Sunday, January 12, 2020

SERMON FOR THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST 2020


Sermon preached at the Church of St John the Baptist, Eltham
at Parish Mass on Sunday, January 12th, 2020


 Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights. (Is. 42. 1)

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INTRODUCTION
“Father, I’d like to have Jimmy christened.”  It’s a request I found was made from time to time when I was a parish priest although, like the 89 on Shooters Hill, they either all come at once, or there’s none for ages.  

Baptism is, of course, an important event in the life of a family, as well as the church.  For us it means another member has been added to Christ’s body; that the life of one more person can reveal the glory of God.  For the family, I guess, it means many things.  From “It’s what we should do for our baby” to “We want her to be blessed by God.”  Of course, it’s not just babies who are Baptised.  Many come to the Sacrament as adults – I was 17 when I decided to be initiated into the Faith and Jesus, of course, was baptised by John when he was about 30.  And we’re told that not only did that involve being plunged under water, out of which life comes, but that, afterwards, the renewing power of the Spirit descended on him.  Later the Western Church separated the one Rite of Christian Initiation into Baptism and Confirmation but still, in essence, they form a whole.

THE BAPTISM OF JESUS
Today the Church, as part of the three great Epiphanies of Christ, celebrates his Baptism by water and the Spirit, the second of the ‘wonders’ by which the glory of Christ – the beloved of God – was manifested.  Next week we shall celebrate the third – the changing of water into wine.  

Unusually all the gospels tell us that his cousin, John, presided at that event: Matthew tells us that John performed the Baptism in the context of calling people to repentance (3:10): Mark’s gospel immediately opens with this account (no Nativity scene for him) and speaks of the way people “confessed their sins” (1:5).  Luke tells us that John “went through the whole Jordan area proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (3:3) whilst John the Evangelist, as respectful as ever, simply tells us that the Spirit descended on Jesus as the Jordan.  Baptism was – and continues to be – associated with a change of life.  It involves recognising the errors of one’s ways and desiring to amend one’s behaviour.   Now that, clearly, causes questions when we baptise babies.  They can hardly repent of their past life and the new life offered through Baptism is accepted on their behalf by parents and godparents. 

But today we also need to pause and ask the question, “Why was Jesus baptised if he was sinless?”  Well, the answer lies in the nature of this event.  What all the gospel writers also agree is that Jesus joined in a general movement that was occurring in Judaism that concerned how people could live out a ‘purer’ form of their Judaic faith.  It was, if you like, a reaction against the corruption of ‘official’ Judaism.  Groups such as the Essenes (of which John may have been part) were trying to live out their faith in a more radical way.   So, you could say that Jesus was ‘associating’ himself with this more radical form of Judaism.  But he was also, in a challenging way, associating himself with sinners, which didn’t go down well with some.   He embraced Jewish fundamentalism at a time when Israel was occupied by foreign troops and ruled by a puppet regime.  Sounds all too familiar!   And, if that were the whole truth of the matter, Jesus may have become just another radical preacher.  But we need to probe deeper.

JESUS AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
What all four gospels also agree upon was that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at this time.  In today’s reading from Matthew he tells us that: when Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”’ (Matt 3: 16/17)  So here we have Matthew writing of the way God proclaims Jesus as his Son.  Just recall those words and imagine a proud father telling the world – ‘hey, listen, this boy is my son!’ 

No doubt it’s what every parent feels as their child is baptised and shown to the congregation, but what we need to remember is that, more importantly, we’re made part of Christ’s body.  Isn’t that amazing?  To be made part of the Son of God, part of God’s self – do you ever wonder at that?  That’s why we should kiss each other at the Peace – to acknowledge Christ in our neighbour – and why we’re censed, because it’s a way of acknowledging that we reveal the glory of Christ.  Just let that sink in for a moment.

CONSEQUENCE OF BAPTISM
And that’s also why what happens after we’re baptised is so important.  Christenings may be wonderful occasions, but it’s how those involved go on to live out their promises after ‘the water has dried’ that really matters.   For Jesus. of course, there was no repentance for a sinful past; but there was a turning to the daunting task before him; a setting of his face toward Jerusalem where in about three years’ time he would fulfil his calling as Messiah – Saviour.  Christ’s Baptism represents a profound moment in his search for his personal vocation.  In those brief words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased”, Jesus realised his identity.  So, this Feast also reminds us that each of us has been chosen and called as the beloved of God for a particular purpose.  This was his vocation.

