Saturday, 12 January 2019

St Mary, Balcombe  Baptism of the Lord  13.1.19

John the Baptist said, ‘I have baptised you with water;… but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit Luke 3:16

Why do we need the Holy Spirit?

To pray, to love, to serve, to evangelise, to be obedient, to forgive, to heal…

Without the Holy Spirit:
God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
the Gospel is a dead letter,
the Church is simply an organisation,
authority is a matter of domination,
mission is a matter of propaganda,
the liturgy no more than an evocation,
Christian living a slave morality.

But in the Holy Spirit:
the risen Christ is there,
the Gospel is the power of life,
the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
authority is a liberating service,
mission is a Pentecost,
the liturgy is both memorial and anticipation,
human action is deified.
(Words for Pentecost Sunday from the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Athenagoras)

As baptised, confirmed - and some of us - ordained Christians we possess the Holy Spirit!

We possess the Spirit - but does he possess us? That is the key to a spiritual vitality!
As Our Lord says in St John Chapter 7:37-39 If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.
Our renewal in the Holy Spirit is about the releasing of the life of the Spirit within us.

The late Dom Ian Petit of Ampleforth wrote these words in his book You Will Receive Power: Baptism and Confirmation confer a supernatural gift, but ignorance or lack of understanding of the gift, can block its full effect. In other words, while the sacrament is valid and has been given, the effect has been blocked. When the block is removed then the full effect floods in...(a) baptism in the Holy Spirit… an opportunity for awakening in (people) their sacraments of initiation..

The New Year begins with a liturgical reminder about our ongoing need for this unblocking and awakening to the power of the Holy Spirit who visits us at every Eucharist.

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is the grand reminder that Christians are people who have woken up to Jesus and to the Gift of the Holy Spirit, to the living God - nothing less. An awakening to the Spirit, a releasing of the Spirit, an unblocking of his flow – this is the invitation and challenge of today’s Feast!  

There is one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and it confers the Holy Spirit. A gift though is given that needs to be received. For Christians to seek the renewing power of the Spirit – as we do as we receive Holy Communion every Sunday - is a matter of seeking to be more fully what we are in Christ and nothing more or less than that! We want to be a people that live knowing their need of grace!

The Spirit is waiting to confirm to us the same words that were spoken to Our Lord at his baptism: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Christians share in the anointing of the Anointed One – Jesus is the Christ or Anointed One so he can share his anointing with us and speak into our hearts those words of adoption: You are my son, my daughter; with you I am well pleased.

There’s a great tale from C.S. Lewis' about a doubting Bishop. Lewis once imagined an additional scene at the Marriage at Cana - a sceptical bishop sitting further down the table from Our Lord and Our Lady. There are the guests with the water turned into wine. As everyone enjoys the new wine of the Kingdom Feast the doubting bishop is holding up his glass and scrutinising, "How can this be? How can water become wine? How can the philosophical difficulties about an interventionist God be overcome? Is this some sort of conjuring trick?" All the while the rest of them at table are drinking up the Spirit in whatever sense you like!

There are many who make an 11th Commandment Thou shalt not commit thyself!  Such folk – and they are around in the Church today – miss out on Christian basics, on the empowering promised in today’s feast.

I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. This baptism or gift of the Holy Spirit is an ongoing reality for those who will commit themselves. The Gift is not so much a once for all thing or commodity but rather something dynamic and ongoing.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a process in which the relationship that opens up at Baptism involves an ongoing flow of love, praise and power leading into ongoing consecration in the Truth.

It is worth recalling that though Our Lord himself was conceived by the Holy Spirit he waited 30 years for his Baptism in Jordan. So it can be – as it was for me and can be for you- that though I had received the Spirit through Infant Baptism, Confirmation and Ordination the first deep experience came many years later – and through, of all things, a crisis of faith – and a recommitment!

In a faith crisis years back I went on a retreat and prayed God if you’re there show yourself, give me a vision of yourself more to your dimensions and less to mine – and he did – but it needs refreshing!

Another way to look at it is like this: if the Christian life is like a rose bush there are great spurts of growth from time to time that push out new branches with new flowers. One such branch  and its some branch in its fruitfulness – is, if you like, a new opening up to the Spirit. Yet just like the life of the rose bush before and after such a new spurt of growth we have the same inner life.

We possess the Spirit - but does he possess us? That is the question we are being asked on this feast of the Lord’s Baptism. There is a commitment issue here we need to address.  As we come to receive Jesus in Holy Communion are we really committed and open to his empowering? Are we ready to hear and to believe those wonderful words: You are my son, my daughter; with you I am well pleased.

