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

Sunday, Trinity 5

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, send down upon your Church the riches of your Spirit, and kindle in all who minister the gospel your countless gifts of grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Grant, O Lord, we beseech you, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by your governance, that your Church may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

10    For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

    making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11    so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,

    but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12    For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;

    the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

13    Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

    and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Isaiah 55:10-13

Psalm

1    Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.

2    To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins;
when our misdeeds prevail against us, you will purge them away.

3    Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there.
We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.

4    With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation,
O hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

5    In your strength you set fast the mountains
and are girded about with might.

6    You still the raging of the seas,
the roaring of their waves and the clamour of the peoples.

7    Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels;
the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.

8    You visit the earth and water it;
you make it very plenteous.

9    The river of God is full of water;
you prepare grain for your people, for so you provide for the earth.

10    You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges;
you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.

11    You crown the year with your goodness,
and your paths overflow with plenty.

12    May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness
and the hills be girded with joy.

13    May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep
and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.

Psalm 65

Epistle

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:1-11

Gospel

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 5

The growing of a crop (flowers or vegetables) and how the harvest comes, are things we cannot penetrate. It just happens. All we know is that seeds grow wherever they land, in either good or bad soil, or even no soil at all, but we do not know why, nor how, all this living and growth happens. It seems we can make no sense of it except with help. This parable from the gospel is rather perplexing, isn’t it? Don’t we, like the disciples, wonder why Jesus taught in parables? Jesus replied to them that people listen but do not hear, much the same lesson that Isaiah gave in another place, in words that still apply today, I suppose. Jesus, however, relented and explained this parable for his followers, according to our reading. — This explanation of the parable might allow us to think we can understand everything – why, we might even think that we have secret knowledge. It is hidden in the parable and we, in this hubris of ours, consider ourselves the only people who understand. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church fought against this tendency in the beginning, when they fought against the gnostic heresy, and this battle has been rekindled in my lifetime. There is no secret knowledge, the Church says, there is only public faith and belief, so we proclaim today that salvation belongs to all who believe.

However, the notion of secret knowledge has always been a lure. Whether it is the solution to a quadratic equation or a probability conundrum, or maybe it is how to brew a love potion, or perhaps even the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, this secret knowledge tempts us away from the humble life of belief, separating us from the simplicity and open-ness of faith.

All of us are aware of this, aren’t we? This secret knowledge, this knowledge that makes us so different from the mass of humanity, could give us airs and graces beyond our humanity. We might think we are better than others because we have this very special knowledge. And so we fail to learn the significance of the meaning behind the parables which we hear. Sadly, it would seem that we have fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah about the people of Israel, and what Jesus feared for his disciples and believers in years to come. Jesus decries: “this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes.” We are condemned all because we think we have secret knowledge, because we think our special knowledge makes us so very different from everyone else.

But the wizard, Harry Potter, does not think himself better than anyone else, does he? He has special knowledge, knowledge which his teachers have freely given to him and his fellow students. It is all there, ready for them to use for good or ill. Similarly, Jesus teaches everyone the same. He uses parables because he wants everyone to be “on the same page.” – That book we read is not one which the hermeneuts own for themselves, a book which they hide away, as they say that no one else can read what is really in it except them. However, Harry Potter is just like everyone else, he has learned all the lessons the teachers have taught, but he is extraordinary because he has not been changed in his fundamental being – he is still humble and honest at heart, Harry is still self-deprecating and forthright in every situation. He has not raised himself above the crowd, but he distinguishes himself from the crowd by being himself. This is no mean feat, something I think Jesus emphasises by speaking as he does.

Parables are what places us all together in the same situation and without distinction. Parables are so often a blank wall at which we stare for far too long. I suppose that is why we let those questionable specialists con us into thinking we cannot understand anything for ourselves. We hide in the crowd of unknowing and play dumb. We let the self-proclaimed experts hoodwink us to follow them because they know Greek and can translate the ancient text. We let them take charge of the meaning of the texts for their own purposes when the meaning of the texts should be our own. I would rather say that we need to struggle with the text for ourselves, grasping the nettle of understanding with our own hands.

I think we should see parables as ciphers, that blank wall, through which we grasp ourselves and the world around us. So let us consider the parable we have been given this morning for ourselves.

What should our focus be? In this parable what is important? Should we concentrate on the sower? Is he being profligate and wasteful with the seed – broadcasting it on good soil and all that bad ground, where there are only rocks, and brambles and thorns, and perhaps even no soil at all? Who is this rather poor sower of the seed, who would cast it everywhere in the world, rather than holding back seed from all those bad and unprofitable areas?

Or should the seed itself take our attention, this precious seed which will spring forth and grow strong and yield a harvest? Or is it the ground into which the seed falls which should take our attention, all of those good and bad places where this seeming magical seed will land? – Where should we turn our attention in this parable? There are so many ways to approach this parable, aren’t there? No wonder we abrogate our responsibility to search for the meaning of the parables for ourselves. We think it so very difficult to come to grips with parables for ourselves. We would rather let the experts, like the NT scholar, Joachim Jeremias, do all the hard work of applying the parable to our lives here and now, so we can handle it at a far remove without any cost to ourselves.

I say that is much too easy – to let someone else make up our minds for us. I would want us to take the harder route, where we have to confront the meaning of the parable for ourselves, where the parable becomes our own. Of course, we may come to the same conclusions as so many others, those hermeneutical scholars included, but the dialogue we have had about the parable with our friends or even just privately in my own head, is the thing, the experience of teasing out the meaning  is the crux, not merely holding on to the bare explanation of the parable. That is what makes knowledge real and meaningful. Of course, it is so much simpler to have knowledge we can recite by rote, never having had to struggle with it. It is easier to follow the crowd and comply, but it is far more rewarding to make things your own by being yourself and living by that faith which is hard won. When we finally understand the parable alone or in dialogue with others, we can value everyone with their own opinions equally and life is valued at its fullest, as Jesus promised.

