Sermon: Advent 3, Year A

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Sermon: Advent 3, Year A
Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11

What was the question again?

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of my favourite books is the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy, by the late lamented Douglas Adams, a trilogy which contains five books…

The Hitch-Hiker’s Story is a search for the answers to the fundamental questions of life: why are people born, why do they die, why do they spend much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?

A hugely sophisticated race builds a computer which takes seven and a half million years to tell us that the answer is, most definitely, 42

…because the problem is really, that we didn’t actually know what the question was. It was just the ultimate question to Life, the Universe and Everything. Knowing that the answer was 42 could lead you to a number of possibilities:

– How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? (Thank you, Bob Dylan)
– What is the value of human existence?
– or even “What is Six times Seven?”

In the end, they had to construct an even bigger computer to work out what the question is, so big that it was often mistaken for a blue-green planet on the western spiral arm of the galaxy and which was given the name by its inhabitants (and participants in the computer program) the slightly uninspiring name of “The Earth”.

Sadly, in the story before the question is decided, the planet gets destroyed to make way for a bypass. Leaving one human, Arthur Dent still in his dressing gown traipsing around the universe: searching through time and space, seeking this question, seeking this truth.

It turns out that knowledge of both the ultimate question and the ultimate answer is, in Douglas Adam’s warped world, mutually exclusive: knowledge of one precludes knowledge of the other.

But, the ultimate question and the ultimate answer can be known, and has been known for some time: it’s just that we haven’t been looking for it in the right place.

Before I tell you this monumental thing: the fundamental question to the universe, I want to ask you a question: “How will this answer affect your life?”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide is an allegory. It is a parable. The story is full of some of the most glorious silliness, but it is a story about you and me. We do not cruise around the universe or travel through time looking for questions and answers, but it might feel like we do.

What if, after all of this struggle: travelling the universe in search of truth, only to discover that the answer is “42” – a pointless, meaningless nothing of an answer – a futility. Is life a futility?

What if after years of study at school, the answer is “42”

What if, after decades of work: some of it stimulating and challenging but much of it dreary, dull and repetative, all just to make money and feed the famility, and the answer is “42”

What if, in the later years of our lives, when we start to look at the horizon and look beyond the shallow and material, the answer is “42”

“Do you mean that’s it? That’s all there is? I never even got around to asking the question?”

This is really the fundamental question of the universe, and unlike in Douglas Adams’ fiction, it does have a real answer. We have heard the question asked this morning in Holy Scripture…

“Are you the one who is to come? Or do we look for another?”
This is the question that the disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus the Christ.

“Are you the one who is to come? Or do we look for another?”
This is the question that will be asked at the end of our lives.

“Are you the one who is to come? Or do we look for another?” This is the question that we ask at the beginning of our lives, our real lives as a new creation in Christ.

It is the question of Life, the Universe and Everything (the title of Adams’ fourth book in the er… Trilogy) Are you disappointed that that the question is so simple? But this question is not at all simple. This is THE Question for all time, for the entire universe. The hard part is that you are left to answer the question. The answer is not “42”.

Jesus looks at the disciples of John the Baptist. Their question is a good question. They ask the question with eyes open and a sincere heart. The rumours are wild. The politicians and priests speculate in the back rooms. The villagers murmur amongst themselves.

Is Jesus of Nazareth also Jesus the Christ?

Jesus looks into the hearts of the men before him. His answer was recorded by those who loved him. But his answer is a cryptic answer, which I am sure left them scratching their heads even more.

Jesus said, “After you leave, declare to John the things that you have heard and seen. The blind receive sight. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The poor have good news proclaimed. Blessèd is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

And then Jesus says, “What did you expect? Some kind of plant flapping in the breeze? Did you come out to the desert to find a king is fancy clothes? Did you come out to find a prophet? Well, you have found a prophet, but even more than a prophet.”

Now that you have heard the question and the answer, what next?

The prophet Isaiah cried out, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice, and blossom… And the burning sand (a mirage) shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…. And a highway shall be there and a way, and it shall be called, The Holy Way…. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

The very rhythm of the earth changes when the Messiah sets foot upon it. The rhythm is a melody of joy. The earth knows life, new life, abundant waters flow. The mirage shall become real. The waters of new life shall flow. The Messiah has come.

The ransomed shall return with singing and everlasting joy.

You who are ransomed by your depression and loneliness. You who are ransomed by your drug or alcohol addiction. Those captured and bound by abusive or unsatisfactory relationships, or dead end job. You who are burdened with illness or insurmountable guilt.

Jesus Christ comes for you.

The ransomed shall return to the promised land. That means you. That means me. That means all of us who come to encounter God in these holy and sacred sacraments.

“Are you the one who is to come? Is He the One?” The answer is yes. What are we to do? For now, we are to rejoice. Then, we are to continue the work Jesus began: to love, to serve, to praise, to heal, to reconcile, to pray, to rejoice.

