Saturday, 10 October 2020

The Annunciation, Brighton Trinity 18 (28A) 11th October 2020

The 22nd Chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel and the second verse: The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. God is the king, Jesus is the son and we and the cosmos are part of the preparing of the bride for that banquet. The whole of history is headed towards a wedding banquet where Jesus is Bridegroom and the Church is Bride.

All we’re about this morning at Mass is preparing for the end of all things when God will be everything to everyone at his wedding banquet. Blessed are those who are called to his supper!

Out of the puzzle of today’s Gospel we can distil such joy and hope!

Matthew 22 IS a puzzle. You need bible scholarship to make sense of it. Things like invited guests killing servants who bring their invitations, a man hauled unexpectedly from the streets expected to have a wedding garment! Fortunately we have four Gospels we can look at side by side, as well as knowledge of the circumstances in which St Matthew wrote his edition, especially the Jewish War with Rome that ended with the Jerusalem’s destruction in 70AD. If you look at the parallel version in Luke Chapter 14 you see a more life-like parable of people making excuses after being invited to a great dinner. Matthew, writing primarily for Jews who’d rejected and put to death Christian evangelists, shades Our Lord’s original story with an allegory that presents Jerusalem’s loss as judging their rejection of Christ. That expansion explains the un-Jesus-like sound of today’s Gospel. As for the man without a wedding garment, it's a separate parable about the need to be ready for the Lord’s invitations Matthew’s  stitched onto the banquet parable. Also, whereas Luke’s banquet is given by a private person Matthew’s is given by a king for his son, the element I’m picking up on, and that’s an interpretation of Jesus’s original parable in the light of his death and resurrection.

Like St Matthew we read the teaching of Jesus Christ in the light of what followed. The Buddha gave his teaching - there are many Buddhas on sale down the Lanes - but, unlike the Buddha, Christ gave his life. When you leave the streets of Brighton to enter the Annunciation you see no Buddha but a Cross above a beautiful altar. Here Sunday by Sunday, day by day we recall Christ’s parables whilst going on to plead the sacrificial gift revealed upon the Cross. Wagner built this Church as a great place to celebrate this greatest of gifts.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. God is the king, Jesus is the son given on Calvary who, by the Holy Spirit, is gathering through history the scattered children of God to his banquet. History is about the purification of God’s children in anticipation of full union with the Blessed Trinity when we shall see God as he is and become like him. In the gift of the eucharist we eat and drink of Christ veiled in the sacrament to anticipate his unveiling when God will be all in all.

In his book Corpus Christi Anglican theologian Eric Mascall writes ‘there is only one Mass, offered by the great high priest, Jesus Christ, at the Last Supper, on Calvary and in heaven… ultimately we do not celebrate masses or attend mass; we celebrate mass and attend mass. For every earthly mass is simply the Church’s participation in the one heavenly Mass… the Eucharist makes accessible to us (human beings), at our different points of space and moments of time, the one extra-spatial and supra-temporal redemptive activity of Christ, ‘who ever lives to make intercession for us’.

As we sing in Bourne’s great hymn: Paschal Lamb, thine Offering finished once for all when thou wast slain, in its fullness undiminished shall for evermore remain, cleansing souls from every stain. Sacrifice is about love and not death, Christ’s once for all death is part of his perpetual love offering seen at Mass. As Thomas Aquinas says of the Mass: O sacred feast in which we partake of Christ, his sufferings are remembered, our minds are filled with his grace and we received a pledge of the glory that is to be ours.

If Brighton’s Buddha’s - though pointers to godly detachment - distract from the unique gift of God in Jesus Christ, her cinemas are more attractive - I speak as a regular sad they are being taken away in some respect due to COVID. To make a more favourable comparison, those clips we see in the cinema before the main film give us a preview of forthcoming attractions. What we’re about this morning like a cinema trailer, is a meal that’s a taster of the full thing, the heavenly banquet.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world happy are those who are called to his supper - in this meal we see the sacrificial gift of Jesus opening heaven to us under the veil of bread and wine. We eat and drink expressing our hope and our joy, in anticipation of heaven which scripture and sacrament depict as a banquet. 

The whole of history is headed towards this banquet at which Jesus is Bridegroom and the Church is Bride. And, yes, we will indeed need garments for this wedding, the garments of humility and confidence in God expressed in that beautiful and challenging prayer of the Eucharist: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

St Augustine, Scaynes Hill Harvest Sunday 4th October 2020

The parables of Jesus thrill with harvest imagery, sowing on the ground, reaping the fields and keeping grain in barns.

