Sermon: Ordinary 4, Year A

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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.

Amen.

Sermon: Ordinary 3, Year A

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Sermon: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 4:12-25

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

Difficult question: What drew you to church today? What was it that caused you to get out of bed on your day off, go to the trouble of getting dressed and coming to church this morning when you could be slumming it around your lounge with a decent cup of coffee and a copy of the Sunday Times?

I hope when you came to St Thomas’s today, you came because down somewhere in your heart and mind you have heard the call of Jesus to “Come, follow me.” I hope that just as Jesus called Peter and Andrew from their nets, you too are following the Saviour wherever He leads you.

I hope you have come in response to the God that loves you, to praise His name and meet with him in word and sacrament, echoing the worship of the angels and saints in heaven, for you have heard the call, “Come, follow me.”

This call to follow Jesus is not passive following. His call for us to follow was not a call for us to be “Jesus groupies.” It is not like sitting passively at the feet of some Eastern mystic. Jesus knew that He had a limited time on this earth. If the good news was to be perpetuated from generation to generation and to grow in scope, He had to pass on who He was and His purpose on this earth and send each of His disciples to the “ends of earth” to do the same.

My question for you this morning is this: Are you a disciple or a “Jesus groupie?” Do you come to church because you want to worship the Saviour, to receive the encouragement that only his sacraments can bestow: to deepen your faith so that you can be a better servant of Jesus Christ during the week?

Or do you come because you like the music or the fellowship; or out of sense of duty or habit or guilt when it would be just as easy to have slept in or gone to B&Q this morning?

If you find yourself as one of the latter: if the Christian life stops shortly after 11.15 on a Sunday morning, and with the pound coin you grudgingly give, then I’m afraid you have fallen into the trap of just being a “Jesus” or “church groupie.”

It’s easy for us to slip into that kind of habit: to see church as a comfortable pair of shoes to slip on at the weekend, or part of a social life; but which has little impact on your life in any substance. This sermon could be preached at probably every church in this deanery, in this diocese, perhaps in every church in the land, and is a challenge to each and every one of us: how do we avoid being a Jesus Groupie and become a true disciple of Christ.

Are you a disciple? What is a disciple? A disciple is one who follows Jesus and learns how to duplicate the life, spirit and work that Christ came to do. We are called as disciples to become Jesus to the world around us.

A disciple is anyone who follows Jesus. It is not about whether you are a priest or a lay person. It is not about whether you have a degree from Oxford or from the University of Life and the School of Hard Knocks. Everyone who claims the name of Jesus, if they expect to get to heaven, must be a disciple.

Discipleship means following the leadership of Christ, and modelling our actions on his actions.

Firstly, this means engagement. Our faith is not at all an individual one. It is not about my faith, my belief, my salvation, even though it requires an individual commitment to faith, but it speaks of our faith, our belief, our salvation. The Creed begins with “We believe…” because our faith is an engagement – with God and with other people. To paraphrase St Paul, even if you have faith to move mountains, and do nothing with it, then it is worth nothing.

God willingly offers himself in these sacraments, and invites you to enter into this mysterious union. The least you can do is come forward to receive the blessing of that sacrament. Engage. Inaction is as contrary to the teachings of Christ as outright rejection.

Secondly this means involvement. Just as Andrew and Simon Peter were called to follow, to do things and through that to become active, working apostles, so we are called not just to assent to faith, but to become involved with it. Whether that engagement is an active praying ministry – praying daily for the work of this parish and intentions in the weekly sheet, or whether it means digging deeper into your pocket to help pay for the missionary work that needs to be done here, it does not mean that we can simply let matters drift over us. We face exciting times in this parish and every single person in these pews has crucial part to play in it.

In the wider Church, the Kairos process will significantly change the way this parish works in the future. There is no option for us to pull up our drawbridge and settle into comfortable isolation, for Elson needs to be deeply involved in the life of the Deanery and the Diocese if we are to survive; not least because at present we do not pay our way. This means that we need to get out to other events, to share with other Christians at Deanery and Diocese level, whether that means coming to the Lent Course, our own Patronal festival on (horror of horrors!) a weekday night or a major and important event the life of this parish and the diocese such as Margaret’s ordination.

And Thirdly this means action. We need not think that we can respond to the call of God just on a Sunday morning, for the God we worship is a seven-day God. Even if you consider yourself too old, too infirm or too unsure in faith, to be beating the streets of Elson spreading the Gospel, you all have your quiet and most effective ways of action: the word of encouragement to a neighbour in difficulty, the prayer which sustains the work of your priest and readers and the most effective action of all: coming to mass, and bringing others to mass to encounter God.

