Sunday, 26 February 2012

Baptism of Wilfred Mawby 26th February 2012

Putting first things first is a struggle.

What we see as first things should determine how we do everything else, but mortal beings struggle to accomplish this.

In baptising Wilfred his parents are making a statement of intention to write God large in their family and put lesser things in their place. The form of their baptismal promise, which calls for divine help, touches on the struggle entailed. With the help of God, we will.

Both parents are strategists, Will with his background as an army officer and Liz in her work on media consultancy. It has been a pleasure to get to know them and the other residents of Treemans, a place so much part of the history of Horsted Keynes, as we have prepared for today.

Parenting tests strategic thinking to its limits but I’m sure Will and Liz will deliver, not least from the evidence there is of their holding to vision and delivering on commitment!

Today’s baptism is itself placed strategically so as to help us best start Lent here at St Giles as I will explain. I apologise for the inconvenience that strategy has put many of our visitors to as they’ve made time in busy schedules to speed down to Sussex for a mid-morning baptism.

On Monday I visited the splendid Hajj exhibition at the British Museum. In the Hajj pilgrimage Muslims fulfil one of the five tenets of their faith through a once in a lifetime visit to Mecca.

As they go on Hajj Muslims settle debts and seek forgiveness from family and friends to travel over land to the place they pray towards and, more profoundly, back in time to the foundational events of Islam linked to Muhammad and before him Abraham and Adam.

Like Ramadan, another Pillar of Islam, Hajj is a Muslim back to basics, putting first things first call for that religion based as it is on submission to God, which, literally, in Arabic is Islam.

Seeing film of hundreds of thousands of Muslims circling the cubic Ka’ba, traditional site of Abraham’s sacrifice, was absolutely fascinating – I do recommend the exhibition. The holy pull of Mecca was further expressed in the contemporary artist Ahmed Mater al-Ziad’s work Magnetism which shows a magnetic cube like the Ka’ba surrounded by a swirl of iron filings.

It’s that holy pull or magnetism essential to baptism that’s ours to rediscover as Christians in our Lenten pilgrimage to the Easter Festival.

The purpose of Lent is a year by year re-setting of sights on the vision of Christ that draws us and that marks all the baptised with an affinity to him.

For as Jesus died and rose so Christian people in baptism put the old self to death and rise to new life in the Holy Spirit. This principle, announced in baptism, needs putting into practice throughout our lives as we find ourselves drawn by the magnet, not of a stone in Arabia, but of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Putting first things first is a struggle. It is less so if you capture the magnetism Dostoyevsky spoke of when he said there has never been anyone lovelier, deeper or more sympathetic than Jesus. The unique warmth, simplicity and humanity of Jesus challenge anyone who picks up a copy of the Gospels. Is there any figure in history that rivals him? Even the atheist Rousseau said: it would have been a greater miracle to invent such a life as Christ’s than to be it.

We, God’s people at St Giles, are one with Wilfred’s parents today, as we start Lent alongside them, setting our sights afresh on the centrality of Jesus Christ to human existence and aspiration.

Repent, and believe in the good news we heard in today’s Gospel. This good news was spelled out in the first reading from 1 Peter: Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit..and saves you.

How does baptism save us? By giving us an affinity with God through Jesus Christ. This makes us capable of being drawn towards him in this life and the life to come, magnetising us to draw others to him too through that inner capacity.

Faith is needed as well since this magnetic gift from Christ our Rock doesn’t automatically overcome our wilfulness. Christianity unlike Islam holds to the inherent sinfulness, or fallenness away from God, of human nature. Infant baptism counters original sin.

We don’t call the Door by the Font the devil’s door for nothing.

Today’s Scripture has the account of the temptation of Jesus who, we’re told was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

As Jesus was tempted so will this young man be, and Christian faith is the will to repent or turn again and again to the Lord that’s made easier by one’s apprehension of his immense love. As Jesus in the Gospel account was both given the Spirit at his baptism and then driven by the Spirit to speak of God having come close to us, so is the call upon Wilfred, his parents and all of us as we start Lent.

Putting first things first is a struggle.

When we fall in love the one we love is put first and we struggle through many things to be with them. May the love of Will and Liz for Wilfred that seeks the best for him struggle on to achieve it. May our keeping of Lent rekindle such love for the Lord that we find Christian life less of a struggle and are ever more drawn by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Ash Wednesday 22nd February 2012

Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

With these words we receive the ashes of repentance.

We are all in need of conversion.

According to Scripture we, for whom the life of faith is routine, run the risk of being further away from the kingdom of God than those struggling towards God, his existence even, or wrestling with knowing what’s right for them but lacking the will to do it.

Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn Joel warns in the first reading as he hands on the Lord’s invitation to order a fast and proclaim a solemn assembly.

In Lent our taking up of new disciplines or giving up luxuries isn’t to be external but an instrument of deeper conversion, more sincere repentance.

We need to heed Isaiah who hands on the Lord’s complaint to his people who honour me with their lips while their hearts are far from me (Isaiah 29.13).

Conversion is a growth into spiritual integrity in which heart and lips harmonise. The Choristers’ Prayer captures this: Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives.

In praying that hearts and lives come together we’re admitting our need of divine help for conversion is a work of God, an ongoing work right up to our dying day and in some sense beyond it.

Our call as Christians is to love God with our whole heart and our neighbour as ourselves.

How slothful am I about delving into Scripture or attending the eucharist so as to encounter the lovability of God? How many of my neighbours find a place on my heart?
Further than that how much compassion have I for myself?

