Saturday, 18 February 2017

Epiphany 7 19th February 2017

Getting to Church on a Sunday morning is always an achievement!

There are only so many hours in the day and days in the week and here we are to give an hour of high quality weekend time to the Lord Jesus.

As if gathering at such an hour wasn’t enough of a challenge you’ve just heard the most challenging passage in the Bible that’s set for today!

We’ve all been invited to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love our enemies and – wait for it – be perfect!

You might say – I even might say – give us a break, Lord!

This address isn’t geared to let you and I off the hook when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount. Many through history have taken its teaching literally.

Many others though have misread Christ’s teaching as a rule book full of impossible rules! As scholar Bishop Tom Wright puts it the worst mistake we can make about this famous and stunning passage is to see it as a list of rules (you’ve got to try hard to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies and be perfect). It isn’t.  It’s a royal announcement that God is turning the world upside down – or, rather, the right way up.

I liked that when I read it.

What we’re about especially later on in the baptism eucharist is radical in the truest sense. The Eucharist is a meeting of rebels in something of an unforgiving society that’s somewhat indifferent to goodness, truth and beauty.

God came among us in Jesus because he knew his world had gone astray. In saying I turn to Christ at baptism we commit to a revolution and to being Christian soldiers helping turn the world the right way up. I repent of my sins… I renounce evil… I will fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil.  

Forgiveness - turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving your enemies - is countercultural but it lays an eternal foundation in your souls and in the world you inhabit. Living in a culture full of contempt for those who fall short we’re aware how far that culture has shifted from being Christian. Courtesy is lacking, as is giving the benefit of the doubt. What’s urgent - what comes at the speed of Facebook - prevails over what’s important, like giving time to the elderly.  

I was told me the story of a man walking along looking at his phone who was indignant at someone he bumped into saying ‘Couldn’t you see I was busy?’ Even as a priest I get folk saying to me ‘you must be busy’ – people expect priests to be busy more than they expect us to be holy.  Our quest to get holiness before busy-ness is part of the revolution we’re talking about here. Putting God first and seeing less important things get sorted.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Striving for perfection is something we’re all to be about as Christians but it’s not striving so much as collaborating. As parents and godparents say in answer to the priest’s questions about commitment: with the help of God, we will.

That Gospel reading from Matthew 5 keeps us on our toes, yes.

As I said last week the Sermon on the Mount’s teaching is like setting your alarm clock an hour early to catch the plane for fear of over sleeping! It’s a wakeup call from the One sent not just to waken the world but to turn it upside down and it necessarily comes hard at us!

Christ’s teaching, people have observed, is very like that of the Buddha. But – and it’s a big but – the Buddha gave his teaching. Christ gave his life. God sent his Son, God came himself into the world to waken it.

That awakening is primarily to the transcendent power of the resurrection. This could only manifest when after he had taught the powers of sin, death and the devil brought Christ to death. In divine judo evil powers flew against Jesus and his death and resurrection turned them upside down and out at the count.

This is Christianity – death defying power – and it’s for us. Its power to turn the world not so much upside down but the right way up.

We all have times when our world, our recreational commitments, get turned upside down through trials. In going with the flow of these difficulties, seeing them as God’s invitation to bring love to bear we go with the flow of the Holy Spirit and are anointed.

That phrase we’re to use in a moment with the help of God, we will has very powerful resonance in Christian life. Even the pain of leaving a parish community that’s being felt by Anne and I - with the help of God, we will.

God’s loving commitment to help us is the bottom line of Christianity.   This means our major spiritual challenge is tackling unrealistic self-sufficiency.

As Jesus died and rose to show God’s love for a world gone wrong our drowning of our sins, symbolised in the pouring of water at baptism, makes us his collaborators.

Yes as people and even as Christians we must strive – strive to say our prayers and get to Church on Sunday - but it’s not striving so much as collaborating that’s the key to perfection.

Whenever I come in or go out of Church I take holy water in the porch and make the sign of the Cross over myself. I commend this practice as a reminder of what it is to be Christian.

The sign of the Cross is a secret sign for Christians, the sign that Jesus came down from heaven to earth and died upon the Cross for me. The sign of I crossed out.

Using holy water in the porch says with the help of God, I will worship, or, having worshipped with the help of God, I will get on with my life and with turning the world upside down for him.

May all of us find the help of God to offer true worship at the altar this morning and to live our lives this week in the praise and service of God.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Epiphany 6 Sermon on the Mount antitheses 12.2.17

I was speaking on the train the other day to someone in corporate finance, thinking through its ethical implications and how ethical values deriving from a Christian vision might steer engagement. As a result I’ve been roped into a vision day for his firm to provide a warning about the love of money.