Remember the words of Scripture from last week “Come and See” said Andrew, and that is our primary action, to invite others to enter into these sacred mysteries.

It is important that Church is somewhere where we belong, where we are welcomed, where we feel at home. However, if we do not allow the Gospel to touch our lives then Church remains just a social event, and its true meaning is absent from our lives. A Social side to Church is important, and I see here many layers of love and care and compassion which extend over the generations and over the years. But the heart of the Church is the Gospel of Christ, the call to discipleship, to “Follow Him”. At the heart of the Gospel is the drawing closer to God and becoming immersed in His love: the love that offers itself our to you in the beauty of the eucharist.

A Jesus Groupie is only concerned with what Church gives to them. A true disciple gives of themselves for the building of the Kingdom.

Difficult question time again: What are you?

Sermon: Ordinary 2, Year A

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Sermon: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: John 1:29-34

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

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”

John the Baptist uses the metaphor of the Lamb of God. It is an odd metaphor when one considers the traditional view of the Messiah of God as a powerful military leader who would free Israel from oppression.

The Lamb of God is the sacrificial lamb, the willing victim, the man of sorrows. John the Evangelist makes this connection clear by telling us that Christ is arrested and is given up late on Maundy Thursday – at the same time as the Passover Lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover. In the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not the Passover meal, but the one that precedes it – look closely at the text and you will see this.

When I raise the consecrated elements at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, I always echo these words of John the Baptist directly: “This is the Lamb of God”, not “This is something that reminds me of the Lamb of God…” but “This is…”

As you can tell from my girth: in the past I have been very fond of wine. As the Scriptures say, it “gladdens our hearts” and has been a wonderful source of joy in my life.

The process of making wine is ancient: when Noah found dry land again, he planted a vineyard and got drunk (it’s in Genesis 9:20-21). However, one does not simply plant grapes and get wine, something has to happen to it to make it into that wonderful substance.

The action of fermentation, the work of yeast, to convert sugar into alcohol happens almost invisibly. It happens as it must in the dark, in the warm, and out of sight, and for most of us, how it does it is a mystery.

We start with grape juice and we end with champagne. A transformation in substance.

In the same way, the words and the actions of the priest and the responses of the congregation works on ordinary things: simple bread and wine, and there is another transformation in substance.

In a way that is also mysterious, that cannot be satisfactorily explained, nor indeed should be explained, there is a change in the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary, as God enters into these elements and simple bread and wine become the blessed sacrament and precious blood.

“This is the Lamb of God…” is literally true, it is not a metaphor or an illustration, but a statement of fact. In these changed elements we find God. We find the real presence of Him “hiding” as St Francis of Assisi wonderfully said “under an ordinary piece of bread”. When Jesus took the bread and wine of a meal, he said “This is my body”, “This is my blood”. It was not a metaphor, not an illustration, but the institution of a sacrament. We believe Christ when he admits that he is the Son of God, so I fail to understand why some would wish to deny the reality of Christ in these most sacred mysteries.

We start with bread and wine and we end with the body and blood of Christ. We need not look for God in the molecules of the wine, or the atoms of the bread, look not for the change to the elements (which is why it matters not whether the wine is red or white – in fact it maybe even better for us if the wine does not look like blood, for that would be far to obvious for the mysterious workings of God), look not for the change to the elements but look for the change in the people of receive it – the comfort derived from the sacrament. Look not for the wind, but for the action the wind has on the trees.

God takes the ordinary: people like you and like me, and he transforms us into something extraordinary – into the saved. God does this is subtle ways, hidden, in the dark. How he does this is a mystery. We are transformed by the power of God, transformed by Christ’s body and blood.

This is why I have the highest possible regard for the sacraments. This is why the Mass is the cornerstone of our worship and why it is at the heart of our missionary activity in this place. This is why we come together not just on a Sunday but at other times during the week to worship God, and why you should come also. This is why we keep the blessed sacrament safely in that Aumbrey behind the altar and we revere it with a bow or a genuflection, for God is really present here in these blessed sacraments and his holy presence is signified by the candle that always burns above the Aumbrey.

That is why we have the opportunity to pray before the blessed sacrament when it is exposed. This is why is taken to those too unwell to come to Church to receive the sacrament of salvation.

That is why you should all come to this holy altar to partake in these blessed sacraments; for he was prepared to make himself available to all of us.

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Not the sins of a few, or the sins of those who are already good, but the sins of the whole world, the sins of you, the sins of me, the sins of all of us, past, present and future.

