Sunday, Trinity 17

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings

Psalm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 111

First Lesson

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

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

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

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

2 Timothy 2:8–15

Second Lesson

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

Luke 17:11–19

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Harvest

Collect

Eternal God, you crown the year with your goodness and you give us the fruits of the earth in their season: grant that we may use them to your glory, for the relief of those in need and for our own well-being; 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)

Creator God, you made the goodness of the land, the riches of the sea and the rhythm of the seasons; as we thank you for the harvest, may we cherish and respect this planet and its peoples, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Deuteronomy 26:1–11

Psalm

1  O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.

2  Know that the Lord is God;
it is he that has made us and we are his;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

3  Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and bless his name.

4  For the Lord is gracious; his steadfast love is everlasting,
and his faithfulness endures from generation to generation.

Psalm 100

Epistle

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, ‘Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.’ So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’

Revelation 14:14–18

Gospel

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

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.

John 6:25–35

Sermon on Sunday, Harvest Festival

How often do we pray “for our own well-being”? – I think it is right to do so at this time of year, don’t you? At harvest when the largess of nature is gathered together so we can see just how fortunate we are. We praise God for the bounty of the world and more importantly for our well-being. This is such a satisfying time of year, perhaps even a self-satisfied time of year. In fact, when we gather all the harvest in, don’t we run the risk of becoming like that rich man from the parable who wanted to store everything in great new barns? Aren’t we in danger of fuelling avarice in our very selves?

If we take the OT reading literally, that may be where we are headed. All this talk of “possession” is a sign of it, don’t you think? “An inheritance to possess” and “you possess it” – these words do haunt all our dealings with one another, don’t they? After all, they say, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” However, the possession of this or that when it becomes one’s focus does not yield “well-being”, does it? We have all seen too many movies and read too many novels to believe so. Even in our own lives we have had intimations of that truth. So it seems, the love of money is, as Paul says, the root of evil. Or I would amend that to: “The love of any one thing is the root of evil.”

How very different is that lust for gold from desiring “well-being” – so, just what do you think we mean by it? If we turn back to our harvest, can we balance ourselves in its fecundity to find ourselves here before God, “just as I am”, as that famous hymn pleads.

What do we see when we observe the harvest? There is a lot of activity – fields are cut, the hay is stored, the grain is dried, the straw is stacked, the fruits of the field and forest have been processed in one way or another and they have all found their way into cans and jars, or into the freezer in the back room. There has been a great deal of activity up to this point. Now there is an emptiness in the fields but overfull storage areas. Although there is nothing in front of us when we look at the fields, when we look at the shelves indoors the evidence of abundance is there – the store-room is full, the cupboards are packed to overflowing. And we must admit that we have been eating so very well lately, haven’t we? Those marvellous fresh vegetables have been heaped up on the plate, perhaps some corn on the cob, all those beans of all sorts, then the fruit pies and compots. The list goes on …

The harvest is here. Let us rejoice that we have been so very fortunate. “When Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,’” – is he speaking to us? Has our attention been turned to our bellies and not towards our neighbour when we consider the harvest we enjoy? I accuse myself with this question, for I do enjoy my food. After all, most of you have seen me have a second biscuit when we have coffee after worship, haven’t you? And my wife doesn’t understand where I put it all when we sit down to supper, or she simply cannot believe that I graze between meals. I have to ask myself, “Have I enjoyed the fruits of the land too much?”

I am not asking this question to accuse, but it does make us stop and think about what we concentrate on. What is the focus in our lives – is it ‘the goods of life’ or ‘the good life’? This question forces us to ponder, “the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give.” Jesus is asking us that question here and now. On what enduring food are we focussed?

That water the Samaritan woman heard about – isn’t that what we really to desire? The bread of life? From that ever-satisfying loaf? Surely, we all want something of eternal value, don’t we? It is just so confusing finding that object of proper desire, that subject of our most earnest wishes, that which will not rust nor be destroyed by moths. We plead, along with that crowd on the other side of the lake, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

Jesus’ words, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” appeal to our finer nature, the self which has not been corrupted by what the biblical writers, the monks and nuns of ages past and our more evangelical brothers and sisters call “the world”. I think we all agree with them, don’t we? Don’t we all want that sustenance which gives life? That life which our bishop has been leading us to, rich and full, abundant life, a life which is beyond the realities of “the world” as we all understand it. “The world” where love has been marginalised, where friendship is always suspect, where openness is a naivete to be exploited, where nothing has intrinsic value, only a cost in pounds, shillings and pence.

This harvest Jesus tells us is not “of the world” – is it? The harvest is the eternal verities, the fruits of the spirit, the pure heart, the affection of friends, the love of neighbours – our faith in the creating God of all generosity. What is the tithe we offer to God today? What do we place on the altar today as a symbol of our harvest? Is the can of soup I have given to the food bank all that I offer to God today? Or does that tin symbolise something far greater than the 83 pence it cost to buy from the shop? Am I signifying with this mite what I hope to offer to God in reality – a life dedicated to the love of neighbour, a life dedicated to the love of God? Does that tin of soup refer to all the good deeds I will perform in the future? Does it impel me into a life of faithfulness to my neighbours and my God? I wonder, when I place my tin of soup on the altar, have I  made a promise to God?

Will I sustain the poor with donations of time, talents and tithes, just as we have prayed in our collect? We pray that our riches, from the fields and in our vaults will be used for the relief of the poor. How do we do that throughout the year? Do we donate time to charitable works? Do we donate our talents to someone who needs help? Do we give our money away to agencies of change in our society and throughout the world? These are just questions arising from the gifts of the creator God to whom we have ascribed the largess of the nature we have nurtured, and even the harvest which we can forage from the wild. The riches of the world should make us think about the well-being of the planet and all the dwellers thereon.

So many questions – and such gratitude – arise from the same source, don’t they? I have to give thanks because I am astounded at the cornucopia which lies in our cupboards here and now, and wonder how we can be generous with our lives.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 14

Collect

Almighty God, whose only Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence: give us pure hearts and steadfast wills to worship you in spirit and in truth; 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

Merciful God, your Son came to save us and bore our sins on the cross: may we trust in your mercy and know your love, rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, the source of truth and love, keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, united in prayer and the breaking of bread, and one in joy and simplicity of heart, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,

   and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

5 saying, ‘When will the new moon be over

   so that we may sell grain;

and the sabbath,

   so that we may offer wheat for sale?