“Are you the one who is to come? Is He the One?” The answer is yes. With a resounding joy. The answer is yes, not 42, but YES. One of the translations of “Amen” is YES, so let the people of God respond in the same way as Our Lady responded to the Angel of the Lord: Amen – YES

Amen

Sermon: Immaculate Conception, 2004

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Sermon: 8th December 2004, Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Text: Luke 1:26-38

“Hail Mary, Filled with Grace”

In the name of the +Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some years back, my own training incumbent, Fr Lewis laid down a challenge for me, when he reminded me and all those present that I am required by canon law to to teach from the pulpit only those doctrines which can be proved by Scripture. Certainly a challenge!

For today we celebrate one of the glorious mysteries of the Church, and one that has been the subject of much controversy over the centuries: the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am not so sure that I have the necessary skills to prove by Scripture the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but I feel it can be adequately explored through Scripture, through Tradition and through Reason, the three pillars of Anglicanism.

It is a doctrine which causes some confusion and misunderstanding, but is one which I feel it is right for us to celebrate because it not only serves to underline the glory of Our Lady, but also serves to point the way towards the sublime glory of the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ; in this Advent season we need to use a feast such as this to prepare us for that Incarnation.

Now, to clear up some basic confusion: the Immaculate Conception is NOT the Annunciation and is NOT the Virgin Birth. These two things are both glorious mysteries of the Church, but are events in the lifecycle of Our Lord. The Immaculate Conception is concerned with the conception of Our Lady. The Church declared in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus on this day in 1854 that the Blessed Virgin Mary was

“from the first moment of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the human race, she was preserved free from all stain of original sin”

If everyone understood that the first time, then we can skip the rest of this sermon and carry straight on to the Eucharist… but perhaps we had better understand this properly. (read again)

Unthinking reactionaries reject the Immaculate Conception as some kind of alternative annunciation, and suggest that it takes Mary and elevates her to the Godhead, it is a common criticism of Catholic Christians that we don’t have a trinity, but a quadinity, and unthinkingly they assume that this means that Mary herself was created supernaturally, just like our Lord. But no, the dogma does not say this: Our Lady is Our Lady because she is one of us, not a supernatural, heavenly being used as a receptacle for the Holy Spirit to bring God down to earth, but flesh and blood of our flesh and blood – a properly conceived daughter of Eve like the rest of us. She was the product of Anna and Joachim. The scripture refers to her as a  (parthenon) a virgin, not a superhuman, not removed from human experience, but one of us.

Mary is honoured by the Church and has been since the beginning, but not worshipped, asked for her prayers, but not prayed to, recognised as having a special relationship with Christ, but never taking his place. Mary’s role is to point the way to her Son: note that in statues of Our Lady of Walsingham, in our MU banner, it is not Mary alone that we see, but Mary presenting her Son to us; for that is what she does. It is not a perversity of Catholic or Anglocatholicism that we rightly honour the first follower of Christ, for both Luther and Calvin held very high Marian doctrines and the Ave Maria continued to be said in Geneva even whilst the icons were being destroyed. Mary is an important feature of the universal catholic Christian faith because of her humanity and her proximity to the divine.

Why do I need to place such great emphasis on the humanity of Mary? Without the humanity of Mary, the Incarnation becomes a sham, a mere pretence, as Our Lord and Saviour fails to come properly amongst us – deny the humanity of Mary and you deny the humanity of Jesus Christ, and his redemptive work is all for naught.

The doctrine teaches us that she was human like us, but free from one important complicating detail: Original Sin.

Original Sin is not very fashionable at the moment, and is felt by many to be an uncomfortable throwback to an age which was afraid of sex and sexuality, denied the sinless sexuality of Christ and the sexuality of Our Lady. Mary’s subsequent nature and title of Ever-Virgin does not rely on the lack of sexual intercourse, but is a description of her state of Grace, not her role as wife and mother. Original Sin is the state we are all in, a state of separation from God and which can be traced back to what Milton so eloquently describes as “Man’s First Disobedience”

Freed from the shackles of Original Sin, not by her own merits, but through the grace of God, it is right that we should identify with this; as it is a portent of the grace which is available to all of us. It happened to Mary in the womb and it will happen for us when we are united with Christ at the Parousia.

The Immaculate Conception is not a doctrine which can be explicitly proved by Scripture, but that alone is not a reason for rejecting it, or avoiding the teaching of this important doctrine from the pulpit, for many texts indirectly supporting it, such as the promised victory over the serpent, symbol of Original Sin in Genesis 3:15 and the Angel greeting Mary in today’s Gospel (Luke 1:28) as ‘one having received grace’ ((kech-arit-ow-men-ay) a much more accurate translation than the words of the angelus we use in our daily devotions. Elizabeth, the Mother of John the Baptist also recognised this state of grace and greeted her as “blesséd are you amongst women” (Luke 1:42), blesséd being a particular state of grace.

