Worship on 19 September 2021

Sunday, Trinity 17

Jostling for Position

Call to Worship

At this time, in this place, let us worship God – with open ears ready to listen, and hearts ready to receive, minds willing to be challenged and attitudes given to God. Come, let us worship God as one.

Lord God, you call us to live our best lives – for you, with you, in you. We may sometimes pause to smell the coffee or the roses, but we are often too busy to take time to be aware of you – that you are with us, in us, and in those around us. Quieten our hearts now to recognise you in this place today. Help us to reach out to one another with love, care and compassion,so that we can all live our best life for you.

Amen

God who loves little children, we adore you. We drink in the wonder of your presence, the specialness of our relationship with you. You are far beyond our understanding, your love is greater than our greatest dreams. We worship you, our Lord and our God.

Amen

Hymn: The Servant King

1. From heaven you came helpless babe

Entered our world, your glory veiled

Not to be served but to serve

And give Your life that we might live

This is our God, The Servant King

He calls us now to follow Him

To bring our lives as a daily offering

Of worship to The Servant King

2. There in the garden of tears

My heavy load he chose to bear

His heart with sorrow was torn

‘Yet not My will but Yours, ‘ He said

This is our God, The Servant King

He calls us now to follow Him

To bring our lives as a daily offering

Of worship to The Servant King

3. Come see His hands and His feet

The scars that speak of sacrifice

Hands that flung stars into space

To cruel nails surrendered

This is our God, The Servant King

He calls us now to follow Him

To bring our lives as a daily offering

Of worship to The Servant King

Confession

Our response is – Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

Let us consider how we jostle for position in our lives. …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be last.”
Lord for the times I’ve put myself first, or argued with people,
because I think I know better or that I am better …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

For the times when I don’t want to be a servant
because I think I can do greater things…

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

When I don’t recognise Christ in those around me
because I’m too busy looking out for myself …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

When I don’t understand what people mean, perhaps not understanding their feelings of fear …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

When I jostle for position, rather than being happy where you put me …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

Assurances

You challenge us, Lord, when we do wrong.
You get us to focus by using questions,
even though you know the answers.
Your image is present in each one of us.
When we confess our sins,
you are always there to forgive us.

We stand now, humbly in your presence. Forgiven.
Acknowledging that you, Oh Lord, are the greatest.  Amen

Thank you, Lord, that we can always find our place in you.
Thank you that we belong to you,
and no one can take that away from us.
We are secure in your loving arms.
We need never be afraid to ask you anything.
Thank you for the times we can meet blessing with blessing.

Amen

Collect for the day

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen

Psalm 54

1    Save me, O God, by your name
and vindicate me by your power.

2    Hear my prayer, O God;
give heed to the words of my mouth.

3    For strangers have risen up against me, and the ruthless seek after my life;
they have not set God before them.

4    Behold, God is my helper;
it is the Lord who upholds my life.

5    May evil rebound on those who lie in wait for me;
destroy them in your faithfulness.

6    An offering of a free heart will I give you
and praise your name, O Lord, for it is gracious.

7    For he has delivered me out of all my trouble,
and my eye has seen the downfall of my enemies.

First Reading

James 3.13 – 4.3,7–8a

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Hymn: Breath on me Breath of God

1. Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Fill me with life anew,

That I may love what Thou dost love,

And do what Thou wouldst do.

2. Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Until my heart is pure,

Until with Thee I will one will,

To do and to endure.

3. Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Till I am wholly Thine,

Until this earthly part of me

Glows with Thy fire divine.

4. Breathe on me, Breath of God,

So shall I never die,

But live with Thee the perfect life

Of Thine eternity.

Second Reading

Mark 9.30–37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Some thoughts about jostling for position

Jostling for position

Sometimes when we strive for that great improvement, we jostle people about, don’t we? I am sure you can think of times when you jogged someone’s elbow to get closer to something you really wanted. For those who know about these things, I understand it is a common occurrence at the bar. I have even heard of little old ladies at the big sales nudging people out of the way with their umbrellas. For those of you who have run races competitively, you know about the jostling that happens when you are in the pack, and it can even happen among the front runners, which you may have seen at the Olympics.

I admitted playing lacrosse as a schoolboy a few weeks ago, and in that game there is a lot of jostling when you are going after a loose ball, and sometimes even when you are standing still waiting for something to happen. We have seen it on television when we watch the match of the day – either the Euros or the World Cup, or just when we are watching our favourite teams or even children at the local school. As two race toward the ball they are jostling each other for position to retrieve the ball and perhaps make the killer pass which ends up in a goal, one way or another.

Haven’t we all played that game? Haven’t we all striven to that point that we might have done just about anything to succeed?

That game is not just on the sports field. There are games being played out in board-rooms across the world, where one faction will do just about anything to get its way. We can even see it in Parliament when the questions in Prime Minister’s Question Time are being asked and answered. The innocent question about the schedule is asked and then the real question to expose some vulnerable aspect of the government is asked. Such a question raises an MP’s profile – to jostle the PM a little bit in the hope that there may may be a fall from the height of power so that that pesky MP might be able to step on that fallen political comrade to rise closer to the prize he covets.

