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.

Amen

Prayer after 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.

Amen

Readings 

Old Testament

When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens – and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground – the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25

Psalm

1    Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.

2    To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins;
when our misdeeds prevail against us,
you will purge them away.

3    Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there.
We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.

4    With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation,
O hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.

5    In your strength you set fast the mountains
and are girded about with might.

6    You still the raging of the seas,
the roaring of their waves
and the clamour of the peoples.

7    Those who dwell at the ends of the earth
tremble at your marvels;
the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.

8    You visit the earth and water it;
you make it very plenteous.

9    The river of God is full of water;
you prepare grain for your people,
for so you provide for the earth.

10    You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges;
you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.

11    You crown the year with your goodness,
and your paths overflow with plenty.

12    May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness
and the hills be girded with joy.

13    May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep
and the valleys stand so thick with corn
that they shall laugh and sing.

Psalm 65

Epistle

I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the centre, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and behind. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Whenever the living creatures give glory, honour and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and  honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

Revelation 4

Gospel

Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

Luke 8.22-25

Sermon on the Second Sunday before Lent

In our Collect we pray, “teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children”. Why? Why do we need this reminder that we ought to see God everywhere? After all, ‘Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”’ Along with all these angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, we ourselves will acclaim the thrice holy Lord later as we approach our sacrament.

In a meeting about computing last week, we were addressed by someone who works with people who have forgotten so much of who they are, as they have forgotten to discern what is round about them, they suffer from isolation, depression and sometimes jump into suicide to end it all.

Too many have not been empathetic to those who have suffered in this way. They thunder, “Snap out of it,” or something else equally hurtful and turn away from the problem which has just been recognised. You might even say Jesus was just as bad when he was woken from his sleep to find his disciples distraught with the storm raging around their small boat. “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” they cried in their fear and trembling at the force of nature railing against them. He turned to his disciples after rebuking the wind to a gentle breeze and the raging sea to a millpond, with these words, “Where is your faith?”

“Where is your faith?” What does Jesus mean by that? Why does he ask that? If you had been scared witless, what would you make of Jesus asking you that question? I suppose we should begin this story again and place ourselves in it, but this time with our own real experience of life.

We often fear as if our ship is sinking, don’t we? We are lost in the midst of bills and calls on our time, or the demands of our work, or those of family and friends arrayed around us. We often cry out so loud that we lose our voices and we remain silenced in cocoons of our own isolation and depression. We can be absolutely confused and at the point of despair. We are on the edge of the abyss which glares directly into our souls with its utter blackness. Winston Churchill’s “black dog” viciously growls and circles us. Standing in terror before that void, we cannot call out because we have been silenced in the world we inhabit. No longer do we sing out with others, “Holy, holy, holy…” This, I think, is the picture of where we stand in the pitch blackness of our worlds. We feel isolated, don’t we? We complain that no one listens, that no one understands. We withdraw ourselves from that uncomprehending world and things get impossibly darker. And – in the midst of these raging storms of life, we are supposed to have faith! How? How can I be faithful in the midst of the vortex of emptiness around me?

Yet the words of Jesus still accuse “Where is your faith?” What can I answer? This question attacks everyone at the brink of the abyss, just as they did the philosopher Kierkegaard when he stood looking at the blackness surrounding him. He considered

the literary, philosophical, and ecclesiastical establishments of his day [were] misrepresenting the highest task of human existence — namely, becoming oneself in an ethical and religious sense — as something so easy that it could seem already accomplished even when it had not even been undertaken. …[T]he heart of his work lay in the infinite requirement and strenuous difficulty of religious existence in general.

It could be said two hundred years after him we feel betrayed by everything around us. In this country many are confronted by a system which misrepresents what life is all about. In the online world, for instance, life is supposed to be so easy and yet there are so many disillusioned because that life does not deliver itself in all its fullness even though they are pursuing the promised haven electronically. They teeter on the edge of  the pit of cyberspace where hope just disappears into a mass of zeros and ones.

Those words Jesus asked the terrified disciples, “Where is your faith?” should confront us all still. Faith, however, is imponderable – there is no one experience which encapsulates it. Everyone’s conscience should be pricked so that light should shine, it may the brightness of the sun or only be the tiny LED from a miniature fairy light, but in the darkness of our present despair it should shine like a beacon. When we open our eyes to see, that light will guide.

When that light shines, the darkness has been cleaved apart. We then can see what is before us, that perceived pit is paved over. The light opens up what life really is – hope and charity. This enlightenment is unexpected when it comes, especially in our dark despair, when we are isolated and alone, buried in complications. That light guides us away from the confusion of the everyday, and we do see that life is not the lottery win or the any one thing, but life is the world we create through meaning and engagement. The storm passes at that moment. ‘In fear and amazement [the disciples in the boat and we ourselves] ask one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”’

Everything has been turned upside down yet again. Life may not make any sense, but we can see our way through the tapestry of the life we are weaving. How did the winds and water which swirled around us to overcome us now dissipate?

I think we would all accept that when we begin to see things clearly we would say the miraculous has come, or when we can battle with equanimity against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to end them, when that blackness has become multi-coloured because of the light. At that moment we have the discernment for which we prayed in our Collect to see what is important, what the fullness of life really is. When Jesus asked that question, I think he wanted to wake up the disciples as to where they were and what really constituted their world.

I think Jesus wanted the disciples to see where they were, that they had each other’s strength to struggle through the storm. He may have rebuked the storm, but those fishermen should have realised they had each other to get through the winds and waves. Perhaps not surprisingly, that was the conclusion of that speaker on Wednesday night – the community is all around, if only we would look and see, as hard as that might be. We here are saved with one another in the body and blood of the lamb of God, the gift we must perceive and receive.

Amen 

Third Sunday before Lent

Collect

Almighty God, who alone can bring order to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity: give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; 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

Eternal God, whose Son went among the crowds and brought healing with his touch: help us to show his love, in your Church as we gather together, and by our lives as they are transformed into the image of Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Merciful Father, who gave Jesus Christ to be for us the bread of life, that those who come to him should never hunger: draw us to the Lord in faith and love, that we may eat and drink with him at his table in the kingdom, where he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

Thus says the Lord:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals

   and make mere flesh their strength,

   whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,

   and shall not see when relief comes.

They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,

   in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,

   whose trust is the Lord.

They shall be like a tree planted by water,

   sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,

   and its leaves shall stay green;

in the year of drought it is not anxious,

   and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The heart is devious above all else;

   it is perverse—

   who can understand it?

I the Lord test the mind

   and search the heart,

to give to all according to their ways,

   according to the fruit of their doings.

Jeremiah 17:5–10

Psalm

1  Blessed are they who have not walked

      in the counsel of the wicked, •

   nor lingered in the way of sinners,

      nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.

2  Their delight is in the law of the Lord •

   and they meditate on his law day and night.

3  Like a tree planted by streams of water

      bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither, •

   whatever they do, it shall prosper.

