Saturday, 28 March 2015

Palm Sunday Descending to true greatness 29th March 2015

Detectives with evidence of child abuse against an MP who died some years back and a member of the intelligence services were threatened with the Official Secrets Act if they did not drop the case, a police whistleblower has claimed. 

Police officers questioned the MP during the inquiry in the early 1980s, which targeted properties in south London where it was suspected sex parties were hosted involving teenage boys, but he was released within hours of being taken to a police station, it is said.
The MP and others were caught abusing children, but officers were ordered to hand over all their evidence – including notebooks and video footage – and warned to keep quiet about the investigation or face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. 
If this is proved 10% true, as the abuse of power it is at the heart of our nation, that’s bad enough, but even worse are unanswered questions about the disappearance and possible murder of some of the teenage boys.
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. 
In the world - and the church is part of the world - in the world, people rise to the heights so they gain power not just to do good.  Abusing, murdering children, for selfish satisfaction seems an unthinkable use of power but that's what's coming out at us, day by day, as this wicked episode in our nation comes to the surface.
Today is the start of Holy Week and we get a window into what's ultimately the case concerning the God of power and might.
When God shows his power it’s in a downward and not upward movement as the Philippians reading makes clear.
God in Christ emptied himself taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.
So it was that Jesus Christ disappointed many on Palm Sunday.
As Messiah, he entered Jerusalem with no trappings of earthly power save a donkey. We know Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus most likely linked to his involvement with the Zealots who’d hoped Jesus would use his divine power to free Israel from Roman rule. Lest we be too hard on Judas we should recall James and John once tried a bid for power among the twelve disciples and how Peter like Judas forsook Jesus at his last hour.
Our Lord Jesus was the most countercultural being who ever trod the earth. He retains influence to this day because he shunned power in the dog eat dog sense but emptied, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.
Jesus descended into true greatness - and that's the invitation he brings our way.
Those MPs and establishment figures, whose greed and lust did so much damage, also did good through the 1980s as Britain's leaders. Some of their peers were famous in a quite different way. I think of Frank Longford whose prison visits to infamous figures like Myra Hindley signalled a different use of power, symbolic of humility and servanthood.
It’s quite dreadful that a police officer, given notice of a crime, should be told in the name of a big name to keep quiet and hand over his records, but that is the way of a world in thrall to evil.
In Christianity there are no big names, God alone, and no lesser names. He values each of us the same, precious yet flawed beings that we are.
There is no one so flawed Jesus is beyond them if they seek him, and I’m thinking of those implicit in the alleged wickedness I've described which serves our nation ill.
This is so because Jesus, once he came to Bethlehem, never stopped descending.
The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head we read. He who is the source of truth is made a blasphemer.
In the account we just heard he’s spit upon by the creatures he brought to life.
God in Christ is stripped. The hands that stretched out the heavens are nailed to a cross. God the Son is innocent victim of human wickedness
In Holy Week the One who possesses everything is made nothing in our eyes alongside two criminals, but in God's eyes he is the greatest of the great, so that, at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is our God, and we are his people. We move in the same direction descending into greatness as best we can. Greatness to us, as to Jesus, isn't the achievement of self-will but of self-abandonment.
I attended the funeral of a great lady last month. She was 91 but 250 people came to mourn her. Her preoccupation was to serve God and other people, and the people knew it and couldn't let her be taken to the grave without signalling they knew it.
As priest I attend many funerals where a smaller group attends to a deceased relative with narrower, less unselfish preoccupation. I can tell you these occasions barely become celebrations however hard and imaginatively we work at them.
In Holy Week we make time to reflect on death and resurrection. As you reflect take time to imagine your own funeral, who'll be there, what they'll have to say about you.
You've got the rest of your life to change that and you might get more on that case after Easter.
We live in three spheres, physical, intellectual and spiritual. Whether you're physically great or not isn't eternally significant. Neither whether or not you wrote a book. Jesus didn’t!
True greatness is greatness of spirit and its attained as Jesus shows us this week.
We work our way to greatness by surrendering our egos day by day to be worn down by circumstances that cross our self-interest
Like Christ we descend to ascend into a fulfilment beyond this world of which joy is a taster.
I end with a story from World War II appropriate in the run up to VE Day.  It’s of a bishop imprisoned and beaten by an SS officer to extract a confession about his accomplices in the resistance.
‘Don’t you know I can kill you?’ screamed the officer.
The bishop looked into the eyes of his torturer. ‘Yes, I know - do what you want - but I have already died.’
Instantly, as though paralysed, the officer couldn’t raise his arm. Power over this man of God had been taken from him.
All his cruelties had been based on the assumption the bishop's physical life was his most precious possession so that he’d do anything to save it.
With such grounds for violence gone, torture was futile
Such is true greatness, the capacity to look death in the face with Jesus at your side
May he draw closer to your side this Holy Week and build in you and around you his death defying perspective!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Lent 5 Holiness 22nd March 2015