There has been much theological debate over the Immaculate Conception. Major figures in Catholic theology such as St. Anselm (d.1109), St. Bernard (d.1153), St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) and St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) objected to it as it removed Mary from the company of those needing salvation, as she was already redeemed of original sin, and thus detracting from the universality of Christ’s redemptive work. These theologians were willing to grant that Mary was sanctified in the womb, but argued that she had to be touched by original sin for at least an instant in order to be redeemed by Christ’s grace. There was a theological standoff between the Benedictines, who supported the Immaculate Conception and the Franciscans who objected on these grounds.

However, Blessed Duns Scotus (d.1308) resolved these problems with the insight that Christ can save in two ways. In one way, he rescues from sin those already fallen, such as you and I and in another he preserves someone from being touched by sin even for an instant. This is uniquely the case with Mary, whose being conceived without Original Sin demonstrates Christ’s redemptive power, and was the core theology behind the declaration of the dogma (a dogma is something which we are required to believe as a foundation of faith) of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

Mary is privileged to have been prevented from the contamination of Original Sin, which is what Our Baptism washes away. The mediator of this is her Son, Jesus Christ and it takes place at a point in time (her human conception) as a result of intervention out-of-time by God. This is why Christ can undertake his redemption of his Mother even before he stepped into time and into this world.

St Alphonsus Ligouri in The Glories of Mary suggested that a metaphor which may help us to understand the Immaculate Conception is the consecration of a Church or an Altar: Mary is consecrated by the Immaculate Conception to become a sanctuary fitting for the incarnate God. A stone table or an empty building becomes a holy place through sanctification.

In celebrating the feast, we do two things: firstly, we recognise God’s goodness towards Mary, his saving work of Grace on her life from the moment of her conception; signifying that Christ’s incarnation was not an accident of birth, but a planned, definitive intervention in humanity as Christ punches through into our existence to show us the path of salvation. Secondly, it is an example to us of God’s Grace intended for us, and which we will surely inherit because it was bought for us by the blood of the lamb.

St. Paschasius Radbertus (d.860) asserted that the affective outpouring of devotion to Mary does not detract from God, but is in itself praise of God. Let us be devoted, and through that devotion seek to praise God ever more for his excellent grace and goodness.

We need therefore to be attentive on that grace, and to wait in hope and prayer, as we see the model set before us, in Our Lady Mary, as she points to her Son and waits with us this Advent Season for the redemption of all humankind.

Amen.

Sermon: Advent 2, Year A

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Sermon: Advent 2, Year A
Text: Matthew 3:1-12

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

It may be something to do with global warming, but November and December’s weather can sometimes surprise: one day we are wrapped up in scarves and wellies, and the next, just a light jumper will suffice. In some places the grass remains green and you almost expect the first buds to break out. And then you remember it’s December, not March.

Spring surprises us again this morning, not in the temperature, but in the arrival of John the Baptist. Try to picture him: a young man, about 30 years old, and therefore without the dignity or gravitas that we accord to an older person; with shaggy hair, strange clothing, and a loud voice. He comes among us, as he does each Advent, and his message sounds inconvenient, out of season.

It’s time to turn up the heat, wrap Christmas presents, and make sure we have cans of de-icer for the car, and John comes along, like the freakish spring weather we sometimes experience late in the year, with a contrary message. He wants us to start spring-cleaning our houses. He wants us to take on one room after another, and not only our homes, but our gardens and garages and storage sheds, as well. What this scruffy young man wants us to do is repent.

For what does repentance mean, if not a thorough, insistent cleaning of the house in which we live, not the structure of brick and stone, plaster and cute little ideas borrowed from Changing Rooms, but that house we call our lives, our inner residence: our heart.

John the Baptist turns up, apparently from nowhere, and he impudently demands that we start cleaning as though it were spring – elbow grease, the whole works.

But John might have a point: the old place is perhaps a bit of a state. There might be ample reason for this young fellow to call us to account, to insist that we clean house, to beg that we repent.

Probably in all of our spiritual residences, our lives, there are rooms that are dominated by clutter. There are corners where dust, and dirt, and all kinds of rubbish have accumulated. There are signs of ill repair, where the paint is peeling, the carpet is frayed, and the curtain drapes have faded. Windows are grimy; they barely let in the light of the sun. Such are the conditions on the inside.

The outside is no better, though it is more public: a littered back garden, weeds flourishing where flowers used to grow, a garage that now lists dangerously to one side, a drive that begs to be repaved, walls that wait for scraping and fresh paint.

John the Baptist comes along, rude fellow that he is, and points to all of these defects, drags his fingers through the dust, kicks the coke can lying discarded on the front lawn. The shops and market are full of Halogen heaters, and this guy wants us to get on with the kind of cleaning reserved for later, much much later.