4  As for the wicked, it is not so with them; •

   they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

5  Therefore the wicked shall not be able to stand in the judgement, •

   nor the sinner in the congregation of the righteous.

6  For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, •

   but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 1

Epistle

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

1 Corinthians 15:12–20

Gospel

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

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.

Luke 6:17–26

Sermon on Third Sunday before Lent

The Gospel and the OT lesson can teach us about a technique for studying the Bible. It is called “Form Criticism”, a discipline that emerged from the literary study of the Bible. Scholars noticed that there were structural similarities between different passages. A specific form of words was used over and over again. We have two such passages here. In Jeremiah we read about the Lord cursing “those who trust in mere mortals” and blessing “those who trust in the Lord”. What a contrast between the two. The cursed are likened to “a shrub in the desert” which will never see relief of any sort, rising from land which has salt sown in it – earth incapable of sustaining life. The blessed will be like “a tree planted by a river” whose roots move to drink its sweet water.

In the gospel Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry, those who weep and the hated with the promise of the kingdom of God, fullness and joy. In contrast to this he can only bemoan the fate of the rich, the fed, the laughing and the flattered, because he sees them being already consoled with riches in this present world, but hungry in the future, mournful and led astray by false words.

These blessings and curses are the reversal of fortune that all hope for in their despondency, when aid is with-held from those who deserve the duty of care, when the law of God should be fulfilled. We can see this in our own times, can’t we? When the poor, the faithful and those who hunger after righteousness are forsaken for what can be seen as trivial pursuits when we look at them in the light of heavenly things, and I don’t mean the kingdom to come, but the divine of love entering a person’s life.

This reversal is not an expression of what they called “the politics of envy” when the political parties were so very different in vision, when the poor were so very poor and the rich had distanced themselves from everyone else. The reversal must come about when the rich are no longer charitable, when pockets are deliberately made too deep for any of the short arms to reach down to the bottom of them.

The reversal will come, when God’s will for all humanity is accomplished, when there is that perfect peace for which we pray in the words of the BCP in particular – when there is the abiding care of charity shared abroad – when Martin Luther King’s dream has been realised, that all will understand themselves as brothers and sisters whatever their appearance. The reversal of all things we accept today will come – there is no doubt about that. I think we should actively work toward it to speed its coming. That law of love Jesus enjoined on all of humanity is the the alpha and omega of the eschatological reversal. Loving one another is a stark overturning of the world’s order, isn’t it? How many of our contemporaries try to love the people they know, let alone some samaritan.

I the Lord test the mind

   and search the heart,

to give to all according to their ways,

   according to the fruit of their doings.

How many of us are confident about the intentions of our mind and heart in the light of God’s judgement? But let’s not worry about that ultimate judgement of humanity. Let me think closer to my ownmost possibility. I am fearful when the “fruit of my doings” is declared in public. When the secret things of my life are revealed in the light of God’s day, on that day when there is no place to hide.

Sorry, I have strayed from my didactic purpose. I wanted to see how the analysis of our language can help us understand religious discourse, as at this time, blessings and curses are to the forefront.

These blessings and curses show us how the world’s order is upset. The rich, whom we ordinarily extol, are to become poor, as poor as the person now derided as poor by the so-called “rich”. The poor are without the cash to lavish on holidays and parties – you know, the sort of aspirations the winners of quiz shows reveal, as they covet the prize money before answering their final questions to grasp that money.

Their replies to “What will you do with all that money?” reveal an awful lot, don’t you think? – I think we could do an analysis of this form of questioning to illuminate the hopes of our own generation. How many of us would answer, “I would like to give this money to my neighbour who has lost his job,” or “I would like to pay off a school loan for that fellow down the road?” Doesn’t the world expect us to be misers and only put our money in our mattresses “for another time”? Or, if not misers, the world expects us to be profligate and spend, spend, spend.  I know I am guilty of being a miser, for every penny I earn now must be put aside for my “retirement”, never mind some frivolity, some frippery of extravagance. I am expected to be the miser by all around me in order to keep my family well.

Examining the forms into which I express my hopes and fears reveals a great deal of my inmost thoughts, for ultimately everything spills out no matter how tight we think we keep the lid on things. This is true of thoughts as it is of emotions. The psychiatrists of whatever school they belong to, have always acknowledged the hidden to be revealed in some way – tragically it comes through in psychotic behaviour, sadly through neuroses, comically through slips of the tongue.

But revealed the hidden always will be, whether through self-revelation or through the efforts of an investigative police officer or a journalist. Even the academics get in on the act in their research about the great and good.

Blessings and curses are just one such form of expression with which reveals so much about ourselves. The scholars have opened our eyes to what we really want deep in our hearts, hidden sometimes even from ourselves.

The questions arise in light of our readings today, “Whom do we curse?” and “Whom do we bless?” These interrogatives must be at the forefront of our minds. To whom did you last blurt out a blessing? Whom did you last curse under your breath? We do it all the time, don’t we? We get so upset and rail against everything, just like Job in his despair. However, Job did not curse God, he could only bless God for all the good he had received, even though he could curse the very day of his birth. Even though such dark times clouded his world, at the core of his being was a blessing of Almighty God, even if he felt God had abandoned him. My exhortation is that we should examine the forms of our language to see just what they reveal our ownmost possibility really is.

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.

Amen.

Prayer After 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.

Amen

Readings

Old Testament

See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. “So I will come near to you for judgement. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.

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 the children brought to glory by God have flesh and blood, Jesus too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Hebrews 2.14–18

Gospel

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons”. Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,  you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Luke 2.22–40

Sermon on Candlemass

The opening bidding of the Collect describes this festival of the Church, “[God’s] beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple.” We recall this event in our liturgical recounting of the life of Christ. We lighten up the world with the living flames of candles as well as our very selves. We have come to Church today in the hope that, as our Collect says, “we may be presented to [God] with pure and clean hearts.” In other words, we want to show ourselves to the world as worthy people.

So, what is the presentation in the Temple all about? We don’t have anything like this in our time, do we? Modernity is not tied to temples or religion, is it? So how can we understand this bible story? – I think we need to go back for a history lesson to see what we can make of it.

According to the “the Law of Moses”, women who had had a child were to hold themselves in isolation for a period of time because they were considered unclean, that is, ritually unclean, because of the blood of childbirth. After that period of separation, they were to go to the Temple to make an offering of a pair of doves or two young pigeons. Ritual purity, as we know, was one of the points of conflict in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had a distinct difference of opinion with the scribes, pharisees and sadducees. Although I am sure he agreed with them that purity was of prime importance, they had to disagree about how this purity was achieved. After all, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Mary and Joseph in today’s gospel reading undertake this presentation and ritual purification. They take Jesus up to the Temple to present Jesus, their firstborn, as an offering consecrated to the Lord. I have to ask – don’t we all do this when we have our first child? Don’t we feel the exultation of this birth? Don’t we want to give thanks in the most potent terms available to us? We feel this very real impulse, just as the ancient Hebrews must have done those millennia past, because the urge to joy is so overpowering in every breast at the birth of a child.

