Sermon: Ordinary 14, Year A

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Sermon: Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 11:25-30 preached on the Sunday after the Ordination to the Diaconate of Mother Margaret

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

How fitting. How fitting that the first Gospel that Mother Margaret should be called to proclaim is this one.

At this point in the liturgy, where she has breathed a sigh of relief that we have got the first part down right – the entrance, the shenangans with kissing the altar and all that, the proclamation of the Gospel itself, and before we stare into the sheer terror of deaconing the Eucharistic Liturgy (I think this is a more a reflection on memories of my first Sunday as a deacon at Holy Spirit rather than a comment on Mother Margaret), we get to hear some of the most profound teaching by Christ, words of challenge and of consolation; an agenda for change and a promise of the future; a realisation of just what Fr. Margaret has let herself in for in a simple, yet profound rural analogy.

I am reminded of almost the last day at Mirfield, my theological college. As was traditional, those of us to be made deacon brought our stoles to the mass for them to be blessed and sprinkled by the Principal. Fr. Christopher quoted to us from a passage at the end of St John’s Gospel:

“Truly, truly I tell you, when you were young, you would fasten your belt and go wherever you liked. But when you get old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten your belt and take you where you don’t want to go.” (John 21:18)

Fr Christopher likened the belt to our stole, reminding us that it is put on for us at ordination, and that as part of our calling first as deacons and then as priests we would be led by others (or perhaps more significantly, by an other) to places where we would not want to go – to seek out the careless and indifferent as described by the words of the Ordinal yesterday and which are quoted in this month’s parish magazine.

But Christ is not speaking just of the yoke of ordination and the burden (and joy, of course) which accompanies it as we seek to make Christ present in word and sacrament, he speaks of the yoke and the burden which is inherent to every Christian.

When we hear today’s Gospel, we tend to think of the yoke as a burden, a burden which will be lifted by Christ for us. But this is NOT what the text says: look again…

“Shoulder MY yoke and learn from me”

Christ calls us, each and everyone of us to ditch the yokes which otherwise weigh us down, which make us weary and overburdened, to discard the yokes of selfishness, of pride, of sin; and encourages us to pick up an altogether more palatable burden.

For a yoke is not just an instrument of burden, it is a tool of guidance. Without the yoke, oxen simply wander and furrows are uneven, heavy loads are left by the roadside. With a yoke, they are harnessed into action, co-ordinated with others and able to bear loads which unaided, would be impossible.

Christ himself offers us HIS yoke, HIS guidance, HIS sacraments and gives us the direction in which we should travel. We still have burden a carry, and Our Lord told us that we must pick up our cross daily and follow him. The burden we must carry now is not one of our sin, but one of our responsibilities: to God, and to Society, to bear witness to the light of Christ and to proclaim his kingdom.

Truly, Mother Margaret, we do not know where God will guide you, yoked as you are in His service, and neither do we know where we are driven by the Gospel, but driven we must be: fired up for Christ and prepared to be open to the Holy Spirit, to be as open as “mere children” to the possibilities of God and not to sit petulantly rejecting what is unfamiliar or different. As you begin your journey in ordained ministry this morning, we give thanks to God for your ministry with us, and we pray that together we can take God’s gentle and loving guidance to wherever he may lead us.

Amen.

Sermon: Ordinary 10, Year A

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Sermon: Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 9:9-13

“He said to him, ‘Follow Me’. And he got up and followed him”

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

Just prior to the April 5th Tax deadline, I was reminded of a certain passage of Scripture – “Render unto God what is God’s, and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – but in Caesar’s case, not necessarily all of it”

We hate Tax. We have always hated Tax. However, as death and taxes are the only two things we can be assured of; we really should accept both, even if it pains us.

Jesus happened upon Matthew while he was at work, in his tollbooth, collecting taxes. As with fishermen, Jesus calls his disciples while they are at work, living their routine lives. At least when Jesus calls the fishermen, there is an element of calling the noble working man from his honest day’s graft, whereas to encounter and then call a tax collector was to challenge every social nicety of the day.

The taxes in question would be customs duties on goods passing through on the great road from Syria to Egypt or possibly at a tollbooth near the lake on goods coming across the lake. Tax collectors were typically among the most hated of people, especially in Palestine.

