Friday, 3 April 2015

Defined by the Eucharist - a Maundy Thursday Sermon

Last year I began the sermon for Maundy Thursday (yes, I check these things, just to make sure don’t repeat myself too much) with the words “At the blessing of the oils service this morning in the Cathedral, Bishop Logan reminded us….”

And though I don’t like to repeat myself, I want to start my thoughts this evening with these words “At the blessing of the oils service this morning in our Cathedral, Bishop Logan reminded us… “ that this most Holy meal that we share this evening defines who we are.  I seem to get a lot of food for thought from our Bishop's Maundy sermons!  

Bishop Logan spoke very personally of his experience of being a part of the ceremonies around the demolition of St Michael's residential school in Alert bay and talked of healing, he pointed to the Eucharist as a place of healing and reconciliation and how we are called to be people of healing.  There is so much more I could share with you on that theme - but it was that one phrase 'It is the Eucharist that defines us' that really stuck with me as I prepared these thoughts.  So I have gone in a slightly different direction - and here goes:

It is the Eucharist that forms us, our sharing in bread and wine that nourishes us, our Holy Communion that sustains us and builds us up in community.  That is why, on this most Holy Night, we remember the institution of Holy Communion.  We remember that before his death Jesus gathered his closest friends around him to share at table in the marking of the Passover and during that meal left a reminder of his self-offering that we call the Eucharist – a word from the Greek that means ‘Thanksgiving’.  Not only  that, but in doing so left us with the command “do this in remembrance of me”.  We are to continually offer thanksgiving and to share in this Holy Meal as we recall the death and resurrection of our loving, living Christ.

The Eucharist defines us – but how…? We will all have reasons why we find this sharing significant, and I am not trying to tell you what you have to believe about this sacred feast, but here are some ways in which we might recognise who we are called to be in the sharing of this sacrament.

Firstly, it reminds us to be people of gratitude.  It is in its very naming, as I said, a thanksgiving.  It calls us to remember the goodness we enjoy – to use an old-fashioned phrase – to ‘count our blessings’.  It calls us to be people whose attitude is turned not to seeing all that is bad and wrong with the world (though we should not ignore those things) but to seek the beauty and life of the God who is in all things, who is all in all.  To have hearts tuned to life and hope and truth and wonder. 

Next, it reminds us of our calling to be in community.  The name ‘Holy Communion’ which is still the name many refer to this service by, reminds us that we are in communion not only with the God who meets us here – but with the others who meet us here too.  One of the sadnesses, in my opinion, of our post enlightenment, individualistic culture – and of those religious expressions that focus on ‘me and my relationship with Jesus’ and major on personal salvation is that we have lost that sense of being the body of Christ, of being so intimately connected to one another that we are like parts of the body connected by ligament and muscle and flesh.

One of our sentences at the breaking of the bread – technically called ‘the Fraction’ for those who like to know these things – goes like this “Creator of all,
you gave us golden fields of wheat,
whose many grains we have gathered
and made into this one bread.
All So may your Church be gathered
from the ends of the earth
into your kingdom.
Says it all, really. It’s all about the together, folks!

This holy meal reminds us too of God’s offer of sustenance in our journey.  And of how God meets us where we are.  I love the fact that the Eucharist isn’t some kind of abstract celebration all about words and theory, but is earthy – the everyday things of food and drink, though ritualised, are offered to us as a reminder that God offers the sustenance our hearts and souls needs.  We are reminded also that God is not disembodied or disinterested but grounded in the reality of everyday life.   Another of the Fraction sentences says ““I am the bread of life,” says the Lord.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry;
whoever believes in me will never thirst.” “

Of course this isn’t just a fanciful idea, but one which we, as the people of God, are called to make a reality – that we point others to the reality of a God who slakes our spiritual thirst and feeds our spiritual hunger, but that we also work for a world where none hunger and thirst as we are reminded that this is the calling of the body of Christ, to meet the needs of the world around us as well as our own.

Next, I believe the Eucharist defines us as broken people.  By which I mean that the brokenness we often experience personally, or the broken relationships in our lives, or the brokenness of the world is echoed in the breaking of bread that we have in the heart of our Eucharistic observance.  Those wonderful words from the resurrection appearance of Christ to two followers at Emmaus (and though it is holy week, we can’t really consider the Eucharist without considering the resurrection life it points towards) are in our Emmaus chapel window and, for me, define the core of our Communion. “They knew him in the breaking of the bread.”  Christ, body broken and yet somehow brought back to life, breaks bread again.  In that symbol of brokenness is so much to do with sharing, healing, and being connected to Christ – but also, for me, a recognition of the brokenness of the world in which somehow Christ is always present.  Christ is alive even in the darkest and most broken places, and meets us there.  Another Fraction sentence – this one which we have been using throughout Lent and Holy Week.

We break this bread,
Communion in Christ’s body once broken.

Let your Church be the wheat
which bears its fruit in dying.
If we have died with him,
we shall live with him;
if we hold firm,
we shall reign with him.

