Sunday, 26 September 2010

Trinity 17 26th September 10am

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory says Amos in the first of three hard-hitting scripture readings this morning.

I wonder what went through Harold Macmillan’s mind as he heard those words and the parable of Dives and Lazarus sitting here in St Giles 25 years ago?

I say so because I have just enjoyed reading Supermac his latest and most authoritative biography by Richard Thorpe who I am hoping we can get to our historical society. It’s a great read - in more sense than one!

Macmillan, Prime Minister 1957-1963, died in 1986, was one of those good all-rounders getting all the rarer in our specialised world. He ticked boxes in the worlds of the university, commerce, the military and religion. His politics were liberal yet conservative, rebel yet loyalist. He was a crofter’s great-grandson yet his father-in-law was a Duke. Possessing all these qualities guarantees personal complexity and an interesting biography.

Great men and women are usually people who have suffered. In this way their humanity appeals through the braving of fear. Macmillan’s courage was forged in the trenches of the First World War and a near death experience in the Second World War. His family life was traumatic but he braved humiliation sticking it seems to Christian principle and refusing to contemplate divorce. The courage he possessed made him his own man. He stood alone in cabinet when he told the aged Churchill his days as Prime Minister needed to end. Macmillan even dared to suggest to Pope Pius XII he would serve Christian unity by recognising the orders of Anglican priests – to be received by silence!

Harold Macmillan was a great wit. Interrupted in a speech by Khruschev banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations he looks up and says quietly, ‘Well, I would like it translating if you would.’ Unveiling a bronze of Mrs Thatcher at the Carlton Club he makes an audible stage whisper, ‘Now I must remember that I am unveiling a bust of Margaret Thatcher, not Margaret Thatcher’s bust.’ On a trip to Russia, told ‘dobry den’ means ‘good day’ he regales everyone with the words ‘double gin’!

His brilliant intellect made him too clever for some, including Churchill who saw him as an opinionated subordinate. Macmillan saw his undergraduate reading parties as the very anticipation of heaven. Throughout his life his work was energised by his reading times. His experience at the sharp end of things did something to redeem his cerebral tendency but a negative image persisted. His Labour political opponent Aneurin Bevan saw him as a poseur. Bevan concluded cruelly that having watched the man carefully for years ‘behind that Edwardian countenance there is nothing’.

His fellow Tory rival Butler was kinder and saw two sides to him ‘the soft heart for and the strong determination to help the underdog, and the social habit to associate happily with the overdog’.

It was this phrase that came to mind as I finished reading Macmillan and started reading the scripture set for the 17th Sunday after Trinity in the third of our three year cycle.

Amos thundered against those who like ivory couches. Like Macmillan many of us have a tendency to associate happily with the overdog, like the Rector of Horsted Keynes – I am the Rector of Horsted Keynes. Like my predecessors I have access to people at the top of the academic, political, commercial and military worlds as this goes with the job alongside its more humble pursuits . I know Fr Mark Hill-Tout read to Macmillan in his final illness. A previous Rector allowed Macmillan to change the lectionary reading the Sunday Churchill died to ‘let us now praise famous men’. Dorothy Baxter, now 96, will tell you how Macmillan used to keep the choir in order.

This is not a ‘books I have recently read’ sermon – I am getting to the point, believe me!

Macmillan once said ‘It is thinking about themselves that is really the curse of the younger generation...a curious introspective attitude towards life, the result no doubt of two wars and a dying faith’.

The danger of self-absorption lies behind what prophet Amos, Saint Paul and Our Lord and Saviour are speaking of in this morning’s readings.

Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction says Paul. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. Those pains are described in the chilling parable I read chosen for today’s Gospel. Chilling is hardly the word for it describes the fires tormenting Dives – the rich man – on account of his neglect of poor Lazarus. Remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.

It is always chilling to encounter people whose self-absorption with pleasing themselves has made them totally indifferent to the needs of those around them. I think for a start of the people who walk across Victoria station texting away and bumping into everyone else – but I wouldn’t quite wish them hell fire!

Let me go back to Macmillan. He possessed a clear sense of divine providence working through the historical events that propelled his career and the illness that saved his addressing the prime ministerial succession. To his Christian sensibilities we owe the appointment of two of the Church of England’s most famous 20th century clerics, Michael Ramsey to Canterbury and Mervyn Stockwood to Southwark.

What is evident in Richard Thorpe’s biography, which brings out the Christian side, is Macmillan’s own sadness in his later years at the self-preoccupation that seemed to have grown up in the wake of the decline in Christian allegiance. He ends the book quoting his call to ‘restore and strengthen the moral and spiritual as well as the material’ rather countering the materialist ‘you’ve never had it so good’ association people make with Harold Macmillan.

Today’s scripture is a wake-up call. Rather as David Cameron said to the Pope last Sunday Christian faith is something to make us ‘sit up and think’. If we really believe in God this should take us out of ourselves and waken us up to the realities around us, both God and neighbour, whose service brings perfect freedom in this world and the next.

Among these realities are the eight Millennium Development Goals which take us into the global politics Harold Macmillan served for so many years. These eight goals all 192 United Nations member states and at least 23 international organizations have agreed to achieve by the year 2015. They are:

• To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
• To achieve universal primary education
• To promote gender equality and empower women
• To reduce the child mortality rate
• To improve maternal health
• To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
• To ensure environmental sustainability
• To develop a global partnership for development

If today’s gospel says anything it is a warning about the failure of partnership and its consequences.

The rich man was guilty not of being rich but of being a bad steward of his possessions. By God’s generosity he possessed, as we possess, an awful lot, and yet he would not imitate that generosity by sharing with those in need, with Lazarus ‘who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table’.

Today’s scripture is hard hitting. The needs of the world are very urgent. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said ‘World military spending has now risen to over $1.2 trillion dollars. This incredible sum represents 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product. Even if 1% of it were redirected towards development, the world would be much closer to achieving the Millennium Development Goals’.

God raise up new Macmillan’s to work in politics for these ends, and raise up generosity in his people here, not least in our support for St Anne’s Hospital, Tanzania in today’s charitable giving.

God free us from ourselves through the eucharist, the thanksgiving for his love we offer day by day, to be more centred on his heart which encompasses poor and rich, near and far. So be it.

Trinity 17 26th September 8am

Go and sit down in the lowest room…for whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.Luke 14v11

The Gospel is no hand book on dining etiquette. It’s a parable, Jesus says, a story with a moral. The moral is aimed at those who saw their obedience to God earning them a place at God’s side. Jesus announces in both his words and his deeds a revolution in religious thinking. To be at God’s side you need to renounce any worthiness you think you’ve got to be placed there.

When we look at how Jesus managed power he seems to have made a point of giving it up wherever he could, passing praise for his healings on to his Father, emptying himself for others to suffer and die. He is supremely the humble one who has been exalted by his glorious resurrection.

Christianity isn’t a straight forward sort of religion. It’s full of paradoxes, things that contradict in logic but that God shows us we have to hold together in the practice of faith and life.

God is the be all and end all - yet human beings can live without him. Jesus isn’t God and he isn’t man - he’s God and man. Ultimate reality has three persons - but they are also one God. Believers live by God’s providence - but they live their own lives. The bread and wine we share taste like bread and wine - but they are the body and blood of Christ.

I could go on. The paradox of today’s scripture is that God is the same as us and yet he’s different from us. He’s a personal being who made us like himself. He’s also out of this world and can’t be fitted into worldly standards.

Here’s a parable that tries to explain the paradox in today’s Gospel.

Each year the President of the nation had a banquet in the palace for all his employers at which ministers and the accredited diplomats sat side by side with civil servants, cleaners and gardeners. As the meal got under way one of the gardeners, overwhelmed by the occasion and a bit thirsty, picked up his water filled fingerbowl and drank from it. People laughed. Quick as a flash the President realized both the error of his gardener and the cruelty of the mocking laughter. The President took hold of his own fingerbowl, though put there to clean diners’ fingers and not for drinking, and drank from it himself. This wiped the smiles off the faces of those who had mocked the poor gardener. Some of them felt so awkward they followed the President and drank themselves from their finger bowls.

How slow we can be as Christians to see the central paradox of our faith - the way to God is through seeking humility. The Pecking Order isn’t at all like the pecking order most people identify.

In making the best of who we are and the gifts we’ve been given, through all the choice of shades of grey we choose between, unless we have that over arching desire to be with Jesus who descends to greatness all we do can be nothing worth.

In the course of my ministry I have met people who have chased a dream of success and power over relentlessly. Their neglected families had paid the price for this so that the people they thought they were working for in the end got literally divorced from them. They were left emotionally and physically broken. Their worldly achievements actually mocked them rather than rewarded them.

As Christians we worship a God who is far from this sort of dis-connectedness. The God shown us in Jesus has no ‘better faster alone than slower together’ upward mobility about him at all.

'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us'. He came, and in coming announced his 'downwardly mobility'. Eternal Truth came to be fleshed out in a stable so we could know him and flourish as people loved by him. He comes to us to this day in the humble obscurity of bread and wine

I want to end with a quote from Henri Nouwen, a priest who had a great ministry to the mentally handicapped:

People seek glory by moving upward. God reveals his glory by moving downward. If we truly want to see the glory of God, we must move downward with Jesus. This is the deepest reason for living in solidarity with poor, oppressed and handicapped people. They are the ones through whom God's glory can manifest itself to us. They show us the way to God, the way to salvation.

As Jesus says to us this morning Go and sit down in the lowest room…for whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Trinity 16 19th September 2010

God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2v3-4)

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also (John 10v16)

Christianity is a draw.

We are drawn here this morning by a Saviour’s desire to save and gather his flock.

I must bring them also. Jesus says. And so he is working always in the world to draw people’s attention and bring them into his church so that they in turn may be a draw.

It’s helpful to think of God as a magnet who is magnetising the church to be a draw to those as yet outside of her.

Bishop Walsham How caught something of this in the second verse of his hymn, ‘O my Saviour lifted’:

Lift my earth-bound longings,
fix them, Lord, above;
draw me with the magnet
of thy mighty love.

When we baptise people we enfold them in God’s powerful radiance and make them spiritually magnetic.

They are then capable of growing in their own magnetic force and of drawing others to the love of God.

In baptism we are given a special capacity for God like iron filings have capacity to get shaped up by a magnet.

I would not be standing here nor you sitting there without such magnetism of the Spirit. We are all drawn into the Christian community by the drawing power of others. My own Christian commitment traces back to the example and drawing power of my parents, of friends at my Oxford College, of a holy priest or two, of countless individuals right down to my time here in Horsted Keynes.

Reading the lives of the saints has been an important influence on me. It’s a good counter to the rubbish we often find ourselves reading if we don’t plan to read things that will build us up.

I remember not so long back reading the autobiography of Bishop Helder Camera who died in 1999 having spent his life in the service of the Brazilian poor. He abandoned his Bishop’s palace to live among the poor and hitched lifts instead of riding in his official car. When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint, he used to say. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.

He was always controversial, a great pioneer of the social gospel.

Camera writes of the spiritual magnetism that steered the direction of his life, notably an encounter with a Cardinal he once helped run a Church Congress in Rio de Janeiro. This man, moved by what he saw of Rio’s shanty towns, suggested Camera would be better putting his organising talents to the service of the poor. He writes: And so the grace of the Lord came to me through the presence of Cardinal Gerlier. Not just through the words her spoke: behind his words was the presence of a whole life, a whole conviction. And I was moved by the grace of the Lord. I was thrown to the ground like Saul on the road to Damascus.

A chance conversation proved to have enormous force, for Camera, and for the poor of Brazil.

The magnetising of the interior life of one man of God by another brought about wonders for the world through the extraordinary possibilities of God.

When a baby or infant is baptised they are given the capacity to receive God’s love in Jesus Christ through others. Their parents and godparents, who share their love for one another with their children, go further to share with their children their love for God.

If parents are seeking God they have in a sense already found Jesus. You can’t seek something you haven’t in some sense found already. Your love for God, my love for God, is actually measurable by our desire to seek God and especially on the occasions when we can’t seem to find him.

Like with magnetism we’re drawn to God from outside of ourselves as well as from inside of ourselves, drawn by our contemplation for transformation and for the transformation of others.

Pope Benedict, who this morning beatifies former Anglican priest John Henry Newman, has written helpfully against people’s negative perception of the Christian church:God rejects no one. The Church rejects no one. Yet in his great love God challenges all of us to change and become more perfect.

This saying of the Pope echoes our second reading from1 Timothy: God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

God draws us – but he also challenges us to get shaped up to be more like Jesus since he desires our salvation.

We need saving from ourselves – from our sin, fear, sickness, doubt and despair as well as from death and the devil!

The question is do we want to be changed in this way? Do we want to be saved? To be shaped up to be like Jesus?

In the baptism service the parents and godparents say they do. They want their children to be shaped up in this way, magnetised by the mighty love of God set forth in Jesus Christ.

Justin and Liz want this for Jessica, Rebecca, Brandon, Paul and Emily. They want their family to have more of the love, joy and peace of Jesus so that others may be drawn to Jesus through them.

They are grateful for their children and want the best for them.

They also struggle, as we all do, with the workings of God. Little Brandon’s brain tumour has been allowed even if it is not God’s will that he or we suffer such sickness. It is natural that we pray healing for Brandon at his baptism as well as trust and patience for his mum and dad and brothers and sisters.

Today’s readings remind us of the need to trust the power of God that is working to draw everyone to himself through their circumstances. Next Sunday is Back to Church Sunday and we have a chance to implement this morning’s word from God by inviting someone to come to St Giles with us next Sunday.

When it comes to drawing people back to church the secret is the contemplation of Jesus which deepens our spiritual magnetism.

So we turn once more to contemplate magnetic Jesus, to reflect on his word, to gaze on him in the holy sacrament of his body and blood, praying that we will be drawn to him more and be made ourselves more of a draw for Jesus to build his body, the church and who reminds us this morning I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also (John 10v16)