VOCATION
Now I often say that a vocation is a way of becoming the person we’re called to be.  It involves a dynamic response, a personal “Yes”, to be moulded into what we have the potential to be.  The very word means ‘calling’ and involves listening, deeply, and responding to the movements which mould us.  Often, people speak of a vocation to be a priest or religious, doctor or nurse, teacher or artist.  But in the end, it’s about the way in which what we do with our lives expresses who we are.  And vice-versa.  And a vocation can be realised at any time in your life. 

As I grow older, I become more convinced there’s a vocation to be expressed through old age.   A calling to be receptive, more than active – receptive to God’s deepening call.  A call to prayer ‘in the depths’ – rather than a life spent mouldering in front of the TV, trying to re-capture our lost past or trying to look as if we’re 28 rather than 82!  A life to share, in whatever way we can, our Godly faith, hope and love.  I look at the wrinkled face of an old nun and that of some ‘glamorous’ celebrity and know which is more appealing ...

The remembrance of our baptism should spur us on to live out our own vocation.  To be Christ in our own way in our own place.  Every time we cross ourselves with holy water as we enter or leave church; every time we are sprinkled with holy water as happens today, we’re reminded of God's love, grace and forgiveness.  But we’re also reminded of our baptismal resolve to turn from evil and to follow Christ.

CONCLUSION
Two weeks ago, we relished the wonder of the birth of a baby: today we are faced with some of those consequences.    As the waters of Baptism and the oil of Chrism are poured over us in baptism, so we’re united in the death and resurrection of Jesus as he passed through the deep waters of death and rose into a new relationship with God.  The Spirit descended and a voice was heard saying: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  (3:22)   Today, that baby is revealed as a man who will gradually realise his unique vocation:

I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Is. 42: 6-7)

The rest of Jesus’ life will work out his response to that calling. As Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, writer, and friend of the marginalized wrote:

"The one who created us is waiting for our response
to the love that gave us our being.
God not only says: "You are my Beloved".
God also asks: "Do you love me?
And offers us countless chances to say, "Yes."

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

AND IS IT TRUE, AND IS IT TRUE?



Whenever people say, sometimes in a rather superior way, “Oh, of course, you can’t prove Christ was born in Bethlehem – or even existed” my thoughts turn to the 6th century Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Star in the cave beneath the sanctuary marking the place of the Incarnation.

The star may only have been added in 1847 but the cave (known as the Grotto) is the oldest continuously used pace of Christian worship in the world. Such was its power to draw people after the death of Jesus in ca. AD33 that a century later, in order to destroy Christianity, the Emperor Hadrian had it converted to a shrine for the worship of Adonis, a prime example of the archetypal dying-and-rising god and mortal lover of Aphrodite, Greek goddess of beauty and desire.

For over a generation, people had come there believing it was the site of the Incarnation and the choice of Adonis for the focus of Roman worship suggests that Hadrian who, at the same time had also ordered the building of a temple to Jupiter (or Venus) over the site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection in Jerusalem, chose the dedication of this temple in the small town of Bethlehem with reason. At around the same time the early Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr, noted in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave in this area.

It’s impossible to ‘prove’ much from ancient history and belief in the Incarnation of God-in-Christ is a matter of faith not fact. But the fact that worship continued in this unremarkable town for two thousand years should cause us to wonder at the Grotto of the Nativity and regard the mystery it proclaims with humility, just as one has to bend in order to enter the Basilica first erected by Hadrian’s successor, Constantine, to protect the place.  This most stupendous mystery points to the truth of our potential and confounds those demagogues and dictators whose words and actions corrupt our humanity.  Made for divinity, to bow bend before this Mystery of Faith acknowledges we are more than mere flesh and blood: we are of such stuff as dreams are made on ... 

Low before Him with our praises we fall,
Of Whom, and in Whom, and through Whom are all;
Of Whom, the Father; and in Whom, the Son,
Through Whom, the Spirit, with Them ever One.

Peter Abelard, 12thc. translated from Latin J. M. Neale 1854

Sunday, December 08, 2019

SERMON FOR SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT 2019

Sermon preached at the Church of St John the Baptist, Eltham
at Parish Mass on Sunday, December 8th, 2019


‘John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven  has come near.’ (Matt. 3:1)
X
INTRODUCTION
I wonder what it must have been like to be amongst the crowd of people who came to the river Jordan and listened to John the Baptist?  To have stood there and heard him proclaim his message of repentance? 

It was a thought that came to mind when I stood with a group of pilgrims on the banks of the river Jordan a month ago and imagined facing the great Forerunner. Of what do I need to repent?  My failure to take the gospel seriously?  Having a heart that’s quick to judge others?  And not quick to give thanks and praise?  My lack of generosity?  All this and more I would – and do – need to confess.  Of course, having sensed all that I may have turned away and ignored what I was hearing – run away from what I knew to be true and buried myself in my usual round of work; of fun and games. Of distraction.  But, maybe, something of what I heard might have pricked my conscience.

