Sermon on Sin and Glory, featuring Oedipus Rex

Probably the best known play from Ancient Athens is the C5th BC tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles.

Like all great dramas it is about many things, but one of its most prominent ideas is that human intelligence is deeply limited. Oedipus is the great legendary King of Thebes, renowned for his problem-solving ability.

He was made King because he solved the riddle of the Sphinx-Gollum in the Hobbit was probably partly inspired by this creature.

The Sphinx was a fearsome monster which ate any traveller it met on the road to Thebes who couldn’t solve its riddle.

The actual riddle is not described in the play but from other versions that survive it went something like this.

A thing there is whose voice is one;

Whose feet are four and then become two and then become three.

It is the most changeable thing that moves in earth, sea or sky

And when it moves on most feet it is slowest.

Oedipus said the answer was man- who crawls when a baby, then walks up-right, but in old age needs the help of a stick.

When a plague hits Thebes Oedipus decides, in true detective fashion, to get to the bottom of it all and eventually discovers, shockingly, that he is at the bottom of it all, because he unknowingly killed his own father and married his own mother.

Oedipus assiduously searched for an objective and external cause for the plague but he found a subjective and internal answer- himself.

It seems that he never really solved the riddle at all.

He provided a notional and logical answer to it that satisfied the monster by saying man, but never really picked up on the continuity between the baby, the adult and the old man and the frailty and fickleness which links them all.

The play ends with him blinding himself, and going into exile. Signs that he realised at last who he has been all along, someone stumbling in the dark, and not as in control of the world and as secure in his place as he had long thought.

In the book of Genesis is a story, probably composed a few centuries earlier, which is even better known. The one about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

God creates the perfect environment for human life, and lays down one rule only. ‘ Don’t eat from that tree; it will destroy you.’

A serpent comes along and lies to Eve ‘ No it won’t do you any harm. God just doesn’t want you to be his equal, and as wise as he is, and know the difference between good and evil’

On eating the fruit Adam and Eve, rather than suddenly becoming God like geniuses, instead, for the first time, realise, like the Emperor in the famous Fairy tale, that they have no clothes on. Soon they too are in exile.

It is a much simpler and less developed story than Oedipus, because it has its origins in folk lore rather than in a sophisticated literary culture, but the message is very similar.

We humans are not as bright and omnicompetent as we sometimes think we are. We are always as naked and vulnerable as the crawling infant.

It sometimes strikes me as very strange that in our society, where the Christian talk of sin- which is what this awareness of fundamental human frailty is all about-is looked upon with disdain because it is perceived as running down humanity,  if you follow any on line discussion about, say, politics or the environment, it isn’t long before  you come across assertions that all politicians, businessmen, socialists,( take your pick) are knaves, fools and liars, and the human race is a virus which should stop reproducing itself immediately and the world could well do with an asteroid collision to get rid us all sooner rather than later.

In which we also witness of course, Oedipus’ mistake, that the problems are all the fault of other people.

Today is the feast of the Transfiguration, which not only celebrates the glory of God shining forth upon and through Jesus Christ, but reminds us that Christians believe that the glory of God shines within all people. Human beings are frail and changeable, but they all have the image of God deep within them.

We are all capable of thought, analysis and reason, but also of wisdom, creativity, self- sacrifice, compassion and the search for truth.

GK Chesterton was a fount of interesting and paradoxical ideas and he once said that his faith was ‘ less of a theory and more of a love affair.’ If so, it is not an un-requited love affair, although for many of us the beloved can be quite elusive.

In his poem, ‘ In love for long’, Edwin Muir, conjured up a kind of mystical attitude to the world which I have always found deeply evocative.

‘I’ve been in love for long

With what I cannot tell

And will contrive a song

For the intangible

That has no mould or shape,

From which there is no escape.

It is not even a name,

Yet it is all constancy…

It is not any thing

And yet all being is.’

One way of understanding the Christian journey of faith, from the cradle to the grave, is this wrestling with the world we live in.

Full of flawed and fragile people, just like us. But we watch out for the glory of God; for those brief transfigurations when people reveal to us the best, or we re-find it in ourselves, when we seem to be lost. Those moments sustain us on the journey.

 

 

 

 

Sermon on the Kingdom

35 years ago I spent a day in Florence.

And I was dazzled, by the brightness of summer sun, by the intensity of the light reflected off the marble on so many of the buildings, and by the luminosity of the paintings of Botticelli in the Uffizi gallery.

I knew at the time that most of the beauty of the city owed its existence to the patronage of the Medici banking family, but what I didn’t realise was how that patronage worked. I had imagined that the relationship was primarily a financial one- between paymaster and artist.

But it wasn’t.

Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and other luminaries of what came to be known as the Renaissance were regular dinner guests of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and for periods of time actually lived in his palace. They also participated in the meetings Lorenzo organised when scholars discussed the political and philosophical ideas of the Greeks and Romans, and how they squared with Christianity and the challenges of contemporary life- which then were every bit as complex as they are now, with civil strife and international instability ever threatening.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it was the community of scholars, artists, philosophers and theologians- such categories were very fluid then- that Lorenzo- astute banker and shrewd political operator-  drew together which changed history and culture forever.

We talk easily these days about communities, when we often seem to mean groups or categories of people united by one defining characteristic only- communities which have real impact are usually smaller and have more in common; are able to meet, converse and break bread together.

Today we have 2 overlapping communities present, Oscar’s family and friends and the St Barnabas church community which he is about to enter at his baptism.

Due to the slippage of language it is easy to forget that a church is not a building but a gathering place- a place of meeting.

This is put so emphatically in the words on the order of service when we get to the baptising part of this morning.

First the whole congregation is invited to welcome Oscar, on the assumption that he is not here by whim; Hattie and Chris having  thought deeply about why they are bringing him, and because ultimately God is calling him- as Christians we are committed to the idea that God cares for all his children and welcomes them at any time they  turn to him.

But next the parents and godparents are addressed.

Parents and godparents, the Church receives Oscar with joy.

And your role is to pray for him, lead by example, and help him to find a place in the community of faith,

 To walk with him in the way of Christ.

So the church is not only the meeting place between Oscar’s family and friends and the congregation, but the place where we hope God in Christ can also be encountered.

That is where the responsibility shifts back to all of us who are regular members of the church. How do we do we ensure that is the case- honestly and truthfully? By our actions, our words and our ideals?

A few weeks ago when George Dillon performed his brilliant one man play inspired by St Matthew’s Gospel here, he portrayed the disciples, particularly St Peter, as being a dense bunch, inarticulate and very, very slow on the up-take.

His view was that Christ is the central character and the disciples are merely dramatic foils.

I would argue that they are not mere foils,; they are blundering human beings.

Like we see in the readings today. The one from the Gospel of John, when they simply can’t get their minds around the implications of the Resurrection, and the one from Acts when they are struggling to understand the continuity between what happened before and after Easter.

When St Peter, the erstwhile blunderer in chief begins, for the first time to find his voice.

There is an election coming up a bit sooner than expected. One of the questions that will be rightly raised by politicians and commentators alike will be ‘What thought of society do you want?’ But I think we all know that the party political system can only play a part in answering that question.

It will be, as it always has been in our communities, whether families, or churches or neighbourhoods, interest groups, or even businesses , where we connect in a meaningful way that the donkey work is done.

For the church with our certainty that there is continuity between the good news of Easter and all that Christ meant before, we need to pay particular attention to the kingdom of God; that aslant way of living and set of priorities that Christ pointed to  again and again in parable and action.

Put so powerfully into words by the poet R S Thomas over 30 years ago.

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on:

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

 By life.

 

 

Sermon on Thomas Aquinas

In the wake of the rise in numbers of people who are homeless there has been an increase in the numbers of people begging on the streets; in response there has been pressure in some circles to fine people for begging. To drive such unwelcome impoverished people further out public view.

Imagine though what you would think if one of your own children or a sibling made the voluntary decision to become a beggar.

The much admired St Francis of Assisi appalled his father when he did exactly that in 1207

Voluntary beggardom reached almost epidemic proportions over the next few decades, as the Franciscan and Dominican movements caught fire across Europe.

That was part of the deal for all those who joined movements we often see now as charming and admirable, if a bit eccentric.

At the time parents and families were horrified, by such appalling, counter-cultural behaviour.

Entering a monastery was seen as a perfectly acceptable career move. It provided warmth and food, an opportunity to become a scholar and pursue, in its purest form, the religious life.

It was what we might now call an aspirational decision.

To become a friar- a Franciscan or Dominican, was regarded for many decades as down-right scandalous.

So when Thomas Aquinas, aged 19, in 1244 decided to join the recently formed order of Dominicans, his family were so horrified that they kidnapped him and locked him up for a year.

Yesterday was the day the church remembered this particular drop out saint.

For those brought up within the Roman Catholic fold or who have studied philosophy at any level Aquinas is a familiar name, but otherwise he has become a bit of a blank.

So here are some good reasons that this medieval man who died over 700 years ago should still be celebrated.

The first reason is Reason itself.

We often think of Aquinas’ time as a benighted era- hence the dismissive term’ The Dark Ages,’ often applied to it- but it is becoming more and more apparent that it was actually the time when many of the building blocks that founded the modern world were first laid.

Thinking hard about the world and trying to understand how it works and has coherence, were all things that Aquinas endeavoured to do.