Amen

Trinity 4

Collect

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that with you as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not our hold on things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Gracious Father, by the obedience of Jesus you brought salvation to our wayward world: draw us into harmony with your will, that we may find all things restored in him, our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Post Communion

Eternal God, comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken, you have fed us at the table of life and hope: teach us the ways of gentleness and peace, that all the world may acknowledge the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;

    triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim

    and the warhorse from Jerusalem;

and the battle-bow shall be cut off,

    and he shall command peace to the nations;

his dominion shall be from sea to sea,

    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,

    I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;

    today I declare that I will restore to you double.

Zechariah 9:9-12

Psalm

8    The Lord is gracious and merciful,
long-suffering and of great goodness.

9    The Lord is loving to everyone
and his mercy is over all his creatures.

10    All your works praise you, O Lord,
and your faithful servants bless you.

11    They tell of the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your mighty power,

12    To make known to all peoples your mighty acts
and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.

13    Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom;
your dominion endures throughout all ages.

14    The Lord is sure in all his words
and faithful in all his deeds.

Psalm 145

Epistle

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Romans 7:15-25

Gospel

‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;

we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 4

Now that the pubs are open, and we can get our hair cut and, further down the list of the governments priorities, places of worship are open again, aren’t we relieved? Here in Slimbridge we will be worshipping together next Sunday – with all the regulations and guidance in effect, of course.

However, aren’t we weary after all the time we have been locked away? We have been in camera, as the lawyers would put it, or as we would say, “behind closed doors”. I suppose we are like the apostles at the first Easter. I would say that we, like them, have all been in dialogue within our homes about the things that really do matter to us. We have talked at length with our cohabiters about that all-important meaning of our lives, haven’t we? We have found that many of the ephemeral concerns of life have fallen away. We have had to do “straight talkin’” with our nearest and dearest – and we have discovered just how dear those near to us are, haven’t we?

Perhaps we have been depressed at the world being just too far away from us, beyond the window pane. But we have also learned about just how close reality is, just a window pane away. (A friend confessed that he now understood why his dogs went wild when people walked by, and I think we now all understand that.) We have, in fact, been perplexed about the world and reality. We aren’t really sure what reality is in light of the changed and enclosed world.

Now we are further confused. With the dismantling of the lockdown everything is being overturned again. We are not sure what is right and what is wrong – what we should do and from what we should refrain. Like Paul,

When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. … I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

The problem of being in that dark place is the problem of being behind closed doors, so I wonder whether we have been private for too long. Everything has been turned around, nothing seems certain. I would even dare to say, we don’t even know what is right and wrong. At least many of the social verities of the past have been called into question. Should I be safe with a two metre bubble, or is the one-metre social distancing really right? When do I get to hug my dearest friends? What should I be doing to “Save Lives” as the government slogan had it only four weeks ago.

Meanwhile, I have been watching a lot of television – there are so many cop shows! The more I watch, the more I am convinced that the lockdown should have helped us solve the problem of murder. We should have come to realise that life is what matters, not the commandeering of power, nor the accumulation of wealth, nor is it sex – even though money and sex are supposed to be the only two motives for murder according to one of the many trailers for the mystery channel. However, the lockdown has revealed that motives are many and involve the whole of one’s intentions.

I think that looking at only money or sex as motive of action is really a “dumbing down” of interpersonal reality, just doing what my teachers called “methodological reductionism” – that is to say, reducing why someone does everything to one of those two motives. I think it is really time to think about motives all over again and realise the many things in our lives that are important and, when they are distorted, how things do go awry, and we have to call in the detectives to help us sort out why things have gone so badly, even to the point of breaking the law. Let’s not dumb down – let’s make reality as complex as we have discovered it to be in our lockdown. Our nearest and dearest have revealed themselves as very perplexing, and we have had to come to grips with their puzzling reality as we have remained in our bubbles of isolation with them.

When things go wrong, I think we would agree that things are confused, that our motives are very mixed, that the aim of our lives can change from time to time and that three or four things can confuse in such a way that “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We realise that it is not just the accumulation of wealth any way we can get it, nor merely the comfort of another’s arms, that are the reasons we do the things we do. The philosopher has spoken of “being-with” as one of the fundamentals of humanity, and the other’s arms and money are symbols of that human reality, of how we touch each other’s  lives. The cynical detective may be right in that sex or money are clues to see motives in life, but the really good investigator sees that essential trait of being human – that bonding with another – is really the reason we do so many things, and the binding with others in love is the finest expression of humanity.

Paul knows the complexity of his life: after all he was a Pharisee among the Pharisees, he knew the Law and kept it, why he even held the coats of the crowd which stoned Stephen. Saul knows what is right, but does he do it? I am convinced that his whole life is trying to achieve that ultimate being-with – the being-with of the faithful with God. That is the motive we must look for in our own detection, both in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. But who is this God whom we pursue with such earnestness? The theologians have always said God is that beyond which there is nothing. If we can touch it, then it is not God, it is merely an idol. The theologians have been proved right, haven’t they? In our lockdown we have learned this lesson of God’s transcendent reality at the very least.

But now, I fear, the idols are being moulded again, the ads have taken over the great thoughts of lockdown for their own ends. Amazon, once understood for its impersonal, goods-only approach, has become a place where the workplace has become a collegiality and caring environment which considers the other, customer and worker, as its primary goal. But are we to believe that? After all, these delivery companies have grown exponentially, and all the practices of the past are still in place, for example, zero-hour contracts. But to listen to the ads we would have to believe differently, wouldn’t we? Are we being deceived, or do we hope that those words actually do reveal that life in all its fullness has been achieved in the workplace?