I only point the way - a sign doesn't have to go where it points.

As your parish priest I am a pointer to holiness through my special dress and functions and it’s not surprising the devil puts that one liner into my mind.

I only point the way - a sign doesn't have to go where it points.

No, no, no. If I’m ever a sad priest my sadness should most of all be about not being a saintly one.

I must persevere in self-sacrifice, in guarding myself from ritual service in the empty sense of 'go where I point but not here I go. Do as I say but not as I do'.

This little confession is my way into today's readings on self-sacrifice. 

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

Sometimes the office of a priest requires you to challenge your people and, especially then, it's all the more important your own failings are being challenged, through counsel you seek and receive, lest you contradict the message you provide.

We priests, we Christians, need to turn our eyes upon Jesus who both challenged and gave himself. 

Today's readings are haunted by Gethsemane.
The Gospel: my soul is troubled. The epistle from Hebrews which states in the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest. Hebrews 5:7-10

In Gethsemane Jesus made self-sacrifice. 'Nevertheless' he says - and what wonders in that word - 'nevertheless, Father, not my will but thine be done'.

Holiness is linked to self-sacrifice. You can't be a sign of Christ without it. And it's a 24-7 business that permeates thought, word and deed.

The writer A.J.Cronin tells of Olwen Davies, a middle-aged district nurse whose cheerful service of the people of Tregenny impressed him in his days as medical officer to a Welsh mining company. Cronin was so worried about her low pay he brought it up in conversation after a strenuous day they'd shared together. 'Why don't you make them pay you more? It's ridiculous you should work for so little?' She smiled. 'I've got enough to get along with'. 'No, really, God knows you're worth an extra pound a week at least'. There was a pause. 'Doctor if God knows I'm worth it, that's all that matters to me'.

What is worthiness? It's a similar question to that about holiness. Unworthiness is a shade easier to define, maybe as living just for yourself. John Ruskin said when a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package. 

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Seeing our organ dismantled reminded me of the magnetic islands in the Arabian Knights tale which wrecked ships by drawing out their nails and bolts. When people live just to themselves their lives fall to pieces in the end, just like our organ, but not constructively but destructively. 

Lives magnetised by God are held together with joy. Can you think of anyone who has attained joy, permanent happiness, without self denial?

I can think of a few folk I've met over my years as a priest who've regretted their occupation with selfish pursuits, nominally in their bread winner role, which ended up excluding those now grown but nominally near and dear to them. 

Passiontide challenges us with the way of sacrifice followed by Jesus and invited of us as the sure path from self-centredness into holiness.

The famous Christian writer CS Lewis wrote of his 'bewilderment and amazement' after the death of his wife: 'If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards... If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled 'Illness', 'Pain', 'Death', 'Loneliness'. I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find it didn't'

Elsewhere he summarises this trauma which showed the need for his faith to mature, saying of God 'he always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realise the fact was to knock it down'. 

Lewis' words 'bewilderment and amazement' are words used in the Gospel of Jesus in Gethsemane facing the supreme sacrifice of himself for us all. All the little and all the big challenges to our self interest must be measured up to this if we want to be holy. For Lewis it was the pain of bereavement through which skin deep cerebral faith gave way to something deeper, but only at a price to his self interest.