And that links to my next to last thought – that a number of people have expressed their distaste at the last part of that sentence, that reigning with Christ has echoes of dominance and royalty with which many of us – including myself – are uncomfortable with.  In every Eucharist we are reminded of a servant king whose role is not to dominate, but to unite – to bring people together in love and service.  When we talk of reigning with Christ we talk of being alongside Christ in that place and time when love, grace, peace, justice, mercy and wholeness are made manifest.

In this particular Eucharist we see this of course in the symbolic act of the washing of feet which Jane will be taking part in on behalf of all of us in ministry, indeed on behalf of all of us in the people of God for we are all ministers one to another.  This is the reign of Christ – offering to wash the feet of one another.

And lastly for my thoughts – though there is so much more that I could say but won’t – the Eucharist defines us as sent people.  Though we have been gathered and united at this feast, we are not called to stay huddled together for spiritual warmth in this comfortable place.  The Eucharist demands that we go forth – or as they say in the Catholic liturgy ‘The Mass is ended, go in peace’.  Our own prayer books offer a variety of sentences that finish our service with the dismissal, but my own favourite is – Go in love and peace to serve the Lord. 

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

"Get Out of The Temple!" or, more accurately, "Depart in peace."

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2015) Year B RCL Principal

This last Thursday we had a Clergy Day, one of our twice a year opportunities to meet up with colleagues from all the Islands of this Diocese, and to have some input and chat to and hear from our Bishop, Logan.  As part of the Bishop`s desire to make these days as much about being together and learning more of each other than about having lots of people speaking to, or sometimes at, us we were all asked to create a line around the room where we were meeting and sort ourselves into order of Ordination – stretching back to the 1960s, up to our most recent Diaconal Ordinations in 2014.  We then went around the room and were asked to call out when and where we were ordained, and the Bishop who ordained us.

It wasn`t until I found myself calling out `Petertide 1996, St Paul`s Cathedral, London, England by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres` that I realised how much I loved that memory.  Christopher Wren`s great Cathedral building filled with people – I remember the Bishop`s Chaplain saying to the twenty five of us being ordained “the Cathedral will be gloomy then the great West Doors will open and light will flood in and everyone will turn, thinking `who the hell is that?’ and it will be you!  Enjoy the moment.” And we did.

I remember my first visit to St Paul’s – a massive edifice, with wonderful artwork, grandiose in its scale and intricate in the carving and construction that makes it such an iconic part of London’s skyline.  I was wandering around looking at the cathedral when one of my colleagues said ‘It doesn’t do anything for me, this place, it’s like a religious railway station’.

I can see why she said that, it’s a well visited  place, and it’s iconic stature means it is on the list of pretty much every London Tour.  In its construction it is large and echoey and noisy and busy.  There are quiet spots, but it doesn’t feel a lot like a place of prayer – not like some of the other Anglican places of worship I have been fortunate enough to visit and minister in.  It is what it is.

I wonder if the Temple in Jerusalem was like that too.  We certainly get the feeling that it was busy, and that there were people in and out all of the time, praying, offering sacrifice, talking and debating.  Then there was the Temple market with its money trading and buying and selling of sacrificial animals.  I don’t get the feeling from Scripture that it was a quiet, contemplative space. At least not all of it.

But it was loved. It was a magnificent place – a place that was a spiritual home for a nation.  Kevin preached a few weeks back on Luke’s repeated references to the Temple, Luke – probably a gentile – who begins and ends his Gospel stories with stories relating to the Temple, and who repeatedly places encounters between God and others in the temple, Zechariah, Anna and Simeon in today’s story of the Presentation, the boy Jesus and the scribes, the disciples visiting the temple with Jesus, the final visit before the Ascension story. 

It’s interesting to me, though, how in Luke’s narrative the life of the temple is so often disrupted by the action of God – Zechariah is struck dumb whilst performing his priestly duties, Simeon’s powerful words (of which more in a moment) which are spoken into the lives of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, the young Jesus debating with the learned and impressing them despite his youth, Jesus being carried up to the top of the temple as part of the temptation stories, the parables of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the widow’s mite, the driving out of the moneychangers. All of these disturb an accepted way of thinking and doing – as if, dare I say, the presence of God was there!

And yet the Temple wasn’t the only place God was at!  As Luke holds in balance a love of the temple and a recognition of the challenge that Jesus brings to the life of the temple, a promise that God is here, but God is elsewhere too!

I’m pretty sure that’s what is going on with Simeon’s bold and disturbing proclamation here.  And I must admit the Nunc Dimittus brings out the Book of Common Prayer lover in me so I will use the 1662 translation:

“LORD, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen :
thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles :
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

I am sure many of us know the story – Simeon was waiting for this encounter with the Messiah, an encounter that he believed would mark the end of his life… And so he shares this song, and a word for Mary that ‘this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’ and ‘a sword will pierce your own heart also’.

But I want to take just the one line for us to consider today – the opening line of this song of Simeon – in modern translation ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace’.  It’s that sense of departing – that after encountering Christ in the temple Simeon departs.  The story suggests that he goes for a very long rest! But I want to suggest that we are being called to depart in peace too, not in the same way, but called to be people of peace, taking the peace of Christ with us – going out from the temple to be active in the cause of peace.