We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,

   and practise deceit with false balances,

buying the poor for silver

   and the needy for a pair of sandals,

   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:

Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Amos 8:4–7

Psalm

1    Alleluia.
Give praise, you servants of the Lord,
O praise the name of the Lord.

2    Blessed be the name of the Lord,
from this time forth and for evermore.

3    From the rising of the sun to its setting
let the name of the Lord be praised.

4    The Lord is high above all nations
and his glory above the heavens.

5    Who is like the Lord our God,
that has his throne so high,
yet humbles himself to behold
the things of heaven and earth?

6    He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ashes,

7    To set them with princes,
with the princes of his people.

8    He gives the barren woman a place in the house
and makes her a joyful mother of children.
Alleluia.

Psalm 113

Epistle

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For

there is one God;

   there is also one mediator between God and humankind,

Christ Jesus, himself human,

   who gave himself a ransom for all

– this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

1 Timothy 2:1–7

Gospel

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

Luke 16:1–13

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 14

We all know there are variable parts of the liturgy. These changeable elements are the Collect, the two readings (OT and NT) and the Gospel. Then there is this part, the sermon, homily, address, whatever you want to call it, and that is never the same, even on the same day. (Probably the most variable of the variables.) Up to this point in our worship, most of it has all been variable and they focus our thoughts for the day.

In the Collect we have petitioned our Almighty God to “give us pure hearts and steadfast wills to worship [Him] in spirit and in truth.” When the philosopher in me hears those words he becomes distracted by their import. He asks me a lot of questions –

Just how do we realise that such gifts have been presented to us? How do we manifest the pure heart? How would people know we had that steadfast heart? How do we worship God in spirit and truth?

An interrogation by the philosopher is not what I expected and I am sure you did not expect it this morning, is it! Or was your inner philosopher’s interest piqued by the Collect as well? The Collect sets our expectations about the readings we were about to hear.

I was assured that there are links between all these disparate variables and so I looked high and low for them.  Here are my thoughts the philosopher aroused.

I suppose the Psalm does reflect the request which Paul makes –  “I  urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone.” And it points to our worship in spirit an truth from the Collect, doesn’t it? After all from the beginning of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, psalms have been sung and prayers for self and world have been recited and groaned by congregations and individuals, haven’t they? Yet the epistle’s exhortation to prayer goes further. It directs our prayers to God on behalf of the leaders of this world, so that we can enjoy “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” It is not just a quiet life – it is not just a peaceable life – but it is a life in “all godliness and dignity.” We don’t normally think about life in those terms, do we? The sort of life we want to lead is one of riches and power. I don’t think we ever consider dignity as the character of our lives. I think we are preoccupied with the things of this world, more than the moral quality of our lives. Certainly, the people we pass on the road do not consider their life as manifesting “godliness”, do they? I know that such an epithet is never cast in my direction – well, not in my hearing anyway. But how does all of this talk about worship in spirit and truth relate to our reading from Amos. In that reading the world is being cut to pieces by the prophet’s tongue, he attacks that world which puts deals and profits before what is truthful and honest. He castigates the despicable merchants. – I suppose merchants have always wanted to make a lot of profit, just like the Ferengi in Star Trek. That overweening lust for money has blinded so many to the humanity which commerce can foster. After all, if England were not a trading nation, the printing of the English language bible may not have happened when it did. We wouldn’t enjoy Cadbury’s chocolate which began with a quaker’s vision of what a factory should be. But I digress.

Amos talks of merchants as they really are. Some show their greed with skimpy measures and large bills. Others can be seen, if we read between the lines, to be the opposite, allowing generous measures and always a discount. Some merchants are eager to trade and make deals only for their own benefit, some perhaps trade on behalf of their shareholders, or a few may have an interest in affording others a better life. Profit takes a back seat to the service offered by those happy few, those whose service is dedicated to the other person’s humanity.

As a gardener I am a tradesman. I offer my services to whomever would hire me. In the end I hope I will make lives better, and as a by-product I can pay all my bills. I remember speaking some time ago about the letter to Philemon where the author begs the thief to give up that wretched life and take up productive work, for he argues that the creation of goods is a joy in itself. Don’t we, in fact, agree with him and even sometimes say “Work is its own reward”? – I am sure we all know the truth of that saying, even if we don’t say so.

But isn’t this message at odds with our parable from the gospel? Why does Jesus praise this steward for feathering his own nest? This doesn’t sound right, does it? But what if we read this in tandem with the parable about inviting people to out parties who cannot return hospitality – does it make a little more sense?

When you invite the homeless to your banquet, you don’t expect any reward from the beggars and indigents who roam the roads sleeping rough without a penny to their name. But the steward, when he discounts the arrears of so many, expects some recognition in the future. It is not in heaven that he expects his reward for his largess, but it is in this life – after he loses his position and is wandering around looking for another job when his dealings come to fruition. He wants those people to whom he handed a bribe – sorry, discount – to remember him! This is very different to offering some poor traveller food and lodging for the night, isn’t it? Jesus says the dishonest steward who cheated his master has acted like the wise serpent of this world.

It would seem that Jesus commends sharp practice in this life, but I have to ask, does he? I really don’t think so. I think he contrasts the two ways of living most starkly.

“The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Jesus contrasts the children of this age with the children of light. Dishonest wealth will benefit in this age, but what about in the eternal home? Will filthy lucre benefit us there? No, I don’t think so. When this dishonest wealth has all been spent in this world, what is left? I think Jesus is telling us  – Make friends! Make those friends here and now and they will ask us in when we pass their doors in this world and perhaps even in eternity. The poor to whom we have offered hospitality with no hope of reward will remember us in eternity, Jesus says, for they will count us amongst the righteous. If we have made friends, perhaps it will stand us in good stead in this life, and may even count for something in the next.

So that is how I have made sense and linked all our readings on the sheet. It is rough, but I think it is ready enough to allow us to consider it for the rest of the week.

Sunday, Trinity 13

Collect

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Almighty God, you search us and know us: may we rely on you in strength and rest on you in weakness, now and in all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord.



Psalm

1  Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness;

   according to the abundance of your compassion

      blot out my offences.

2  Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness

   and cleanse me from my sin.

3  For I acknowledge my faults

   and my sin is ever before me.

4  Against you only have I sinned

   and done what is evil in your sight,

5  So that you are justified in your sentence

   and righteous in your judgement.

6  I have been wicked even from my birth,

   a sinner when my mother conceived me.

7  Behold, you desire truth deep within me

   and shall make me understand wisdom

      in the depths of my heart.

8  Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;

   wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

9  Make me hear of joy and gladness,

   that the bones you have broken may rejoice.

10  Turn your face from my sins

   and blot out all my misdeeds.