Reading through the Sermon on the Mount, preparing this sermon, reminded me how hard it is to engage the absolute demands of Jesus with the detail of many parishioner’s lives and by contrast how far from being overall prescriptive our Christian faith is. Jesus indeed was prescriptive but left us very flexible on how we best respond to his teaching in daily life, though he instituted his Church to be our guide. That reading from the Sermon on the Mount is actually pretty demoralising: if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out… Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Thinking of my friends in corporate finance - how will they keep their ‘Yes’ to mean ‘Yes’? Those Classic FM ad disclaimers that go so fast as they make a Yes mean No. The fine print, through which many of us are made the poorer, and which damages commercial life by its undermining of trust.

Thinking of those in charge of UK foreign policy deciding on the best response to international crises – how can military action square up with the intrinsic pacifism of Jesus? How can his teaching on turning the other cheek later on in the Sermon on the Mount be brought into the international sphere.

Thinking of the medium of advertising, built on catching the eye – how can it be right to put sexuality so much to the fore in the process of wealth creation? For consumers, how do we keep faithful to Jesus deluged as we are hour by hour by ads that use sexual attraction to sell us things?

I bring you some thoughts on today’s Gospel of the so-called antitheses, in which Our Lord gives a new interpretation of Old Testament law – an ‘anti’ thesis. Jesus gets us to look at the old thesis ‘you have heard that it was said…’ and goes on ‘hear now what I say unto you’. The prohibition of murder should be enlarged to embrace anger. The prohibition of adultery should be enlarged to cover lustful thoughts and the prohibition of false oaths enlarged to avoiding oaths altogether and making your ‘yes’ always to mean ‘yes’.

We should note in passing what an extraordinary thing it must have been to the Jewish population gathered on that Mount by Lake Galilee to hear a teacher quoting words from God from their Bible and then going on to say but I say unto you. What an authority! They didn’t balk at it, strangely, seeing before them a quite extraordinary and compelling figure. Yet A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. C.S.Lewis wrote. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. Lewis outlines the so-called trilemma Jesus presents to everyone who engages with him.

We are here this morning to stand, as we just did, and give reverence to the words of Jesus as the words of God.  The Church bids us sit for the Old Testament and the writings of the Apostles but to stand for the words of Jesus. As Lewis continued You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

It is this reduced understanding of Our Lord as a human teacher that we have to challenge in our day. The insight Jesus gives penetrates right down to the heart, for he knew, and we as Christians have come to know, that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.

This means he knew and we know our first reading from Ecclesiasticus gets it wrong. It’s far too optimistic about human beings’ freedom to choose what’s right without the help of grace. The author’s main thrust is to exonerate God for evil since he has not given anyone permission to sin. Is that so?  How does that compare with St Paul, not in the second reading but in Romans 7.19-20  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

We have this morning the unfounded optimism of Ecclesiasticus and the defeating counsel of the Son of God in his Sermon on the Mount!

Where does it leave us? The parishioner in corporate finance concerned for honesty? The politician acting for us to challenge tyranny with the use of force and our support or challenge of them? Decision making about commercial transactions that promotes advertisement failing to tell the truth and exploiting our lower nature?

A few observations. The ‘better righteousness’ called for earlier in the Sermon on the Mount is beyond our unaided powers and points clearly to the need for grace. I remember being troubled in my teenage years by a lapsing Roman Catholic friend who, taught that to look with lust was as bad as acting on it started to sleep with a number of his girl friends. No one had taught him about Pentecost, about how Christ who taught us the right way died and rose and gave us his Spirit to keep us in that way.

Could we see today’s teaching as like setting your alarm clock an hour early to catch the plane for fear of over sleeping? The Sermon on the Mount keeps you alert, on your toes ethically, by coming so hard at us! Reading one commentary on today’s Gospel I picked up this advice. ‘The relation of the absolute demands of God to the relativities of human life is a tricky business. The preacher will need some sort of ethical methodology like that of the “middle axioms” – just as the voltage of a high power line has to be transformed downwards for ordinary consumption’.

Impressed by that advice I googled  ‘middle axioms’, which are a mid 20th century attempt to transform today’s Gospel from high voltage down to ordinary consumption. I quote John Bennett:  ‘Middle axioms’ are an attempt to define the directions in which, in a particular state of society, Christian faith must express itself. They are not binding for all time, but are provisional definitions of the type of behaviour required of Christians at a given period and in given circumstances.  Bennett gives as examples of middle axioms for his time as the need of international collaboration in the United Nations and the maintenance of balance between free enterprise and government control of economic power.

Like this sermon a ‘middle axiom’ sets forth suggested Christian "next steps" and, hopefully, without watering-down the full implications of the Sermon on the Mount.
We move to a close with a quote from 4th century Augustine, one of the greatest Christian minds. Give me the grace to do what you command and command what you will.

Here at Eucharist is grace. You have heard the commands – they’re tough this morning – now let’s together look for the grace to be supplied. At this altar the Son of God, Jesus Christ is to embrace us and makes of himself our Food and Drink. In this way his high voltage teaching can inspire and energise us in the right way and not defeat us.

Jesus knows and tells what’s best for us. In his compassion he’s expert in not making what’s best for us the enemy of what’s good for us here and now.

Let us reflect for a moment on our ‘next steps’, on how his word to us this morning from the Sermon on the Mount can effect our life today and tomorrow.

