Sunday, 27 October 2013

Trinity 22 (30th Week, Year C)           27th October 2013

I stand in a family tradition of plain speaking counting among my forbears the Craven Dialect poet Tom Twisleton, my first cousin twice removed who lived from 1845 to 1917 and whose poems are still read in my native Settle. Some of the locals there are working with me on publishing a comprehensive edition of Tom’s poems so they’re rather fresh in my mind. I thought one of them – ‘Church ‘gangin’ was a spot on commentary on today’s scripture.

Here it is – the main part of it - and though in Craven dialect I’ll read it more as a Sussex Downs man than a Yorkshire Dalesman translating the dialect to make it more intelligible in our situation.

One Sabbath day, in summer time, when leaves were green and flowers smelt prime, and lile birds raised a din. I chanced to pass a house of prayer, that reared its steeple in the air, and folks were going in.

Both young and old, and rich and poor, in making for the open door, all in a throng did mix. Some strode in pride, like king or queen, some tripped like fairies o’er the green, some tottered in on sticks.

I stood and watched ‘em walking in, to hear of future woe for sin, and bliss for t’ just and wise; and while I gazed with vacant stare, and watched ‘em enter t’ house of prayer, strange thoughts began to rise.

I asked myself, ‘what is it brings yon mingled group of human things, that from their houses come! Do they come here to sing and pray and to the priest attention pray?. Answer says, ‘nought but some’.

There’s yon smart Miss in gay attire who hopes to make them all admire, he very best she’ll don; and one sits near whose wandering eye is peeping up and down to see what such a one has on.

And one comes in with haughty stride, his heart puffed up with empty pride, he thinks none like himself; he hasn’t come in here this day to join his voice with them that pray, but just to cut a swell.

And some bent down as if in prayer, o’er top of t’ pew, with careless stare, do nowt but squint and scan; to words of truth they pay no heed, they feel as if from prison freed, when t’ clerk says t’ last Amen.

And then again there’s some who gang, with solemn looks and faces long, to sing the song of praise; who wear religion as a cloak to hide from unsuspecting folk, their cunning roguish ways.

All service through with pious looks, they hang their faces o’er their books, they act the saint right well; on holy things they seem intent, while all the time to save a cent, they’d cheat their own old man.

There’s some no doubt, but ah, a few, who come with hearts sincere and true to worship heaven’s high King; who humbly kneel before the throne, and in return for mercies shown, their heartfelt praises sing.

Tom Twisleton’s poem ‘Church going’ - which picks up on our Gospel reading where Our Lord has a story we might call ‘Temple going’.

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Where do we as this morning’s church goers see ourselves in this?

Don’t we rather like being exalted? To receive the satisfaction of a job well done or a duty fulfilled. To believe things we do, even for Church, really make us a bit better than those who fail where we succeed. No, no, no says the parable – to believe that make you prisoner of small time righteousness. I am looking forward to my red buttoned Canon’s cassock, of course! Bad as the rest…

Or – how about the inward assumption that, because of our failings, we don’t measure up to the standards of the Pharisee in ourselves, so we’re secretly stained beyond redemption. I find this a quite familiar condition in our high achieving culture and wouldn’t be surprised to hear something of it next weekend during Confession-time before All Saints Feast.

Where’s the good news? It’s, as I said last week about the Jesus Prayer, that the prayer of the tax collector is available to all of us. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

For you and I are all sinners and yet sisters and brothers of the Son of God, children of a merciful Father. The parable of the Pharisee and Publican is an invitation to break away from the tyranny of self-righteousness, of judging ourselves by ourselves, and enter the glorious liberty of the children of God – which is to recognise you and I are on the bottom step of the ladder but that God loves us all the same.

A visitor to a psychiatric hospital found one of the inmates rocking back and forth in a chair cooing repeatedly in a soft contented manner, ‘Lulu, Lulu…’.

‘What’s this man’s problem?’ he asked the doctor.

‘Lulu. She was the woman who jilted him,’ was the doctor’s reply.

As they proceeded on the tour, they came to a padded cell whose occupant was banging his head repeatedly against the wall and moaning, ‘Lulu, Lulu…’

‘Is Lulu this man’s problem to?’ the visitor asked.

‘Yes,’ said the doctor. ‘He’s the one Lulu finally married.’

We all have our ‘Lulus’ be they in families or in Churches – I would be more merciful than my cousin Tom to fellow church members though I’m grateful for his poem.

I guess I am most likely someone else’s ‘Lulu’!