In the Roman system, the office of tax collection was awarded to the highest bidder. The winner of this right would employ others to do the actual work of collecting taxes. Matthew might well have been a middle level employee, rather than a rich man in his own right. However, he and any tax collector could become rich through extortion. It was permissible to charge a certain amount over and above the tax required in order to receive compensation. That’s how the tax collector got paid.

It is a vicious circle: the more the tax collectors collected, the more they were hated, and the more they were hated the more they collected. Being Jews working for the occupying government made them traitors and being Jews coming into contact with Gentiles, merchants from around the world, and other sinners, made them religiously and ceremonially, unclean.

Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me.” There is no mention of a previous conversation and no hint that Jesus and Matthew had met before. However, the form of the command is in the present tense, which means to continue to follow, to keep on following. The emphasis here is not on the conditions that led Matthew to accept, but on his unconditional acceptance.

Matthew left a whole way of life in order to follow Jesus. He may well have been wealthy, but perhaps only on his way to wealth. Nonetheless, he left it all and followed Jesus. Fishermen might and did, return to their former occupation, but not tax collectors. Rome would not hire him again, should he have changed his mind and tried to return. This was a irrevocable commitment, one made without knowing the “benefit package” – terms and conditions which would lead inevitably to privation, Martyrdom and heavenly glory.

Jesus says to us today, “Follow Me.” He calls us to ever greater things. You might have thought that the building of the Narthex was the end, but my dear friends, it is only the beginning. It is the first step down a long road which will lead us to, well, who knows where. Matthew certainly didn’t know where to either, but he undertook the journey anyway.

Jesus called to Jane and said “Follow Me”, and she followed. Jesus said to Margaret “Follow Me” and she prepares to embark on her journey through diaconal and priestly ministry to, well, who knows where. Jesus reaches out of the text to you this morning and says to you “Follow Me”, and what will you do? Will you follow? Will you demurr? Will you stick your heels into the ground and refuse to budge? Will you try and avoid or subvert the call to follow? Will you hide at the back and hope that he goes away?

Or will you embrace the offer that the Saviour extends to you? Will you take that call that might lead you into unfamiliar territory? Will you be prepared to lend a hand in the mission of this Church? The Mission to young and to old, the Mission to the isolated or the otherwise disenfranchised? None of the disciples at the time understood what “Follow Me” meant, but they embraced the call to the mission of the church, the Missio Dei – the mission of God and did what they were bid.

In another pericope which occurs just prior to this morning’s reading, a disciple demurs when asked by Christ to follow him. He asks leave to bury his father first. This phrase in Hebrew culture did not mean literally to bury one’s dead parent, but meant “to put one’s house in order” – a breathing space, a time for consideration. Christ pours scorn on the disciple’s reticence, archly telling the dead to bury their own. Even today, this is a response which challenges us with its directness. There is nothing, nothing more important than the call of Christ. Family ties, moral obligations, societal pressures all mean nothing when compared to that call.

How would we respond? As we sat in our nice warm offices, sandwich in one hand, newspaper in the other – a typical day’s work in other words. Jesus knocks on our office door and says to us “Get your coat – you’ve pulled!”

Have we the faith to drop the newspaper and the sandwich and to follow? To follow is to embrace a rollercoaster of uncertainty and challenge, to subvert our own pride and prejudices in order to come closer to God. The call from Christ is not because we are good or worthy but because we are exactly the sort of people who will benefit from coming close to God: Christ makes apostles of Tax Collectors and Prostitutes, he comes as a doctor to the sick not to the well.

“Follow Me” Christ asks each and every one of us here this morning. He asks us this each day in the Mass, for the commitment to Christ we make is not simply a one-off decision, it is one we have to make on a daily basis. We follow him to the altar rail and out into the world. As it was for Matthew, as it was for the fishermen, it must be an instant decision – no burying one’s father, no putting one’s house in order: drop everything and follow him.

Matthew accepted the call of Christ without equivocation, without examining the small print. We too, should not be afraid to do the same, for as is revealed, the ultimate benefits package which comes with that decision is one far beyond compare… Amen.