We may be willing to overlook the whole wretched mess, at least for now. John may be upset about it, but the state of our residence, our spiritual life, our heart, is no concern to us. We call this condition the lived-in look, comfortable, the way we like it.

• ‘So what’, we say, ‘that some of our relationships are broken, that we look on others with rage or cold contempt, or perhaps no longer see them at all?
• So what’, we say, ‘that our days and nights, hours and minutes, are so driven that we have no time for our Creator or our children?
• So what, if stuff so fills every room of our inner selves,
• if the desire for more so deadens our hearts, that we think everything and everyone has a price,
• that we live to spend, rather than spend to live?
• So what if we see people as disposable, and our own violence as justified, and winning is all that matters, so that somebody suffers for our indulgence and impatience, though unheard by us?’

John is doing us a service pointing out that our spiritual house is a bit of a mess. He’s willing to become hugely unpopular by telling us the truth. But John is not here to win a popularity contest: He shakes the foundations of our fantasies by uttering a single word, passing on a message that comes direct from God: Repent!

It’s time to clean house, he tells us. Time to sweep the floors, wash the walls, air the rooms, repair what is broken, replace what is no longer useful. It’s time to paint the house, clean up the garden, repave the drive.

John demands that we make a lot of changes, expend a great deal of energy, get down on our hands and knees to clean the corners. He insists on all this because something is different.

He insists that we clean house because somebody is coming. He calls us to repent because heaven’s kingdom is near. He wants us to sweat and struggle, do thorough spring-cleaning even in December, because he knows the results will be worth it.
These days of Advent are like that if we dare listen to that scruffy young man, John. They are the time for spring-cleaning right here in December. Before we get to the barn in Bethlehem, most all of us have to wake up to how our own spiritual house, our own lives, are worse than any self-respecting barn, and they plead for us to clean them.

So, John tells us, before we go piously through the silent night to meet the Holy Family at the manger, we have to endure how he and the rest of the prophets leave out for us a HUGE bin bag of stuff that we need to deal with.

What can you throw in? What can any of us throw in? Think for a moment on this.

We don’t need that stuff anyway. It takes up our space. It poisons our lives. Put into that bin bag, then, every odious instance of pride, hypocrisy, and impatience from your life.

Put into it every instance when you have exploited others.

Put into it unholy anger and sick green envy.

Put into it lust for people and for things, dishonesty in everyday relationships, negligence in prayer and worship, every failure to live your faith, every refusal to take a good and holy risk.

(my inspiration for that little list, comes from the Book of Common Prayer Litany)

Fill the wheelie bin high, and let the holy prophets haul it away.

Spring-clean your house, your life, this Advent: sweep every floor, wash every window, shine the brass, fill the vase with flowers. Paint the house, weed the garden, throw out the clutter.

Spring-clean yourself to a life of joy. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near, very near. Open the front door and welcome in the child of Christmas, the man of Easter, the king of glory: For he wants to dwell with you forever.

And, as John the Baptist said, echoing the prophet Isaiah “Prepare the way of the Lord”

Amen.

Sermon: Advent Sunday, Year A

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Sermon: Advent Sunday, Year A
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:26-44

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

New year. New Church Season. Advent Sunday marks the next phase in the Church’s life. After last week’s triumphant proclamation of Christ the King resplendent in Glory, we turn to an altogether darker and foreboding season. The mood of Advent is reflected in the purple vestments and the loss of flowers in Church. They say that it is darkest before the dawn: this tone can only make the glory of the incarnation all the more potent.

Our Scriptures today therefore demand careful study: indeed, you might want to have the texts to hand as we reflect together on God’s Holy Word.

Firstly, in the prophet Isaiah, we read about a political cataclysm in the 8th Century BC, when the kings of Israel had offered to pay tribute for protection from invaders. Isaiah proclaims the vision of a new Israel where tribute will be no more because all kingdoms will come to the “mountain of the Lord’s house.” The time of humiliation will be no more.

And then Isaiah proclaims the vision of universal peace where “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” No one will learn war anymore. Anyone reading a daily newspaper would agree we are far from that vision today. But this vision has given people hope. A few years ago one organization provided people with lapel badges made of metal from a scrapped bomber, moulded into the shape of a ploughshare as a reminder of that vision from Isaiah.

In order of time, the next passage we need to focus on is the Gospel, an apocalyptic pericope from Matthew where Jesus addresses people’s concerns about the end. He does this, incidentally, from the Mount of Olives where he is about to begin his own arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus was certainly aware of what might happen to him as he spoke. We have a suggestion here of how universal that end will be—it will affect everyone, believer and non-believer alike. People engaged in work, and people partying are two extremes of those who will be caught up in the coming of the Son of Man. We might want to ask ourselves whether we want to be taken or left behind – there is no indication in the text as to which one is better: all we know is that there will be a difference.