In the silence that follows you have a chance to act in faith upon those wonderful words and place fresh trust in our heavenly Father preparing for an especially solemn and transformative Act of Communion this morning.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people as they look to you with expectation on this day of anointing with power!

Saturday, 5 January 2019

St Bartholomew, Brighton Epiphany Family Mass 6.1.18

As I reflected on today’s Feast two words came to my mind – spiritual journey.

Firstly the spiritual journey of humankind as we enter together a perilous New Year with all the tumult of Brexit. As I drove down this morning from Haywards Heath I thought of the spiritual journeys of Sussex folk. How blest we are that our life’s journey has brought us to such a beautiful county and city!

Then, secondly, there is the spiritual journey of the wise men to Our Lord and their offering at journey’s end. Linked to this is the Church’s spiritual journey through her Seasons. We travel through Advent and Christmas into Epiphany and the green of ordinary time. Our journey continues with the purple of Lent and Holy Week, the white of Easter and Ascension, the red frontals of Pentecost and then back to green. We do well to familiarise ourselves with the liturgical seasons which are given to serve life’s spiritual journey.

This brought me to the final thought of another much simpler spiritual journey.

It is of but a few inches - fifteen inches…

The story goes that there was once a rabbi in Cracow, Isaac son of Yekel, who dreamed one night that there was a great treasure under the bridge at Prague.

He set off at once for Prague, but when he got there found that there was a heavy guard on the bridge. The rabbi had no choice but to explain his dream to one of the guards.

When the guard heard the story he burst into uncontrollable laughter. ‘How crazy can you get? Suppose everyone went off after their dreams? Why I once dreamed that there was a treasure hidden in a house in Cracow. It was in the house of a man called Isaac, son of Yekel but do you think I was going off to Cracow because of that dream? In any case, half of Cracow is called Isaac, son of Yekel.’

So the Rabbi Isaac returned to Cracow.

The rabbi had treasure at home. He did not need to go to Prague.

So it is with the spiritual journey. If we want spiritual riches we are more likely to find them by opening our eyes to what we have already than by journeying the world over.

The truth of Christmas is about God coming down to our level to dwell in human hearts.

If people want to journey to God today they need move inches and not miles.

Fifteen inches, to be precise, down from the head to the heart. That is where we find God.

Our restless minds distract us, move us away from the treasure to be found in the stillness of the heart.

When the mind can be stilled, and lowered, into the heart - there is salvation.

The Kingdom of Christ is within us.

Sometimes this discovery is made through pain.

I remember once hearing a Theology lecturer, Tom Smail, speak about the way his relationship with Our Lord had most deepened through what he described as God’s shock treatment.

Tom was almost bald.  I remember the joke he told at his own expense. I’m bald he said because the Lord keeps bashing me on the head to lower my religion from my head down into my heart!

It could be you feel the Lord is having a go at you this morning. If you are in pain where is that silver lining? Don’t waste your sorrow - God is surely there somewhere in it if you will but listen for him!

Sometimes painful experience helps make us more fully what we’re meant to be.

This is the essence of the spiritual journey, a journey with Jesus and to Jesus but also by its nature a journey into greater self-possession.

As New Year begins how do we at St. Bartholomew’s move forwards effectively in our spiritual journey?

We have every reason to do so – we want our new priest when he is appointed to be caught up into a dynamic, forward moving parish and not faced with an uphill struggle!

I suppose I have answered my question with the story of Rabbi Isaac.
The spiritual journey we’re called to is primarily the 15 inches one down from head to heart.

Accomplishing that journey within means taking time day by day to reflect, to sit or kneel in God’s presence and indeed our own presence. There we find hunger and longing, hurt and inadequacy, pride and fearfulness. None of these melt away on the spiritual journey but they can be owned and offered to the Lord who meets us just as we are.

The journey within takes courage. There is so much that would keep us on the surface, not least the multitude of recreational options available to us, the manifold activities we can choose to fill up our lives!

The inner journey takes courage and it takes time, time to be.

Was it Pascal who said that most of mankind’s problems derive from our inability to sit still in a room?

Just maybe 15 minutes a day - 5 minutes with the Scriptures, 5 minutes in quiet worship and 5 minutes in intercession, prayer for others, including our parish - what a difference if we made that the flavour of our spiritual journey in the coming year!

‘Jesus loves us as we are’ it is said. As we own that love day by day we own ourselves, our souls and bodies and make them more and more fully a living sacrifice to be united with his perfect Offering in the Mass.