He was the first major Christian thinker to draw on the philosophy of Aristotle rather than Plato, which meant that he drew attention to the material world in which we live and the uncertain way in which we probe it via our senses and hazily get a grip on it through our experiences; and he constantly looked for causes- being certain that although everything ultimately had its origin in God, all the causes along the way were worthy of study.

He was convinced that anything that was observable as true in the world owed that truth to God, its ultimate source.

Truth really was for Aquinas sacred!

But my next good reason for attending to Aquinas is that he was clear about the limits of reason to.

We like to believe that we personally apply logic and the scrutiny of evidence and fairness when we go about our business; particularly when we make moral or political judgements.

The give-away should be that we frequently suspect that people who disagree with us have not thought things through properly or have suspect motivation.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done an enormous amount of work to show how out intuitions and other unconscious factors actually take the lead- my favourite anecdote of his being that if you interview college students about their political opinions and moral concerns they veer in a conservative direction if standing near a water cooler.

There seems to be some subliminal effect caused by water’s association with purity and cleanliness.

I wonder if I should try a similar experiment next to the font!

Having studied cultures around the world and interviewed thousands of people he has concluded that factors such as purity, attitudes to family, notions of freedom and tradition, and religious outlook have far more influence on all of us than what we consider as rational decision making.

Which is not to say that thinking and sifting evidence is not a good; just that it is not as automatic to us and straightforward as we would like to think.

Aquinas would have agreed completely.

My final good thing to celebrate about Aquinas is that he was not essentially a philosopher, he was a saint and a theologian, whose main concern was how to be a faithful Christian.

No one joins a religious order, especially one like the Dominicans, dedicated to begging, poverty and preaching-  to align oneself with the fundamentals of Christ’s life- unless deeply committed to following in His footsteps.

And one of his great convictions, which connects with what I have just said about how the irrational plays such a large part in our lives was that love was at the bottom of everything.

Absolutely immersed in the Scriptures such praise of God, as heard from the psalmist just now, would have filled his consciousness.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

 Your faithfulness to the clouds.

 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,

 Your judgements are like the great deep…

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

All people may take refuge in the shadow of their wings.

Bringing that exalted image down to earth; here a number of things he  wrote, which are worth chewing over and give a flavour of his character.

The things that we love tell us what we are.

There is nothing to be prized more than true friendship.

Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over it drives compassion out.

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have laboured in the search for truth, and both have helped us find it.

The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays his head against us.

 

 

Midnight Mass sermon 2016

Sermon Midnight Mass 2016

One thing that unites all of us here tonight; is that we have all cried.

Tears can burst upon us- When we experience, personally, moments of  great sadness, or witness scenes of horror and injustice from afar; or indeed when we hear a heart-breaking song.

Even if you are particularly stiff-upper lipped you will have cried at least once.

For we all cry within seconds of being born.

We have to get air into our lungs to start re-configuring our bodies for existence outside the womb, and we need our mother’s immediate attention, because from the very beginning our lives depend upon her.

We cry therefore we are.

There is no mention of Jesus crying in the Gospel passages that allude to his birth, and the children’s carol, ‘Away in a manger,’ paints the highly improbable scenario of the infant Christ waking up and making not a sound, ‘no crying he makes;’-  a model for how Victorians thought children should behave.

But there is no doubt that like the rest of us Christ entered the world with a cry.

It is worth remembering that when hearing the grand and abstract way that St John puts it in the prologue to his Gospel; that I read just now.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory.’

Christmas is the time when we celebrate both the beginning and the magnitude of that event.

God entering decisively into the world he created through a human life.

It all begins in Bethlehem; but it certainly doesn’t end there.

Christmas happens near the beginning of the church year- the rest of the year we reflect upon what happened afterwards, and its continuing significance for us and God’s world.

When St John really gets going with his Gospel he fills it with details- of parties and conversations, of conflicts and life changing moments- of Jesus, confronting, challenging and loving.

But St John begins with great images.

Another evocative one being Christ as the light of the world, which is another way of expressing the notion that Christ flashes out the glory of God into the world.

the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’

Try to imagine a real fire.

Of coal or wood.

The glowing embers provide some warmth and a little glow of light. Add more fuel, and the watch the flames burst upwards, and see the light cast across the room and feel the warmth upon your skin.

I can’t help but think that the light St John had in mind was fire light- providing illumination and warmth; – rather than the beautiful but cold light of stars.

A source of light which can be felt, and can be comforting, but also can burn.

St John made some philosophical claims in poetic language at the beginning of his Gospel.

That the God who creates, sustains, but transcends the world, is also capable of entering into the messiness of its materiality- something very much doubted by many of his sophisticated contemporaries, and by billions today.