Thomas Merton, the great contemplative who –were he still alive - would have been 100 years old this week wrote in a collection of his writings called ‘Passion for Peace’:

"Christ our Lord did not come to bring peace as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. He brought to his disciples a vocation and a task: to struggle in the world of violence to establish His peace not only in their own hearts but in society itself."

Lord, now let your servants depart in peace - that peace which involves truly engaging with the world around – no longer considering, as Craig reminded us last week, that there is an ‘us and them’ but only an ‘us’. We are called to include all not just by welcoming people to come to a church meeting, but by being Church in the world.  As someone tweeted earlier this week: “God is not calling us to go to Church, God is calling us to go and be church”

So often our Churches contain the life and faith of the church, rather than liberate that life to shared abroad.  We are church not only when we gather together, we are the body of Christ when we serve beyond ourselves.  Our spiritual community is to be the springboard from which we leap into the world.  Though not all of us are necessarily built for leaping!  Yes we should value our sacred space, yes we have wonderful buildings – not least this warm and welcoming, prayer soaked building here – yes we are called to BE together.  But these things exist as resources for our journey out into our families and friendships, our places of work, our communities, the clubs, societies and activities we are a part of.  This is all the work of the church, the places where we are called, in work and word, to proclaim ‘God is here’.

To look at it another way, still drawing on this imagery of going beyond the Temple – departing in peace - we were reminded by Rev’d Canon Dr Richard LeSueur at our Thursday Clergy Day, that by the time of Jesus, Israel had undergone a massive change in its thinking about the presence of God in the years following the exile.  Quoting the Theologian and Scholar Walter Bruggemann, Richard told us that the defining image for the church today is not the Temple, but the Exile. 

How might the exile be speaking to us? Bruggemann tells us that firstly, Years of peace were suddenly broken: the comfort of the temple and the king, a stable and reliable order no longer existed.  Likewise we in the Church find ourselves in a place where any privilege or prestige we may have had is gone.  We are so often seen as little enclaves of slightly odd people who gather apart from the rest of the world on a Sunday Morning.  An image, a perception we are called to challenge – I believe.

Secondly the exile of Israel that came following the destruction of the Second Temple between 586–537 BCE saw the worship of God take place no longer in a Centralized institution, the temple, but it went out to a growing network of synagogues, which can be translated as simple as assembly – interestingly the word used in the New Testament for Church ekklesia means exactly the same thing.  But the important message is that the encounter with God, the presence of God, is no longer considered restricted to one place, the temple, but the divine can be engaged with in diverse and dispersed ways.  A message for the Church today!

Thirdly, as we find the Privileges of Christendom have passed we can ask ourselves if this is liberation to a new apostolic age – a new age of being sent out to share the life of Christ with the world!  If you remember this time last year we had a number of folk standing up and calling out ‘God is here’ – and important reminder of the God who is in the midst of us – but our calling is to remember that we are called to carry that presence with us in all we do, as much beyond these walls as within.

Perhaps, as Richard told the Clergy, we are being called from settled life – and being a settler church has too many connotations for me to begin to address this morning - to being a nomadic, a travelling people.  A people recognising that Church is a waystation, not a destination.  We come here, as a desert dweller may come to an oasis, for refreshment and for strength for the journey.  We are gathered, in order to be sent out.  In the Latin Liturgy echoed in our contemporary services the deacon would call out or sing ‘Ite, missa est’ – Go, you are dismissed (or according to some scholars ‘Go, you are sent out’) Or, as became more usual  ‘Go forth, the mass is ended’. 

Further, in this theme of moving beyond the temple, of being in exile, strangers in a strange land, we find ourselves again having to engage with culture and discover our own distinctiveness – how can we be Christians in our everyday lives? How do we practise the presence of God in our society?  How do we share this good news, this life of Christ which are blessed with? I don’t have the answers to that, but I am committed to finding them, together, with all of you.

Perhaps as we engage further with our visioning, with the vision of our Diocese and our own parish as shared in the Quo Vadis report in which we are collecting the voices of our community, we can commit ourselves to seeking where our calling to do and be church is. How may we depart in peace?

Thanks be to God.

Monday, 26 January 2015

A Sermon on Conversion

The Conversion of St Paul (2015) Year B RCL Principal

To Be Converted, or continued, or both…

Today is, as you may have guessed, the festival of the Conversion of St Paul.  So I am going to begin by asking - as one should to an Anglican audience - "how many of you have been converted…?!??!"

No, not really.

I could tell you my conversion story, though… imagine a tubby little boy who looks just like me but without a beard, oh and mousey browny-blond hair.  This little lad is in a small chapel tent in a field of tents in a place called Polzeath (or Polzeth as many call it) and he’s chatting to a genial older chap who asks.  Do you want to give your heart to Jesus?  To which I replied yes.
So in that simple setting, having heard over the course of that week the message of faith in a new way, I committed myself to being a Christian.  It wasn’t spectacular, there were no lights or voices from the sky.  I just said a prayer.  And it was a beginning.  I called it my conversion. So did the Christian Community to which I belonged – it was a crucial part in my journey of faith.