REPENTANCE
Today’s gospel, of course, is all about the need for repentance.  To face ourselves with those awkward and painful questions – but questions which, in the end, are an invitation to step into life, unbound by all that prevents us, ties us down and causes pain to ourselves and – more importantly – to others.  Advent is the season for preparation, not just for the fun and jollity of Christmas nor (and I say this knowing I might be labelled a heretic) is it ‘all about the children’….  So, what’s Christmas about?  It’s about the coming of God and His Kingdom amongst us.  A time when many different images are used to convey this message and the consequence of ignoring the Reign of God. 

DEVELOPING FAITH
If I stop and look back even earlier, I realise how grateful I am that my own faith developed through the catholic tradition of the Church of England.   I learnt that one of the important elements in our preparation for Christmas isn’t just about writing cards and buying presents, but about preparing ourselves for the coming of the God-infant of Bethlehem.  Let me return to that pilgrimage to the Holy Land for a moment. 

One of the things that most touched the pilgrims was the plight of the Palestinians, and some of them were moved to anger as we gazed at the separation wall which runs close to the little town of Bethlehem.  It’s a wall which stands for everything that separates human beings and which God came to tear down that we might be reconciled one to the other.  But it also stands for something much deeper – it stands for our separation from God and from that primary relationship that determines how we live.  So, as a catholic Anglican, I’m reminded of the fundamental importance of repentance.  Of recognising my sin and owning it – trying to take down that ‘wall of separation’ – of isolation.  So, like millions of others, I know I need to make my confession as part of my preparation for Christmas.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Some of you will know that the opening words of the Confession are these: “Bless me, Father (or Mother), for I have sinned”.  It’s an odd way to begin, to ask for a blessing because one has sinned.  Surely the right way would be for the penitent to say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned”.  But, no, that is the opening request.  For a blessing.   Yet, thinking a little more deeply, those words are right.  For the very act of coming to Confession, of acknowledging oneself as a sinner, is welcomed by God who rejoices in our repentance.  It offers a blessing to the one who seeks forgiveness.

MAKING AMENDS - THE SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION
At the heart of the Christian Faith lies this matter of forgiveness and reconciliation.  It is, perhaps, the most crucial movement in human life and the scriptures constantly remind us of the way in which God is working to reconcile the world.  Ever since the dawn of Christianity this need for reconciliation has been realised and the sacramental life of the church has reflected this.  And whilst Baptism cleanses us of sin, we don’t stop sinning and so the Sacrament of Confession, or as it has become known the ‘Sacrament of Reconciliation’, has become, from the earliest times, part of the ministry of the church.

Whilst there are so many references in the scriptures to the need for forgiveness and reconciliation, probably the most powerful image that’s moved people to make their confession is that of the return of the Prodigal Son, which has also been called the ‘Parable of the Loving Father’.  If you’re unfamiliar with the story it concerns a young man who, having squandered his inheritance and lost all his friends, decides to return to his home and admit his mistakes. 

In the parable there are some telling phrases, the first of which is connected with why penitents ask – confidently – for God’s blessing.  As the repentant son turns to home Jesus says this:  But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.’ (Lk. 15:20)

It’s this deep compassion – love – that the father had for his son that is activated as the son makes that first step to return that means God will bless all those who seek forgiveness for their sins.  Who seek reconciliation. 

The other interesting phrase Jesus uses is this: when he came to himself’ (Lk. 15:17).  There is something about sin which is unnatural.  We were not created for sin even though it has power over us.  Or, to put it another way, we can be drawn away from that which we were created to be and be enticed by its opposite.  For sin is the corruption of our good nature.  When we sin we are ‘not ourselves’. 

In religious terms, to be ‘ourselves’ is to live in the freedom that comes as we seek at-one-ness with God.  And so the penitent kneels before the priest and the priest encourages them:  The Lord be in your heart and on your lips that you may rightly and truly confess your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit” 

Making your confession – being open and honest – may be a blessing in disguise, but it’s a costly blessing.  After all, sin has a price.  And so, with such encouragement, the penitent begins to open their heart:
“I confess to almighty God
and before the whole company of heaven,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”

But, hang on, you might say, ‘I don’t need to confess to anyone except God, and I certainly don’t need to confess to the saints!’  Well, that’s true, to an extent.  The problem, as I wrote in my book, is that sin isn’t a personal matter between you and God: it disrupts the whole fabric of the universe.  Like throwing stones in a pond, the ripples move out and disturb the water.  And not just on the surface. 