And that Christ had always at work- other philosophical schools and religions were taken by St John to contain at least glimpses of truth and wisdom- they weren’t all wrong in his eyes.

But his over-riding conviction was that in Christ God has become not only visible, but present; fully involved in human life.

From the first tears to the last.

Something smouldering and precarious had burst into flames in the world; transforming the entire landscape.

The invisible had become visible and has in some sense driven back the darkness. Not through a text or a manifesto but through a person.

It is the grown up Christ who according to St John, drew in the sand and forgave when a mob wanted to exact summary justice against a vulnerable woman,

and who took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples as a sign of the immeasurable value of service,

and who stood face to face with a Roman Governor who had a slippery concept of truth,

and who on every occasion that he performed a breath-taking act, described as a sign, but often since termed a miracle, brought new life, spiritual refreshment, and hope; from a God of exuberant passion for all that he had made.

That is the message of Christmas. All of us who cry alone or together are precious to God; who loves all of his creation; which he loves from the inside as well as the outside.

His fire always flings back the darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on Bible Sunday

It might become one of those questions which children one day ask their parents.

Where were you when you heard the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel prize for literature? I was in my car, nodding off slightly- don’t worry I was only the passenger- but I did bang my head against the window when I heard the announcement!

The woman who announced the winner didn’t sound totally convinced either- or she might have been influenced by the Australian habit of making statements sound like questions- when she read out- the winner of this year’s Nobel prize for literature is Bob Dylan? The world at the moment seems perfectly divided between those who are hurraying and those who think the world has taken another peculiar turn.

At the heart of it is a question of genre- does Dylan write great songs or does he write poetry?

Today is Bible Sunday- and that means we have to consider questions of genre too?

If I was to reflect on the whole Bible, as I have done many times in the past, I would remind you of the songs, the poetry and the literature- as well as the history, theology, comic sketches, law, ethics, letters etc which we find across the whole Bible; which, of course is a library about the human quest for and encounter with God.

But this year I want to concentrate on only one part of the bible- well actually 4 parts. The Gospels.

Hold up.

Pictures on the front in gold. Have you ever noticed them?

What are they and why are they there?

Matthew = Human with wings.

Mark= Lion.

Luke= Ox

John= Eagle.

This association of the 4 gospels with 4 creatures can be traced back to the middle of the C2nd century, and has a fascinating story behind it- much of it guess-work!

And what it tells us about the nature of the Bible is significant.

And here is a link with what I said about Bob Dylan and genre earlier. Only Mark’s Gospel actually calls itself a gospel.

John and Matthew self- describe as books.

While Luke calls his version an orderly account of events- all those which have shaped the Christian community so far.

The earliest description from outside the gospels themselves comes from Justin Martyr, in about 120 AD, where he calls them the memoirs of the Apostles.

But Gospels was the collective title which stuck; and I think for good reason.

The’ 4 orderly accounts’ was never going to catch on and neither was the 4 books; because that does not really say anything, and they are ,despite what  Justin Martyr said, quite clearly much more than biographies or memoirs-, even though they do contain quite a lot of such detail.

The word Gospel – is a translation of the greek evanggelion. The word usually translated as good news in the New Testament, but also used in the Greek world for a public proclamation made by a king or other person of power, and therefore carrying with it a sense that a life changing message is involved.

One of the most popular one man translation of the Bible is called ‘ The Message.’

I am sure that Gospel caught on because it not only describes the type of book referred to, but what it is and what it does.

These four gospels are where we can encounter Jesus Christ. They include information about him, but also much more. They do announce and proclaim a vital message.

They contain meaning, and questions for us. They contain comfort but also profound challenges.

They confirm what the Old Testament also tells us, that our relationship with God is a blessed one, but not easily encapsulated- in a system of rules, or doctrines or beliefs.

It is something, if you like, that we get caught up in but never entirely get! If we had one Gospel only we might have had it easier, but I think we would have been much more likely to miss the richness of what theologians have termed the Mystery of God.

Having 4 Gospels, each with its curious symbol, paints a much fuller, more tantalising and rewarding picture.

Matthew’s Gospel has this man symbol associated with it. This seems to have happened because it begins and ends with humanity; specifically Jewish humanity.

It begins with long genealogies about Jesus’ ancestry.

In doing so the point is made that the culture Jesus inherited shaped him and was a fundamental part of who he was. In Matthew we read of things now long associated with the rabbinical tradition. Jesus gives practical guidance on how to lead a righteous life, how to root that in self- awareness and how to re-configure your motivation. It is the Gospel which allows no escape from the practical application of religion and should have made Anti-Semitism unthinkable.

The symbol for Mark’s Gospel is the lion- because Mark begins his story in the desert- the domain of the wild beasts.

The place where people are most vulnerable; and most aware of their need and who they are.

