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

Sunday, Trinity 20

Collect

God, the giver of life, whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church: by the Spirit’s gifts equip us to live the gospel of Christ and make us eager to do your will, that we may share with the whole creation the joys of eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

 God, our light and our salvation: illuminate our lives, that we may see your goodness in the land of the living, and looking on your beauty may be changed into the likeness of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Psalm 

1  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, •

   and are so far from my salvation,

      from the words of my distress?

2  O my God, I cry in the daytime,

      but you do not answer; •

   and by night also, but I find no rest.

3  Yet you are the Holy One, •

   enthroned upon the praises of Israel.

4  Our forebears trusted in you; •

   they trusted, and you delivered them.

5  They cried out to you and were delivered; •

   they put their trust in you and were not confounded.

6  But as for me, I am a worm and no man, •

   scorned by all and despised by the people.

7  All who see me laugh me to scorn; •

   they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,

8  ‘He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; •

   let him deliver him, if he delights in him.’

9  But it is you that took me out of the womb •

   and laid me safe upon my mother’s breast.

10  On you was I cast ever since I was born; •

   you are my God even from my mother’s womb.

11  Be not far from me, for trouble is near at hand •

   and there is none to help.

12  Mighty oxen come around me; •

   fat bulls of Bashan close me in on every side.

13  They gape upon me with their mouths, •

   as it were a ramping and a roaring lion.

14  I am poured out like water;

      all my bones are out of joint; •

   my heart has become like wax

      melting in the depths of my body.

15  My mouth is dried up like a potsherd;

      my tongue cleaves to my gums; •

   you have laid me in the dust of death.

Psalm 22

Epistle 

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:12–16

Gospel

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

Mark 10:17–31

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 20

Jesus tells us quite clearly that everything will be turned upside down. The wealthy will be forsaken and the ignored will come into the centre of the Kingdom.

This saying, that the camel will go through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, has been the source of so much debate in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. When we couple this saying with the story of the rich man and Lazarus, don’t we often give up hope because we are so disoriented in the present. If the rich man can be so bad in this life with all his possessions, no wonder there is trouble brewing. The haves and have-nots are always in conflict. What was called, “The Politics of Envy”, has always been playing in all our minds and on the world stage. We have all said, “If only …” haven’t we?

But “If only …” does not mean that we are covetous, does it? Whenever we compare ourselves with others, do we always desire their possessions – do we always set our hearts on something we do not have? Envy is not what our thought, “If only …”, means. – When we say to ourselves, “If only …”, don’t we really mean that things have to change? Don’t we really mean what John Lennon meant when he sang, “Imagine …”

I think this is the import of  Jesus’ saying. Things have to change – it may seem impossible, but Jesus tells us that things will change radically. We, however, have to see how many things we put in our way on our journey to the judgement whether we enter the Kingdom or not. Is our way going to be as difficult as putting a camel through the eye of a needle?

This has always been a problem for the Church. There has always been great conflict over the use of money and its collection – Can we charge people for coming into this place of worship? Or should it be free at the point of need? Do we fix the roof or do we make charitable donations? These may seem to be outlandish questions for us here locally, but our cathedrals are faced with this problem. Some do charge people for just crossing the threshold.  (And I say, no wonder people have never been into a church today!)

But is this really the intent of Jesus’ words? I think we should see these words of Jesus less as a condemnation of the rich than as a description of the worldliness of humanity, that we concentrate on our possessions rather than using them to mutual advantage. Our greed gets in the way of our passage through to our ultimate goal, our ownmost possibility.

The other night there was a programme about the Medici – you know, the ruling and banking family in Florence which had bankrolled everyone in the medieval period. Some of the family were gold-diggers, and there were some who were scared about the state of their salvation. Particularly there was one who went to a monastery, eventually he became a pope. His cell was decorated with the art which had become synonymous with the family – beautiful yet full of meaning.

His cell was more like a suite of rooms rather than the cell of a monk who had taken the vow of poverty. In the cell shown on the programme there were two frescos. One, the crucifixion, was in the room you immediately entered. It was the humbling sight of the saviour on the cross, then up some stairs was the other fresco,  depicting the adoration of the Magi in a similar beautiful but simple style. The Christ-child was central, with the Magi offering their gifts around him. It is that adoration, that giving of self and possession to something other than ourselves, which is the focus of that fresco. It is the expression of their faith which the artist depicts. – Yes, they are rich kings, offering gifts of immense value to a newborn child, but that is not the meaning of that fresco.

I think the adoration of the magi allows us to put the rich man and the camel together on that passage through to the Kingdom. These rich men are divesting themselves of their possessions in front of the Christ. They see something which is of more value than their riches, so they are happy to give up that gold, frankincense and myrrh, those symbols of wealth. Their delight was in the child they had found, outside of themselves and their possessions.

