Sunday, 24 June 2018

St Mary, Balcombe Nativity of St John 24 June 2018

Our individual prayer time is foundational to our spiritual life along with our gathering Sunday by Sunday on the Lord's Day, in the Lord's House, with the Lord's People around the Table of the Lord.

One of the most important things about our daily prayer is in fact the time we give.  Whatever we feel or don't feel at prayer the offering of 5, 10, 15 minutes daily is pivotal.

Archbishop Ramsey's quote – when asked how long he prayed for each day he said about two min but it sometimes took him half an hour to get there.

Time matters.  It is also important to offer Our Lord what we might call ‘prime time’.
We will make way for him better when we are most fully ourselves.  Some say the morning is the best, avoiding that burned out feeling at night, and I am one of those who prays in the morning, with more of a nod to God at night.

Time, and then secondly, place.  At St Mary’s we are all privileged to have a church that is open all day. Or we might have a prayer space at home. We need then to be quiet, but perhaps not too quiet so we keep our feet on the ground. In a household there needs to be agreement.  (My own set up). We need perhaps to be comfortable, not so much that we fall asleep. Prayer invites attentiveness.  Some people say a hard backed chair gives you that business like feeling.  

Then what - now we move onto the real business of prayer and for that we enter on a number of options as starting points.  Prayer is a lifting of heart and mind to God and there are many different ‘airports’ for lift off. Wherever you ‘lift off’ from you have to be ‘there’ to get a lift.

Story of Theology professor Tom Smail’s sharing about prayer. God beating him on the head to get his religion from his head to his heart - the vital 14" - to be ‘there’.

So I’m there, ready. Before the start of my prayer I decide how my prayer will set off.  

Shall I choose a bible passage? Or am I so tired it would be better to sit looking at the Cross? Is there a piece of paper with some prayer biddings that I could start from? Or something that struck me in that sermon on Sunday? Or that spiritual book I’m reading? Shall I get my rosary out? Or say the Jesus Prayer to empty my mind of distraction? Today I will say Common Worship Daily Prayer and stop to contemplate wherever the Spirit underlines something. Or - it’s about time I did a thorough self-examination so I’ll get out a sin list or read the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and see where love, joy, peace and all the rest are growing in my life. There was something terrible on the news this morning so I’ll look up Job 38-40 and think how God is so wonderful and beyond us. I was asked to pray for that lady whose son’s on drugs so I’ll start with them before I forget and see where my intercession leads. Or – what a lovely view through the window this morning – the sun on the leaves. Let’s start there.

I say Let’s – prayer is something we do with God. It’s also a human discipline. It helps to have a decided basis or presupposition, so called, as you start your prayer.  It also matters to hold yourself to it eg. holding the bible for all 20 minutes to keep the focus.

Confession of sin before you pray is important – the bottom line for prayer is honesty.

Scripture is important - read through prayerfully until God touches your Spirit and then holding yourself at that point once such a prayerful impulse has been given to you. In prayer we talk to the Lord – and we listen! Scripture is so often God’s mouthpiece to us through which we hear his guiding voice. Listen so that you can do what Jesus says!

Story of my own use of Luke 7.11-17 The Widow of Nain (my mother) - ‘he gave him to his mother’.

Explain how the expectation of scripture speaking to me had been raised by spiritual direction over a retreat and how I had experienced spiritual direction and we have the same opportunity 16-22 September down the road in Haywards Heath.

For Christ to dwell in our hearts we need to be exposed to his radiant love. Christian friends, holy priests, spiritual directors all of these help – but nothing can replace our own individual business with God, particularly silent contemplation. When did you last sit in quiet before the Lord?

Contemplation is a true refreshing of the soul. There is a story of how the Cure d’Ars, that great French saint of the 19th century, kept seeing a peasant sitting every day in church before the altar. What are you doing? He once asked him. ‘I look at him and he looks at me’ the peasant told the priest.