11  Make me a clean heart, O God,

   and renew a right spirit within me.

Psalm 51

Epistle

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:12–17

Gospel

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

Luke 15:1–10

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 13

“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Don’t we see the same Scribes and Pharisees today? Amongst our friends, our acquaintances and even people we don’t know at all?

But why do we grumble? It must be something so deep within us, or else not everyone would grumble, would they? They wouldn’t complain about the weather, for one thing, but we spend hours going on about the weather and castigate its insensitivity to our plans or the farmers’ wishes. But why do we grumble about the weather? Grumbling seems to be universal. Don’t you think? Well, perhaps not here, but everywhere else people grumble. If it is not the weather, it can be just about anything else. And everyone does it so well!

What is the basis of a grumble? Is it the thought police constable in each and every one of us coming out from behind those closed doors? Is it our wish to dominate another, or our ability to turn something to our advantage? Is grumbling making judgement on others because something doesn’t conform to what we want?

I must admit that I grumble myself – especially when I am driving, “Oh what is that fellow doing going from the passing lane straight out onto the exit.” I might exclaim. “The Highway Code bans that sort of driving, doesn’t it?” Other drivers also call out observations and colourful descriptions of just what those awful drivers are doing on the road. Some drivers even shout invectives when such driving happens near them. We all do that sort of thing, don’t we? However, if you ask my wife, I grumble a lot, and I have to admit that I even grumble when I am in church – “Oh, this sermon is not very interesting,”  “Surely the preacher could be more challenging.” Or even, “Why doesn’t the  preacher smile more?” I can be hypercritical of the whole church–thing, just as I am sure you can be. I grumble so much that I wonder on occasion about returning to the church building.

But I do return, not because I have a job to do – for instance, leading worship as in this gathering – but because this is where I can acknowledge something rather than nothing (it is my answer to existential nihilism, I suppose). Here I am in the presence of the past, of beauty, of pain, of joy. All of that rouses me and I return time and again because with others I acknowledge what St Anselm called, “that beyond with nothing is greater,” whom we name as God.

We say this form of worship is wonderful and nothing should deviate from it. I suppose the reason I keep coming back to church is because I want to experience that perfect joy which I had on that formative occasion once a long time ago, but I want to have it again and again – I want to repeat it eternally. So I hold myself within those rules of liturgy and behaviour which I have set up for myself, but then hubris takes hold of me and I want to prescribe it for everyone else. That is when the grumbling starts, isn’t it?

We grumble because we are like those Pharisees and Scribes of our reading. We surround ourselves with regulation and take up those positions of authority which come to express our inner selves in such subtle ways. We create the hedge of the Law so that those within conform, and those without the Law outside the hedge are heathen gentiles who are condemned to wander without any of the joy of abundant life, God’s salvation, which our statutes and limitations apparently provide for us.

But Jesus broke that conception when he sat down outside the hedge, when he spoke about that golden rule of loving others as ourselves because we keep the one Law, because we love God with heart and mind and all our strength. When we love God so thoroughly, everything else falls away, even those commandments which cause us to conform. Jesus seemed to have grubbed up the comfortable hedge of the Law with his own commandment. When we love our neighbours as we love ourselves, no one is beyond the reach of Jesus’ commandment. When the hedge of the Law of conformity is eradicated, then we can grumble no longer.

That is the crux of the matter, I think. When the Pharisees and Scribes saw Jesus consorting with people who were well beyond their own definition of orthodox behaviour, in their horror they asked why this man would sit at table with people who were outcast from society – after all they themselves had cast them out!

I think grumbling is a sign that we actually do acknowledge our own limitations – explicitly or not. We are uneasy when there is something wrong with others,because it is wrong with ourselves, and we grumble about “them” – whoever “they” are …

The psalmist wrote “my sin is ever before me” – maybe that is why we grumble. We cannot get away from our shortcomings, and somehow that realisation manifests itself. If it doesn’t show up in our own self-loathing, then I think it seeps out in complaints against those foibles we see all around us. I think what Freud and the psychoanalysts call the subconscious reveals our self-knowledge, even if it is not truly a conscious element in our lives. You know how that works, slips of the tongue and so forth. Sometimes it is even more explicit. One of Shakespeare’s characters says, “Methinks she doth protest too much.” This is what unacknowledged sin can do to us.  This is grumbling write large, don’t you think? How do we reconcile all this grumbling with the words of our collect, when we petition God, “help us to proclaim the good news of your love”?

How do we reconcile the commandment of love with our grumbling? Should we reconcile them? However, I do think we need to be aware of our grumbling and see just how it reveals just what we are. If we shout so load about something, is that because we are aware of being guilty ourselves?

I think that is why the Scribes and Pharisees grumbled. They were ashamed that they did not offer hospitality to the people whom they should be converting to the way of life, the way of life hedged by the Law, that Law distilled anew into the commandment to love God and one another, that Law Jesus redefined and refined in their hearing and seeing. The Scribes and Pharisees grumbled because of their guilt. After all when we love we don’t grumble, do we? What lover is seen wandering grumbling? Normally they just stare at the stars and contentedly sigh, awaiting the arrival of the loved one. Let’s imagine us, the Scribes and Pharisees, like that!

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

Psalm

1    Alleluia. Blessed are those who fear the Lord
and have great delight in his commandments. 

2    Their descendants will be mighty in the land,
a generation of the faithful that will be blest. 

3    Wealth and riches will be in their house,
and their righteousness endures for ever. 

4    Light shines in the darkness for the upright;
gracious and full of compassion are the righteous. 

5    It goes well with those who are generous in lending
and order their affairs with justice, 

6    For they will never be shaken;
the righteous will be held in everlasting remembrance. 

7    They will not be afraid of any evil tidings;
their heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. 

8    Their heart is sustained and will not fear,
until they see the downfall of their foes. 

9    They have given freely to the poor;
their righteousness stands fast for ever;
their head will be exalted with honour. 

10    The wicked shall see it and be angry;
they shall gnash their teeth in despair;
the desire of the wicked shall perish. 

Psalm 112

Epistle

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, 

‘The Lord is my helper; 

   I will not be afraid. 

What can anyone do to me?’

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16 

Gospel 

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

Luke 14:1, 7–14

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 11

We Anglicans have really understood this parable we read today, don’t we? After all, don’t we all sidle into the pews further back when we get to church? Don’t we all want to be far away from the front – out of the limelight? However, I wonder whether our motivation for these least of the places in this gathering of people is because of humility. Do we really hope that someone will say to us, “Friend, come up here. Come to the front and sit by my side here”? – No, I don’t think so.