In Florence in this period of the Medici, the Magi became the preeminent figures in popular piety,  even assuming a place of honour in the Medici palace – there the Magi were portrayed as kings with their exorbitant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were pictured in regal robes and crowns with gold leaf as the content of the paint. Obviously, no expense was spared in that palatial portrayal. They were seen as the powerful which the medieval period had come to know. The palace’s fresco is a completely different style to that in the monastic cell, but the fact that the magi are depicted, points to something, doesn’t it?

I remember being told that the explanation of this saying about the salvation of a rich man was simply that “the eye of the needle” was a gate in the city wall which required that the camel’s load had to be removed before the animal could enter this very low doorway, on its knees was how it was described. I don’t know about the factual truth of that explanation, but the symbolic intent was very clear. – The camel had to be divested of everything it was carrying, if it were to enter that gate. It had to get down on its knees to enter – unburdened, to enter naked, just as we ourselves enter and leave the world. Jesus must be saying to us that we can carry nothing through this portal to the Kingdom of God. That gold we covet, whether we be rich or poor, has to be left on the other side for us camels to pass through the gateway. I like that interpretation of this saying. It is fanciful and yet an accurate account of how we need to live our lives. Possessions have to be forsaken at some point, maybe only at that last moment when the decision is made to enter or not.

To pass through the eye of a needle makes no sense to us camels, does it? But as human beings we do understand.that very small gateway through which we must pass, that doorway to something other than what we understand here and now on this side of the wall. Here we burden ourselves with the politics of envy. Here we have forgotten how to live with one another for mutual benefit. Jesus’ saying should show us rich camels the way through the eye of this needle.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 17

Collect 

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

(or)

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

Readings 

Old Testament 

But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;

considering him a friend, they pined away

and made a covenant with him,

because they are fit to belong to his company.


For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,

‘Short and sorrowful is our life,

and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,

and no one has been known to return from Hades.

‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,

because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;

he reproaches us for sins against the law,

and accuses us of sins against our training.

He professes to have knowledge of God,

and calls himself a child of the Lord.

He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;

the very sight of him is a burden to us,

because his manner of life is unlike that of others,

and his ways are strange.

We are considered by him as something base,

and he avoids our ways as unclean;

he calls the last end of the righteous happy,

and boasts that God is his father.

Let us see if his words are true,

and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;

for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,

and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.

Let us test him with insult and torture,

so that we may find out how gentle he is,

and make trial of his forbearance.

Let us condemn him to a shameful death,

for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’

Wisdom 1:16–2:1, 12–22 

Alternative OT reading

It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew;

   then you showed me their evil deeds.

But I was like a gentle lamb

   led to the slaughter.

And I did not know it was against me

   that they devised schemes, saying,

‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,

   let us cut him off from the land of the living,

   so that his name will no longer be remembered!’

But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously,

   who try the heart and the mind,

let me see your retribution upon them,

   for to you I have committed my cause.

Jeremiah 11:18-20 

Psalm 

1  Save me, O God, by your name •

   and vindicate me by your power.

2  Hear my prayer, O God; •

   give heed to the words of my mouth.

3  For strangers have risen up against me,

      and the ruthless seek after my life; •

   they have not set God before them.

4  Behold, God is my helper; •

   it is the Lord who upholds my life.

5  May evil rebound on those who lie in wait for me; •

   destroy them in your faithfulness.

6  An offering of a free heart will I give you •

   and praise your name, O Lord, for it is gracious.

7  For he has delivered me out of all my trouble, •

   and my eye has seen the downfall of my enemies.

Psalm 54 

Epistle 

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a

Gospel

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Mark 9:30–37

Sermon on Sunday Trinity 17

James’ letter has something interesting in the Greek which I would like to explore. He is writing to those ‘in two minds’ (“double-minded” was the translation I read). However, the Greek suggests something other than what we would consider ‘mind’, it uses the word psyche, from which we get psychology, it is the mind, but it is more embracing than what we normally consider “mind” – well, that is the implication of the word, you know, that world of dreams and fantasies, that part of us which gets all messed up by so many things in our lives.

The Greek word “psyche” means “life” in some uses, so I would suggest that psyche bundles together the whole of our experience. The psyche also allows us to hive off every aspect of life into separate areas – our emotions, our rationality, our fantasies, our dreams (including nightmares and hopes). In other words, our psyche embraces the whole of our lives but allows us to see different aspects of experience. The psyche deals with life well in some cases, and in others disastrously.

But within that phrase, where this word, δυψυχη, appears, is καρδια, heart. We all know that the heart is taken as the seat of life. We say so when we profess our love to another – “My heart belongs to you!” or, on the other hand, we say. “You have broken my heart!”

Why has James connected the two here? Why has he connected the heart with the psyche?

