Saturday, 14 September 2019

St Mary, Balcombe Feast of the Holy Cross 15th September 2019

Today is kept as the Patronal Feast of the Society of the Holy Cross to which both Fr Keith and I belong but in a profound sense all Christians are part of such a Society. We come together this morning as a community defined as a society of the holy cross.

The Cross! It takes our guilt away; it holds the fainting spirit up; it cheers with hope the gloomy day, and sweetens every bitter cup.

Jesus crucified is in our midst – the source of forgiveness, upholding, good cheer and transformation that the hymn speaks of. We are the dying and rising people of a dying and rising Lord.

“J shaped people” as someone put it – and if you see a J as an “I” pushed down ready to spring up you’ll get the idea of that. To live as a society of the holy cross is to live with the sanctification of passion, of pain and suffering. You can’t put a Christian down because the things that bring people down are endured with Jesus who cheers with hope the gloomy day, and sweetens every bitter cup.

There is passion – suffering – and there is sacred passion. Or, as a typing error reminded me once, there is scared passion and sacred passion.

The making of a woman or man is suffering and how we bear it. Is it taken fearfully or as part of sanctification? The Cross makes the coward spirit brave, and nerves the feeble arm for fight; It takes its terror from the grave, and gilds the bed of death with light.


You know I’m always quoting books and here’s another, W.H.Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. I see it as an antidote to some over simple forms of Christian enthusiasm – I speak as former diocesan mission and renewal adviser! There is Christianity around that somehow goes unmarked by the sign of the Cross.

This book illuminates from the example of Our Lord the stature of things that the world or even the church, alas, is uncomfortable with nowadays – the deep significance of our waiting and our dependence. These are consequences of Jesus living in us with his life, his passion and his resurrection. In Mark’s Gospel, Vanstone reminds us, a half of the Gospel is all action but the last half of that Gospel – Holy Week – has Jesus not acting but being acted upon as he waits and as he depends upon others. 

How much of that quality do we share as a congregation, dear friends? I counted 47 organisations on page 23 of the Village Magazine excluding the Church. Though in some ways we’re central to the life of Balcombe we’re also on the periphery waiting and depending on others. Horsted Keynes where I was Rector is similar. The church is central in one way but in other ways an awkward reality within the village. Sometimes we feel pushed out. Other times when there is grief and pain to be shared people look to us to help lift their burden.

What a fruitful thing, though, to be one in this with Jesus as his society of the holy cross. One with the one who promises Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). It’s a countercultural thing to be one with Jesus who is one with suffering humanity but is also something freeing since by his cross he lifts our burdens day by day!

Has humanity ever known more of suffering? Has this country ever had less inclination to seek through prayer to address that suffering and make it holy?

What I mean is how without precedent television and social media bring images of pain day by day into our homes and you wonder how people deal with this. In our living room, we have the Cross looking down on the TV. This is potentially a grace since we can choose to look up to the Lord in prayer as we hear and see the suffering of fellow human beings. The Cross over our television does something to lift minds and hearts burdened by the world’s agony to the Lord who sees all and loves all.

Holy Cross Day celebrates the symbol of our faith. It is a reminder to honour that symbol by living it as a society that’s one with the holy cross. One with Jesus crucified and risen. The history of this Feast is associated with the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine. 
It was his mother, Helena that uncovered the True Cross and lifted it up for the veneration of the faithful.

So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life we heard in the gospel (John 3v13-17). 

To live as the church is to live as the society that lifts up Jesus: in his word, in the Blessed Sacrament and in the hearts of all his faithful people. In the eucharist we lift up the consecrated Bread and Wine and we lift up the Gospel book. Such liftings place us with Mary and John looking up from the foot of the Cross to the breadth and length and height and depth and … the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3v18b).

As Christians we grow closer to Christ through his surprising gifts and through suffering. There’s a sermon of Austin Farrer that recalls a sign outside a florist entitled crosses and wreathes made to order. The Lord orders our circumstances to be filled with his gifts from on high given from his left hand as well as his right hand.

I thought of that quote from Farrer crosses and wreathes made to order when I read of this year’s harvest celebration on 6 October. It will use our gifts to serve those in need through the auction in the Half Moon pub. This will hopefully touch the generosity of villagers to serve those at the sharp end of things through the agency of our church and school. What distinguishes any society of the cross is such service to the suffering and marginalised that’s true to Jesus.

Such ministry can be acknowledged at a more profound level. 

People who give allegiance to Christianity in this or any day seem to do so when they encounter Christian communities like our own that have intrigued them, communities that have something in their soul that is of Jesus and against or beyond what’s the cultural norm. 

Pachomius, a fourth century founder of Christian monasticism, came to faith as an army conscript. He had pagan parents and no foundation in Christianity at all, but as a soldier he was intrigued by a group of people who freely gave food to the troops. Who are these people? He asked. Oh they are Christians and Christians do that sort of thing he was told. He went on to investigate what it was that led these Christians to go out of their way in the service of strangers. He found the dying and rising people of a dying and rising Lord.

How impressive it must have been in the early church to find people so fearless of death that they would care for the sick risking disease themselves, for this is the origin of our hospitals.

The church as the society of the holy cross is also the society of the resurrection for the two cannot be separated. “J shaped people” with the “I” pushed down ready to spring up as surely as Christ is risen! For if we have been united with Jesus in a death like his Paul writes to the Romans (6v5, 8) we will certainly be united in a resurrection like his…if we have died with Christ we believe we will also live with him. 

My friends, sisters - and brothers - of the society of the holy cross Jesus does not ask us more than to come close to him in his passion so that our waiting and our dependence on others becomes invested with his presence, the presence that draws the whole world. 

It is into that presence that we now enter in this Holy Eucharist. 

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Trinity 12 (23rd of Year) 8th September 2019

Who’d be a preacher?
We have to set forth God’s truth without making it an obstacle to good living and call for love of the truth that’s wholly practical.
Christianity’s a matter of principle – we need these principles stating and re-stating - but it’s tailored to people, and people fall short in their allegiance to principle.
Those verses in Deuteronomy 30 and Luke 14 shook me up. 
I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him….. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 
Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.
We’re here this morning to give an hour of our life, Jesus’ hour, for him to impact and take hold of us afresh in word and sacrament and Christian fellowship. We can’t underestimate the value of Sunday obligation. For many of you, all of you hopefully, this morning’s attendance has been a victory, a going out of your way to synchronise a variety of commitments to honour God as the Lord of your life by coming to Church this morning.
You’re here to be one with the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s day, in the Lord’s house and round the Lord’s table. Alleluia!
You’ll leave hopefully with more of a taste for Jesus Christ, more set to face the cost of being his disciple and more attentive to what he has for you in the coming week. 
Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.
Saying our prayers, coming to Church, reading our Bibles, serving our neighbour and reflecting upon our need for God are expressions of that commitment.
Melvyn Bragg once asked Rowan Williams what God meant to him. Here’s the answer he gave: God is first and foremost that depth around all things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me out of that depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformation I can’t imagine. Very much a mystery but also very much a presence. Very much a person.
To commit to God as a Christian is to commit trustfully to the eternal God as the depth beyond all things, to see the world as no longer a flat surface but to descend to the heart of things and be impacted. To be caught up into something utterly mysterious and countercultural. 
The second reading touches on this, where Paul commends the runaway slave Onesimus he’d helped to faith to his master Philemon. Onesimus had found these depths, that transcend the way the world is, in the person of Jesus. Now, as Paul insists, his being a slave is a lesser point, but not so much less that Onesimus shouldn’t return to Philemon, the master he ran away from. Paul’s letter survives, shortest in the Bible, to affirm among other things how in the depth of things there’s no hierarchy of power. 
Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.
Once we’re surrendered we are, in baptism, made equal to one another in a new way of living that’s no longer two dimensional and superficial but one that’s surrendered to God as ground of our being. The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms we read in Deuteronomy 33:27.
Christian belief isn’t something cerebral, contrary to those thinking you build belief or disbelief by argument. It’s whole life surrender. It’s not a matter of thinking your way into a new way of living but living your way into a new way of thinking. 
Faith’s the act of the whole of our being. Doubt by contrast is a partial business employing that part of the mind that questions what we’re about and what its right to think. This questioning is set for Christians within the wholehearted surrender of faith. We believe in the resurrection not with our minds but as we live out the death of the old self so the Holy Spirit can bring us new life through the agency of faith. We believe in the Cross as we make sense of suffering with the assurance that not all that happens is determined by God's plan but that all that happens is encompassed by his love. 
We are loved by almighty love and we are loved for ever, that is the reality Christian faith sees for sure. Paul knew Philemon knew this when he wrote I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. 
Could that be said of me, of you? Would it were so!
A year or so back I read and reviewed for Faith in Sussex Rupert Shortt’s God is no thing published 2016. It’s by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement who’s well familiar with how religion’s seen in Britain today. 
Many believing artists and writers in the UK are advised to conceal their faith if they want a following. Such is our local scenario: secular humanism dominating the world of ideas with pretended neutrality. Meanwhile secularism is losing ground worldwide with three quarters of humanity professing a religious faith, said to be heading for 80% by 2050. The world over people evidently see in Christianity a vitality and coherence that’s being lost or obscured in our own culture. Reading Shortt was a tonic. Here is his summary of what we’re about: Christianity - at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts - forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence. It provides the strongest available underpinning for values including the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, and human responsibility for the environment. I like that phrase love’s mending of wounded hearts as a description of the dynamic of faith. It’s a long way from that over hasty perception of religion as a bully. Shortt sees the problem for religion and secularism as the tendency to bully rather than reason with one another. 
Following God means surrendering your whole life to him. I can’t escape as preacher underlining that Christian basic this morning, praying it will touch more hearts here at St Mary’s into wholehearted service, lay or ordained - and, yes, the church won’t survive without clergy so many here should remain open to being called into that overarching ministry of Christian service.  The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms…. God is also the activity that comes to me out of [the] depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformation I can’t imagine.  That transformation isn’t just for you but, like Philemon, for all in your orbit. May this Eucharist fill you with the joy and encouragement that filled him to overflow, so that you can more fully love God and make him loved in the networks you’re part of!

Saturday, 31 August 2019

St Bartholomew, Brighton Trinity 11(22C) Humility 1.9.19

‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Luke 14:11

There’s a great deception that humility is something passive. It’s not, it's the most active tendency there is if you’re truly in the business of countering the strength of self-will and we all need more of that.

In case I get praise for this sermon - some of you are very kind to me - the words of Thomas More are at the back of my mind: ‘whoever bids others to do right, but gives an evil example by acting the opposite way is like a foolish weaver who weaves with one hand and unravels the cloth just as quickly with the other’.

Yes, humility is the Christian distinctive and it’s far from making yourself a doormat. It's the day by day struggle for holiness commended by Our Lord in the Gospel as a taking of the lower place where we can, and, by our first reading from Ecclesiasticus, as refusal to forsake the Lord. ‘The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker’.

When people live without God they’re bound to centre themselves on themselves though many I know who live without God show immense kindness to others. I put that down to God giving them a better start than I! As a believer I don’t see myself as the centre of the world in principle but in practice to my dying day I’ll be actively countering touchiness, resentfulness against criticism, impatience when I don’t get my own way, eagerness for fame, anxiety lest I miss being thanked and praised and so on.

‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Our Lord mixed with everybody. Today’s Gospel shows him mixing at the upper end of the society of his day at the home of a prominent Pharisee. He felt the need to address people trying to get places near the most famous. It’s a bit like when the Archdeacon visited on the patronal. Over our excellent buffet you couldn’t get near him for clergy - I tried! I wanted to congratulate him on pulling out his finger a bit for us in accepting the PCCs business plan clearing the way for the appointment of a full time parish priest. 

What is it about the human condition that makes us so celebrity conscious, wanting celebrity for ourselves and delighting on occasions we meet real live celebrities? 

I met Edwina Currie on the train the other week which got my mind thinking about eggs and other things. What really struck me in this face to face encounter though was the caring way she saw onto and off a busy train a frail man I took to be her husband. ‘Judge not and you will not be judged’. How hard it must be to serve in government nowadays with the relentless unforgiving gaze of 24-7 media upon you!

The deception we live under that humility is something passive links very much to the way our media school us unconsciously or consciously in deriding the weak. We need sermons, retreats, books to read that help undeceive us about the truly active virtue of humility. This sermon links a little to my retreat in Lisieux last month where I stayed a few days close to the Shrine of St Therese whose life in many ways was quite unremarkable. Born in 1873 she lived just 24 years, the last nine in a convent. When she contracted TB the Convent superior was concerned to get some obituary together and asked her to write it for herself - it became a bestseller - ‘Story of a Soul’ (show) . The rest is history - do read it - a book I’ve commended to you before from the pulpit! Yes, Therese in a way was herself victim of church celebrity cultus, being made a saint so soon after her death, but many are the wiser through her teaching as a Doctor of the Church.

Engaging with Thérèse last month I found to be primarily engagement with self-acceptance, something built in her by the Lord and her acceptance by a loving family and the community she joined at 15. ‘Story of a Soul’ captures this struggle to welcome God’s love and accept ourselves within its embrace. On my retreat I felt inspired by her to talk with the Lord about my own difficulties in self-acceptance and how my failings can become happy pretext for looking to him. To know this, to accept ourselves and our life circumstances, helps divert us from these towards the addressing of our deeper needs and aspirations. Maybe thanks to Thérèse - it’s still early days - I run less risk of seeing the way to my true self blocked by staying slave to lower impulses though, like her, I can’t presume on Our Lord. As she writes, ‘I am not perfect but I want to become so… effort means more to God than victory’.

It IS an effort to gain humility even if it's also a grace. We need to ask for it again and again as a grace from God. Secondly, we need to accept the humiliations of life though recognising the world of difference between being humble and being humiliated. How many times do we say the wrong thing and feel the hurt to our pride more acutely than the hurt we did to the person we spoke to or spoke about?

The school of humility is a school of self-acceptance impossible without confidence in God. We live as Christians with knowledge of God loving us through and through and his invitation to recentre our lives on him and our neighbour. Putting that wisdom into practice is the action of humility. 

One day when Therese was nearing the end of her life and feeling absolutely bereft and forsaken by God, she was in the Convent garden, walking very slowly because of her weakness and constant pain. Suddenly she saw a hen at the side of the path, hustling her newborn chicks out of the nun’s way, protecting them with outstretched wings. Therese writes how she immediately thought how God had loved and protected her all through her life and how God wants to envelope everyone with the tender protectiveness of that mother hen. She writes how she was so moved her eyes filled up with tears and had to look away from the scene. 

THAT’S HOW GOD LOVES US TOO - no matter what we feel like, no matter what kind of personal history we have. If we want holiness we build our foundation on this rock of God’s love and acting with humility is the master builder. We may be strong willed but such strength is a perilous gift since it links to the desire for the self to triumph over others including God. In holiness the will yields first place to love by always seeking a lower place so as to put no unnecessary obstacles in love’s way.

‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

To be a saint - and we should all aspire to be saints - is to keep in tune with our deepest needs and aspirations by actively countering our lower impulses, that  attention-seeking insecurity, touchiness, impatience or whatever. We're the ones who block our way to holiness, to the joy of becoming what God made us to be, by remaining slaves to these lower impulses.

With me, I invite you to pray for humility, not to be a doormat people walk over but to have active determination to counter self-centredness and get better centring of our lives upon God and neighbour, whose eternal fellowship in the communion of saints we anticipate at this Mass, with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. 

Sunday, 25 August 2019

St Wilfrid, Haywards Heath Trinity 10 25.8.19

St Wilfrid’s was built on this hill to crown the development of Haywards Heath. 

As Town Team puts together over the next year the 2020 Haywards Heath history celebration the parish Church will fittingly have pride of place. There’ll be a Light Show here day by day complementing an exhibition in the Town Hall and culminating in the expanded version of September’s Town Day that occurs every few years. 

We rightly take pride in the Churches role and Fr Ray has been working as ever on our behalf to help tell our story at St Wilfrid’s as part of the bigger narrative. This narrative began at a crossroads east of Cuckfield. There the Roman Road heading north from Hassocks met and crossed the well drained high ground we know as the Weald, later the pilgrim way to Canterbury. From the Hayworth animal enclosure on the Weald near that cross roads Haywards Heath was born when the railway was laid parallel to the Roman Road in 1841.

Haywards Heath grew from an ancient cross roads to become the heart of Sussex. Getting trains to Brighton, now known as London-by-the sea was the motivator. Our town’s strategic worth is captured in the title of the town’s authoritative 1981 history, Ford and Gabe’s ‘Metropolis of Mid Sussex’. Due to railway phobia in Cuckfield and Lindfield we were a new build in 1841 after 5000 men and 50 horses made the tunnel we stand on. As Sussex metropolis we draw life from the County, at first through the arrival of thousands of so-called lunatics at the County Asylum and cattle for the market once so famed as to be in the top 12 in the country. The Asylum and market have gone but the strategic role and growth of our town has continued. The 2020 celebration is geared to affirm and direct our Sussex-wide role. Haywards Heath draws economic life from those who commute to London but it's also in the Greater Brighton City Deal. Such was the success of the railway to Brighton that brought this town to birth some are calling London ‘Brighton inland’!

Our family moved to Haywards Heath from London in 2001 so I could serve the mission and renewal of Chichester Diocese. Bishop Eric who appointed me expected me to work from the centre of the Diocese, the centre of Sussex. We took residence in Gatesmead and on our first Sunday we joined the Palm Sunday procession here at St Wilfrid’s. My licensing was to St Richard’s but I’ve continued close to St Wilfrid’s, through friendship especially with Fr Ray, and literally close to the Presentation from 2017 when Anne and I retired next door to Marylands after 8 years as parish priest of Horsted Keynes. My former diocesan role reminds me how Haywards Heath isn’t just the heart of Sussex but at the heart of a great Diocese stretching from Crawley to Brighton and Rye across to Chichester. 

Before I change gear from town history to engage with today’s scripture might I invite your participation in our 7 September 2019 town day Festival of Hope here in St Wilfrid’s and, beyond that, with me in preparing the 9-13 September 2020 History Celebration? We’ve written as Town Team, under the oversight of Councillor Ruth De Mierre, to schools inviting them to lead a project countering an amnesia destructive to the health of our community. The idea is to encourage pupils to interview parents, grandparents and elderly neighbours to gather stories of Haywards Heath, recording them and presenting them suitably at the 2020 Celebration not least at next year’s planned night by night Light Show in St Wilfrid’s.

From today’s second reading: ‘Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe’. In his great commentary on the letter to the Hebrews Bishop Lightfoot makes this note on verse 28 of Chapter 11, and I quote, ‘though at first sight there is something strange in the idea that thankfulness is the means whereby we may serve God, we are perhaps inclined to forget the weight which is attached in Scripture to gratitude and praise. It is the perception and acknowledgement of the divine glory which is the strength of man. The sense of love is the motive for proclaiming love’.

We gather at the eucharist primarily to give thanks - the word means thanksgiving - and in so doing to build ourselves more into what we’re called to be. St Wilfrid’s was built on this hill by Bodley its great architect precisely for that purpose: a temple for divine worship, for giving thanks and praise to God, more than a preaching house for human edification. When we look back over the history of our town there’s so much to give thanks to God for, not least the Wyatt’s, father and son. Our role, as ongoing part of the Church in Haywards Heath, is to secure that worship for generations to come in response to the unshakeable security of God’s love.

We were born as, and we continue as, a community Church. Our gift paraphrasing Mark 12:17 is to render to the community what is owed by love and to God the things we owe to him. We’re bi-lingual, speaking the language of our community and the language of faith. This sets us apart as both a community group and as a Christian church. Unlike other community groups - the Golf Club, U3A or Air Cadets - we have an other-worldly reference. Unlike the other 17 Churches - Roman Catholic, Methodist, New Church and so on - far from being a gathered separate community we’re one with a commitment beyond our Christian faith to Haywards Heath. ‘You are the light of the world’ Our Lord says in Matthew 5:14. ‘A city built on a hill cannot be hidden’ and those words make me think of St Wilfrid’s so visible to our town. The Lord continues: ‘let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ and here we think of our membership, the 7 generations that have maintained this beacon of faith on Church Road.

We have a calling to gracious dialogue with this town and to come thankfully ‘in reverence and awe’ before God with the people and the needs of Haywards Heath on our hearts. The parish eucharist brings both aspirations together. 

Getting more members to have a heart for drawing people into the life of the church is pivotal. Reaching out, cutting through spiritual apathy, by prayer and invitation is the strategy, picking up on a saying of Walter Wink: 'The future of the world lies with the intercessors and connectors.' 

Very many of us have that gift of connecting – building friendships which season the community life of our town and its surrounds. Some of us like myself are very active on Haywards Heath’s social media groups which are coming into their own through the history project. To complement such ‘connecting’ I find myself and would encourage each one of you in turn to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in prayer so we attain the best directing of our energies and those in our orbit. ‘More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of’ wrote the poet Tennyson. 

Our splendid tower with its pyramidal cap affirms this, pointing modestly to a God whose possibilities exceed our imagining and who listens to and answers prayer.'The future of the world lies with the intercessors and connectors.' 

‘Since [then] we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks [in this eucharist], by which we offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe’.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Trinity 9 (20C) ‘Holy Fire’ Presentation Church, Haywards Heath & St Peter & St John, Wivelsfield 18.8.19

I came to bring fire to the earth… is not my word like fire, says the Lord. Luke 12:49a & Jeremiah 23:29a

Holy fire is an unfashionable image of God.

We are warned though in the letter to the Hebrews to offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28a-29)

Just as God fashioned earth out of the fire of the lava that lies below he is fashioning heaven through the holy fire from above whose first appearance came in tongues of flame upon the disciples at Pentecost.
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit we pray at the eucharist. May we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.

Were not our hearts burning within us while he was… opening the scriptures to us?  the disciples said of Our Lord in their Easter experience on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:32). The good news of Jesus comes like fire, like dynamite flashing out, bringing light for the mind, kindling of the heart and power to live a holy life.

I was talking the other day to a young man whose wife had been unfaithful. His Christian faith was affronted by her unholy deed. As we talked he recognised his own unholiness in neglecting her. He saw his need of cleansing as well as hers which brought me hope for reconciliation for their good and the good of their children.

Holy fire is an unfashionable image of God yet it is thoroughly biblical and we need its reality in our age and in our lives as much as any believer in any age!

There are several Old Testament incidents in which God’s anger, judgment, holiness or power are displayed in fire from heaven bringing cleansing and a new start. Moses speaks of God as a devouring fire going ahead of the Israelites into the Promised Land destroying their enemies. He receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai through fire and thunder. Elijah confronts the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel calling down fire from heaven to make his sacrifice acceptable. 

In the eucharist priests sometimes pray these words, silently recalling Elijah’s offering, as they arrange the gifts at the altar: Come thou fount of holiness eternal God and bless this sacrifice made ready for thy holy name. 

We make ourselves one today with the sacrificial gifts of bread and wine, work of human hands, in asking the fire of the Holy Spirit to descend upon us to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts and make the self offering made in worship a holy offering.

God is God - different and more powerful than us - but also having sameness to us in Christ. Through the gift of his Son God can work to overcome the evil within us and fit us for eternal company with himself. Our love for God and people matters most in this world because that alone survives into the next world in the communion of Saints… the resurrection of the body and the life eternal. 

God’s holiness burns up anything unholy including our lack of love for him and for our neighbour. His holiness is part of his nature holding him apart from us as the sinners that we are. Who among us can live with the devouring fire? Who among us can live with everlasting flames? Isaiah complains in Chapter 33v14 and he gives the following answer in v15 Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression… and shut their eyes from looking on evil. 

I heard someone speak of how God’s holy fire cleanses them from looking at pornography. When I see the pictures or texts I imagine the Holy Spirit as like a fire extinguisher they said. I ask him to fire on me, quench the lust within me, and take me from the situation as quickly as possible. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit. 

In the passage I read from Isaiah Chapter 33 we heard how only the righteous can withstand the consuming fire of God’s wrath against sin, because sin is an offense to God’s holiness he needs to overcome. Later in Chapter 64 Isaiah troubles his readers by questioning whether anyone can actually be righteous by God’s standards. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth he writes. Such pessimism prepares the world for the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I came to bring fire to the earth… is not my word like fire, says the Lord. 

Out of the great love with which he loves us God provided the cleansing righteousness we need by sending Jesus Christ to us.  On the Cross, as Paul says to the Corinthians, God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). The hatred of God for sin was engaged with by Jesus whose crucifixion both demonstrates this and provides God’s loving remedy of the forgiveness of sins. Jesus died in our place so he might live in our place, live within us bringing the holy fire of his Spirit, a consuming fire indeed, one that cleanses us from the deadliness of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice and sloth.

The French priest, geologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin, who lived in the last century had a great love for the eucharist. His vision of its cosmic implications has enriched and given purpose to my own engagement with the Sacrament. Like the best theologians his writings evidence a rooting in prayer and worship, as in his great ‘Mass on the World’, one of my favourite spiritual texts. In the invocation of the Holy Spirit at the eucharist I referred to earlier he sees an echo both of Our Lord's desire to 'cast fire upon the earth' in today's Gospel and the stellar fires and molten lava that energise the earth's development. In the elevation of the Host in the eucharist Teilhard sees earth and heaven coming together. The consecrated bread and wine show nature transformed in anticipation of the ultimate transformation of all things on the return of Christ, what he calls the 'Omega Point', a point anticipated in our service when the Bread and Wine are lifted up for adoration.

I came to bring fire to the earth… is not my word like fire, says the Lord. 

Teilhard was aware of that fire both as a geologist and as a Christian. God fashioned our planet by the fire of lava but sent his Son to refashion things through casting down upon earth the holy fire of the Spirit. This he does by entering human hearts especially at this service as we seek cleansing and empowering for ourselves, those on our hearts and for the whole created order.

Come down, then, Love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardour glowing; O Comforter draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing…. cast out our sin and enter in through the eucharist we celebrate! 

Friday, 2 August 2019

St Bartholomew, Brighton Trinity 8 (19C) Faith 11.8.19

I’ve had some pastoral encounters in which people have taken me aside to ask how they can regain the faith their parents instilled in them so they can find hope to carry them through a trial. It’s a reminder to me of how Christianity’s getting eroded all around but that there are residual embers of faith that can be fanned into flame.
People say they find faith hard, but if I dare say it’s simply a matter of opening up to God, opening your inner eye as suggested in today’s first reading. The letter to the Hebrews famously defines faith as conviction of things not seen. That conviction is just the same as the one that clicks the kettle on to release an invisible power. Being a Christian is being like a kettle. We always need the surge of the Holy Spirit to warm us up to boiling point so that faith fizzes out into overflow. I hope our children will remember what overflow there’s been from Anne and my believing and seek the same for themselves. God has no grandchildren.