Just as now, Our Lord’s audience wanted to know when, who, and what they had to do to be saved. The Saviour doesn’t answer these questions directly. He wants people to live a different way, not be afraid of living altogether.

Now we come to the last written passage that was today’s second lesson from Romans. In it Paul, who also senses the immediacy of Jesus’ return, focuses not on when it will be or what it will be like, but how we should live as expectant people: it is process not outcome that concerns him.

Paul tells us to be awake, lay aside works of darkness, put on the armour of light, and live honourably. He doesn’t have any interest in doomsayers or seers predicting destruction. Paul wants people to behave like disciples, like followers of Christ.

Being a disciple is always a life of tension. Paul says we are supposed to honour the civil authority but not be subject to it when it threatens our freedom. Earlier in Romans he has taught us that we are responsible for the new humanity, a new moral order. But it’s not a morality of just being pure as the driven snow. No, this is a gutsy morality that stands against oppression, injustice, and the diktats of the state. Treating others with respect and dignity is a part of it. Actively seeking peace and justice and refusing to participate in actions that lead to violence are the rest.

Can we, then, as responsible disciples bring in the Kingdom? Can we make the vision of Isaiah come true? No, not if we think we are the only people who can. Rather, our job in Advent is to break down barriers that separate us from others, to find in others, including those not of our faith, the potential new humanity.

Some people think Advent is a time of quiet waiting. It should be a time of active searching! Searching for the spark of Christ in others, repairing and polishing our own armour of light, and looking for hope when people say there isn’t any.

Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas, either. It is a separate, intense season of looking for, and listening for, the hope planted by God within each of us. It is a time of shutting out darkness, refusing to accept it as part of life. Even though it is the darkest part of the year Advent is a time to light the lamps and scatter the darkness, not brood over it.

Every Morning Office – Morning Prayer, or for the doggedly traditional ‘Mattins’ – contains the words of the Benedictus, that great canticle of hope spoken by Zechariah about his Son, John the Baptist and the Messiah he would foretell. In it, Zechariah speaks of the “day that shall dawn from on high, to light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79) and each time I say it, I am drawn to glance up the window, at the approaching dawn (more resonant when I was at Mirfield and we said Mattins at 7am each morning), observe the coming day and welcome the light of Christ which dispels the darkness of sin and despair.

There are many references in the Scriptures to “the day.” “Day” should be thought of as floods of light banishing the lies we tell ourselves that keep us from the truth.

• Day should be thought of as light scattering the darkness from before us.
• Day should be thought of as energy, morality, and joy.
• Day should be lived as new behaviour, casting away the works of darkness and finding wonderful things that disciples have always known were there.
• Day should mean letting the light shine into your soul and revealing the things you’ve been hiding there, the things you know displease God and keep you from living as a person of light.
• Day can be cleansing as well are revealing.

The light from Christ’s birth, death and resurrection surrounds us all. This Advent walk in it, live with it and behave in response to it, and your Advent will be one to remember.

Amen

Sermon: Remembrance Sunday 2004

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Sermon: Remembrance Sunday
Text: John 15:9-17

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

• Look at presentation on our walls
• Thoughts collected from Adults and Children
• “This is my commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”
• The call to love is harder than the call to hate
• It is easy to pick on someone else
o who may be weaker than you
o who may be a bit different
o who may have a different colour skin
o who may have a different religion or even way of worshipping as a Christian
o It’s easy to hate those who you are fighting, whether it was in those terrible wars of the past or currently in Iraq and other places around the world
• It is much harder to do what Christ commands us to.
o harder to forgive
o harder to rebuild friendships and respect
o harder to move outside our comfort and reach out to those who are different, or strange, or lonely
• All those who gave their lives, and continue to give their lives, gave their lives for us
• Winning wars is not what is was about
• For after the war is won, the real challenge is in keeping the peace
• It was for peace that these names appear on our wall
• It was with the goal of peace, loyalty and duty that they gave their lives for the sake of others
• It is because they “loved one another as Christ loved us” that we remember them
• It is possibly the hardest thing to do – to do what Christ asks us.
• He asked them and he asks us. Here. Today
• Love one another, as I have loved you.

Amen

Sermon: All Saints Day, Year C

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Sermon: All Saints Day, Year C
Text: Luke 6:20-31

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Euro-Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian and it’s all organised by the Swiss.

Euro-Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lover’s Swiss, the police German and it’s all organised by the Italians.

When we think of heaven, we might imagine clouds and angels, harps and halos; meeting once again our loved ones in some ethereal place. But Holy Scripture does not describe this. The book of Revelation, for example, shows that it will be filled with people wearing white robes praising God, praising and worshipping freely and gladly.

