of abundance, even though we may be poor in the perception of the world of celebrity and bling. We know we need no gold for our joy, rather our joy is in being with the Other, whether that be the Teacher of Righteousness or the stranger. Our joy is being there in the world with the other person, in that world which oftentimes is strange and cruel.

In this everyday world of misperception, there is confusion and bad faith. We know this, don’t we? In this everyday world, we are caught up in things which do not make us proud, as when we don’t stand up for the poor, the widow and children. We are like so many who have passed by on the other side.

In the world of the extraordinary, where we see our ownmost possibility clearly, we are inspired to be kind, patient, loving – all those things the Church counts as “fruits of the Spirit”. Faith, hope and love are the foundation of all that we find good. Do these show themselves as arising from ourselves, or do we say they are inspired, actions which have their origin in something outside of our ordinary mentality? That is the inspired, when something arises in our hearts which does not impose itself from our everyday experience.

I suppose this is why we read this passage with hope. That is why we agree that the Bible is inspired. The Bible is for our education, because it leads us out of the crowd so we can think for ourselves and move to our ownmost possibility. It corrects and chastises us because we are aware of what we do every day. We know that we have failed so many. It educates us by leading us out of the crowd to our very selves, as individuals before one another.

We face ourselves in our destiny, our ownmost possibilities. To each their own. As it should be. But in my self I am confronted by the other, that other who reminds me who I am. That alien who scares me, the stranger who questions my values.

And yet, I am comforted by that other who is so very different from me, the one who might greet me with warmth and take my hand with gentleness. Here we are in the midst of the alien world where Others force us to appraise ourselves, but here in the world we become ourselves because the other inspires us in a way we do not completely comprehend, just as we do not completely take in the inspiration of the Lord.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 17

Collect

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Gracious God, you call us to fullness of life: deliver us from unbelief and banish our anxieties with the liberating love of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Psalm

1  Alleluia. I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the faithful and in the congregation.

2  The works of the Lord are great,
sought out by all who delight in them.

3  His work is full of majesty and honour
and his righteousness endures for ever.

4  He appointed a memorial for his marvellous deeds;
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

5  He gave food to those who feared him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

6  He showed his people the power of his works
in giving them the heritage of the nations.

7  The works of his hands are truth and justice;
all his commandments are sure.

8  They stand fast for ever and ever;
they are done in truth and equity.

9  He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever;
holy and awesome is his name.

10  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
a good understanding have those who live by it;
his praise endures for ever.

Psalm 111

First Lesson

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:8–15

Second Lesson

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Luke 17:11–19

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 17

“Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” I wonder whether you have ever been between one place and another, travelling along the border, neither inside this place nor inside that place, just outside everywhere. This is the threshold experience, what anthropologists call “the liminal”.

That word rang bells for me. The internet came up trumps again with two definitions of liminal – First, relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process, and Second. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. It is not a place we normally inhabit, is it? Ordinarily, we are safely ensconced within the boundaries of our own world – we live in our homes, within our community, inside the borders of the country to which we have sworn our allegiance. We find ourselves within a cosmos – and we place ourselves squarely in that world over against all those others who are so very different to ourselves.

Everyone lives in the world each one of us experiences as our own. We know it as an ordered world, don’t we? What that order consists of depends on ourselves and the communal world we share with all the others who are “just like me”. I remain safely within the crowd with which I identify myself.

But Jesus does not live in the world as we do, does he? He is forever interrogating each one of us about how we live amongst all the others and the things with which we have surrounded ourselves. Jesus has divested himself of everything as he walks on that boundary, the threshold between the divine and the human. On that border he looks at all around him, at each and every one of us, and calls everything into question when he catches our eye. “The region between” is where Jesus dwells for us, he moves between earth and heaven – as intermediary between the Father and sinful humanity now redeemed, the Son of Man. But most of all because he hung there between heaven and earth on that Good Friday.

Now we raise our eyes to the cross as a symbol of salvation. We look into that middle distance, the one between the created and the creator to find our Lord, ever on guard for us, calling us forward to that final home for all existing things. Jesus guides us on to our “ownmost possibility” as the philosopher calls it. We know of that final resting place only because Jesus dwells in “the region between” – he now stands, like Saint Peter, as the old joke says, at the pearly gates.

The first week I was in Burlington Vermont (in 1970!), there was a lecture by a philosopher – I cannot remember who he was or where he was affiliated – he spoke about Ludwig Wittgenstein, a significant philosopher for the linguistic tradition of western thought, who worked with Bertrand Russell in Cambridge. (You may know Russell as one of the significant peace protestors of the 50’s and 60’s – CND and all of that. But I digress.) Of that public lecture to which all were invited I remember only the phrase “an die Grenze” – this philosopher exposed the whole of Wittgenstein’s thought in his first book through that prism of the German phrase, “an die Grenze” – which we render in English as “on the boundary”.

I have forgotten all of that talk, but the phrase “an die Grenze” has stuck with me and has surfaced today as I struggle with our very simple story from the gospel. – Jesus was wandering in that region between, neither in Samaria nor in Galilee, but there in the wilderness of the border region he is able to perform a miracle – in between Galilee and Samaria. Let’s look at the story a little closer. – He entered the village and the ten leprous men saw him. They “approached” Jesus so they could petition, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” However, they kept their distance at the same time, so Jesus replied, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” So they went, and as they approached the priests they were clean of the disease. One returned and prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet.

“Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’” Was he indignant, was he bemused, was he sad? We only know Jesus merely said this; it is not revealed how he said it, but it is important for our engagement with this story, don’t you think?

Here he stands between everything. Everyone has kept their distance, haven’t they? There is no hugging or grasping at one another. The ten were sent further away from Jesus – to the priests. Nine remained apart, only one returned to Jesus. But even then he did not touch Jesus, did he? Instead he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet. He fell before the Lord to thank him for the healing miracle he had performed. But he was not embraced – instead he remained at the threshold between, didn’t he? I think he was imitating Jesus Christ long before Thomas á Kempis wrote about that ideal. He was doing it then just as we should be doing it now in our lives today.

We can live “on the edge” as we would say, but this is the liminal existence of people who are “saviours” – the extraordinary doctor, the hero of battle, a prophet, the person who “turned my life around” – it could be a special friend or a teacher, or even a stranger. These people do not inhabit the world we ordinarily know, they are set apart by a clarity of thought and action, and they are not afraid to act on that. Their thoughts and actions are not ordinary or worldly.

They are set apart from the ordinary person’s world of the petty. They speak to that ownmost possibility – they point to that region of meaning where the eternal verities exist and can be acted upon. This is another world, isn’t it? It is a world beyond the borders, in the wilderness of the threshold between this thing and that, the region of meaning where we all want to be.

I have been speaking of the spatial definition of the liminal, haven’t I? I seem to have forgotten about the experiential definition of the word – “a transitional or initial stage of a process.” We also can move in that transitional world, between this and that, between sin and salvation. Perhaps this is where we need to live in that imitation of Christ. Today John Henry Newman is being declared a saint. I think that should give us hope – that we can all wander between Galilee and Samaria in the hope that we too can perform miracles as modern saints, as all the saints of the past have done, just as my favourite reading, The Golden Legend, tells those stories. I can only hope a new book of golden legends will be written about our lives.

Amen