A sign doesn't have to go where it points. The sign of the Cross is 'I' crossed out. We can't get around that, but we try to!

It's quite natural to shy away from suffering and many times it's right to do so, and what a blessing it is to read in scripture how Jesus himself, in his full humanity, shied away from suffering. He offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and the way he was heard by God was in grace to accept that Cup into which was poured all evil for him to drink to the dregs on Calvary.

You and I take his Sunday Cup so we can more willingly take the Cup he supplies Monday to Saturday. This is supplied by life, by those near and dear, as well as those put on our hearts from our neighbourhood including the agonies presented daily on the screens in our living places.

Our quest for joy is inseparable from self-sacrifice and is aided by our growing closer to Jesus whose dying and rising are made part of us in baptism and its weekly renewal in the Sacrament of his body and blood. 

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Mothering Sunday 15th March 2015

From today’s second reading: God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.    Ephesians 2:4-6

That’s a wonderful three verses and by coincidence we’ve got another purple passage in the Gospel where the year of Mark has given way yet again to St John to be supplemented, and here’s the purple verse: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16

Both passages on this mid-Lent Sunday speak of God’s very great love for us and how it works for our eternal well being: Even when we were dead through our trespasses, God’s love made us alive together with Christ.

Everyone who believes in him and so welcomes that love does not perish but receives eternal life.
The essence of God’s plan for the cosmos is very simple – out of love he made us, out of love he redeems us from sin through the gift of his Son and out of love he’ll bring us to glory.

Out of love God provides us with grace in this world and glory in the next so that we can never lose out, which is what being saved’s all about

In order to be saved we need to welcome the God of love through belief in Jesus and receiving his Holy Spirit.

This we call receiving grace, God’s favour, and entering life in its fullness.

To be saved is to know there’s nothing in heaven or earth that can separate us from God’s love.

If we doubt that, if we doubt, for example thinking death has power to cast us into nothingness, we must look to the Cross.

This is where the first reading illuminates the last.

Moses we read there made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. This extraordinary healing process described in the book of Numbers Chapter 21 is pointer to the extraordinary power of the Cross so that St John writes in the holy Gospel: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Love needs a body to act. The love of God which is for all time and every place had to come to one time and place, to Calvary around 30AD so that what was true in his heart could be seen by folk in every age and place.

The outstretched arms of Jesus upon the Cross are God’s embrace of us yesterday, today and for ever. The Son of Man is lifted up, that whoever believes in God’s love shown in this extraordinary sacrifice may have eternal life.

Love needs a body to act. In the sacraments divine love touches our bodies to reach afresh into our hearts. Christ who died for us reaches out to us this morning in the most holy Sacrament feeding us with his life, embracing us with his love in bread and wine. Let us open our hearts to receive his parental love this Mothering Sunday.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Lent 3 Study 8th March 2015

Lent's a time to get the main things the main things and we've set five things: prayer, worship, study, service and reflection.

This week's Five Loves course centre on study so it's natural to connect that intention with the scripture for this third Sunday of Lent.

We have the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament reading from Exodus and Our Lord's cleansing of the Temple in the passage from St John's Gospel Chapter 2

Reflecting on these two passages we find a reminder that study in Christian faith engages both mind and heart. 

To receive the word of God we need open hearts as well as open ears.

You can read the Ten Commandments or teach them, as we do to our children here, showing them the two tablets behind the arch. It’s important to read and memorise what’s right and wrong but more important to live right. If we read on in the book of Exodus we see the disobedience of the Israelites so that God says in Psalm 95 'for forty years I was wearied of these people and I said 'their hearts are astray, these people do not know my ways'. 

Today’s Gospel of the cleansing of the Temple is seen in the spiritual tradition as a pointer to the righting of wayward hearts as in this prayer familiar to some of you maybe as a Saturday night prayer of preparation for Holy Communion: Cleanse our consciences we beseech you, almighty God, that our Lord Jesus Christ, when he come to us in the most holy sacrament, may find in our hearts a dwelling place prepared for himself.