We are all sinners – full of shortcomings – but we’re loved by almighty and unending love, and is there any better good news than that?

The tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Trinity 21 Sermon on Jesus Prayer 20th October 2013

‘On the 24th Sunday after Pentecost I went to church to say my prayers there during the Liturgy. The first Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was being read, and among other words I heard these – “Pray without ceasing”.  It was this text, more than any other, which forced itself upon my mind, and I began to think how it was possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living…  “What ought I to do?” I thought. “Where shall I find someone to explain it to me?”

This is how the pilgrim starts his story in the Russian spiritual classic Way of a Pilgrim and there came a day seven years ago when his question of how it is possible to ‘pray without ceasing’ became my own which led me to welcome the gift and task of the Jesus Prayer.

In Way of a Pilgrim we read how the pilgrim goes first to ‘a gentleman who had long been living and seeking the salvation of his soul… He was silent for a while and looked at me closely. Then he said: “Ceaseless interior prayer is a continual yearning of the human spirit towards God. To succeed in this consoling exercise we must pray more often to God to teach us to pray without ceasing. Pray more, and pray more fervently. It is prayer itself which will reveal to you how it can be achieved unceasingly; but it will take some time’. In the narrative the pilgrim continues on his journey asking the same question of various holy people and finally gets the advice to adopt ‘the continuous interior Prayer of Jesus…a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart; while forming a mental picture of His constant presence’.

Through his call to pray unceasingly, and the advice he receives, the pilgrim sets himself to continuously repeat these words: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’.

How can I live a simpler Christian life?

Is there a summary of faith that’s clear, memorable and portable?  A biblical aid to praying at all times? A means of Holy Spirit empowerment to bypass a distracted mind? Is there an instrument of Jesus Christ useful to carrying his worship into life and vice versa?

The Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodoxy, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ is such an instrument. Thoroughly biblical, carried forward by the faith of the church through the centuries, it stands as unique gift and task.

As part of our prayer exploration fortnight I want to give a personal commendation of this Prayer, its simple good news and capacity to empower, with a little practical guidance on how to welcome and use it along with encouragement to attain the simplicity of life it offers.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ The Lord Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s love who, as both God and a human being, can fully sympathise with our sorrows and joys. Though life in this world is fragmented and fragmentary the wholeness of Christ draws us into himself to so that our hurts are consoled and our joys shared.  In the Jesus Prayer we are given grace to counter the gravitational downward pull of sorrow and sin so as to achieve lightness of spirit. The struggle with relationships and insecurities and even faith pulls us down, as into quicksand. As Christians we welcome the upward pull of Jesus that lifts us when we are down. In repeating the Jesus Prayer we put faith in God who is rich in mercy and we see the powerful impact of that mercy is as it responds to heartfelt prayer.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’.

Where does the prayer come from?

The Jesus Prayer comes straight from the Gospels and is a one line expression of the good news of Christianity. It affirms both the coming of the Saviour and our need for his salvation. Based on incidents in the life of Our Lord it combines Peter’s act of faith in Jesus  ‘You are the Son of God’  in Matthew 16v16 with the cry of the Publican ‘have mercy upon me a sinner’ in  Luke 18v13.

It exalts the name which is above every name  to use Paul’s words in Philippians 2v10. You can’t repeat the name of Jesus with a good intention without touching his person, God’s person. It’s a form of Holy Communion without bread and wine though it comes into its own in my own experience as an extension of sacramental communion.

As the Orthodox writer Bulgakov expresses it: The Name of Jesus, present in the human heart, communicates to it the power of deification…Shining through the heart, the light of the Name of Jesus illuminates all the universe. 

‘God loves me! What joy! And I truly love him too!’ is a paraphrase of the Jesus Prayer which is a simple sentence declaring simple yet awesome truth. As the prayer continues within me it puts faith in God’s love for me and for all that is, minute by minute, day by day and for all eternity. It announces Jesus who came and died long ago to be my living Lord and saviour this day, by whose mercy I exist and by trust in whose mercy I can fully prosper. Jesus, who came to bring life and bring it to the full, is placed before me by the act of faith expressed in this Prayer. It is a touching of the Lord who fills my hour by hour inner emptiness as I reach up to him. There is no more precious knowledge on earth than that you are loved immensely, and will be so loved, for all eternity.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. This prayer is said in both formal and free settings, which is its very power Simple, memorable and short it’s a form of prayer that can be made part of one’s formal prayer time whilst being offered in freer fashion as you get on with life outside set prayer times.