Rather, I think we all like to sit back further because we don’t want to show how involved we are. We don’t want to show any enthusiasm, which sitting up close to the action of worship would reveal. I am just the same. If I were not dressed in these funny clothes, I would love to be at the back with everyone else. However, on the other hand, I am glad to be at the front, in spite of my frock.

I have always found this reading from Luke to be a very poignant lesson, for I am always just slipping in to a gathering, to the table nearest the door, or in the far corner of the room where people don’t necessarily want to be. After all, the buffet is over there where all the important people are. In one sense, I suppose I have always taken what Jesus says here to heart. After all, I have found that on these humbler tables there is always good conversation and no one is there to make their mark on the event. The host is the one who will have to choose between us all, all of his friends who have gathered together, as to who will sit where. – I suppose I want the host to call out to me, I want him to call me, “Friend!” in front of everyone else – but I also want my host to recognise all of his friends at table with him. I am happy to be singled out to be called Friend, but I need not move at all, because I know I am one friend among many friends. My host has called out to me, and the company has heard the acknowledgement. What more do I need?

So it should be whenever we gather with our friends. There is no preferred place at these gatherings, because we are all  friends, we have all been invited and so we have to recognise that all of us are valued guest-friends in this gathering – I suppose I am saying no one is more important than any one else.

There is a hubris when “the guests choose the places of honour.” Jesus decried it when he was invited to the rabbi’s home. He castigated them all with that parable, didn’t he? He was telling them in no uncertain terms that we should be self-effacing. It is not up to us to raise our own value over others. Rather, he tells us,

When your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.

Others should value us and elevate us. Jesus is telling us that we will be honoured because of who we are, not whom we think we are. I think it goes with what the writer to the Hebrews is telling us as well.

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Paul says, love doesn’t puff up, doesn’t he? And when friends get together, no one is any better than any one else. We are all just friends gathered together. Our host has picked us all to be with him to share our mutual love for him and consequently our love for one another.

This love gives rise to hospitality, and hospitality is unbounded. In the eastern mediterranean area, hospitality is very important. In classical Greek, the word for strangers is “xenos” – and it has a very particular meaning, the xenos is a guest-friend. The stranger is protected by hospitality. It is a very different model of the stranger than the one we have today, don’t you think? But it is a notion I would like to revive, for it would help us so much.

When the stranger is offered hospitality, the gift of food and drink, a safe place to stay for a time, don’t we show some sort of mutual love? I would suggest that that mutual love will call out the best from the stranger, so that he or she will become a friend. Why – strangers may even be angels who visit us. Wouldn’t that be a surprise! Would we behave badly to angels if we knew they were sitting beside us? Or would we not give Jesus succour when he was in need? And you remember his saying about that, don’t you? When you offer the poor alms, you offer Jesus a gift. But we have heard that sermon before.

Here we have the notion of hospitality writ large before us in the letter to the Hebrews, written in the form of mutual love. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about when we are amongst our friends. Everyone is valued, and no one wishes to take precedence over anyone else. Someone does have to sit on the top table or in a special seat, but that is less because I think I deserve it, than it is because you think I deserve it.

The writer of the epistle suggests we should be content, doesn’t he? And so does Jesus. We should be content with who we are, where we are. We should be content to be the very best we can be. The party can in fact go on without me, can’t it? The host is the one who makes the party.

It is Jesus who has called this gathering today, not the priest nor the PCC. Jesus has valued us enough to call us out of the boring routine of the everyday to join together and acknowledge the value of everyone around us. That is what Jesus is talking about in his parable – and I think that the epistle also conveys this message.

So when we go to church, perhaps we should gravitate to the front because we are really all called to this great feast of faith – to enjoy each other’s company as mutual friends of Christ, whose mutual love conveys a hospitality to all which the world cannot offer.

I think we should be encouraging everyone else to join us up here. We are all friends here, and we all know how valuable we feel when we meet with one another around this holy table, where we experience the presence of something far greater than anything we can conceive of ourselves.

I suppose that is why we really just slip in at the back at church, isn’t it? That we know there is an amazing grace which calls us forward every day and we are humbled to be here with friends to give thanks.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 6

Collect

Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; 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

Creator God, you made us all in your image: may we discern you in all that we see, and serve you in all that we do; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God of our pilgrimage, you have led us to the living water: refresh and sustain us as we go forward on our journey, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings 

Old Testament 

The LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

The men turned away and went towards Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.” Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?” He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?” He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?” He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.“

Genesis 18.20-32

Psalm

1    I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods will I sing praise to you.

2    I will bow down towards your holy temple and praise your name,
because of your love and faithfulness;
for you have glorified your name
and your word above all things. 

3    In the day that I called to you, you answered me;
you put new strength in my soul.

4    All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.

5    They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
that great is the glory of the Lord.

6    Though the Lord be high, he watches over the lowly;
as for the proud, he regards them from afar.

7    Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you will preserve me;
you will stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand will save me.

8    The Lord shall make good his purpose for me;
your loving-kindness, O Lord, endures for ever;
forsake not the work of your hands.

Psalm 138

Epistle

Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fulness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fulness in Christ, who is the Head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Colossians 2.6-15(16-19) 

Gospel 

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.‘” Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’

“Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

Luke 11.1–13

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 6

“See to it that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”

This is a rather hard saying from Paul, isn’t it? How many of us do just rely on Christ for all of our day-to-day decisions? More significantly, how many of us base our very important choices on Jesus?

What does Paul mean by a philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world? The dualism inherent in this thinking is alien to most people today. We live in one world, the world of neighbours. We do not see a spiritual world and a physical world in direct opposition to one another, do we? Well, I don’t think so. We certainly don’t act so. We need only look around us at the shenanigans of politics. There are many other examples of the singularity of life, where we do not act as if we are spiritual beings against this fleshly body. All of our advertising speaks to a culture of creature comfort, the highest good being my own personal pleasure. So many of our novels and films tell of this. Again, I say that we have no total opposites in our lives, just more or less of something. We do not divide the world into good or evil, like those sheep and goats Jesus talks about in another parable. The division between the spiritual and the physical has been lost. Today, I would say, no one speaks of a spiritual dimension to life as we know it, or as we live it. If they do, they are rare – and people in church, where they do speak of the spiritual, are very rare – we need only look at the polls of numbers of people who attend church regularly. Rarely do we hear of that great division in our lives that Paul speaks of in all of his letters to the young churches.

