Archives February 2005

Sermon: Lent 3, Year A

Sermon: Lent 3, Year A
Text: John 4:5-42

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

At a time of year when we have just had snow, hail, frost and cold, it seems a little odd to remind you of times of drought, but knowing the competence of our water companies these days, we know that drought of some kind is never too far away, and perhaps the first hosepipe ban is due next week!

Real drought is very different: when your land is reduced to mere dust, the plants upon which you depend to feed your family shrivel and wither away and your cattle and your children become more invisible by the day. Drought is still a reality for much of the world, and our globally-warmed comfort should not distract us from the reality of what goes on beyond our shores.

Even when there is water to be found, it is often channelled towards cash crops and food that the rich West demands (at pitiful, unfairly traded prices) rather than subsistence for the people who actually work the land. This stark reality of the inhumanity of economics and geography can also be a metaphor for us of the spiritual desert: where in our lives there may be an aridness, a dry separation from the life-giving refreshment of God, or there may be adequate supplies of God’s love around, but which is channelled into inappropriate uses.

Christ lived in a land that was chronically dry. Imagining life in a drought-stricken land might help us identify with the people who lived in the Holy Land during Jesus’ time. They recognized how critical water is for life-especially when there is not enough — or when it is difficult to obtain. We identify with them as we remember how good water tastes when we are thirsty. When we are dry — really dry — there is nothing like a drink of cool, clear water. Using that truth, Our Lord gives us a spiritual lesson based on the common image of water for a thirsty person.

Today’s Gospel story takes us to an unlikely setting – we find Our Lord in a foreign region, Samaria, face to face with a local woman at Jacob’s well. The scene is one of two people who would be very unlikely to strike up a relationship in the normal course of events-a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman, religious enemies, two strangers of the opposite sex, alone together. This was an unusual event, even in public, at a time and in a place where there was a cultural taboo against women and men speaking if they did not know each other.

So when Our Lord asked the woman to give him a drink of water from the well, she was naturally startled, and asked, “How is it that you a Jewish man are asking me, a Samaritan women, to give you a drink?” Ignoring the question, Our Lord employed his metaphor: “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying it to you, you would have asked and been given living water.”

The confused woman, thinking he meant fresh water from a spring, replied something about Jacob’s well not having any such water and wondered where Christ would get “living water.”

Our Lord continued with the spiritual imagery, saying:

“Everyone who drinks of this water [from Jacob’s well will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Still thinking literally, the woman said she’d sure like to have some of that water because it was difficult to draw water from the well.

As the story continues, however, we discover that the woman of Samaria has a deep thirst of a different kind — a spiritual one. Her life had not been good — she had married five times and the marriages had ended either in divorce or with the death of her spouse; each event had no doubt been devastating. Now she was living in an unmarried relationship, a difficult situation in that time and place.

When the woman finally discovered who Our Lord was and what he had to offer, he took her spiritual thirst and connected it with the life-giving spiritual water that only God can provide. That same power and truth is available to us as well. God provides refreshment for our spiritual thirsts.

There are certainly times when everyone is thirsty in spirit, when spiritual drought makes us especially desperate for the water that can give life to our spirits. These are the thirsty times when life seems shallow and without purpose, or when we can find no peace of mind inside a confused soul, or when doubt or fear paralyses us or when anxiety seems to tear us apart. These are times of a deep dryness of the soul.

For such times, Our Lord offers us what he offered the Samaritan woman. We can have it, too, if we share with her a thirst for acceptance and forgiveness and love for our parched lives.

The season of Lent is a time of self-imposed drought that can help remind us that our deepest thirst can mark a time for God’s spirit to become active in our lives.

Our Lord bids us come to his living water. Calls us to him, for he knows we thirst for acceptance in a desert of rejection, that we thirst for forgiveness in the parched land of our sins, and that we thirst for hope in the dry despair of our frustrations.

For us, as for the Samaritan woman, there comes, into the drought of life, the life-giving water of Christ, the one who also pours his love and grace into every crack and crevice of the dried and broken ground of our spirits.

To each of us who comes to him in hope of living water, for spiritual refreshment, For Christ not only gives us more than an ordinary drink, he offers us a spring of living water that can run deep inside each of us as an ever-refreshing source that can see us through the hard times of drought and direct us to the meaning that can be found only in truth of God.