Perhaps James sees the human being as a singular entity. Mind and heart are a whole, they belong to each other and one is not whole without the other. Perhaps James sees this as the essence of Jesus’ “life in all its fullness.” The Greek language, like English, has lots of words to describe the inner workings of human being.

My intention, however, is not to do a dictionary search about the inner life of the human being, rather I want to understand why James has unified the human being’s experience in this very short phrase, a phrase which acts as a condemnation of so many people. James speaks of those who are in two minds – when it comes to submitting to something greater than one’s own self. This follows hard on his harsh words about how badly we restrain ourselves and how we speak to others, using the tongue which is like a poisonous serpent, that tongue which can curse as well as bless.

Perhaps this is why he uses this word – “double-minded”. The tongue which can curse and bless, must reflect what is in our minds. – Don’t our military leaders warn us that although we may defeat an opposing army, unless we win their hearts and minds we will never win the peace.

We do fight a war daily – we fight against evil for the good. Too often we are in two minds in this struggle.  James exhorts us, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” This is the dualism the human being faces, God or the devil. There it is, stark and simple, good or evil, just as we read in the letter. The solution is simple, as James puts it, isn’t it? “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” However, in our doubting, in our two minds, we don’t commit to anything – we invest ourselves in neither the devil nor God.

James sees this battle very clearly as it plays out in our lives. He thinks it a simple matter. He tells us, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Let’s think about this sentence a little more, for it is not as easy as it first appears.

Cleansing one’s hands is symbolic of purification – we all know about Lady MacBeth trying to wash her hands of the bloody sin staining them. We know that we ourselves like to wash thoroughly when we feel “dirty”, when we have really messed up in some fundamental way, when we have sinned. This is all James is saying, isn’t it?

How do we purify hearts? This is the second part of James’ call to better behaviour. I think it is revealed in the phrase to whom James is speaking, “you double minded”. I have already suggested that the unity of the heart and mind is the basis of faithful behaviour. Single-mindedness in the broadest sense of that phrase – single-mindedness is not doubting one’s final goal – single-mindedness is not obsession with some one thing. Rather someone who is not in two minds can go forward through the many choices of life to that one goal, one’s ownmost possibility. The balanced single-minded approach to life would be able to do what James suggests, because they have clean hands and a pure heart.

It is that singleness of innocence whither James steers us. James wants us to grasp God, the only true good in our lives. Our collect confirms this, that our hearts are “restless until they find their rest in God”. Our hearts will continue to be restless until the final resting place is attained – and that place is at the right hand of God.

Why does James use this complicated, simple phrase, “Purify your hearts, you double-minded”? We often hear how different Jews and Greeks were. Their cultures were so very different. The bible is written from the Jewish point of view, and we often hear the phrase, “the heathen” – everyone who is not a Jew.

What if James was using this phrase to speak to the two sides of this cultural battle? What if he were speaking to the Jew by talking of purifying the heart and to the Greek by addressing the disturbed psyche – as he speaks to the double-minded? Is James actually trying to unify the two populations which are so disparate? We always say that Paul is doing this. Why not James? Here he is showing – very subtly, I admit – that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, for he is addressing them in the same phrase. James is using words which are culturally specific to speak of the good life in God.

Perhaps this is a model we need to keep in our own minds as we speak to our neighbours about the most important thing in life, when we talk about the ownmost possibilities of life. We need to remember that hearts and minds do form the unity of life. These hearts and minds are what life in all its fullness is all about. That singular experience of salvation unifies us into the soul ascending to God. We should take hope as we purify our hearts and become single-minded. Isn’t this single-minded purpose the essence of a caring love between ourselves and with God just as Jesus commanded?

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 11

Collect

O God, you declare your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may receive your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; 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, the end of our searching, help us to lay aside all that prevents us from seeking your kingdom, and to give all that we have to gain the pearl beyond all price, through our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Readings

Old Testament

The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And ten young men, Joab’s armour-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.

Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, ‘Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.’

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

2 Samuel 18:5–9, 15, 31–33

Psalm

1  Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord;

      Lord, hear my voice; •

   let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

2  If you, Lord, were to mark what is done amiss, •

   O Lord, who could stand?

3  But there is forgiveness with you, •

   so that you shall be feared.

4  I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; •

   in his word is my hope.

5  My soul waits for the Lord,

      more than the night watch for the morning, •

   more than the night watch for the morning.

6  O Israel, wait for the Lord, •

   for with the Lord there is mercy;

7  With him is plenteous redemption •

   and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Psalm 130

Epistle

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 4:25–5:2

Gospel 

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

John 6:35, 41–51

Sermon on Sunday Trinity 11

The reading from Paul today is an exhortation for us to change our ways. Like so many fire-and-brimstone preachers of the past, he is quick to spot the evil practices of the present but in contrast to those very severe preachers Paul is quick to commend the good practices of the coming Kingdom.

