Sermon: Easter 4, Year A

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Sermon: Easter 4, Year A
Text: John 10:1-10

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

Two sheep were standing in a field.

“Baaaa” said one.

“Bother” said the other one, “I was going to say that!”

The real challenge of Good Shepherd Sunday is to make it real for an urban and sophisticated congregation like yourselves. I suspect that the flow of this sermon would be made so much better if we were surrounded by sheep and rolling hills, rather than concrete, pavements and the interminable roadworks on the A32.

Sheep simply do not enter into our mindset, and so to fully understand the significance of our Gospel this morning, we need to understand some country ways.

We often think of Shepherds as people who drive sheep, from the rear with their snarling but canny sheepdogs, pushing the flock of sheep to where the Shepherd wishes them to go: to safety, or to the market or even the abattoir. I recall watching on holiday once a demonstration of shepherding. One man and his dog, a whistle and a large field, it was amazing to see man and dog working together as one to guide and drive these sheep. If only my own dog, Ruby, were so obedient!

However, it would be quite incorrect for us to assume that when Christ spoke of being a shepherd, and we in the language of Psalm 100 as the sheep of his pasture, he was thinking of driving us poor creatures to where we didn’t want to go. That is a metaphor for the west, and the modern age, not the Middle East at the time of Our Lord.

Out there, a shepherd does not have the advantage of a sheepdog, and so rather than driving his sheep forward, from the rear, a shepherd leads his flock, leads from the front. Indeed, the text of the Gospel makes explicit reference to this:

“The sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. He goes ahead of them and the sheep follow because they know his voice”

With this metaphor in mind, we can see the role of Christ much more clearly: to lead us towards God, not to drive us; to guide and inspire, protect and save rather than to coerce, bully or harass.

The Good Shepherd is a challenging illusion. We tend to think of Shepherds as being part of the biblical scene, as they are referred to frequently by Christ; they were witnesses of his birth, we recall. We grace them perhaps with the dignity of the working man, and see them as perhaps a representative of us, the common people.

That is, however, not how the original hearers of Christ’s words would have interpreted them. Shepherds were required to spend long periods of time away from their homes. They lived uncomfortable lives in the semi-wilderness confronted by the dangers of wolves and thieves. They did not have the luxury of a day off, and so Shepherds were seen as disreputable and scandalous because they had to break the Sabbath Law. We have lost our awareness of how scandalous it would be for Christ to liken himself to one who broke the Sabbath – would Christ today say “I am the Good Prostitute?” – would we be equally scandalised by such a suggestion? That sounds outrageous doesn’t it? It would have had the same impact in the first century.

And yet, time and time again God proves to us that his ways are not our ways, and many of our concepts of scandal are misplaced. King David was a shepherd: a loyal, good and effective shepherd as well if his prowess with the slingshot was anything to go by. His descendant, Our Lord identifies himself with the scandalised, he was revealed to these poor-quality Jews at his birth, and uses them to teach us something very significant about his mission.

Christ, of course, was frequently the subject of scandal: he ate with sinners as well as likening himself to them, and he died a criminal’s death. The lamb of God is not an image of a pastoral ideal, but the image of a sacrificial victim – the lambs sacrificed for the Passover on the night we call Maundy Thursday.

For Christ be the Good Shepherd to us, we need to accept being his sheep. Today is also Vocation Sunday; a day when we pray not only for vocations to the sacred priesthood or the religious life, although that is both necessary and welcome. We pray for the discernment of a vocation for all of us, to respond to God’s call to be whatever he leads us to. The Good Shepherd has a vocation in mind for all of us, a ministry for us all to perform, a response to Him as one of his flock.

I spoke last week of those preparing for Confirmation, and I repeat my call for you to hold them in your prayers. When we think of vocation, we usually focus on priesthood, on the religious life. But what about the other vocations that being a Christian is all about. What about visiting that otherwise lonely elderly person. What about enabling a harassed single mum have an afternoon to herself. What about the friendly smile to the disaffected youth on the street corner? These are all part of our vocation as Christians and vocations that we can all aspire to.

