Saturday, 17 August 2013

Blessed Virgin Mary (transferred) 18th August 2013

I used to smoke thirty cigarettes a day.

When I was ordained priest thirty six years ago I struggled to stop knowing it was a bad example to the kids in my youth group.

The parish had an annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. That was a great time of growth in fellowship with God and one another as we exchanged for a weekend our grimy mining village for the Norfolk countryside.

I know people from St Giles have been on pilgrimage to Walsingham and I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage anyone of you in that venture.

I will always remember kneeling in the Shrine before the statue of Our Lady and saying ‘You have Jesus ear more than I – I’m going to stop the cigarettes - will you ask him to take away the withdrawal symptoms? 

She did. He did and I’ve not smoked cigarettes even since.

It’s the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary and I want you to be more aware of the power of her intercession, which is why I tell my tale.

I need to go deeper for you. Why did I pray to Mary and not directly to Jesus, you might ask?

It’s all a matter of obedience.

What do I mean? I mean that I try and live by obedience as Christianity is about obedience, Jesus and Mary are both about obedience, and so is the Church.

I pray because I’ve been taught to pray, by my parents and by the Church. In that sense I don’t make up my own religion but go with the flow of things. At one point I came to recognise from holy people I knew that in praying as a Christian I never prayed alone and that the Mother of Jesus joins my prayers with all the Saints in heaven. I came to see the dead are not dead in Christianity but alive and present.

If a Christian believer is, as the letter to the Ephesians puts it, seated with Christ in the heavenly places we don’t sit alone. The saints are also seated with Christ and when we pray we take a seat with them – and right next to Christ in my mind’s eye, in the eye of the church through the centuries, is his Mother.

As the seventeenth century Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken wrote in his hymn on Mary’s entry to heaven:

Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,
next to his throne her Son his Mother placed;
and here below, now she’s of heaven possess,
all generations are to call her blest.

This is a poetic image of what some call the Assumption, Mary lifted up, following Jesus, to share his throne. The image is true to the destiny of every believer which is, as St Paul teaches, to be seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6)

I believe there’s going to be plenty of space on that throne but if anyone gets to sit closest to Jesus it’ll be Mary.

When we love Jesus we’re drawn to love those who love him and his Mother is chief of them.

The Bible portrays her as humble yet confident in God, persevering in prayer, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit. Her Feast today is a reminder of the glory to come for all believers, of which she has privileged foretaste.
Mary herself prophesies her glory and ours in the passage we just sang and read called the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord…for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

Christianity’s all a matter of obedience which we see both from Jesus and from his Mother, who did not fail to obey the invitation sent through Gabriel, the incident depicted in our Lady Chapel window.

Why did I pray to Mary and not directly to Jesus?

The answer is: its not either-or but both-and, although in my case its heavily weighted towards Jesus. It’s a bit like why do I ask people to pray for me, or why do we invite a group to pray for St Giles on a Saturday morning. Our prayer as individual Christians is interwoven both with earthly and heavenly collaborators. There are times, most times, when we pray directly to God and other times when we know we need to ask others to pray with us.

Why? So that we achieve an agreement in prayer that God has promised especially to honour. ‘Where two or three are agreed in my name it will be done for them’ Our Lord says in Matthew 18v19.

Incidentally I see my call to St Giles as linked to a post card Bishop Lindsay Urwin sent me 5 years ago from Walsingham where he is now Shrine Administrator. The card asked me to consider offering myself for service here. As I was thinking about this sermon Bishop Martin sent me a similar card with encouraging words after last month’s confirmation – here it is – and it of the same statue I knelt before 35 years ago when I stopped smoking.

The Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham is as old as this Church.

In 1054 the Lady Richeldis was invited by a vision of Mary to build a representation of the Holy House of Nazareth and invite pilgrims to  come and seek healing, as I did from my addiction. To go with that flow of pilgrims through the ages has always been part of my Christian obedience, as Walsingham is the main shrine to Mary in this land.  

Why are Shrines like Walsingham so important? Because God has caused them through his Saints and because they uphold the validity of prayer and are evidenced by the formation of holy people. Walsingham to me is associated with holiness and fun. My memories are of parishioners finding courage to making their first confession or to seek healing as well as of great evenings in the Bull pub by the Shrine.

Pilgrimage is about getting away from it all to find yourself, and any one of us here is free to make a pilgrimage, to book a few days at the Shrine where we all have a friend who’ll book us in, namely Bishop Lindsay Urwin formerly of Horsham. I was thinking about him when I noted that it is 10 years since he as our Bishop blessed our Aumbry to effect perpetual Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in 2003 since when that flame of presence has burned day and night in St Giles.

Mary said he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Yes the cult of the Virgin Mary has needed reformation at times but in love for Jesus we’ll always be drawn, however we express it to love those who love him of whom his Mother is chief.

Obedient, humble yet confident in God, persevering in prayer, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit she is, and her Feast today is, a reminder of the glory to come for all believers, of which she has privileged foretaste.

Shall we not love thee, Mother dear, whom Jesus loves so well? And to his glory year by year thy joy and honour tell? 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Trinity 11 11th August 2013

During Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s eight years in Russian prison camps, his parents died and his wife divorced him. Upon his release from prison he was dying of a cancer that was growing in him so rapidly that he could feel the difference in a span of twelve hours. It was at that point that he abandoned himself to God and wrote this beautiful prayer: ‘Oh God, how easy it is for me to believe in You. You created a path for me through despair…Oh God, you have used me, and where you cannot use me, you have appointed others. Thank you.

There’s an image of faith if ever there was one!