So much of our bad behaviour springs from running away from a failure to face our own inadequacy lovingly.

Sinners sin – but Jesus loves them and so should we - starting with ourselves!

Sometimes our wrongdoing stings us more because it wounds the pride we’ve got in our self sufficiency.
Lent may be a call to build a right self-love upon our self-knowledge which might become a new wellspring of self-forgetfulness.

Know yourself. Love yourself. Forget yourself.

One of the most popular and well esteemed of spiritual directors, Fr Tony De Mello, was asked about how he heard God speaking to him.

He was quite a humourist and could use strong language.

I sense God saying to me, De Mello said, Tony you’re a bastard – but I love you.

A sobering thought, that a so-called religious expert could be thought of as such by God! Surely if God is God he must laugh at us more than he laments about us and so should we!

Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn... you honour me with your lips while your hearts are far from me.

Turn away from sin –
the pretentiousness and outward conformity that hides a self-seeking heart - and be faithful to the Gospel.

Know yourself. Love yourself. Forget yourself.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Epiphany 6 12th February 2012

All we are about as Christians harnesses energy.

It harnesses the energy that presses creation forward.

Let no one deceive you into thinking Christianity is a loss of energy, even if tasks in the life of the Church fall heavily on your shoulders!

God who brought all that is out of nothing brings us moment by moment in Christ the irrepressible power of the Holy Spirit.

It is the same energy at work in the Eucharist that is at work bringing, driving and melting the snow and pushing the grass and trees upward.

Our three scripture passages spoke in different ways of how Jesus Christ is the clue to understanding that energy that has brought us here and would carry us forward from this day and into a joyful eternity.

The passage from Proverbs speaks of pre-existent wisdom. Before the mountains had been shaped there was already, according to God’s word in this scripture, wisdom who acted alongside him as his agent delighting in the human race as the climax of creation.

The letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians identifies that agent as Christ, also named, as in the Proverbs passage as firstborn of all creation in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. The passage makes clear that the one whose power rolled out creation acted powerfully upon the Cross to reconcile sinful humanity and is powerfully present with us as head of the body, the church.

The holy Gospel – this is one of the Sundays John is used to complement Mark as that Gospel doesn’t stretch to 52 passages – is also clear that Jesus Christ is both the power that bought all things into being and the one who gives power to all who believe in his name.

The Word became flesh and lived among us to give us power to become children of God.

To know God in Jesus Christ is not something esoteric but something that touches the wellspring of our own life. You and I are here in this Church this morning, held together in our physical being by God.

God who brought all that is out of nothing brings us moment by moment in Christ the power of life.

More than that he fills hearts open to him with his own life, the life and power of the Holy Spirit, through word and sacrament.

Our Church spire points to this truth: all of life comes from God, is sustained by God and would be directed by God to his praise and service.

I say ‘would be’ because the creation of a world apart from God has led to the necessity of faith for mortal beings to be one with him, to choose intimacy with him, and to overcome the consequences of that apartness from God in the evil consequences of human wrongdoing, made possible by that apartness of the creation from God.

We name the second person in the Godhead Jesus Christ because the world apart from God began to fall apart through human sin and only through the gift of his Son, revealed in taking nature of a Virgin in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection could it be brought together again.

The great Anglican theologian Austin Farrer has this summary of how creation links to redemption and the making holy of our lives:

We believe in One God, One not only in the unity of his substance but in the unbroken wholeness of his action. All the work of God is one mighty doing from the beginning to the end, and can only be seen in its mind-convincing force when it is so taken. It is One God who calls being out of nothing, and Jesus from a virgin womb, and life from the dead; who revives our languid souls by penitence, and promises to sinful men redeemed by the vision of his face, in Jesus Christ our Lord. A Celebration of Faith p62

I am hopeful for the Church because I know there’s a link between the supernaturally revealed truth of Jesus Christ and the truths of the world’s evolution established by science.

Not just a link but a dynamic!

Just to illustrate, it is the Lord’s Day.

Every Sunday we celebrate three dynamics. The first day of the week is a reminder of God’s creation on the primeval day. It is also the memorial of the new creation given on Easter Sunday. It is thirdly the memorial of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit empowered the Church.

This dynamic is encaptured in Victorian Bishop William Walsham How’s hymn for Sunday:

This day, at thy creating Word first o’er the earth the light was poured;
O Lord, this day upon us shine, and fill our hearts with light divine.

This day the Lord for sinners slain, in might victorious rose again:
O Jesu, may we rais├Ęd be from death of sin to life in thee.

This day the Holy Spirit came with fiery tongues of cloven flame:
O Spirit, fill our hearts this day with grace to hear and grace to pray.

The truth behind Sunday is the same truth behind creation – the truth of a God who, in Farrer’s words calls being out of nothing...Jesus from a virgin womb, and life from the dead; who revives our languid souls.

A last thought on how we better lay hold on this truth.

Imagine yourself up a ladder replacing a light bulb.

You are concentrating your attention on loosening the bulb and suddenly your mind switches to ponder how securely you’re placed on the ladder (no doubt if in Church your two named ladder holders will be down below you).

Your inner questioning ‘how securely am I placed’ undermines the operation until you pull yourself together and get on with the job.

Do you get the analogy? 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.

As Austin Farrer says elsewhere:

God can convince us of God, nothing else and no one else can: attend the eucharist well, make a good communion, pray for the grace you need, and you will know that you are not dealing with empty air.