Speaking of this sort of spiritual journey T.S.Eliot wrote these great lines: And the end of all our exploring – will be to arrive where we started – and to know the place for the first time.

Wise men still journey to Jesus but they do not move anywhere.

Whatever we do in 2019 as individuals or as a Church may we be the Church better by being Christians better so that the depths of Christ may resonate from our prayers and our worship and our lives here at St Bartholomew’s!  

Be still and know that I am God!

Saturday, 29 December 2018

St Mary, Balcombe Feast of the Holy Family 30th December 2018

This morning the liturgy moves from Bethlehem via Jerusalem to Nazareth. On Tuesday we celebrated the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Today we celebrate his childhood in Nazareth. As we heard at the end of the holy gospel, following the incident in the Temple: Jesus went down with Mary and Joseph and came to Nazareth.

I once went to Nazareth. I’ll never forget seeing two young boys at a well drawing water for their families. They could have been Jesus and his cousin John. The water was probably from the same source as that drawn on 2000 years ago, for wells do not move.

This morning we are all going in heart and mind to Nazareth, to the household of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We’re going, with the scriptures and the holy liturgy to seek inspiration from the Holy Family for our own families and for the family we enjoy here at St. Mary’s as a local expression of God’s never-ending family, the holy, catholic church.

As we go to Nazareth we find welcome, challenge and empowerment.

We find firstly a welcome. The hearth of Mary and Joseph is an open hearth. How could it be otherwise? How could this couple who welcome God into their earthly home be guilty of turning any away?

In the Holy Family there is hospitality, the generous reception of friends and stranger alike.  We catch something of the extended life of the Holy Family in today’s Gospel story of Jesus getting lost in the Temple when the three of them travel in a large extended family. To enter the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is to find yourself welcomed into that great hospitable procession of the people of God into the heavenly Temple. Mary and Joseph remind us that we can never have Jesus to ourselves. To be a Christian is to be one with Mary and Joseph and Paul and Augustine and Francis and Giles – and the list goes on!

In the Holy Family we find the welcome that marks the church from its beginning, God’s people belonging to God and belonging together.
You and I haven’t chosen one another but God has chosen us together to be his family here in Balcombe. Welcome one another says the Apostle as God in Christ has welcomed you.

In Nazareth we see also an image of Christian family, of mutual belonging. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are present to one another in a way we can only hope to imitate by the grace of God.

Our families need to go to Nazareth, so to speak, and to learn there how to be more present to one another.

As we go to Nazareth we find such a welcome – and also a challenge. It is the Feast of the Holy Family today.

There’s so much sentimentality surrounding Mary and Joseph we need to get back to scripture to see them as they are – two of God’s holy ones and holiness is nothing comfortable but rather something challenging. The infancy narratives in the Gospel give evidence of St. Joseph’s capacity to hear the voice of God and guide the Holy Family.

And Mary! If she had not been what we call ‘ascetic’, a woman set apart and well disciplined in the spiritual life, she would not have become the God-Bearer by whom God came down to live in your life and mine. As someone wrote, it was as if the human race were a little dark house, without light or air, locked and latched. The wind of the spirit had beaten on the door, rattled the windows, tapped on the dark glass, trying to get in – and yet the Spirit was outside. But one day a woman opened the door, and the little house was swept pure and clean by the wind. Seas of light swept through it, and the light remained in it; and in that little house, a Child was born and the Child was God.

As we go to the home in Nazareth we encounter the challenge of holiness, what Pascal said was the most important influence in the world. We see a Holy Child formed by a Holy Mother and her Spouse. How can we enter such a home?

There are families I know where there is such a sense of the Holy Spirit that I am made to feel deeply challenged. Some households have about them a transcendent quality, a joy that is pointer to heaven our true home.

This is also true of churches. Just welcoming visitors is not enough. They need to be challenged, intrigued by what they see inside our buildings, both the worship of Jesus and the people of Jesus in their self-lessness and joy.

This morning we go to Nazareth to learn in the school of Jesus, Mary and Joseph of a welcoming love and a challenge to holiness. Lastly we will find at Nazareth a source of empowerment.

For 2000 years people have been empowered by the saving grace of Jesus Christ born of Mary. What a Saviour – a practical Saviour! As practical as his foster father, Joseph, in carpentry where Our Lord picks up his capacity to mend, yes, even families.

How many of us have had to bring our marriages and our families to be mended? To the Carpenter, the One who anoints and empowers and saves – and seen the difference Christian Faith makes.

How much we need to get back to Nazareth, to Jesus, Mary and Joseph and see there a work of intense spiritual transformation open to all. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour (Luke 2:52). He did so that we too might increase in the same fashion!