Let us listen to our own words carefully. I have always been concerned with the corona-virus mantra. What is the prime motivation? Did the mantra really tell that story of life in all its fullnes, that life we have discovered in lockdown? My question will always be – has “the way of the world” overtaken all the lessons we have learned?

We have learned about the life in all its fullness in lockdown, how love is the ultimate motivation for all of us. I hope we will never forget our lockdown and lose our love for God, one another  and ourselves, now that we can burst out of the bubble of isolation to enter the everyday world.

Amen

Pentecost

Collect

God, who as at this time taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire; strengthen your children with the gift of faith, revive your Church with the breath of love, and renew the face of the earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Faithful God, who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending us your Holy Spirit and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal: open our lips by your Spirit, that every tongue may tell of your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

“In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

   and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

     and they shall prophesy.

And I will show portents in the heaven above

   and signs on the earth below,

     blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

The sun shall be turned to darkness

   and the moon to blood,

     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Acts 2:1-21

Psalm

24    The sun rises and they are gone
to lay themselves down in their dens.

25    People go forth to their work
and to their labour until the evening.

26    O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
     the earth is full of your creatures.

27    There is the sea, spread far and wide,
and there move creatures beyond number, both small and great.

28    There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan
which you have made to play in the deep.

29    All of these look to you
to give them their food in due season.

30    When you give it them, they gather it;
you open your hand and they are filled with good.

31    When you hide your face they are troubled;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return again to the dust.

32    When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

33    May the glory of the Lord endure for ever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works;

34    He looks on the earth and it trembles;
he touches the mountains and they smoke.

35    I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
  I will make music to my God while I have my being.

Psalm 104

Epistle

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:3-13

Gospel

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

John 7:37-39

or

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

John 20:19-23

Sermon on Pentecost

I wonder whether anyone remembers the Beatles’ song “All’ zusammen nun” – sorry, I should have said, “All together now.” I hope you will excuse my speaking in tongues. This is a wonderful sentiment even if it came from those “long haired crazies” as some castigated that pop group in the ‘Sixties. With that in mind, let’s begin in earnest considering these words from Acts:

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”

How can we understand this statement today? Each of us has been isolated since well before Easter, alone in our houses, without personal contact with our extended and dear families, nor with our friends and colleagues. How can we understand being “all together in one place”? – We certainly haven’t been singing that Beatles’ song. That is not to say nothing has happened in the world – the Prime Minister has been struck down with this contemporary plague and he recovered, the economy has suffered and we are now in the midst of another deep recession, many countries are lessening their controls of movement both within and between their international borders and the relaxation of isolation is happening here. Significantly, people have seen how relevant others are in their lives, and how their lives depend on others. There has also been a lot more graciousness in dealing with one another in the little things. More importantly, I think, we have been dreaming more and those dreams have been very vivid. Why, some might say that we have had visions about life! I am sure we have taken our dreams a little more seriously, don’t you?

We have, in fact, all learned so much by being alone – but are we going to lose all that acquired wisdom by returning to the bad old ways, from those days before “lock down” when the pursuit of profit, the bullying tactics of the marketplace in every sense, took control of our lives? I say we should keep this control of our lives now that we are no longer locked up in the artificial, coercive bubble of the crowd. – Now that we have been given the time and space through self-isolation to lay hold of our lives for ourselves, we should not let go. Or will we give our lives back to that crowd which takes them over? Will we abandon the gracious living we have been able to experience in lock down, when we even applauded the work of the NHS? I don’t think that we are happy with what this bullying, anonymous “they” does with our lives, are we? The question is – What are we doing with the lives we have made for ourselves now? Do we really want to submit to the crowd’s sinister influence again? Or do we pursue what is good for life in all its fullness, something, I think, the crowd does not do?

Jesus cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’

This cri de coeur should shake us up. When Jesus proclaims that he can satisfy human thirst, he speaks to that fundamental yearning we all know, doesn’t he? His lesson is always new – it is revolutionary – his message overthrows the bad, old ways. Instead of bottling up the living water within our selves, we should be letting it flow out from our inmost selves to all and sundry. Just as the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, we should be sharing that living water, not choking on it. We should be watering the lives of others so that life will abound in them just as it does in us. I have to say it is a gift we have to share, wouldn’t you?

This cry of Jesus should call us out of the crowd’s old ways of self-absorption, of worrying about my own cares alone, that selfishness everyone recognises in others, but we never see at the very depth of our own selves. Jesus is telling us that our hearts are no longer the hard stones found in the wilderness. I am sure you remember that from those rocks God once let water flow, once Moses struck them with his staff! Isn’t there hope for us now? Aren’t our hearts being shaken by the loving spirit? Can’t our hearts be transformed from the stones of the desert wasteland into the waters of the garden of delight? Can’t the garden of Eden be found in our lives again? – At the heart of that garden rise and flow the four great rivers. Every Friday night we can hear about the paradise garden which Monty Don has created and extols on Gardeners’ World. There water is always flowing to the ends of the world which he has created for us all to enjoy. That water is a balm for healing – that living water will satisfy our essential thirst which Jesus addresses, that thirst for what is good in life. That living water is symbolised in our gardens with our water features and becomes actually real in our lives when we have a true faith. It wells up from within and flows out.

If we slake our thirst at the true water, that living water, which Christ offers all who would go to him to drink, then our lives would be transformed. Instead of an external control bullying us into submission, instead of bowing to the pressure of the crowd, we would offer our hearts up to all who would near us. As I have said before, when we love, we love all. We would be “all together” in a very different way – one of a sharing love, not the selfish domination of the crowd. We would be offering others the living water as Jesus does for us. When we offer life in all its abundance, when we offer that life of our hearts, when that living water flows out to others, then everything is changed.