Come to think about it, no one really speaks about what is right or good anymore. It is all about what is convenient, what will cause least offence, or at worst, “what we can get away with”.  This is not a new dilemma. Moses asks the question “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” when the destruction of Sodom is on the cards.

Paul’s rhetoric is not really accessible to the majority of people today, as they never hear it in everyday life. When was the last time you heard a public figure say, “We should do this, because it is the right and good thing to do” or the courts say, “Let  right be done”? I cannot honestly say that I remember anyone saying that at all. Nor can I remember saying it aloud myself.

How can we make sense of Paul’s argument dividing the spheres of life into the flesh and the spirit today? If this example of Paul’s language is not understood, how can the language of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church be comprehensible to people in general?

Perhaps we should go back to the sayings of Jesus as captured in our Gospel for today.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

This saying is quite harsh, isn’t it? Here Jesus is condemning everyone – he is calling everyone who is listening to him “evil”. Jesus has made us question our own value with his judgement about us, hasn’t he? We normally think of ourselves as being good people – after all we don’t offer our children scorpions instead of eggs. We do know what would be good for our children, don’t we?

But when we hear Jesus in this saying, it knocks us back quite a way. Jesus has made it very difficult for us to go on in our usual way, when we think of no one but ourselves, and at the same time we begin to wonder about good and evil in the world. We begin to think about a moral dualism at the very least.

This thought should be with us at all times, “What is the good thing to do?” When I do something, will it be like giving my child a snake when he or she asked for a fish? Here we come to Hamlet’s “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” However, having a conscience should be a good thing, don’t you think? Conscience allows us, even though we are evil, to do what is right, but we have to listen to it, and that is the problem today, when we are bombarded by all the tantalising, distracting voices of “this world” – the chattering mass of humanity that has no sense of what might be righteous – even if they have appropriated that word for their own purposes.

However, Jesus also speaks about being wily as serpents and innocent as doves, just as he speaks here of us as evil, yet knowing what is right to do. So there is hope for all of us, isn’t there? Innocent people can see what is round about them clearly, and choose the good course of action, just like those evil people who can do the right thing for their children.

Here we are – evil serpents, but we are also innocent doves when it comes to serving our children. How can we be innocent yet evil both at the same time? After all, we know that a scorpion is not a very healthy gift for a child expecting an egg. We wouldn’t do that, would we?

Conscience keeps us on the straight and narrow, doesn’t it? Rather than being something that makes us fear a penalty, I think conscience causes us to reflect on what we are doing, being attentive to the world around us. This is straight from Hamlet and the Bible. We are not cowards who furtively skulk away from the punishment to come because we have behaved badly. – The fact is, conscience allows us to take the right road. We here don’t do things from fear, we do what is right because we have thought about it, and decided that the good thing is what we should do – just because it is good. Plain and simple, the way everyone likes things to be.

So we come back to Paul’s argument about not following human, worldly-based philosophy. Instead, he tells us that we should be following Christ at every moment. “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him.” Christ is our conscience, I would say.

Paul speaks at length about this life in Christ, and the theologians of the Church have continued to teach about that life in Christ, a life that is founded upon the Word made flesh, the Saviour of the world, our rock on which we build the whole of our lives. So conscience, that calling of God, does allow us to see clearly what is right and good to do, especially when a child asks for some fish.

Amen

Trinity Sunday

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity: keep us steadfast in this faith, that we may evermore be defended from all adversities; 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.

Amen

Prayer After Communion

Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever.

Amen

Readings

Old Testament

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud:

“To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. When there were no oceans, I was given birth, when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the earth or its fields or any of the dust of the world. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so that the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”

Proverbs 8.1–4, 22–31

Psalm

1    O Lord our governor,
how glorious is your name in all the world!

2    Your majesty above the heavens is praised
out of the mouths of babes at the breast.

3    You have founded a stronghold against your foes,
that you might still the enemy and the avenger.

4    When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have ordained,

5    What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them;
mere human beings, that you should seek them out?

6    You have made them little lower than the angels
and crown them with glory and honour

7    You have given them dominion over the works of your hands
and put all things under their feet,

8    All sheep and oxen,
even the wild beasts of the field,

9    The birds of the air, the fish of the sea
and whatsoever moves in the paths of the sea.

10    O Lord our governor,
how glorious is your name in all the world!

Psalm 8

Epistle

Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Romans 5.1–5

Gospel

Jesus said: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.“

John 16.12–15

Sermon on Trinity Sunday

The one book that everyone quotes on Trinity Sunday is that of St Augustine, De Trinitate – About the Trinity. I came across an interesting article which dealt with this book in a less prolix form – twelve pages rather than 500 – and being a lazy fellow, I opted to read the twelve pages. The first paragraph reads

Augustine’s purposes in writing De Trinitate Augustine had three main objectives. He wished to demonstrate to critics of the Nicene creed that the divinity and co-equality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are rooted in scripture. He intended to tell pagan philosophers the need for faith in a divine mediator so that divine self-revelation and redemption can occur. Finally, he wanted to convince his readers that salvation and spiritual growth are connected with knowing themselves as images of  the Triune God, from whom they came and toward whom they go, with a dynamic tendency to union realized by likeness to God who is Love.

Augustine’s approach was that of faith seeking understanding of the mystery of  one God as Father, Son, and Spirit. (Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006-7 MARY T. CLARK De Trinitate)

That summary sets out Augustine’s project quite clearly. Let’s consider the first aspect. He wanted to use the evidence of scripture to make his argument. This seems rather strange to us, doesn’t it? Would we start our arguments about God by citing passages of scripture?

I don’t think so. Scholarship has allowed us to understand some things about the text of the bible which were unthought in the fifth century. That summary I’m using catalogues how Augustine cites scripture’s use of trinitarian language. However, biblical theologians have begun to question whether those trinitarian formulae are contemporary with Jesus or the authors of the biblical texts. Rather, they say that those passages seem to have come through liturgical usage, rather than a revelation in the text of the bible. This is a theological matter which would need to be discussed – something we might want to do over cake with Steve.

However, the point Augustine is making is that scripture does incorporate trinitarian formulae. They may not be biblical revelations, but his citations do help focus our thoughts on God and how God is in the world.

This leads to the second point of that useful summary: “the need for faith in a divine mediator so that divine self-revelation and redemption can occur.” This is a rather difficult point. Many people see faith as a final landing place on which everything in life is founded. I would have to agree that faith is where everything in life is founded, but I will always disagree that it is a final landing place. Faith is the whence of all experience. Faith looks outward, ever inviting the other in. Faith is like perception, when we look at something we turn our attention to that thing, don’t we? It is that openness toward that object of perception which is significant in faith.