I’ve heard such contemplative prayer described as ‘spiritual radiotherapy’. St Augustine once said that ‘the whole purpose of life is the healing of the heart’s eye through which God is seen’. The Lady Chapel with the Blessed Sacrament reservation and its light is a particularly graced place away from services. ‘I look at him and he looks at me’

A barrier to contemplation is the way our minds get so distracted that our hearts are hindered from contemplation. This is where the repeating of short words can be helpful as in the Orthodox Jesus prayer - you may be interested in my book (show) on Using the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’. It combines Peter’s act of faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the prayer of the Publican, ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner’. It's simple yet profound, a biblical prayer we can trace back to the 4th century with a gift of settling the mind towards God. It’s always been central to Eastern Orthodoxy and the Orthodox influence on the Anglican monastery I visit in the woods at Crawley Down was my initial encouragement to use this form of prayer at all times. This monastery by the way always welcomes visitors.
I have found the Jesus Prayer contains the power of Jesus’ name and draw pray-ers more profoundly into the faith of his church and to deeper value scripture, sacrament, creed and commandments.
The simplification of anxiety and mental distraction sought in Buddhist type mindfulness exercises is found in the Jesus Prayer as, if you like, ‘God-given mantra’. Above all the Prayer helps relate worship to life and builds indwelling in God’s merciful love.

Prayer is a lifting of heart and mind to God. It’s a forgetting of self and a remembering of God. Because of our fallen nature that’s not natural. Though prayer’s a gift it's also a life-long struggle. That struggle is against self-love, self-pity and self-will in all its guises and disguises. It's a resolve to consecrate heart and mind, body and soul into God’s praise and service and not our own.

Through the discipline of prayer our aspirations, affections, resolutions, searchings, and strivings get directed away from ourselves to God. Our bodies are pledged to work for him in full health and ability. Our hearts open to enshrine the love of Christ as the principle of our whole being: life in remembrance of God, forgetful of self.

It’s been said that the Church of England is like a swimming pool.  All the noise comes from the shallow end. St Mary’s is not a noisy Church as far as I can tell. Pray God, we have a depth about us and we want to go deeper.  We don't particularly want to be 'intelligent' Church or 'with it' Church or even 'high Church' so much as 'deep' Church - do we?  

Christianity is the gift of Jesus but it involves us in the task of prayerful devotion. Through that devotion, renewed in us as individuals, may others catch on to what Jesus is doing and be drawn to him through us.

When the church becomes a house of prayer it’s said the whole world will come running!

Saturday, 16 June 2018

St Mary, Balcombe Trinity 3 (11B) 17th June 2018

In Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov two brothers argue about the evil in the world and whether there is ultimate justice. The debate comes to a point where one of the brothers says he is so outraged by the suffering of children that, given a place in heaven, he would refuse it in protest. The other brother replies by pointing to the suffering of Jesus. Does God expect anything of us that he has not been through himself? The judge of the world is not aloof, he has come to us, been one of us, suffered with and for us, only without sin.

In Christian faith Jesus Christ will provide the ultimate righting of wrongs for he will come to judge the living and the dead. As Paul states in our first reading from 2 Corinthians Chapter 5 and verse 10: all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

How are we to understand this teaching?

God has invested in the human race.  One day he will get a return on that investment.  To believe in the judgement of the living and the dead is to believe in the coming of God’s kingdom and the trumping of the rule of evil and injustice in this world by God at Christ’s return which is a process working out in history - the detente between the US and North Korea is part of this with our ongoing prayer that detente works! The two parables of seed sown and the mustard seed in today’s Gospel from Mark Chapter 4 illustrate that historical process from small beginning to grand ending.