Either Jesus Christ makes a difference, either he is born ‘to raise the sons of earth’ or our religion is moralistic do-gooding. If Christianity is about ‘do gooding’ it is only in the sense that Christians have access to a power beyond this world that incidentally helps you do what is right.

For that empowerment, for the challenge and welcoming love the Holy Spirit brings we go in gratitude once more this morning to Nazareth!

Through modelling Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may our families and our church be places of welcome so that people may find a home with us and with the Lord!

May our families and our church be challenging places where people get intrigued by Jesus Christ living in the midst of his people!

Father grant that our families and our churches may become places of spiritual empowerment where we share in the anointing of your anointed Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign, One God for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Midnight Mass 2018 at St Bartholomew, Brighton

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. Luke 2:10

Fear not - trust! Trust God - he is above all to be trusted!

There is great tumult in our nation. As 2018 ends no one knows how 2019 will shape Britain’s future in relation to the rest of the world. The credibility of Parliamentary democracy has taken a tumble with that of ministers, politicians and the media leaving many bewildered not knowing who to trust.

Fear not - trust! Trust God - he is above all to be trusted!

His are truth, goodness and beauty and those qualities remain evident among us. Such is the crisis in truth telling that the second and third qualities are becoming preferable pointers to him, beauty especially.

As we gather to celebrate Midnight Mass we owe much to our choir and orchestra and the composer Joseph Haydn for the beautiful music these words interrupt to speak of truth. In his Credo there is no mistaking his witness to Christian truth in the incarnation and resurrection as we shall see.

Haydn like us knew tumult. Whilst he lay dying in the Vienna of 1809 Napoleon was bombarding his neighbourhood. Such was his international reputation as a composer that Emperor Napoleon sent guards to his house to protect him.

The score of the St Nicholas Mass is marked ‘in nomine deo’ as were all Joseph Haydn’s works. With all his flaws Haydn put trust in God seeking the Holy Spirit to make him his conduit of beautiful composition, musical beauty we are being fully immersed in this Christmas night.

Fear not - trust! Trust God - he is above all to be trusted!

In the tumult of an earlier age, as the Roman Empire fell apart in the 5th century, St Augustine of Hippo preached these words in his Christmas sermon on the same text I gave you from Luke 2:10: Fear not the coming of your God: fear not his friendship. He will not straighten you when he comes, rather he will enlarge you...You see then, if you love, how much room he gives you. Fear is a suffering that oppresses us. But look at the immensity of love.

I was taken by his image of Christianity as enlarging. It’s so against people’s perception of what we’re about.

Yet the Babe of Bethlehem accepted those swaddling bands to give us the glorious liberty of the children of God.

God got straightened, bound up, so we could find new spaciousness and be granted power to become his children.

To be a Christian is to have a capacity to rise through natural fear into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

You see then, if you love, how much room he gives you. Fear is a suffering that oppresses us. But look at the immensity of love.
To know you are loved, that God’s Spirit has been poured into your heart, is to connect through trust in God with the centre of the universe and see his perfect love casting out your fear and its oppression over you.

One of the saddest caricatures of Christianity is that it’s narrow minded, a sort of strait laced morality. That Christians are ‘holier than thou’s’ sent as moral policemen to keep the world in order.

A priest once had the privilege of speaking to the comedian Groucho Marx. ‘I’d like to thank you, Mr. Marx’ the priest said, ‘for all the joy you’ve brought into the world.’ Quick witted as ever Groucho replied And let me thank you, Father, for all the joy you’ve taken out!

God forgive us Christians for making our religion seem so constricting.

Tonight Jesus was bound in swaddling bands to expand us out of fear into the joyful immensity of divine love!

When people look at a Church door they might think of it as a way to narrow down your existence. Jesus did say enter by the narrow gate!
Once you come through the Church door – and I mean really come through into day by day discipleship and week by week worship - it’s more like the door of Doctor Who’s Tardis. You enter another dimension, the very dimension opened up tonight.

God became man in Palestine and lives today in bread and wine – so he can live in you and me, opening up our horizons to his and widening our human possibilities into his.

Fear not - trust! Trust God - he is above all to be trusted!

There are people in Brighton this Christmas struggling through cancer, unemployment and family breakdown. Where there’s faith in the Christ Child these circumstances aren’t able to bind and restrict Christian joy – I’ve seen it for myself in many I’ve been privileged to minister to here at St Bartholomew’s.

When the One ‘born to raise the sons of earth’ comes into our lives he enlarges us so we can embrace the world around us in all its frailty and tumult.