It is perhaps difficult to imagine oneself in such a context. It has the same effect, in a way, as those stained glass window depictions of people who look very holy and have soup plates behind their heads. It’s difficult to think that perhaps one day, we ourselves will be depicted in a stained glass window.

Paul, writing to the Ephesians uses the word “saint” to describe all Christian people, for Sainthood is the goal, what we are called to, not necessarily how we are.

Today’s Gospel reading is the Beatitudes: Our Lord and Saviour identifies experiences such as poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution as marks of the blessed, and wealth, plenty, happiness, and being thought well of as marks of those who are not pleasing to God.

This makes it a difficult reading for us to hear, for these are they very things that Society, and probably by extension, we ourselves strive to achieve.

At our Baptism we are called to be and to become Saints. If we concentrate on the idea that saints are very, very good people, nearly perfect, then we will miss the point: Many saints have been very bad, while becoming rather good: think of Saint Francis of Assisi – a rich, profligate, idle young man with a penchant for war and its spoils, who became by the grace of God, a most humble, Christ-centred and gentle example of faith; think of Saint Augustine of Hippo, a womanising heretic who became by the grace of God one of the Church’s greatest thinkers and influences. His book Confessions, I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who ever (and we all do) has struggled with their faith and their past and needs to understand a little more of God’s wonderful grace.

I have been looking this week through a book describing the lives of great Christians of the 20th Century. Few of them will actually be canonised by Holy Mother Church (although St Padre Pio was canonised recently and Mother Theresa of Calcutta has been recently beatified, a major step towards canonisation), but their lives and their witness can be an example to us all, whether we think of Thomas Merton, the Cistercian Monk whose writing reveals a closeness to the mystery of God, or Jackie Pullinger who worked tirelessly with the Drug Addicted in Hong Kong, Dr Martin Luther King, who was not only a beacon for the American Civil Rights Movement, but a powerful preacher or Bishop Desmond Tutu, whose gentle humour and powerful faith stood against the tide of Apartheid.

These are truly great examples of Christian inspiration to us all, but however positive we may feel about ourselves, however strong our “self-esteem,” few of us would think we are good enough to be saints.

This is a wrong assumption.

Saints are made by God, they are a reflection of his handiwork, of his choosing, not ours.

We ask whether we are good enough to be saints, when we should be asking whether we are open to God enough to be saints. God will give each and every one of us the opportunity for Sainthood.

God’s grace is there for us to grow into our calling to be saints. This does not necessarily mean major miracles or feats of huge daring for the faith, but God is also the God of small things. God will not call everyone to martyrdom, but he will call each and every one of us to stand up for our faith: to witness to Christ when asked at work, in the playground or in the pub; God will not ask everyone to travel to far off lands to preach the Gospel, but he will ask each and every one of us to provide the kindly word and the warm smile to the neighbour or the marginalised.

There is some saintly ministry in this church or in this community just waiting for you, personally, to become saintly about.

Sainthood is therefore not about sinlessness, for there was only one who was truly sinless, but about openness to God. None of those people I described earlier were sinless paragons of virtue, but were real life human beings who experienced the grace of God.

Everything we attempt, we attempt in Christ, is aided by the prayers and fellowship of all those known and unknown saints who always surround us in love. In this company, we have security to do for Jesus the things we fear to do or even object to doing. We know that the Saints are praying for us, that they now reside in heaven (wherever that may be) engaged in worship and in intercession.

We never do God’s work on our own, but we carry with us what the unknown writer of the letter to the Hebrews called the cloud of witnesses, the Saints in glory. And you too, are part of that Glory.

Amen

Sermon: Third Sunday Before Advent, Year C

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Sermon: Third Sunday Before Advent, Year C
Text: Luke 20:27-38

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week, I opened with a joke about heaven, and at the risk of setting the expectation of a joke each and every week, here is another:
There once was a very faithful priest, who, at the pearly gate was asked by the gatekeeper: ‘Have you ever committed a sin you truly regret?’

‘Yes,’ the priest answered. ‘When I was a young ordinand at St Stephen’s House in Oxford, we played soccer against at team from the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, and I scored a goal, which was off-side. But the referee did not see it so, and the goal won us the match. I regret that now.’

‘Well,’ said the gatekeeper. ‘That is a very minor sin. You may enter.’

‘Thank you very much, Saint Peter,’ the priest answered.

‘I’m not Saint Peter,’ said the gatekeeper. ‘He is having his lunchbreak. I am Saint Stephen.’

These jokes, whilst providing a little diversion, speak of an altogether different heaven to that which Our Lord teaches us. Do we really think, as this parade of jokes suggest that heaven is at all like earth?

The Sadducees tried to catch Jesus out with this faintly ridiculous set piece, about whose husband this all-surviving wife would be: a case of “one wife for seven brothers”, I suppose. But Jesus responds that heaven is simply not on those terms, it is simply better than all that.