There is no Word of God without power.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Epiphany 5 Seasoning the world 5th February 2017

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? Matthew 5:13a

As on many occasions we wrestle with Our Lord's imagery in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Trained as a physical chemist I find it hard to imagine that most stable of compounds, sodium chloride, losing its taste other than when removed from solution by a high energy desalination plant! However I do see how Christians can lose their flavour and I know that happens in my life many a time.

In today’s other readings we’ve got additional wisdom on how Christians are called to season the world.  The passage from Isaiah, often used in Lent to highlight the value of fasting, thrills with a passion for justice that’s been inspiration to many. Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house… then…your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. (Isaiah 58:7-8).  Many Christians are joining with other folk of good will to make a practical response to the world’s unprecedented refugee crisis. As we respond to the needy, again and again we sense God going with us, not just in the feel good factor but in the ripple effect of any unselfish act of service. God… our vindicator goes before us, the glory of the Lord is our rearguard.

The mystery of why a hundred of our fifteen hundred villagers worship on Sundays is tied in with the mystery of the choices of God. We are no better than those who aren’t called, those some of us have left at home this morning, but in the loving providence of God we are being put to a special use in his praise and service. I do not know why God called me as a Christian and as a priest – I am no better than others - but God has called me and what an awesome privilege that is, to be called into situations where God takes me, uses me and is my rearguard, covering my inadequacies and provoking thought of him in what comes to pass in such engagements.

As believers and disciples of Christ we many times find ourselves in situations not of our choosing that have the hand of God upon them. If we are praying, worshipping and studying God’s word we should expect to impact the world in such a way as to get people pondering. Like the church spire we point above and beyond ourselves, inasmuch as God has chosen us to be his pointers.  As we do so Paul’s words in the second reading are very apposite, where he speaks of weakness… fear and… trembling and yet being given words that are powerful instruments of God. You know those occasions, when you’re given words that unblock things for others, including opening their eyes to the reality of the living God.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?
Being salt is about instrumentality, about giving up our own ambitions, the desire to make our mark on others, in the name of collaborating with God and others to season the quality of the common life of the world. Last week we celebrated our school and its right to praise the school governors, not least those from St Giles, for their voluntary input week by week, month by month, which seasons the life of our Primary School. Through that partnership of teaching staff and volunteers a real difference is made to the life of the children of this village and its surrounds.

What might God be saying to you this morning as you hear Jesus say 'be salt'?

How is he speaking to where your life is currently bound up in marriage, family and workplace and how in those several engagements you can season things? Or how you might be salt through the organisations within the orbit of St Giles?

The ministries of the Church – First Steps, School, Sunday Club, serving, church cleaning, flower arranging, village lunch, service booklet production and so on – serve and savour the life of the Christian community as it overflows in service to others. One of these ministries might contain the Lord’s invitation to you at this time, especially as the pastoral vacancy approaches. Losing a chief pastor for a time doesn’t mean we lose the pastoral care gifts of our hundred strong worshipping community called to season the life of Horsted Keynes and its surrounds.

God has called you, and if he has called you, he will not fail you! God’s work always brings with it God’s provision.

As the second reading puts it: What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,   nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ - these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.  In other words, to be a Christian is to have insight into the depths of things - just as our spirit senses our depths the Holy Spirit searches… the depths of God who is God of our life and that of all that is, capable of linking our passion for him to his passion for all.

We only have one life but as folk called by God our limited being finds repeated applications that help change the world. We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

The so-called spirit of the world is exemplified in the current pessimism and fruitless pondering over international politics. When we see the world apart from God we see a great deal of self-interest and blindness towards what Isaiah calls the homeless poor. The Spirit of God in contrast cares for all that is just because it is, and more especially those in God’s image who are cast to the margins. Through spiritual discernment, what Paul calls understanding the gifts bestowed on us by God we’re empowered to invest our time, talents and money in making a difference where we are. I believe time spent in intercession for world leaders at this junction is one gift God is calling many into.

God who has called us is God of the world. He is preparing a bride for his Son, the company of the faithful we call the Church, by purifying Christians to be part of that Bride destined to be enthroned at the marriage supper of Christ who is the Church’s husband to be. One part of our purification is a loss of anxiety about the future and laxity in our prayer for the kingdom to come. Earthly rulers and kingdoms fail – but what we’re about as Christians seasoning the world can never fail, as expressed in the great hymn of The Revd Sabine Baring Gould: Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, but the church of Jesus constant will remain. Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail; we have Christ's own promise, and that cannot fail. 

We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God. That spirit cannot fail. It is salt that savours the cosmos. The church’s humanity fails, yes, but its divinity will prevail as sure as the Spirit of God prevails. In our Christian calling within that of the Church, Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail; we have Christ's own promise, and that cannot fail. 

God has called you, he will not fail you! God’s work as you discern it will always brings with it God’s provision to season the life of this ambiguous world.

Seek what the Lord requires of you and cheerfully accept that requirement, Give and it will be given to you - for God is no one's debtor!