We are so full of happiness that we want to share our child with the world. Isn’t that what the presentation in the Temple is all about? In old-fashioned language, don’t we want to consecrate our firstborn as holy to God, because we feel God’s embrace with this birth? I would like to say that we want to acknowledge this blessing of life before the whole world, before everything that means anything to us. I suppose even we would undertake this ritual presentation in the Temple at Jerusalem especially when we have this motivation of exultant joy.

With a new-born child, don’t we feel so very different? We are protective, observant, loving, even full of pride – I think most parents would say that their children “grow and become strong;” that they are “filled with wisdom,” and some would perhaps like to say that “the grace of God was upon them.” All of this in the very same way Mary and Joseph evaluated Jesus’ life with them. These children are growing straight and true in the way their parents would expect, perhaps invisible in the teenage years, but ever in their dreams. The parents’ children will  always be better than they themselves are. It is no wonder that parents would present their children to the Lord in epochs past, and certainly parents today would show them off to the world, just as Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple so long ago.

However, in modern times, there are no temples or rituals to mark any special times or places during the course of our very mundane  lives – everything is flat: there are no peaks or troughs in time and space. Everything is secular, without any sort of other dimension. There is no spiritual acknowledged in our everyday life. I think we have lost the qualities of sacred and profane in out lives. But, the question I have to ask is this: do we really feel that lack of quality of life, when it comes to our new-born children? That classic picture of the ever-so-happy Daddy distributing cigars to everyone who bumps into him – even the nurses on the ward where mother lies recovering from her labour – that image should give us pause for thought, because we understand just what he is feeling, the exultation of life in all its fullness, and he is driven to share that joy with everyone he meets.

What if we could capture that same exultation of joy in our everyday lives? Don’t we actually try to do that in the liturgy of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? I would suggest that we are doing this today, as we remember the presentation of Jesus in the Temple and in fact present ourselves – as we have prayed in our Collect – with pure and clean hearts. It is not just to this gathered congregation, but we are bid to “Go in the peace of Christ”, aren’t we? That final command means to me that we are proposing to go out into the world with a good conscience to participate in life in all its fullness. We are attempting to capture the event of Christ being presented in the Temple through the rite of the Church, and more feebly through these words I am sharing with you.

The ancients used to try to relive the event through myths, symbols and rituals. Today we do so through active recollection of the past, reciting the story and discussing it – well me thinking aloud and you listening to my chattering from the pulpit. However, as I write my thoughts down, I am actually reliving everything I will speak about with you – the joy of birth, the mystery of life, the grace of salvation, all of these things are relived in my preparation to speak with you. I am at that moment closer to the ancients than I am the secular world of the everyday where there is no sacred and all stands in the flat desert of modernity.

In my preparation, I live out a cyclical temporality, where the past becomes real to me. It is an experience that I think everyone can have.

What if our lives are renewed by liturgical repetition of these sacred stories in the life of Christ? Recounting these stories could actually make sense of life, the universe and everything, don’t you think? I would say that the Church’s liturgical repetition of the saving history makes sense of life. When we gather to present Jesus in the temple, we are presenting ourselves to God as we meet to pray for the needs of the world as well as ourselves. We are met to hear again the scriptures. Ultimately, we are resolved to reconcile ourselves with one another. Our prayers, in fact, might guide everyone, even those outside church, to pursue the paths of divine purity, because Jesus is here with us.

Amen

Third Sunday after Epiphany

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.

Prayer after 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

All the Israelite people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

The Levites also read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.“

Nehemiah 8.1-3,5-6,8-10

Psalm

1    The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2    One day pours out its song to another and one night unfolds knowledge to another.

3    They have neither speech nor language and their voices are not heard,

4    Yet their sound has gone out into all lands and their words to the ends of the world.

5    In them has he set a tabernacle for the sun, that comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber and rejoices as a champion to run his course.

6    It goes forth from the end of the heavens and runs to the very end again, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Psalm 19

Epistle

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts.

1 Corinthians 12.12-31

Gospel

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4.14-21

Sermon on Third Sunday after Epiphany

Our Collect confirms that we are still in the season of Epiphany, in the more general season of Christmass. It is a glorious time in the liturgical year, even if the weather is poor, and we are a bit cold and wet when we go out to visit or off to work. Even inside the house, it is dark and the lights have to come on early. In spite of all this, the church is still in gold reflecting the glory of heaven upon us.

In the past few weeks our God has been revealed in the incarnation, in the visit of wise men, in Jesus’ baptism, and in the miracle at Cana. Today our God reveals himself with Words – “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” After all, who but God is able “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Who else would dare declare “freedom for prisoners”? Who would pronounce “sight for the blind” is available? Who would want to “release the oppressed”? Certainly not our politicians or the bullies in our midst. In my experience, only the prophets who have been touched by the Spirit of God have been so bold to proclaim such a message of hope to the world.

All of these proclamations are not anything that we would declare in our ordinary lives, are they? I would never declare that the blind could see. Would you? What about proclaiming freedom and release to all the people struggling under the restraints of this world? I would never be able to declare a prisoner free, even though I might wish it with all my heart. Perhaps the Spirit moves in me to make me speak those words of hope to the fettered of the world, because I have heard them for myself.

I hope that I could “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” the year of Jubilee when all debt is cancelled and everyone starts out with a clean slate, when no sins would be attributed to any person. – I truly want to be the person to declare such a state of grace for the world, but who would listen to me as I utter such words?

The event our reading describes is the very real epiphany of God in time. In our hearing, the scripture has been fulfilled. – That is the important thing – in our hearing. What does that mean? I don’t think it means that it is a tannoy announcement like at the bus station, it is not gossip, it is not chatter. When that sort of gibberish-like speech enters our ears, we don’t really hear it, do we? It doesn’t even go in one ear. That sort of prattle means nothing. We ignore it because we are not engaged by it, it means nothing to us at all, because it is just background noise.

But in our hearing means that a completely different type of language has come into our auditory universe, the speech-act has become symbolic in the most profound sense. Our world has been transformed with what even we do call an “epiphany”. Meaning has entered our world in a primordial way, hasn’t it?

In our hearing suggests that we understand our language in a different way. I think it means that we are engaged with a meaning which enlightens our so far limited world.

We have always heard of miracles, like the miracle at Cana when water became wine in last week’s gospel. I would like to ask you, isn’t hearing a miracle of the same sort? Don’t we all know that? When “we get it” – whether it be that problem in mathematics, that abstruse linguistic configuration, the perception puzzle in the glossy magazine, even the healing of the sick in the gospel – when we get it, everything changes. We can never look at that thing in the same way ever again because it is no longer a conundrum. The light bulb has gone off in our head and there is no darkness left there any more. All is revealed and we are open to a universe in which there is significance and meaning. In the most profound instances, it is when symbols connect with their transcendent meaning. The deaf do hear, the blind to see, the water tastes like wine, and life is experienced in all its fullness. – I think this happened when Jesus read the scriptures to those people naturally gathered in that synagogue and pronounced, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Nothing was the same for anyone in that congregation – nor in this one – ever again. The words of Jesus were seen as clear and full, no longer were they merely pious hope, but lives are transformed by hearing those words.