As a countryman in the days of his flesh it was natural for Jesus to use the harvest imagery of sowing, reaping and keeping to illustrate the purposes of God. Today in the Gospel Our Lord uses the vineyard story to explain his rejection and vindication.

As Jesus’ disciples we serve a threefold process of sowing, reaping and keeping. The kingdom of God, Jesus says in Mark 4v26 is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground...the seed would sprout and grow...but when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come

We interpret such parables as encouragements to sow God's love and harvest a response in God's good time which bears fruit in a body kept faithful in God's praise and service. 

We can use Jesus's parables of sowing, reaping and keeping as a form of self examination for ourselves and our Christian community. 

How much of our energies are put into serving others for their own sake - which is sowing

When we find people ready to commit themselves in love to God, have we the courage and means to reap for him by inviting and sealing that commitment? 

Are the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, study, service and reflection so active in me and my church that newcomers naturally come close to God with and through us?

These soul searching questions trace back to the words and deeds of Jesus who sowed himself upon the Cross like a grain of wheat to reap and keep a harvest of love for God through the Church's praise and service.

Let's follow then such soul searching as we look for a few minutes at sowing, reaping and keeping using three pictures that address these headings.

SOWING - How much of our energies are put into serving others for their own sake?

I'm asking you to answer for yourself or for St Augustine’s to which I'm a new comer.

Today’s harvest gifts have a destination - where? These are evidence our service, as does the Anchor coffee shop when it can function. 

As we serve we at times sow ideas. Helping people into Christian Faith requires countering a lot of misinformation, notably affirming 'God is good' and 'the Church is OK' (ecumenical brief - the abuse crisis hits us all). Sowing ideas online - my own ministry. Recent post of testimony of famed geneticist Francis Collins who realised, to quote him, that ‘my atheism was dangerously thin’. Lovely quote: ‘Atheism is the most daring of all dogmas, for it is the assertion of a universal negative’.

REAPING - When we find people ready to commit themselves in love to God, have we the courage and means to reap for him by inviting and sealing that commitment?

Missed opportunities - value of Alpha Course etc in providing a pathway into commitment and empowerment by the Spirit. Work of Open Book in our school. Horsted Keynes week of prayer, providing different interactive means of prayer and intercession, WCCM 

KEEPING - Are the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, study, service and reflection so active in me and my church that newcomers naturally come close to God with and through us?

The church's mission is weak because its prayer is weak.

I want to end by reading a passage from a book I wrote published by Bible Reading Fellowship entitled Experiencing Christ’s Love which a fivefold template for a Christian rule of life:

  • Sunday church attendance

  • day by day formal and free prayer times

  • ongoing study of the bible and the church’s faith 

  • occasions spending time serving others

  • regular self-examination and occasions for confession/guidance

The Christian discipline of reflection is a reminder of love, being loved and loving, and of our failure to love in which attitudes are key. This book has at its heart a reminder to stick at loving God through five attitudes commended by Jesus Christ knowing ‘we love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). The Lord Jesus gives us this overarching rule: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.. and your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37, 39b). Loving God with your heart and soul can be seen as what worship and prayer are primarily about, linked to loving him with your mind in study, your neighbour in service and yourself through reflection. To experience Christ’s love we’re therefore invited to follow five disciplines interrelated, like the thumb and fingers of the human hand, set to grasp the hand of God that reaches down to us in Jesus Christ.  Worship and prayer are heart and soul of our love for God but without engaging our minds with his teaching our love will be ill formed, Jesus implies, and without service, love of neighbour, and reflection, loving care of self, our loving God will be a delusion.

Like the Hamsa hand symbol of hope and peace the five loves invited by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39 are a call to and a reminder of balanced and effective discipleship.  What’s distinctive about Christian as opposed to other spiritual disciplines is the ‘hand up’ of grace they engage with. If Christian disciplines attain salvation they do so by grasping the hand of the Saviour. Experiencing Christ’s love in the five disciplines of worship, prayer, study, service and reflection is a taking of God’s hand in ours, the welcoming of his loving provision of forgiveness and healing that’s a hand up into his possibilities. 

Experiencing Christ's Love book p83-84 

On Harvest Sunday, as we offer this thanksgiving eucharist, the Lord bless our work of sowing, reaping and keeping - of sowing gospel seeds, reaping Christian commitment and keeping ourselves individually and as a Christian community close to the Lord who is to come close to us in this great sign of love, the Holy Communion. [Picture: Anne Twisleton]

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Trinity 16(26A) St John, Burgess Hill 27.9.20

- we’ve lived through a lot of it since I was with you in February. Living through change is a roller coaster even if our hearts are secured to God’s eternal changelessness. The scripture readings for the 16th Sunday after Trinity speak of that sort of security. The first reading from Ezekiel Chapter 18 is very direct: ‘repent… cast away from you all transgressions… get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, turn (change) and live’. The good news hidden in this otherwise bleak passage is God’s favour towards anyone who takes responsibility for what’s wrong in their life and changes it. ‘Grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them’ reads the Collect.