Jesus Christ died for all, Paul writes in verse 15 of the epistle so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. Jesus came, died and rose but has yet to complete his great and saving purpose we’re all part of, along with everyone and everything. In a bible image from Ephesians this purpose and process is the seeking of a bride by a heavenly bridegroom. To the eye of Christian faith the whole of human and cosmic history has this purpose: to prepare a holy people for God’s possession. The church is this, a bride being prepared without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians 5v27) for a heavenly destiny when her Lord comes again. In this eternal perspective all the sufferings of this world endured in faith will work for good for those who love the Lord (Romans 8v28)

Christ had died!  Christ is risen! Christ will come again!  This is Christian faith and it brings an assurance that evil’s triumph in this world will end. God will turn the wrath of humanity to his praise by building up the body of Christ as a people for his own possession (1 Peter 2v9).  This is why God invested in the human race by creating us and sending Jesus to draw the destructive sting of evil from us through his cross and through the sending of the Holy Spirit

How can judgement be possible?  Can there really be a final catalogue of wrongdoing?  Surely there can, Christian faith replies. As surely as a computer memory contains a million records, the memory of God is established.  To him all hearts are open and all desires known.  

By his sharing in our nature and his boundless compassion Jesus Christ is well appointed to judge the living and the dead.  It is the love of Christ that urges us on we heard in the epistle. Did not that love put the best slant on thieves and prostitutes, a love always ready to treat people as better than they were?  A love we’re welcoming this morning in Holy Communion showing to us in Bread and Wine manifold and great mercy!

Christian tradition distinguishes an individual judgement at the moment of our death from the general judgement referred to in the epistle which will complete God’s righteous task at the Lord’s return. After death scripture speaks of two ultimate destinies, heaven and hell, although there is a qualification that no one dying with unrepented sin can face the Lord without cleansing since no unclean thing shall enter his presence (Revelation 21v27). This is the origin of the doctrine of purgatory which in its plain sense of the need for the faithful departed to be purged or cleansed of residual sin to come close to God is hard to counter. The other historical understanding of purgatory as a place where the closeness to God of the departed can be engineered or even bought by appropriate religious services or exercises was rightly opposed at the reformation.

How could God inflict pain?  

Our minds argue against judgement because they think they know best.  Actually God knows best in the end.  When we look into the eyes of Christ at his return there will be pain, but an if the cap fits wear it sort of pain.  Hell will be our choice.  Our wrong actions are an affront to God but he has given us a remedy.  

As the DVD of my life is prepared for showing on judgement day Christ has power to edit out the unacceptable points if I give them to him.   Mercy can triumph over judgement if we will allow Christ a place in our hearts!

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus Paul writes elsewhere to the Romans in Chapter 8 verse 1. God looks on those who are in Christ with the same love with which he looks upon his Son.  Judgement has in a profound sense been passed already for those who have accepted God’s judgement on their lives. To accept one’s sinfulness and inadequacy is in the Christian tradition the pathway to joyful freedom. Such acceptance springs from a vision of God given in Jesus Christ, a God more concerned to give us what we need than to give us what we deserve.

To believe all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ is to face the future with an infectious hope. If faith shows you that the whole world is in God’s hands so is its future. Christianity provides a deep sense of certainty that any perceived triumph of evil will be seen ultimately as an illusion. All will come right in the end because in the end there will be the grace and truth of Jesus Christ (John 1v14, 17). Ultimately there will be grace – mercy - for repentant sinners and truth to prevail over all who live and act deluded by falsehood.

So to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be all might, majesty, dominion and power now, henceforth and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Trinity 1 (10B) St Bartholomew, Brighton 10.6.18

It’s hard to gather up a few lines of encouragement and challenge in less than 10 minutes from scripture passages that set so many hares running.

‘We believe and therefore speak’ Paul says in the passage from 2 Corinthians but if we believe what do we speak? That ‘the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.’ Yes, may that be so in the next 10 minutes - the preacher really needs that grace - come, Holy Spirit!

We move on to the holy Gospel from Saint Mark Chapter 3 - what do we make of it?

First we have Our Lord’s family, including we presume his blessed Mother, going out ‘to lay hold on him: for they said, “He is beside himself” (v21). Yesterday I was at Mass to commemorate the Immaculate Heart of Mary - how could the sinless Mother of God be part of the opposition so to speak?

Second we have talk of division and demonic possession and how ‘if Satan rise up against himself and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end’. What are we to make of that talk on the 10th June 2018?

The third hare, so to speak, is Our Lord’s solemn utterance about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. ‘Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation. (v28-29) Can I catch and tame that hare and serve it up for you?

