Sunday, February 24, 2013


Sermon preached in the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
at Parish Mass on February 24th, 2013

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new,
Late have I loved you! (S. Augustine)

The scenes of bloody massacre are all too familiar.  Whether it’s Syria, Pakistan or America, so much death and destruction, often in the name of religion.  And still, at times, in the land we call Holy.  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”, yet this is the place Jesus now heads for.  Jerusalem, the centre of conflict and heart of the world’s three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The place where God chose to dwell in the Holy of Holies, yet still the focus of struggle and lament.  So this morning I want to consider just what kind of God we are called to believe in who said to Abram, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.’ And we are counted amongst those ancestors. 

Firstly, human experienced God through the universe in which we live.  Look to the heavens – and marvel at the stars.  For many, they are just that – lumps of rock in the sky flung there in consequence of primeval, yet ever flowing forces, which sometimes come to earth with terrifying force.  But for one who looks at the universe and sees beneath outward appearances, mystery embraces all things.  To the mystic or simply the contemplative, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ in all their wonder and power.

To the saint – whether Francis of Assisi or Seraphim of Sarov – all things co-exist and each of us is called to become ‘at one’ with creation. We are called to realise we are brothers and sisters of all things – and thus to venerate matter because God in Christ entered the material world.  All these concepts and more are shared, in one way or another, by all religions.  So why, if we agree that everything speaks of the wonder of God and our own mortality, why does religion seem to create such misery for so many?

When I see the heavens, the work of your hands,
the moon and the stars which you have arranged,
what are we that you should keep us in mind,
men and women that you care for us?
Yet you have made us little less than gods;
and crowned us with glory and honour,
gave us power over the works of your hands,
put all things under our feet.  (Ps. 8)

But that, if you like, is the problem.  We have power, the power of God, in our hands.

The world, for many, speaks of a mystery that is called God and people have long desired to probe and explain something of the meaning of this word.   Soon we will say:  We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.  No problem there, whatever our religion. 

But then we affirm some amazing things concerning God: that he became human, suffered and died (impossible, Muslims would say) but rose again and lives forever.  Whoah, Jews would exclaim!  Not so.  The seeds of conflict are already there.  And so are they within religions.  Shi’ite or Sunni, Catholic or Protestant, Zionist or Liberal; religions divided amongst themselves.   And it’s no use simply saying that conflict is all due to religion: it’s clear that non-religious division exists within societies.  Tory or Labour, Republican or Democrat, the English and the rest of Europe.  We seem to thrive on disagreement, conflict and separation.  We are far from the little girl who, looking up at the stars said, “We’ve got lots of different points of view, but God has lots of different points to view from.”

So, perhaps we should all be the same.  Wouldn’t that make the world a better place?  No conflict, no difference, everyone the same as … me…  When I am at my best??? 
Well, maybe you as well, but I’m not sure about her…
Yes, if everyone were like us that would be OK,
though I know you have some faults so it would be better if everyone were like me…

You understand, I’m sure, the problem.  Difference is of the essence of creation.  And, as S. Paul  reminded his readers, what makes us different is that we look for ‘a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (who) will transform (us) so that we may be conformed to … his glory’ (Phil.3:21)

So this God whom men seek and in whose Name some will fight and die, the one who reveals his beauty in the mystery of creation, is to be found in Jesus.   

To proclaim that we believe in God is in Christ is not to say that we understand what that means.  Just that we believe that life is ‘more than’: more than all the boundaries we place upon it because of our limited perspective.  That we are loved with a Divine Love that desires to unite us in Love.  The mystic knows this: the purist may glimpse that might be true but such a God is too big for them.  The challenge of the embrace of Divine Love, the embrace of God in Christ, is too freeing – too dangerous.  Their need for certainty entraps them.  So they become driven to kill off those who want to make God too big.  Yet -
"… the love of God is broader
than the measure of man's mind.
And the heart of the eternal 
is most wonderfully kind."
So wrote Fr. Faber in his famous hymn,

Who can God be for me?  Well, S. John in his Letters tells us that those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.  And that is the love that made the worlds and, like a consuming fire, will never go out.  That is the God in whom I am to believe.  The whole of creation, you and I, made for love, by Love and only truly knowable by lovers.  Science may answer ‘what’: faith seeks to understand ‘why’.    Who is the God in whom we believe?  God is love and all we need to do is abandon ourselves to that Love.

During Lent I am reading the ‘Spiritual Letters’ of Sr. Wendy Beckett, whom many of us will know through her television appearances as the ‘art nun’.  In the opening letter she wrote:  
‘What we cannot accept is that we are the beloved, or to put it more concretely… that I am the beloved.  He longs for me, He presses on my heart with a tender, humble, hunger for me.  He wants to possess me…’   Always His love drives Him to possess – one might call this the prayer of living?  …  To be so loved and so wanted is so terrifying and so awful we can see why we shrink from believing it.’  (p.3)

In my work of Spiritual Direction I have the privilege of travelling with people who are seeking to live with a greater awareness of themselves as Beloved and to respond more freely to that Love.  It was this sense of at-one-ness with Love and the desire to be fully abandoned to God that drove Jesus on and that, finally, was the cause of his crucifixion.  And it was by Love that he was transfigured him and brought from the depths of hell.  That was the awareness of God that led S. Augustine to compose the poem whose opening verse I quoted and with which I will end.

Late have I loved you,
Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong,
I, misshapen.
You were with me but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance,
I gasped, and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace


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