People are jostling each other all the time because they believe their position is the only right one, and they want to force everyone to their way of thinking. We may have even seen this happen in our own homes with siblings and parents. I am sure we have all seen this in films, whether it is a business plan or a political stratagem, the proponent will use all manner of arguments to convince others, and sometimes they apply all sorts of ploys, “lies, damned lies and statistics” as someone has said. We even see some force their will on others by threats – the exposure of some peccadillo, a fist raised – what people would call “a gun to the head”.

The scale of the jostle changes, doesn’t it? – depending on how important people hold things. For the athlete, is the gold medal the prize beyond all others? Or does the true athlete realise that it is only how the game is played that matters? I mentioned this when I spoke at Purton when the Olympics were in full flight. We spectators were looking for wins and medals, weren’t we? That is how we were valuing ourselves. However, there are only three medals available in each of the disciplines. Whether it is on a bicycle or in a canoe, the commentators and everyone at home were wanting a gold medal. In the boxing ring or on the judo tatami, our wish was for our man or woman to land the killer blow – to take out every opponent and be the last one standing just like on the cover of this worship sheet. But I have to ask – What happens to the competitors lying in the dust?

As you know, I am a rather an odd fellow. – Rather than the win, I want to see a “beautiful game” played out before me, just as I want the game I play to be beautiful. Don’t we all want to see the best performance win in any competition, but most of all at the Olympics where the whole world gathers to see the best of the best and where we compete wholeheartedly, hoping for the best performance of our lives?

In the midst of the Olympics, we saw some who did not play that divisive, hurtful game of winning at all costs. I applauded those Olympic athletes who gave a heart-felt smile to congratulate their opponents on the completion of the events – like the woman archer whose arrow missed the mark but she smiled and walked over to her competitor to wish her joy, or Djokovic’s embrace of Zverev when he won so convincingly. I want to be able to do this at every moment of every day in my life. – Don’t you? Wouldn’t this be heaven on earth when the beautiful game of life is played to the rule of love? But heaven has not yet come to earth, has it? We still jostle for position and too often fail to keep the rule of love in our lives.

What do you think is going through the mind of Ali in the picture on the cover of our worship sheet today? Is he thinking about loving his opponent? Or is he proclaiming his greatness over the prostrate figure of his opponent? Has he spurned the humanity lying at his feet and even his own humanity in his triumph? What would we be doing in this situation? Would we be giving a hand to lift our opponent up, or would we be dancing around in our own little world being “the greatest”? Such a private dance does not speak of our playing any “beautiful game”.

Sadly, the picture tells me the latter story, the dance of the selfish greatest, but it does not mean it has to be the case. We can compete completely, yet still remain true to our rule of love which the Lord commanded. The game is the game and it comes to an end, but we live on after the final whistle, don’t we? We are athletes in a race to salvation which includes all our activities in life.

Have we been jostling or playing by the rules of the game, the rules of our Lord?

I would like to leave you with one last thought. If we are to play life to the rule of love, we might jostle people around us to do good things, maybe to love those around them, perhaps even to love our enemies. Let’s hope we can all play the game of life to the rule Jesus taught all his disciples, remembering we are counted amongst that number. That jostling toward love is the only jostling we should accept. Perhaps then we can proclaim that we are the greatest when we jostle and raise our opponents in love. The kingdom of heaven is here when the position we jostle for is that of loving one another.

Amen

Hymn: Brother, sister, let me serve you

1. Brother, sister, let me serve you;

let me be as Christ to you;

pray that I may have the grace to

let you be my servant too.

2. We are pilgrims on a journey,

and companions on the road;

we are here to help each other

walk the mile and bear the load.

3. I will hold the Christ-light for you

in the nighttime of your fear;

I will hold my hand out to you,

speak the peace you long to hear.

4. I will weep when you are weeping;

when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;

I will share your joy and sorrow,

till we’ve seen this journey through.

5. When we sing to God in heaven,

we shall find such harmony,

born of all we’ve known together

of Christ’s love and agony.

6. Brother, sister, let me serve you;

let me be as Christ to you;

pray that I may have the grace to

let you be my servant too.

Prayers

Let us pray for the world, thanking God for his goodness to all humankind.

Let us pray for countries, communities and individuals jostling each other. May they see what is truly good in life and strive to benefit each other, living lives of care.

Let us pray for our politicians as they jostle. Let their struggles be for their people, not themselves. May they nudge each other to do the good for themselves as for others.

Hymn:

God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name.

I’ve been born again in Jesus’ name

And in Jesus’ name I come to you

To share his love as he told me to.

He said ‘Freely, freely you have received;, freely, freely give.

Go in my name, and because you believe others will know that I live.

All pow’r is giv’n in Jesus’ name

In earth and heav’n in jesus name

And in Jesus’ name I come to you

To share his pow’r as he told me to.

He said ‘Freely, freely you have received;, freely, freely give.

Go in my name, and because you believe others will know that I live.

God gives us life in Jesus’ name

He lives in us in Jesus’ name

And in Jesus’ name I come to you

To share his peace as he told me to.

As we leave

In all that we do this week, let us take that moment to look into the eyes of the people around us. They are all part of our community, so let us pray that God will bless them as they go about their lives, lives they share with us.

Let us go out into the world
to shine with the love of God,
to listen with the ears of Jesus,
and to speak words of kindness and hope to everyone we meet.