We have change of mind again in the Gospel from Matthew 21: ‘A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went’.’ Our Lord isn’t concerned with what people say about his will, let alone their background, be that religious or otherwise, just that we do God’s will and not just say we will. As someone who says the Our Father three times a day this passage concerns me. In Peterson’s paraphrase I keep saying ‘set the world right’ but often with little attention to setting my own heart right.

The wonder of Christianity is how quickly God welcomes a change of heart. So much so that the difference between a saint and a sinner has been defined not in terms of the lower quantity of sins as in the shorter time they take to repent of them. Ezekiel and Our Lord make clear God’s scrutiny is not of our past failures but how we set our sails for the future, for the hallowing of God’s name, for his kingdom and will and setting the world right.

I confess that when I think, say or do a wrong thing or make a glaring omission I am slow to find a change of heart because I wallow in my failure. ‘O that I should think that.. what a stupid think to say though I fancy I’m intelligent… how could I do that… or not do that?’ Worse still I find myself angry with God for my failures forgetting his merciful hand reaching out to me. God is not the one who pushes us down, but the one who picks us up. How quick are we to reach for his outstretched hand? Do we even reach out for it? Or are we too proud, choosing to try to get up by ourselves? 

Our second reading contains the ultimate reassurance that what the other two readings convey will come true for us when we have a change of heart. It is a parable grounded in history, It is an early Christian hymn relayed by St Paul in his letter to the Philippians to remind them of what God has done for them in Christ. This reminder is part of a call to look not just to their own interests but to the interests of others. 

Since I was last with you in February I have been serving as interim Chaplain at Ardingly College and this term we have an emphasis on teaching our 1100 pupils humility. There is a recognition that humility among students is their greatest good not to mention also its being essential to College dynamics, with social distancing. How do you teach self-forgetfulness to teenagers? It’s an uphill struggle even for adults as well grown as myself! 

St Francis de Sales says we should change as Christians, always be on the move, building these two virtues - humility and confidence in God. Without humility we can’t be open to change for the better. Without confidence in God we dare not ‘do what things we ought to do’ out of disbelief in God’s grace and power faithfully to help us change.

‘Though he was in the form of God, Jesus Christ did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

Change - scripture dares to suggest there is change in God, emptying of self to and from the persons of the Blessed Trinity. That emptying of love is for our filling. Our Lord dies in our place to live in our place by his Spirit. As Jesus emptied himself for us in death on the cross he calls us to humble ourselves, accepting the hardships we are surrounded by at this time as loving God-sends. Precisely at the moments we take our lives, hour by hour to the cross, confessing ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, especially at Mass, we find that love and we capture the forward  momentum of the Holy Spirit. God who does not change is close enough to empathise with the changes and chances of our lives so we can reach out to him, touch and enter into his eternal changelessness. This we call repentance, end of all argument about our circumstances and all argument with God himself.

Sisters and brothers, this morning, in the maelstrom of the COVID afflicted world, we have an invitation to change that will make a difference to us, to St John’s, to Burges Hill and to the world. From Ezekiel: ‘Cast away from you [all negativity] and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit’. From the teaching of Our Lord:  ‘He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went’. Is there something you have got to change your mind about this morning so you can set the world right starting with yourself. Then from St Paul.  As Jesus emptied himself for you in death he calls you to humble yourself, to accept God’s will in your situation so you can be granted the power to set the world right. So be it!

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Wivelsfield and Balcombe Trinity 15 (Wk 25A) 20 September 2020

We are God's children now says St John.  We have a 'sameness' to God, no less.

Yet, the scriptures go on to state the other side of the paradox - God-like we may be but we are also 'different' from God - or rather God is different from us.

We are like God, adopted sons and daughters - and yet we are called to purify ourselves as he is pure (1 John 3:3). We are like God but we are also not like God.

Christianity is full of mystery!  I love mystery and paradox and I feel sad to see its removal from life and even from the Church nowadays.

Christianity thrills with mystery and paradox.  

Look at that Gospel reading. What sense is there in paying all your workers the same however long or short their hours? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? (Matthew 20:15)

When God comes among us into the world he wants to be the same as us - so he plumbs our human depths. He suffers.

Yet in coming to us as God, so very different to us, he is able to open up our humanity to generous, endless vistas in the revelation of resurrection glory!