People say they find faith hard but it’s simply a matter of opening your inner eye as suggested in today’s second reading from the letter to the Hebrews: Faith is the conviction of things not seen. 

When we possess faith, that conviction is practical wisdom. Solzhenitsyn’s faith was something very practical that gave him purpose even as he faced death. It was a wisdom nurtured by Scripture and the worship of the Church.

Faith is 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 in the first and second readings 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, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  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 let’s be reminded of our mission action plan here at St Giles Church, which is to grow in faith, love and numbers.

How can we grow in faith?

We need to commit 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 a blessing to those around us.

I take the Blessed Sacrament to a number of housebound folk. Last week I was sitting with one home communicant looking out, as one can do in many a home in Horsted Keynes, on a terrific view. The lady said to me she was astonished her children and grandchildren failed to see God behind that beauty. For her and for me the view stirred up the thought, what must he be like who made such beauty? For them the beauty was just there as a backcloth to busy lives and no eye opener to God.

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 wheeled his son in a wheelbarrow as part of his high wire act. When they asked his son how he felt about the exercise his only comment was 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 praised in today’s purple passage from Hebrews are praised like Abraham 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.

To grow in faith we need a fuller sense of who we are as God’s 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.  

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, coming close to 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 be upon us as we put our faith in him!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Trinity 10 4th August 2013

Congratulations to the Archbishop of Canterbury for taking on Wonga loans even if I've already been stopped and asked when St Giles is starting to give villagers credit!

A one line letter to the Guardian letter on Monday read: ‘The Archbishop is in danger of giving the church a good name.’

Is it possible that the world's Christian leaders are managing to counter that weapon of mass distraction, homosexuality and the Church, to address something which finds common cause with many?

That the largest Eucharist in history should bring 3 million to Copacabana beach last Sunday is again connected with the visits of Pope Francis to Rio's favelas to engage with the poor.

Well done both leaders. As some of you know I have recently been privileged to receive a favourable message from the Pope following an open letter I read to him on Premier Christian Radio.

Keeping the big picture before those being led is the role of any leader in or outside of Christianity. I know the Archbishop and Pope have a joint Anglican Communion - Roman Catholic scheme to be launched this autumn which harnesses Christian energies to alleviate world poverty which is big picture stuff.

Today's Gospel is one of many passages in the Bible concerned with misuse of wealth which remind us that Our Lord had much more to say about the misuse of wealth than the misuse of sex. No doubt sexual sin can separate you from God but, as our reading from Luke indicates, so can the greedy use of wealth. St Luke's Gospel is famous for its highlighting Our Lord's engagement with material poverty and criticism of the rich.

The parable of the Rich Fool in Luke Chapter 12 needs little explanation. It speaks of self centredness expressed in material terms with a warning that 'one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions'. Pulling down barns to build larger barns the rich man congratulates himself. 'Soul, you have ample, drink and be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God'.

What does it mean to be rich towards God?

It means seeing a loss of self interest that equips you to see the big picture - God's picture - whereby your gifts are consecrated for the good of all and most notably those on the sharp end of things.

In the Old Testament Joseph build barns for Pharaoh not to serve himself but to serve lean years ahead in Egypt. In building those barns he also profited, if you read Genesis, through a family reconciliation as the world's hungry came to Joseph.

Material goods are given by the creator primarily to bless those in his image and to fit them for his glory. This is what the priest affirms when he takes bread and wine on our behalf this morning. 'Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread and wine to offer which earth has given and human hands have prepared. They will become our spiritual food and drink.' In the Eucharist we protest against the selfish use of material things and direct our whole life, including our bank accounts, to God's praise and service. Our standing orders to St Giles, or the money we put in the envelopes, is evidence of true worship and God centredness.

Being rich towards God is about using our time, talents and possessions to build relationship with God and neighbour. Of course our immediate family is a main priority - the rich man in the Gospel may have had them in mind - but that priority isn't to the detriment of the people around us awaiting a material blessing from us at home or abroad. The charitable giving we provide to Guyana, Tanzania, Mozambique and Romania as well as Family Support, Children's Society and so on as a Church also balances what we give directly to God's work through Christian stewardship at St Giles.

Christian work in this place will be eroded unless we pay for a priest.

This morning's Gospel has a challenge far more profound than to our use of money though. It draws attention to our mortality in a vivid wake up call to put people and relationships before the pursuit of material things

I want to end by reading a brief meditation from Fr Anthony De Mello which is a last word in more sense than one.
Imagine your funeral. See your body in its coffin…in a church for the funeral rites.
Now look at all the people who have come to your funeral …go slowly from one pew to another looking at the faces of these people …to see what they are thinking, what they are feeling.
Now listen to the sermon that is being preached. Who is the preacher? ....What are they saying about you? Can you accept all the good things they are saying about you?
Look again at the faces of your friends who have come to attend your funeral …..Imagine all the good things they will be saying about you when they return home from your funeral …what do you feel now?
Is there something you would like to say to each of them before they go home? .....Some final farewell in response to what they are thinking or feeling about you, a response, which, alas, they will never hear now?  ….Say it all the same, and see what this does to you…
Imagine that the funeral rites are now over. You stand in imagination above the grave in which your body lies, watching your friends leave the cemetery. What are your feelings now? ....As you stand here now, look back on your life and your experiences ….Was it all worthwhile?
Now become aware of your existence here in church and realise that you are still alive and still have some time at your disposal …Think of these same friends now from your present point of view. Do you see them differently as a result of this exercise?
Think of yourself now …Do you see yourself differently or feel differently about yourself as a result of this exercise?

Anthony De Mellow Sadhana p97-98