The heaven which the faithful departed have gone to, is not a heaven of pearly gates, and St Peter (or even St Stephen) sitting in judgement, but a transcendent glory beyond our imagination.

Jesus Christ is, as St Paul said to the Romans, the Lord of both the living and the dead, that is why he died and rose, and through his victory on the cross, we have an entrance to real heaven; where considerations of whose wife is whose will not matter

This week we gathered to commemorate the faithful departed on All Soul’s Day, and again this afternoon at 3pm in commemoration and giving God thanks for the life and witness of Josie Grace and Reg Fosbury. None of these Requiem Masses should be seen as sombre, mournful affairs, but should be the opportunity to celebrate their life, not their departure. It would not be right for this to be mawkish or sentimental, but an opportunity to remember with thanks and look forward in hope.

This week I attended a conference on the Church’s ministry on Housing Estates. As there isn’t a parish in Gosport which does not feature an estate in some form or other, it was felt that we as a Deanery had much to learn. It was highly productive, and has given us much to think about. We looked at the experiences of urban and suburban settings from around the country, and estates both rich and poor which shared the same sense of isolation and disconnection from their spiritual heart. The Church can offer a way out of that, and can provide a focus where there previously has been none.

But it is clear that the Church cannot do that by simply saying “here it is, come on in” and expecting the multitude to descend. For the Church is not a building, fine though this particular one is, it is the living stones, the people within it. It is not the edifice; it is the faith that houses.

The Church is the church of the living faith, not the mausoleum of the past… And this means that we need to become engaged with modern society, building upon the foundation of the apostles and saints (for as an anglican catholic – that’s catholic with a small ‘c’ – I see Tradition at the heart of what we do) and looking continually towards the prize which St Paul alludes to.

If we fall prey to the temptation to look inwards then this church will die… Slowly and quite painfully and we will only have ourselves to blame. That much is obvious to anyone, and was shown plainly at the conference. But if we look outside we can plainly see what we have to achieve.

Our Lord tells us so clearly this morning that looking outside of ourselves and beyond our comfort zones is what we are called to: we should not be coming to church out of habit, but out of a burning desire to worship God and to challenge the world and society.

You cannot just sit there and think that you are too old, too tired, too wrapped up in yourself to sit by and let this happen. The apostles left their nets, left everything to follow Christ. Mission is at the heart of the Gospel, and we look at the beginnings of an opportunity, which needs to involve us all – not just your priest, or your PCC, or your junior choir, but each and every one of us.

Christ’s message today is that the kingdom of heaven is transformative: that the Holy Spirit works in individuals and in communities to make a difference. I know he calls this community to make that difference. We need to look beyond the building of the toilet at the back, beyond the changes brought about with the coming of a new Priest and see where we can meet that need. We need to move from the passive to the active – for this is what will make this community grow, both in size and more importantly in depth.

So, this church is not a slightly damp tomb, but a symbol of witness, and you are that witness. In 12 months… 2 years… 5 years time what will we see? a vibrant engaged, community who proclaims Jesus Christ to all through the sacraments, or a tired rendition of an old and comfortable favourite. Heaven is truly a wonderful promise for the future, and it probably won’t be much like the jokes suggest it is, but the Kingdom of Heaven begins here on earth: it begins here. It begins with us.

Amen

Sermon: Ordinary 29, Year C

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Sermon: 19th Sunday after Trinity (29th in Ordinary Time), Year C
Text: Luke 18:1-8

In the name of the +Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster week so far, last Tuesday’s licensing seems so far away now and in the meantime we have had the first few days of my tenure here at St. Thomas’: a couple of low-key midweek services here, the daily office of morning and evening prayer, and away from this place, a marvellous act of worship for young people on the Isle of Wight called Blesséd, with which I was involved.

But, as you can see, the building is still standing and we are all here, God’s here as well, so things can’t be too bad so far!

This marks the beginning of what I hope will be a happy, spirit-filled and Christ-centred journey alongside each other: the people of Elson and Hardway and their priest, as together we travel towards Christ, our light, our salvation and our hope.

Indeed, our Gospel this morning offers us some hints about some of our priorities and our concerns: the Scriptures bring us back to what is at the heart of the Gospel message: prayer, humility and inclusiveness.

Our Lord and Saviour frequently used parables to explore the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. This isn’t just because we like a good story, or that we are more likely to remember the teaching (although both of these are true), but because the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are actually beyond our human grasp – at another level outside our petty human existence. Only Christ, who has the benefit of the complete picture is able to give these interpretations and to bring them down, as it were, to our level.

These three parables occur in the middle of a great raft of Christ’s teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven. They are not directly linked to each other, and it is unlikely that Our Lord proclaimed them at one time or in this specific order, but the Evangelist gathered them together and edited them, shaped them for publication, much as Emma has to do to our scribbling for the parish magazine!