It wasn’t a Saint Paul moment – I didn’t have a dark and disturbing past to be set free from.  Unlike the stories I had heard back in my youth of Gangland conversions in the Bronx, or the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, or the miraculous changes of heart of tough guys from the East End of London my story was boring. Which was a bit of shame, I thought. 

In Frank McCourt’s autobiographical work ‘Angela’s Ashes’ he talks of how it was common for the young Catholic schoolboys taking their first confessions to make up things in order to feel that they actually HAD something to confess.  They were worried that if they didn’t have something juicy to say they would be punished for pride or for lying!  In my protestant world, you really wanted a good conversion story.  But it was not to be – I might have embellished stories of what I considered dreadful childhood sins, but they weren’t really substantial.  I was no St Paul. My conversion, such as it was, was significantly less dramatic.

In fact, the idea of Conversion as we have had it passed down to us has picked up some negative connotations, it shares a dodgy reputation with ideas like ‘Mission’, ‘Repent’, ‘Sin’ and even ‘Salvation’ – words whose meanings have baggage, weight, because of the ecclesial or local culture that has used them.  These words have been used to bludgeon the unwary and the unsuspecting, the cowed and the dominated, the colonised and the confused.  Repent or die – physically or spiritually… 

The language of conversion has been used to threaten and coerce, and that is heartbreakingly shown in a poem by J. Neil C. Garcia which talks of the metaphorical death by drowning of a transgender woman forced to choose to be a man by her traditional family. It’s a long poem so I won’t quote it all – the link is here   – but it talks from the perspective of a transgender woman forced to live a life as a heterosexual man by her family, and talks of the perpetuation of masculine violence bound up in this act of “conversion” and its aftermath and ends with the heartbreaking words.:

…Though nobody
Remembers, I sometimes think of the girl
Who drowned somewhere in a dream many dreams ago.
I see her at night with bubbles
Springing like flowers from her nose.
She is dying and before she sinks I try to touch
Her open face. But the water learns
To heal itself and closes around her like a wound.
I should feel sorry but I drown myself in gin before
I can. Better off dead, I say to myself
And my family that loves me for my bitter breath.
We die to rise to a better life.

Conversion does not have a good history.  

And yet today is a festival – a feast of conversion. We have little or no detail of the birth or death of St Paul, Apostle to Gentiles, so we celebrate this exceptional, miraculous event which turned him from being a persecutor of the Church to being a champion of Jesus Christ and an architect of the order of the Church.  His writings, rich in theology and practical advice, deeply rooted in his Jewish ancestry and contemporary culture, desperate to enliven a burgeoning Church with the life of the living Spirit of God in Christ are a substantial part of our Scriptures and his influence is strongly felt in the church today.

We celebrate his turning from one way to another, the radical diversion of his path on that road to Damascus and his realignment to following the way of Christ. This, we are told, is conversion – a fracturing of reality, often the result of a crisis moment, a moment of revelation, a moment which changes everything…

But that is how we have so often been told conversion works, the only way that conversion works! In many traditions within the Christian faith, this is what it means to be saved –  it is such a striking image that we we have the vivid account of it not only in today's reading from Acts 26, but in two other places in Acts, also in Galatians and a reference of Christ appearing to Paul alluded to in his account of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians chapter 15… Obviously this conversion was a dramatic, life changing – and according to the hyperbole of some commentators, world changing – event. 

That’s how it’s been portrayed in the stories passed down, in countless sermons, in artworks through the ages – two of which I copied for you to see and which, I hope were given out with our bulletin for today…  In the Caravaggio painting, one of at least two of Michelangelo Meris da Caravaggio’s portrayals of the Conversion of St Paul – Paul is so overwhelmed that he has fallen from his horse!
Which brings me to what I really want to say – like the horse in Caravaggio’s painting, or the Donkey in the nativity story, or the idea that there were three kings at the manger – there is so much layered on to what conversion is – and so much of the nuance, the variations, the different aspects of what the whole idea of conversion is and might be that it is hard to drop the baggage and consider again what this concept of Conversion might actually offer to us today!

Though I am glad for the influence of good, Christian folk, who brought me to a very deliberate start of my own pilgrimage of faith, I realise that this moment was just that – the start.  I was consciously making a commitment to my journey. I turned from one way to another, but I know that God was at work long before that moment, making Godself known to me through scripture, through the people who shared my life, through the traditions and worship of the Church community that gave me a sense of belonging.

But that wasn’t my only conversion, it was a part of my ongoing conversion.  Or perhaps a better word would be ‘metanoia’ – the Greek word which appears throughout the New Testament and is often translated repentance, but might best be understood as ‘turning’.  I’ve used this illustration before but the word ‘repent’ is one of those wonderful English words which the Church seems to have hijacked – it crops up much more in the kind of English novel that says something like ‘Mr Smithers repented of his intention to visit Miss Lambert and instead found himself heading in the opposite direction to a nearby hostelry’.  It simply means a change in direction.