When we open our eyes and ears we can see and hear what the Lord has to say, we are no longer distracted by our own inner voices. That clarity is what Augustine wants the pagan philosophers to embrace, and so entertain the possibility of “divine self-revelation and redemption.” That is no insignificant step to take – and I think it is a step we need to encourage in this generation. We don’t really accept the idea of “divine self-revelation and redemption”, do we? Another discussion to be had some time. I would say, the biblical passages, “Let him who has eyes to see,” and “Let him who has ears to hear,” have to do with this debate Augustine is having with those pagan philosophers, and our own discussions with our contemporaries. I think there is a blindness and a profound deafness today and I think we can learn from Augustine’s polemic for our own evangelism.

There is what Augustine would call a paganism abroad nowadays. There is, it seems, a denial of revelation in any sense, even to the point of not accepting what another says as possibly right. We can see this in many areas of life, from politics to marriage (or should I say divorce when the contemporary legalism comes to the fore in the matter?). But the third point the summary makes is even more significant,

Finally, he wanted to convince his readers that salvation and spiritual growth are connected with knowing themselves as images of  the Triune God, from whom they came and toward whom they go, with a dynamic tendency to union realized by likeness to God who is Love.

Augustine’s intention “to convince his readers that salvation and spiritual growth are connected with knowing themselves” is something we can take to heart, isn’t it? I am not worried about human being in the image of God, at the moment, though that thought should be significant for us all. However, I don’t think this generation takes the notion of salvation and spiritual growth very seriously. What about you? Does the care of souls figure at all in your own life experience? It certainly hasn’t in mine. (But that is another line of enquiry altogether, which we must forego.) Growth is fundamental in our personal stories, fifty years ago everyone was looking at personal development and the journey of the self with the psychiatrists like Laing, Jung and Freud taking centre stage. The development of the whole person was the aim then, and this has been renewed by contemporary movements, like mindfulness for instance. Yes, I agree about personal growth and moving to know one’s self, just as the philosophers and theologians of the tradition have always taught, so I think it is essential in our faithful lives. – All of that, and I have only covered the first paragraph of this twelve page article about Augustine’s treatise on the trinity. My writer’s next sentence is important for us. “Augustine’s approach was that of faith seeking understanding of the mystery of  one God as Father, Son, and Spirit.” Augustine’s approach should appeal to us Anglicans, though. I say this because the most well-known theologian of the English middle ages, St Anselm, uses this phrase in his essay on the proof of the existence of God.

Augustine’s talking about the links between humanity and divinity should encourage us, especially in our own evangelism here and now. The mystery of God and the mystery of man are intertwined. Knowing self allows that we can know God, because of the “images” in man of God. God, “from whom [these images] came and toward whom they go,” reveals himself in ourselves, in the “dynamic tendency to union realized by likeness to God who is Love,” realised in the one commandment our Lord gave us. ‘Augustine ends with a prayer: “Let me remember you, let me understand you, let me love you. Increase these things in me until you reform me completely.”’

Amen 

Pentecost Sunday

Collect

God, who as at this time taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen

Prayer after Communion

Faithful God, who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending us your Holy Spirit and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal: open our lips by your Spirit, that every tongue may tell of your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Readings

Acts

When the day of Pentecost came, the disciples were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.‘“

Acts 2.1–21

Psalm

26    O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

27    There is the sea, spread far and wide,
and there move creatures beyond number, both small and great.

28    There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan
which you have made to play in the deep.

29    All of these look to you
to give them their food in due season.

30    When you give it them, they gather it;
you open your hand and they are filled with good.

31    When you hide your face they are troubled;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return again to the dust.

32    When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

33    May the glory of the Lord endure for ever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works;

34    He looks on the earth and it trembles;
he touches the mountains and they smoke.

35    I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will make music to my God while I have my being.

36    So shall my song please him
while I rejoice in the Lord.

Psalm 104

Epistle

Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8.14–17

Gospel

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.“

John 14.8–17(25–27)

Sermon on Pentecost Sunday

Welcome to our celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, one of the High Holy Days of the Anglican calendar. However, I would like to call this Sunday “the festival of interpretation”. – Why would you want to do that? I hear you ask. My answer – it is because of today’s reading from Acts.

A crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own language?”

How can these rude Galilean fishermen possibly speak the languages of Parthia, Mesopotamia, Phrygia, Egypt and Lybia, when they had never been further than Jerusalem? How could these diverse foreigners hear “their own languages”? Don’t we use the reverse phrase all the time? Don’t we say, “He doesn’t speak my language,” when we talk of people whom, we think, do not have any idea of what makes us tick? Why – I am sure some you say that of me, when I have wittered on and blathered about how interesting I find the readings for the day.

This phrase of “speaking one’s language” is an old one, isn’t it? Just what does it mean? It was in the news all the time in the 1960s and 70s when the generation gap and the bitterness between hippies and their conservative parents were openly discussed, when demonstrations against just about anything our parents were proud of made us want to rebel, or sometimes even take a harder line than our parents. That divide between people still exists, and I would say it is even more pronounced nowadays, and we still say “They don’t speak my language.” How can we overcome this polarisation between them and us? How can we all start to speak the same language? Do we have to wait for the miracle of Pentecost to happen again in our time?

I think that miracle of Pentecost’s glossolalia is here right now! I don’t think it is very far away from the tip of our tongues. That is why I want to rename this festival of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

I think we are in the midst of speaking in tongues all the time – that we can speak another’s language. This may be simply saying, “Hello,” in the mother tongue of a visiting stranger. Or it may take the form of listening really hard to a friend in trouble and speaking exactly about his or her predicament, presenting the troubles in light of some resolution.

That is why I think we are in the midst of a cultural revolution, a changing of things in an extraordinary way. When we “speak another’s language,” we  transform the world for that other person and even for ourselves. That is what I can imagine the apocalypse to be – that the stranger becomes a friend through sharing meaning and significance when we speak with one another.

This Feast of Interpretation is one that strikes fear and trembling into the heart of every preacher. It also perplexes the academic theologian. Neither of them thinks they speak anything but plainly to all who would listen to them. Speaking in tongues is a terrifying thing for everyone.

A century ago, however, a famous German theologian looked hard at this problem of the cultural languages we speak. He pointed out that the cultures we live in are very different to the middle east of Jesus’ time. For instance the person in the twentieth century does not have the same expectations as someone living two millennia ago. How could someone with electric lights speak easily with someone whose light was produced only by a fire? The problem is compounded a century on, when we would speak of our children, that present generation which lives in the world of Facebook, Tweets and selfies, a world which is connected twenty-four–seven by hand held devices which can call up information in an instant from many hidden sources.

