Easter

Collect

Almighty God, who through thine only-begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.

or

God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell: fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way to life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Post Communion

God of Life, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection have delivered us from the power of our enemy: grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

First Reading

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Acts 10.34-43

Psalm

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;

   his steadfast love endures for ever!

Let Israel say,

   ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’

The Lord is my strength and my might;

   he has become my salvation.

There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:

‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;

   the right hand of the Lord is exalted;

   the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.’

I shall not die, but I shall live,

   and recount the deeds of the Lord.

The Lord has punished me severely,

   but he did not give me over to death.

Open to me the gates of righteousness,

   that I may enter through them

   and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;

   the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me

   and have become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected

   has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing;

   it is marvellous in our eyes.

This is the day that the Lord has made;

   let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118.1-2,14-24

Epistle

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15.19-26

Gospel

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20.1-18

Sermon on Easter

‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’

Don’t you think that Easter is the day we should really understand what Peter meant by these words? Let’s take this apart and try to comprehend just what the implications are for us today.

The question Peter addresses is this – Who is acceptable to God? Peter gives us an answer in two parts. The first part is obvious – Anyone who “does what is right” is something we can all accept as true.

We can all understand this, can’t we? Morally and ethically right action is acceptable to everyone. Whoever does what is right must be acceptable to everyone. Even a politician who takes the moral high ground as his point of orientation is applauded. It is not about the laws passed that commends our lawmakers, but the quality of individual decisions they make in their lives which are reflected in their words, public and private, in government and at home. These decisions, whether hard or easy to make, compel us to appreciate the person who makes them.

Doing what is right makes that person acceptable to people round about him or her. That person who does right is acclaimed by the whole world. – On earth and, I believe, in heaven they are acclaimed as worthy, and we confess that they must be acceptable to God as well. – Our hope is that anyone who does what is right will be acceptable in the sight of God, just as he or she is acceptable in the sight of all people.

But the other phrase, “In every nation anyone who fears him”, is a bit harder to comprehend, isn’t it? What is this “fear”? We have often heard the phrase “the fear of the Lord”, haven’t we? – and I am sure we have wondered just what it is. This fear is something that we don’t acknowledge in our lives. Fear is not anything we wish, is it? Do we fear our neighbour? What about the dog wandering in our yard? Do you fear what is coming for lunch? Although we are afraid, primordial fear is just not part of our world!

But for “homo religiosus” as described by the historian of religion, this fear is an integral part of life. The forces around him are manifold and extraordinary, so very different from her normal circumstances. Fear delineates where the holy erupts into life. This fear is something far deeper than the being frightened of the unknown, it is part of one’s essential being in the world.

The world in which this model human being lives is one of mystery, divine mystery. The religious person sees the sacred in extraordinary and mundane events. That perception allows a healthy fear of the Other to be part of life. That Otherness of God is what should promote our fear of the Lord, and so should allow us to be worthy of acceptance to God.

However, we don’t want to be frightened in any circumstances, do we? The magical monsters of the horror movies, that gruesome figure hiding in the darkness, is what we usually think of when we talk about being afraid. But is that what this fear of the Lord is? You know how I am going to answer this, don’t you? The fear of the Lord has nothing to do with being afraid. It is standing in awe of what is not ourselves. This fear places us firmly in the world which is beyond our control.

However, we are not under the control of what causes that fear. Our awe of the world allows us to take control of our selves and move in the world. Religion gives us the stories and history of the world about us, so that we can understand. Religion gives us the ways we can deal with those things about us. Religion makes everything meaningful. As the historian of religion says, religious myths, symbols and rituals place the person in the world in which he lives and moves and has being.

That person has the fear appropriate to life in all its fullness. That is why someone is acceptable to God.

But how does all this relate to the Easter Event? How does this relate to our celebrations of the resurrection of the incarnate Lord three days after the Passover of God?

Why do we consider who is acceptable to God when this miracle is the focus of our liturgy today? The mystery of our faith is so far beyond our comprehension, we are at a loss when it comes to speaking about it. We are fearful of that moment of power. We fear in a most appropriate way the manifestation of God’s glory in our lives through the religious recitation of the story of our faith, a story which has nothing whatsoever to do with our ordinary, and (dare I say it?) profane lives.

That is what the fear of the Lord does, it opens us to the sacred power in our lives, that life of fullness, full of mystery and power to live truly, the power to grasp the good and do it.

I think that is why we are asked to consider Peter’s words in the Acts of the Apostles today of all days.

Any person who is fearful of the sacred power in the world about him or her truly understands their places. They live in an ordered world, a world in which they will do what is right.

That is why I think so many of us have found much to console and to inspire us during this year of lockdown. We have taken control of our lives. We have come to know what is important and stripped away what has been illusory, like all those false gods and idols which the bible proscribes. We have also banished the cant of the crowd from our lives, no longer subject to the fickle fake news in which many are wont to revel.

We have stepped away from the mundane to find a profound source of meaning in the midst of confusion. We have turned in many cases to a sacred fear of the world.

This fear does not immobilise us. We are energised by this fear. That is why we find the resurrection as the source of our faith. We, like Christ, erupt from the tomb in order to live a risen life, a life of fullness as Christ promised us.

We are enabled to do what is right because of our fear of the Lord, because we have experienced the sacred in the midst of the profanity of the world. We are those people whom Peter proclaims acceptable to God. We have stood in the midst of the chaos and created a cosmos of good works and profound fear of the other. We live out our loving care for the other with awe. This is why we keep Easter, to remind ourselves of the profound fear we have experienced and our courage to do what is right, to be sacred in a profane world.

Amen

Passion Sunday

Collect

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; 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

Gracious Father, you gave up your Son out of love for the world: lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion, that we may know eternal peace through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do also for you: give us the will to be the servant of others as you were the servant of all, and gave up your life and died for us, but are alive and reign, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm

1    Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness;
according to the abundance of your compassion blot out my offences.

2    Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness
and cleanse me from my sin.

3    For I acknowledge my faults
and my sin is ever before me.

4    Against you only have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,

5    So that you are justified in your sentence
and righteous in your judgement.

6    I have been wicked even from my birth,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

7    Behold, you desire truth deep within me
and shall make me understand wisdom in the depths of my heart.

8    Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;
wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

9    Make me hear of joy and gladness,
that the bones you have broken may rejoice.

10    Turn your face from my sins
and blot out all my misdeeds.

11    Make me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.

12    Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy spirit from me.