We behold Christ on the altar, making the holy sacrifice, we witness the transformation, we ourselves are transformed.

…and it is something far finer than the finest champagne, for this is the taste of salvation.

Amen.

Sermon: Ordinary 2, Year A

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Sermon: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: John 1:29-34

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

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”

John the Baptist uses the metaphor of the Lamb of God. It is an odd metaphor when one considers the traditional view of the Messiah of God as a powerful military leader who would free Israel from oppression.

The Lamb of God is the sacrificial lamb, the willing victim, the man of sorrows. John the Evangelist makes this connection clear by telling us that Christ is arrested and is given up late on Maundy Thursday – at the same time as the Passover Lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover. In the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not the Passover meal, but the one that precedes it – look closely at the text and you will see this.

When I raise the consecrated elements at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, I always echo these words of John the Baptist directly: “This is the Lamb of God”, not “This is something that reminds me of the Lamb of God…” but “This is…”

As you can tell from my girth: in the past I have been very fond of wine. As the Scriptures say, it “gladdens our hearts” and has been a wonderful source of joy in my life.

The process of making wine is ancient: when Noah found dry land again, he planted a vineyard and got drunk (it’s in Genesis 9:20-21). However, one does not simply plant grapes and get wine, something has to happen to it to make it into that wonderful substance.

The action of fermentation, the work of yeast, to convert sugar into alcohol happens almost invisibly. It happens as it must in the dark, in the warm, and out of sight, and for most of us, how it does it is a mystery.

We start with grape juice and we end with champagne. A transformation in substance.

In the same way, the words and the actions of the priest and the responses of the congregation works on ordinary things: simple bread and wine, and there is another transformation in substance.

In a way that is also mysterious, that cannot be satisfactorily explained, nor indeed should be explained, there is a change in the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary, as God enters into these elements and simple bread and wine become the blessed sacrament and precious blood.

“This is the Lamb of God…” is literally true, it is not a metaphor or an illustration, but a statement of fact. In these changed elements we find God. We find the real presence of Him “hiding” as St Francis of Assisi wonderfully said “under an ordinary piece of bread”. When Jesus took the bread and wine of a meal, he said “This is my body”, “This is my blood”. It was not a metaphor, not an illustration, but the institution of a sacrament. We believe Christ when he admits that he is the Son of God, so I fail to understand why some would wish to deny the reality of Christ in these most sacred mysteries.

We start with bread and wine and we end with the body and blood of Christ. We need not look for God in the molecules of the wine, or the atoms of the bread, look not for the change to the elements (which is why it matters not whether the wine is red or white – in fact it maybe even better for us if the wine does not look like blood, for that would be far to obvious for the mysterious workings of God), look not for the change to the elements but look for the change in the people of receive it – the comfort derived from the sacrament. Look not for the wind, but for the action the wind has on the trees.

God takes the ordinary: people like you and like me, and he transforms us into something extraordinary – into the saved. God does this is subtle ways, hidden, in the dark. How he does this is a mystery. We are transformed by the power of God, transformed by Christ’s body and blood.

This is why I have the highest possible regard for the sacraments. This is why the Mass is the cornerstone of our worship and why it is at the heart of our missionary activity in this place. This is why we come together not just on a Sunday but at other times during the week to worship God, and why you should come also. This is why we keep the blessed sacrament safely in that Aumbrey behind the altar and we revere it with a bow or a genuflection, for God is really present here in these blessed sacraments and his holy presence is signified by the candle that always burns above the Aumbrey.

That is why we have the opportunity to pray before the blessed sacrament when it is exposed. This is why is taken to those too unwell to come to Church to receive the sacrament of salvation.

That is why you should all come to this holy altar to partake in these blessed sacraments; for he was prepared to make himself available to all of us.

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Not the sins of a few, or the sins of those who are already good, but the sins of the whole world, the sins of you, the sins of me, the sins of all of us, past, present and future.

We behold Christ on the altar, making the holy sacrifice, we witness the transformation, we ourselves are transformed.

…and it is something far finer than the finest champagne, for this is the taste of salvation.

Amen.

Sermon: Christmas 1, Year A

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Sermon: Christmas 1, Year A, Holy Family
Text: Matthew 2:13-15; 19-23

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

With the birth of the Christ child still fresh in our ears, we move away from the crèche and towards the reality of living in the presence of a living God. We quickly move from the crystal starlight over the stable scene to a scene of warnings, dreams and severe human suffering.