The guiding theme of Mark’ s Gospel instantly becomes apparent- that the starting point of discovering that you are beloved by God is to be honest about your frailty and faults and terrors.

In the gospel Jesus offers hope and forgiveness, but never a cure all. If it begins in the desert it in ends with the women outside the empty tomb, who are afraid.

It is the Gospel which above all spells out that humility is the root of faith- not something to be banished as you become more proficient but something to be nurtured.

The Ox became associated with St Luke’s Gospel because begins with John the Baptist’s father Zechariah in the Temple at Jerusalem- a place of animal sacrifice.

What happens to Zechariah is something initially terrifying and impossible to assimilate turns over time into a source of rejoicing. Actually again and again in this Gospel God is shown to work through a series of ambushes which at first disconcert but then when light dawns turn out to be transformations. It was CS Lewis who coined the phrase ‘Surprised by Joy,’ to describe those experiences we have which echo this picture.

To me this is a great reminder that faith is not about self- denial- but about the heart and mind being opened up and discovering new horizons; over and over again.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus’ opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads it out, but immediately makes the claim that this is no old text, no ancient wisdom- profound as it is- no, here and now, he will give sight to the blind and set the prisoners free!

And finally John- with its symbol the eagle. John’s Gospel simply is the Gospel that soars. There is a wonderful psalm, which we often say together at Night Prayer- psalm 91, which has the verses.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High:

 Who abides under the shadow of the Almighty…

 He will cover you with his wings, and you shall be safe under his feathers:

 His faithfulness will be your shield and defence. 

It is John who assures us that God has been upholding the world since the very beginning and proclaims that his love has no limit and no end.

Each of the Gospels, of course has far more to say than these summaries suggest; but my point is that they complement each other, and help fill in the picture. And together proclaim to us and offer to us the good news God has given- and it is very rich, challenges and eye-popping fare.

 

 

Sermon on Blessing: September 4th 2016

When you attend a church service like our main service, to paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis ‘ there’s a whole lotta blessing going on.’ Incense is blessed before the service, twice more during it, and that incense is then used to bless the altar, the bread and the wine, the cross, the people etc,

And of course the service always finishes with a verbal blessing of the congregation by the priest.

But although in the main service everything is more dramatic and explicit in the way it highlights blessing, obviously, it does not follow that the early service and those who attend are somehow less blessed-second rate worshippers with their second rate service- in both senses of the word.

It would be very odd to think that there is something inferior about an incense free service.

How we understand blessing is key.

Our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy is all about blessing. Moses is addressing the people of Israel as, after years of wandering in the wilderness, they stand on the margins of the promised land. But his message is not one of undiluted triumph and optimism- ‘ you’ve made it at last.’ His words are hopeful but have a warning attached.

God he says has set before you.

Life and prosperity but also death and adversity.

Blessings, but curses to.

Moses’ message here repeats itself again and again throughout the Old Testament- it is that God has made you- all people- for good- for life- for compassion- for fulfilment etc. but you don’t always choose that path- you will make the wrong choices.

The same message is there in the story in Genesis of the creation of Adam and Eve.

In the Old Testament- First chapter of God’s dealings with humanity-The Law and the prophets provided the guidelines and the wisdom that help people return to the straight and narrow.

But at the root of everything is the fundamentally good creation gifted by God- the original blessing, as some have called it.

Christianity took that idea on.

Turn to page 5 of your order of service.

We find it expressed on page 5 of the service- right at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, and where we also explicitly use the language of blessing; because our existence and nature is something which we are grateful to God for and therefore wish to express our praise to Him. To lift up our hearts and to give thanks for.

Blessed are you, Lord God,

 Our light and our salvation;

To you be glory and praise for ever.

From the beginning you have created all things and all your works echo the silent music of your praise. In the fullness of time you made us in your image, the crown of all creation.

Unfortunately, that crown just keeps on slipping.

Which is why that great prayer shortly changes gear, from the blessing of the gift of life to our need of God’s steadfast and active compassion.

As a mother tenderly gathers her creation, you embraced a people as your own. When they turned away and rebelled your love remained steadfast.

And then moves on to Jesus. Another, decisive gift from God; a blessing which enables true reconciliation and salvation; what we can’t achieve for ourselves or by ourselves.

The rest of the Eucharistic prayer recaps how this happens which is why we all respond at the end of that prayer with the words.

 Blessing and honour and glory and power be yours for ever . Amen.

It can be a bit confusing at times but blessing clearly is a 2 way street. It describes  what God has done for us and continually offers to us, and also what we feel in response. As He blesses us, we wish to bless him in gratitude.

But a third element needs a mention too. I referred to it when I preached a couple of weeks ago- calling or vocation. What we are for- what something is ultimately for. That is one of the reasons that we can bless incense and people.

Let me try to explain?

Unseen by most people in church we bless the incense in the vestry before the service begins. There are different ways of doing this. Joy and I will make the sign of the cross over it and pray internally something like this- Be blessed by him in whose honour you shall be burned.

The incense we use in church has been made by monks and nuns from the gum of various trees- frankincense is a key ingredient.

When it is harvested in Asia or North Africa it is already destined to be used as scent, but its exact purpose is not fixed.

When it falls into the hands of the incense makers its purpose becomes more defined, but its ultimate destination is not known.

But when we use it becomes special for us- as it helps us honour the good news of the gospel, celebrate the bread and wine and all the people here in this community. So its purpose is refined.

When we bless it we don’t fundamentally change it, but we do set it apart for a special and exalted purpose; and one which ultimately has its source in God as it is part of creation.

Isn’t that the way it is for us when we come together to worship?

We come to reflect on the blessing we receive from God, and express our blessing in praise and thanks, but we also come to receive the blessing of becoming- refinding, rather than refining, ourselves; to go back into God’s world as a blessing to it. – quote prayer after communion- both of them.

Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.

We who the spirit lights give light to the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter morning sermon.

Last Friday I followed in the Queen’s footsteps.

On Thursday she opened the new lion enclosure in London Zoo. On Friday Ruth and I were among the first members of the public to visit the new attraction, as part of a special preview for zoo members

We did get more than a glimpse of the lions- we actually saw them running and heard them roaring, which was first for me in nearly 50 years of visiting. As you know, lions, in captivity tend to pace or sleep!

I will never forget that.

But just before we joined the queue for that feature something, even more unforgettable happened.

I had my closest ever encounter with a Blue Morpho butterfly.

I was just about to leave the butterfly house when someone said ‘you seem to have a friend.’ And pointed at my coat.

There indeed was a large butterfly with its wings closed; so all I could see was the grey parchment- like, owl eyed exterior of the wing.

And then it opened its wings for a second and I glimpsed the iridescent  blue inside. If you haven’t seen a Blue Morpho, the effect-  produced by the refraction of light- is a kingfisher’s wing crossed with a summer sky- or the cloak of the Virgin Mary for those of you who know your medieval art!

As I knew I had to leave soon, to see the lions and I couldn’t let my hitch-hiker come with me, as the cold would kill it, and you are rightly forbidden to touch such fragile insects, I had a problem.

So I just stood there, waiting for it to take wing of its own accord.

But it didn’t budge, but just stayed their flashing its wings.

At which point the peace of the butterfly house was shattered by a troop of Primary school children. Most of whom were either nervous or terrified of the butterflies zooming around their heads- because of  their unpredictable flight paths , speed, and size- some about the same size as this hymnbook.

So the children wanted to get out as quickly as they could.

Seeing that some were waving their arms about and were in danger of swiping the fragile insects, I gently remonstrated with them.

As I did so and turned, my Morpho opened its wings and the last group of the class saw it and stopped dead. The fear was immediately replaced by wonder. And they remained entranced, until I, having to get to the lions, coaxed it on to my finger and transferred it safely to a flower.

Here on Easter morning, we are at a moment when the terror of Holy Week, is eclipsed by the wonder of Easter Morning.

Jesus Christ, unjustly condemned, betrayed, abandoned by his friends, is put to death on a cross.

There are flashes of the butterfly’s wing too, of God’s and man’s glory- for example, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper, as a great sign of the power of service for others, and the faithfulness and compassion of Jesus’ women followers, who don’t abandon him.

But it is only on Easter morning that the true wonder is revealed. The women are first at the tomb, and they are terrified. St Peter is next, and he is duly amazed. Which in the Greek has a much stronger sense than it does today.

To re-appropriate Yeats’ century old phrase about the Easter Rising;

the Resurrection has a terrible beauty.

Which is what we would expect- if we understand it as the decisive flashing forth of God’s glory in the world, which points towards the ultimate fulfilment for all creation of God’ loving purposes.

For centuries butterflies have been taken to represent the Resurrection, because of their beautiful transformations- as have flowers!

And candles have long been lit to help the faithful get their minds around the dazzling glory of Easter morning.

But such things were not originally seen as merely symbolic reminders of theological truths to tickle the mind. They were perceived as direct accessible examples of God’s power to transform, mend and enlighten.

God’ s glory was seen as all around- in nature, and the everyday stuff of human life. All that brings forth wonder and love.

I want to conclude with the powerful Easter prayer, written by one of the great Fathers of our Christian Church Gregory of Nazianzus, nearly 1700 years ago.

Let us pray.

Today we rejoice in the salvation of the cosmos.

Christ has risen; let us arise in him!

Christ enters new life; let us live in him;

Christ has come forth from the tomb;

The gates of hell are open,

 And the powers of evil are overcome!

