Archives September 2007

Sermon: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Text: Luke 16: 19-31

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

The creation of a sermon is a result of a number of things: prayer, reading of both scripture and commentary, of inspirational works and a wider scan of a wide variety of materials to set the text into context and provide, at least one hopes with useful and effective biblical teaching into which the experience of our lives may be matched.

And then there is, of course, the Internet, where sites exist which contain hundreds of sermons from all sorts of churches, and much like the sermons preached from this legillium over the years, they contain some that are gems, perfect insights into the human condition and the Christian faith, and some that are lengthy and dull and some which might as well have been written in the original Greek for all the sense they made.

A majority of these sermons come, not surprisingly from America, and again perhaps not surprisingly from that evangelical tradition with all the money. They were almost all about hell, about damnation and about rejection: such morbid concern with the lost and the torments to avoid that they fundamentally miss what we should be learning from this pericope of scripture. By looking over the precipice into Hell and an obsession with ‘salvation’, they have failed to see the impact that Christ’s teaching should have on our lives now. Although Our Lord and Saviour had the bigger picture, his concern was to teach for the now, for the benefit of those present, which would set aright our lives and ways of living with God, and then, and only then, let God deal with the hereafter: it is not for us to decide who goes to heaven or hell, it is of God and his righteous judgement.

However, as these completely useless (for my purposes at least) sermons passed me by, I was struck by their vivid descriptions of the features of Hell, which led me to conclude that, on the basis of this story, there are some features of Hell which would suit us very nicely in this Church.

Firstly, COMPASSION.

We see that the rich man had compassion. The rich man didn’t have a name, for he could have been anyone, he could have been me, he could have been you. Some traditions ascribe him the name Dives, but that is a corruption of the Latin text: homo quidam erat dives – there was a certain rich man. His anonymity lends him the position of everyman.

We learn that he was in torment, and that he didn’t want his brothers to come to where he was; and so he exhibited compassion for them. But, sadly, his compassion was too late

Clearly, a church should be compassionate: compassionate for those suffering and in need. This is a difficult task, and one which asks us to step outside ourselves. It is not always comfortable to deal with the addicted, the homeless, the lonely, the young or those with challenging lifestyles, but the Christian call is to one of compassion. The questions asked by the Kairos process lead us to question how we can be compassionate friends in this locality

What characterised the rich man’s compassion was its selfishness: he only thought of his own, and those he already loved, whereas we are called to compassion for those who are, often, quite unlovely.

The rich man was also benefiting from the perfect hindsight that death must be able to afford us. Christ’s teaching is teaching for life, not for death, the Gospel message relevant to the here and now, not the pie in the sky. The Gospel is to be proclaimed and lived, not preserved in a dusty old museum. We must not wait until it is too late.

Secondly, we encounter FIRE.

The excellent book by the Doctrine Commision described Hell as “the absence of God”, a much more graphic and for me frightening portrayal of hell than all that fire and brimstone. Those images of pain and torment, like so much of biblical teaching, is trying to use human language imperfectly to describe something far beyond our comprehension, and so we need not get too hung up about it. This week’s Desert Island Discs featured a mountaineer whose miraculous escape from almost certain death was made into a recent film: Touching the Void – the void for him, an atheist, was the nothingness of death, whereas the reality, the reality of faith, that void is more likely to be the nothingness of hell – a black hole so impenetrable that even God’s immeasurable love is beyond it: that is far more terrifying.

But we do need some fire in the Church, not the burning kind of Hell, but rather the fire of God in our hearts: the fire of the Gospel. When Cleopas and his friend walked to Emmaus and heard the risen Lord expound the Scriptures to them, they reflected that “did not our hearts not burn within us as he spoke?”. It is this sense of commitment and love which needs to burn within the heart of this Church – a fire to take the Gospel and to convey it to this area, in word and in deed.

Another feature of Hell would appear to be TEARS.

The Rich man had tears of pain, whereas we need tears over our suffering world, and more appropriately, the evil than mankind can do to one another, especially in the name of religion. When people say “Religion causes all wars”, they may be right, but I respond with the point that it is Faith which has ended so many more. We need sometimes to put aside religion and take up faith. It was inspiring to hear yesterday on the radio a Muslim from Liverpool who had travelled to Bagdad to intercede on behalf of the captive Kenneth Bigley, powerful stating that “we believe in prayer, we believe in mercy, we believe in the compassion of God”; and that too, is what we believe, and should persevere to believe.

There are tears to be shed over this world at times, but the God who can turn as the Psalmist says, our mourning into dancing, can take our tears for this world and make them into tears of joy.

So, lastly, we may be surprised to see that even in Hell, there was LOVE.