We read, “All were amazed and perplexed.” When we all eventually come together, won’t we be amazed and perplexed? We will have to make friends anew because everything has changed – we will have to open our hearts afresh to let that living water of love lap over all around us – we will have to foster the amazement and perplexity of everyone being together again.

For those of us who have a habit of The Church in its one holy catholic and apostolic character, our amazement will not disable us, for we will be so glad to see so many join us again, as new and renewed friends. Our hearts will be opened and love will flow like the water from the stones. However, we will be perplexed because we have been away for so long. The legal obstacles of gathering are being dismantled, but will we have become too comfortable in our loneliness? This will cause our perplexity, for the legalistic crowd has forced us into the isolation of a crowd. Social morés and the expectation of peers have always brought us to heel, haven’t they? I think we all “go along” with the crowd in some way, don’t we? The crowd, I think, really does impose its will on us: don’t you?

However, we don’t like this state of affairs, do we? In our inmost hearts, we don’t want this oppression of the crowd. “They” cannot control my heart, from which wells this boundless life, this love, this agape. The source of this living love, what, I think, Jesus called “living water” – this Life in all its fullness expands infinitely in order to supply us all so that we can share forever. This is what the Holy Spirit does with our lives, while we celebrate it today and every day in The Church,  – it pushes us out toward others who thirst, just as we thirst, for that water which will satisfy forever. Isn’t that what love does? When we love, we are unstoppable – we have infinite energy for all the things we want to do for everyone surrounding us. Love drives us, like the Holy Spirit, to dismantle barriers, to share joy, to experience life in all its fullness, to live life with others – not isolated and alone, but all together now.

Let us celebrate the birth of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church today, Pentecost. Let us share that mystical potion of living water with anyone who comes our way, when we are truly “all together in one place.” Let us share the loving Holy Spirit freely as the Church has always done on this, its birthday and every day, “all’ zusammen nun”.

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

“Low Sunday” – Easter 2

Collect

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ 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, for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred: open the doors of our hearts, that we may seek the good of others and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace, to the praise of God the Father.

Post Communion

Lord God our Father, through our Saviour Jesus Christ you have assured your children of eternal life and in baptism have made us one with him: deliver us from the death of sin and raise us to new life in your love, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Readings

Old Testament

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.’

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:

‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21

Psalm

1    Preserve me, O God, for in you have I taken refuge;
I have said to the Lord, ‘You are my lord, all my good depends on you.’

2    All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land,
upon those who are noble in heart.

3    Though the idols are legion that many run after,
their drink offerings of blood I will not offer,
neither make mention of their names upon my lips.

4    The Lord himself is my portion and my cup;
in your hands alone is my fortune.

5    My share has fallen in a fair land;
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

6    I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel,
and in the night watches he instructs my heart.

7    I have set the Lord always before me;
he is at my right hand; I shall not fall.

8    Wherefore my heart is glad and my spirit rejoices;
my flesh also shall rest secure.

9    For you will not abandon my soul to Death,
nor suffer your faithful one to see the Pit.

10    You will show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

Psalm 16

Acts

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,

“I saw the Lord always before me,

   for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;

therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;

   moreover, my flesh will live in hope.

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,

   or let your Holy One experience corruption.

You have made known to me the ways of life;

   you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

‘Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,

“He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.”

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

Acts 2:14, 22-32

Gospel

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:19-31

Sermon on “Low Sunday”, Easter 2

In the normal course of the Church year, this Sunday is called “Low Sunday”, because everyone took time to recover from the rigours of the great fast of Lent and the joyful feast of Easter. Today must have the record low of all years since the founding of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Church attendance throughout Europe is at zero. There is no great congregation to celebrate the risen Christ together – only virtual gatherings. It is the “lowest Sunday” because of the corona virus. The lows we have reached have induced a new terror. Everyone’s fears have become real in the light of this disease – no one is immune, even the Prime Minister has succumbed. How can we be anything but “low”?

So, how can we rise? How will we resurrect ourselves from the low of this Sunday? I wonder, will the good habit of Church attendance be re-established when our forced isolation has been eased? Will we return to the building to worship and rejoice with each other when the ban on every congregation, small or great, has been lifted?

I hope we will gather in greater numbers – I don’t think we should remain low, because of this lack of being with one another. We should be learning self-sufficiency even if our being-with is deficient. It is only through being-with- one-another that we develop and learn. The lessons I want to understand from this politically enforced singularity focus on moral behaviour and good manners – two things which, I think, belong with each other, as they reflect each other. They show themselves in our actions toward one another. Morally, we understand ourselves only in relation to those ’round about us. Our morals must reveal themselves through our manner of behaving toward one another.

I think this time of isolation should teach us about how we should behave when we do get to embrace and greet one another in love, the love of people saved, the love of people grieving.

How can we consolidate our graciousness toward each other, how can we show our moral care for the other, except through good manners when we are with one another? The social distancing we have been practising has relieved us of the burden of any close caring contact. It is much harder to look someone in the eye to express any care, when you are two metres apart. How can we pass the peace apart from signing and bellowed speech, when we cannot touch each other, when we cannot reach each other’s heart through the nuanced modulation of speech? Good manners, I think, confirms the moral space we create for each other – the handshake affirms it, our tone sustains it – the embrace of the peace symbolises and substantiates all we believe about the love of God and one another.

“In great fear they cried out to the Lord.” In these times of the virus, when we are keeping ourselves to ourselves, as prescribed by law, don’t we cry out in our anxiety? The anxious hearts today reflect the hearts of the people in medieval Europe during the time of the Black Death. How are we to keep ourselves “safe”? How can we avoid the virus and the sinister dangers of depression and despair – those maladies which can insidiously root themselves into the heart of our lives? How can we be healthy when we are no longer with others in a positive manner? Haven’t we become hermits all too easily? This life of isolation has become the norm for so many of us. It has not really affected how we are deep in ourselves. Dropping contact, staying six feet apart has not changed some of us, has it? We shop remotely, we stay at home – no change there. Has this enforced separation really changed us fundamentally? I know that I am as comfortable now as I was before the “lock down” of this legislated isolation. But even though I have not felt so very different, it has made me realise my deficiencies – how negatively I have experienced life. Now I realise just how dismaying my life has been. Now I know the low manner of my life.