Sermon: Sunday next Before Lent, Year A

Sermon: Sunday next Before Lent, Year A
Text: Matthew 17:1-9

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

The Transfiguration of Our Lord is one of those epiphanous moments – an episode where Jesus Christ is revealed as he truly is – not merely a fairly special man, or a marvellous teacher, or even a thoroughly good bloke, but he is shown to be God himself, revealed to us in all his glory. ‘Transfiguration’ in Greek is ‘Meta-morphos’ – from which we get metamorphosis – a change from one thing to another.

The Transfiguration was a marvellous experience for the closest of Jesus’ disciples, those privileged to see this revelation at first hand; and it was an experience which they wanted to go on forever. This is why Peter makes that rather embarrassing comment about making three tents for Moses, Elijah and Jesus – because if he sets up somewhere for them to stay then by the rules of Middle-Eastern hospitality, they would be required to remain until the host wished them to leave.

Few of us are privileged enough to have such a close, intimate experience of God. Few of us encounter directly the glory and power of God. It may appear like a fairy story, or the sort of marvellous experience that only happens to other people. But the experience of God in these epiphanies need not be so dramatic – God is to be found in the stillness and quietness of your own prayers, in the Eucharist, in the Rosary, in exposition. God is to be experienced in the dark and the quiet as well as the bright mountain top, and that experience of God, with all the comfort, all the reassurance it offers is no less valid.

But what draws me to this episode is not the dramatic. At the end of the great experience, Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from the mountains and returned to the plains and the city. It would seem a little odd at first glance to concentrate on that text, rather than the glories that preceeded it, but this morning, this is what I want us to focus upon.

After the glorious vision, their glimpse of heaven, they had to return to their daily lives, however humdrum, however exciting, however ordinary, and they had to get on with the job in hand – being Jesus’s disciples.

The Mass offers us a Transfiguration, a metamorphosis, it offers us the bread and wine changed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Mass offers us the mountain-top experience in the beauty of liturgy and the glories of music. The Mass is the meeting point between normal human beings like Peter, James and John, like you and I, and with God Almighty.

And after the Mass… well, you just have to come down from the mountain, go home and get on with the job in hand – making the Yorkshire Puddings, and being Jesus’ disciples.

The key thing therefore, is not necessarily what happens on the mountain-top, as wonderful as it may be, but what that Transfiguration experience does for us the other days of the week.

The methods through which we get on with the difficult and demanding job of being one of Jesus’ disciples are written out for us in the reading: “Stand up”. “Do not be Afraid” (as recorded in the Transfiguration story of St Luke). “This is my Son, Listen to Him.”

I have not so far spoken openly of the Christian Youth Camps that I have been involved in, but as I am sure you can sense, I see them as a relevant, even essential part of my ministry, both here and to the wider church. For the hundreds of young people who gather for the Chichester Diocese Festivals in May and in the first week of the Summer holidays, and the many more who come to a small village in Norfolk for the National Youth Pilgrimage to Walsingham, it is like a Transfiguration experience, as we come away from our parishes, gather together as eager disciples and are given a glimpse of the glory of God in lively and exciting worship, in fun and fellowship, prayer and games, opportunity to encounter God and to study his word and meet with hundreds of other Christians. It is truly a mountaintop experience, and it can be seen in the excitement and enthusiasm of the many young people I and others have helped along this journey over nearly a decade. If you yourselves were to witness any part of this, you would see why I put in so much work into these each year and why it is such a crucial element of the Church’s mission: it is why I ask you to release me for this important work and to pray that young people in this parish will be able to go to them and experience this transfigurative experience themselves.

And after the week of camp, well, just like the disciples, the young people have to come down from that wonderous experience, and return to the cities and the plains, to their own churches, and not be beaten into conforming, but to get on with the job in hand of changing and enthusing us, teaching us from their transfiguration experiences, for they have so much to teach us all.

Their experiences can feed our own worship, and together we can grow to worship God in a Mass that truly reflects his glory. We follow a Jesus who is not just for Sunday best, and not restricted to those who think themselves worthy of being a Christian, but we follow a Jesus who came to earth with the sole purpose of saving us all, regardless of how good or bad we think we are.