 In Christ a new creation is coming to birth;

Alleluia!

Lord make us new,

 Alleluia. Amen

 

 

 

 

St Paul 2016

I don’t imagine that Jane Austen ever thought that one day there would be a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called ‘ Mrs Darcy versus the aliens.’ But there is- as one reviewer put it’ ‘ it is much funnier than the original and has a lot more aliens.’

Jane Austen’s popularity is such that fictional films are made about her life, all sorts of sequels are written- such as the one above, but also by detective and mainstream writers- and even self help books have appeared drawing on the wisdom of her novels.

I recently read an academic book about her which compared the way her books are now treated to the way the Bible used to be.

That is an interesting thought, particularly if you think, for a moment, about the characteristics of this contemporary reverence.

It sometimes takes the form of a nostalgic wish to live in a world, mistakenly believed to be hers, which is ordered, parochial and safe. The dirt, the dangers of disease, the foul characters seemingly fair, and the truly evil manifestation which is Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, all carefully excised.

Or more commonly her work is taken to be about romance, featuring Mr Darcy ,of course, as the dark and brooding hero.

When one of her persistent themes was the folly of a sensational view of the world, which is mocked most severely in Northanger Abbey, but gently teased in every other.

To her the gothic and the romantic were types of delusion; which is why when it comes to marriage sympathy, compatible social status, and freedom from delusion are so lauded by her.

The love between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy only flourished once the pride and prejudice withered, and they could see each other clearly.

Not quite getting Jane Austen is thus one of the main drivers in appreciating her.

Which I would argue is a good way to come at that seemingly totally different literary figure, St Paul.

Those who we conveniently call conservative Christians look to him for inspiration when they protest at a world where conventional sexual norms are being over-turned. His disapproval is taken to mirror God’s.

But those often labelled liberals also look to him when they seek inspiration for the over-turning of conventional social distinctions. Innovation is an initiative launched by God, and St Paul agrees- so there.

In his letter to the Galatians he writes of the sort of things that will exclude a believer from the kingdom of God- most are nothing at all to do with sex,- such things as strife, in-fighting, jealousy, anger, quarrels are included- but top of his list is fornication, impurity and licentiousness.

But then, 2 chapters earlier he wrote these clarion words, which have inspired all sorts of changes and new ways of thinking in the church.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer Jew, or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

But of course there are not 2 St Paul’s. Neither is he just being muddle headed- a conservative one minute and a liberal the next.

Just like with Jane Austen- to appreciate him is to not quite get him.

About a decade ago the acclaimed biographer Claire Tomalin, who had a track record of rescuing the reputation of neglected women, such as Dickens’ mistress Nelly Ternan,

managed to produce a life of Jane Austen, which almost entirely ignored her intellectual and religious hinterland.

But we know that Austen had access to the well- stocked library of her clerical father, and from hints and references in her letters and novels, that she was steeped in the best Anglican thought of her day- philosophers such as Earl of Shaftesbury, John Locke and Bishop Berkeley and her great favourite Samuel Johnson.  That was her world- her context- she thought and breathed it.

And Claire Tomalin hardly engaged with it at all. She doesn’t seem to be able to tune into the right frequency.

Which I think echoes the problems we have today with St Paul. We Christians are likely to cherry pick his words to suit what we already believe on other grounds, and people who are tone deaf to faith just tend to gravitate towards all the things he wrote which are inimical to the modern point of view and ignore everything else.

Maybe the comparison to Jane Austen is helpful here again?

Although the purpose of each writer was totally different- I do think it would be hard to claim that St Paul was in any way seeking to amuse anybody- both were storytellers.

Austen wrote entertaining fictions for publication from her home in Hampshire, whereas St Paul, travelled the world founding new and encouraging already established Christian communities, argued in market-places, endured ship-wreck and imprisonment, and poured forth his thoughts and advice in letters.

But he was still a storyteller.

The Gospel- in the form that he delivered it- was much more complex than is sometimes thought. Too often, as I said, he has been seen as a marvellous sound- bite and doctrine generator.

‘ But the greatest of these is love.’ 

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.’

We hold that a person is justified by faith.

Just 3 of a host of phrases which have brought comfort and controversy to millions.

But St Paul had a much bigger over-arching story to tell. It was part autobiographical because it was shaped by what had directly happened to him- by the journey he had taken.

It was historical because it drew on the prompts of God’s grace found in the lives of such as Moses and Abraham.

It was cosmological because it addressed again and again God’s purpose in creation. The night sky and the unfolding of the future were seen to communicate meaning.

Christ was the focus of everything- his love and sacrifice.

And St Paul was trying to tell this multi-layered story, from within, and into a diverse variety of contexts.