Conversion too easily becomes seen as ‘flicking a switch’ – and both the Author of Acts – commonly thought to be Luke the Evangelist – and Paul himself in today’s reading are keen to stress the break between one part of Paul’s life and another.  “once I was very bad now, through God’s grace and the work of Christ, I am good’, ‘once I persecuted the Church, now I am persecuted because I serve Christ’.  This kind of dramatic break in the life narrative of Paul serves to show the wonder and the power of Christ.  It is what the Church needed to hear in its early days, the powerful and rapid transformation which Christ affects.  It’s a very black/white, light/dark, good/bad thing and easily slips into the simplistic, dualistic (as Richard Rohr might say) way of thinking that we are so inclined to veer towards.

But we all know that faith, and indeed life, are much more complex than that.  Take this poem by a Theologian and writer called Scott Cairns which I found on the Theology and Literature website

Adventures in New Testament Greek: Metanoia

Repentance, to be sure,
but of a species far
less likely to oblige
sheepish repetition.

Repentance, you’ll observe,
glibly bears the bent
of thought revisited,
and mind’s familiar stamp

–a quaint, half-hearted
doubleness that couples
all compunction with a pledge
of recurrent screw-up.

The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.
Scott Cairns

Conversion, metanoia, repentance – whatever we wish to call it, is a lifelong activity. Turning not so much away, as towards – towards Christ, towards Christlikeness.  It is a discipline and a grace – something that comes from our openness to the spirit of God and from a longing to know and feel the life of Christ within us.

It comes partly from spiritual practice, and I have said repeatedly from this pulpit and in many groups and conversations that I believe we are being challenged to be a spiritual community in the broadest sense – a community that in word and deed turns to the way of the spirit and seeks to live by the faith to which we are called, to which we are drawn.

But conversion is, to my mind, summed up well by thinking on what it means to turn towards Christ.  For me every act of compassion is a turning to Christ.  Every prayer, every attempt to still the many voices of the world and open ourselves to the life of faith is a turning to Christ. Everytime we open a newspaper, or the browser or our computer and see news which disturbs us and we pray about it, and seek to act in response to it with justice and love we are turning to Christ. Every time we seek to care for those in need we are turning to Christ. Every time we open ourselves to truly listen to another human being, are willing to change and learn and grow, we are turning to Christ.  Every time we speak out against injustice and challenge systems of oppression and marginalisation we are turning to Christ.  Every time we come to worship, alone or together, in silence, or in liturgy and song we are turning to Christ. 

This is conversion.  Not that we become a Christian, but that we seek through all of our pilgrimage to turn to Christ.  It is summed up well, I think in the part of the Baptismal liturgy that I copied along with the Michelangelo and Caravaggio paintings for you. It’s all good stuff! But I find challenge in those last lines which ask ‘
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God's creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?

May we continue to learn, grown and know that conversion, that metanoia, to which Christ continues to call us.  Amen.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Midweek Sermon

As these don't tend to get shared elsewhere - here is my midweek thinking for today...

James Hannington Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, and His Companions Martyrs, 1885 — Commemoration

Matthew 10.16–22

16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

I’m not sure we should have favourite Bible verses, but today’s Gospel reading contains one of mine!  “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” says Jesus.  Not quite as powerful, perhaps as ‘For God so loved the world” or as resonant and long lasting as the image of a wayward son or a good Samaritans, but still I find it a most profound and helpful verse – and part of a profound and powerful passage.

Christians, especially Anglicans, are often looked at as being somewhat bloodless in their faith.  We are considered by the majority of people to be the acceptable face of religion!  Whether it’s true or not – apart from the odd fundamentalist or religious nut - we are looked on as a relatively mellow and bloodless kind of religion. Here I could get into a long discussion about what happens when people add the name of Christian faith to their campaigns and crusades and the less than illustrious history of the Church – but after a couple of thousand years and the ubiquity of Christendom in the west there’s a certain level of blandness ascribed to Christianity.  In Western Culture at least…

But Jesus doesn’t give us that impression.  No bloodless faith in his world.  His is a faith that is full of passion and compassion, life, love, wisdom and grace. But also a faith that is strong, life changing, risky and dangerous. 

There is an expectation in Jesus’ talking of faith that it is and will be dangerous to stand up for faith.  But there is also an expectation that those of follow the way of Christ will be able to stand. Far from the images of ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ we see in today’s lesson a strength in refusing to fight back against persecutors, to speak out without violence for that which is right.  Jesus reassures his hearers that that those who are taken prisoner for their faith will be given words to say and the courage of the Holy Spirit even under persecution.  I am grateful that we don’t suffer being tortured and put to death for our faith, as Bishop Hannington and his companions did and the persecutions we suffer are (relatively) mild in our society – though I know some of you will have experience of the danger of speaking out for faith – but there is still a calling to stand, to share, to change our world with the life of faith no matter what the cost.

And into this Jesus speaks these words – be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

What does that mean, though?

I think it means be canny (as they say in Scotland and the North of England) – listen and learn, take your opportunities where you can, be crafty.  Yet at the same time be honest, and transparent, be people of integrity.  Act, and be, righteous.