And surprisingly it seems that these negative ways of being with one another just seem to appear all of a sudden. We haven’t seen them coming, have we? They are like “the leaven of malice and wickedness” – quietly taking over the course of our lives, without our even noticing the direction our lives have taken. All of a sudden we realise what we are, where we have been thrown. I suddenly realise how spiteful and mean I have always been. What are we to do when we wake up to those realisations about ourselves, when those scales of unseeing fall from our eyes? How can I remain so despicable, as I recognise myself for what I am? How can I be so wicked, especially in this Easter season, when our Lord gave himself up on the cross, and now leads us to the joy of  salvation?

Our destination of heaven has been revealed in the old, old story. The Easter garden is where we understand just what our ownmost possibility is. But when our feet are mired in the clay of the garden, and we see clearly just what we are, then we come under the spotlight of our ownmost possibility. That finality stares us in the face. What are we to do?

Like the Danish theologian, we stand on a precipice, there is no safe place to retreat into – we are exposed and alone, isolated ultimately – we must make that leap of faith into a future of infinite possibility one way or another. At the focus of all time, I must choose – as the old Welsh hymn has it – between truth and falsehood to become what I should be, the culmination of my ownmost possibility, or live the ultimate lie. I reckon the lockdown has given us that  reality of our ownmost possibility.

The existential nihilists might say that this virus has forced us into the limits of who we are, and we must confront the nothingness of our existence. But that would give us no exit from the banality of an earthly life into any of the joyful mansions of the Father’s Kingdom.

We must leap into the bright future of Christ’s promise. Lent was when the government bans on gathering together, the closing of shops and pubs, the social distancing all took hold. We christians have been able to overcome the limitations of governmental recommendations because of our faith, let alone with the marvels of electronic communication.

What is our isolation today when compared to the isolation of Jesus on the cross in those last moments of Good Friday? The old, old story does not end there, in spite of some biblical scholars’ opinions. The old, old story continues in our hearts, where our faith lives. Not in the lowliness of our fear, but in the gracious love of Christ and one another which joins us together even if we are all two metres apart.

Amen

The corona virus

While public worship is suspended, I will be posting the odd comment.

Some have been calling this pandemic a revelation of divine displeasure. Even our politicians have been humbled by this virus, exhibiting their frailty, whether they like it or not, in the face of this emergency. I would like to consider our attitude towards the pandemic of the moment, and I would like to consider it in light of other frights in the past.

In the Cold War, we were paralysed by fear when nuclear holocaust threatened. Joined to this was a great anxiety because of unidentified flying objects. The little green men and other alien beings suddenly appeared, and were written about extensively by many different scientists and non-scientists. They remain in popular culture in the name Roswell and Area 51 in the desert of New Mexico. Now there are zombies and all sorts of ghouls which haunt.

Further back in the past, there are other existential scares. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were witch-hunts, throughout Europe and in North America. Earlier in history the crusades showed how one section of the world’s population vilified another. This pattern of fear has been repeated time and again, arising against neighbour or an unknown – or even invisible – person or being. Whatever its object, the unknown appeared. Clearly the unexplained terrifies.

The completely other throws everything back into the chaos of a beginning, when a new world is created. The current situation is an example of this. Our reactions to a completely new, unknown future reveal our brave new worlds. From the person who ignores everything to the person overwhelmed by every single announcement that appears on the news, is the range of possible behaviour. From the hand-washing of the Lady Macbeth to the playtime of children in dirt whatever the source, we can see all the types of activity people have taken up to create a cosmos around them in these parlous times.

How can we moderate our behaviour in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe? We do need to wash our hands of all the filth of the past, metaphorically and literally, as the start of our purer lives, our futures – “Life in all its fullness” as many have been wont to call it.

Life has changed dramatically in the last month for people throughout the globe. Their private and public worlds are being transformed around them, despite their best efforts to be “normal”. After 9/11 we searched for a “new normal” so that we could settle into a routine where no thought was needed to continue. Perhaps that is wrong – perhaps there has never been a “normal – perhaps we need to remain in the world where flux is ever present, where there is no routine, but everything around us is new and vibrant, challenging, even dangerous. Where love is on the edge of experience informing every moment of life in all that fullness for each and every one of us.

Lent Three, All Age Worship

Collect

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; 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)

Eternal God, give us insight to discern your will for us, to give up what harms us, and to seek the perfection we are promised in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm

1    O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation.

2    Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving
and be glad in him with psalms.

3    For the Lord is a great God
and a great king above all gods.

4    In his hand are the depths of the earth
and the heights of the mountains are his also.

5    The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands have moulded the dry land.

6    Come, let us worship and bow down
and kneel before the Lord our Maker.

7    For he is our God;
we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.

8    O that today you would listen to his voice:
‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, on that day at Massah in the wilderness,

9    When your forebears tested me, and put me to the proof,
though they had seen my works.

10    ‘Forty years long I detested that generation and said,
“This people are wayward in their hearts; they do not know my ways.”

11    ‘So I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter into my rest.” ’

Psalm 95

Epistle

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Gospel

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

John 4:5-42

Address on Lent Three

We have just reflected on healthy water, running water that is safe to drink.

“Living water” is what the Greek says in our gospel reading – “Living water” is a strange phrase, isn’t it? What do you think it means? You probably think that it means “the water of life”, some sort of elixir, like what Pons de Leon was looking for as he explored Florida. After all, “the water of life” is the theme of this week’s worship, so your expectations have already been set. They are related phrases, aren’t they?