Workload

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How stressed am I at present? On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say about 15

There is just sooooo much to be doing at present. Reluctantly I have had to drop two things: a database for some very lovely people whom I respect and admire, and promised to create something for them, but it was on the understanding that it fitted around parish work and a paper for the typo3 conference in September – I simply don’t have the chance to prepare the paper, and I expect the diocese wouldn’t be willing to pay for it, for it is on something so completely obscure: XML field representation in typo3 thin-client database applications – there: are you any wiser now.

It’s not just funerals and pastoral visits, daily office and mass that fills the time, but loads of other stuff which by rights should be managed by the parish, but which seems to fall always to me. I am under pressure to get the service plans out for Advent 05 to Easter 06 now! I now hear that one of the Churchwardens would like us to engage the people stuck at home in a praying ministry – which is funny, because that’s what I say to everyone I visit at home as I give them the weekly prayer sheet. I want to keep pushing the ministry of prayer in this parish, but this just makes me feel as if I havn’t been doing my bit.

At Walsingham last year, I was talking to a bloke from Hartlepool who was a former parishoner of Fr North’s. We were talking about my anxieties about taking up a new parish, and he told me the most prfound thing I have heard ever about parish ministry: “Well, you have to do what Fr Philip did – get the prayin’ thing right first”

“Get the prayin’ thing right first” – this has been my mantra here and if I ever succeed, it will be on this basis, for parochial ministry is based upon prayer.

However, it is hard enough to stay a week ahead with prayer intentions, let alone do them for six months. Maybe a task for the Worship Team…

There are a few ticks on my list now, more than last week, but still lots outstanding:
• Ikons talk – tick
• CJM DB – deferred so effectively tick
• Jude typo3 server – bugfix the diocese database – tick
• Make Povery History Video – tick
• Blesséd at Spring camp and Lee on the Solent – tick
• Typo3 Conference paper – tick
• Promotional Materials for Blesséd – tick
• Beer Tent
• Funeral Sermon – tick
• Wedding Sermon – tick (although I now have other funeral and wedding sermons to complete)
• Multisensory Worship talks – tick
• Blesséd for Summer Camp
• Service Plans Advent 05 to Easter 06
• Parish Magazine Article – tick
• Post Van service manual to Romania
So many things ticked off, so why am I still stressed?
• Ministerial Review
• D-Day Service this Sunday – no idea what is happening and know I have to do an address
• Blesséd on the 11th June (see www.blessed.org.uk)
• Need a retreat desperately
• Summer Fayre – sooo anxious for its success it is almost paralysing me, especially in the face of the conflicts it has caused
• National Youth Pilgrimage to Walsingham
• …and so much more that I don’t have time to write it all down.
It’s not going to go away, so I need to methodically work through it. Pray for us. Pray that it will get done, and what doesn’t get done will happen anyway, in God’s good grace.

Come Rain, Wind or Snow…

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The Chichester Diocese May Festival was great fun at Plumpton Racecourse, but the weather was so changable, we didn’t know what was happening from one minute to the next: hot sunshine, pouring rain, enough wind to lift huge party tents and carry them across half the county.

The worship was okay, the Blessed multimedia mass went with few hitches (a radical one which involved the silent acting out of the institution narrative and the consecration of a whole bottle of wine in the bottle and a large loaf of bread) and some of the other worship hit the spot occasionally.

This is a short extract of a couple of the songs to give you an impression.

The video is now captured before we send it to the PC for overlaying with text. This means that what we capture is the event rather than the screens. Videos are shown from the PC so they will have to be post-edited in. Ed and I tended to use animated backdrops for most of the worship which kept the focus on the liturgical action rather than the ‘pop-star’ performance and I think this was better for this reason.

The speaker this weekend was one of those earnest evangelicals and annoyed me immensely as he was preoccupied with a) the incontrovertable facts that can only be found in the bible b) that you are all going to hell.

There was nothing about grace or redemption, nothing about love or forgiveness, nothing in fact about the Gospel which I preach. How can we come alongside young people and walk them in faith if we try to scare them into it – how medieval is that? The bible is a tool of revelation, not the be all and end all. God did not stop revealing himself in AD120 after the Revelation to St Johnb the Divine was completed, and he continues to work with us and through us through the Saints, the sacraments and through normal people like you and I.