Why? Why did Jesus say this? We all know that the miracles of the scripture, healing the sick, freeing the enslaved, letting the blind see – all of these miracles were absolutely real when they heard the words finally.

How does this work? In our ordinary experience, when we don’t hear, we don’t understand the miraculous. What happens when we do hear? Doesn’t the symbolic become present? Doesn’t the divine appear in our very ordinary world and so transform it. This has happened since time immemorial, but it happens for us, when we hear Jesus speak to us. This is Epiphany, isn’t it? When Jesus speaks, we hear, and that hearing makes everything different, the world has a sacred dimension because the divine impacts on our lives. We hear the meaning of everything around us. Nothing escapes that transforming light.

When do we hear? When is that moment of perception realised in our lives? Each of us knows when that has happened. I wonder – do we ever hear our neighbours? That neighbour is next to you – it can be your husband or wife, your parents, your siblings, the person who lives next door – why, it could even be someone who lives on the other side of this universal global village! When we listen and hear that neighbour, don’t things change? We are connected with that person most profoundly, and it becomes loving our neighbour.

When we hear the other, does our world contract? Do we remain the island we think we are in our fear? No, there is an expansion of our world, we live on continents of openness, not contracting and constricting isles. When we hear, our world connects with another’s and we become engaged with a far greater world. We are no longer isolated when we hear

I would like to say that hearing is how we begin to fulfill the commandments Jesus set out for all who would follow his way in the world. Loving our neighbour begins by listening and when we truly love, the world is transformed. How can we hear and not understand the other person? I would like to think that this openness of hearing is the open heart of christian αγαπη

Amen

Second Sunday of Epiphany

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.

Readings

Old Testament

This is what the LORD says— he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Isaiah 43.1–7

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 

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:14–17

Gospel 

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:15–17, 21–22

Prayer after 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.

Amen

Sermon on Second Sunday of Epiphany

Our gospel reading begins with these words: “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts.” What did you immediately think, when you heard these words, or when you read them before our worship began? Well, my thoughts turned to my family. I wondered, “what are you waiting for expectantly?” “What are you all wondering about in your hearts?”

Then I turned my gaze to myself – what in the world am I waiting for expectantly? Is it that homemade cake waiting for us when we have finished our worship this morning? Is it the company who will come later today? Is it the work I have lined up for tomorrow? However, I have to ask myself – do I wait for these things expectantly? Am I like the pregnant woman awaiting in heightened expectation culminating in the new life about to be delivered to the world? No, there is nothing that momentous event; nothing grabs me, so that everything fades into the faint background of ordinariness.

Then I focussed on another thought – what outside of the world am I wondering about? You all know that I keep company with the philosopher who ever wanders about the field of metaphysics, those thoughts which are beyond the everyday but which make sense of the world. Such wonder I find when I walk those fields with him! There are other times I find wonder like you do, when we look at a sunset, a butterfly wing, the eyes of our beloved – such wonder takes us out of the world and we transcend all the ordinariness of the everyday in which we live.

What do we expect and why do we wonder? This future orientation and remembrance of the past is fundamental to human being. Expecting and remembering somehow define just who we are. So what do we wonder about from our past (individual or collective) and what do we hope to come to us in the future?

These are not idle questions, for, if John is a prophet and a saint, he is speaking directly to us as we watch the spectacle of baptism at his hand. Jesus has come to John for baptism, just as we came to the vicar – the representative of Christ – for our own baptism. That event of the past defines us, doesn’t it? For at our baptism we were named publicly. “I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” And the priest used our name – probably for the first time in public before the assembled throng which had gathered for this infant’s baptism. That voice announced who we are so all would know.

Today we are gathering to celebrate the baptism of Jesus. We acknowledge epiphany in this baptism – when the Spirit of the Lord descended onto Jesus as he rose from the waters. ‘And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” ’

This baptism is a naming in the most extraordinary manner, isn’t it? ‘A voice came from heaven.’ The vicar’s voice would have been like that voice from heaven to the infant in his arms at our baptism, don’t you think? The announcement of who this person being baptised is to be called, is revelatory for all those who knew that Mr and Mrs Davis had a son, but didn’t know anything else about the child. This is an epiphany for them all in my little life. But let’s write this large in the life of the world, when that voice from heaven declares Jesus – this anonymous supplicant is the beloved son, in whom this voice from heaven is well pleased. This is an epiphany for the world, and epiphany in its proper sense – because it is the revelation of God.

I think every baptism is a revelatory event, baptism reveals in world history and in our own private experience. Don’t we often speak of “baptism” more widely, not just in terms of that liturgical rite of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? We often speak of some sort of baptism, when we move from one thing to another, from one job into another or from one mode of life into another. We often speak of a “baptism of fire”, for instance, which the hero has to go through to gain the prize. We ourselves go through harrowing experiences, which we call our own little baptisms of fire, to reach another place. Baptism, I would like to say, is a change of who we are. These can be seen personal epiphanies, where we are revealed to the world – but, even more importantly, these are times when we are revealed to our very selves – we are seen as just who we are. This is revelation on the grand scale – even within the confines of my own life.

Isn’t this what Jesus’ baptism really is for creation? Jesus is baptised and this shows to everyone just who he is for us. That is the important thing, Jesus is who he is for us, because that voice from heaven exploded in our hearing and wakes us up from our slumber of ignorance. God has appeared right there in front of the world.

Baptism and epiphany go together in Jesus’ life, why shouldn’t they do so in our own lives here and now. They often are a life-changing grand event, but sometimes epiphanies can be seen in the most humble of events and things, as the philosopher keeps telling me. He reminds me that every moment is a possible when,  in which the divine can break into the world, into our lives. The Church through its theologians and pastors, its saints and sinners, also tells the same story. 

God can come in the most mysterious ways, through something we don’t expect. I suppose this is what the Christmass story is all about, and what today’s readings are telling us – God can come into our lives. We can see the revelation of God here and now, but only if our eyes are open – to take in the light which shines in the world, that light which the darkness cannot comprehend or stifle, that light which guides us to remembrance and hope.

We should be like that crowd gathered by the waters of the Jordan. We should be able to hear the Baptist say that there is something coming greater than this baptism of water, a baptism of fire which will burn away all the chaff of the ordinary. I think we should be just like those “people … waiting expectantly and … wondering in their hearts” for what will come. Perhaps it will be ‘life in all its fullness’ for each and every one.

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. Amen

Psalm

(1Alleluia.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;

praise him in the heights.

2Praise him, all you his angels;

praise him, all his host.