For Mary and Joseph, the consequences of caring for their small infant son, the Emmanuel – the God with us – meant further dislocation and further isolation. This faithful couple, always ready t follow God, were being led away from everything and everyone that would support them while they cared for this child. Our Gospel moves us from the gentleness of the incarnation to the harsh reality of life.

These new parents had to flee from their homeland and their people and go to a strange land that did not know them. They became aliens, immigrants forced to flee away rather than run home to their village. For the families in Bethlehem and surrounding communities the consequences were much worse. Small children were slaughtered because a ruler was tricked by some wise elders from a distant tribe. There was blood everywhere. The awful reality of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is recalled by the Church on Tuesday, whilst today this genocide forces the Saviour of us all to become an Asylum Seeker. The consequence of human anger with access to absolute power is clear in our Gospel today. The word of God made flesh reminds us today of the responsibility we have to the innocent and the alien. How easily we forget this lesson. The next time we read one of those poisonous newspaper articles about Asylum Seekers we should remember the story of the Christ-Child and his experience.

The harsh reality of the genocide inherent in the slaughter of the Holy Innocents invites us to move our gaze from the pastoral crèche scene, the wise men and sheep, to the world to which God came. We are invited to see the same broken world that is about us today. We are called to witness this same world, full of terror, in which angry and selfish political leaders even today destroy innocent lives.

Jesus came into the midst of terror and enters into our terror.

We, like Our Lady and St. Joseph, are called to move out from soft places, from warm rooms and safe havens, to the places where innocence is challenges, where faithful tender lives are at risk, and carry the God incarnate to alien places so that we might all be free.

A friend was recently in an airport waiting for a connecting flight. In the next row sat a family of six, mother, father and four small children. They were all dressed quite inappropriately for the season and the location: they huddled together, sleeping fitfully and speaking very little. When they did, it was a strange and unfamiliar language. As they boarded the plane, it was obvious that they were very confused by the seating and signs. My friend tried to help them as best she could but there was little was of communicating except by pointing.

This family of refugees were coming to a place where very little was familiar. How could they raise their children, find their way, communicate their basic needs? And yet they came with a weary willingness to protect and care for their little ones, to find a new life, despite all of the challenges and dislocation that were behind and in front of them.

This is what love does within in each of us. It gives us the courage to take on responsibility for the innocent. Love incarnate empowers us to turn away from the comforting familiar, in order to let love incarnate thrive.

Here is our call, our responsibility this Christmastide and all through the year. God with us, Emmanuel, encourages us to face the power of this world in order to protect the vulnerable and the needy.

This Love made Flesh challenges us to see the face of God in each refugee, each alien, each immigrant, every stranger.

The Prince of Peace calls us to look away from the comfortable and the pastoral to see the stark reality of suffering and terror in our world. We are called to see with the eyes of the Word of God – eyes which see everyone as relatives, tribal members, kin, family, equally welcomed at God’s table.

May these days of Christmas be times of looking outward, seeking the family which has been left outside, bringing home those who have been refugees, aliens and strangers.

Later in his ministry, the Christ-Man would say “whenever to visited or welcomed or cared for one such as these, then you did the same to me”. The Refugee, the Asylum-Seeker, the Poor, frightened or destitute remain, and it is our Christian duty to shelter the next Holy Family which flees for survival to our land.

Amen.

Sermon: Christmas Day, Year A

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Sermon: Christmas Day, Year A
Text: John 1:1

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

So, we have had all chaos of the Crib and Christingle Service, the beauty and splendour of a full midnight mass, with the bambino placed reverently into the Crib scene and the nativity scene is now complete.

Or is it?

In Catalan homes and Churches there is another figure which I have not spotted amongst our ancient and by-now-quite-fragile crib: I speak of “El Caganer” – who can be loosely translated as “the one who is doing his business”.

The business in hand must be taken quite euphemistically, when I tell you that El Caganer takes his place in the Christmas Crib, besides the Wise Men, wearing a peasant beret and squatting, with his trousers around his ankles.

In the midst of all this solemnity, there is injected a little earthly humour, a little humanity in the midst of all this Godliness.

And I say, that this is a good thing, a very good thing indeed: a little grounding in reality just as we let our pietism loose on flights of extreme fantasy.

The Christmas Crib, like what we have below the altar was first created by Saint Francis of Assisi.

Francis sought to remind people what the nativity actually meant: to ground the event in reality – to remind people that the nativity was not a chocolate box affair of gleaming straw and sterile food troughs, but a dirty, smelly, cold, faeces-covered battle of endurance for a young girl and her much older husband.

The incarnation, the miracle of the incarnation was the choice of a God who was prepared to pour himself out for us: not only at the end of his life in the triumph of the cross, but at the beginning. The incarnation was an act of vulnerable humility, of great risk.