Paul wrote, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” Here, I would say, is the proof that Paul does not condemn the good life, the enjoyment of life, contrary to so many who contend that Paul does not want us to enjoy ourselves.

I think Paul wants us to engage in the joy of life in all its fullness. I think he bases this on Jesus’ own words. Paul is quick to condemn those who live a life which does not enhance the fullness of life – and he gives some explicit examples: the angry, the thief, the slanderer, the liar, the wrathful, the contentious and the malicious – all of these people do not enhance life, for they denigrate the people around them. In the case of the thief, it is obvious that he has harmed the victim in the commission of his crime. By taking that object, the thief compromises the world of his victim.

You can see how the wrathful demean the people around them. – Or those who are argumentative. – All of these behaviours Paul wants to change because they do nothing to prove one’s faith in Christ, for they do not enhance the life of anyone around them, they do not show any sign of keeping the love of Christ for everyone.

But I would say that at the same time as these sinners strangle the life out of the objects of their terror, they are snuffing out their own lives. Paul explains that the thief should give up stealing, for the sake of his own personal fulfilment. “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” Everyone knows the work of their own hands creates a worth nothing else can. How can a stolen item compare with something I made myself? When you accept the present I created for you, don’t we both feel so much better – to use a current term – so much more affirmed, than when I present something which was whipped away in the dead of night? You feel treasured, that I would dedicate the time, effort and skill to make you a present. I feel so much more valued for myself because I was able to present you my own work.

I suppose that is why I like my present job. It is good honest toil. I create and make anew for someone else, because they are unable to do so for themselves because of any number of reasons.

That honesty of self is what Paul wishes to establish in this reading. The thief no longer has to lie about his work. He can gladly share what he is doing wherever he is, whenever someone asks. The thief no longer has to move about furtively, staying in the shadows where no light can illuminate what he is up to. If the thief can do this, how much more should we do so in the whole of our lives? We have to say that honesty is the best policy – to use that trite phrase – in a new way, I hope. It is the best policy for myself as well as those around me. The thief becomes an honest worker and he benefits by living a simple life, and everyone benefits by his efforts.

But let us take this another step. Many of the wretched activity Paul named are not physical – like the thief. What are they: slander, anger, lying, wrath, contentiousness and malice. These are not physical evils, but they are just as evil as stealing – they are ways of attacking others in a covert way. I may not be wielding an axe, but when I slander someone I strike at that other’s heart with a word.

We all know how this feels, don’t we? “How could they say that about me?” “Everyone is thinking this about me – what am I to do?” I am destroyed by this ill will towards myself – and it could be someone who I called a friend who has done this to me. Imagine how belittled I would feel at that. And we can see the same thing happening in all of these – anger, lying, wrath, contentiousness and malice. This sort of behaviour is not like waging war with armies or bullying people with sticks and stones, it is more subtle, as we know being bullied need not mean getting beaten up, but words can hurt so very much. These sorts of words do not allow us to appreciate the other, rather it is ourselves – our selfish selves – which is puffed up and distorted. That self displaces everything that could help ourselves and others to get along in life, to enjoy life in all its fulness, just what Jesus wants us to have.

But how do we get away from this usual behaviour, the way people normally live in the world? Don’t we all get angry when others doing something which impinges on our little world, that selfish world we know so very well? When we are angry, don’t we want to quarrel with everyone? Don’t we bear ill will, that malice, toward the world outside? Eventually, don’t we lie to ourselves about everything and then proceed to lie to everyone around us. Then everything turns to dust, doesn’t it?

The relationships we thought we had disappear. Affection is lost. However, most importantly, love seems to be abandoned. What fulness is there in that sort of life? Paul writes: “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.” Here we have the basis of Paul’s hope. That we belong to one another, that we are members of one another, only subsists when there is truth, that openness, the unhidden-ness of a quiet life, a life which in itself is full, a life we find we really enjoy. We enjoy life because we share it – the monastic hermit shares with God, I share it with my family and you, my friends. When it is shared we grow, we expand our horizons and hope flourishes.

In another place Paul asks us to “speak the truth in love”. How else should we speak? He has implied that we “lie in hate” with all those expressions of the bad life.

So with the thief we have to give up those worldly behaviours because we only demean our humanity. I want to speak the truth with my neighbour because I will be able to let them be themselves, just as I can be myself with my honest way of life.

No longer will anyone constrain another by such ill suited behaviour. Like the thief, I will honestly toil with hand and tongue. Love will express itself through everything I do because that is what I want to be. Let’s get rid of slander, anger, lying, wrath, contentiousness and malice. Let us enjoy life in all its fulness honestly, and sinlessly.

Amen