In participating in God’s holy sacraments at this altar, and doing God’s work here on earth, building the kingdom of God, we are responding to his call, the lead of the Good Shepherd: our vocation as Christians is to be the Sheep of God’s pasture – to follow where he leads us, to be protected from harm by him, to be nourished through him, to join with him as one body.

There can be no greater vocation: the vocation to be a Christian, to be a sheep for the lamb of God. Amen.

Sermon: Easter 3, Year A

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Sermon: 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A
Text: Luke 24:13-35

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

I have not had the opportunity, quite regrettably really, to travel the world extensively, to visit exotic places and encounter strange cultures. In a strange reversal of how things really ought to be, rather than it being me who took off to foreign parts, it has been my Mother who has been to the Caribbean, to the Far East and to India – blowing what remains of my inheritance no doubt.

And yet, whether we have a passport filled to the brim with customs stamps or whether we have remained in Elson all our lives, we are still engaged on a journey – a journey travelling in hope and prayer to a destination beyond compare.

This morning’s Gospel is the metaphorical journey of life expressed in the post-resurrection narrative. It has much to teach us about our own spiritual journeys and the ways in which the risen Christ is revealed to us.

St. Luke places his narratives within the realm of the known: we are told of the exact journey: Jerusalem to Emmaus which would be as recognisable to early hearers as a journey from Fareham to Gosport. We are told the name of one of the travellers: Cleopas; not an apostle, but perhaps one the 72, one of the many who stood on the periphery of the early Christian Church. One of us, perhaps?

They fail to recognise the risen Christ. Was it because it was just so unexpected? Were they so wrapped up in their grief? But Christ is always alongside us would we but know it? How often do we think we are travelling a lonely road, abandoned by all; and yet Christ has been there all along, beside us, guiding us, comforting us and leading us to green pastures.
When Cleopas and friend are asked to explain the top news story of the last few days, they show their appreciation of Christ, but not his true nature: they describe him as “a great prophet”, but fail to spot his Divinity. By ourselves, through our own intellect, our own philosophy, our own science, we cannot truly grasp Jesus Christ: God is beyond us. We need him to reveal himself to us: just as Jesus explains the Scriptures to his comrades.

Which texts does Jesus explain for his companions? We are not told, but Luke suggests that it does not matter.

Later, Jesus Christ reveals himself as he breaks the bread with his friends: a mirror of the last supper and a reminder of the Mass. Which text does he use? What Eucharistic Prayer does he employ, and does he use inclusive language? It does not matter. These are trivial, human-scale issues compared to the glorious self-revelation completed in the inn at Emmaus.

Jesus Christ is revealed to us this morning in two complimentary ways: in the exploration of Scripture and in the breaking of the bread: without these two there can be no Mass this morning – Common Worship comprises of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, each balanced and linked by the sharing of the peace.

The story of the Road to Emmaus is therefore one of the models for our thanksgiving this morning. As Jesus Christ reveals himself in the Holy Scriptures, he reveals himself in the Holy Sacrament. As he walks and explains the foretelling of Christ’s passion in the scriptures and then reveals the glory of the resurrection in broken bread and wine outpoured.

The Eucharistic feast is therefore central to our lives as Christians, and we all come to this place to witness the living Christ made known on this altar in, to paraphrase St Francis of Assisi, the hands of a priest, hiding under and ordinary piece of bread.
The crucial importance of the mass in our Christian journey (further than Jerusalem to Emmaus) leads me to think of those who are preparing to enter into this mystical relationship through the sacrament of Confirmation.

As you are probably aware, the Parish Mass on Whit Sunday – Pentecost – will be celebrated by Bishop Kenneth, which is a great honour for us. The Bishop is our focus of unity, and so the 10am Mass will be the only mass of the day, and one that I hope will be fully supported by all the congregations here at St Thomas’: standing room only is what we want to see – a visible statement of our faith and dedication, to God, to this church and to this parish. There will be room, I assure you, and I call on all of you to make that effort to show the Bishop our allegiance to him, and our visible declaration of Jesus as Lord.

