Archives June 2007

Sermon: Birth of John the Baptist

Text: Luke 1:57-66; 80

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

Before putting on this stole, as many of you know, I spent more than a decade and a half caring for others as a Registered Nurse, specializing in the sickest of the sick in Intensive Care and in the complex, high-tech but essentially personal direct nursing of Coronary Care, caring for those in the midst and the aftermath of a heart attack. For all that technology, what matters most in those environments is skilled nursing, human contact and the spiritual and emotional care of the patient and their family at this critical time.

How strange, therefore, to be on the receiving end of such medical intervention. It’s a pity that Lou isn’t around to hear this sermon this morning, as it is more accurate to say that it was Lou who was really on the receiving end; but at least I was close by. All three of our children have been born quickly, and with Zoë, it was a bit quicker than we would have liked – a lovely home birth (Emma was also a home birth) on the verge of going awry which necessitated some rapid intervention and a fast transfer to hospital with the crash team.

…and how far is it from Mirfield to Dewsbury General Hospital, you may ask? Ten Our Fathers is the reply! It was a dramatic climax and a tribute to the skills of the midwife who managed Zoë’s birth. At the birth of each of our three children, I was left speechless by the awe and wonder of the miracle of childbirth.

I was still speechless when they came in and I’m sure if someone had given me a piece of paper, I could have written in the glimmer of the early morning light, her name is Zoë – a Greek word which means “Life”. It was truly an intense moment of Joy, of rejoicing.

Our gospel reading today begins with a birth – and like all births there is an element of the miraculous, but especially so in this case. For Elizabeth and Zechariah were getting on in years and they had had no children for Elizabeth we are told was barren. So when the birth is announced there is rejoicing that God has been merciful. For us, this birth is the beginning, the first glimmer, the first chapter in the unfolding of a much greater story.

Today we sense the intense and private joy of Elizabeth whose barrenness has been removed and the public expectation that there is more to come, that this baby is special because he will prepare the way for Jesus.

But in this reading the focus is not on Jesus or even John but on the person of Zechariah. Earlier on in Luke’s Gospel we heard that Zechariah has been struck dumb through his failure to believe the message of an angel that his wife would bear a Son. Zechariah’s power of speech only returns when after his wife has given birth he writes on a tablet ‘His name is John’. And his first words, words which feature in every service of morning prayer as the Benedictus are words of praise, filled with the Holy Spirit he interrupts the fear and the commotion around him to say:

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them’

The movement from silence to speech takes all of us right back to our beginnings. The well worn cliché of every TV birth is that interminable wait from the moment of birth to the first cries, the first screams of the new baby as the lungs give voice to this new reality. That journey from silence to speech stays with us throughout our lives. And for many of us it is a difficult decision to think how best to break the silence. Sometimes the silence seems like it will continue into eternity. We feel battered by the humdrum nature of our lives or lost in the deep sadness of bereavement or just the general meaninglessness of human life that sometimes overtakes us like an all enveloping cloak. You know that silence that starts when you wake up and is still with you when you get out the door and finally have to speak with someone. The truth is we are all human, all caught somewhere between silence and speech.

What is maybe more important than these particular moments or pain or of Joy is that ultimately our speech is in some way about praise, about blessing and about rejoicing. It cannot always be so, but I do believe that all of us are called at some point and in some way to speak blessing, to give voice to praise.

Here in England we are not very good at making praise our first priority. We tend to be practiced at cynicism and sarcasm. Our humour has a pessimistic turn to it which we like to think keeps us more in touch with the sometimes ugly reality of human life. And in response to this the church is often guilty of perpetuating a state of semi-permanent niceness, as if everything will be OK as long as we say please and thank you and smile at the neighbours.

But the loosening of Zechariah’s tongue is about much more than that. It is the baby John who has come from the sealed silence of the womb to the circus of light and colour in which we live and breath, it is this baby who will grow up to call us to return to the source of all our blessings. It is that birth which gives Zechariah voice. For with this birth comes the first glimmers of the morning, the dawn for which we wait.

A new birth is not the end of our pain, the end of periods of darkness but it is an affirmation of the hope which gives voice to thankfulness and praise. And in eight days time when my children come crashing through the door of my bedroom, bursting with the celebrations surrounding another birth, I too will give voice to a shout of praise. Amen.

(original sermon idea from Fr. Phil Ritchie)


Sermon – Holy Trinity, Year C

Text: John 16:12-15

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

According to those who study such things, there are well over five hundred parishes in the Church of England named after the Trinity, making it, along with St Mary and Saint John’s, one of the all-time favourite dedications for our parish communities.