3Praise him, sun and moon;

praise him, all you stars of light.

4Praise him, heaven of heavens,

and you waters above the heavens.

5Let them praise the name of the Lord;

for he commanded and they were created.

6He made them fast for ever and ever;

he gave them a law which shall not pass away.)

7Praise the Lord from the earth,

you sea monsters and all deeps;

8Fire and hail, snow and mist,

tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;

9Mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars;

10Wild beasts and all cattle,

creeping things and birds on the wing;

11Kings of the earth and all peoples,

princes and all rulers of the world;

12Young men and women,

old and young together;

let them praise the name of the Lord.

13For his name only is exalted,

his splendour above earth and heaven.

14He 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

Old Testament

Samuel was ministering before the LORD—a boy wearing a linen ephod. Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the LORD give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the LORD.” Then they would go home. And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favour with the LORD and with men.

1 Samuel 2.18–20,26

Epistle

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3.12-17

Gospel

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.

Sermon on First Sunday of Christmass

I would like to consider the substance of our collect prayer for today. We have prayed, “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.”

Does this prayer really make sense to us who live in this age of science and demythologised religion? In other words, does this make sense to us contemporary Anglicans? Do we really understand that we are created in the image of God? Or more fundamentally that God has had a hand in our very creation, that God has formed us in our mother’s womb and fashioned our very sinews? And then the question arises, what is our ultimate goal? I would suggest that we are face to face with the thorny theological problem of original sin and how humanity stands before the abyss. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church places humanity outside of the Garden of Eden where there was a holy innocence, but points us on to heaven where there is salvation.

Our prayer accepts the fall of humanity from this ‘wonderfully created image’ into the mortality of sin. However, I wonder who really believes original sin is his or her ownmost reality. Finally in our prayer there is the assurance that we have been redeemed in such a miraculous manner so that the corrupt image within us, so defaced by sin in our very generation, has been restored to the true image of the divine in the event of Easter. The whence and whither of life is the heart of our thoughts as the new year begins.

The philosopher once described human life as “brutish and short”: we do have lives into which we are thrown with no explanation. I am sure we remember our teenage years, when we were exploring the meaning of life ever so privately. It was the time when we explored religion and our connection with any transcendent reality. Some of our contemporaries gave up on organised religion. Some did not. We were all confused, weren’t we? We had to make sense of life, and we felt so all alone. Life was certainly brutish. We were thrown into the welter of life, wondering about “where it was all at”.

We still have no “user’s manual” for life – we are just supposed to make all the right decisions. Or, so it would seem if we were to accept popular culture as a cue to the map of the world we inhabit. However, I don’t believe that. Do you think we have to stumble in life, bouncing from one situation to another, fumbling for the right decisions?

After all, if we are created in this divine image, how can we do anything badly? But on the other hand, if we are incarnate in a sinful body and mind, how are we to do anything well? These are the horizons of the maelstrom into which each human being is thrown. We founder in the storm of choices we must make – we have so much around us distracting us as we search for a way out of the terror of life.

I would like to suggest that Christmass is one of those events guiding us in the chaos of life. As the Feast of the Incarnation, it comes to our rescue to create a symbolic cosmos, where we find answers to the imponderables of the “whence and whither” of human existence. In Christmass we find the perfect expression of the divine becoming flesh just like us, don’t we? That is what all of our carols tell us, don’t they? Time and again we sing that we want to be like the child in the manger, meek and mild, obedient and good. We want so desperately to proclaim Joy to the World because the Lord has come. Today’s symbolic representation is presented in our reading from the gospel. It shows us the Chist-child in his father’s temple, that temple wherein we ourselves should dwell. For aren’t we just like the man Jesus, stranded in life making our way to God?

On reading this collect, the existential dilemma each one of us experiences has been drawn to the front of my mind, for here we are in the temple contemplating the human condition. I feel we are compelled to go to first principles as we consider the Feast of the Incarnation. I have to be honest with myself as I contemplate life, the universe and everything.

I became a human being with my birth. I was thrown into a world where I must choose the right and the good. I stand alone at the abyss without a user’s manual, but I have hope. I hope to live a good life. But how?

We always come back to the philosopher who has set the existential dilemma in front of us in the prosaic language of choosing the right course of action. His considerations, I feel, are reflected in our religious language. In the gospel we are set the mystery of Jesus innocently asking Mary and Joseph this question, ‘shouldn’t I be in the temple, “my father’s house”’? The question of the wherein we dwell confronts us starkly as we read this biblical passage and apply it to life as we know it. Do we dwell in the house of the Lord? Or do we sully our nature by immersing ourselves in the bloody filth of sinfulness, that life so far distant from the good and the right, that an angel bars our way back to it?

The prophets have always stood with us in this desert in which we find ourselves. They stand right by us in the decisions we make on the brink. We are in a wilderness and we have to see whether the tradition of prophets and religion makes sense to each one of us individually. I am convinced that we want to tread the path to glory, to release the grace within, to become that image of the divine fully human. This, I think, is the mystery of incarnation.

By being fully human, I become fully divine, all accomplished through grace.

I suppose Paul has expressed what this human divinity or divine humanity really is – “Over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Paul has given us a hint as to what the divine is in our daily lives in these few words. Let Paul provide some direction in the chaos of the new year’s eve.

Amen

Advent Sunday

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.

Readings

Old Testament

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Jeremiah 33:14–16 

Psalm 

[Of David.]

1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

2 O my God, in you I trust;

   do not let me be put to shame;

   do not let my enemies exult over me.

3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

   let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord;

   teach me your paths.

5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me,

   for you are the God of my salvation;

   for you I wait all day long.

6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,

   for they have been from of old.

7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;

   according to your steadfast love remember me,

   for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

8 Good and upright is the Lord;

   therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

9 He leads the humble in what is right,

   and teaches the humble his way.

Psalm 25

Epistle

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 3:9–13

Gospel

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Luke 21:25–36

Sermon on Advent Sunday

“The season has begun” the announcer said this morning when she said it was the first Sunday of Advent. And I wondered what she meant. Advent is a season secular society does not understand at all. Everyone around us here in Church sees these four weeks as a time of parties up until the day. We, however, are in a time of expectation, awaiting the coming of Christ into our lives. The Church understands these four Sundays as the preparation for Christmass, traditionally a time of fasting just like Lent as we prepare for the mystery of Easter, but in Advent we are preparing for the feast of the Incarnation and, I especially, look forward to the twelve days of Christmass. Then there is the extended Christmass season which stretches from Christmass Day to Candlemass when we should really party.

I have digressed and I have not even started thinking of the first Sunday of Advent. There are a number of ways Advent has been structured. The first took the four last things as the focus for each of the Sundays; the more usual amongst us Anglicans is the focus on the patriarchs, the prophets, John and Mary; then there is a more abstract scheme which sees the four candles of the Advent wreath as candles of Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. These ways of looking at the season is so very different from the radio announcer’s declaration of opening the second window of the Advent calendar to reveal an angel and the tinkling of a bell marking an angelus. So I have been confused about just how we should celebrate Advent.