At this special mass he will also confirm those who have been prepared for it, from across the deanery and especially from this parish.

Confirmation is a true sacrament: the laying on of hands by the Bishop is an outward visible sign of the inward spiritual grace which is manifested by the Holy Spirit, and which was revealed on the road to Emmaus.

Confirmation is an important step to make, it has required commitment and a willingness to become open to God, as well as come round the vicarage and drink my coffee!

As you can see, Confirmation is not something just for the children of the church – it is an essential sacrament for all in this Church so if you come to this altar rail with any frequency, and receive a blessing, then come and talk to myself and we can speak of confirmation; we can speak of a full and complete welcome into the body of Christ which is the Church. It isn’t hard, there isn’t an exam, nothing to write up, and as I hope both the adult group and young person’s group will agree, it can be a few weeks of fun as well! Do not simply sit there and not participate in one of the most important sacraments of our salvation: get confirmed, receive the Holy Spirit, receive the Bread of Life. Some journeys in life may appear a little daunting: Oh it’s such a long way down the road to Emmaus, I’m a little too tired or otherwise busy, I’ve left it too late to set off now, or I’m a little self-conscious about what others might think of me when they see me on the road. Some journeys in life may have been halted or diverted at some point, or things in your life may have happened which make you think you’ll never get to the Emmaus Arms. The journey down the Emmaus Road is the journey to the sacramental encounter with Christ. It is a journey we all continue to travel down, and Christ walks alongside us, every step, revealing the scriptures to us, making our hearts burn within us, giving us a glimpse of resurrection joy.

So, in our run up to Pentecost, I ask you to hold in your prayers the Christian journey of all to be confirmed: <names>, and possibly also from other churches in the deanery, and pray also for yourselves. For their Confirmation takes each and every one of us back to our own Confirmation – our own personal declaration of faith, and entry into this sacramental union with Christ.

We all travel down the highway of life, passing through points which are unfamiliar, sometimes even a little threatening, we often take detours which are can be difficult or arduous; but with Christ walking alongside us, walking as he walked alongside Cleopas and his companion, our ultimate destination, at least, is known; and we will know him, at our journeys end, in the breaking of the bread.

Amen.

Sermon: Holy Week, 2005

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Philippians 2:5-11

”He emptied himself” (v7)

These six verses known as the Kenotic Hymn contain some of the most profound theology ever written, alongside the prologue of the Gospel of John.

Both are philosophical examinations of the nature of Christ, both speak of the pre-existence of Christ and the wonder of his incarnation.

Kenosis (ekenosen) is the Greek word which means he “emptied himself” and is the centrepiece of this passage. It is described as a hymn, and is thought by many not to be originally by Paul. It is certainly more poetic than much of his writing, and in context appears to be a quotation – in the form of a common reference, so Paul cites something in common knowledge amongst the Christian communities, communities which at that time did not have the benefit of Scripture.

At the beginning of the passage is the recognition of Christ’s position within the Godhead, and his willing abrogation of that position for the lowliness of humanity. The Orthodox Church with which I have much affinity places much emphasis on the incarnation, the awe-inspiring thought that Almighty God should choose to come alongside us, and be treated not only like us, but be treated worse than most of us and be put to the death of a criminal.

In the Garden of Gethsememe, Christ said that if he wanted, angels could have come and defended him, but he chose not to let that happen, he chose to allow human events to carry him to the place of the skull. The true showing of power is in not exercising it.

Kenosis, or pouring out, is a self-initiated activity; although Christ’s Passion was inflicted upon him, his kenosis can only come from himself. Nothing could force it out of him, only by his choice. The hymn says that he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross”, as an act of choice, not of compulsion.

The Passion that we have just heard is not therefore a tale of injustice, of a helpless victim or a scapegoat, but is the prelude to a far greater story: the victory over sin and death whose denoument is the resurrection itself. What Christ endured would have been intolerable for us as mere humans to bear, the Mel Gibson film, the Passion of the Christ is a testament to that; but was willingly undertaken for our sins. At the climax of the Gospel of John, Christ declares “It is Accomplished” – his heavy task is complete, and it is a task that only one who is in the form of God could accomplish for our sins.