13    Give me again the joy of your salvation
and sustain me with your gracious spirit;

Psalm 51

or

9    How shall young people cleanse their way
to keep themselves according to your word?

10    With my whole heart have I sought you;
O let me not go astray from your commandments.

11    Your words have I hidden within my heart,
that I should not sin against you.

12    Blessed are you, O Lord;
O teach me your statutes.

13    With my lips have I been telling
of all the judgements of your mouth.

14    I have taken greater delight in the way of your testimonies
than in all manner of riches.

15    I will meditate on your commandments
and contemplate your ways.

16    My delight shall be in your statutes
and I will not forget your word.

Psalm 51

Epistle

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you’;

as he says also in another place,

‘You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.’

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 5:5-10

Gospel

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 12:20-33

Sermon on Passion Sunday

In our collect for today, we confess and praise God who “by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world.” This is a strange exclamation for us to make in the twenty-first century, isn’t it? No one around us would seem to understand such a remark – after all, has Boris Johnson or any of the government ever looked at the salvation of the British people and made comment on how it will come about? All our leaders speak about little things in the immediate future – “When will lockdown end?” “What about the economy?” “When will the pubs open?” These are the questions they wish to address. But what about that goal for the salvation of all creation? Has anyone been thinking about the eternal verities amongst the very present inconveniences of wearing masks and keeping two metres apart, or not gathering en masse, or not enjoying the company of intimate groups, of staying at home and not travelling to places just because we want to?

Does a trip to Spain matter more over against salvation? What does going to a full Wembley Stadium matter when we lose our eternal lives? Why doesn’t our family fulfill our desire for love and belonging, a love which can encompass our neighbours without a second thought? All of this drives us to the religious intent of life.

A friend said that anthropologists have revealed the fact that of the 500 different societies in the world 90% will happily discuss God. I have to conclude that there are few places where “politics and religion” are eschewed as proper subjects for conversation between friends, or even with strangers. (You might remember that anecdote from the era of the early Church that you were more likely to discuss the Trinity rather than the price when you went to buy bread.) After all, isn’t our ownmost possibility a proper topic for discussion between consenting adults?

Don’t friends ask the hard questions of each other? Don’t you immediately want to ask your partner, “What is wrong?” when you hear merely a sigh? You may remember that I take Cicero’s definition of friendship to heart, that friends can speak of anything without let or hindrance, and nothing will be remembered or fester whatever you have said. A friend will listen and give you their thoughts there and then, and you will listen to that friend without any affectation. Good old Cicero, he was stoic in everything. Like our friend Rudyard Kipling whose words from “If” stands in the midst of the great struggles of Wimbledon’s centre court, Cicero wants every person to treat all things the same. Good or ill – it doesn’t matter – all must be treated with the indifference we reserve for our toothbrush, an item which merits our utmost care.

If we understand this attitude, I think we can move to what the collect is trying to say. When we focus on eternal salvation, doesn’t everything pale into insignificance? Doesn’t everything fit in next to one another in proper order, as one thing never takes precedence over any other thing because of our faith?

But what is the result of this faith? What benefits does it bestow? Do we become the “Ubermensch” of Nietzsche or the Superman of DC Comics? Do we gain magical power like Harry Potter? No – nothing like that. Rather, when we have faith, we are led “to ponder the mysteries of Christ’s passion, so that we may know eternal peace.” What a prize faith affords us! Imagine that! – “Eternal peace” – that is something we don’t really know, is it? Do riches calm us? Do our possessions pacify the stirrings of our hearts? No, they don’t. At least that is what religion teaches, that is what all my philosophy concludes, but what are your thoughts on the subject?

Perhaps that is a question which should be raised when we gather with friends and family by phone or ipad. That is a question which must be considered when we meet people face to face in the future. We begin thinking about those mysteries in the free discourse between friends. With friends, we can explore those incalculable advantages of eternal verity. After all, isn’t the dialogue of friends the only place where anything can be discussed without offence? Imagine asking Mr Sunak about the benefits of the passion of Christ. Would Kier Starmar rush to discuss the merits of “the shedding of our Saviour’s blood”? Would Boris Johnson wish to ponder with you just how salvation for the world can be achieved? Would they take the time to converse with any of us about how we perceive the benefits of turning to God in our day to day lives?

Don’t we begin to understand those Greeks who approached Philip with the words, “We want to see Jesus!”? Don’t we want to see Jesus, that friend of friends as our own friend. When we have this attitude of friendship, the openness toward dialogue with the other, can’t we speak about anything?

When there is a true freedom of speech, like the conversation between friends, there is something new in the substance of our communication. We might reveal what our hearts are really like. I want to be able to open my soul to the world, but when we don those masks we wear daily  out in the world, I cannot. I have to hide behind a persona, that mask. But imagine if that were not the case, and our real hearts were clear to see, not hidden by any personal motives or concerns, without any mask of any sort. Could it be that these words from the prophet might be true?

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

When that law of love is in our hearts, when God is our intent, when we are faithful in the little things, then life in all its fullness will be ours. Without those masks, then shall the lamb lie down with the lion and peace shall reign in all creation, that peace of salvation graced to the world through the crucifixion and ultimately the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Amen

Sunday Lent 2

Collect

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord 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, by the prayer and discipline of Lent may we enter into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings, and by following in his Way come to share in his glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm

23    Praise the Lord, you that fear him;
O seed of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, O seed of Israel.

24    For he has not despised nor abhorred the suffering of the poor; neither has he hidden his face from them;
but when they cried to him he heard them.

25    From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
I will perform my vows in the presence of those that fear you.

26    The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord shall praise him; their hearts shall live for ever.

27    All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

28    For the kingdom is the Lord’s
and he rules over the nations.

29    How can those who sleep in the earth bow down in worship,
or those who go down to the dust kneel before him?

30    He has saved my life for himself; my descendants shall serve him;
this shall be told of the Lord for generations to come.

31    They shall come and make known his salvation, to a people yet unborn,
declaring that he, the Lord, has done it.

Psalm 22

Epistle

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Romans 4:13-25

Gospel

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Mark 8:31-38

Sermon on Sunday Lent 2

When we pray “Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness”, don’t you wonder, just how this works? How do we see the light and return to what is good? This becomes a moral question of the first order, and I think moral questions are the most important in life and for life.

This question faces all of us, time and again. Don’t people say to us, “You are being foolish, this is what is true – this is what needs to be done”? Someone undoubtedly has said that to you, I am sure, because so many have said to me that they know what is right and I don’t – that I have begun to think that I am foolish, but more importantly I begin to think that I have deceived myself for the whole of my life. But have I? I say to them – Show me the error of my way of life. I surely have made mistakes, but is my way of life without righteousness, without any value or goodness? Have I lived without considered thought about all I have done. I don’t ask this about being a christian, rather I ask this about my day to day life, my very existence. Have I lived an evil life? Have I embraced an evil which I have not recognised? So I implore you, ‘Show me the error of my ways! so that I can turn to righteousness and truth.’

I keep asking the questions about that change – that conversion of my life. How will you make me understand where the path of righteousness is? Shine that light in my life. But still, the question remains, how will you do that?