Christianity is about the bursting out of resurrection glory from the Risen Christ as shafts of light so often diffract from the sun through dark clouds.

Have you seen that picture, often at sunset - those of us who have roots in the Caribbean know it better than us - the sun's glory bursting out through the clouds.

What a picture - darkness and light together showing each other off!

So God shows himself off to us in Christ crucified and risen! God shows himself off in full splendour and lifts our poor humanity in the process, making it a vehicle and instrument of divine glory.

I love paradox.  The dictionary states that a paradox occurs when two statements that are contradictory in logic must be held together in experience.

30 years ago I worked in Guyana, South America which is where Anne and I were married. Besides Cricket and Anglicanism there is a third binder between England and its former colonies - did you know?  Gilbert and Sullivan - yes it still goes on in Guyana and across the Commonwealth though a bit incorrect nowadays. As a youth I acted in the Pirates of Penzance where Frederick, apprenticed to the Pirates, prepares for freedom on his 21st birthday. Then Ruth, his fierce protectress breaks the news that he is not 21 but only 5 and 'a little bit over' since he was born on 29 February.  

They sing the great 'Paradox' duet, which marks the necessity for Frederick to remain a pirate until he is 84.  The chorus runs:

How quaint the ways of paradox, at common sense she gaily mocks…

Paradoxes are amusing mentally.  They 'mock common sense' by provoking us to look at things two ways at once and get different answers.

Christianity is famous for its paradoxes - God in Three yet One, Jesus is God yet Man, Christ has died, Christ is risen…  

Look at Paul in the second reading, to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor 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. The apostle makes life and death into a paradox only Christian faith could entertain - living is Christ and dying is gain.

Some of us have been through some very dark periods in our lives not least over the months of this pandemic. Again and again sharing with Christian believers I catch vivid evidence of how the presence of faith allows dark clouds in life to diffract the glory of the Lord.  We need to hear more about this in our own Christian community so as to build us up in heart and soul.

When I was a student a group of pilgrims from my parish in Oxford went in a minibus to Walsingham.  Some of them made their first Confessions there.  It was a wonderful weekend spiritually.  On the way back the minibus crashed and some of them were killed.  The next Sunday was the Feast of the Transfiguration and I will never forget the parish priest preaching on a couple of verses from that story in  Luke 9:34-5 And as Jesus (brilliant in glory) spoke, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.  And a voice came out the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

Sometimes the Church grows best and sinks her roots deepest into Christ when the clouds come and we have to listen for God's call - see, this is my Son…

Joy and Sorrow are our inseparable bedfellows in this mysterious Christianity of ours.

When you struggle with your faith - and we do struggle at times -  imagine a world without this mystery you struggle with.

It's not very hard to imagine it because such a world is all around us!

Misery or mystery is the choice, really.

Takes away one side of the paradox and where does it leave you - the mystery of life is reduced to a bare contradiction.

Make God the same as us.  Eat, drink and be merry - this is where God is, right with us, the same as us.  Where is hope in such materialism?  As if there were nothing beyond death?  Other religions like Buddhism also seem to make God the same as us - God is the self, he is the genie in our lamp, so to speak.  God is so much the same as us he is built in our image more than we are built in his!

The paradox is lost - one side of the mystery of being is denied.

Or to look at the other extreme there are people who go about excessively making God different to everyone else.  Zip him up in a Jehovah's Witness Bible, God so different and aloof.  Sometimes the Church zips God up and makes him so special people feel they can never reach him.

You lose the sameness of God in all of this.

I always thing that Christmas and Lent teach us the sameness of God in his birth, life and sufferings whilst Easter and Pentecost teach us his difference.  Christ is raised - there the difference between God and man shines out in the generosity beyond logic described in today’s Gospel.

So where does all of this talk of mystery and the sameness and difference of God leave us all this Sunday morning 20 September 2020?

We are gathered once again to make a heartfelt offering of our lives to God through Our Lord Jesus Christ!

In baptism you are made one with Jesus in his death.  Jesus in turn wants you to be one with him in his new way of living.  He wants you to be bold in offering yourself afresh to his praise and service!

He died in your place so that you might let him live in your place!  That is the truth of our lives as Christians and we have to let it be in your lives waiting patiently to see it working out for us.

There's a saying we all know: a leopard doesn't change his spots.

This wonderful Christianity of ours goes against that saying.  People do change in Christianity.  They do see old habits losing their grip on them and new attitudes of compassion and forgiveness coming to birth.

Christ who is the same as us has the capacity to empathise and to draw out our sin and fear and doubt.