Amen.

Sermon: Lent 4, Year A

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Sermon: Lent 4, Year A
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

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

You can see the change already in Church. The fifth Sunday marks the beginning of Passiontide: the ikons and crosses are shrouded, the banners put away. There is a greater sense of stillness, and a portent of dangerous things to come, a portent of something important.

Ezekiel shows one of these portents: the dry bones that rise from the desolate valley are symbolic primarily of the nation of Israel, exiled in 597 BC to Babylonia: crushed, defeated and dismembered. The Exile was the devastation of the nation: Jerusalem sacked, the holy of holies desecrated and the people scattered.

Ezekiel is ordered to prophesy and through the power of God they are resurrected. The people of Israel cannot come together again by their own power, but only through prophecy and the will of God.

In a similar vein, Lazarus is raised by prophecy – for Jesus says to Martha “Your brother will rise again” and by the will of God the Son, who calls to him. Flesh once again comes together and Lazarus comes out of the tomb.

The passion of Christ is also the subject of many, many prophecies, and it is by the will of the Father that the Son is raised.

Michael Schmaus, an American theologian, raises an interesting theological question: one of whether Christ was raised from the dead (the testimony of Matthew 28:6, Acts 2:32 and 1 Corinthians 15:13-15) or whether he has risen (Mark 16:6-9, Luke 24:34,46, another part of Acts 26:23 and the letter to the Romans 1:4 & 6:5); whether Our Lord was an active or passive participant in his resurrection: did the Father raise the dead body, or did the power of Christ who raised others, raise himself?

We need to ask ‘What does this say about our understanding of Christ, of his Father and their relationship as parts of the Trinity?’

Schmaus suggests this paradox can be reconciled by saying that Christ was raised by the Father insofar as he was a man, and that he has risen by his own power insofar as he is God. For it is only God who has such power, and he is manifest in both the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

The raising of Lazarus is a prophecy in itself, for it speaks of not only the resurrection of Christ himself, but of our resurrection, our new life in Christ, our deliverance from sin. However, Lazarus’ resurrection was a temporary one – he was raised to die once more as an old man. Our resurrection however, like that of Christ’s is an everlasting one, of flesh so real that our own patron Saint, Saint Thomas could put his hand inside the wound in his side, but so not of this usual world that the risen Lord could enter locked rooms.

Last week I went on a course for vicars like myself who are in their first parish. It was quite hard work but hugely informative and rewarding. One of the many things we encountered was some study on the cycle of the day: that of course the Jewish day runs from dusk on one day to dusk on the next: ‘it was evening and morning: the first day’.

Every day is an experience of darkness into light. This is why the Easter vigil can legitimately be held as we are holding it this year on the Saturday evening, for Saturday evening is easter day! So many times in both the Old and the New Testaments, God works on people through their dreams (think of Joseph, Moses, Samuel or Daniel), preparing their work in the night to be ready for the action of the day.

Lazarus, similarly had to go through darkness: the darkness of the tomb, the darkness of death, the darkness of loss and mourning for Mary and Martha, before Christ brought him back into the light. His preparation was in the dark, his action was his physical witness to the power of God.

There are times when we are required to go through that darkness: a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, dramatic change in our working or praying lives. It is often at that time when it may feel that God is so far from us, and we are sealed inside a tomb of our own despair. We may have been as faithful and devoted as Lazarus, or as sinful and unworthy as the next person. It is then that Christ calls out to us. It is then that God pulls us from the death of sin and into his marvellous light.

We should therefore be comforted when we enter into those dark times that there is a resurrection promise on the other side, a promise that makes dry bones dance, the dead rise and the sunset into a new dawn.

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: 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 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: Advent Sunday, Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Sermon: All Saints Day, Year C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a wrong assumption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Sermon: Third Sunday Before Advent, Year C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen