Sunday, 24 June 2012

Birth of St John the Baptist June 24th 2012

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’

In today’s Old Testament passage we have a strengthening word and talk of a herald.

When John the Baptist was miraculously born, as the Gospel narrates, his birth was talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. He came to be seen as that herald, a voice crying out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

The passage from Acts puts John to the centre of salvation history, which is why his Feast is one of a select few to eclipse the Sunday of the Year. Paul’s speech in Acts 13 talks about God’s choice of Israel and how God has brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, “What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.

St John the Baptist, next to the Blessed Virgin Mary, is of all mortals most blessed. He beheld the Lamb of God and got others to see the same. His words are with us, enshrined in the liturgy. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The collect or special prayer for today speaks of God’s providence behind John’s birth and his witness to Christ adding lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth's sake.

As I read these phrases I recalled last week’s thoughtful and challenging sermon by Cavan Wood with those three points about a dedicated Christian life – obedience, care for the vulnerable and readiness to suffer. I also recalled the current national debate about same-sex marriage and it is that which I want to speak to as part of this morning’s address.

Speaking the truth is costly as John the Baptist discovered when he crossed King Herod. We keep the lesser Feast of John’s beheading by Herod on 29th August!

I hope what I share this morning won’t lead to Father John’s beheading!

Sexual ethics is a minefield for any preacher.

Christians believe sexual intercourse between husband and wife to be a sign of faithfulness and self-giving that mirrors Christ’s love. Sex is about life-giving love. It is about the irrevocable gift of self. Procreation, the associated gift of children, flows ideally from such life-giving love.

Our sexuality is given to joyfully unite husband and wife and generate new life. Just as glue-sniffing distorts the good use of glue, promiscuous sexual activity is a misuse of this great gift for bonding and creating human beings.

Like all God’s gifts sex can be misused. Our Lord spoke to this when he taught that if we look at someone lustfully we’ve already committed adultery. That’s a levelling teaching if ever there was one!

So what about same-sex marriage?

First we should lament uncaring comments about homosexuals made seemingly in the name of Christianity during the current national debate. It’s bad enough to be in a minority without being kicked by those who profess a loving God.

The good news of God’s love is for all people, gay or straight. That truth is basic, so that my main concern as a priest is about orientation towards God rather than sexual orientation.

When people privilege me in seeking spiritual direction – how they can come closer to God – I counsel marriage or celibacy as biblical ideals and warn against cohabitation since, lacking Christian authority, it may quench the Holy Spirit.

At the same time I recognize so much of moral decision making isn’t black or white but the choice between shades of grey. I sympathise as one who shares the confidences of folk struggling towards the ideal. Many of those who so struggle are opposed to dropping the ideal.

In the last fifty years the prevalence of contraception means the so-called ‘unitive’ and ‘procreative’ aspects of sexual intercourse are largely separated so most sex is unitive. It seems unjust in this respect to challenge homosexual sex. It too isn’t procreative but it does unite people, even if it falls short of the two Christian ideals.

Like many I accept the positive value of civil partnerships in providing just protection for same-sex faithful unions before the law.

What I and the Church as a whole can’t accept – and like St John the Baptist I must ‘speak the truth’ – is redefining marriage, changing a sacrament, so as to make a minority group more comfortable. There is far more at stake than gay rights in changing a sacrament.

A same-sex marriage would indeed have two of the three essentials of marriage – permanence and fidelity – but the third, offspring, would be artificial. I recently met a lesbian couple having twins by intervention of a male friend. I assured them of my prayers for their children’s welfare and they assured me they’d be looking for male role models for them to compensate their female parenting.

Many of you may have similar acquaintances. The Christian and widely held view of marriage as between a man and a woman is being challenged across the western world by such developments. The official Church of England response to the government plans to legalise same-sex marriage defends the inherited understanding of marriage and opposes the new idea that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals.

The Church of England as ‘the ancient church of this land, catholic and reformed’ seems to have set its face against reform of the sacrament of marriage to suit homosexuals, holding rather to catholic and universal practice. That is my own position, as with the sacrament of holy orders, that the Church of England lacks authority to change a sacrament unilaterally without the consent of the universal church i.e. Roman Catholic and Orthodox as well as Reformed. Others disagree – not all Anglicans see marriage and ordination as sacraments – and they view Anglicans as Spirit-led pioneers. Time will tell who was on the right side of these church debates.

The atheist gay columnist Matthew Parris who is opposed to same-sex marriage gives me encouragement. He recognizes the basic family-orientation of marriage and the damage that could be done to this by encouraging a solely ‘unitive’ understanding.