My sin affects earth and heaven, if you like, and I need to acknowledge that and realise that the effects of what I do, ‘in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do’, can have a far wider effect than I might realise.  It’s what has been called the ‘Kicking the Cat’ syndrome – and if you’re not sure what that means, have a word with me afterwards!

And we can’t always make amends for our sin.  OK, sometimes we can.  We can apologise to the ‘cat’, or ask forgiveness of someone, do something to right a wrong and so on.  But so many times it’s impossible to right all the consequences of what we have done, even if we are aware of them.  So the penitent ends their confession with the words:
“For these and all the other sins that I cannot remember
I am heartily sorry, firmly mean to do better,
most humbly ask pardon of God
and of you, father, penance (advise) and absolution.  Amen.” 

Contrition for what we have done and a real desire to amend one’s life must be part of the process.  Confession isn’t just about finding forgiveness; it’s also about desiring to change one’s life.  It’s part, if you like, of the conversion process.

Many of us might say that we only sin ‘a bit’, but the truth is that all sin has its effect on others and in order to right our relationships with the world around us we need to be in a right relationship with God.  And that is where the Sacrament of Confession is so helpful.  To say ‘sorry’ to God in the presence of another human being has a different effect on me than if I only have to do so in my heart. 

I have to face the truth of my sin when it is out there, in the open (as it were).  When we have admitted that which has wounded our relationship with others and with God and, in a real sense, wounded us. 

CONCLUSION
So we lay it all out before God in the presence of another human being.  But that human being, in his or her priestly role, is Christ-like.  And then, finally, the confessor assures the penitent of God’s forgiveness:    
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church
to absolve all who truly repent and believe in him,
of his great mercy forgive you your offences;
and by his authority committed to me,
I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father,
and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Go in peace; the Lord has put away your sins,
and pray for me, a sinner too.”

There’s something immensely liberating in those words, “I absolve you”.   It can feel like a great weight has been removed and, whilst none of us can be set free from the consequences of our sin that awful burden of guilt can be lightened. 

As we approach the coming of Christ you might consider whether making your confession has its place in your Christmas preparations.  God has given every priest authority to give absolution – it might just be your most important present to the world – and yourself.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

SERMON FOR FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT 2019


Preached at the Church of St. John the Baptist, Eltham
at Parish Mass on December 1st, 2019


 ‘Salvation is nearer to us now
than when we became believers.’

X

INTRODUCTION

So, once again, we begin the Season of Advent – four weeks of waiting and preparing to celebrate the enfleshment – the in-breaking of God – into our world.  Each year we return to this theme, and those of us who’ve celebrated this event many times may wonder at the way it all comes round again so quickly.  Is there anything more one can say or anything more to experience?

Well, yes, of course there is.  Until we welcome Jesus when he returns; until we see him face to face; until we know him and greet him as our saviour; until we realise him in everyone we encounter; until our hearts have become His home we need these weeks to reflect on how we will respond to his coming.

This year it’s Matthew whose writings announce this new Year of Grace; whose Gospel will open to us the mysteries of Christ throughout Ordinary Time.  The writer may have been that tax collector whom Jesus called, but we cannot know for sure.  Many see in his writings the hand of a thinker aware of the debates within Judaism in the period when he wrote – possibly between AD 80 and 100 – who wanted to present the person of Jesus as the fulfilment of His religion.  Jesus is the one in whom the Reign of God reveals itself – the one whom the prophet Isaiah spoke about: O house of Jacob come; let us walk in the light of the Lord! (Is.2:5)  Certainly, his gospel gives us far more of the words of Jesus than any of the others and someone called Papias (c.60 - 163 AD), one of the earliest Church historians, records that "Matthew collected the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew tongue."  What, then, of today’s gospel reading as we begin this new year? 

THE COMING OF MESSIAH
Well, firstly it recounts the way Jesus reflected on the end of the old world with the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one, who would herald a new order.   Reading through this passage takes me back to walking on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem and looking out over the Dome of the Rock and the Old City. 

It’s a remarkable sight made the more startling by the fact that the best view is from the vast Jewish cemetery on the eastern slopes of the Kidron Valley, facing an equally enormous Muslim cemetery on the other side.  And the reason why these cemeteries exist is because both Jews and Muslims share the same faith – the faith that we, Christians, also proclaim – that the Messiah will return to Jerusalem to begin this new world order.  It’s something we affirm each time we recite the Creed – the ‘official’ statement of our Christian Faith: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’

Now I realise how the question of our being judged can raise problems.  Most of us don’t like being judged, and some (often the same people) are quick to judge others.  Yet the great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all affirm that there will be a judgement at the end of time.  And whilst it may be uncomfortable to have to include this as a statement of Faith, it’s nonetheless a corrective to that thinking which speaks of rights and not responsibilities; where many feel they can ‘get away’ with lying, misrepresentation and wrong-doing without recognising that there’s a price that will have to be paid.  When, in what is being called a ‘Post-truth’ society, some believe they have a right to stir up fear and hatred without bothering with the consequences which often means suffering for others.  In the end it’s only Satan, the master of deceit, who benefits.  So, at this time of discerning for whom we should elect to parliament, the honesty, truthfulness and integrity of candidates must inform our choice.