Did a seminar on multisensory worship where I again promulgated my idea that a response to God is first and foremost an emotive response, and intellectualisation comes only later: the opposite idea to the Alpha course lectures written by posh barristers (…therefore, ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, I can prove that God exists…). We reach out to God first with our souls and our minds follow afterwards. Ran out of time on this, but overall didn’t think it was too bad. Perhaps I spent too much time on the Postmodern theory, but we don’t usually give it any consideration, so this was, I felt, necessary.

Key privileges was helping a wonderful young woman with her AS Theology revision (doing stuff half-forgotten from my theology degree) and talking about her vocation. God is moving within her, and she needs to be nurtured… must pray…

Low point was the first night when I wasn’t up to speed with the Easyworship, and felt paniced, then I lost it when Shortfall gave me names of songs which were different to the ones on easyworship. They never checked they were the right ones and I felt really really stupid. I had to talk a walk for a few moments and then come back and apologise to Ed. Not professional, but human.

Our young people really enjoyed the weekend: fun and fellowship first; a bit of religion thrown in on top. This is the way souls are won for Christ and it has precious little to do with hell and damnation…

Sermon: Trinity Sunday, Year A

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Sermon: Trinity Sunday, Year A

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

A small boy had just come back from Church, where he had received, I have no doubt, some fine teaching at Sunday School. He started quizzing his mother on where God was to be found: “Is he in heaven” “yes, of course he is” “is he around us on earth?” “yes, he is” “is he even there in the sugar bowl?” “Err.. yes, yes I suppose he is”. Quickly the lad grabs the sugar bowl and pops his hand on top: “Got him!”.

How much we would love to capture God, to make sense of him, to have something supremely tangible to hold onto. However, God is other; God is beyond our experience, and glimpsed only through God’s revelation. The Trinity is part of that revelation to us, part of our struggle to understand and comprehend the mystery that is God, whilst never being able to capture him. The Orthodox, like my close friend Fr. Daniel, would simply shrug their shoulders and admit that it is a mystery, a matter of God, and we should just accept it, but oh how much we would love to capture God in the sugar bowl.

The doctrine of the Trinity, simply stated: There is One God and this One God is three “persons,” Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity are equally God, “co-equal and co-eternal,” we say. One is not more divine than another. One is not subordinated to any other.

But we must recognise that God is not simply a category with three members: Father, Son and Holy Spirit are single substance. They have a single will, a single energy. There are not three Gods, but only one God, as Gregory of Nyssa so eloquently put it.

Each year we try to create ever more elaborate yet simple analogies to convey the truth of the trinity. My work of genius (or pure silliness, you can take your pick) this year is the Mars Bar…

If you cut across a Mars Bar and look at it, it is made up of three ingredients: chocolate, nougat and caramel. Now each of these ingredients in their own right are delicious and wholesome and wonderful in their own right, and could be eaten end enjoyed separately, but it is only when they are combined can they be seen as something else truly wonderful: the mars bar, where three are one in a delicious (although high calorie) way.

But as we strive to find new and exciting ways to encapsulate the mystery of the trinity, and curates get increasingly desperate in their bitterness, The question remains for us today is: Do we still need the Trinity? Do we in our scientific and logical glory need the Trinity to comprehend he who is other.

In our Scriptures this morning we see Paul and John speak of the ingredients, but nothing of the Mars Bar. Nothing about three in one or one in three. Nothing about God in three persons. The word “Trinity,” of course, never appears in Scripture. All of that language comes from the 4th Century and the debates of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople.

Nevertheless, I think that the doctrine of the Trinity is important for us to hold to and to promulgate. It has a mystery of great importance to reveal to us, something more than just the inner workings of the divinity.

First of all, the doctrine states that we believe in a personal God. You won’t find “personal God” in the Scriptures either, but that concept has emerged from the experience of believers over centuries. Yes, we do believe in a personal God, who encounters us at a personal level, for we believe in God in three persons. The word is carefully chosen. It means, above all, that God is conscious of us and loves us. And it means that we in return are able to love God, intensely and wholeheartedly. A Personal God does not mean a private God, in a divisive, protestant way, but one which calls each and everyone of us in a direct and personal way to a collective expression of faith and of Church.