The debate will continue. The disestablishment of the Church of England might be a consequence if Church and State end up with different definitions of marriage.

Last Sunday Cavan identified three aspects of a dedicated Christian life – obedience, care for the vulnerable and readiness to suffer. We have the same reminder in today’s Saint who points us to constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake.

Affirming the truth of marriage certainly involves us today in patiently suffering for the truth's sake. In the Same-sex marriage debate our tone is so important though. Rebuking the vice of promiscuity, heterosexual and homosexual has its place, but the vice of homophobia also needs rebuking as part of our care for the vulnerable.

Christianity’s a way of life and it’s one way. There are other ways and we need to have the deepest respect for those who chose other options. Sometimes the most powerful truth we can share is that of our failure to live up to what we see as true and our sense that God accepts us just the same. As we shall say shortly in response to John the Baptist’s words of invitation, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Corpus Christi June 10th 2012

Do this in remembrance of me!

"Was ever command so obeyed?

For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth"
Do this in remembrance of me!

"Men have found no better thing to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness that my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetishes because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gate of Vienna;

Do this in remembrance of me!

"..for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and a prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the Church;

Was ever another command so obeyed as this?

"Tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a (Russian) prison camp; gorgeously, for the canonisation of (a Saint) - one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell the hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the holy common people of God".
Do this in remembrance of me!

Was ever another command so obeyed as this?
In these immortal words the Anglican monk, Dom Gregory Dix celebrates the awe and wonder of the Holy Eucharist we thank God for this day.

It is primarily an action, "do this"..and it has been done for 2000 years at a million altars. This is a day for standing still and taking stock of this great wonder we celebrate week by week, day by day in St. Giles lest we presume upon the grace we celebrate and receive.

As Dix puts it in his book The Shape of the Liturgy still used in Anglican Theological Colleges "the eucharistic action (is) inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world...the eucharist (has the) power of laying hold of human life, of grasping the particular concrete realities of it..laying hold of them and translating them into something beyond time".

I find great depths in the words of Dom Gregory Dix. Forgive me for reading them at such length. They seemed to me to do as much as any preacher could to set the scene on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Our Lord Jesus ordained the sacrament of the Eucharist in order that we might be able to join on earth in the pleading of His eternal sacrifice before the face of God the Father.

Then, secondly, that He might feed our souls with His sacred Body and Blood and unite us into One Body, the Church, the Body of Christ, Corpus Christi.

I wonder how many of us would remember or believe or continue to hold fresh in our memories from Confirmation training those facts - I mean: Our Lord giving us the eucharist first to allow us to plead His Memorial Sacrifice and offer our lives with Him to be consecrated lives and then second, second, note, to give us heavenly Food and make us One Bread, One Body?

Or do we rather tend to make our default  the second purpose of the Eucharist? Do we come to Church like we go to Sainsbury’s to get "tanked up" with goodies, so to speak, and to meet our friends?
That should come second. We come first to offer the eucharist - to plead Christ's Sacrifice for the needs of the living and the dead, for others as well as for ourselves.

That long list from Dom Gregory Dix reminded me how all through my life the Eucharist has been a powerful means of sanctifying the lives I minister to, of taking, blessing, breaking sometimes a situation brought on my heart or the people's hearts to the Altar for Christ to carry in Sacrifice to His Father.

As I just quoted from Dix "the eucharist (has the ) power of laying hold of human life, of grasping the particular concrete realities of it..laying hold of them and translating them into something beyond time".

"Laying hold...and translating into something beyond time".

When the Eucharist has been offered for a particular intention there is a profound guarantee that it is "over to the Lord" from there. I felt this recently with Stephen & Victoria Fretten marking their marriage at the parish eucharist, with Alice Batsford last month as we celebrated a eucharist for the dying at the Hospice or as we celebrated that eucharist around Daphne Seidler’s coffin in the Lady Chapel. Last weekend’s Coronation re-enactment included Boy Bishop play acting the Archbishop giving bread and wine to the Queen and Duke at the Coronation eucharist. All are examples of the making holy of life at this service.

Each Eucharist, majestic or simple, pleads Calvary.  Pleads, note, not repeats. Christ died once for all. His death cannot be repeated but his Sacrifice abides for ever. It is that sacrifice he renews before us as he blesses bread and wine through the priest.