We are not called to naivety, or to being treated like doormats. We are called to be strong, and committed and faithful and loving, even when it hurts. We are called to be Christ like in our words and our actions, and even our thinking.

If we are willing to stand up for that which is right, and to share the faith which Christ calls us to – a transforming, disturbing, honest and powerful faith. A faith that calls all to leaving behind dishonesty and abuse, injustice and inequality. Faith that calls to love and serve one another, to know ourselves loved and to act with love towards all.

If we are willing to stand for that faith then we will put ourselves at risky of persecution, marginalisation, condemnation.  Or just of apathy and disregard. But in following Christ we are challenged to live lives which are completely dependent on God, that are different to the lives we would live without God, and that make a difference to the world as much as we allow the Spirit moving in us to make a difference to ourselves.

 May we be, with the Spirit’s help, wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Sermon for an early Eucharist!

Teresa of Avila & John of the Cross

Today is the remembrance of Teresa of Avila, and of St John of the Cross – two 16th Century contemplatives.  We are using the readings and prayer for Teresa, but we keep in mind also her friend and follower John of the Cross.  From the companion to our readings we are told that Teresa of Avila was a Spanish nun of the sixteenth century whose visions of Christ and gifts as a spiritual director have placed her among the greatest of all Christian mystics. She was the only daughter of a minor nobleman and entered the Carmelite convent in her native town of A’vil-a when she was twenty-one. Over the next two decades she endured many illnesses, one of which left her paralyzed, and also a nagging sense that in her prayers and devotions she was doing nothing more than “treading water.” 

Then, in answer to her despair, she began to have visions and hear “interior voices.” The most famous of these experiences, known as “transverberation of the heart,” took place over a number of days in 1559. At her left side Teresa beheld an angel who held a golden spear with a flaming tip, with which he pierced her heart again and again. Teresa later wrote that each time the angel withdrew the spear she was ‘ ‘left completely afire with a great love for God,” and knew that her soul would “never be content with anything less than God.”

Three years later, in obedience to another vision, Teresa left her convent with thirteen other nuns to observe the primitive constitutions of the Carmelite Order in all their strictness. Despite fierce, sometimes violent opposition from the Carmelite establishment, Teresa eventually founded sixteen other Reformed Carmelite houses.

In the midst of her other concerns Teresa also found time to write a number of books, which reflect her holiness, wisdom, and sense of humour; and through them she has become one of the most widely loved saints in the Church, attractive even to those who have not shared

Then of John of the Cross we are told he was the greatest Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, and his writings still nourish modern Christians in their hunger for true experience in the spiritual life. John was born in 1542 and became a Carmelite friar at the age of twenty-one. Four years later he met Teresa of Avila and joined in her reform of the Carmelite Order, serving as confessor to Teresa’s nuns. His prominence in the reform-movement made him a target of intrigues; twice he was abducted and imprisoned. After Teresa’s death he also suffered vindictive treatment at the hands of his own superiors in the Reformed Carmelites, and their harshness contributed to his death in 1591.

Through all his trials John was sustained by an intense mystical love for Jesus Christ. Like Teresa, he experienced the presence of Christ in “intellectual visions.” His reflection upon these experiences issued, first of all, in poetry of extraordinary power and beauty. At the urging of his disciples, he selected a number of his poems and produced  prose commentaries on them, which have become classics of mystical theology. John united the vocation of a theologian with the experience of a mystic, and his writings are the supreme example of theology as the fruit of prayer.

What bound these two together, and the reason we mark both at the same time is this common thread of prayer.  And that prayer is sometimes dangerous, disturbing, powerful, filled with unfilled and fulfilled longings and hopes. Even sometimes filled with visions… And sometimes filled with nothing.

Often when we hear of Elijah’s journey into the wilderness – his fearful flight from king Ahab and the king’s murderous rage.  We focus on the still, small voice at the end of Elijah’s vision but we forget what brought Elijah to this place – the fear, the anxiety, running from his home and from all that was his.  We forget that he needed sustenance for his journey – provided miraculously by the angel in the story. We forget he was so tired he lay down under a tree and slept – then we forget that before he got to the place of the still, small voice he had to pass through ‘the earthquake, wind and fire’.  Considering all that he was going through, that’s a pretty terrifying experience, if you think about it.

Theresa’s vision wasn’t a pleasant one – as we hear it today we are perhaps slightly shocked by the idea that she had her heart pierced by an angel again and again… sometimes called the Dart of longing love… but that on the other side of that vivid vision, experienced over days, came an overwhelming desire to know, to feel, to engage with the presence of God.

From John of the Cross we gain that powerful and painful image of the ‘dark night of the soul’ – an experience he had, and that expresses the feeling that many people have – of a spiritual emptiness even whilst seeking God in prayer and contemplation.  It is the title of a prayer by John, talking of the soul’s journey towards God and the hardships one faces in that spiritual journey.

We often, I think, take prayer for granted – we have words provided for us by our prayer books, and we have the prayers of the people, we have spiritual songs and hymns that give voice to our hopes and longings and fears and triumphs. We have an extensive vocabulary.