THE JUDGEMENT OF GOD
Now one of the great traditions of Advent is to consider what are known as the ‘Four last Things’ – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell - as we prepare for the coming of the Christ.  Whilst for many this pre-Christmas season is about the fripperies of it all – chocolate Advent calendars, putting up the decorations and buying the presents – the Church asks us to consider the real consequence of the advent of God among us.  These four weeks are meant to be a kind of ‘wake-up’ call; a time when we take stock of our lives and consider how we would respond when we meet God face to face.  How, as we encounter a new day, we might cloth ourselves in the garments of Christ.  And then how we would react to having our lives laid out before him. 

And none of us have lived blameless lives.  None.  So Advent, like Lent, is a season for repentance (which is why the colour of the season is purple) and why we are urged to make our Confession as we prepare to welcome Christ.  I mentioned that last week because the Sacrament of Confession is one many Anglicans ignore but which is a real means of deepening our relationship with God – and offers a corrective to the way we can ignore our sinfulness – it is a means of cleansing our lives and starting again each time we seek absolution.

THE JUSTICE OF GOD
But lest we consider the One before whom we kneel for forgiveness is a stern, condemning judge we need to remember that His nature is to be merciful and compassionate.  I ‘ve come to realise that this matter of judgement is for my good – that God wants me to see myself as I truly am so I can face up to the truth of myself.  And, in so doing, seek to be remade and re-clothed in those garments which will help me to live in the light of Christ – the armour of light, as S. Paul says.  That’s something which makes Christianity unattractive for some, for the coming of God in human form is to enable us to be remade in His image and likeness.  ‘O God, you search me out and know me’ wrote the psalmist.  God searches us out to ‘find’ us – help us become the real person we are being created to become.

I have always been saddened by the knowledge that not everyone wants to grow up.  Growth, as we all know, means change, yet some have stopped growing.  They have become trapped – and that applies to Christians as well.  Too many of us have settled for less than God wants for us.  So to all of us Paul says those words: ‘now is the moment for you to wake out of sleep.  For salvation is nearer to (you) now than when you first became (a) believer.’ 

But salvation, of course, depends on our realising that we need to be saved – saved from our past and present errors, saved from settling for less than we can be; saved from our tendencies to turn from light and life.  Saved from sin, our turning from God.  Salvation is what God offers us through the coming of the babe of Bethlehem, who is also our Judge.  As a priest I once knew said in a sermon:

“Judgement is not so much something that happens in the future, but rather something that happens all the time.  In S. John’s Gospel Jesus says: ‘this is judgement, that he light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.So, in our heart of hearts, we know we judge ourselves daily by the choices we make;   one way or another we all choose between light and darkness, good and evil, love and selfishness.  Day by day these may well seem very small choices of no great significance, but by these choices we build up our personal histories and we choose which side was shall take at the end of the day.  Ultimately we are built up or diminished by these apparently insignificant choices.”  

Soon we will be attending to the message of your heavenly Patron who, recognising that God’s coming was close, cried: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!’  The message is the same; we need to turn around and face the light of God, our merciful judge, that is constantly shining upon us.  Need to turn around – repent - and confess our sins to the One who is all-merciful.  And then to wrap ourselves up in the clothing of Christ so that we can say, with S. Paul:

‘it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.’ (Gal.2:19f)

For at the end of this year, as the leaves fall and the frost creeps over the land, we're invited to awaken to the coming of Christ.

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

– Bp. Rowan Williams, An Advent Meditation

Saturday, November 30, 2019

EVELYN UNDERHILL and the BLESSED SACRAMENT



EXTRACT From a letter of Evelyn Underhill to Margaret Cropper (June 1932) concerning the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament during a Retreat:

‘For the first time in a retreat of mine we had the Blessed Sacrament on the altar all the time. I thought, poor fool that I am, how lovely it would be! But as it went on, the awful power of that white eternity seemed more and more overwhelming: it seemed to make noisy nonsense of everything I was trying to say; and I ended feeling like a cross between a monkey and a parrot. .. ‘

(A.M.Allchin, Friendship in God, SLG Press, 2003)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