Amen

Trinity 15

Collect

Almighty God, whose only Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence: give us pure hearts and steadfast wills to worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Merciful God, your Son came to save us and bore our sins on the cross: may we trust in your mercy and know your love, rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, the source of truth and love, keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, united in prayer and the breaking of bread, and one in joy and simplicity of heart, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35.4–7a

Psalm 46

1    Alleluia.
Praise the Lord, O my soul:
while I live will I praise the Lord;
as long as I have any being,
I will sing praises to my God.

2    Put not your trust in princes, nor in any human power,
for there is no help in them.

3    When their breath goes forth, they return to the earth;
on that day all their thoughts perish.

4    Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help,
whose hope is in the Lord their God;

5    Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them;
who keeps his promise for ever;

6    Who gives justice to those that suffer wrong
and bread to those who hunger.

7    The Lord looses those that are bound;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind;

8    The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous;

9    The Lord watches over the stranger in the land;      he upholds the orphan and widow;
but the way of the wicked he turns upside down.

10    The Lord shall reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

      Alleluia.

Epistle

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

[ For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.]

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2.1–10[11–13] 14–17

Gospel

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

Mark 7.24–37

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 15

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear! …’

These words from the prophet should speak directly to us today, even though they were spoken about three thousand years ago. Why? Why do I quote such an old saying? I think “fearful hearts” belong to us today, don’t you? With the last two years spent in COVID isolation, and with the fear of terrorists of the last few weeks, we know fear, don’t we? We continue to fret that the worst might happen in the next few hours – to us.

But Isaiah’s words are read out to us today. We need to hear his message of “comfort” – we need to hear that we can be strong and go boldly. Like Captain Kirk on his beloved Enterprise, we are enjoined to go boldly into the future, “where no one has gone before.” It is not just space which is the final frontier. No, there is another frontier – it is in time. The present is the border which surrounds us, the future and the past are cut off from us. The past has gone and will never be recovered or relived. It has passed and lies outside our grasp, but we can remember. The future is to come. It is to be hoped for, or perhaps dreaded depending on our fears. Spatially, what is beyond our reach, remains just that, and we have no control or experience of it. But what is at hand can be manipulated or handled. We have to admit that we are bounded in space and time, and the unknown can paralyse us with fear.

We all know this to be true, don’t we? We are afraid to make any decision because we wonder “What if …?” That question enters our minds and incapacitates us. “What if …?” becomes the stop sign for our lives. I think that is why insurance is so popular nowadays. It puts our minds at rest, there is no “What if …?” when we are insured, as all the ads tell us. Insurance is the panacea for our fear of the unexpected, the impossible of our everyday lives.

The future faces us and we have no control over its accidents, do we? That is the unknown country we have to enter. The future is not our everyday experience. Rather than insuring against the unknown, I think we ought to embrace it – no matter what will happen. Ernest Shackelton did so when he went to the Antarctic, didn’t he? The unknown loomed over him murderously but he survived because he embraced the situation and was able to overcome the frozen world which had taken so many other lives. Shackelton’s embrace was strong as life and took him into an unknown future, a future which included other trips to the Antarctic.

Such is the future, such is everything just over the horizon. It is for us to overcome those boundaries of our lives. We must be able to say to our friends – or indeed anyone who would talk with us – “Be strong, fear not!” More importantly, we need to say this to our very own selves – Fear not, μη φοβου, just as Jesus said two millennia ago.

And we need to do the same with the past. The past will be with us forever, but we can do nothing to it. We can only do something about it. We need to learn lessons from the past. Isn’t the saying, “The person who does not study history is bound to repeat it.” And not every episode of the past is something which bears repeating – but it does mean that we should be able to avoid the despicable in life if we learn from our past, individually and collectively.

We need to sing with Edith Piaff, “Je ne regrette rien” – that all that has passed is the past, out of touch, but remembered without regret for the future because we have learned from it. The song also goes on to say that we will treat everything the same. Doesn’t Paul also tell us to do that? Doesn’t Jesus’ example on the cross teach us this lesson?

‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Isaiah’s words echo through history, especially the history of the church, but I think they echo through the whole of history, in fact I think they echo all the world’s religions and philosophy. But religion, not philosophy, talks about our ultimate hope.

He will come and save you.’

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

These are the words Jesus reads from the scroll when he began his ministry. He speaks about our very own hope – our hope for the future, when our saviour will come with glory and might and power, to  which all the events of healing attest.

Jesus opens the eyes of the blind, both the literally blind and those who will not see. Jesus lets people hear what is real, about which the lame dance and the dumb sing with joy. Jesus has accomplished miracles for so many. I am sure that Jesus has accomplished miracles for us here today. Don’t we all have hope for the future? That is the miracle we all want – a future in which we will be saved. A future in which we hope. So who has that hope? Who has experienced that miracle?

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

This is the miracle we all hope for, isn’t it? That our eyes and ears are opened, that we would speak plainly to everyone we meet. Last week I went on about mission and conversation. All of that is predicated on the clarity of vision and hearing, on this miracle of hope, of any miracle which transforms our lives one way or another. – And miracles need not be the stopping of the sun in the course of its daily route, nor the equally extraordinary changing of the natural world, the curing of infirmity or withering fruit trees. I think the greatest miracle is that we can touch each other’s lives in some way – that we might care profoundly for another person. This care is the love I have always spoken of, the foundation of all we do.

We began with words from nearly three millennia ago, and now we are talking about love, that extraordinary openness to another, something within everyone’s capacity as a person.

Today we are hearing something in the present which assures us of our future because of what has happened in our past. We are no longer paralysed by fear.