Christ who is ever new and so different to us also has the capacity to refresh us with his Spirit.  Jesus Christ is able to plant new life in our spirits, new, imperishable life, opening us all up to the possibilities of God.

And is there an ending or conclusion or limitation upon the possibilities of God?

As the stone got rolled back on Easter Day so the same Lord is present in our lives to make a difference and roll back the stones that weigh us down - stones of grief and sorrow, of bitterness and unforgiveness, of confusion and doubt.

Our Lord brings mystery instead of misery - he fills out the picture of life for us - and he can fill out the picture of life for others as we share the good news.

Christ is risen!  God has come to be the same as us and to make a difference to us and to the whole world!

Alleluia Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed alleluia!

Monday, 14 September 2020

Sermon at my mother Elsie Twisleton’s Interment Requiem Settle Parish Church Monday 14 September 2020

Mother could be preachy. So can I unsurprisingly! On a day like today I have to tread carefully because I don’t very often preach to my family. At least they’ve already had a say and John is on the altar as his contribution. Elsie was proud of them - of us - and grateful for us, as her last message, at the end of the service booklet, makes clear.

People are put off Christianity by many things - the diversity of faith systems (how do you choose?), the historical basis of Christ’s resurrection which relies on the New Testament (a Christian document) and the well attested hypocrisy of many Christian leaders. 

As the family tribute indicated, Elsie herself practised what she preached. Her house was founded on rock not sand. ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock’ (Matthew 7:24) She held to the catholic and apostolic church built on Peter’s faith that the risen Jesus is universal Lord and Saviour and that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. The humanity of the Church is sinful, yes, but there is divinity among us and that will prevail. This was Elsie’s faith.

Not all of us here share that faith. It is the genius of Christianity that its mainstream respects dissent, knowing disbelief may be directed more at religion than the mercy of God. Religion is God-given but man-handled. Elsie lamented lack of integrity in anyone but, with Our Lord, lamented religious hypocrisy most of all, subtracting as it does from the forward movement of the world served by the church.

In February her bags were packed for God. She’d chosen the hymns and readings for her funeral and was matter of fact about death simply asking, as God granted, that she die in her sleep. Before that sleep she’d have used this well worn large print book to say evening prayer and, in so doing, would have remembered many here present before her Lord. That remembrance continues in Christ our future as does ours for her. Here we return the compliment applying what Jesus has done for us to our souls and the souls we love, on earth or in paradise. Here in the Eucharist the Holy Cross, whose Feast we keep today, becomes a tangible reality; the Body and Blood of Jesus are made present; we are united with Jesus in his suffering and in his resurrection. This great rite, left to the Church by her Lord, is the least and the most we can offer for the dead. There is no more that I and you can do for Elsie than place her soul into God’s hands as she herself did day by day at the altar.

My main souvenir of her - she kept few artefacts - is this saying from St John Henry Newman framed on her window ledge: ‘I ask not to see. I ask not to know. I ask simply to be used’. 

As an apologist - not apologising for Christianity but making, like Newman, an apologia or reasoned defence for it - I’m clear about Christianity’s historical truth. You can see the evidence and there’s a good argument for it. So far as knowing God or knowing why we suffer, as with Tony’s premature death, I’m keen to know. Faith is like climbing a ladder with determination to fix a lightbulb. You’re concentrating attention on loosening the bulb and suddenly your mind switches to ponder how securely you’re placed on the ladder. Your inner questioning undermines the operation until you pull yourself together and get on with the job. When we try to analyse our faith it feels shaky. When we attend to God it is convinced. Believing in God is a practical matter beyond human analysis and Elsie knew this better than me. 

‘I ask simply to be used’ - not for her so much talk about God or the knowledge of God - though she did know him as the contemplative she was - just the generous desire to be used, here and now, as God wills. David, Anne and James described something of how that occurred through her long life, to God’s praise and service and the benefit of many.

My great grandfather saw this Church completed in 1838. My father, Greg, born in the last months of Queen Victoria’s reign, sang in the choir. Elsie followed me in switching from Giggleswick to Settle Church after his death in 1974. As chorister, PCC and Deanery Synod member and parish visitor she became in Peter’s words ‘a living stone’. As we lay her to rest her building goes on, with that of Greg and all of us who aspire for the cause which will outlast us all.

‘Come to him, to Christ, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’.

I am so grateful for the love of my mother and father and the upbringing they gave me in both life and faith. May their souls continue in God’s praise and service even as their bodily remains are united today in the Churchyard they loved. Thankful that this solemn entrustment of Elsie is at last accomplished, may we, her family and friends, be equipped to build forward in our lives ‘working together for that day when God’s kingdom comes and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’