Secondly, the doctrine of the Trinity affirms that God does not exist in isolation. God is a social God. Even prior to the creation, God existed in relationship: the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit one to another. Since we are created in God’s image, this means that we are created for relationship as well. We will become whole persons only in relationship to one another and to God.

Finally, we need to observe the traditional language about the Trinity (this is from the Athanasian Creed): The three persons are Co-equal and Co-eternal. They exist in communion, in a mutual sharing of life, a perichoresis or dance of life and love. The persons of the Trinity do not allow for inequality, or subordination, or domination, or hierarchy. Our Baptism into the Church in the name of the Trinity means that all of us, though irreducibly unique, exist together as equal partners in Christ in a relationship of mutual love.

So, do we still need the Trinity? Or is it just one of our attempts to capture God in our own sugar bowls, is it an attempt to bring God down to our level, or does it suggest a mystery beyond comprehension, but which has resonances with our human relations? Do we still need the Trinity? We might just as well ask: Do we still need mutuality? Do we still need to be in relationship? Do we still need a personal God? Do we still need love?

Oh yes.

Amen.

Modern Funeral Ritual

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The funeral was massive. At least £2000 on flowers that could have gone to Cancer Research or to the Church building appeal (much needed) or at least something worthwhile went on floral tributes that basically no-one is going to see again. Those ones which spell out a name or (more commonly a releationship) are £60 a letter – a letter – so M.U.M.M.Y was about £300 alone. A single rose speaks volumes… and puts money better spent elsewhere.

In keeping with the Spirituality of the modern age, there were no hymns. Just as well, as clearly, I’d be the only one singing, and that is a tragedy. I listed the music in and out, but almost at the last moment thought it needed something to transform it. The last track: ‘somewhere only we know’ by Keane had the right sense to it, so I expanded the act of commendation, saying something like:

“As we have the opportunity to listen to these words, [name’s coffin will
be surrounded by incense, which symbolises being surrounded by our prayers. As the scent of holiness pervades this place, it settles into your clothes, and surrounds us just as God’s love surrounds and envelopes us. It is something I hope that you will take away with you…”

I played the track, got the thurible out which I had lit just before; scraped and blew just as they taught me at theological college (and which I continue to bore for England on ‘the right way to burn incense’) and added my lovely Glastonbury flavour incense. Filled the chancel with sweet smell and then proceeded to cense the coffin. I think it worked. I sense it worked. I pray, Oh God, may it have worked for least someone. It worked for me at least.

I asked the congregation to stand before the end of the track, and as the track died away, I gave the commendation:

God our creator and redeemer,
by your power Christ conquered death and
entered into glory.
Confident of his victory and claiming his promises,
we entrust [name to your mercy
in the name of Jesus our Lord,
who died and is alive
and reigns with you,
now and for ever.
Amen.

In peace let us now take [name to her place of rest.

and played the track once more. Hope I get my mp3 player back.

We sometimes need to take risks in liturgy and in the use of ritual to express the inexpressible. Without this, liturgy cannot successfully explore the emotions which it seeks to carry. This afternoon was one of thopse occasions, and the God of Surprises pulls it off again. Deo Gratias!

New Funeral Music and Random Musings on the Nature of Transubstantiation

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Chosen by the family for Tuesday’s funeral

CD In: “All About You” by McFly
CD Out: “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane

Both good songs. A little unsure about them in the context of a funeral per se; but this speaks volumes about the spirituality of everyday things. By taking these two secular pieces of music and placing them with the context of a funeral, they take the normal existance of these people and place them before God. These are slices of everyday, and we have the opportunity to consecrate them. God can work with all this, and I am sure that God will work in the context of this funeral and with what (little) we give him. God is like that. I got thinking about this following my visit to a gallery yesterday…

Yesterday Lou and I went to London for our 15th Wedding Anniversary. Did random things: ate Sushi in Soho at Itsu on Wardour Street – fantastic food on conveyor belts and then went to the Tate Modern. Some classics there, some that failed to move me completely (such as Matisse’s snail) but I was wholly set off by “An Oak Tree” (1973) by Michael Craig Martin. Info from the website:

An Oak Tree consists of an ordinary glass of water placed on a small glass shelf of the type normally found in a bathroom, which is attached to the wall above head height. Craig-Martin composed a series of questions and answers to accompany the objects. In these, the artist claims that the glass of water has been transformed into an oak tree. When An Oak Tree was first exhibited, in 1974 at Rowan Gallery, London, the text was presented printed on a leaflet. It was subsequently attached to the wall below and to the left of the shelf and glass. Craig-Martin’s text deliberately asserts the impossible. The questions probe the obvious impossibility of the artist’s assertion with such apparently valid complaints as: ‘haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?’ and ‘but the oak tree only exists in the mind’. The answers maintain conviction while conceding that ‘the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water … Just as it is imperceptible, it is also inconceivable’. An Oak Tree is based on the concept of transubstantiation, the notion central to the Catholic faith in which it is believed that bread and wine are converted into the body and blood of Christ while retaining their appearances of bread and wine. The ability to believe that an object is something other than its physical appearance indicates requires a transformative vision. This type of seeing (and knowing) is at the heart of conceptual thinking processes, by which intellectual and emotional values are conferred on images and objects. An Oak Tree uses religious faith as a metaphor for this belief system which, for Craig-Martin, is central to art. He has explained:

I considered that in An Oak Tree I had deconstructed the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say. In other words belief underlies our whole experience of art: it accounts for why some people are artists and others are not, why some people dismiss works of art others highly praise, and why something we know to be great does not always move us.

(Quoted in Michael Craig-Martin: Landscapes, [p.20.)


 

The artist speaks of transubstantiation: by his will he has created an oak tree from a glass of water, whilst keeping the accidents of the glass and the water the same. This is based upon Aquinas. It made me start thinking (as it should) about the eucharist:

* The act of consecration – the creation of the body and blood of Christ from the accidents of bread and wine – are not my will, but the action of the holy spirit working through me by the grace of my holy orders. Th artist here seeks to create an oak tree purely by his will

* Is it dependent upon my (firmly held) belief that what results is the real body and blood of Christ?

* Is it dependent upon those who participate [in the mass/observe [the artwork believing the change of substance in the presence of the same accidents. Is the act of transubstantiation lessened by the presence of even 1 person who cannot/does not hold the view that this is the body and blood of Christ/An Oak Tree?

* If I said the right words over something other than bread and wine, would that have the same effect? If we limit the host to bread and wine then are we not limiting the power of God?

* Further, If God wanted to transform my cup of espresso and my biscotti into the real presence, then who am I to stop him?

* This leads me into a number of interesting thoughts about Inculturation, from translations of scripture in the far east which have Jesus saying “I am the Rice of Life…” as it is the staple to questions about whether one could celebrate the eucharist with a group of young people using their common currency: the big mac and fries [I am the Big Mac of Life..

* I know of a Bishop who in the presence of another dying bishop and in extremis celebrated the eucharist with Mother’s Pride and Whisky. If I was on a desert Island, could I not make do with a banana and coconut milk rather than not have Christ present with me.

* My conclusion is that God is bigger than the rubrics, and when there is something important to be said about God, we need to use the symbols we have to hand: big mac and fries, banana and coconut milk, bread and wine and as long as we are drawn into the mystery of an encounter with God. This is not to denigrate the sacrament, which is at the centre of my spirituality, but whatever was used, whatever symbolism we draw from takes on the substance of God whilst maintaining the accidents of its earthly form.

* You can burn me later, if you want to; but this piece of art has given me some quite challenging thinking about the sacrament of salvation. It has challenged me and (I feel) drawn me closer towards that mystery. As I ‘touched God’ this morning in the mass, I felt a charge pass through me again: the sacrament in my hands – God ‘hiding under an ordinary p;iece of bread’ as St Francis of Assisi once said – filling me with God’s Holy Spirit. he is fantastic, really. Honest he is.

Sermon: Easter 5, Year A

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Sermon: Easter 5, Year A
Text: John 14:1-12
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled”

I have preached on this text quite a number of times recently. I would like to think that it has honed my thinking on it, but there is a distinct chance that many of you will have already heard some of my reflections on it recently; for it is one of the principle texts read at the Funeral Office. Perhaps there may be an opportunity for some of you to join me in the familiar chorus at some stage…

However, I think that many of the things I have repeated at some of the many funerals we have celebrated in Church since Easter, bear repeating again; for there are some familiar stories which need to be repeated over and over again for their significance to be truly revealed.