Who else can do that, except someone who has experienced the miracle of God in their lives? Aren’t we the people who are free to act for those whom we love?

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 14

Collect

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, you search us and know us: may we rely on you in strength and rest on you in weakness, now and in all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God our creator, you feed your children with the true manna, the living bread from heaven: let this holy food sustain us through our earthly pilgrimage until we come to that place where hunger and thirst are no more; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children –

Deuteronomy 4.1–2,6–9

Psalm

1    Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?
Who may rest upon your holy hill?

2    Whoever leads an uncorrupt life
and does the thing that is right;

3    Who speaks the truth from the heart
and bears no deceit on the tongue;

4    Who does no evil to a friend
and pours no scorn on a neighbour;

5    In whose sight the wicked are not esteemed,
but who honours those who fear the Lord.

6    Whoever has sworn to a neighbour
and never goes back on that word;

7    Who does not lend money in hope of gain,
nor takes a bribe against the innocent;

8    Whoever does these things
shall never fall.

Psalm 15

Epistle

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.18In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 1.17–27

Gospel

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

    “This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

Mark 7.1–8,14,15,21–23

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 14

The Collect for this Sunday is all about mission, the conversion of the world to the way of Christ.

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, now and for ever.

What a noble aim – to bear witness to the Christ! However, is this the one thing the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church fails to do? In its defense, I suppose mission is the most difficult activity the Church undertakes. The way of Christ is as diverse as there are members of the Church, don’t you think? Don’t we all believe we are the true recipients of how a christian should live? Every one of us is a true believer, aren’t we? Each one of us believes he or she is the embodiment of the message of salvation.

Who would not believe themselves to be a proper christian? This is the Church’s hubris, I think. The Church as an institution becomes the monument, not the how, of a person’s life. The Church becomes the building, the hierarchy – anything but the way the faithful people in themselves keep the faith. As such, the Church becomes a thing which does not engage with the world in which it finds itself – a major obstacle to all mission.

Human being loves to objectify in its life. I am not how I live, but I am labelled, I am an object – a gardener to some, a computer nerd to others, a failure to all my teachers, a wonderful son to my parents. I become an object to each of those people, something they can put their hands on, some thing they can place in their world so that I am set there never to move about and cause difficulty.

However, is this really what people are, these mere objects of experience – those things manipulated for one’s own ends? To put it in this context – Am I really only the fellow who appears now and again to lead worship in this place, and disappears into oblivion when not here?

That objectification of people is necessary, however, isn’t it? Don’t we have to say “Hello” with its implied “Good-bye” when we meet people in the street? Perhaps we ask how they are, but we don’t expect anything more than the “Oh, I am fine,” which we normally hear in response to that innocent question. We don’t expect to listen to a long description of the lows and highs of the day so far, do we? Otherwise, would we ever make it to the baker so we can pick up the loaf of bread and get back in time for lunch?

It is precisely this possibility of an unintended, profound conversation with everyone we meet which makes life so very interesting. Instead of the unhearing of the everyday greeting, perhaps we should be listening profoundly so that we can hear under the “Oh, I’m fine” the subtext of what is really happening in the other person’s life. And then engaging with that undercurrent. Perhaps that is the Church’s mission – our very own mission – for life.

I was listening to QI and they were discussing language. The use of “Yea” and “Nay” as emphatic answers to questions was discussed in a very amusing way.

Then came a discussion of how the use of double negatives has become an awful thing. “I can’t get no satisfaction,” is an example.  The logician and the pedants would say the double negative is not to be used. This empirical, logical state of affairs is only a recent phenomenon, with the rise of science and the philosophy of linguistic analytics. One in that group of philosophers, made the remark that two positives don’t make a negative. He said this at a symposium in New York upon which a voice from the back of the room piped up “Yeah, Yeah” to prove the point. So the double negative and double positives do make sense and are real responses to the world.

When we objectify language, as do the linguistic philosophers, we make a mockery of its life, its living, changing quality. Language has to evolve, though we often don’t like the neologisms constantly being introduced, but sometimes we ourselves take up the new words and meanings in our own speech.

But how do we know about this life of language? – By listening. By allowing all of our words to blossom before us.

This is precisely what we have to do in our conversations as well. We have to listen to the double negatives to hear the real meaning behind them – and we have to listen to the double positives and hear whether they actually are assents to a state of affairs or a denial of everything.

When the person we meet says, “All is well,” should we take that as an objective fact? Or do we have to interpret the way it was said? Was there a real joy in the tone, or were the words forced out as a something expected without any intended meaning to them? Does it dismiss us or does it invite us into dialogue with the person whose eyes we gaze into however fleetingly?

This is the missioner’s dilemma. When the evangelist proclaims the gospel of love leading to universal salvation, what do the two positives really mean when they echo back to his or her ears? Does the hearer assent with joy, or are the listeners merely walking on by without any engagement in the dialogue the missioner hopes to open up with them?

We have seen this happen with those people who give out the WatchTower door to door, or less frequently nowadays when the person stands there on the street corner proclaiming their version of the gospel of repentance and acceptance, that gospel of salvation we all believe to be the world’s, not a gospel belonging only to myself.