The first parable, of the unrighteous judge is often subject to misinterpretation; you may notice that on my wrist I wear a wristband with WWJD – what would Jesus do? on it: it was a gift from a youth group I led before I went to theological college and have worn it, or one like it ever since. Some people wear one with PUSH on it – Pray Until Something Happens, implying that if you badger God with your needs, much like the widow does in this pericope, this passage of Scripture, then God will finally get exasperated with you and grant you your deepest desires, no matter how unsuitable they are.

And the further implication of this is that if God doesn’t grant you your prayers, it must be because you must have some form of unresolved sin in your life and that you are not worthy of having God answer your prayers.

This is simply not how God works. Indeed, close inspection of the text on the notice sheet will show that Our Lord says that God is precisely not like the unrighteous judge, who only gives in, not because of the justice of the case, but because of external pressure. The one, true, righteous judge hears and responds in love, not according to how loud our prayers are: if that was the case, then the prophets of Baal would have had some satisfaction, but God responds to prayer, sincere, heartfelt and honest in his own time and with absolute justice and fairness.

God does indeed answer all prayer, but he doesn’t necessarily answer them in ways that we expect: his answers may be ‘yes’, or ‘no’, or ‘not yet’, or even ‘here’s something better’. In the recent film Bruce Almighty, the character played by Jim Carey is given a week as the Deity and when hounded by so many prayers about such trivia simply grants them all. Everyone wins the lottery, and so everyone gets a couple of pounds each.

God does not answer prayer like that. It is not dependent upon praying until something happens, but upon opening our hearts to God; by sometimes allowing stillness to creep into our prayers. Allowing the still small voice crying in the wilderness to be heard; for prayer is a two-way conversation and if we constantly pray until something happens we may be drowning out the call of God with our shopping list.

There are many ways to encounter God in prayer: in the sacraments, with ikons or beads or statues or with an open heart. Praying is at the heart of our Christian lives and I hope that together we can build this place as a place of prayer, a sacred space to encounter God.

cont.

An American rancher met up with a British farmer. The two men began talking about their land and the Englishman told the cattleman that he operated his business on 125 acres. The American scoffed at such a small parcel of land. He said, “On my ranch I can get in my truck at sunrise and I won’t reach the fence line of my property until sunset.” The British farmer nodded, “Mmmm, I used to have a truck like that.”

There is something delicious about bringing someone down to size, and the gentle, humorous humility of the British Farmer shows us its value. The second parable, that of the Pharisee and the Publican also teaches us the true value of humility. It is so easy for us, in this comfortable, (well, perhaps not in these particular pews) comfortable, familiar environment to become complacent with our faith. In doing so, we become exactly like the Pharisee.

The Publican’s humility was aimed at God, not at others around him, and although we know that he left the temple in a state of grace, we don’t know if that encounter with God (in what is in effect the sacrament of penance, of confession) changed his life or his behaviour; but to be released from sin as he was gives us the opportunity to make amends.

From humility before God can come service to others in a state of grace: service in this community, to the sidelined and marginalised, the unloved and the unlovely. I hope that we can work together for the greater good of this community, and use our faith, our humility before God as the foundation of much good in this area: proclaiming the Good News of Christ to all who need to hear it.

This is linked to the last of our three parables, which shows to us that the Kingdom of God is truly inclusive. There are no barriers to this altar, and all who have the new birthright of baptism have the right of access to Our Saviour.

In the same way, our approach to the community should be as inclusive as possible: working with other Christians and even other faiths, but not losing our unique identity as Anglicans.

The greatest threat to the Church is not another faith or denomination, but the greater threat of apathy and indifference: there are many people in this area who will not have even the most rudimentary understanding or awareness of the Church and what it can mean to them. These are not the people who have lost their faith, or even mislaid it, but who have never heard the Gospel at all.

We need therefore to become active missionaries in our own area. This is not just my job, but all of our jobs as Christians. The mission field starts at your own front door. We cannot expect the world to come flooding to the corner of Elson Road and Elson Lane.

Bishop Frank Weston, bishop of Zanzibar exhorted most famously:

“Go out into the highways and hedges. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

That is why Our Lord said that the children were not to be hindered in their access to faith, that is why we must place a high priority on mission and on work with young people in particular, especially those who have no contact with this church and who just hang around by the post box outside.

It is our common mission, and I hope that we can all work together to further build the Kingdom of God here in this parish, building upon all your excellent work and fellowship that I have only just begun to become aware of.

So, in one of those strange quirks of the lectionary, on my first Sunday here, we encounter a pattern which I hope will shape the Christian journey in this parish: a journey in partnership, fellowship and fun, a pilgrimage which can at times be smooth and at other times difficult and challenging, travelling alongside each other firmly rooted in prayer, in humility before God and embracing all of God’s children to proclaim the Gospel boldly here in Elson and Hardway!

Amen.