Such a world would be magical for Jesus and the disciples, wouldn’t it? But we still have to talk about the Jesus from thatworld in this electronic universe. So let’s look at the reading again. 

A crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own language?

Two things struck me as I read this passage again – first, everyone was bewildered, and second, they were utterly amazed. We have, I hope, interpreted what it means to speak in another person’s language. So why were they bewildered and utterly amazed because someone so very different could speak directly to them?

I take it as a given that everyone wants to speak with everyone else clearly and without confusion. Either I am naive, or it is a essential characteristic of being human. I am not sure which. However, I think we all want to be clear to the person opposite us when we look them in the eye.

Bewilderment is something we don’t do nowadays, is it? It is seen as a weakness, a fundamental fault, in contemporary social interaction. Who today admits to being utterly anything, let alone amazed? We are much too sophisticated for that. And for that matter, who would say that they don’t understand someone else? That is a most severe character flaw in this day and age.

Further on in the story, we read ‘Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”’ I wonder whether we would do that today. Do we turn to our neighbour and ask about the meaning of something which had bewildered us? Do we ask our neighbour to explain a statement made by one of those people who “don’t speak my language”? How sad is the state of humanity when we cannot wonder about things with our neighbour – that we can’t say, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Are we any different to the people of the bible who heard the disciples on that day in Jerusalem? The disciples spoke with strangers from near and far. – “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” those strangers exclaim, when they expected nothing but nonsense from the mouths of those Galilean fishermen.

That, I think, is our task – to declare the wonders of God so that others will be able to hear about significance and meaning  in our lives. In other words, we have to translate and interpret the words of the bible, as we understand them, for our contemporaries. We have to speak their language with those who would become our friends in due course because we will come to love them as Christ loved us.

Amen 

Sunday – Easter 5

Collect

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen

(or)

Risen Christ, your wounds declare your love for the world and the wonder of your risen life: give us compassion and courage to risk ourselves for those we serve, to the glory of God the Father.

Amen

Post Communion

Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Amen

Readings

Acts

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

Acts 11:1–18

Psalm

1  Alleluia.

      Praise the Lord from the heavens; •

    praise him in the heights.

2  Praise him, all you his angels; •

    praise him, all his host.

3  Praise him, sun and moon; •

    praise him, all you stars of light.

4  Praise him, heaven of heavens, •

    and you waters above the heavens.

5  Let them praise the name of the Lord, •

    for he commanded and they were created.

6  He made them fast for ever and ever; •

    he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

7  Praise the Lord from the earth, •

    you sea monsters and all deeps;

8  Fire and hail, snow and mist, •

    tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;

9  Mountains and all hills, •

    fruit trees and all cedars;

10  Wild beasts and all cattle, •

    creeping things and birds on the wing;

11  Kings of the earth and all peoples, •

    princes and all rulers of the world;

12  Young men and women,

    old and young together; •

    let them praise the name of the Lord.

13  For his name only is exalted, •

    his splendour above earth and heaven.

14  He has raised up the horn of his people

    and praise for all his faithful servants, •

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

      Alleluia.

Psalm 148

Epistle

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Revelation 21:1–6

Gospel

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

John 13:31–35

Sermon on Sunday – Easter 5

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’

A news item on Friday sparked some thoughts regarding this reading from Acts. President Trump is wanting only educated English–(presumably the American version)–speaking people to enter the United States. No longer does it seem that the United States will entertain “the poor, those huddled masses, yearning to be free” as the people who can enter that country. This is not a new phenomenon in the present and the previous century, nor is it peculiar to that country. The same sort of debate has been raging in this country for many decades.

‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Peter was asked. The “uncircumsised” is a circumlocution for “the different”. They are unlike us. The uncircumcised are men who are not Jews, they do not conform to what the Jews expect. In our towns and villages, we are afraid of the incomer, the stranger in our midst. You need only think of how long it took you became a member of the community to see that this is true.

The stranger, the poor, the helpless, the sick, one of the LGBT – These are all people who are different, so different we do not wish to associate with them. Even the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church divides itself into them and us, the conservative evangelicals will not have anything to do with the pentecostalists, the Romans will have nothing to do with the Anglicans, and so on. Fear is at the heart of all of this – those other people are just so very different from us, aren’t they? We have our own ideas of what they are and that idea makes it impossible for us to understand them. Isn’t this what Peter is saying in his own defence?

That great sheet that descended in his vision contained all created things. The voice said they were all licit. He should choose something to eat from that sheet. Peter balked at this, for had always obeyed the law, never had he transgressed the dietary laws, he says.

But now there is a new law, isn’t there? Peter can now eat anything, anything from that cloth is allowed. This new law is inclusive, not exclusive. All things can be taken in. This is a metaphor, isn’t it? Peter speaks of the dietary law in terms of his vision, but we must take it further, as Peter does, when he justifies his sitting down with Gentiles.

How can such an upstanding Jew as Peter sit down at table with a Gentile? They are impure, aren’t they? They eat pork at the very least. Those Gentiles are so very different to us Jews – “we Jewish christians should have nothing to do with gentiles, should we?” asks the other apostles.

That argument reveals a closed community, people who are afraid of anything, or any person, not within the bounds of “the law” – that law ultimately boils down to our own expectations, and we then say what we want is  what is right.

What is “right”? Is it something objective or something we feel in our hearts? Is what is right only personal, something that is right for me? That is a more philosophical discussion than we need at this moment, but it is something which everyone should consider now and again.

Anyway, let’s return to our reading from Acts.

Peter said to his inquisitors, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Peter went with those three men from Caesarea, those gentiles, with six of the group with him. When Peter began to speak to the people at Caesarea, something happened, didn’t it? They began to speak in tongues, this fundamental event in the history of the Church, what is called the birth of the universal Church, an event claimed by every denomination claiming Christ and the Holy Spirit as their own.

How, Peter asks, are they any different from us? They have heard the Word, they have believed and the Spirit has been given to them. Everything happens for a gentile as it does for a Jew, so why should there be any distinction at all?

This story must be founded on something fundamentally new, and our gospel reading points us to what it is. The new commandment Jesus gave. It was given to the Jews who had originally gathered around him, that we love one another just as he has loved us. That love, of which I have spoken time and again, transforms everything. Love makes no distinction between one and another. All are of equal value.