Mission is the joyful sharing of meaning, neither an assent to anything nor a dissent. Mission is the dialogue every greeting can become. I think that is the reason we pray our collect today – to remind us of our humanity in the person of the Christ. To call to mind the divinity possible in the world through the faith, hope and love the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church espouses in its very real life shared in worship, whether sacramental or not, whether in the eucharist or in morning or evening prayer. From worship we travel forth to engage with everyone we greet. Joyfully we listen to the meaning shared in every conversation on the road to our final home, our ownmost possibility, together.

Amen

Sunday, Easter 3

Collect

Almighty Father, who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord: give us such knowledge of his presence with us, that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life and serve you continually in righteousness and truth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen Christ, you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope: strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Living God, your Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in all his redeeming work; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Reading from Acts

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

‘And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

Acts 3.12-19

Psalm

1    Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness;
you set me at liberty when I was in trouble;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

2    How long will you nobles dishonour my glory;
how long will you love vain things and seek after falsehood?

3    But know that the Lord has shown me his marvellous kindness;
when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.

4    Stand in awe, and sin not;
commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.

5    Offer the sacrifices of righteousness
and put your trust in the Lord.

6    There are many that say, ‘Who will show us any good?’
Lord, lift up the light of your countenance upon us.

7    You have put gladness in my heart,
more than when their corn and wine and oil increase.

8    In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for it is you Lord, only, who make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4

Epistle

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

I John 3.1-7

Gospel

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’

Luke 24.36b–48

Sermon on Sunday, Easter 3

It was after the crucifixion when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified …” Why??? Why were the disciples startled and terrified? They must have thought, ‘There is a ghost standing among us!’ But was it really a ghost amongst them? No, it was Jesus himself there. The disciples could not understand it. So naturally, they must have been startled and terrified. They saw their Rabbi, their Lord, in their midst, even though just a few days before they saw him hoisted up on a cross, pierced and taken down from that device of torture. Their Master’s body had been placed in the tomb and it had been guarded by soldiers. He had breathed his last. They knew he had died. His body was put away. They never expected to see Jesus Christ among them again. But there he was, standing in front of them all!

It is no wonder that they were startled – it makes sense to us that they were terrified. After all, Jesus standing there would never have been anticipated by us or any of these people who had followed Jesus in his ministry, those who stood by at the crucifixion and wept at his entombment.

Jesus “said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.…’” Naturally fear and trembling were what the disciples felt. Jesus understood that, but what must have disturbed him was the doubt – their un-faith – arising in their hearts. Why did they doubt the resurrection of their Lord? Why did they doubt when he was in their midst inviting them to touch his hands and his side? — Un-faith – that is the real enemy. Naturally, we should fear in the presence of the Lord, but we should be faithful. To doubt any faithfulness – that is not acceptable when the Lord stands in front of us. However, that certainty of juridical evidence, which we understand as proof, is possible only for the disciples. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus said to Thomas who wanted to probe the risen body of Jesus with his fingers? Isn’t that what we take to be the case today? Don’t we want to probe the resurrected body so that we can say we have the evidence which will stand up in any court of the land? Evidence which will convince any sceptic or cynic, any one of our contemporaries.

The perception of faith, however – the seeing of
the evidence of faith
– is what Jesus is demanding from us. He understands the doubting of modern humanity, with all its distractions and inhumanity towards one another. Who would not doubt, especially when lockdown has just ended and we can go to all those non-essential shops to continue to distract ourselves from the fundamental fear we should have in the face of the holy?

That fundamental fear is not the “fright” which the disciples had when Jesus stood in their midst. This profound fear we experience is an existential state of mind. That fear and trembling gives rise to life in all its fullness. The presence of Jesus in our midst should give rise to this religious fear. This fear opens us to the world around us in awe – that is, in faith. In such a state of mind, we have joy in the whole of life.

Peter asks a penetrating question at the miracle wrought at Jerusalem after the resurrection appearances, “Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us?” Peter is asking us to fear the might of God in our lives, when we see something we cannot prove as Perry Mason does in the courtroom. Peter compels us to consider the power of Jesus here and now to render us whole, in spite of our broken nature, in spite of the fact that we wish to have an unproven miracle in our lives. We must open our eyes to the miraculous all around us in order to benefit from that moment of conversion, when we step from a wholly profane life to a sacred existence in which we can experience the profound joy which loving God and our neighbour delivers. Love is at the heart live in all its fullness, of faith – that open and that “naive” attitude which accepts all as they are.

Loving faithfulness has been at the front of our minds lately, hasn’t it? The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has highlighted how loving faithfulness can be expressed in life. His story has been told on all the media, so I need not say more. I just want to remember Prince Philip as he stood in his loyal faithfulness for almost a century, standing a step behind our head of state and leader of the Anglican Church. I hope we all can do the same – that we will be loyal and faithful to the end with family, friends and neighbours, standing with them in every circumstance of life.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 6

Collect

Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Creator God, you made us all in your image: may we discern you in all that we see, and serve you in all that we do; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Psalm

11    Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth;
knit my heart to you, that I may fear your name.

12    I will thank you, O Lord my God, with all my heart,
and glorify your name for evermore;

13    For great is your steadfast love towards me,
for you have delivered my soul from the depths of the grave.

14    O God, the proud rise up against me
and a ruthless horde seek after my life;
they have not set you before their eyes.

15    But you, Lord, are gracious and full of compassion,
slow to anger and full of kindness and truth.

16    Turn to me and have mercy upon me;
give your strength to your servant
and save the child of your handmaid.

17    Show me a token of your favour, that those who hate me may see it and be ashamed;
because you, O Lord, have helped and comforted me.