But these two mystics teach us that prayer is so much more than that.  Prayer is exposing ourselves to the divine, being vulnerable to God. It is being willing to discipline ourselves in prayer, to being silence, to seeking God in the difficult parts of life, to clinging to the faithfulness of God no matter what is happening to and around us.

Prayer is painful.  To truly journey to the heart of God is not a pleasant experience – because in doing so we confront ourselves, and we touch something greater than we can ever comprehend.  When we are open to God in prayer we take away all other supports and all of the things we rely on to make us comfortable, we are willing to bear the spiritual wilderness and face up to our fears, even to death itself.  In order that we might find our way to resurrection.

We are encouraged to not let our hearts be troubled, to hold fast to the knowledge of Christ’s faithfulness even in that face of death – to cling to the one who is the way of truth and life.  But when we find ourselves stripped before God we might not feel that sense of reassurance that we long for.

That’s where the examples of those through the ages who teach us about God being in the midst of the darkness, the God who is there when we don’t feel she is – the God who is faithful – this is where their examples can bring us encouragement.  To hold on, or as John Bell Scottish writer and member of the Iona Community once said ‘we grasp God, that we may be grasped by God in return’.

These faithful pilgrims, our sister and brother in faith, encourage us to be faithful ourselves in whatever situations we find ourselves.  They encourage us to travel deeper into faith, even when the way seems frightening and desolate. They remind us that God is not easily found in comfort and complacency,  but in struggle and discipline.  They remind us that faith is risky, and that prayer is dangerous.

They remind us that God will sometimes speak through the earthquake, wind and fire with the still small voice of peace.  But that we may have to endure the shaking and fear before our eyes and ears are able to hear the profound stillness of God.

A 12 Step Eucharist Sermon

Preached on October 14th at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria.

Amazing Grace

We live in a society that often seems obsessed with how we look… the clothes we wear, the way our hair looks, or the state of our skin, whether we eat right, exercise, look buff, whatever…  We are obsessed with how things seem, how they look, what impression we give.

But that’s not a new phenomenon, as the reading today indicates.  Jesus condemns those who are obsessed with religious observance at the expense of true devotion – particularly those who actually use their religion to distract from the true intent of their hearts – a desire to be SEEN to be proper, to act in the appropriate way and to get credit for the way they appear.  In the older translations of the Bible later on in this passage Jesus calls these types ‘whitewashed tombs’ – meaning it all looks nice and well cared for on the outside, but you really don’t want to know what’s going on underneath.

But for those of us who know ourselves, who have looking inside ourselves – we often feel the other way around. That we are afraid of what is inside us, or we are ashamed of what happens under the surface – we don’t want people to know what is going on ‘in here’ because we feel so inadequate, or bad – the word we often use in the Church is ‘sinful’.

It is hard to open up – to others, and to God, because we are afraid what they will see,

I don’t know about you, but when I pray about the God who knows all the secrets of our hearts, or when I read about Jesus saying ‘nothing that hidden will remain hidden but all will be brought to light’. When I read in the story of the choosing of King David that though he was the smallest of his family God saw what was inside him ‘for mortals look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart’.  When the Bible talks about God looking within – I get a little bit fearful.  It can cause a certain amount of anxiety.

What if God doesn’t like what God sees? What if I am not worthy, or God takes offence at something I’ve done, or said, or even worse – something I’ve thought?

I would love to be someone, and I hope to be someone from whom goodness overflows from within – as our reading today said.  But I often feel as though I am not.  I worry that all my good works, all the kindness I try to show, all the words I say are just a cover up job for my general feeling of brokenness and the wrong I know I am capable of.

There’s an urban legend that does the rounds every now and then about a University professor who called around a city at random and just says to whoever answers the phone ‘everyone knows, the secret’s out, get away quick’ and that a significant number of people did, in response to that random call, pack up and get out of town.  It’s an urban legend, so I doubt the truth of it, but I do recognise that inside myself, and I am sure inside many of us, there is a feeling that we are perhaps just waiting to get found out. That there is stuff within us that we don’t like, that if people truly knew what we were like, if God truly knew what we are like, we would be rejected.

Well, here’s the secret.

God truly knows what we are like.  And God loves us.

The more I read the Bible, the more I see the stories of our ancestors in all of their imperfections and the horrendous mistakes and the violence that characterised their lives, and the wrong things that they did – the more I see of a God who chooses to use imperfect people, who teaches us to use our mistakes to grow, who does not condemn us, who loves us.

So when Jesus questions the motives of the religious leaders, as he does in today’s reading, I don’t think he does it as a threat, or a condemnation – but as an expression of sadness at how we sometimes don’t let the light into our hearts.  When I realise that God searches my heart, I realise that God doesn’t do so to condemn or judge me, but in order that I might open myself up to love, to hope, to faith. 

The word is Grace.

Grace doesn’t ask us to be worthy. Grace doesn’t demand that we are good before we are loved. Grace doesn’t hold our mistakes or our wrongdoings up before us and say ‘you are bad’.  Grace loves us – as we are, where we are, who we are.

Grace doesn’t call us to be perfect before we know we are loved.

Grace doesn’t demand that we get everything right before we are forgiven.