The rich man had love for his lost brothers, and sought to help them. So often we have love only for ourselves, not others. The Love of God, so passionately demonstrated through the Cross is like all the best love, a love shared. It is only when love is shared that it is revealed as truly the beautiful, sanctified thing that it is. It is easy to love within a small circle, within just the family for example, but our daily challenge is to love the unloved, the unlovely.

If we were to put these four things into practice in our churches, we wouldn’t have half of the problems the Church faces today, and we would be equipped to engage with society at large and each other with true Christian spirit. Perhaps, we do need some of those features of Hell here in this Church.

When you return home, and someone asks you about the sermon this morning, perhaps when you respond “Oh, it was Hell…” perhaps you meant it in a positive way, and not the way you usually mean it! Amen


Sermon: Dedication Festival, Holy Trinity, Gosport

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

I have been revising. Honest. Last week, Bob kindly provided me with this excellent pamphlet by Chris Wade which has given a marvellous insight into the wonderful history of the parish. If you havn’t read it, may I highly commend it to you. If you have, perhaps you might like to purchase a second copy to send to someone as a gift: I am sure the parish funds would be grateful of this!

I noted with great interest that Fr. Capper and I shared a common heritage, both of us having been formed for priesthood at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. Perhaps that explains why I love being here with you so much.

It is important, in this 311th year of the Parish of Holy Trinity that we reflect on what we want to achieve, built upon the past and looking towards the future, drawing upon the riches of our Catholic heritage, but proclaiming the ever-present, vital Gospel of Christ.

I found a re-working of a most famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which, although not written with my church in mind (nor yours for that matter), certainly struck a few chords with me, and challenged me in such a way that I must share it with you.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I enjoy the beauty of holiness in the glories of Anglican Catholicism, but my building remains locked, that building is a Congregationalist chapel and not a parish church.

If I listen to the music of Mozart, Handel and Palestrina, but close my ears to the gospel, I am an aesthete and not a Christian. If I travel ten, twenty, thirty miles to reach the church at which I feel at home, but do not take my church and its prayer home with me, I am a spiritual tourist.

If I swing a thurible with all the precision of a guardsman drilling, but let that become my priority, it is not God that I am serving at this altar.

If I pride myself on the fact that my sermons are filled with Greek and History and obscure bits of Hebrew, but I do not give a helping hand to those who think my church is highly bizarre, then my intellectual life is stuck fast.

If I can fill my pews with visitors summer after summer, but have no organised system of welcome and greeting to all who arrive, then I am become a tourist attraction myself. If I take comfort in increasing numbers in an age of declining churches, but have no space for children then my church has no future.

If I proclaim boldly from the Gospel book words of Christ’s love and yet look down upon the needy in my community, the elderly, the homeless and the addicted at my gate, then I have not truly let those words into my heart.

If I give myself weekly to God for two whole hours, throwing myself with enthusiasm into the liturgy, the singing, the preaching, the scriptures, but no consequence of this flows over into the rest of my life, then I am deaf to the call of Christ.

That call is patient, and persistent. It is not strident, or overbearing; it does not ask that which we are unable to give. It is gentle, insistent, wheedling; creeping beneath our defences and our securities, challenging our confidence in that which we have known and that which we are desperate to preserve. It is encouraging, and daring, pressing us softly but firmly to go the extra mile, to try the new thing, to open our hearts, our minds, our doors to all the radical love of God, to the self-sacrifice which roots our lives in the life of the Trinity the Holy Trinity to which this church is dedicated, the Trinity itself.

This Church is a marvellous testament to the faith of the people of Gosport, over the centuries and today; but the Church is not this fine building – the word used in Scripture for the Church is Ekklesia from which we get the word Ecclesiastical, and that simply means a gathering of people.

You are this Church, built on the foundation of the Apostles, the people of Gosport, with Christ as the headstone. This Church, it’s next 311 years and its mission is based on YOU, what you will do – not just what your parish priest will do – for Fr. Andy cannot do the mission of this church on his own, but is YOUR task.

Oh you may say, we are so few, the task is so great, we are so old, so infirm, so under-confident, so new in our Christian journies to undertake any missionary work; but my dear friends, that is what the heart of the Gospel is about – to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others who need to hear it, not necessarily to speak clever words, but to be.

Your best missionary work takes place on street corners when you encounter young people with a smile, as you open the door for a laden-down young mum, when you sit with an old person on a park bench and when you make someone homeless a cup of tea. St. Francis is often quoted as telling his followers to “Go and preach the Gospel, using words only when you have to”.

You are this Church, you are part of a continuum for the past 311 years and you hand it on to the next generation. Filled with his blessed sacrament and his most precious blood, you are sent out, as missionaries in this land.

Go. Share. Believe. Be Strong.

In his name, conquer.

Amen.