And yet the ultimate question has to be asked: When will God do so for all of us? When will the world be taught about goodness and truth? When will the world recognise the light in world, that light which has not been extinguished despite our ignorance and corrupt willfulness?

The philosopher speaks of “the call of conscience” which orders the whole of one’s life. That call is the voice I long to hear, not the commands of regulations, but the divine voice of the spirit. I do not need to be bullied into submission, for I am sure that I would willingly follow the voice of reason, something always asked of me by parents and teachers alike. The cane never worked, but persuading me what is right always will. – “Hearts and minds,” the brigadier always said – and I am sure we have to agree with him. If we have turned our hearts and minds to the light, to the good, to truth – when we have made that complete turn – life will be fine, and the world will be transformed for everyone. Perhaps we might even have attained world peace and personal contentment for each and every one of us.

I think most of us would agree that the strictures of law and regulation rankle our clear vision – they frustrate our lives of freedom. Perhaps this is why covid has become a global emergency – because our personal whims have been frustrated. No one wants to be tied down by any of the red tape of lockdowns, long or short. We say that the imposition of restrictions has smothered us as we wear our masks in public. But have we been denied?

I think these cloth masks have really been a sign of what has always been. We have always hidden behind masks, only now they are real physical things. Whether it is a black mask, like those the robbers in the cowboy films always wore, or the light blue-green mask of the nurse in Casualty – the mask is always between us, obscuring and revealing at the same time. The mask is how we reveal ourselves as we go into the world, how we interact with the world. The psychologists and the sociologists have always spoken of the masks we wear to cope with the others ’round about us.

For instance, don’t we wear a blank mask when we wish to avoid people? Don’t we put on that mask of disregard which does not allow engagement from time to time? We don’t even look at someone sometimes as we let the mask be our face between us. Don’t we, in other instances, pretend to be “the professional” who does not want to engage, when we come across a difficult customer? Don’t we get really feisty when we want our own way in the shop? And don’t the sparks really fly when those two masks are exposed to one another at the same time? I begin to wonder, have our masks obscured who we really are?

Let’s acknowledge that masks will always be there – and actually they always have been there. We have always worn masks, both figurative and real. With Covid, our lives have changed without any possibility of reversal. The old ways have gone forever. Now we must keep a proper social distance … now we must act with care for the other. That is what the mask signifies – that we actually do care through the mask. Isn’t this why the moralists have always said – Life is living for others?

The words of the Collect keep coming back to me, ‘you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness’. Those whom we have placed in positions to wear the mask of leadership promulgate regulations and then flout them, so we wonder about whether they are necessary – let alone workable. They speak in contradictions and act in ways we would call hypocritical. Such an observation is not new. Didn’t Jesus call the leaders of his time hypocrites? And in our gospel reading for today, doesn’t Jesus call Peter Satan?

However, it is not just our leaders who are wearing masks to hide behind … let’s look at ourselves. Are we not just as sinful as our leaders? Don’t we ourselves say one thing and do another? Don’t we wear masks to cover our shame? Isn’t the light of righteousness missing in our lives? Haven’t we ourselves missed the mark which truth and goodness make in the world?

I want to say that we should keep praying our collect day by day, so we “may reject those things that are contrary to our profession of faith in the one good God, and follow all such things as are agreeable to that faith.” It is a constant struggle to open our hearts and minds to the “light of God’s truth, that we may return to the way of righteousness.” When we overcome the darkness, doesn’t life become rich and full again as we walk in the light?

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

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—

when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,

when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

Proverbs 8:1, 22-31

Psalm

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

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

Psalm 104

Epistle

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

Gospel

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-14

Sermon on the Second Sunday Before Lent

I have to confess that all of the readings for today speak to me of the same thing , even though readings are so diverse.

From Proverbs we hear about the eternal nature of wisdom. From before anything was created Wisdom was with God. Don’t we hear Wisdom say, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race”?

But can Wisdom or God delight in the human race today? The global catastrophes we know about cry out to be judged. – The health, environmental and moral disaster stares each one of us in the eye today, and that universal failure should call to mind our very own hubris. – Then I begin to wonder, is God or Wisdom still willing to delight in the human race? Then I ask myself: Do you feel proud of what you have done to stop the pandemic, to stop global warming, or to raise the moral fibre of humanity?

I know that I curse myself for doing nothing for the betterment of the world. I have failed to improve the environment and the society in which I live. Great guilt attaches to the whole of my life because I have not made anything better for the next generation, never mind the third and fourth generations to come. (What is that biblical quotation? –  the parents have drunk sour wine and the children’s teeth are set on edge even to the third and fourth generation. I fear I have done precisely that. I am one of those parents of the children to come. Is their inheritance to be a great debt for my failure, this global disaster?) What little I do is here in these pages, reflecting on Wisdom and humanity.

If Wisdom is the background for all of creation, what have we done to show that we comprehend her in any way? I suppose we have to start with the words of the Psalmist. “O Lord, how manifold are your works!” Whatever exists – in the air, on the earth and under the water – is a gift from God in his wisdom. This is the new beginning we have all wished for during this year of global emergency.

Everyone wants to get back to “normal”. But what is “normal”? The Prime Minister and every businessman want to get the economy back – but is the normal only about
that
abstract concept which has nothing to do with you and your neighbour? I would want to say that until the love of the other happens, wisdom will not be appreciated within the whole of creation. So we come back to our first reading – Wisdom is at the heart of life, isn’t it?

The New Testament reading from Colossians, in fact, talks of the Christ in terms which are similar to the way Wisdom is extolled in Proverbs.

All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

But then Paul takes this principle from the past and makes it real, here and now, to all whom he writes –

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

The life we lead within this body of faithful people finds its direction in the head, in Christ, the Lord.

I wonder, why did Paul make this leap from Wisdom to Christ, and attribute all Wisdom’s characteristics to Christ? I think it is because there is a whole swathe of thought in the church and in the Hellenistic culture generally that commends this line of thinking – this linking of very real symbols – to make sense of the world. I think the theological speculation found in the Gospel of John is more widespread than generally thought. I am convinced by the theory of trajectories of thought, that there may not be distinct linear groups connected by the same logical arguments, but I believe such general thought patterns do cover large swathes of people. The symbols pop up far and wide. Sometimes they even come together in a particular writer or set of texts.

I have seen a similarity in the views of many communities in spite of distance in time and space. And here is one of the most interesting coalescences – between Old Testament Wisdom, the Pauline writings and the Johannine community, a complex which connects the whole of the bible, even if it is not causal.

What I have considered about the transference of the qualities of Wisdom to Christ in Paul, actually does happen between the Greek philosophical tradition and the gospeller whom we name John. That Logos, “the Word” as it is normally translated, assimilates the attributes of Wisdom portrayed in Proverbs and the gentile tradition of Greek philosophy. The blending of the two cultures, Hellenistic and Jewish, in this prologue to the Gospel of John, signifies a real joining of minds.

That conjunction of symbols and meanings is what allows faith to be expressed, and faith is not static, it moves with us through life and the symbols and meanings reconfigure themselves at every moment.

This has to be true, when I fall in love, do I not transform through the whole of my life just as my beloved does? Do I not have to work hard to understand my lover and keep our love alive? Doesn’t the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church do the same with the faith it passes on to each and every one of us in all generations? And don’t we have to make our beloved our own, whether it be my partner for life or Christ?

How have we made Wisdom our own in these parlous times? In the peril of catastrophe how have we loved each and every one of our neighbours and approached God? Have we been able to adjust to the new normal of social distance? Or do we think that the old ways are the only means to happiness? Does Wisdom not speak to us clearly in every situation?

Wisdom must speak to the situation, just as love allows us to act in every situation. As faithful people, as people faithful to God and neighbour, we are sure that ultimately everything tells us about Jesus Christ. At least that is where all our readings for today led me – to Wisdom and thereby to Christ. I hope I have not lost you in my meanderings through the wilderness of readings, meanings and symbols.

Amen

Sunday, Epiphany 2

Collect

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; 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 Lord, our beginning and our end: bring us with the whole creation to your glory, hidden through past ages and made known in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Psalm

1    O Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

2    You mark out my journeys and my resting place
and are acquainted with all my ways.

3    For there is not a word on my tongue,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.

4    You encompass me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.

5    Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
so high that I cannot attain it.

12    For you yourself created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

13    I thank you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
marvellous are your works, my soul knows well.

14    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.

15    Your eyes beheld my form, as yet unfinished;
already in your book were all my members written,

16    As day by day they were fashioned
when as yet there was none of them.

17    How deep are your counsels to me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!

18    If I count them, they are more in number than the sand,
and at the end, I am still in your presence.

Psalm 139

Epistle

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:

    ‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,

    for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;

    you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’

Revelation 5:1-10

Gospel

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

John 1:43-51

Sermon on Sunday, Epiphany 2

In the Old Testament lesson we heard, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Events of late have, I think, confirmed these words. We do not hear people speaking of their vision for the future, rather they complain about how they have been hard done by, or they harp on about what they want now. Too many are silent about what should be. People are too keen on their own comfort – they want to luxuriate in rich meals and triple chocolate desserts, let alone drink quantities of champagne and schnapps. This culture of indulgence has overtaken everyone, particularly during this past Christmass season, hasn’t it? All the cooking programs, teaching us about luxurious recipes and talking of gourmet experiences near and far, have confirmed that we remain in what many parts of the bible castigate as “the world”. We have turned away from anything spiritual of late, haven’t we? The corona virus has seen to that.

I am afraid that we have become what we don’t want to be. People have acted on their basest desires and they have, as Paul said somewhere, not been able to do what they really should aspire to. They have not done the good they in their hearts know that they should do. I think we act on jealousy and hate too often. We want this or that, and we let such desires control us, rather than let the good intentions in us control what we do.

We should be able to see this happening all around us – I suppose we can see it when we look at the events of ten days ago in Washington, DC. There we have the concupiscence of humanity being acted out – it is writ large, as they sometimes say, don’t you think? Sadly, I have to reject what is happening in the land of my birth. With the words of the Collect I have to cry out, “Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory.”

We have to acknowledge our very parlous state – we are in danger both without and within – clearly we are at risk physically and spiritually. The words from our collect should guide us through the fraught dangers of this new year. Last year was one where we all felt poorer than the poor because we were so restricted. We could not get our hair cut when we wanted, nor could we go to watch our favourite clubs play their fixtures. We have not been able to start our weeks by gathering to worship, nor could we finish the week off by meeting friends at the pub.

Life was not what we wanted it to be during the last year. We now fear that this coming year will be the same. We all felt we were deprived of everything we deserved. They want to say – Am I not worthy of a pint at the end of the week? Why can’t I see my friends when I want to? Surely I should be able to do anything I want. – Isn’t that the mantra of this generation?

But what do we deserve? Have we done anything that merits any sort of reward? I know that I have not. I may want to think so, but when I am more considered, I have to admit that I am deserving of nothing. I am that wretch of that famous hymn – lost and blind hoping to be found and truly see.

However, at precisely that moment – when I realise that I am worthy of nothing – at that moment, I can look at my life clearly and I can say that I have been blessed. So many good things have happened to me, this undeserving wretch. – I have to admit that grace has abounded in my life. If I consider my life carefully, I have to say that things have happened which have had nothing to do with my worth – both negative and positive – and they have shaped my life as I know it. Overall, I do not deserve what I have been given – in particular, the love which so many have shown. That is the miraculous in my life. That is what I have to shout about now in my confined life, this life restricted to four walls.

When Jesus asked, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?’ he was asking of something more fundamental than miracles.

How many trees have you sat under? Did Jesus see you there? On those terribly hot summer days, or those terribly wet days? Whenever we wanted shelter we sat under the tree. In that moment of protection, we are self contained and, probably, self satisfied. Certainly, Nathanael must have felt safe under his fig tree. He was certain that nothing could challenge him, nothing could shift him from his cosy seat. But he was wrong, wasn’t he? Jesus came and told him about his idling under the fig tree. In fact, I would say he
confronted
Nathanael with these words, ‘Do you love me because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?’

I don’t love you just because you saw me under the fig tree. I don’t believe in Jesus just because he said he saw me in my idleness under that figurative fig tree. The fig tree of the story becomes something else in our lives, doesn’t it? The fig tree, I think, becomes a symbol in our lives, a symbol through which we make sense of our lives. What trees have figured in your life? What symbolic trees enlighten you? – The tree of life, whether you name it as the tree in the garden of Eden or the tree on which our saviour was hung up to die for our sake – this tree of life plays a big role in our lives, whether we see ourselves sitting beneath it or not.

Another very significant figure in the history of mankind sat under a tree. Do you know who that was? There is Newton, but there is another who is just as significant. The Buddha sat under the bo tree as he moved towards enlightenment. The zen buddhist continues the practice of “sitting” – waiting on his entry into nirvana, much like the contemporary christian religious sitting in eager anticipation of the coming in glory of the Lord and King of this world.

Jesus continued, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ There is more in store for us than idling under the tree, isn’t there? I wonder what these greater things will be, don’t you?

Amen

Christ the King

Collect

Eternal Father, whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King: keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace, and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. 

or 

God the Father, help us to hear the call of Christ the King and to follow in his service, whose kingdom has no end; for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, one glory. 

Post Communion 

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Readings 

Old Testament 

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. 

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. 

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 

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. 

Psalm 95 

Epistle 

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. 

Ephesians 1:15-23 

Gospel 

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Matthew 25:31-46

Sermon on Christ the King

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory’ – this phrase comes at an opportune time, because the magazine from the Reader Association had an interesting article about “The Son of Man”. Let me pick out the high points which should speak to us today on the Feast of Christ the King.

The author wrote that there are three types of saying about how the Son of Man will appear – first as the suffering servant, second as the judge at the end of days, and third, in line with today’s theme, as the King of Glory surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. We understand the Son of Man through any one of these images, don’t we? Apocalyptic literature places the Son of Man on the throne of glory, at whose coming all will tremble because of the power and majesty surrounding him. Apocalyptic anxiety is exacerbated by the second image, that of the judge. And who would not shake in their boots in those last times when the judge arrives? That judge who will value the whole of our lives, both the seen and unseen parts. But then our angst should be further agitated when we see the weak and suffering in our presence – because when the slave stands before us, paradoxically, we should see our King. In the weak and despised we should see the King of Glory. This is the eschatological reversal, when everything is turned around, like the beatitudes.

Just as we see the Saviour in the past, in the when of the Incarnation and the Easter event. So I would suggest that all of life is the time of the apocalypse. The past prophesies for that future in which the judge and King will come. In the present  the poor are always with us as they stand before us, as Christ would in his time and in the future, as he does now in our imagination. Christ is in front of us as we remember and anticipate here and now. Every moment in which we live brings the past with it and the future to which it will go. This is what the some theologians would call, “the eschatological moment”, the now in which we see the reality of eternity all around us. We see reality whence it came and whither it will go – right now.

But let’s return to that Son of Man. There has been a current interpretation about the Son of Man which sees him as “just a human being”, frail and poor – in essence, the suffering servant writ small. He is far different to the heavenly King writ so large in flames on the clouds in glory. This view of the Son of Man is very widespread in theological circles. Many in this camp saw Jesus merely as a good teacher, a rabbi of rabbis, and a miracle worker. All that he did was accomplished as a mortal man, a fellow with no supernatural powers, but everything we ascribe to him was imposed by wishful thinking and the hope of a religious mania. However, there was a theological reaction to that limited view of Jesus, the man. It suggests that the figure of the Son of Man is more than “merely” a man, for although a man he had the face of an angel, though a man the name of God, the unwritten and unspoken name which we know as Jehovah was written on his forehead. Though a man he was also a miracle worker. This Son of Man is no mere human being, human though he was. This view of the Son of Man sees an extraordinary person, a divine presence in fact.

Like the merely human view of the Son of Man, this other view was all based on biblical evidence, even if they were non-canonical books. These views were supported by those texts which did not make it into the Bible as we know it today. Those texts show these two views of the Son of Man, both at the same time almost. So we need to look a little further.

Here we are going to get a bit theological … Now I would like to consider the language we use to speak about things that are significant for us.

Do we always use language which merely denotes this or that. Do we always speak of the hammer prosaically as when we say “The hammer is on the bench”? No, I don’t think so. Some of us might remember “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” about which the Beatles sang. That hammer was something different, wasn’t it? There are other hammers, aren’t there? Some people speak of the law as the hammer of justice, don’t they? There are cultural references to hammers which have nothing to do with that hammer lying on the bench – if we were Norse we would think immediately of Thor, wouldn’t we? There are many ways of speaking about things, and we have encountered them in the bible. From the very beginning people have used language in different ways – they have used similes, metaphors and symbols to convey their message. Some of these even obscure meanings – in other words, they hide what is being said. However, we hope they can be deciphered. We hope that when we interpret them, everything will be clear to all. The meaning is there in front of us in similes, metaphors and symbols, if, as Jesus says, we have ears to hear.

Similes are the easiest to understand, for they say something is like another – “a hammer is like a lump of stone” (it hurts if you drop it on your toe). It is simple substitution. It means what it says. “Her kiss was like a butterfly’s wing brushing my cheek.”

Metaphorical expression is a substitution as well, one thing suggests another. Jesus speaks of something as something else. This substitution is not equivalence. A metaphor makes us think of the implications of what is being said. It engages us to participate in the relationship it describes. There is comparison but there are implications to the significance of that comparison. The parables of the kingdom do exactly that. The stewards in that kingdom are judged by what they do. The implication of those stories suggest something greater than what the words denote.

Then there is symbolic language which we use from time to time. This is obviously different again, although there is the quality of simile and metaphor about this sort of language, but there is something more to it. There is a connection with a meaning which is not part of what is spoken. In simile and metaphor everything is provided. However, in symbol, the meaning is elsewhere, the significance has to do with something outside of itself. There is a transcendence to its immanence. The symbol is here in the world, but points beyond itself participating in that elsewhere.

So, when we use the phrase, “Son of Man” we are using symbolic language. “Son of Man” is a simile and a metaphor, but more importantly it is a symbol which draws us to something greater than itself. It reveals a universe of  meaning, if we let it.

This is all very apposite, for next week we begin Advent when historically the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church contemplates the four last things. Essentially the Church is considers eschatology during Advent. The apocalyptic Son of Man signifies in his symbolic manifestation a very real human being in the world – something we really should be looking forward to.

Amen

Sunday, All Saints

Gospel

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

Sermon on Sunday, All Saints

As part of our Collect for today, we prayed

“you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord”

Who are these elect, that fellowship? I think they are the people who have faith and live out that faith in their ownmost being. They have no doubt that their lives have been knit together in a communion that is impenetrable by the dictates of everyday concerns, a fellowship which cannot be dissolved by “the world, the flesh and the devil” about whom the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church warns us. They have become the mystical body of the subject of our faith, Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Christ becomes the head of these saints and the saints become the diverse parts of Christ’s body. They become the localised incarnations of this mystical body. – So began my meditation for these thoughts on All Saints Day, celebrating the Hallows of last evening.

Who do you think the saints of blessed memory are? For me they are the collection of good and beautiful people remembered by their local communities, congregations gathered of everyone in the parish who recall the best of themselves. However, parishes include in their number some who are hard to take, as well as those who are all sweetness and light. I began to think the saints are just like all of us, some gentle, some spikey. And so I was reminded of St Augustine of Hippo and St Ignatius of Antioch because of their recent feast days. I have to say that they are just two of the more difficult people I know who have been canonised and remembered by the Church who have been celebrated from long ago. – Years ago my local priest preached on precisely this point, and he made me realise that not every saint is just goodness and light. He made me look at Ignatius anew, so that I could see that Ignatius was a very difficult fellow. Obsessed with martyrdom, he forced himself on the secular powers that were persecuting the Church in such a way that they could not ignore his bating them to kill him as he wanted to be killed – for the sake of his faith. He wanted to be a martyr to a faith that opposed the order of the world, opposition even unto death.

Ignatius is only one of the saints obsessed with just a single aspect of the expression of the faith. We can easily find many more.

With these thoughts about the irascible who are among the numbers of the cloud of witnesses and among our own number, I began to wonder whether we should re-evaluate “the blessed saints” but we might begin to doubt “all [their] virtuous and godly living” – just as we have begun the revisionist historiography of all our secular “heroes”. After all we are now toppling their statues from places of exaltation in our civic lives, just as the statues of Stalin and the Shah were shattered when those revolutions occurred. Now our own statues are being dumped off their plinths, even in Bristol. However, this revision of history is not new – didn’t George Orwell tell us all about it? – Haven’t we seen it throughout our own lives as our leaders are lionised in one decade and vilified in the next? Perhaps this even happens from week to week.

We have celebrated saints from the beginning of human history, haven’t we? Saints are not just a christian preserve. There are heros in non-christian cultures who stand in places of honour and as examples for them just as our saints do for us. Those heroes are sacred and secular, for we have our own heroes today – those men and women we hold in awe – they could be our political leaders, they could be the very good person who lives just down the lane. They could be people no one else notices, but each of us sees their value – a worth for each of us alone, as examples of living well and moving toward an exalted goal.

Today we are more self-critical and conscious of what is right, aren’t we? No longer do we tell stories about what the philosophers call “classes” – for instance, those jokes about “blondes”. We are politically correct nowadays because fundamentally we want to treat everyone well, just as we remember all the saints with joy and reverence. We actually want to celebrate every other person as a saint, don’t we? This is redaction of another for the right reason – to remember them for the good we can recall of them, that they might act as a guide to heaven, where they hopefully go ahead before us.

Every culture has its own revisions to make, don’t they? We must continue to, as that collect from last Sunday says, “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the lives of the saints, not with an uncritical eye, but with an eye ever open to what is right and good – two things to which the everyday world is very often blind. This is proper revision, an investigation of reality to reveal the essential character of life, what lies beneath the changes and chances which beset us, those slings and arrows of Shakespearean tragedy which beset us.

The revisionist mission is the task each one of us as we become the hagiographer of our contemporaries – we become the person who recalls the life of a particular saint for their own community. We must all participate in that work, for we must all tell the stories of the people in our community, remembering them with fondness (as we do tomorrow on All Souls Day). We can recall the prophetic figures among us, telling our friends about the message they have lived out. Perhaps we have in mind a contemporary Ignatius, someone who was so difficult that we did not appreciate them as they lived among us, but now that they are gone before us we recall their lives with more compassion and love than we shared with them while they were with us. We must love our neighbours as we love ourselves after all.

I want this revision, this recollection of people around us to happen now, while we have the chance to tell those around us about the virtues we see in their lives. I want us to strip away the evil in life to expose the holy as it is lived around us. That is the way we will find the saints among us. Perhaps someone will find in each one of us some good to be preserved in a collective memory so as to guide the community into the future. This revision is what we do daily when we recall the day just past and adjust our intentions for the day to come. Naturally, my meditation for today finally returns to the petition of the Collect as we look forward to remembering All Souls tomorrow.

“grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.”

Amen

Feast of St Luke the evangelist

Collect

Almighty God, you called Luke the physician, whose praise is in the gospel, to be an evangelist and physician of the soul: by the grace of the Spirit and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel, give your Church the same love and power to heal; 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.

Readings

Old Testament

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

Acts 16:6-12a

Psalm 147

1    Alleluia.
How good it is to make music for our God,
how joyful to honour him with praise.

2    The Lord builds up Jerusalem
and gathers together the outcasts of Israel.

3    He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up all their wounds.

4    He counts the number of the stars
and calls them all by their names.

5    Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his wisdom is beyond all telling.

6    The Lord lifts up the poor,
but casts down the wicked to the ground.

7    Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make music to our God upon the lyre;

Epistle

As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.

At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

2 Timothy 4:5-17

Gospel

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

Luke 10:1-9

Sermon on the Feast of St Luke the evangelist

“You called Luke the physician, whose praise is in the gospel, to be an evangelist and physician of the soul: by the grace of the Spirit and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel, give your Church the same love and power to heal.”

These words from the Collect should guide our thoughts for today, the Feast of St Luke the Evangelist. Haven’t physicians been foremost in our thoughts for the last nine months. Those in that “front line” have been appreciated by the population’s clapping at the very beginning and prayed for by the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church day and night, as they struggle to bring health to those struck down by disease in today’s covid pandemic. Physicians themselves must be praying to St Luke for the gifts he had been given so long ago, to allow them to heal the sick in body and mind. I think we pray for all doctors to become physicians of the soul as well, distributing that holy medicine of hope to all their patients.

I rushed to Wikipedia to give me some further information as background on St Luke. The article I found had an interesting discussion of the historical accuracy of Luke–Acts. Some scholars suggest that it is as good as it gets for information in any history book, while others argue that the purpose of his writing is evangelistic, not historical at all, and so taints it for historical accuracy. I think a road down the middle of these two opinions should be taken.

I think Luke does provide some details which are accurate, but there are some things that are not “scientifically” reliable. One of my teachers took this route as well, for he said that Luke follows the method of all historians of his period. Using all the material at hand, he assembled it to make his point. In other words, he was able to inform the audience he wished to influence with the facts as he had them. My teacher said that Luke was not statistically correct in all he said and he may have had a bad chronology, but he could be relied on for geographical detail, and perhaps the biographical detail. Luke’s purpose in writing the gospel and the book of Acts was one of an evangelistic mission to a mixed audience, Jewish and gentile.It was a Hellenistic audience – in other words, they were Greek for all intents and purposes. The themes and motifs used are more of the culture in which Judaism found itself in the first century of the common era, the syncretistic world of the time, where there was a mixing of all people no matter where they came from. Culture is never as pure as we think it is or ought to be. Every culture borrows from their neighbours and those with which they come into contact.

I think you will find Luke as syncretistic as you would find the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in that period. All became grist for the christian mill. The religions of the area contributed to the stories, symbols and ritual of christianity.

The christian mill was, as one saint wrote, the jaws of the lions in the arena which ground the bodies of martyrs to the finest of flour for the bread of life offered at the Eucharist. That bread and wine becomes for us the medicine of immortality, the body and blood of Christ. This is the offering Luke continues to make to us, as he did for his contemporaries. And so we come back to the evangelist Luke. Ancient writers called this man a physician: it would seem that such an attribute is well suited, for his use of language is quite sophisticated, not as complicated as the letter to the Hebrews, nor as simple as the language of the gospel of John. Early on in the history of the church, the literary heritage was established.