So just what does the original Greek phrase, “living water”, mean? A long time ago, my teacher took a look at this phrase and relayed what it meant in another context. In the text he was working through with us, “living water” had to do with the water that was used for baptism. In this phrase, living is a verb used as an adjective to modify water, like the word ‘burning’ in the phrase, “burning flame”. In this case the word living is related to the word that is used for life, when Jesus asks us to step up to life in all its fullness.

In the text that my teacher was explaining, the water used for baptism should be running water, like that of a stream or a river – in other words, we are asked to use running water so we can re-capture the archetypal baptism of Jesus which took place in the River Jordan. There the water buffeted John and Jesus as they stood in that flowing river. The water was swirling about, taking all that was not firmly rooted with it. Imagine the scene, John and Jesus facing each other, their garments billowing about them, the coldness of the mountain streams attacking their legs. Perhaps they rocked about because the current was so strong pressing ’round about them. Everything is being taken away that is not essentially part of them, and John baptises Jesus in the perfect baptism.

We have all stood in brooks, haven’t we? You remember the water streaming all around your boots, pressing on your ankles. You felt the coolness of the water through all the layers of leather, rubber and wool – eventually. We experience this water as what they call “elemental”, don’t we? Like the wind, this running water has its own force and makes us wonder at our place in the universe. I think this is why the early church said that the best water for baptism is this running water. This is water in the outside world where we don’t really control it.

The water all around us nowadays shows us its power, doesn’t it? For the past six months we have seen the strength of water in our lives. We cannot stop the rivers rising and overflowing, even though we have spent millions on flood defences. The rivers have breached walls in so many places in the last twelve months.

Water can even enter our houses, if it really wants to. Water seeps in and invades our lives. We are helpless as we face its power. We know the strength of water whether in violent storms or in the steady trickle of a leaking pipe. Water can uproot just about anything, given time. Haven’t we all seen pictures of trees racing downstream on flood-water? On the banks of the Severn we should be very much aware of the power of living water as it races past us usually to empty itself into the chaotic waters of the sea.

This is water in its rawest form, its most elemental, calling into question everything we think permanent and important. Violent storm-water can make us question our very existence. The floods of the past months conjure this vision up for us. These doubts welling up in our hearts make us wonder fundamentally, don’t they?

We have all heard the phrase “waters of chaos”, haven’t we? – Metaphorically, they characterise the undifferentiated state of being before anything comes into existence. Water plays a part in all creation myths, in particular the ancient Hebrew creation story “In the beginning…”. The middle east is rife with them. In all of them, the first waters are the whence from which life is drawn. We can understand this, can’t we? especially when we think of the minor floods we have experienced in this country when compared with the flood upon which Noah floated in his ark – even though we feel we should have been as prepared as Noah for the storms which tossed him. Even the scientists today speak of the primordial watery world and the mud from which all life rose.

Such is the destructive power of the flood, but also the life-giving power of water when it flows in a regulated way – when we understand where and how water flows, life is granted. This safe water is “living water” for it allows for cleansing and use at the heart of our lives.

We should bear this in mind now, when we think of baptism in Lent, for we are purging ourselves through our fast, aren’t we? And our baptism candidates are preparing themselves for their great journey. The cleansing of the living water of baptism should take everything that is not our very own away. The waters of chaos leave us with our ownmost possibility, our own lives – nothing more, nothing less – after all, what else is there except our individual existence, that real life which we have been given.

Out of the chaos of the flood, we find our lives. When we find ourselves tossed out of the flood to lie on the bank by that living water, we can take it in. We can now dip our cup to overflowing and receive the bounty it offers.

But what an event leads up to that realisation! – We have survived the battle with the waves. We have perhaps swallowed too much, and are overwhelmed for a bit. We are exhausted because of our exertions in the chaos of our lives up to this point. We may be ready to close our eyes to sleep finally. There are some who succumb to that temptation, not struggle against exhaustion, to remain in that undifferentiated mass without consciousness, nor with a conscience. There are, however, some who stand up and alone to become themselves, surveying the world around them to conquer all sense of desolation, to take on the life given to them, to enjoy what the living water has given them through their struggle.

“Living water” is a metaphor for baptism and our life of faith. This water of life is always moving – changing and challenging – sometimes even overwhelming us, but always it brings that verbal adjective to a reality in our experience. It is now in our lives providing us a life running through us to others as we care for them, as they experience their own waters of baptism.

Amen

First Sunday of Lent

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; 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)

Heavenly Father, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert: help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, you have renewed us with the living bread from heaven; by it you nourish our faith, increase our hope, and strengthen our love: teach us always to hunger for him who is the true and living bread, and enable us to live by every word that proceeds from out of your mouth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Psalm

1    Happy the one whose transgression is forgiven,
and whose sin is covered.

2    Happy the one to whom the Lord imputes no guilt,
and in whose spirit there is no guile.

3    For I held my tongue;
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all the day long.

4    Your hand was heavy upon me day and night;
my moisture was dried up like the drought in summer.

5    Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and my iniquity I did not hide.

6    I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

7    Therefore let all the faithful make their prayers to you in time of trouble;
in the great water flood, it shall not reach them.

8    You are a place for me to hide in;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with songs of deliverance.

9    ‘I will instruct you and teach you
in the way that you should go;
I will guide you with my eye.

10    ‘Be not like horse and mule which have no understanding;
whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you.’

11    Great tribulations remain for the wicked,
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.

12    Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

Psalm 32

Epistle

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Romans 5:12-19

Gospel

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you”,

and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus said to him,

‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:1-11

Sermon on First Sunday of Lent?