We Anglicans seem to know instinctively the importance of the Trinity in defining our faith as Christians, and they are proud to bear its name. They proclaim the Trinity week after week in the Nicene Creed, and they often begin what they do and pray “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” After all, that is how they were baptized. Belief in the Trinity is the main thing that sets Christians apart from others – such as our Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbours – who also believe in one God.

The word “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture, although it can be inferred in many passages, such as in today’s readings, which speak respectively of creation, grace, and Spirit. Down through the ages, the Trinity has often been the source of confusion and dissension. Its actual formulation as a distinct belief came only with time as heresies were suppressed and eminent scholars wrestled with its significance.

The Creed of Saint Athanasius – describes in fine theological detail and precision (and a lot of complex repetitious words, if I am to be honest) the authoritative meaning of the Trinity for all time, although few Christians today would turn to its words for insight or spiritual solace.

But it does tell us, among other things, that it is the Trinity that defines our common, or universal, faith. “The Catholic faith is this,” the Athanasian Creed begins, “that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.”

We might well ask: What is it about the Trinity that puts it at the very centre of our Christian faith but yet remains so elusive to our everyday understanding? Does the Trinity have any spiritual meaning for us today?

We live in a world in which scholars and scientists question the very existence of God, much less the Trinity. Noted zoologist and professional aetheist Richard Dawkins, for example, writes of a “God delusion,” in his recent book of the same name, calling the God of the Bible, “a petty, unjust … capriciously malevolent bully” who should have no place in the contemporary consciousness. Journalist Sam Harris, citing terrorist acts committed in the name of God, argues that the time has come for “the end of faith.” And decades ago, Time magazine created a sensation with its provocative headline question, “Is God dead?”

What is a believer to make of this? Is it finally time to write God’s obituary and mourn his passing? Or are reports of God’s demise, like those of humorist Mark Twain over a century ago, “greatly exaggerated”? Perhaps critics of contemporary religious practice and belief have a point. God is too often blamed for what his followers say about him and do in his name. Perhaps what must die are false notions of who and what God is. As Anglican bishop and scholar J. B. Phillips wrote way back in 1952, “Your God Is Too Small!”

Our notions of God are always too small, almost by definition. But that does not mean that God is dead. In fact, he is not even sick.

Of course, just referring to God as “he” and “him” in itself reflects one of the cultural limitations and prejudices that unavoidably make our God too small. There is always the temptation among believers to keep God under lock and key or on a shelf where we can keep an eye on him. But God – the real God – will have none of it. What some, like Dawkins, might see as God’s capriciousness is simply his unwillingness to stick to the script we have written for him. You cannot put God under the scientist’s microscope any more than you can grow a Shakespeare drama in a petrie dish.

Medieval scholars, influenced by late classical philosophy, explain the Trinity in terms of an emanation – a kind of loving radiance that leads God as creator and Father to the divine Other, the “only begotten Son” of the Creeds. And from this relationship comes the order of nature that is sanctified and returned to the Father in the Spirit, completing the great cycle of creation, redemption, and renewal.

Some might again object to the male imagery of such ancient formularies. But nearly all believers can agree that God is not only alive and well but busily at work in our world and our lives today. As scripture tells it, “God is love.” That is the essence of the Trinity.

God creates being where there is none and at once transcends it. In breathing life into this world and redeeming it, God gives us a glimpse into divine life itself and into the meaning of our own lives. Because God loves us, we exist. Yet for all his care and intimacy with the world and humankind, God is never consumed or overwhelmed by the many loose ends of our untidy existence. God simply loves: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a fact of life. More than that, it is the fact of life. As paradoxical as it may seem, God is both unchanging and eternal and at the same time ever-changing and deeply involved in time and history. God can have it both ways because God is God.

Dame Julian of Norwich, a saint and a mystic of uncommon depth and insight, never approached the demonstration of God’s existence or the meaning of the Trinity in structured argument like the great theologians of her age. Yet in her visions and writings she came as close as anyone to understanding the God of love – the God of the Trinity.

Toward the end of her life, she penned this short but profound exchange: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning?” she asks. “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.”

It all comes back down to love.

So who is God today? And is there a place for the Trinity in our world? Dame Julian, in her day, found God in love, pure and simple. For all the complexity of our modern-day life, that is still where God – creator, redeemer, sanctifier – is to be found. God is as God loves. As Paul tells us in our second reading today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”

In God’s eternal love, our own frail nature is finally and inextricably bound up in the very life of God, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.”