"This is my Body...this is my Blood" offered for you to the Father, given to you in Communion. It is a good practice to bow or bend the knee as we come into Church or leave Church, or as we approach or leave the Altar – for there is a special Eucharistic presence. Outside the eucharist, Christ is present, truly present, under the veil of the Aumbry. Even when the altar lights are blown out the light by the Aumbry burns on where the Sacrament is reserved for Communion of the housebound or for our corporate devotion as in the Benediction or blessing given from the consecrated Host at times during evensong. On Monday we were reminded of this symbol of God’s perpetual presence with his people in Horsted Keynes when the Jubilee Beacon was lit from the everlasting Aumbry light.

Incidentally to honour that perpetual presence by bowing or bending the knee when coming and going from before the Aumbry does not deny that presence elsewhere through the reading of Scripture, in Christian Fellowship, in the beauty of nature, in holy people and so on.

Yet mindful of Christ's Presence let us never forget its vital link to the first purpose of every Eucharist, which is action, sacrificial action. The Eucharist is about giving, giving to God. Jesus the Son gives himself in loving Sacrifice. We are to give our lives, our souls and bodies, our needs, our joys, our sorrows, our hopes, our fears, in union with his perfect Offering. Lives so given are lives consecrated, lives transformed by the Gift of the consecrated elements, "The Body of Christ", "Amen", "The Blood of Christ", "Amen".

Through Him, with Him and in Him, then, let us give glory to God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit this Corpus Christi Day, confident that God will accept our self offering and as ever give us more than we can ask or imagine in this most Holy Sacrament.

Queen’s Diamond Jubilee 8am 3rd June 2012

Well today’s a special day and we’ve got a special visitor.

After all the prayers we’ve said in this Church for the Queen over 60 years we’ve got her exact likeness before us as part of today’s celebration.

Over 60 years Queen Elizabeth is said to have been seen by more people than any other person in the history of the world.

It’s because she’s lived long – God save her – and that over her reign the world’s mass media has mushroomed.

The image of the Queen has gone all round the world.

But what lies behind it?

From a Christian vantage point it’s the coronation or crowning ceremony which for her happened on Tuesday 2nd June 1953 in Westminster Abbey

On this her diamond Jubilee weekend we’re mindful of that occasion just short of 60 years ago when Elizabeth received a special blessing in the Holy Spirit through being anointed with holy oil at a Christian eucharist.

On her coronation morning a gold ornamental flask, the Ampulla, was filled with aromatic oil and placed on the high altar of Westminster Abbey. The eagle shaped Ampulla (show) and its accompanying gold spoon had been brought with the rest of the Crown Jewels from safekeeping in the Tower of London.

During the Coronation eucharist the Archbishop of Canterbury blessed the oil and placed it in the form of a cross on the Queen’s hands, chest and head saying Be thy head anointed with holy oil: as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed. And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen over the peoples.

The British monarchy is a Christian ministry of service and leadership that starts at the eucharist. It builds on the anointing of Old Testament rulers that signalled their function as people set apart for the protection and service of God’s people.

We’ve answered what makes the Queen the Queen, now another question:

What makes a Christian a Christian?

The clue – the answer - was given us last week at Pentecost.

It’s to be anointed with the Holy Spirit.

God sent his Son Jesus Christ to earth to die for us, to be raised and to pour out God’s Holy Spirit so that the whole world could one day share in his anointing.
Jesus is called Christ, which means the One anointed by the Spirit, and Jesus Christ was anointed so we could share in the Holy Spirit that he has.

A Christian is someone who shares in the anointing of the Anointed One.

In being anointed and crowned the Queen was set apart by God among other things to protect the poor and bring justice to the oppressed at home or abroad. The Queen’s anointing and coronation prepared her for national service in a great succession of Christian and Jewish leaders. Old Testament Kings were crowned after their anointing with a simple gold band. British monarchs have had some of the most splendid crowns in the world.

This week the children of our School made crowns for themselves. This has a message for us this morning. If God is our King and we are his children that makes us princes and princesses in God’s royal court. When you were baptised you were given a great dignity. The Bible says Christians are a kingly people, a royal priesthood.
Just as the Queen will for her whole life be our anointed ruler so we who’ve been anointed in baptism walk tall – we’re God’s children, king’s children.

The Crown marks out the monarch but in a profound sense every Christian is marked out by God’s love. A saintly thirteenth century King of France wrote: I think more of the place where I was baptised than of the Cathedral where I was crowned, for the dignity of a child of God which was bestowed upon me at baptism is greater than that of a ruler of a kingdom. The latter I shall lose at death, the other shall be my passport to everlasting glory.

A good thought to end on. Meanwhile - God save the Queen!