Here goes - come, Holy Spirit!

Evangelical commentaries on this Gospel passage somewhat delight in what they see as evidence of Mary’s sinfulness or at least her distance from her Son’s mission. The Church though has never built her doctrine - and the sinlessness of Mary is universal church doctrine - on a scripture text or two but on the whole Canon of Scripture as it interprets itself to the whole church over the Christian centuries. I commend to you my article on John Henry Newman in this month’s New Directions, an excellent Church of England publication. What matters with Mary is the consensus of Christian believing as Newman taught - and strangely he had problems with Marian doctrine that slowed his departure from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic fold. Newman of course was a major influence on our church founder Fr Wagner. Back to the Gospel. We imagine Our Lord’s engagement with those on the fringes of society, the outcasts and, yes, demon-possessed rattled a great number of cages which must have included his cousins who here set out to restrain him. Yet how could they restrain his Sacred Heart, as we heard his words in Friday’s festal reading from Luke 12:49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled’.

This verse was quoted in the hurried ending of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding in a reference to geologist priest Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard saw the fiery interior of the earth as pointer to the fire of love God wants the earth inflamed with. That preacher packed a lot into 13 minutes - my own minutes tick down!

Back again to the Gospel and Our Lady’s role. Isn’t it answered right at the end of this passage when Our Lord summarises his outreach in these words: ‘whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother’. Can we not see Mary his Mother in this sentence - ‘the angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary… behold the handmaid of the Lord be it unto me according to thy will … and the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’? Let scripture interpret scripture!

Second hare - all that talk of the devil and demons. Perhaps its best summarised by the etymology of diabolos which is slanderer. The goodness of God shown in Jesus Christ shines forth but it casts shadows, it speaks the truth that sets free but it draws forth lies, what we might call misinformation, disinformation or fake news even! It rattles the devil: ‘if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come’ says the Lord whose exorcisms are timely announcement of the descent of God’s love to earth. The personification of evil in the devil remains the church’s understanding yet as C.S.Lewis wisely said she steers a path between those who disbelieve in him and those obsessed with him. The devil’s only power is that of the lie, but he has that power, a spellbinding power which Jesus breaks. ‘You will know the truth’, Jesus says in John 8:32, ‘and the truth will make you free’. I remember being told of an Easter Vigil service with a drunk snoring at the back who woke up to hear the priest ask the congregation, ‘do you reject Satan, all his pomps and vanities’. ‘The bastard’ he shouted.

Third hare - coming back to the Gospel - the sin against the Holy Spirit. If a drunk swearing - or a priest swearing in Church can be the work of the Holy Spirit - how can action against the Spirit takes us to hell? ‘Verily I say unto you…  he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.’ We’re almost up to time, I’m not ducking but will take a quick dive into the writings of Blessed John Paul II who taught blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is ‘refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit’. That’s a positive and inclusive definition I think. The Spirit comes to us again and again in Christ’s body and blood which we receive with our lips but we need to welcome that love in our hearts without refusal. Do I presume I have the Spirit - a charismatic sin if you like? ‘We do not presume’, but trust God for his ‘manifold and great mercy’, and that through baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist far from blaspheming we indeed have the Holy Spirit. Do I despair - the opposite error - thinking the Holy Spirit is nowhere - that’s when you’re not connecting all we’re about here at St Bart’s with the reality of your life. I’ve only space to say priests are always available for counsel, prayer, healing ministry or confession after Masses.

Come, Holy Spirit, as you came upon Mary! Come to us in Jesus as he came to those bound by despair in the days of his flesh! Come, save us from presumption and warm our cold hearts in  the furnace of Christ’s love that opened to us on Calvary and remains open to us in the Mass!

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Ascension, Haywards Heath 3rd June 2018

Let’s have another look at our first reading which you can find in the second letter of St Paul to the Corinthians Chapter 4 verses 5 to 12. It starts with an awesome description in verses 5 and 6 of what it is to be Christian.