I wonder if anyone, apart from St Paul, has ever said to themselves about another person or group – “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” Who could make us stand before our God and open our hearts in joyful thanksgiving? – I have always hoped my family and friends would give me that power to be able to stand tall and thankfully before anyone everywhere, but especially to give me the courage to kneel in the presence of my God, the source and goal for all things.

Who does this for you? Is there a third party in your life who inspires you to thankfulness and joy? Do you ever cry out in those exquisite groanings which Paul calls prayer? What theological imperative forces Paul into this rhetoric of his letter?

Paul is expressing his joy at knowing these faithful people who are the harvest of the seeds he has sown. They buoy him up because of their lives together in Christ within that young community. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” Paul wants to give them something because of their very existence which has floated his world amongst all care and despair.

Don’t we do the same when we think of those people who have encouraged us? Don’t we say to them, “Whatever I can do for you, please ask”? Don’t we say this to our family – wherever we are in the world, we are willing to go home for mother, father, son or daughter, perhaps we would do this for our godparents or godchildren, or at a stretch maybe cousins. We can understand this overwhelming desire to share our riches because of that deep bond, that bond which makes us rejoice at our memory of them. We understand why Paul wants to drop everything for them. — We all know this overwhelming urge to give and not to count the cost – especially as we have traversed through the season of remembrance. We all want to return something for the joy we have received.  We want to give to those from whom we received the seeds of love which blossom in us.

I think the theological imperative which impels Paul here is caritas – the basis of the christian life, the only command issued to us by our Lord, our Master, Jesus Christ. Why is caritas a theological imperative?

Nowadays, we say, love is merely an emotion. It surely has nothing to do with how I think about life, the universe and everything. – caritas may have something to do with my God, but how? We moderns have learned a lot about how people are made up through so many secular studies of humanity, and I think one of the primary lessons is the notion of the wholeness of the person, the Gestalt. – We are more than the sum of our parts. We have realised that emotions do ground us in experience and our intellect helps us understand just what it is we have undergone. Paul is right, saying to his friends in Thessalonica that their bond founded in Christ and developed in their tending one another in their fields of experience has brought this profound joy to him and he must give them back something, and if anything is missing in their faith which they developed together, then he is the first to make amends. He obviously feels that he is obliged to make their joy complete as they have done for him. What can give more profound joy than faith?

I have coined the phrase “theological imperative” from the philosopher in part. He uses “imperative” in terms of moral action, the basis of ethics. My phrase points to the very basis of our lives, something even deeper than our quest to lead the philosopher’s moral life. I think the theological imperative compels us through the whole of life, that ultimately everything stems from it. It determines just what we are because we are always responding to it.

How well we do is another story. “If we say we have no sin, …” as the evangelist John warns in his first epistle. The more aware we are of our failure, our sin, our guilt, the more we are engaged in our lives, that fullness of life Jesus promised. Hence Paul writes as he does to the Thessalonians and each and every letter we write (whether it is putting pen to paper or finger to ipad screen) should reflect this. We live very differently from the secular world as our understanding of Advent shows. The whole point of our lives is about the love we share, not the deals we do. Paul prays that God will strengthen their hearts in holiness. That blamelessness is a very different thing for Paul than for the people who are outside of the community. Paul’s blameless heart is pure – it is holy – a quality the world does not recognise, but we have to be ever vigilant to ensure.

This vigilance is the task of Advent – to be found prepared and waiting like the wise virgins at the door waiting for their master to arrive. We are expecting the second coming, aren’t we? I hope we expect the powerful presence of the Lord in the very next minute of our love.

Amen

Remembrance Sunday

Readings

Psalm

1  God is our refuge and strength, •

   a very present help in trouble;

2  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, •

   and though the mountains tremble in the heart of the sea;

3  Though the waters rage and swell, •

   and though the mountains quake at the towering seas.

4  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, •

   the holy place of the dwelling of the Most High.

5  God is in the midst of her;

      therefore shall she not be removed; •

   God shall help her at the break of day.

6  The nations are in uproar and the kingdoms are shaken, •

   but God utters his voice and the earth shall melt away.

7  The Lord of hosts is with us; •

   the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

8  Come and behold the works of the Lord, •

   what destruction he has wrought upon the earth.

9  He makes wars to cease in all the world; •

   he shatters the bow and snaps the spear

      and burns the chariots in the fire.

10  ‘Be still, and know that I am God; •

   I will be exalted among the nations;

      I will be exalted in the earth.’

11  The Lord of hosts is with us; •

   the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Psalm 46

First Reading

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

‘Where, O death, is your victory?

   Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.

1 Corinthians 15.50–58

Second Reading

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

John 15:9-17

Sermon on Remembrance Sunday

“We shall remember them” echoes around this part of the month of November, but never more poignantly than today this year – the centenary of the Armistice of the war to end all wars.

soldiers in slimbridge

Many have visited Slimbridge to stand watch, to remember, with the wire soldiers over the graves of the young men who died in that war. The loss of so many from the parishes of this benefice has been highlighted this year with the events in Slimbridge and throughout the country. So many have been remembered poignantly.

soldier in slimbridge

As you know I listen to Radio Three. The loss of so many musicians and composers has been lamented deeply, recalling them to mind by playing the music they had left behind them before their untimely deaths. Let us, as a song puts it, “beat the drums slowly” while we remember them, let the drums beat as our hearts pound in our breasts as we mourn the loss of so many.

Today we remember the dead from war, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We are their friends: we are friends unseen by the dead of war. So many wars have been fought in this century, some named as such, others hidden under other names, like “conflict” or “police action” or “peace keeping”. Whatever the name used, the dead lie in their graves, while all of us mourn their loss in some way.

We have stood by cenotaphs up and down the land. We have remembered those who laid down their lives for their friends. We have bowed our heads in the silence of eleven o’clock on November eleventh for the past hundred years, and still we mourn the fact that war continues and more will die because of mankind’s inhumanity. We will mourn those friends who have died for the sake of their friends, those who were by their sides and those who remember them today, at a far remove.

How can we transform this mourning into joy?

“We shall remember them” tolls in our hearts in that slow drum beat of remembrance. How – how shall we remember them? Their heroic deeds of going over the top? Their painful deaths after the battle? Their extended deaths well after the war has been declared over?

I believe the departed have passed life on to us. That is what we should remember and rejoice in our collective life humbly.

I was reading a novel, a murder mystery set in Canada, in which the central character reflects on the elderly, specifically the elders of the Inuit during the winter, the harshest time of the year for those in the frozen north. He said that in those times of hardship the elderly would walk off. They would find themselves on an ice-flow and sail away. I suppose it would be like the fellow with Scott in the Antarctic who stood up and said, “I may be some time,” and left. No one said anything, did they? Just as no one says anything in that village of the far north when one of the elders leaves quietly.