Psalm 86

Epistle

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:12-25

Gospel

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 6

Last Sunday was the first Eucharist here for over four months. We were an intimate, though socially distanced, congregation. One phrase from the mass resonated clearly with me – “bursting from the tomb” – that brought the isolation of lockdown to a symbolic end for me. Just as Jesus burst out of the tomb, so have we burst from our bubbles of singular isolation. (Our expanded bubbles may only embrace our next door neighbours, but we are now able to fulfill more fully the human essential of being-with others anew.)

Lockdown should have brought a new awareness of our world and our interaction with it. However, I am not sure whether the hard-won insights have stayed with us now that we have burst forth. Social distancing is a case in point. We all know that we can pass on this virus, don’t we? And yet when it comes to crowding together in the ways we used to,  for instance, the indiscriminate invasion of one another’s space like those scrums at the bar – images of which were on the news so frequently. When we were told we could all go out to the pub, we left the new knowledge of appropriate behaviour at home, as we would leave unnecessary baggage in the storage locker.

Gladly, we are more circumspect here in church, we are aware of what we have learned in our self-isolation and applied it in the new freedom we have been granted by the government. The Church’s more conservative breaking out of singular isolation should be applauded as we are showing that all life matters as we are being cautious in our social distance measures, giving space to our neighbours, and perhaps even sharing our bubble with other loved ones.

However, there is a lot of confusion about the direction our lives will take after the discombobulation of the past four months. It struck me, almost as strongly as the bursting from the tomb did last week, that an ad for an automobile expresses the very real disarray people feel today, for the climax of the ad blasts a tune from the band King Crimson, “Twenty first century schizoid man.”

I ask, why is this part of the lyric the high point of the ad, because that lyrical phrase blasting out makes me recall the pain of the song and of the time in which it came to fruition. The three verses juxtapose images against one another, with “Twenty first century schizoid man” as the last in each stanza. It makes me wonder about the confusion of this period of corona virus.

The parable of the wheat and the tares which we read this morning could speak to our situation, don’t you think?

I want to be able to understand this parable here and now in our own time, in terms which make sense to us as twenty-first century people, schizoid or not.

Here are the words to the song:

Cat’s foot iron claw

Neurosurgeons scream for more

At paranoia’s poison door

Twenty first century schizoid man

Blood rack, barbed wire

Politicians’ funeral pyre

Innocents raped with napalm fire

Twenty first century schizoid man

Death seed blind man’s greed

Poets starving, children bleed

Nothing he’s got he really needs

Twenty first century schizoid man

I don’t want to affirm the black picture of humanity that that song depicts, but I do wish to highlight the deep division we have in our minds when we go out into the world. Lockdown, I think, has taught us that we are very much linked one with another, like the wheat and the tares in the field. We are bound together because it is so difficult to determine who is what. I ask myself: Am I wheat or am I a tare?

As we develop we cannot be separated from one another. However, harvest is coming. Harvest is the time when we must determine who is who, what we are in our essence. Clearly, the poisonous tares must be eradicated, the good wheat will be taken into storage – eventually to make the bread we all require for life.

The wheat once scattered through the fields, once so confused with the tares, that wheat has been gathered together, perhaps stored for a time but it has been ground into the finest flour for our lives, some of the best wheat finds its way onto the altar to become the bread of heaven: it is the flesh we confess nourishes us because it is the presence of Christ here and now in physical reality, in that bread.

That is far away from this moment – the moment now, when we notice that the crop is mixed, when we see tares amongst the wheat. What are we to do? Do we tear the weeds from amongst the wheat now? No, we are told, do not weed out those tares because we might ruin what should become the harvest. Doesn’t this go against our grain? Surely we enjoy sorting things out, especially when we thing we are on the winning side.

The injunction to leave everything in the fields until harvest should give us pause for thought in our judgement about tares and wheat. This injunction should allow us to be tolerant of all, because we are all being allowed to come to fruition, to become our ownmost possibility. Wheat or tares – and really, we have to ask ourselves, who is what, when we look carefully at our lives, when we inspect the whole of our lives, what we remember and what we have forgotten?

That is the moment of the harvest we await, when tares and wheat are separated, when chaff and wheat are winnowed apart, when the tares and the chaff are consigned to the devouring fire and the wheat is taken into storage for the benefit of another generation. Will we remember the chaff, or will we be nourished by that fine wheat which was saved for the future?

Re-evaluations of people are tricky: those we thought the founders of our way of life can be assessed radically differently by different generations – tares or wheat? We won’t know until that final harvest when all of us are separated into what we fundamentally are. We hope to be judged as wheat, but in our lives we are growing with the tares. But who is who?

The parable of the wheat and tares should give us pause in this schizoid period of the twenty first century. We must become whole again. Let us be wheat for the future harvest.

Amen

Easter 5

Collect

Almighty God,who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen Christ, your wounds declare your love for the world and the wonder of your risen life: give us compassion and courage to risk ourselves for those we serve, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Epistle

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.

Acts 7:55-60

Gospel

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

John 14:1-14

Sermon on Easter 5

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.

What strikes you when you hear these words? I don’t know about you, but I am all at sea, lost in amazement and wonder at Stephen’s love, his love of God in Jesus and the love Stephen is showing to those who evidently hate him. Why else would they have stones in their hands ready to hurl at him? But how could he die with that loud cry on his lips?