One of the major themes in the christian spiritual life follows the title of Thomas a Kempis’ book, The Imitation of Christ. It is a classic book that everyone must be acquainted with in some way, if only to know the title. The book espouses a wonderful ideal, to be able to achieve the saved life by incorporating the Jesus into our own lives. We all hope to achieve this divine end as christians, don’t we?

For instance in our Collect for today, we pray

Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are

Here we are at the beginning of Lent, the season of temptation. We are supposed to be fasting just as Jesus did at the start of his ministry. Each of us is making our way to our ownmost possibility, through Calvary and then on to heaven. By fasting we are imitating Christ through Lent, in Holy Week we participate in the passion through the rites of the Church and we live out our own resurrection in a perfect imitation of the Easter event.

The Collect, however, makes a qualification about our exemplar Jesus, doesn’t it? – The Collect adds the phrase, “yet without sin” This should start alarm bells off and, unless our hubris deafens us, we should hear them as they ring true about our very nature as human beings. We are “Saved sinners” and the phrase describes each and every believer – as christians we do not have the divine perfection of human innocence which Jesus has. After all, aren’t we always falling short of the ideal of being perfect in our humanity? Jesus did embrace this essential quality which we are, but tellingly, “without sin”.

However, according to our confession of faith, repeated whenever we worship together, Jesus was also perfect in divinity. Are we “divine”? Have we that quality which is the perfection of all being in our lives? No, I don’t think so. I certainly do not embody this quality. We are limited in our capacity but we do aspire to perfection in every aspect of our lives. Or, if we see ourselves as divine, I imagine we are listening to voices other than our own conscience, voices which indeed may be drowning out those alarm bells we should hear. I think we could be listening to deluding voices, suggesting that we are more than we really are. I imagine this is why witchcraft, mystery and suspense hold such a sway over so many. After all, isn’t Harry Potter or Hermione Granger the person we want to be? We could talk for a long time about these heroic characters of modern legend and how they embody the illusion of the world, those delusions all religions try to dispel.

Religion speaks to human failure in general, that we do not attain the humility of a perfect humanity, the conscience that crowns human humility. We need only observe the people around us to realise just how we can deceive ourselves. In our own self-reflective recounting of our day, in that lenten discipline of daily self appraisal, I believe we can see just how we might be fooling ourselves. Perhaps we realise that we act without humility, perhaps we realise that we have even acted without conscience. Sadly that seems to be the way “they” in the great mass of humanity around us, seem to act day in and day out. But more tellingly those seductive voices tell us to act without recourse to conscience. Indeed they encourage us to act without reflection on what is righteous, what may reflect the divine – or even true humanity in any situation.

How bitter an experience it is when we throw ourselves against the crowd round about us, when a humble conscience takes over our lives! Just how can we survive the dreadful pain of that isolation – that we are alone with God?

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church has been struggling with this conundrum since Jesus hung on the cross at Calvary. Happily for us, there are a range of possible answers to this mystery – the whence and whither of God with us.

Last week I considered the wide range of worship and church polity as offering possible solutions to this isolation, modes of humble living in the world with others. When conscience isolates us from the crowd, when we are isolated from every other person. When we have to make those decisions for ourselves, alone, aren’t we perplexed?

Where is the guide which will lead us through the tangled web we weave when we attempt to deceive ourselves let alone others, when we listened only to the crowd which admits it has no interest in justice, righteousness and the good?  Instead of the external mode of being with people ’round about us, will the historical churches guide us in that spiritual life? Does the Church teach us about life in accord with conscience?

As it is Lent, let’s consider whether this inner life can be captured, whether we ourselves can live out our conscience. There are many spiritual disciplines offered by the Church. Which shall I choose? In which will I feel comfortable? I wonder, though – is that the right way of approaching this problem of Lent and its attendant fasting? Perhaps we should find what makes us uncomfortable and forces us into the spiritual – as opposed to the fleshly about which Paul speaks so eloquently.

What degree of discomfort can we deal with? What constraints of discipline will bring us to understand our singular self, to experience the “I” in the presence of the “Thou” of our God? We must remember that God does not tempt us beyond our endurance – I would suggest only the crowd does that. So we should enter into our fast with eagerness to become truly what we are.

When I give up chocolate, don’t I stand over against the crowd? Fasting does separate us from the people ’round about us, doesn’t it? Who could possibly give up chocolate in an age where indulgence is the norm!? After all, didn’t all the ads suggest we needed to indulge ourselves all through that smaller period of fasting called Advent!? This giving up of chocolate does isolate the fasting person from his (or her) neighbours, doesn’t it? This could be just the start of a life of conscience – if we are able to endure that isolation for more than forty days. Fasting should condition us for that isolation which throws us into a world where God confronts us in no uncertain terms, where we encounter our ownmost possibility, where we can imitate Christ in the desert and overcome all the devil’s temptations, from endless indulgence (bread from rocks), immortality (hurling himself from the pinnacle of the Temple), or ruling all the earth (subjecting all beneath our feet). I only hope that more people will imitate Christ and divine humility will inhabit human conscience.

Amen

Second Sunday before Lent

Collect

Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, give us reverence for all creation and respect for every person, that we may mirror your likeness in Jesus Christ our Lord. Post Communion God our creator, by your gift the tree of life was set at the heart of the earthly paradise, and the bread of life at the heart of your Church: may we who have been nourished at your table on earth be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s cross and enjoy the delights of eternity; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

Psalm

1  Blessed are those whose way is pure,
who walk in the law of the Lord.

2  Blessed are those who keep his testimonies
and seek him with their whole heart,

3  Those who do no wickedness,
but walk in his ways.

4  You, O Lord, have charged
that we should diligently keep your commandments.

5  O that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your statutes.

6  Then should I not be put to shame,
because I have regard for all your commandments.

7  I will thank you with an unfeigned heart,
when I have learned your righteous judgements.

8  I will keep your statutes;
O forsake me not utterly.

Psalm 119

Epistle

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Sermon on Second Sunday before Lent

“God-given growth” is the theme we have for today’s worship. It is easy to see how people grow, isn’t it? – The change from infant to adult is just one way to understand it. As christians we grow in many ways, but using Paul’s words, we go from babes fed on milk to adults feeding on solid food, or from fleshly to spiritual. How do we recount our own growing up? How, then, can we tell the story of our lives?