This author was well respected as a source of its own story. He recounts much from earlier sources and then speaks with authority about some of the history. As our reading from the book of Acts makes clear. There is a significant change in the person speaking in the narrative. Up to chapter 16 it is a third person narrative and in this chapter the first person plural, the “we”, is introduced. “We immediately tried to cross over …” and so on. Many have taken this to mean that Luke was one of the 72 disciples named in the gospels. Or some have seen that Luke has used an eye-witness testimony to the events described in the Acts of the Apostles. Whatever stance we take on who this Luke is relative to Jesus, we must  acknowledge that Luke has given us an account of the ministry of Jesus and a history of the origins of the church. There is an authority we recognise in his writing, even if it uses the forms and manner of the Hellenistic time in which he lived.

Why does the narrator’s voice change at this point in the story, after that vision he describes of the man calling them to Macedonia? Such a vision is a major event in the mission to the gentiles and it allows us all to join in it, doesn’t it? Such an event and its significance is also a reason for this early historiography to be called into question. “After all,” they ask, “how can you believe a story that depends on the supernatural for its validity?”

That is the question that is asked, when any christian speaks of their faith and the Easter–Event. Let us short-circuit that discussion now with the statement that major events in life do determine how we tell our story, and those major events are couched in terms that make sense to our contemporaries and to ourselves wherever we find ourselves.

These considerations of how we tell our story – in other words, the language we use and the symbols we employ – are conditioned by our setting, witnessed by the fact that many of our biblical scholars are elucidating scriptures today by looking at the setting in which the particular texts were written and the audiences for, and to, whom they were composed.

In other words, we, like Luke, need to be speaking in the first person plural about the significant events of our lives, that we should be offering our contemporaries that medicine we have taken in this pandemic to give us peace of mind and the beginnings of a healthy attitude toward our selves and neighbours, that love for God, ourselves and our neighbours.

This is the medicine we should be offering to everyone we meet, so that health may be theirs. We pray in the words of the Collect that we – the Church today – may have that power to heal the whole person that medicine of immortality which St Luke shared with the world when he wrote his gospel and the history of the acts of the apostles. Let us become evangelists to our contemporaries as Luke is to us.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 15

Collect

God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit upon your Church in the burning fire of your love: grant that your people may be fervent in the fellowship of the gospel that, always abiding in you, they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service; 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

Lord God, defend your Church from all false teaching and give to your people knowledge of your truth, that we may enjoy eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Keep, O Lord, your Church, with your perpetual mercy; and, because without you our human frailty cannot but fall, keep us ever by your help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’ So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?’ And Moses said, ‘When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.’

Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

Exodus 16:2-15

Psalm

1    O give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples.

2    Sing to him, sing praises,
and tell of all his marvellous works.

3    Rejoice in the praise of his holy name;
let the hearts of them rejoice who seek the Lord.

4    Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his face continually.

5    Remember the marvels he has done,
his wonders and the judgements of his mouth,

6    O seed of Abraham his servant,
O children of Jacob his chosen.

Psalm 105

Epistle

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Philippians 1:21-30

Gospel

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Matthew 20:1-16

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 15

‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

What do you think when the landowner says this to those who are grumbling round about him? I think Jesus is challenging us to change the whole of the world order. He wants us to base the whole of our lives on generosity, an attitude which encourages us to divest ourselves of possessions. Envy does exactly the opposite – envy is grasping. It resents the state of affairs that it does not control. You can look at history as the playing out of the control in life. Sometimes it is a very greedy control, sometimes it is a laissez faire attitude.

The 1970’s exhibited a very generous attitude, with John Lennon’s “Let it be” as the theme tune of the period. It was a period when none of the hippies wanted to “take control” and anarchists were the biggest threat at the time to ordinary people and those wanting to control everyone and everything around them.

I think all those protests in the US pointed to this fact, and when you look at the reactions to the protests, you have to admit that control was foremost in some minds. Sending in the army to break up protests was the clearest indication of this. The most poignant example was the killing of students at Kent State.

But what were the protests about? It had to be that “letting be”. The giving up of control over others, had to be at the front of everyone’s minds who agreed with such heavy-handed tactics. One of the protests wide-spread through the United States was that of civil rights, and a more gentle movement you would never find.

A protest which was based on civil disobedience and passive resistance could never be threatening. Standing on the street singing gospel songs of liberation in the hope that all would become brothers and sisters – is that the sort of thing which should promote the very harsh reaction of arrests and baton charges?

The spiritual “We shall overcome,” sounded in the ears of everyone before the cracking of skulls and the screams of pain and fear. The hope of the gospel was the basis for that period of our lives, when we hoped that salvation would be universal and that hate and envy would melt away.

Isn’t this the vision Jesus offers in this parable of the landowner? He will hire anyone and pay them a fair price for their labour. The contract was for work and a day’s wages. Everything was tacitly agreed.

Everyone will have a living wage (that is what I reckon a day’s wages means) and no one will go without – I imagine that is what the notion of the welfare state means. The landowner is living out that ideal. By paying people a day’s wages whether they worked one or ten hours he is providing something other bosses don’t. Isn’t he being generous to everyone who had faith in him, that he would not short-change them? How many places have you worked that gave you that confidence? I know that I haven’t had many bosses who were that gracious.

But this is not a critique of the socio- economic system. Rather, I am exploring the attitudes of people in the system. I want to see how these words illuminate the gospel of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world, in our lives. How do they expose Jesus Christ to us today, here and now?

Today we are speaking about spiritual properties which impact how we interact with one another. Today we are making observations on morality, on love. Steve Taylor sent a note to me about his thoughts on last week’s reading which said in part, “There is a balance to be struck between individual liberty and corporate responsibility.” What is the balance Jesus sets up? I wonder: could it be that  Jesus taking a moral stand against greed here? Is he castigating the envy people have toward the lucky people among them like the jackpot millionaire who appears in our midst? After all they have not toiled for their fortune like the rest of us who have scraped together what little we have. We are envious, aren’t we? Years ago there was an extensive discussion of the politics of envy at a time when there was so much industrial unrest.

The landowner’s questions call into question the everyday attitude which accepts that the reason for any activity is self-interest. Everyone – that ubiquitous and anonymous “they” – says, “I am doing this for myself.” That is a very different attitude from what the landowner’s questions suggest. The landowner wants to do things for others. The questions exhibit Jesus’ selflessness. Generosity turns our usual attitude on its head, doesn’t it? After all, in business bosses want to keep everything for themselves, that profit motive. And on the shop floor, the workers are wanting more and more all the time because that is what their bosses do. Whenever anyone in the supply chain is generous, when people don’t worry about “profit”, the system shakes to its foundations and could finally collapse, don’t you think?

The landowner talks of “possessions”. What is it that belongs to him? The landowner is letting go of things here, isn’t he? He wants to be generous with “his possessions”. Who can prescribe what one ought to do with what has come into our personal care? Only the individual can do that. The consuming passion toward possession is enflamed in our economic system and culture, for example by the ads in the media and the pronouncements of our politicians. That passion permeates the whole of life.