Sermon: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Text: Luke 15:1-10
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke in parables to enable us to get our heads around the enormity of the wonders of God, the challenge of his Gospel message and the depth of God’s love. He also told parables to entertain as well as enlighten. With that in mind, I am going to explore the parables we hear this morning, with more parable.

Are you sitting comfortably? I’m sure that Our Lord never signalled his parables to his listeners in this way, but it seems strangely appropriate for what I am about to tell you.

Once upon a time, there was great distress among the sheep. Little Wally, the son of prominent flock members Drusilla and Arthur, was missing. The panic had begun in early afternoon, when he did not return from play. Soon, though, the shepherd found out that Wally was gone, and about nightfall he set out to search for him. Everybody knew and liked little Wally, and the whole night, while the shepherd searched, nobody slept a wink.

Nobody, that is, except for Roger. Even by sheep standards, Roger was a ‘black sheep’. Among other things, Roger had a very unpleasant, grating “baah.” When it came time to move from one pasture to another, Roger always stayed at the very back of the flock and complained. And when it came time to be sheared, Roger would kick and thrash about so that it took twice as long to shear him as any other sheep.

So it wasn’t surprising that, while the rest of the flock stayed up, saying kind words to Drusilla and Arthur, giving them encouragement, Roger slept like a log, and wasn’t much interested in the corporate relief felt when Wally wandered back safe and well.

Roger was effectively, an outcast. Some weeks later, Roger was distracted whilst munching on a particularly nice section of grass and wandered away from the fold. Without him even noticing, he went far from safety, and soon found himself alone, in danger, in fear…

Meanwhile, back at the fold, things were getting a bit frantic. They saw the shepherd pulling on his boot and leaving and came to only one conclusion: Somebody Was Missing!

News flashed through the herd: Somebody’s missing! Somebody’s missing! All the parents checked their children; all the husbands check their wives, all the wives checked their husbands, and everybody checked on elderly relatives.

All present and accounted for. That was odd. Why would the shepherd leave the Sheep if no one was missing? They ran it through their little sheep brains: HE’S ABANDONED US! The shepherd has abandoned us!

Within minutes, everybody had heard of their abandonment, and the fold was in a blind panic. The frenzy carried on until one of the particularly sharp-eyed sheep, saw the shepherd coming over a distant hill.

The sheep rejoiced. They gambolled and frolicked and bleated with joy even greater than that they felt that day when little Wally was returned.

But their celebration did not last long. There, on the shepherd’s shoulders — it was ROGER! They had done their nose count, but Roger had alienated all the rest of the flock so badly that nobody even thought to look for him.

The sheep were dumbstruck. What was the big idea? The shepherd had left all the good, cooperative, well-meaning sheep to go rescue an obnoxious, unpleasant, anti-social one.

The Sheep made a representation to the Shepherd: complaining about being abandoned, and about how unfair it was.

The Shepherd called a meeting, for that is what they do in enlightened shepherding circles.

He said:

“Yes, it’s true I left the flock all alone a few nights ago, and you were left to fend for yourselves, but nobody seemed to mind when I left you alone to go search for Wally.”

“Have I ever abandoned you before? Haven’t I always protected you from wolves and taken you to fresh pastures and clear streams? I never abandoned you before, why would I start now?”

“As for the unfairness of it all… Wouldn’t I have done the same for any of you?”

“Well,” said Herman The Sheep, acting as spokes-sheep: “Going out and saving all the rest of us, that’s one thing. But, well, you put all the rest of us in jeopardy for HIM….” He motioned over to Roger, who, true to form, was asleep, snoring loudly, far away from the others.

“That’s what really bothers us, said Arnold The Sheep, “Why didn’t you just let him take his chances? He didn’t deserve to get saved. It’s not fair.”

And for once, though he probably didn’t know it, one of the sheep told the truth. Half of it anyway. Roger did not deserved to get saved. It was not fair.

Of course, the other half of the truth is, none of the OTHER sheep deserved to get saved either. They all deserved to be left to take their chances, but they didn’t have to. The shepherd looked after them and rescued them when they needed it.

This would probably be a much more satisfying story if I were to tell you that Roger’s experience changed his life profoundly, and that from that day forward, he went on to become a model sheep, cooperative, appreciative and obedient; but he didn’t.

The only real difference anyone could tell was that he didn’t complain as much while moving from pasture to pasture, and he didn’t thrash around quite as much when he got sheared. Roger remained, to the end of his days, a sheep wholly undeserving of the shepherd’s rescue.

Yes, my dear friends, salvation comes to the undeserving. And that’s good news, because we’re ALL undeserving. When we expect or ask justice from God, we have to understand that it is justice from God’s perspective, not our own petty, narrow, xenophobic or insular notions of justice.
We know that God, through Christ, does not do what would be held in common circumstances as fair. God does not do what is just by our sense. God does what is pleasing to God, and that is far, far BETTER THAN FAIR.

That, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ is GRACE. The foremost of sinners — and Paul counted himself as one of these — receive salvation so that Jesus Christ may display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

During a conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated, what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions.

Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

The people at the conference had to agree.

The idea of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct we have. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—all of these offer a way to earn approval. Only Christianity shows us that God’s love is unconditional! It is grace which is the true mark of Christ.

So if there’s ever the temptation to be resentful of the salvation received by those who seem undeserving, don’t worry. There is plenty of salvation for everybody — the good sheep, the bad sheep, and all of us in between.

Amen


Sermon – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

Lou and I have just spent a wonderful couple of weeks in the Mediterranean, spending some fabulous time in Italy: Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Milan, Florence, Pisa – you know, small and unassuming places. Everywhere we went, the Italians were most insistent that Jesus was Italian – the reason for this was that firstly, he talked a lot with his hands, and secondly because he enjoyed a lot of wine with every meal!

Meals are central to our story, both as a way of reaching out and sharing with people and as a foretaste an hors d’ouvre of the future in heaven which portrayed as a long, wonderful banquet, a wedding feast, a celebration, but always at table, and always with God as the host, to which we are all invited.

More than any other Evangelist, Luke portrays Jesus at meals. He eats not only with tax collectors and sinners, as in Mark and Matthew, but with friends like Martha and Mary; and he dines frequently with Pharisees.

In antiquity, meals were important community events with their own rituals governing social status and seating. (Every mother of the bride may appreciate this as she struggles with seating for the wedding reception.) Pharisees were especially noted for their careful attention to banquet rules, since they were concerned about purity and formed “eating clubs,” where they could feel at home and reflect on the Scriptures.

Jesus shares a Sabbath meal with a “leading Pharisee”; but the story has an ominous note, since people are “keeping an eye on him.” Unfortunately, by omitting verses 2 to 6 the text in the Lectionary eviscerates the drama and meaning of the whole section (another reason why I wish we had bibles in each pew for you to study – maybe we should get into the habit of bringing them!). A man afflicted with dropsy appears, interrupting the banquet much as the “sinful woman” does in Luke 7:37.

Jesus then asks the lawyers (the scribes) and Pharisees if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath—perhaps a topic discussed at their banquets. In the face of their silence, Jesus heals the man and then asks whether they would save a child who falls into a well on the Sabbath. Again he receives no answer, even though Jewish law allowed life-saving activities on the Sabbath. Jesus views the man’s debilitating illness as living death.

Today’s Gospel picks up the story at the point where Jesus expresses the common wisdom about dining etiquette (see Proverbs. 25:6-7 ; and Sirach. 3:17-20 ). Instead of seeking places of honour his listeners are advised to go to the lowest place to avoid the humiliation of being asked to move down, with the chance that the host will notice their proper deference and invite them to a higher position. (The injunction not to seek places in the front seems engraved in every Anglican’s imagination, as they huddle in the back of church.)

Then Jesus makes another turn. Echoing Mary’s vision in the Magnificat, he again invokes the theme of reversal—those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while the humble will be exalted—and goes on to shatter those very dining rituals that he seemed to support.

Reciprocity and the practice of inviting people of equal status were the twin pillars of ancient dining customs. Jesus rejects this and says that you should instead invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” groups of no status who, Jesus notes, will not be able to pay you back. These groups were not simply economically poor and social outcasts; they were often considered unclean.

Since the meals of Jesus throughout Luke all have Eucharistic overtones, this Gospel can suggest proper “etiquette” for our celebrations. Eating with Jesus should be a time of healing, which can shock even customary religious sensitivities. Liturgy should be inclusive of those whom our society today views as unworthy or unclean.

Such invitations are the prelude to admittance to the banquet of the just (righteous) who humbled themselves by associating with those very people to whom Jesus announces the benefits of God’s reign (Luke 4:16-19).

Bishop Tom Wright has suggested recently that the previously given interpretation of the Last Supper as a Passover Meal is somewhat simplistic. Previously I had hinted that there is some differences between the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the later Gospel of John over the timing of this most significant event; but Bishop Wright suggests that Christ may have been celebrating a Passover meal not on the Passover – on a different day – indicating that the significance of the Jewish salvation meal was not based on a single point in the calendar but in the memorial of redemption, in the anemnesis of salvation, which brings Passover, Last Supper and the Mass together in one significant event – when we celebrate the Mass here, we are in the same table fellowship not only with the Upper Room, but with those in today’s Gospel; and all it that has to teach, applies directly to us today.

Come, one and all. Come and share. Come and be a part of the welcome to this special table which Christ extends to each and every one of us.

Come.

Amen.