First of all, I cannot imagine myself praying to Jesus while stones and rocks fall down on me, when pain is all I feel and know. Can you comprehend that? I am sure you can understand that Stephen went down on his knees, under the blows of missiles falling upon him. You can also understand the loud cry of his soul. “Lord, receive my spirit!” Like those soldiers lying wounded on the battlefield crying out “Mother!” You would cry out for mercy as well, wouldn’t you? We all ask God for mercy in that moment of extremity, don’t we? However, would you call upon God’s mercy – would your last words be a blessing on those stoning you? Wouldn’t you in your last everydayness shout out a curse? Wouldn’t you condemn those who were hurting you beyond measure in your final moment? What would be the last words on your lips? – I don’t know that I could bless those who were stoning me. I would be tormented at that final moment (if my conscience could be wakened in such dire straits), because these words of Jesus would accuse me, “Bless those that curse you.” I would have failed in my duty of love at the last. I would be so unlike Stephen, the first martyr.

I am supposed to bless those who have condemned me, cursed me and are attempting to murder me, but can I? Like so many, I would be perplexed. I am just like Thomas. What am I to do when in that situation, where does life lead when the stones start hurtling their way toward my head – didn’t Thomas say to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Confusion reigns in my soul as I replicate Stephen’s end.

Jesus demands elsewhere, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” Perhaps we do not know Jesus as well as we should. Are our hearts and minds troubled? He tells us not to worry, doesn’t he? Perhaps we are not as strong as Stephen as he cried out his prayer of loving compassion in his last moment.

Stephen is one man who knew where Jesus was going, isn’t he? AND Stephen was able to follow him on the way – he was able to pursue Jesus on that hard way of temptation and trial, the path that leads through moral debt and spiritual temptation every moment. Yet, just like the disciples, we ourselves blunder on in our own ways, often without any consciousness of our extremity, often without any conscience at all. Here we stand like Stephen amidst the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and yet we need to utter our final word. Will it be the curse of the crowd, or the blessing of the saint?

On the other hand, I wonder whether we are like Saul? Do we stand behind the crowd which rush into precipitate action towards the Stephens of our own time? Do we hold the coats of that throng as they throw away the life of an innocent with their stones?

I wonder – is this the moment when Saul began his transformation? Is this the moment when Saul’s conscience is woken, when he finally separated himself from that crowd of condemnation with holy enthusiasm? Did Saul become Paul at this point of his life – when he was blessed with Stephen’s last breath?

I would suggest that we change with those moments of blessing through the curse of our lives – when we realise those random acts of kindness shown toward us and those we have given away ourselves. When Stephen’s last breath begged the Lord not to hold this vile act against the crowd, did Saul begin his journey to a new being in Christ, a person who could preach the love of God over all other attitudes, the love of God which transforms all life into care for the other and for self, just as Jesus commanded while he taught his disciples, those disciples who did not know where they were going? The experience on the road to Damascus was prepared for Paul as he held the coats of that dreadful crowd, when he heard Stephen’s voice of blessed reconciliation.

I would say that the moment of blessing is when hearts are changed. But are we fully aware of that transformation? When do we realise our destination, our ownmost possibility. We, like the disciples, ask  “where is Jesus leading us?” More likely, too often we don’t even want to know where we are heading. We hide in the crowd of unconsciousness, not aware of our destination until that moment of grace, and even then it may take some time for us to realise it, some time before we are aware of the epiphany in our own lives, just as Saul took time to become Paul.

As the light dawns and as the scales fall from our eyes, we have a new vision. – Our sight is transformed. That is our own Damascene moment, when everything drops away and we are alone with the vision of life in all its fullness. It is so very different to what we expected when we were in that crowd, isn’t it?!?

I think we have all understood this transformation now. Now that we have experienced the isolation of “the lock-down”. It has forced us to be alone. There is no distraction of constant contact, no retail therapy, no having more than we could possibly need. The controlling crowd is gone. Everything has been stripped away and we are living out our own lives of quiet desperation alone with no distraction.

The lock-down has forced us to reflect on the Whence and Whither, the perennial problems of life which philosophy and religion confront. Whence do we arrive and whither do we hasten? Why have I been thrown into this particular moment of time and space? How can I extricate myself from this torment of doubt and self-recrimination? Why does Stephen bless me as I curse and stone him to death? What is my end, when Stephen can commend me to God, even as I condemn him in his final moment under the weight of the stone I have hurled towards him? Stephen’s praying for me has called everything into question – whether it is my membership of the crowd or my isolation from everyone. Where I journey and how I do so, are ever before me because of that dying love, than which nothing is greater.

Many have said that they are dreaming more and vividly during the lock-down – perhaps the corona virus has given us back the aboriginal dream-time – when all will have visions, when the origin and destination of our journeys will be clarified. I think it may be the biblical promise of the prophet who said that all will dream dreams and have visions, when the holy spirit will enter into the world and breathe new life into all. When holy righteousness will be our everyday achievement. Let us not squander the inheritance we are being offered today, when Stephen has blessed us in spite of the evil we may have done.

Amen

First Sunday of Christmass

Collect

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

Psalm

(1Alleluia.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;

praise him in the heights.

2Praise him, all you his angels;

praise him, all his host.

3Praise him, sun and moon;

praise him, all you stars of light.