This man, who was Jewish, and thoroughly immersed in the culture of his first language, Greek, was also Roman citizen. In all he did and wrote we can see him trying to come to grips with the fresh experience of God that he had received.

I think that is vital point- he was not just passing that story on, but was in the story himself and well aware of that.

He might be convinced that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God.’

But he didn’t expect the road forward to be painless and smooth. And others would be sure to have their say.

I find this helpful when I am tempted -which is very often- to despair and agonise about the state of the church today.

Because we are part of an unfolding story too, our own and God’s.

There are bound to be conflicts and failures of understanding along the way- as there always have been.

If understanding St Paul is difficult- the man who has been called the second founder of Christianity- and a fellow member of our own church such as Jane Austen, who lived barely 2 centuries in the past can be so baffling- no wonder we have so much trouble with our contemporaries.

Perhaps some more of St Paul’s words will bring us some comfort and perspective, as they have many times before to people in much worse circumstances than ours. The story is still not ended. Romans 8.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation awaits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God .

If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Patronal Service 2015

Sermon St Barnabas 2015

In his most famous speech Martin Luther King said

 I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation when they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

Last week a much lesser known figure from American evangelicalism but one who has been hugely influential in his own land and over here made a declaration which would have come as an equally profound challenge to many.

The preacher Tony Campolo, now 80 years old, announced that it was time for all the churches to fully accept gay couples.

Part of his argument for what in his circle is a radical change is that marriage is about far more than procreation, and indeed has a strong spiritual dimension.

You will remember St Paul’s list of fruits of the Holy Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self- control. Campolo argues that marriage is an ideal place for such qualities to be practised and developed- the Church of England agrees about this spiritual dimension, putting it this way in the marriage service, with an invitation to the whole congregation.

We pray with them that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen them, that they may fulfil God’s purposes for the whole of their earthly life together.

Campolo sees the very same process at work in gay couples so asks why the disapproval?

Martin Luther King and Tony Campolo can be seen as examples of progressive or inclusive movements within Christianity, but I am wary of both terms. One reason for that is that both smack of the secular humanist myth that the church is doing well when it catches up with the rest of right thinking society. An opinion that can be expressed with hostility or in a slightly patronising manner like a 10 year old being struck with wonder because great grandma has mastered emoji.

I know it will never catch on- but I prefer the word expansive to capture this movement within Christianity. This opening up of horizons and boundaries.

Not only because it is more accurate than inclusive and progressive but also because it can remind us  – and Tony Compolo gets this- that it is not a recent development within Christianity, but of the very essence. An act of recall.

For all its emphasis on remembering and connecting with the wisdom of Christ and the Bible- at the heart of every act of eucharistic worship is the phrase.

Do this in remembrance of me.

The church is terribly prone to forgetting its core vision.

It is often stated very solemnly from pulpits that the point of the church season is to give shape and pattern to the Christian Year. Maybe it is more basic than that.

We just need a hell of a lot of reminders about what our faith is all about- ones that stop us putting everything in little boxes- like race, sexuality, gender.

In recent weeks we have celebrated Pentecost- the fire of God filling the disciples with Vision and energy to proclaim God’s love in word and deed. Then came Trinity Sunday, when we are forced to contemplate the profound mystery of a God who creates, redeems and sanctifies. A God expansive and generous indeed, who knows no barriers to his love.

And today we have our Patronal festival. Not only do we remember St Barnabas- mentor of St Paul and missionary- because this church is named after him.

We remember him in gratitude for who he was. Someone who was caught up in that expansive vision himself. A man of generosity and courage, with a well earned reputation for giving encouragement. Remember those fruits of the Holy Spirit again?

Love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control.

And that beautiful passage from the book of Job was so well chosen to illustrate St Barnabas’ character.

When the eye saw, it approved; because I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper… my justice was like a robe and a turban.

 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.

I was father to the needy and I championed the cause of the stranger.

Not bad yard-sticks to live our lives by.

And think of all those examples of Christian forgetting which would not have happened if the expansive God who inspired such insights had been brought to mind?

The God of our Gospel, John 15- whose greatest commandment was to love.

But we mustn’t neglect the other side of the patronal festival- We don’t just celebrate our patron saint but the church and that is us. We have to recollect and celebrate ourselves.

One of the other fundamental aspects of our Christian Vision is that we all play a part. The Greek word translated as church means assembly. It’s the people- all of them who come in response to the generous invitation of God.

Remember the parable of the Father who rushed to meet his errant son as soon as he saw him coming home. Think of the crowds on the Galilean shore who just wanted to get close enough to catch a glimpse of Christ.

So that means all of us. The newly confirmed, the established, the very young, the old, the sure, the hesitant. All who find themselves drawn by the generous, overflowing and expansive heart of God.