When we possess faith, that conviction is practical wisdom. Its practical in that it counters our fears, which is why Jesus says to his disciples in today’s Gospel Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 
Faith sets your sights on the big picture of things, as we read in the letter to the Hebrews, it is to desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. As for Abraham faith is taking God at his word when he promises you something good ahead of you. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land… For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God…  because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’    
We, people of God, are the descendants of Abraham who is our father in faith!
So this morning I want to remind everyone that we have a mission at St Bartholomew’s to grow in faith as well as in love and numbers.
How can we grow in faith?
We need to commit again and again to God in Jesus Christ. God, give me a vision of yourself more to your dimensions and less to mine. Open my inner eyes! If we really prayed that prayer day by day we’d have an awareness of God in the present moment that wouldn’t just satisfy inner restlessness but make our faith grow, warm up and fizz out to bless and serve others.
To grow in faith, as our Hebrews passage said, we need the conviction of things not seen…By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Thomas Aquinas wrote wisely that to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible. The wisdom of this saying is brought out in the story of the acrobat who in an action now I imagine prohibited wheeled his son in a wheelbarrow as part of his high wire act. When they asked his son how he felt about the exercise he was said to say I trust my dad. 
Here is faith defined as the extra sense it is, quite beyond the natural senses, but nevertheless based on experience. 
The boy needed no explanation for the faith he had in his father though few others would rise to it. By analogy Christian faith in God is the certain conviction you will be carried forward in all the perils of life by one who loves you beyond reason. The strength of Christianity lies in this revelation of God as the Father of Jesus who acts by his Spirit to carry us forward through all the pitfalls in our life to resurrection glory. 
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom Jesus says
How can we grow in faith?
Commit yourself to God – and see yourself more fully as he sees you. This means more prayer, more space to ponder God in his creation.
It also means a certain biblical literacy, that is, getting into scripture, where there are so many promises addressed to believers. Those like Abraham praised in today’s purple passage from Hebrews are praised for taking God at his word. Only when you experience a passage of scripture being underlined to you by God and the consequences of that, can you see the powerful implications of taking God at his word. 
Repentance is necessary for us to grow in faith. The Book of Common Prayer exhortation says because it is requisite that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God’s mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means [of self examination and prayer] cannot quiet his own conscience, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s holy Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word, he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness. 
It’s appropriate I mention the forthcoming Patronal Festival since some have been asking about confession times beforehand. The answer in the spirit of the Prayer Book is come to me, or to some other maybe more discreet and learned Minister of God’s holy Word on our team and fix a time to suit you.
To grow in faith we need from prayer, scripture and turning to God in repentance a fuller sense of who we are as his children, filled with his Spirit, promised his provision and destined for his glory. 
Seeing yourself more fully as God sees you is a real eye opener. It comes though from a readiness to allow the opening up of those inner eyes that are the Spirit’s gift to every human being, even if, mysteriously, so few seem graced to see them opened. 
As something God-given, faith is inevitably mysterious. Believers hold things together in their experience that live in tension from a rational perspective. Hence faith is seen as both a virtue and a gift, a human act yet one prompted by God, a personal act yet inseparable from the corporate faith of the church. The paradox of faith is captured in the famous definition of Thomas Aquinas: Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.  (Repeat) Though seen as a human virtue, faith is seen as something moved by God through grace.
So here we are this morning open to grace, seeking those inner eyes to operate more fully in an unbelieving culture. Here we are encountering God in word and sacrament, God who embraces us in the eucharist, as a mother embraces her children, to assure them they are loved. May the love of the Lord indeed be upon us as we put our faith in him!