But this is not a seminar on the capitalist system. I know a lot of things go through my mind when I think over the landowner’s words. There are a great many aspects to the questions he asks. From the very prosaic and selfish attitude, “Can’t I pay a man what I want to?” to the very complicated marxist critique of the capitalist system. – “A worker is entitled to a living wage and decent treatment because he has agreed to work for you. He is not merely a means of production. You don’t own the worker.”

These are very political statements and that is not the reason I am standing here, although the gospel does have an active, even a political, dimension. There are strands of Christian Theology which have their expression in active politics. They appeared in Europe with Marxist Theology and in South America with Liberation Theology. There are even strands of Existentialist Theology which impel us towards action. I think all the landowner is doing in his gracious generosity is just what Paul says, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 14

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings

Old Testament

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Genesis 50:15-21

Psalm

[

1    Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me bless his holy name.

2    Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits;

3    Who forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;

4    Who redeems your life from the Pit
and crowns you with faithful love and compassion;

5    Who satisfies you with good things,
so that your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

6    The Lord executes righteousness
and judgement for all who are oppressed.

7    He made his ways known to Moses
and his works to the children of Israel.

]

8    The Lord is full of compassion and mercy,
slow to anger and of great kindness.

9    He will not always accuse us,
neither will he keep his anger for ever.

10    He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.

11     For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his mercy upon those who fear him.

12    As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he set our sins from us.

13    As a father has compassion on his children,
so is the Lord merciful towards those who fear him.

Psalm 103

Epistle

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. For it is written,

    ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.’

So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Romans 14:1-12

Gospel

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they how many times we were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

Matthew 18:21-35

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 14

Last week we heard about how we ought to help people who are in a bad way. Jesus said, ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.’ I talked last week about these delegations – today we heard that those delegations of love need to visit seventy-seven times, not just seven times when such an intervention is required. I think these two lessons from Matthew 18 have to be read together. It is a shame the lectionary separates them. I think it shows that Jesus’ approach to the sinner is never-ending just as it should be for us – we are to go to the sinner seventy-seven times. First he tells us that we have to go quietly to the other person and we have to keep going to that person who has claimed our attention because of misdeeds. We start out very simply then get more and more people involved in the process. We are asked to keep approaching the other and encourage change out of love, I would say.

Such dedication to the other is not our normal behaviour, is it? In our usual busyness, we don’t have the time to devote to the other person, especially if we have been offended, or that other person is a “trespasser”. For instance, in our everyday, we say, “Hello, how are you?” But do we stop to listen to the answer? We are always on our way to something else, something “more important” than a conversation about that other person’s “how”. We believe we don’t have the time to sit down and really hear how that person is. We don’t listen to the spoken, but we also don’t listen for the silent tale the other is telling us then and there in response to our very banal question.

But we do have that time! Lockdown proved that to us, didn’t it? At least we all admitted we appreciated the time we were taking to be ourselves in isolation, the time we had to talk with others even if through the barrier of a windowpane. Why aren’t we continuing to do so? I want us all to take the time to listen and hear what the other person is saying to us when we ask, “How are you?” It seems we will have to slow down and be less busy to do that.

But that is not the reason this combination of lessons has leapt to the front of my mind. I think the dealing with sinners is what Paul is writing about as well, but his words do not deal with people who “sin” as such. Paul writes, “Welcome those who are weak in faith.” These are words which should encourage all of us. After all, anyone may be seen as weak and it could be that someone might welcome us. They might be making us a friend or just give us a smile to make our day a little brighter.

Welcoming those who are weak shows a benevolent love. After all, when we love someone, we do it just for the sake of love, don’t we? Love expects nothing. Love is a completely open attitude. We have to be without prejudice when we welcome the weak, don’t we? We have even shown this in “political correctness” haven’t we? Generally the insignificant have taken on real substance in the world.

Our bad attitudes towards minorities have changed, haven’t they? All right – we may not like the way these game changers have been introduced, but, I am sure, it has changed the way we think fundamentally. Do we ever use the pronoun “he” in the same way any more? No longer does “he” include everyone in the same way as that exclusive “he” used to. Are we not more aware of the “she”in the “he” today, so much so that often “she” becomes the generic personal pronoun in speech?

Our conscious attitudes, I would say, have changed because of the impulse of love, that agape which Jesus showed in his teaching and miracles and Paul extolled in his letters to the young churches. – The open self which loves, encounters every other person in the same way, so naturally the old normal, the everyday of being jostled by the “they” – that crowd which takes over our lives causing us to be too busy – the old ways of behaviour have been forsaken for a new normal, a way of life which arises from the solitude of being one’s own self. I hope that as we have risen from the isolation of lockdown, we will not return to those bad, old ways.

“Welcome those who are weak in faith,” Paul writes. I think he could be speaking directly to us in this covid world, but especially in a post-covid world. The weak in faith are the people who are not strong in themselves. They are afraid in their isolation, fearing the approach of the stranger as a possible introduction of that evil virus. – Such an attitude has been repeated so many times in the history of civilisation. Today’s fear is just as debilitating as the fear of AIDS only three decades ago, or the terror at the black death three centuries ago, or the anxiety at leprosy two millennia ago. We dread so many things, and they take over, when we are weak. As we are here in church, we say we are weak in faith, we hope to bolster our faith through confession, but we all know how this weakness affects the whole of our lives. We fear we cannot cope against the evil, great and small, which confronts us day by day.

I think that is why we fail in our being caring people: in other words, we sin, plain and simple. We are weak But there is nothing simple in our experience of our failure. It is always the most awful thing that has ever happened in human history. Every adolescent knows that – they can not go on because the weight of the world is pressing down so hard on them that they are afraid. They fear everything sometimes to suicide.

That is when the delegation of love should arrive. Whether the sympathetic singleton, the gracious group or the caring community, whatever the profile of the delegation, the weak in faith should feel supported in the hands of love. After all, who else but someone who loves dispassionately will approach the sinner seventy-seven times? That is the gospel message for today. That is what Paul encourages us to do for everyone, but especially those who are weak in faith. Welcome them, just as Joseph finally embraced his estranged family when he said to them, ‘ “have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.’ I suppose that we need to encourage this ideal love – love of our neighbour, the stranger and the weak. We need to embrace them with kind words and reassurance. We have all been recipients of that delegation of love sent from the great congregation gathered around the throne of God in Jesus. We are now all encouraged to act on that love which transforms the world for all of us, from the chaos of despair into the cosmos of hope. We need to listen with those ears Jesus demands, so we will hear those tales without prejudice as they are told to us even though it is the ordinary, “How are you?” which elicits it.

Amen