Our two readings, first and last this morning, can be seen as reminders that study of God’s word is a matter of applying mind and heart. If we’re not reading our Bibles devotionally we’re losing day by day spiritual nourishment and we’d best turn the tables on this by praying for the Holy Spirit to give us an appetite, a hunger for God’s word.

At her Coronation the Queen was presented with a Bible with these words: ‘Here is the most valuable thing this world affords’. Its value isn’t in itself but in its being ‘read, marked and inwardly digested’.

Christians believe the Bible can’t be mistaken as it presents the good news of Jesus to honest seekers of the truth.  As the Bible says of itself in 1 Timothy 3:15 ‘the sacred writings are able to instruct... for salvation through Jesus Christ’. This witness to God’s salvation is the principal function of the Bible as the truth teller it is.

Reading scripture brings us one to one with God in Jesus if both heart and mind are engaged. Many people’s initial encounter with the Bible are fruitless because they’re dealing with it without repentance and as less than it is - the word of God in human words. They – we – need ongoing cleansing of the temple of our hearts. We also gain from bible reading notes available online as well as from Bible Reading Fellowship, Scripture Union and so on. Like the Ethiopian court official whom St Philip helped to understand the Bible in Acts chapter 8, people very often need a human guide to get into scripture. We can also help one another read the Bible one to one, and as parish priest I’m always delighted to help in this.

Study for Christians – of the bible and the lives of the saints - stands alongside prayer and action in forming us up to be more fully what we’re meant to be. Former US President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that ‘a thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education’. Moving from the fourth, third and second-best courses in our lives to the best forward course links to studying not just how we see ourselves but what others including God have to say about us and taking that into our hearts.

How do you see your sins? Pale gas – pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice, sloth – weaknesses that ruin the world around you including your friendship with God and neighbour?

The sins we mourn in Lent are weaknesses indulged, but, let me put it in another more positive yet dreadful way. Sin is not just weakness but the misuse of strength. Money and power are strengths employed both to hurt and to heal. Think of the damage caused by the misuse of strength in the Middle East, money markets or the internet?

When you stand before God for judgement will the use of your strengths be weighed, as hurtful or helpful to the world? The great value of the Christian faith is its challenge to seek God’s guidance in weighing up your gifts and applying them in the best way, which is to God’s praise and the service of others.

You and I have been gifted with time and talents to build God’s future.

This is the day that the Lord has made says the Psalm writer. So is tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

May God take and use the gifts that abound in this worship gathering and employ them in a manner not fourth-best, or third-best or second-best but in the way he knows best – and may you and I find and keep on that way as we study scripture and the lives of the saints.

We’re approaching the Lord ’s Table and as we do so we recall that image in the Gospel of the cleansing of the temple applied to our hearts.

If the heart is a well the tongue, for example, is a bucket that draws from that well. Words of affirmation and encouragement are drawn out of a clean well. Words that are dismissive of others come out of the well of an unclean heart.

Conversely, thinking of receiving Jesus in Word and Sacrament into ourselves, that flow deep inside can only be welcomed through holy attentiveness and expectancy upon the Lord.

It is in purity of heart that we become Biblically literate. No amount of reading God’s words in the Bible of whatever translation can lead to application of those words and the transformation of our lives without inner cleansing from the Holy Spirit to dispose us rightly to Scripture.

It is the cleansing of the thoughts of our hearts by the same Spirit that leads us to the eucharist in its fullness as a sacrifice of praise, the offering of our souls and bodies in union with Jesus as a living sacrifice.

It is by the conscious putting aside of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice and sloth that we make space for the gift of the body, soul and divinity of Jesus in the sacrament of his body and blood.

You don’t put honey into a vinegar jar.

Cleanse our consciences, therefore, almighty God, that our Lord Jesus Christ, when he come to us in the most holy sacrament, may find in our hearts a dwelling place prepared for himself.