4Praise him, heaven of heavens,

and you waters above the heavens.

5Let them praise the name of the Lord;

for he commanded and they were created.

6He made them fast for ever and ever;

he gave them a law which shall not pass away.)

7Praise the Lord from the earth,

you sea monsters and all deeps;

8Fire and hail, snow and mist,

tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;

9Mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars;

10Wild beasts and all cattle,

creeping things and birds on the wing;

11Kings of the earth and all peoples,

princes and all rulers of the world;

12Young men and women,

old and young together;

let them praise the name of the Lord.

13For his name only is exalted,

his splendour above earth and heaven.

14He has raised up the horn of his people

and praise for all his faithful servants,

the children of Israel, a people who are near him.

Alleluia.

Psalm 148

Old Testament

Samuel was ministering before the LORD—a boy wearing a linen ephod. Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the LORD give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the LORD.” Then they would go home. And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favour with the LORD and with men.

1 Samuel 2.18–20,26

Epistle

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3.12-17

Gospel

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.

Sermon on First Sunday of Christmass

I would like to consider the substance of our collect prayer for today. We have prayed, “Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity.”

Does this prayer really make sense to us who live in this age of science and demythologised religion? In other words, does this make sense to us contemporary Anglicans? Do we really understand that we are created in the image of God? Or more fundamentally that God has had a hand in our very creation, that God has formed us in our mother’s womb and fashioned our very sinews? And then the question arises, what is our ultimate goal? I would suggest that we are face to face with the thorny theological problem of original sin and how humanity stands before the abyss. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church places humanity outside of the Garden of Eden where there was a holy innocence, but points us on to heaven where there is salvation.

Our prayer accepts the fall of humanity from this ‘wonderfully created image’ into the mortality of sin. However, I wonder who really believes original sin is his or her ownmost reality. Finally in our prayer there is the assurance that we have been redeemed in such a miraculous manner so that the corrupt image within us, so defaced by sin in our very generation, has been restored to the true image of the divine in the event of Easter. The whence and whither of life is the heart of our thoughts as the new year begins.

The philosopher once described human life as “brutish and short”: we do have lives into which we are thrown with no explanation. I am sure we remember our teenage years, when we were exploring the meaning of life ever so privately. It was the time when we explored religion and our connection with any transcendent reality. Some of our contemporaries gave up on organised religion. Some did not. We were all confused, weren’t we? We had to make sense of life, and we felt so all alone. Life was certainly brutish. We were thrown into the welter of life, wondering about “where it was all at”.

We still have no “user’s manual” for life – we are just supposed to make all the right decisions. Or, so it would seem if we were to accept popular culture as a cue to the map of the world we inhabit. However, I don’t believe that. Do you think we have to stumble in life, bouncing from one situation to another, fumbling for the right decisions?

After all, if we are created in this divine image, how can we do anything badly? But on the other hand, if we are incarnate in a sinful body and mind, how are we to do anything well? These are the horizons of the maelstrom into which each human being is thrown. We founder in the storm of choices we must make – we have so much around us distracting us as we search for a way out of the terror of life.

I would like to suggest that Christmass is one of those events guiding us in the chaos of life. As the Feast of the Incarnation, it comes to our rescue to create a symbolic cosmos, where we find answers to the imponderables of the “whence and whither” of human existence. In Christmass we find the perfect expression of the divine becoming flesh just like us, don’t we? That is what all of our carols tell us, don’t they? Time and again we sing that we want to be like the child in the manger, meek and mild, obedient and good. We want so desperately to proclaim Joy to the World because the Lord has come. Today’s symbolic representation is presented in our reading from the gospel. It shows us the Chist-child in his father’s temple, that temple wherein we ourselves should dwell. For aren’t we just like the man Jesus, stranded in life making our way to God?

On reading this collect, the existential dilemma each one of us experiences has been drawn to the front of my mind, for here we are in the temple contemplating the human condition. I feel we are compelled to go to first principles as we consider the Feast of the Incarnation. I have to be honest with myself as I contemplate life, the universe and everything.

I became a human being with my birth. I was thrown into a world where I must choose the right and the good. I stand alone at the abyss without a user’s manual, but I have hope. I hope to live a good life. But how?

We always come back to the philosopher who has set the existential dilemma in front of us in the prosaic language of choosing the right course of action. His considerations, I feel, are reflected in our religious language. In the gospel we are set the mystery of Jesus innocently asking Mary and Joseph this question, ‘shouldn’t I be in the temple, “my father’s house”’? The question of the wherein we dwell confronts us starkly as we read this biblical passage and apply it to life as we know it. Do we dwell in the house of the Lord? Or do we sully our nature by immersing ourselves in the bloody filth of sinfulness, that life so far distant from the good and the right, that an angel bars our way back to it?

The prophets have always stood with us in this desert in which we find ourselves. They stand right by us in the decisions we make on the brink. We are in a wilderness and we have to see whether the tradition of prophets and religion makes sense to each one of us individually. I am convinced that we want to tread the path to glory, to release the grace within, to become that image of the divine fully human. This, I think, is the mystery of incarnation.

By being fully human, I become fully divine, all accomplished through grace.

I suppose Paul has expressed what this human divinity or divine humanity really is – “Over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Paul has given us a hint as to what the divine is in our daily lives in these few words. Let Paul provide some direction in the chaos of the new year’s eve.

Amen