SERMON FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING

Preached at the Church of St. John the Baptist, Eltham
at Parish Mass on November 24th, 2019


Jer. 23: 1-6; Col. 1: 11-20 and Luke 23: 33-43

‘The days are coming, says the Lord,
when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
and he shall reign as king and deal wisely.’ (Jer. 23 5)

 ยช

INTRODUCTION
Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s Year: next week we’ll be starting the season of Advent when we prepare for the birth of Christ.  We give the title, Christ the King to this Sunday because it reminds us, at the end of the year, that we belong to Jesus.  He is the One to whom our attention is to be given; who’s life must inform ours; who needs to reign in our hearts.  He is that ‘Righteous Branch’ which Jeremiah spoke of, our leader who has adopted us as members of his reign.  So, I want to reflect on some of the things that means: what does it mean that we are members of Christ; that we belong to the Church; that we are to invite others into his reign?

MEMBERS OF CHRIST
The primary thing for all of us is that we have been chosen by God: we are His beloved.  For whatever reason we are members, not of some exclusive club (perish the thought) but of a divine body of women and men around the world and down through time, one with the saints who we have been reminded about over these past few weeks.  We’re as much members of the whole Body of Christ as we are of this particular church – something I was reminded of when we were in Jerusalem with Christians from around the world – and with those who have stayed faithful in that Land since the time of Christ.  Who are so easily forgotten, not least by those who support the State of Israel in its constant persecution of Palestinian Christians (as well as Muslims), something the President of the United States blatantly ignores.  

LIFE IN THE KINGDOM
And being there also reminded me that we’re all part of the mystical body that has existed throughout time – something that happens every time we celebrate the life of a saint – with John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth of Hungary and Teresa of Lisieux  – with the martyrs of the early Christian era, the concentration camps of Nazi Germany or the deserts of north Africa and Arabia today.  The heroes of faith who have gone before us and are part of the eternal reign of Christ and with whom we are present as we celebrate this Eucharist.

The past few weeks were, for a while, called the ‘Kingdom Season’ when we were encouraged to remember that life to which we’re all – in the end – called.  Today’s feast is the high point of that season of remembrance and a final reminder of what it is we’re called to.  We cannot see those who have gone before us, but we believe that we dwell with them.  As St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Colossians that’s just been read:

‘(Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation: for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead. … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell …’ (Col. 1: 15-19) 

Aren’t they such hopeful and encouraging words!  A bold statement that was intended to remind those early Christians, no doubt caught up in the issues of everyday life, of their amazing calling.   It is all about glory: Christ’s glory and ours.   When life seems to be getting us down, we need to remember these words, for you and I are ‘dust destined for glory’.  We have such a potential – and yet are so often satisfied with less.   And, sometimes (dare I say it?) we act as though we were less than that to which we are called.  That’s why making our confession is so important and something each of us needs to consider.  When did you last make yours?  Or have you never made one?  If not, maybe Advent is a time to consider doing so for, as St. Paul went on to say: ‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ (Col. 1: 20)

PRAYER IN CHRIST
In our prayer we should always begin by recalling ourselves in the presence of, and realise ourselves as part of, this divine body.  That’s why the opening of the Eucharistic Prayer invites us to lay aside our earthliness and realise ourselves before God: Lift up your hearts, says the priest.  We lift them to the Lord you reply and, in so doing, affirm that you desire to be one with Christ in glory.   And his invitation needs our assent.  It’s not a command; it’s an invitation of love requiring our loving response.  As St. Teresa of Avila wrote: “If you would progress (along) this road (to God), the important thing is ... to love much.  Do then whatever most arouses you to love.” (Int. Castle: Ch.1)

The road towards union with Christ our King doesn’t require us to pass any tests: it’s the royal road of loving desire for at-one-ness with God.  As St. Teresa’s great contemporary, John of the Cross, wrote in the opening lines of his poem ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’:

               On a dark night,
                  Kindled in love with yearnings
      – oh happy chance! –
                  I went forth without being observed,
                  My house being now at rest
                  In darkness and secure …
                  In secret where none saw me
                  Nor I beheld aught
                  Without light or guide,
   save that which burned in my heart.

WE BELONG TO THE CHURCH
The trouble is, for many people, the church seems more like a club than a living body seeking a loving union with God.   So, what does it mean to say: ‘we belong to the Church’?

