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

Sermon: Ordinary 29, Year C

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Sermon: 19th Sunday after Trinity (29th in Ordinary Time), Year C
Text: Luke 18:1-8

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

I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster week so far, last Tuesday’s licensing seems so far away now and in the meantime we have had the first few days of my tenure here at St. Thomas’: a couple of low-key midweek services here, the daily office of morning and evening prayer, and away from this place, a marvellous act of worship for young people on the Isle of Wight called Blesséd, with which I was involved.

But, as you can see, the building is still standing and we are all here, God’s here as well, so things can’t be too bad so far!

This marks the beginning of what I hope will be a happy, spirit-filled and Christ-centred journey alongside each other: the people of Elson and Hardway and their priest, as together we travel towards Christ, our light, our salvation and our hope.

Indeed, our Gospel this morning offers us some hints about some of our priorities and our concerns: the Scriptures bring us back to what is at the heart of the Gospel message: prayer, humility and inclusiveness.

Our Lord and Saviour frequently used parables to explore the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. This isn’t just because we like a good story, or that we are more likely to remember the teaching (although both of these are true), but because the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are actually beyond our human grasp – at another level outside our petty human existence. Only Christ, who has the benefit of the complete picture is able to give these interpretations and to bring them down, as it were, to our level.

These three parables occur in the middle of a great raft of Christ’s teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven. They are not directly linked to each other, and it is unlikely that Our Lord proclaimed them at one time or in this specific order, but the Evangelist gathered them together and edited them, shaped them for publication, much as Emma has to do to our scribbling for the parish magazine!

The first parable, of the unrighteous judge is often subject to misinterpretation; you may notice that on my wrist I wear a wristband with WWJD – what would Jesus do? on it: it was a gift from a youth group I led before I went to theological college and have worn it, or one like it ever since. Some people wear one with PUSH on it – Pray Until Something Happens, implying that if you badger God with your needs, much like the widow does in this pericope, this passage of Scripture, then God will finally get exasperated with you and grant you your deepest desires, no matter how unsuitable they are.

And the further implication of this is that if God doesn’t grant you your prayers, it must be because you must have some form of unresolved sin in your life and that you are not worthy of having God answer your prayers.

This is simply not how God works. Indeed, close inspection of the text on the notice sheet will show that Our Lord says that God is precisely not like the unrighteous judge, who only gives in, not because of the justice of the case, but because of external pressure. The one, true, righteous judge hears and responds in love, not according to how loud our prayers are: if that was the case, then the prophets of Baal would have had some satisfaction, but God responds to prayer, sincere, heartfelt and honest in his own time and with absolute justice and fairness.

God does indeed answer all prayer, but he doesn’t necessarily answer them in ways that we expect: his answers may be ‘yes’, or ‘no’, or ‘not yet’, or even ‘here’s something better’. In the recent film Bruce Almighty, the character played by Jim Carey is given a week as the Deity and when hounded by so many prayers about such trivia simply grants them all. Everyone wins the lottery, and so everyone gets a couple of pounds each.

God does not answer prayer like that. It is not dependent upon praying until something happens, but upon opening our hearts to God; by sometimes allowing stillness to creep into our prayers. Allowing the still small voice crying in the wilderness to be heard; for prayer is a two-way conversation and if we constantly pray until something happens we may be drowning out the call of God with our shopping list.

There are many ways to encounter God in prayer: in the sacraments, with ikons or beads or statues or with an open heart. Praying is at the heart of our Christian lives and I hope that together we can build this place as a place of prayer, a sacred space to encounter God.

cont.

An American rancher met up with a British farmer. The two men began talking about their land and the Englishman told the cattleman that he operated his business on 125 acres. The American scoffed at such a small parcel of land. He said, “On my ranch I can get in my truck at sunrise and I won’t reach the fence line of my property until sunset.” The British farmer nodded, “Mmmm, I used to have a truck like that.”

There is something delicious about bringing someone down to size, and the gentle, humorous humility of the British Farmer shows us its value. The second parable, that of the Pharisee and the Publican also teaches us the true value of humility. It is so easy for us, in this comfortable, (well, perhaps not in these particular pews) comfortable, familiar environment to become complacent with our faith. In doing so, we become exactly like the Pharisee.

The Publican’s humility was aimed at God, not at others around him, and although we know that he left the temple in a state of grace, we don’t know if that encounter with God (in what is in effect the sacrament of penance, of confession) changed his life or his behaviour; but to be released from sin as he was gives us the opportunity to make amends.

From humility before God can come service to others in a state of grace: service in this community, to the sidelined and marginalised, the unloved and the unlovely. I hope that we can work together for the greater good of this community, and use our faith, our humility before God as the foundation of much good in this area: proclaiming the Good News of Christ to all who need to hear it.

This is linked to the last of our three parables, which shows to us that the Kingdom of God is truly inclusive. There are no barriers to this altar, and all who have the new birthright of baptism have the right of access to Our Saviour.

In the same way, our approach to the community should be as inclusive as possible: working with other Christians and even other faiths, but not losing our unique identity as Anglicans.

The greatest threat to the Church is not another faith or denomination, but the greater threat of apathy and indifference: there are many people in this area who will not have even the most rudimentary understanding or awareness of the Church and what it can mean to them. These are not the people who have lost their faith, or even mislaid it, but who have never heard the Gospel at all.

We need therefore to become active missionaries in our own area. This is not just my job, but all of our jobs as Christians. The mission field starts at your own front door. We cannot expect the world to come flooding to the corner of Elson Road and Elson Lane.

Bishop Frank Weston, bishop of Zanzibar exhorted most famously:

“Go out into the highways and hedges. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

That is why Our Lord said that the children were not to be hindered in their access to faith, that is why we must place a high priority on mission and on work with young people in particular, especially those who have no contact with this church and who just hang around by the post box outside.

It is our common mission, and I hope that we can all work together to further build the Kingdom of God here in this parish, building upon all your excellent work and fellowship that I have only just begun to become aware of.

So, in one of those strange quirks of the lectionary, on my first Sunday here, we encounter a pattern which I hope will shape the Christian journey in this parish: a journey in partnership, fellowship and fun, a pilgrimage which can at times be smooth and at other times difficult and challenging, travelling alongside each other firmly rooted in prayer, in humility before God and embracing all of God’s children to proclaim the Gospel boldly here in Elson and Hardway!

Amen.