We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Paul writes out of hardship with humility coupled to abundant confidence. As the light of Christ first shone upon him on the Damascus Road it still shines only not just upon him as he seeks the Lord but through him, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. A wonderful phrase! Behind its poetry is a recognition of the miracle of our new birth in Jesus Christ. The God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ at creation, who gave us life at our conception and birth has shone in our hearts in Jesus Christ to grant us his life. It’s a light that shines forth from us and from this light house community of the Ascension.

God who brought us to life brought us into being with ability to open our hearts to him and receive his life. You and I are welcoming that life, that love afresh this morning in Holy Communion! Oh that more hearts in Haywards Heath would open to God in whom we find reason and purpose for life, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Let’s read on in v7:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

Does this verse need commentary? To be a Christian is to have both confidence and humility. Confidence in God and humility before him. I have a little clay lamp with a light that can burn within it which reminds me of how this flesh which is clay destined as ashes to be part of the earth gets lit up, lit up by the light of Christ. It’s very often when I’m feeling most frail that God shows his extraordinary power in me and through me. My self-sufficiency all too often undermines my Christianity. I don’t want to practise God’s presence hour by hour though I try! The Jesus Prayer is a great help - do you know it - Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. It’s a prayer from the church catholic, from the faith of the church through the ages, with evangelical simplicity and it brings charismatic empowerment. It describes the treasure - Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God and how it's placed in me as the fragile clay jar that I am. Have mercy on me a sinner. I need the treasure. - or confidence in Jesus - but without humility, without knowing my need of him its brilliance won’t be shown in my life, that light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Search your soul this morning - am I confident in God? Am I humble with that confidence? Well if you’re not - and few are fully - God has a way of humbling us. Let’s read the rest of the passage, verses 8 to 12.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

These awesome words are written by Paul from the crucible of Christian work. They hand on how Christians get formed by the humiliation of suffering and the grace of resurrection always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.  As Christians we travel to God like anyone else through suffering and joy but with the difference of thankfulness for the joy and assurance of God’s love in the suffering. Our Lord who’s the Way has trodden that way before us and expects nothing of us he’s not been through himself which is one message of Holy Week.

As Christians we don’t expect to be dragged backwards to God at our death but to be more and more at ease with the forward movement of life - even if it brings increased frailty, loss of mobility and the need to depend on others. The passion of Our Lord takes the strain as we give our pain to him. As a priest I’ve been particularly privileged to come close to holy people regular at the Eucharist who’ve voiced to me the power of this service as we struggle with disability, offering it up to be part of Christ’s Sacrifice as we seek Our Lord in this Most Holy Sacrament of his suffering, death and resurrection.

For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Paul speaks of how his humiliations help bring him into spiritual resurrection.

My faith journey took a downturn some years back which was a humiliation especially being a priest. God seemed a long way off. I went to talk to a Mirfield monk. ‘Maybe God’s not gone but your vision of him’ was the advice. ‘Seek the Holy Spirit for a vision more to God’s dimensions and less to your own’. I did seek and I did experience the renewing power of the Holy Spirit which was something of a resurrection of faith. When I came back from Mirfield to the parish I was alive again with some sort of charismatic empowerment that’s never fully left me. The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

You and I, each one of us are on a journey with Our Lord who is himself the way.  On that journey keeping close to him in his passion and resurrection sweetens our sorrow and deepens our joy, as does the fellowship we have with one another in God’s holy Church. It’s my privilege now to be on your journey as a community in this special time,  a time of challenge and also a time of blessing.

Keep your confidence in God coupled to humility. Seek the Holy Spirit for a vision of God more to his dimensions and less to your own current vision. Be heartened for the ongoing journey of faith which will one day, as it has for many we love but see no longer, vanish into sight. Then, when every tear is wiped away we shall see God as he is. We shall become like him and praise him for all eternity.

O Christ whom now beneath the veil - of bread and wine - we see, may what we thirst for soon our portion be, to gaze on thee unveiled and see thy face, the vision of thy glory and thy grace.

Grant us, Lord, a share in the passion and resurrection of your Only Begotten Son so that we may merit to behold you for all eternity.