So, enjoy the experience of the Mass, fill yourself here at this altar with the experience from the top of the Mountain, and then do like Peter, James and John and go back into the real world and get on with it.

“This is my Son, the Beloved, Listen to Him.” Amen.

Sermon: Ordinary 4, Year A

Sermon: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 5:1-11
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.”

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

Two babies were sat in their cribs, when one baby shouted to the other,
“Are you a little girl or a little boy?”
“I don’t know,” replied the other baby giggling.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” said the first baby.
“I mean I don’t know how to tell the difference,” was the reply.
“Well, I do,” said the first baby chuckling.
“I’ll climb into your crib and find out.”
He carefully manoeuvred himself into the other baby’s crib, then quickly disappeared beneath the blankets.
After a couple of minutes, he resurfaced with a big grin on his face.
“You’re a little girl, and I’m a little boy,” he said proudly.
“You’re ever so clever,” cooed the baby girl, “but how can you tell?”
“It’s quite easy really,” replied the baby boy,
“you’ve got pink booties on and I’ve got blue ones.”

Purity in heart, Our Lord tells us, will enable us to see God. Purity in heart is this morning’s challenge to us from the Sermon on the Mount. But purity is not about being scandalised that I was about to tell a risqué joke from the pulpit, but rather about clearing out all those things that prevent us from seeing God properly. Purity is not an attitude, but a way of being; and for all that it is one of the hardest (but achievable) challenges that the Christian faith sets us.

If you look again at the Beatitudes, you can see that they appear in a form of order: an 8-step program to become a true child of God, as one would say in fashionable self-help-speak. One Beatitude builds upon another. Our Lord teaches us first to become Poor in Spirit, and empty ourselves of our pride; to be Gentle to others; to Mourn, mourn our past lives, repent and turn to God for forgiveness and comfort; to hunger and thirst for what is right and to work to resolve the world’s and the community’s problems; to be Merciful, particularly to those who wrong us – a lesson perhaps for those contemplating the introduction of house arrest in this supposedly free country ; to be a peacemaker, at home, at work, at school, as well as between nations; and finally, to be persecuted – the ultimate mark of standing up for Christ in this hostile and indifferent world.

Purity in heart therefore is something to which we can all aspire to, something that is not an unachievable ideal available only to the truly Saintly, but is something which we can all attain with the help of the Church through faith in Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Look again at the simple, contrasted phrases of the beatitudes and you see some of the greatest challenges to mankind ever issued. Christ does not advocate the status quo, or a comfortable haven or a quiet life. His teaching subverts the values of the society he lived in then, and continues to subvert a modern society which values material wealth over spiritual richness, values individual self-interest over community spirit and the hedonistic pursuit of individual pleasure over care for others.

The Gospel is not an easy ride. It is not a place of retreat in our declining years. It is a challenge. One of the problems with the translation of the bible used this morning is the use of the word “happy”, which in the context of what I am talking about appears a bit weak. The Greek word is “makarios”, which means “blessed”. Of course, when one is blessed by God, one becomes happy, supremely happy; but the sense of “makarios” is much more profound, in actually receiving the blessing of God, that supreme source of all our happiness.

The Beatitudes do not call for us to withdraw from the world, to wrap ourselves up in a cosy little cocoon of pleasant music and unchallenging liturgy, but to engage with it – to hunger and thirst for the kingdom of God in our midst. To achieve purity of heart, we must not isolate ourselves from the horrors of this terrible world, but stand up and say “this is what Christ call us to…”

If we want to achieve such purity, then we need to put aside our self-interest, put aside our vanity and our prejudice and open ourselves out to an encounter with God. All the way through the Scriptures, encounter with God – burning bush, chariot of fire, 40 days of the wilderness – was always something challenging, uncomfortable and unsettling. In the stillness of prayer and in the bustle of action to better the society around us, the call of God is a call to work not for what we can get out of it, but for the glory of God, through which we ourselves become holy, become pure.

If you can live out the challenge of the beatitudes: and especially to remain pure in heart, amid all the poisonous self-interest of modern society, then you too, will be ‘makarios’ – truly, truely Blessed.