The heresy of docetism suggests that God only appeared in human form, that the incarnation was symbolic, that the crucifixion did not kill, that Christ did not need to eat, drink or even, dare one suggest it, defecate. Such heresy was rightly crushed by the great Bishop Ignatius of Antioch in his writings and condemned by ecumenical council, but I suggest to you this morning, that there is an element of docetism in all of us, an unwillingness to accept the vibrant truth of the incarnation, a temptation to saccharinise the nativity:

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”

…as that Christmas Carol goes. I spoke about this to the Christmas gathering of the Mother’s Union, and recall it now. We so-often willingly collude with the unrealistic, unincarnational concept of an unreal, docetic Jesus, when we should be prepared to grasp that uncomfortable truth: that God-is-with-us, that Emmanuel was incarnated as a human being, and that he became one of us.

What is Away in a Manager trying to prove? That Christ was sinless? Certainly, Christ was sinless, but no child cries because of sin, children cry because that is how they communicate. The word, the divine logos, became flesh and his first communications with us were not the beatitudes, or even “it is finished” but a cry of hunger, of cold and for a clean nappy.

God calls you, to look beyond the chocolate-box sentimentality of the nativity images story: underneath there is reality, underneath there is the incarnation.

Peer through the Christmas Crib and spy El Caganer in the background, for he is everyman, he is us, he is the link between ourselves in our basest moments, and the mystery of incarnation. Remember that even he, us, all of us, is present at this sacred moment. El Caganer may be crude, a little unseemly and perhaps even a little incongruous amid the precious, fragile works of art in the crib, but then again, so are we my friends, and God welcomes us to the crib to worship the Christ-child as well.

Amen.

Sermon: Midnight Mass of Christmas, Year A

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Sermon: Midnight Mass, Year A
Text: CJM Video – I Want; Luke 2:1-14

The obvious question, we might want to ask ourselves, after seeing that video, is “Is that all there is to Christmas?”

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

One of the oldest traditions for any major festival or event is the giving and receiving of gifts: when the Queen visits some foreign country, she is showered with gifts, many of which subsequently end up for sale on eBay, when we have birthdays, or leave a place of work, we are given a gift, a token which says “you are valued”.

At Christmas, the giving and receiving of gifts is enshrined in the culture of Christmas. The headteacher of our local infant school said to me recently “For our children, Christmas only really, truly begins when the Argos Catalogue is published”; for the focus of Christmas has changed from the giving of gifts, from the saying to another “you are valued” to the demanding “how much do you value me?”

An item on the radio about a week ago told the stories of people struggling through everyday poverty and feeling enforced to spend vast, even obscene amounts of money on their children – a thousand pounds per child in one case, and ensuring that the trap of debt keeps them captive all through the year.

But the giving of gifts is not dependant upon its value. When a gift is most effective is when it is not given with the expectation of a gift or a favour in return. It says “you are valued”, not “I expect…”

At Christmas, we have all been given the most wonderful of gifts. It is a Free gift, given with no conditions, and with absolutely no expectation of anything in return. It is the ultimate statement that “you are valued”.

The gift of the Christ-Child may be free, unhindered or unsullied by ulterior motives, but it is not without value.

For the presents we give each other are so much like our frail world, so much like our short human existence: these gifts break or wear out or the batteries die (often in my experience within an hour of their use), but the gift of Christ lasts for ever.

Like the most thoughtful of gifts, it is a gift which speaks individually to the person receiving it: like that carefully chosen perfume to suit an individual, an item in a favourite colour, a beautiful frame containing a photograph of a happy memory, like those the gift of the Christ Child is a personal gift.

This gift has power: the power to change us, by opening ourselves to this gift, and receiving the really good news of a God so prepared to value us, to be with us, that he should choose to come amongst us as a small and vulnerable child, we are transformed. For the gift of a child, became the gift of a man and his life-changing ministry, and the gift of a man became the gift of salvation through the Cross and the victory of the resurrection. This story does not end with this stable, it does not end at the foot of the cross, it does not end with the empty tomb or the fire of Pentecost, and it does not even end tonight as you receive the body and blood of Christ, but continues its work of transformation and change, as you leave this building with God’s blessing and into the rest of your lives.

This present will last for ever, and enables us to know intimately the one who freely gives us this gift: for God himself is the name on this gift tag.

So, as you receive this sincerely given, beautifully wrapped gift, you should prepared to be changed by the Christ child this night. It is a gift of love. It is a gift for you.

Amen

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.