The new commandment is certainly very different from the old law, isn’t it? It is inclusive, so there is no distinction in Christ between male or female, gentile or jew, rich or poor, … the list goes on. The distinction the Jew made between themselves and the gentiles, Peter argues, is no longer applicable. The law of love which Jesus taught – no, the law of love Jesus commanded – turns the world upside down. Inclusion, not exclusion, is the mark of this new community.

Inclusiveness has become a byword today, hasn’t it? Though, I am afraid, we are failing the ideal in so many places. I won’t give any examples, because it is too depressing. Let us just say that it is the case.

We are not showing the love, are we? We are making distinctions for the sake of separation, not the celebration of diversity. If we were merely describing the nuances which make up that rich tapestry of life, that life in all its fulness which we celebrate as the Church universal – everything would be so very different! The Kingdom will have come, just as we pray for it.

So to return to the beginning with that news report from Friday morning. – As a US citizen, I am disheartened by the reported pronouncements of the President, but as a christian I am even more dismayed, for if I am to love my neighbour, how can I accept only someone who is just like me? So many neighbours would be left out, that is for sure. How could I love my neighbour and exclude any person from my company? I want to show that I love others as Jesus has loved me. How can I do anything but invite everyone to sit at table with me? The larder may be bare, but what a happy life it would be, because we show the love and feel it, and better yet, feed it.

Amen

Sunday – Easter 4

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen

Prayer after communion

Merciful Father,
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd, and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again: keep us always under his protection,and give us grace to follow in his steps; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen

Readings

Acts

In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning towards the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

Acts 9.36–43

Psalm

1    The Lord is my shepherd; •

   therefore can I lack nothing.

2    He makes me lie down in green pastures •

   and leads me beside still waters.

3    He shall refresh my soul •

   and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4    Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

      I will fear no evil; •

   for you are with me;

      your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5    You spread a table before me

      in the presence of those who trouble me; •

   you have anointed my head with oil

      and my cup shall be full.

6    Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow me

      all the days of my life, •

   and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 23

Epistle

I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”     All the angels were standing round the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7.9–17

Gospel

The time came for the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews gathered round him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.“

John 10.22–30

Sermon on Sunday – Easter 4

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” That is the question on everyone’s lips nowadays, isn’t it? We have been asking our politicians this question for over two years, and still there is no answer. But the politicians don’t speak to the big questions which Jesus addresses, do they? They are the little things – it is about a comfortable life that we are usually asking them about. We don’t ask Teresa May whether she is the Messiah, God’s anointed here on earth. We certainly don’t wonder whether David Drew will lead us out of our confusion. Do we ever wonder about the Messiah in these times of doubt and uncertainty?

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” Who is the last person you asked this question? The last person I asked that was my girlfriend when I proposed to her – and I felt at that moment that a new way of life was about to be mine. I really wanted her answer, because all of life hinged on that one answer, or so it seemed.

But my wife is not the Messiah. She did not offer universal salvation with her answer, though it was very much a personal redemption for me.

I am sure you, like me, have an incident which made sense of the whole of life. That is what these moments of clarity do, don’t they? But these little moments are not the epiphany of the saving God. The Messiah does not settle the little things for us, does he (or she)? The Messiah is on the universal stage, from here to the ends of the galaxy. The state of humankind is what is addressed by the Messiah, leading each one of us from sin to righteousness. As we have prayed in our Collect. “Raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above.”

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church has always tried to guide us to those things above, to the spiritual life, that life in which righteousness blossoms and sin is no more. The Church guides us into the life of the flock of Christ. The image of the Shepherd and his sheep in the gospel points us to what we are – followers of that Messiah whose epiphany has enlightened creation, whose resurrection gives hope to all. We follow our shepherd in his path to those higher things, don’t we?

However, there are times when we ask our God like those Jews of the reading, “How long will you keep us in suspense?”

This question is similar to that statement of Thomas, “Unless I touch the wounds of Christ …” We are in suspense awaiting the second coming – or at least we should be in some way – and we wonder “When?” This question is natural for us, because we are oriented toward the future. We are always looking forward in our lives. Either we are looking for a new future, or we are hoping that the golden age of the past will be established again in our future.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” Everyone wonders about the future and that suspense is where we live. We are on tenterhooks awaiting what is to happen. Just what we do during this time is what defines us. So we return to those things above – we ask ourselves: are we pursuing the things that make for righteousness? I think everyone would admit righteousness is well beyond and above our ordinary activity. After all, who pursues the Good through the whole of their life? I know that I have failed. However many times I fail, there are other times when I seek that seemingly impossible goal of the Good, to achieve a righteous act which will bring a glimpse of  the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. At that point my suspense has been ended – for a moment in the twinkling of an eye when I glimpse.

Contrary to popular opinion and what appears to be the considered verdict of the world, I am sure that it is possible to do what is right. I think this is all related to this notion of being in suspense. So many do not hope, they do not suspend their seeking of the immediate pleasure for the sake of something finer, something grander, something further away than immediate gratification. The philosopher talks about the Good as an end in itself. The Good is its own reward. He tells us that we are to do the Good because it is precisely that – Good. It should take no subordinate position in life.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” We ask this all the time, don’t we? The Good suspends us in time as we anticipate the future right here and now. We are, as some see it, stuck nowhere, without the pleasures of the world and without the ultimate reward of that Good. This is true suspense, isn’t it? We are never sure that what we have chosen is that ultimate Good. We are always in suspense and it is intolerable for most people. We want certainty. We want the answer right now. This suspense is fine for philosophers and saints, but not for the mass of humanity, those sinners of Adam’s line whom Christ came to save. We want to grasp things here and now, don’t we?

The political suspense in which we hang is a perfect example. We are looking for an immediate return rather than a good for all, or that ultimate Good – well, that is what it looks like to me.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” Is the suspense we experience anything like the suspense of the Jews who were expecting the Messiah? We are awaiting the coming of the Christ in glory at the end of time, aren’t we? We even confess that in our creeds.

However, the question Paul asks in his letters and many of the branches of christianity pursue is whether we are ready for that second coming, that Parousia of the theologians.

So we have to confront the question about the suspense in which we live. Is it a visceral and present Angst? – something more fundamental to existence than our anxiety about whatever immediate concern you like, for Angst is about those higher things to which the Church universal has always directed us.

So let’s look to those things which cause righteousness and salvation. We need to live in suspense – awaiting that ultimate experience of grace. We need to live in suspense as we work for the Kingdom to come. We need to expect that the Good can be reached and teach those whose bellies control their lives that there is something greater than the pursuit of the earthly. Those higher things call us to greater action and force us to suspend everything while we enact those things that serve for righteousness.

Amen