This is how I pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning. I have an Oratory in the Rectory where I spend the first hour of the day. Half of that I spend reciting the Jesus Prayer and the other half  I use to say liturgical Morning Prayer, which includes psalms and scripture readings, and to make intercession for my family, parish and for the world.

Then on with my life and my priestly work engaging with worship, sermon preparation, e mails, people’s sorrows and joys, the farmer frustrated by the weather, the lady with so many troubles, the sullen youth, the burdened church officer, the couple preparing for marriage, the lonely pensioner  - all of these I engage with trying to let the Jesus Prayer run in me, and not my own thoughts, so any words I utter will have the Lord’s weight.  The Prayer is nothing magic. It requires my active cooperation both to pray it in my circumstances and to let it guide my counsel.

For me – and this sermon is very personal so take its spirit but take it or leave it in terms of emulation – for me the Jesus Prayer looks to be an all encompassing devotion. I can’t claim I have either encompassed or been encompassed by it sufficiently at all.  At least I have got somewhat into the habit of saying sorry if I forget for long stretches of time to pray as I have intended.

One sign I have been so forgetful is when I find myself agitated by things around me, since gladness of heart seems inseparable to surrendering oneself to God’s will in every circumstance, and lack of such surrender, and of the Prayer, seems to fit times when I find a loss of joy.

The eucharist is our great opportunity for such self-surrender and re-orientation, whether you pray the Jesus Prayer or not.

As we return to worship, once I take my seat  I’ll lead you into silence by repeating the prayer six times after which you might like to continue repeating for a minute or two in the silence of your heart.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Harvest Festival 6th October 2013 8am

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say ‘Rejoice’ Philippians 4:4
In those words St Paul captures the invitation we welcome annually at Harvest Festival.
I can’t demonstrate as High Weald Dairy will, later on, something of Horsted Keynes’ harvest, or give you a St Giles’ cheese tasting afterwards, but I can pick up less graphically on the sentiment of gratitude.
The Christian faith calls for inner eyes of faith that remain open in gratitude.
We come from God. We belong to God. We go to God. 
This means, as creatures made and loved by God, we live in gratitude towards the one who made us and provides for us.
What a wonderful privilege it is for us to live in mid Sussex in a place as beautiful as Horsted Keynes! I was reminded of this by the feedback on last Saturday’s Quiet Day for diocesan trainee readers held in the Martindale. The participants were wowed by the Martindale window and view, by their walk to Church, to the spring at Ludwell and the Mill. How privileged we are to live in Horsted Keynes and its surrounds!
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say ‘Rejoice’ Philippians 4:4
You don’t have to live surrounded by beauty to live in gratitude. Our welcoming of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament Sunday by Sunday should focus a grateful welcoming of the Lord in every circumstance that comes our way. God who so generously comes to us in this eucharist, literally ‘thanksgiving service’ is as ready to meet us in the circumstances of our life as he is to meet us in the Sacrament of Bread and Wine.
I will go unto the altar of God, even unto the God of my joy and gladness we read in Psalm 43v4
To be glad at heart is more than a passing sentiment linked to harvest as a passing church season. It is a matter of deep ongoing submission.
This morning we might ask ourselves ‘Are we really glad, deep down in our heart, in our situation?’
What would be your answer? What business might you have to transact this morning at the altar of God?
If we aren't glad at heart we’re very likely lacking in submission of our circumstances to God. We only fear those things we have not submitted to God.
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say ‘Rejoice’ Philippians 4:4
As we read in another Psalm, 112 verses 6,7: The righteous...will not be overthrown by evil circumstances...they do not fear bad news, nor live in dread of what may happen. For they are settled in their mind that the Lord will take care of them.
To pray the harvest prayers – and we all struggle with them - is both an expression of and a seeking after deeper gladness of heart. This is in our interest, and in the interest of those who live close to us, since if we’re not resigned in a positive way to the will of God revealed to us in the circumstances of our daily living we will be people being worn away by anxiety, people seeing their pride humiliated through that refusal to say, deep down, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, give us this day our daily bread’
In contrast St. Paul calls us in our harvest reading to put our focus not on self but on God:
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say ‘Rejoice’.  He repeats this advice in his first letter to the Thessalonians: give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you" 1 Thessalonians 5v16‑18.

Thanksgiving, joy, gladness are the Christian distinctive in all circumstances and they centre on the altar of our God of joy and gladness - for the gifts of bread and wine are offered as a glad expression of our submission to God this morning. Their transformation to Christ’s body and blood and our receiving of these is the instrument of our own ongoing transformation into thankful living. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say ‘Rejoice’