Captain Oats made the same ultimate sacrifice like the nameless elders of the Inuits. I am absolutely sure that we can imagine the thoughts of the freezing party surrounding Scott just as easily as we can imagine what the immediate family in the frozen north thought and felt – don’t we do the same at the side of the sick-bed of a loved one who is less than vigorous, whose life is passing before our eyes.

“We shall remember them.” summarises all, doesn’t it? It is a shorthand for thoughts and feelings, for our mourning.

Whom shall we remember today? We are in the midst of the season of remembrance. We have remembered all the saints and we have remembered all the souls. Today we answer “We remember the fallen”. Certainly we remember the soldiers and sailors who have given their tomorrows for our todays. But there are many others who have fallen, aren’t there?

So many have died less than heroic deaths in war. Some died in prison camps. Some died by the wayside, forgotten. Some died much later than the end of the battle, at home in their rooms, alone in terror because of their experiences. Some just, as McArthur said, “faded away” into the mist of time anonymously. – There are so many ways of falling because of war. So we must continue to remember in order to learn from the bloody past.

Memory plays the greatest of roles in culture, doesn’t it? We remember the past, like in a rowboat – we travel forward as we look behind perhaps occasionally looking over our shoulder, but that future glance is so hard.

We remember. And to transform the tears of grief into tears of joy, just like those who made that sacrifice, we love. This is  our battle which we must win. We must love.

In spite of all the odds, in spite of the culture of hatred, and doubt, and self-absoption – we struggle to love, to care without concupiscence for the person in front of us. We struggle against the enemy, those who are unkind, those who are selfish, those whose horizons encompass no-one else.

So we wander into the frozen wasteland of our contemporary society, hoping to conquer the loneliness, the lack of compassion, everything we realise is lacking when we have no friend, when we feel no love. “What a friend we have in Jesus”, as the venerable children’s hymn goes, Jesus who is willing to give everything up for us – Has he done this for me??? we sometimes ask. He has done this for me!!! we then proclaim with joy.

Amazing grace, indeed. That old hymn is the adults’ standard, one that we children grow up to sing with gusto, ultimately understanding just what a friend really is.

How shall we remember those people who have shared the grace of love with us? That is the struggle love faces every moment of every day. How shall we remember those friends we have in Jesus, let alone the one friend we do have in Jesus?

Paul writes, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” When we do remember our friends is that moment of the last trumpet, that twinkling of a conscientiously and conscious seeing eye.

“We shall remember them”

Amen

Fourth Sunday before Advent

Collect

Almighty and eternal God, you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints: grant to us the same faith and power of love, that, as we rejoice in their triumphs, we may be sustained by their example and fellowship; 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 glory, touch our lips with the fire of your Spirit, that we with all creation may rejoice to sing your praise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Now this is the commandment — the statutes and the ordinances — that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:1–9

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

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Hebrews 9:11–14

Gospel

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Mark 12:28–34

Sermon on Fourth Sunday before Advent

We are told, “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Why did no one dare? Why did everyone give up asking Jesus questions?

I am just the opposite, full of questions, questions that only my Lord and my God can answer. I am also jealous of that young man who replied to Jesus because he is not far from the kingdom of God, while I am lost in this desert of sorrows, this landscape of desolation. So, I can only question everything and expect that answers will come before my hope runs out, before I despair at the lack of any answers to my questions. After all, no one I know can give me the response I seek.

This is especially true at this time of year, when memories crowd around me, as the Church remembers those who have gone before, saints and sinners alike.

The saints cause us to falter on the way to our ownmost possibility. How can we behave like any of them, like Ignatius of Antioch who offered himself to the lions in Rome, like Thomas Aquinas who devoted his life to his summa theologica, like Oscar Romero who was shot to death as he celebrated mass? They went on in their own ways but stop us on ours – like that young man who talked with Jesus about the greatest commandment, that scribe whom Jesus judged to be near to the Kingdom.

When we look at ourselves, we are only filled with doubt, with questions about reaching that Kingdom. Questions which those around Jesus never asked. Questions which our contemporaries will never raise. However, here we are with those pointed interrogatives bristling everywhere.

Do we dare to ask those prickly enquiries? Do we approach Jesus in our doubting confidence to ask about the coming of the Kingdom? Are we as wise as that fellow was who asked Jesus about the greatest commandment?

I often come back to what Jesus says to this scribe,

‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Here is the beginning of all theology. First there is God, then there are people. These two commandments to love concentrate our attention on the two focal points of life as we know it. The scribe, like us, must live a moral life, amongst our fellow human beings for their sake, not just our own. But we can love our neighbour only because we have a love greater than all creation, because we love God.

That love transforms all life, and so we can appreciate ourselves and our fellows. I know that my world is transformed when I love. When my beloved enters the room, everything changes. I have an inner strength which when I am alone and afraid, when I am without love, is impossible. When I realise that my beloved is with me, literally and metaphorically, when holding my hand or merely at the forefront of my mind, then I am a new being. We can all understand how the creation is vitalised when we love God, that beyond which nothing can be conceived, when I love God the ultimate cause of all things. The fact is: when I love God I am invincible, nothing can harm me and I can harm no one.

I have been reading a novel lately – a murder mystery naturally – and one of the characters says that when someone is religious, when he loves God, then his actions are good and right. It is only when there is hate that evil events can take place in life. Hatred disfigures everything – nothing appears as it is. The kindness shown to others when viewed through through hate is evaluated as weakness, and the distortion continues throughout every virtuous action we might accomplish. All is diminished and demeaned and the world is dark, a place without grace and pity, a place where no one really wants to dwell. However, even that seemingly dark place can be transformed by that love religion offers that same love – the love of God and of neighbour. The world can become a place we desire to dwell because of our engagement with each other and beyond. This is the symbolic life, where the lived world becomes greater than the sum of its parts, its meaning is outside of time and space, and that symbolic life is where we want, and need, to dwell.

No longer do we escape into other worlds, worlds characterised by fantasy or denial, but the two commandments validate the whole of our lives. We expect the dark night will give way, at some time, to a bright dawn of which we sing later on in the year, at the beginning of the church’s new year.

Where there is love, there is light. No darkness in true love. Everything is illuminated with care, with kindness. This is the world Jesus talks about. It has nothing to do with the tax man or riches. Instead the tax man becomes our companion and we distribute riches to all in need.

The great prize is that innocent love of neighbour which arises from the love of God. The richest of gifts is the zealous love of God which focuses beyond the horizons of the world as we experience it here and now in the cramped conditions of human frailty. And we are to distribute the prizes to all and sundry without prejudice, without any agenda. When we give this gift away, when we love as Christ loves us, then we know the love of God. That love which makes us the object of love and which concentrates on God. That love is an end in itself and like the philosopher’s moral action is sought for no other reason than it should be so.

Jesus is talking about something we all know deep within our hearts, at the base of our lives, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Jesus wants to be asked questions about life.