This passage of Scripture speaks to all of us about that which we have no control. Death will come to all of us, and yet we so seldom speak of it. I heard it said that a hundred years ago, the Victorians were obsessed with death: long periods in mourning, complicated family rituals and a gothic sense of the spiritual – obsessed with death and afraid to talk of sex. Where as today… society is obsessed with sex and afraid to talk of death. Even when Christ spoke of his impending arrest and passion, the disciples could not comprehend it. But speak of death we must, because it is not unspeakable, but an integrated part of life. We begin our lives with God, we travel through this earthly life (which may be only a small part of it) and at this point we return back to God, and that is the promise – the promise made by Christ himself – that we must hold onto whenever this sadness and loss confronts us.

Funerals are sad occasions, and the loss of someone loved is never easy. Bereavement is one of the most unpleasant emotions, but is a necessary one: for bereavement is one of the emotions that make us truly human: to sense the loss of someone in our lives and to seek to be healed emotionally. Christ himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus. However, as Scripture tells us so very clearly, this sadness should be contrasted with the hope that Jesus Christ promises to us in these times of sadness and loss. It is a powerful hope for all of us, whether we actively proclaim our Christian faith, or whether faith is, a private matter, kept to oneself.

The Gospel gives us the consoling words of Christ addressed to his own disciples: “Let not your hearts be troubled”. Christ has gone before us and through his experience of death, through his overcoming of death in the triumph of the resurrection, he has opened up the way to eternal life for each and everyone of us.

For death, although a physical loss to those of us here, is very much a part of life: death is not an end, but merely a change in relationship, and a change in perspective which we on this earth find difficult to perceive, but Oh yes, the departed are still very much with us, in our memories, in our love and in our prayers.

I have, throughout my priestly ministry conducted many funerals: of those of great age, dignity and social standing, with a packed church and a wailing, tearful congregation; of those isolated and alone – indeed where myself and a next-door neighbour were the only ones there at the graveside; of adults cut short in the prime of their life; and of children, died before they had to opportunity to reach their prime. For all of these, Christ says “Come. I shall return to take you with me. Follow”. The dignity of the Christian Funeral is there for all, from the mightiest to the least, the youngest to the eldest. God’s welcome is for all of them, and so are our prayers. This is why I always include the prayers for the faithful departed and those whose anniversaries of death (known as ‘Year’s mind’) occur. Remember the words: “Rest Eternal Grant unto them, O Lord / And let light perpetual shine upon them / May they Rest in Peace / And rise in Glory” is a powerful prayer. Prayer for the departed is of benefit for them, and of great benefit to us, for it provides us with solace and links us with them, whether we knew them or not, God knows them, and they ALL deserve our unselfish prayers for their immortal souls.

Christ himself declared that he was “the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by him” and it is with this sure promise that we meet at a funeral to assist the faithful departed on the next part of life’s journey.

It is with this promise that we gather to re-enact that one full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction in the mysteries of the sacraments and as we do this, as Jesus Christ assured us, “Let not your hearts be troubled”

Amen.

This week I mostly bin readin'….

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The Rite Stuff: Ritual in Contemporary Christian Worship and Mission

by Pete Ward

For Catholics, ritual is nothing to be scared of, but I recognise that for many evangelicals, post-evangelicals and charismatics, ritual and liturgy is a strange land. This book calms them down and gently says “there, there, it’s all right”. Our lives are formed of rituals and we respond to God in ritualistic ways. Even within the most ‘free church’, they have rituals, it’s just that they don’t involve the sacraments

I welcome this book as I am a ritual-obsessed anglocatholic, I respond to God best in the symbolic and I think that we best evangelise in an emotive way: let the heart reach out to God and then let the mind follow. The middle-class intellectual approach of Alpha turns me off – I don’t want proof (not even proofs which Nicky Gumbel plagarised from John Stott) in lawyers terms, but I seek God in an emotive encounter, for God to move me. That is why symbol and sacrament are so closely tied to worship, why Blessed is primarily an emotional journey and why we seek to belong before we believe.

Now, who has borrowed by Copy of ‘Mass Culture’ – I’d like it back, please

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.