Normally we describe a time line and peg that line on a map of the globe, don’t we? This occurred to me again as I watched an episode of Star Trek as we were waiting for our supper to cook the other night. This is germane because Voyager was in what they called “chaotic space”. In that episode, there were no fixed points. Chakote was the focus for this episode as he was battling with internal and external chaos in that area of space they inhabited for the episode. In this episode, Chakote met up with his deceased grandfather, a holographic boxer and a groundsman of indeterminate, but older, age from the Star Fleet Academy, all amidst a strange landscape of his own dream quest. He was thrown into chaos, much like all of us at many points in our lives. Chakote must make order of this chaotic space and time in which he finds himself – much as each one of us has to make ourselves at home wherever we find ourselves: in other words, we endeavour to dwell in a world of meaning guided by some kind of ultimacy. We have to grow into this bewildering world which may reveal itself to us in such oppressive ways. Sometimes we don’t think this growth is God-given, do we? No, we are in the midst of chaos where there is only immediate danger, people and things stand in the way of what we we think are beyond ephemeral.

Last week, before we sat down to watch that episode of Star Trek, I picked up a small but, for me, significant tome, “The Dynamics of Faith”, in which the theologian discusses the various ways order is established in life, he describes this process through the expressions of faith within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. He outlines the range of the Church’s worship from a formal, sacramental type which morphs very slowly, but surely, into an absolutely free form of worship. The writer used other heuristics to explain how faith expresses itself in so many different ways, but this one is enough for me at the moment to get on with. This range of worship can guide our consideration of how we grow by examining what sort of worship allows us to feel comfortable as it challenges us to grow in faith, by reaching beyond the immediate.

The most formal and sacramental church in my experience is the Eastern Orthodox, which runs from the Russian through the Greek to the Coptic Egyptian. All its worship is focussed on the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is a very different worship when compared to the anglican holy communion. The language is ancient, not a modern vernacular, and no change in the liturgy is ever envisaged. The Russian church uses an ancient Slavic, the Greek church uses koine which is neither the ancient Greek of Homer, Euripides and Plato, nor is it anything like modern Greek, and the Egyptian church uses Coptic, and who among us has heard anything about that language revered as it is?

The rite of the orthodox church is absolutely fixed in a culturally acceptable form depending on where in the world you find yourself. The ancient ceremonies are respected and would be the same as 1,000 years ago and should remain the same 1,000 years from now. Why that is so can be relayed through a story I find revealing – the pagan Tzar sent a delegation to Greece to find out about christianity, and when it came back all they had to say was, “We have seen heaven on earth.” So, how could we expect any change in this formal, structured worship? Really, would we want to change anything of that revelation?

The other extreme is the Quaker Meeting. – When Friends meet, there is no liturgy, there are no symbols on display. In this worship one sits and waits upon God. There is nothing from any authority, everything arises from the movement of the Spirit, the spark of God, within each worshipper. How very different is this meeting house from the orthodox church building! There are no icons, no altar, no priests, no acolytes, no chalice, no paten. The Friends sit in a white room with clear glass in silence. There is no decoration, nor are there any officials.

Between these extremes lie so many other church groups. If we just look at our own communion, we anglicans show a great diversity of organisation and expression of our belief. Some of our churches, like ours here, are what is called “low” where you would not know the difference between those churches and a congregational or a reformed gathering, almost bordering on the experience of the Quaker meeting but we have music, movement and worship leaders of all sorts. Then there are the “high” churches where the priest and his acolytes and choirs obscure the sacred rites from the congregation, much in the same way as the iconostasis hides the sacramental mystery from the orthodox congregation gathered in worship. So within our own anglican communion there is great diversity of religious expression and we have to find our place in that very broad church.

Many have moved from congregation to congregation to find that place where we can feel at home – where no longer are we confused by the chaos of our thrown existence. We have established a world of meaning through the rites and symbols of a common language we share with our neighbours and friends. In other words, the world of each different church can serve us for a time, long or short.

But we do wander in our life journeys, don’t we? Sometime we find ourselves a place here or a time there. They may be very different sorts of spaces, don’t you think? When I was a child, I lived near Boston. When I went to university, I found myself in Chicago, then I came to this country, and here I have lived in big towns and small villages. In every place, I have had to make myself at home. My time line and my journey’s route are part and parcel of the story I tell of my life.

This wandering can be seen to be the same  sort of journey we have in faith. It would seem that sometimes we need the rigid structures of a fixed liturgy, where things all have their proper place and there are no surprises in our worship. At other times we need to have a freedom where nothing can be predicted – every moment is its own, and each is extraordinary. In both extremes we are free to engage with the ultimate concern of our lives. There is nothing to deflect our attention away from God. The emptiness of the Quaker meeting or the symbolic overload of the orthodox liturgy within the vault of heaven on earth both allow each one of us to grasp the ultimate care of our own lives.

We often feel as though we are in chaos where space and time make no sense, and so neither does our experience, but in this chaos we do find order, it grows within and without. The world is given shape and purpose and we discover the epiphany of our God in time and space for ourselves in the immediacy of experience.

My conclusion is that God-given growth allows us to move from the milk of the flesh to the solids of the spiritual. Always, however, this growth throws us into a world not of our own making, but one in which we must find our life’s compass, by which we must reach our ultimate concern. We should never be deflected by immediate problems, but always we grow into God, from a fleshly infancy towards a spiritual maturity. This is the God-given growth we explore through life.

Amen