However, we must dare to do so. Do we dare like that scribe to ask Jesus about the commandment which is first of all? Do we dare to talk about it with one another? If we don’t dare, we are silent – we become that silent majority of the politicians which they say condones all they do in our name. Let us dare to be a vocal majority, moving all to a brighter world where hearts are open and horizons infinite, a world where there need be no barbed wire at the borders, just a warming cup of tea and a heartfelt welcome into a very brave, new world.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 21

Collect

Grant, we beseech you, merciful Lord, to your faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins and serve you with a quiet mind; 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)

Almighty God, in whose service lies perfect freedom: teach us to obey you with loving hearts and steadfast wills; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,

   I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

   Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

   Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

   or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,

   so that a flood of waters may cover you?

Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go

   and say to you, “Here we are”?

Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,

   or given understanding to the mind?

Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?

   Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,

when the dust runs into a mass

   and the clods cling together?

‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,

   or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,

when they crouch in their dens,

   or lie in wait in their covert?

Who provides for the raven its prey,

   when its young ones cry to God,

   and wander about for lack of food?

Job 38:1-7, 34–41

Psalm

1  Bless the Lord, O my soul. •

   O Lord my God, how excellent is your greatness!

2  You are clothed with majesty and honour, •

   wrapped in light as in a garment.

3  You spread out the heavens like a curtain •

   and lay the beams of your dwelling place in the waters above.

4  You make the clouds your chariot •

   and ride on the wings of the wind.

5  You make the winds your messengers •

   and flames of fire your servants.

6  You laid the foundations of the earth, •

   that it never should move at any time.

7  You covered it with the deep like a garment; •

   the waters stood high above the hills.

8  At your rebuke they fled; •

   at the voice of your thunder they hastened away.

9  They rose up to the hills and flowed down to the valleys beneath, •

   to the place which you had appointed for them.

10  You have set them their bounds that they should not pass, •

   nor turn again to cover the earth.

26  O Lord, how manifold are your works! •

   In wisdom you have made them all;

      the earth is full of your creatures.

35  I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; •

   I will make music to my God while I have my being.

Psalm 104

Epistle

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

‘You are my Son,

   today I have begotten you’;

as he says also in another place,

‘You are a priest for ever,

   according to the order of Melchizedek.’

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 5:1–10

Gospel

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’ When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Mark 10:35-45

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 21

I wonder if our prayers are the sort of thing the disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asked of Jesus. Do we call upon God with, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you”? I wonder whether our prayers are so self-centred that we fail to ask God for what is right and good?

This reminds me of the story of the poor widow who pesters the unjust judge to do what is right. His exasperation with the constant reminders the widow bombards him about her cause, provokes a final “To get rid of her, I will do what I should have done all that time ago.” This story is about prayer, how we should be constant and insistent in our addressing God. But what is our  “cause” with which we pester God? Why do we keep calling out to God?

But let us return to the story of the sons of Zebedee. They are asking for prestige and power. “Who will sit at your right hand? Who will sit at your left?” We expect our contemporaries to ask these questions – we do not expect any of the disciples to do so. How could the original followers of Jesus be so cras, so un–spiritual? Just to be in that band of disciples should have been enough, don’t you think?

Jesus upbraids these thunderous petitioners. He tells them they don’t know what they are asking. – Do they really want to drink the cup of sorrow that Jesus must drink? Do they understand the baptism through which he is about to pass? The obvious answer is – No. The disciples are surely just like us: the disciples really don’t understand the how of Jesus’ leadership into the Kingdom of God. But their assurance that they are willing to follow, allows Jesus to confirm that they will experience the same baptism and that the same cup will be presented to them to drink to the dregs.

However, Jesus tells them in no uncertain terms that who will sit where is not in his power to announce. Those places will be prepared for those who will have them. Isn’t that enigmatic? Isn’t this the sort of remark one of those mysterious eastern sages would make to his naive pupil before he sends him out on the quest for enlightenment?

At this point, I think we have to pause. We have to ask ourselves, are these questions of power and status the sort of things we should be pursuing? Jesus gives us the answer, doesn’t he? Jesus tells us the lowest place in the kingdom is where the greatest will be found. In other words, don’t struggle to go to the head table, rather just slip in through the door and find a seat somewhere at the back. It doesn’t matter where, because, wherever you are, you will be a comforter to those around you. There is the best place in the kingdom. There is where we find our proper place as servants.

If this is to be likened to prayer, we must examine the “cause” which we pursue. The sons of Zebedee say, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Isn’t that what we do with our prayers? We want this or that. But are they really the sort of things we should pray for?

Are we praying to undergo the baptism which Jesus anticipated in the gospel? Are we prepared for the cross? Are we prepared to drink deeply of that cup of sorrow? I think the story of the widow and the unjust judge should guide us to what we should pray for. The this and that of our scattered thoughts and desires should be ‘the right’.

The widow pursued the judge to grant the right resolution of her case. They both know what would be good. but the judge did not want to do it – he had his own agenda, as we would say. He was pursuing his own ends, and they had nothing to do with righteousness. The widow, however, was relentless in her quest for justice. She would not stop. Neither should we.

Prayer is what distinguishes the religious person, for the religious is in a constant dialogue with God, like that widow chasing justice. The story of this widow reflects the great prophets, like Amos’ “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.”

But these petitions are an internal dialogue, aren’t they? When we pray for justice privately and publicly, aren’t we pricking our conscience individually and collectively? When we pray aren’t we hoping for conversion experiences so that we can let righteousness flow in the world as that ever-flowing stream?

Our prayers are not just wishing for something to happen. Our prayers are ways of concentrating on the object of our desires. They impel us to action. So our private prayers should become a question about our morality. Our public prayers should be a collective call to the Good, to God. We are not arguing about the power of prayer. Prayer raises the question – Is it ethical that we ask anything of anyone, or as the sons of Zebedee put it – “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” I wonder, is that a righteous request?

We disciples today are asking the same question as John and James. We want to sit high above the crowd, but that is not a place of ease, power and authority. No, Jesus understood that even before he was lifted high on the cross in ignoble death.

Asking for positions of power as the gentiles, those benighted people who have no moral code, to commandments to obey – when we ask to sit on the raised throne of secular power, we are failing to grasp that cup of sorrow. We fail to see the world as it is.

It is the moral imperative that drives Jesus. “Whatever we want” does not satisfy the ethical demands of being a servant, of eschewing power for its own sake. In our care for the other, when we love our neighbour, we understand the sorrow and baptism Jesus leads us through.

I keep seeing religion as tied up with the how of our behaviour.  If we are religious, then how can we be “like the gentiles”? I am using this phrase to distinguish anyone who professes religion to those who do not. The gentiles live a life so very different to the religious – at the heart of it is the morality shown in true love, that love of God and neighbour.

So, how can we ask anything of anyone else? Rather, shouldn’t we be offering everything to the other as we meet them in their needs? From that position of service, we understand what is right. We understand the cup and the baptism Jesus offers, even if we don’t know where we stand with him.

Amen