Tonight we celebrate God’s investment in humanity giving us new value through a new creation started in the Virgin Mary’s womb. We celebrate the Child of Bethlehem bound in swaddling clothes who went on to be bound on the Cross so we could expand into a whole new dimension of life.

St Augustine once again: Fear not the coming of your God: fear not his friendship. He will not straighten you when he comes, rather he will enlarge you...You see then, if you love, how much room he gives you. Fear is a suffering that oppresses us. But look at the immensity of love.

Look indeed, on this most holy night, and see in the Crib that immense love which enlarges you!

As you welcome Christmas Communion pray for yourself, and for all of us, to live as God made us to live - with greater trust in him!

Sunday, 2 December 2018

St Bartholomew, Brighton Advent Sunday 2nd December 2018

He shall come again in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead that we may rise to the life immortal
What difference does this Cinderella of Christian truth make to us?
I say Cinderella because the doctrine of the Second Coming must be about the most neglected of doctrines. It gets eclipsed by Christmas, which now covers Advent and beyond, and is tinged with such sentimentality that many preachers get scared off attending to the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell.
The first benefit of the doctrine of the Second Coming is it puts us in our place!
What you are before God - that is what you are and no more.  The doctrine that He shall come again in glorious majesty to judge us warns us to avoid the error of valuing ourselves overmuch by what others say about us.
No one can take away or enhance who we are before God.
This is a very difficult truth to take on board and get into our hearts of hearts. The blame or praise of any other human being is of no matter compared to God's praise or blame. If what we find others think of us inflates or deflates us overmuch we’re not fully centred on the Lord.
Fear God and there’ll be no one or nothing else to fear!
The second benefit of the doctrine of the Second Coming is the reminder it gives that once we accept the love of Christ there will be no need to fear his  judgement. As St Paul writes to the Romans, 'There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (Romans 8.1).
The universe will be ended by Jesus Christ and he is the one who first came to reveal ‘the Love that moves the sun and the stars’ in Dante's immortal phrase.
If all through our Christian lives we have been looking to Jesus his appearing in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead will be consummation not condemnation.

Bishop Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, writes about the Second Coming in his book Simply Christian. There he encourages us to see the Lord’s return as less about our being snatched up into heaven than about the New Jerusalem coming down in which Jesus will reappear as King of Heaven.
Bishop Tom sees Jesus now as present, I quote, hidden behind that invisible veil that keeps heaven and earth apart, and which we pierce in those moments such as prayer, the sacraments, the reading of scripture and our work with the poor, where the veil seems particularly day that veil will be lifted; earth and heaven will be one; Jesus will be personally present, and every knee shall bow at his name; creation will be renewed; the dead will be raised; and God’s new world will at last be in place.
If the first benefit of the doctrine of Christ's Second Coming is to put us in our place and the second is to remind us that place is one of being loved, the third benefit is to open up a vision of the purpose of all things so as to spur us on.
This world isn't just here! It’s God's world made for God’s purpose! The kingdom of this world is to become the kingdom of our God and of Christ, his Son.
Almighty God made the universe to put in the centre of it his Son, Jesus Christ. The first Coming of Jesus was into the womb of a holy woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, demonstrating that we human beings are no mere compartment of the animal kingdom but are capable of union with God.
His second Coming will occur when human beings, drawn to Christ and his Church in the Spirit, have completed the divine plan 'to bring all things together in Christ'. (Ephesians 1.10)
As Christ waited for the holy woman to be his Mother he now awaits a holy people to be his Bride so that as heavenly Bridegroom he can one day embrace his church so that we may rise to the life immortal.
Christ awaits the purification of his church for this consummation just as he had to await a woman for his conception.
In Advent season we provide a number of occasions for deepening repentance, our sense of need for God such as making available the sacrament of confession. You can approach either priest after this Mass to make an appointment for confession before Christmas. Anglicans have a quite relaxed attitude to confession - all may, none must, some should - but there’s a strong tradition of preparing for Christmas and Easter by such an act. If you’ve never made your Confession you could again talk to a priest or more experienced church member you know about what’s entailed.
In our own individual private prayer and bible study we can also engage with the wonder of Advent season as it speaks to us of the love and judgement of God in Christ and his purpose for the church and the world.
It is a glorious truth that no one can take away or enhance who we are before God - the love he has for us is will be everlasting! As we welcome that love in Holy Communion this morning let’s hold in our hearts those we know who know not the Lord Jesus praying they too will open their hearts to him and experience the love of the Lord!
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.