Well, yes, there is great comfort in belonging to something.  To sense that we’re not alone but are part of a wider body of women and men.  Loneliness is a terrible thing: as someone once said to me, one of the reasons they came to Mass was to have someone hug them during the peace.  At 80 – a widow without children – there were few people who showed her intimacy. // Sometimes, people regard the Church as exclusive – a club for like-minded people.  But we know differently!   The Church is as full of differences as the people who belong.  And we’re not always going to see eye to eye.  Sometimes, we’re going to strongly disagree with each other.  As Bishop Rowan Williams wrote:

“If I conclude that my Christian brother or sister is damagingly mistaken in their decision, I accept for myself the brokenness of the Body (of Christ) that this entails.  These are my wounds, just as those who disagree with me are wounded by what they consider my failure or even betrayal.     How do I relate to them? … I don’t seek simply to condemn them, but to stand alongside them in my own prayer, not knowing how, in the strange economy of the Body, their life and mine may work together for our common salvation. …

And when I stand in God’s presence or at the Altar, they are part of the company I belong to.”

Thank God you, clearly, constantly welcome new people into your midst.  All are welcome, whether they’ve been coming for 80 years or just arrived.  We all belong, and our differences enrich the body. 

So, to those who have belonged for many years I ask: “How many new people have you got to know?  How are you making them know they belong?”  And, to those who have arrived more recently I ask: “How are you getting to know the wonder of becoming part of the Body of Christ?  How are you inviting him into your life?”

INVITING OTHERS INTO HIS REIGN
For the church does not exist simply to serve the needs of those who belong, but to be a herald of the kingdom – the reign – of God.  To be a sign of the depths to which God loves this, sometimes crazy, world.    When Jesus was dying on that cross which bore the inscription, ‘This is the King of the Jews’, love was crucified.  And because it was love that was being crucified it still embraced the stranger. To the dying thief who asked to be remembered in the new age, Christ replied: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  A church that’s not reaching out with that same divine love is always in danger of being what some say we are – a club for like-minded people.   But the Divine Mystery we celebrate is not about what goes on behind closed doors; it’s about the way the Sacred Heart our King reaches out and enfolds the world in life and death and would draw all into His Reign.  

CONCLUSION
In realising our union with the saints of all ages within the body of Christ, you can take heart from belonging to an amazing, living, diverse Body.  And we will be known by that which we have become: a member of that Body in whom people must find the invisible God.   

Let me end with a prayer of that great Carmelite saint whom I quoted earlier – Teresa of Avila.

Lord Christ,
You have no body on earth but ours,
No hands but ours,
No feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which your compassion
must look out on the world.
Ours are the feet by which you may still
go about doing good.
Ours are the hands with which
you bless people now.
Bless our minds and bodies,
That we may be a blessing to others.

Friday, November 15, 2019

SERMON FOR 33rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2 before Advent) - Veneration of Creation



Mal 4:1-2a, 2 Thess.3:6-13 and Luke 21:5-19    

‘These stones that have echoed thy praises are holy and dear is the ground where their feet have once trod; yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims, and still they were seeking the city of God.’X


INTRODUCTION

Those are lines from a hymn often sung at the Feast of the Dedication of  a church – ‘In our Day of Thanksgiving’ – and I thought of them last week at this time as I, and a group of 22 pilgrims from East Greenwich, stood in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  We had arrived at our final destination after time in the Galilee and were beginning our devotions in that city which is the focus of longings for Jews, Christians and Muslims. 

Yet the stones which generations have erected to protect the holy places, and the places themselves, are but outward symbols of that heavenly Jerusalem where God dwells with angels and saints, the great company of heaven of which each baptised person is a part.   

JERUSALEM AND ITS STONES
Jerusalem is a city which stirs deep feelings – both of passionate longing and love – and passionate disgust and hatred.  Its stones have been venerated and destroyed by many civilisations and, as Jesus prophesied, it’s Temple and the whole city was destroyed by the Romans just forty years later, in AD 70.   We had stood on Shabbat eve – Friday evening – looking at the remains of a small part of the Temple mount known as the ’Wailing Wall’, watching hundreds of Jews expressing their passion for Jerusalem as they sang and danced, wept and lamented and offered their prayers.  And, all the time, they were overlooked by the great Dome of the Rock built by Muslims over the site of the Jewish Holy of Holies in the late 7th century.

HOLY SEPULCHRE
But for us – Christians – it was not the Dome or Temple which, in the end, drew us; rather, it was that Church built over the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Christ was buried and rose from the dead, a few meters from the place where He was crucified and where Christians had ever since gathered to worship.  Yet their first church had also been destroyed and a Temple to Venus built by the Romans over the ruins which, later, enabled the Emperor Constantine, when he converted to Christianity in the early 4th c., to identify the spot and build a great basilica.  But, 300 years later, that was also destroyed by the Persians and its replacement destroyed again by Muslim forces in the year 1009. 