Grace doesn’t make us pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and do better.  Grace works with us to transform us, to help us, to guide us, to strengthen us, to bless us, to love us.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Law, Liberation, Life, Love

Another sermon from today, same readings, different event (this time a short Eucharist for the ACW - Anglican Church Women - group here in Victoria)


Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path’ proclaims the Psalmist. Which is nice.

But what does he mean?

Well, when the Psalmist is speaking, and indeed when the compilers of the proverbs are writing the definition of the word is quite clear – it is the law.  God’s law – the commandments, all 613 of them.  For in the commandments – far from the impression we have in Christian circles, is a sense of liberation and joy, a sense of ‘this is how we please God – by living by these commands’

And these commandments are so special, so wonderful, so life-giving that even now any adult member of the Jewish community becomes, on their transition into adulthood a bar or bat Mitzvah – a son or daughter of the law.  Even now, as they have done for hundreds, thousands, of years, Jewish scholars and writers dedicate themselves to an understanding and interpretation of the commandments – believing that fullness of life is found within obedience to the word, the law of the Lord.  Or as it says elsewhere in the Psalms ‘your statutes are my delight’.  How often do we think of delight, of joy, of freedom when we consider the law of the Lord – the word to which the Psalmist and the Proverbs refer?  How often is this idea of law taken as a liberation and as an expression of the freedom God desires?

For within the law are not just the ten commandments – that’s a particularly Christian concept – nor are there only laws about religious ritual. In the law are considerations of justice and fairness, of how we live together with care for one another, of how each member of the community should behave in order that there might be peace- Shalom – wholeness. There are considerations towards the stranger, the alien, and towards the poor and needy and sick. There are guidelines about what to eat not just for religious but practical reasons – I mean, eating shellfish in the desert before refrigeration… not a sensible idea.  Pork, when it is not subject to the kind of rigour that pork farming is now, is stuffed with all sorts of unpleasant parasites and diseases.  These laws became part of a ritual food code, but started as some pretty sensible advice for the wandering people of Israel!  The law is meant to take away the stress of living, and show us how to relate to God and one another, faithfully and joyfully.

As Christians we kind of hijacked the idea of law, taking a cue from Paul and holding up the law as oppressive, negative, bound by rules and regulations, and in sharp contrast to the life found in grace in Christ. I don’t actually believe that this is what Paul meant, for in Chapter 7 of his most exquisite and nuanced theological work – the letter to the Romans – he says ‘I delight in the law of God’. And I am certain that this negative view of law is not what Jesus meant when he talked of himself as the fulfilling of the law.  Or said that not one iota of the law would pass away until all is fulfilled…

The law, the word of God is considered to be life-giving, life affirming, life-changing.  It is meant to be a way in which we see God’s inmost desired and we are encouraged to meditate on this law and to live by it.

But like so many bits of scripture, I would say that it is not the words themselves that are to be our focus – but the meaning behind the words.  The law seeks to frame an attitude towards God, not to bind us in a blind obedience, but calls us into deeper, richer, more profound relationship with God. Indeed, in our Christian tradition the whole of scripture calls us that way – and though the Church often focusses on the words of Scripture it is the Word within Scripture we are called to discern.

Ooooer, I hear you think, what does the Rector mean by that?

Don’t get me wrong, I love words, I love reading, I love playing with words. And I am the same with Scripture – I love to meditate, consider, struggle with, think on, pray on and learn from scripture. But the words in themselves are not where God resides – I do not worship the Bible, I worship the one Word, who we call Christ.  In the well known prologue to St John’s Gospel we hear the words used at pretty much every Christmas Night service  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’  In the Greek the term is logos. The logos is the expression of God – the breath of God gone forth in substance. The reality of God made manifest.

Within the words of Scripture, I seek the Word of God. I look for where the Christ leads me, I listen for the voice of God and long to feel breath of God ruffle the pages of my Bible. It is this word which brings the words of our Bibles to life.

We don’t worship ink and paper. It is disturbing to see how many seek to enshrine the living, breathing, vibrant spirit of God in words and phrases pulled from a book.

Christian faith, following Christ, is actually a much harder, higher, more exciting calling than that.  It is to be in relationship with a God who is experienced in prayer, in worship, in sacrament, in love, and yes in study of scripture.  But not a God trapped in scripture, we are called to discern the word behind the words, the life behind the scriptures.

And it is the task of each of us to set our minds and hearts on this discovery – together, seeking to discern the life of God.  When we trap our understanding of God in words, or traditions, institutions or even just habits of worship then we miss out on the true and living Word.

For a faithful Jew, the life of the law comes from being excited about and by the life behind the commandments.  For those of us who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our fullness of life comes from a relationship with him through our common life, through our care for one another and of all in need, through our shared experience of worship and prayer.

And as I said at the early service this morning (my last sermon, found below), taking my cue from the Gospel reading where the disciples are sent out with nothing, not even money or bread - we are not to be distracted – whether it be by the minutiae of biblical verses, or our own comfort, or the way we like Church to be – but to live fully in the life of Christ, abundant, transforming, hopeful, loving, faithful life – that all the world might know and be transformed by it.