So the building we prayed in has echoed to the praises of pilgrims for a thousand years, but the site on which it stands for twice as long.  And I thought of those lines: ‘these stones that have echoed their praises are holy’.  And, in particular, I recalled them as I saw the way so many pilgrims venerated the slab of pink-veined marble marking the place where the body of Jesus lay after being taken from the Cross and placed in the Tomb.

DEVOTION AND VENERATION
One of the sad things about the Reformation is that it ended public displays of veneration – shrines and statues kissed by Christians for generations were destroyed and, gradually, public displays of affection came to an end.  It may be permissible for women to give each other an affectionate kiss but men – never!  That’s something those strange continentals do!

Yet, gradually, the Church has begun to reclaim veneration – the priest will kiss the altar and book of the gospels, and all will give each other a holy kiss at the peace – or at least, a handshake!  And we offer incense to those three things – the altar stone; the Book of the Gospels and the People of God.  But we don’t do all this simply because we want to show affection – or even because we believe there’s something special about the stone, or the paper or even the flesh we kiss.  Its what’s hidden in those things – what they convey; how our Creator God is present in matter.  Because God created them they are intrinsically good, if imperfect; and because God entered into our world in the Incarnation – entered into flesh, into created matter – each thing that exists is touched by the Divine. 

But we find that hard to comprehend.  There’s long been the temptation to think of matter as corrupt – certainly not  to be worshipped!  After all, God commanded the Israelites not to make idols and worship them (Ex.20.3)!  So having a picture, painting or sculpture of the human form in a place of worship is anathema to Jews and Muslims.  And, because of that, Christians began destroying their stone and wooden statues and icons after the rise of Islam.

As the years went by and they began to realise the consequences of God entering our human flesh and being born of a Virgin Mother they realised that, if God had entered matter, matter – created things – must matter!  More than that – if God venerated Creation to the extent of joining Himself to it, we must also venerate it.  Sadly that was an understanding lost on the Reformers seven hundred years later who proceeded to disfigure and destroy representations of God in humankind. 

What they’d forgotten is that it’s not the thing itself we venerate, but the wonder of the Creator which is encountered in the statue, icon, altar, book – or person.  As St John of Damascus had said during the great controversy about icons:

"I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."

VENERATING GOD IN CREATION
So we’re to worship God through creation, as saints like Francis of Assisi have always known.  Francis, who realised that all things were inter-related and called all things his brother or sister – Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Mother Earth – even Sister Fire which was used to burn disease from his eye.  It’s a realisation, of course, which we’re re-discovering now as we accept we can no longer dominate, abuse and rape creation. 

We have to treat it with deep respect, which some religions have recognised as they venerate the divine in the natural world.  Aspects of Celtic religion – that religion which pre-dated Christianity in many Western lands – affirmed the sacredness of nature, an understanding which informed many of the early monks of our islands.  As one anonymous prayer says:

Bless to me, O God,
Each thing my eyes see,
Bless to me, O God,
Each sound my ear hears,
Bless to me, O God,
Each odour that goes to my nostrils,
Bless to me, O God,
Each taste that goes to my lips.

Thankfully, many are waking up to the need to take greater care of our planet and treat it with more respect lest the elements – earth, water, air and fire – turn against us.  We can see the way they do that when they are abused, and we need to recall that our faith tells us we need to venerate creation.  The way we kiss the altar, the gospels and each other reminds that a holy kiss deepens our intimacy with that which we venerate; that it is not simply the stone, paper or flesh that we touch with our lips but the Divine presence within them – present in the Blessed Sacrament consecrated on this table of sacrifice; present in the words written in the Holy Book, and present beneath the skin of our sisters and brothers – even if they cannot recognise that presence.  But, perhaps, we might deepen our recognition as we open ourselves to an intimate encounter with the Word made flesh: you have seen your brother; you have seen your God.

THE DESTRUCTION OF JERUSALEM
Sadly, Jerusalem has been damaged and destroyed many, many times; its walls pulled down, Temple looted and houses raised to the ground.  Every age is tempted to destroy what it cannot understand or what has gone before, believing it has something better to offer, be that the destruction of reforming fundamentalists – smashing statues and disfiguring frescoes – or town councils up and down the land who bulldozed much of our Victorian heritage.  We so often fail to appreciate something until it’s too late; instead of honouring creation we misuse and abuse it.  Jerusalem reminded me that we, people of faith in a God who entered matter, need to learn to venerate that matter once again if we are to be true to our calling.  For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son – Himself – to inhabit creation. 

‘I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter.’

May we deepen our intimacy with God through our veneration of creation.   And as we offer one another a handshake at the Peace, let’s not forget what we are really doing – offering a holy kiss to one another who are the image of our God made visible.