Friday, 28 September 2018

St Bartholomew, Brighton Trinity 18 (26B) 30 September 2018

‘We need a heart of flame towards God’ wrote Saint Augustine, ‘a heart of love towards our fellows and a heart of steel towards ourselves’.

Those three aspirations frame today’s difficult Gospel from Saint Mark Chapter 9 verse 38 to 50. In this passage we see the wideness of God’s mercy at the beginning and end but the middle section is steely indeed, with hellfire thrown in for good measure. Let’s have a closer look.

And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbade him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part. For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.  [John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.]

As practicing Christians become a small minority in Britain there’s a danger of our becoming a narrow minority. Into this scenario we need to hear Our Lord’s counter to his disciples narrowness when they stopped others using his name to heal: For he that is not against us is on our part or in NRSV translation Whoever is not against us is for us. Our Lord assumes and brings out the best in people including ourselves. As we look up to him we’re uplifted ourselves, especially at Mass, as we see his loving gaze down on us extending beyond the walls of our Church towards the inhabitants of this great city. There are many around us not against us. Sometimes we fall short like the first disciples by narrowing Christianity into an exclusive preserve. Christ died for all!

Let’s move on now into the second more troublesome paragraph of the Gospel. Here we move from our heart of flame towards God and the world to the heart of steel required towards ourselves as Christian disciples, Mark Chapter 9 verses 42 to 48:

And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. [If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.]

Forbidding the strange exorcist, narrowing down the work of the kingdom, is dangerous, Our Lord says, because it causes little ones to stumble. Those who teach the Faith need to be watchful lest they make unnecessary obstacles that upset and alienate the vulnerable. I may have been guilty of that last time I preached on Pride Sunday, please forgive me - we do our best in the pulpit, trusting the Holy Spirit to counter our failings, especially when there’s risk of making the best the enemy of the good of individuals.  

Now to those extraordinary verses in the Gospel about physical mutilation being a lesser evil than unfaithful discipleship. And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. [If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.] Is there anywhere else in Our Lord’s teaching where his message of the primacy of the life of the soul is put so forcefully? It's not my task to explain it away. Where we catch on to this, get shocked into seeing things we need to put right in our lives and circumstances, we’re indeed in spiritual peril if we don’t act on them. We need to fix the things we know need fixing that we also know are in our power to fix. Something easier said than done - though it's good to say it in the pulpit for there’s no word of God without power!

In my youth I was very troubled by lustful thoughts, which have the destructive effect of schooling you in seeing people as objects and not women and men with beauty to be honoured and given thanks for. I learned several strategies.
One was, when the thoughts came, to imagine my soul on fire - which it was - and seeing a bucket of water thrown over it by the Holy Spirit. Another was to make the thought trigger prayer for the conversion of China, which I came to realise greatly annoyed the devil who would then pull away the lust. Another was to follow the advice of today’s epistle and go to Confession to a priest: confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed (James 5:16a). Best of all I learned to practise giving thanks for human beauty which takes me out of my selfish urges into the praise of God who made that beauty.

Such is the heart of steel we disciples need towards ourselves, towards a conceited, disdaining mindset, towards a spirit of entitlement, towards an attitude of arrogance, towards those seven deadly sins of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice and sloth, all of which corrode us inside. Our Lord wants them, not us, on the fire - his reference to hell, Gehenna, the ever burning rubbish heap in a valley outside Jerusalem. We don’t need to take him literally on hell but we do need to take the corrosive impact of uncontested sin seriously.

So to the last two verses which pick up that fire image: For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another. [For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.] There are some 15 interpretations of these obscure verses. One that fits the drift of my framework from the Augustine quote is about Christian disciples seasoning the world. Having a heart of flame towards God and a heart of steel so far as one’s own discipleship goes is destined to overflow in a heart of love for one’s fellows. This interpretation builds from the use of salt elsewhere in Our Lord’s teaching as an image of his disciples seasoning the world. If we lose our saltiness, our cutting edge as Christians, we will be less effective as servants of the common good.

‘We need a heart of flame towards God, a heart of love towards our fellows and a heart of steel towards ourselves.’ As we lift ourselves to God at this Mass - as we lift up our hearts - we capture his loving gaze upon us, upon this great city and many around us not against us. That heart of love towards our fellows seasons the common good in Brighton and beyond but it does so at a price - that heart of steel we need to exercise more and more towards ourselves, the fixing of the things we know need fixing in our lives that we also know are within our power to fix which will guarantee we keep spiritual saltiness. Let’s fix these things, the Lord being our helper!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Trinity 17 Mark 9.30-37 Church of Ascension, Haywards Heath 23 September 2018

We’ve now reached the middle section of Mark’s gospel we’ve been following in Year B of the liturgical cycle since Advent. It’s a Gospel you can read in a hurry of a Jesus in a hurry – the shortest Gospel of a man with a mission! When you pick up Mark – here’s a copy – you see he’s no time for genealogies and birth narratives, angels, shepherds and wise men. For Mark on p1 its straight in – this is the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Repent and believe! It’s real and it matters.

Today engaging with that reality we’ve moved from p1 to p27, half way through the 52 pages of this paperback Mark’s Gospel, the ninth of the 16 Chapters and verse 30 which I will repeat:
After leaving the mountain 30 Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;
  • Move forwards with Jesus from the Transfiguration to Calvary: Jesus the great trail blazer making human beings a joyful path to God.
  • Crowd falls back to leave Jesus with disciples and the business of deepening their discipleship.
  • Marcan secrecy: one commentator: humility to not wish a great fanfare about his obviously successful ministry. His directives to silence about his great accomplishments may be no more than an example to the faithful not to blow their own horns. It proves the reliability of the Gospel as it’s hard to imagine a made up story of Jesus with such emphasis.
31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
  • First chapters show us who Jesus is. Now, moving into why God sent him and what it means to us as disciples we have a second prediction of the passion following last Sunday’s in Chapter 8.
  • Paradoxes – things that contradict in logic to be held together in experience. Creation (out of nothing ), Trinity (Unity) founded on life (through death) = Son of Man (Son of God).
  • Jesus not a physically compelling Messiah but a suffering servant and morally compelling Saviour. A sign of contradiction – I think of the courageous disabled people who speak out to counter attempts to introduce legislation for Assisted Dying which make shallow judgments about the quality and worthwhileness of life, implying disability is a grounds for killing yourself.
  • 'Without God's Word as a lens, the world warps’ Ann Voskamp ‘I wear the lens of the Word and all the world transfigures into the beauty of Christ’.
      33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
  • Post-Transfiguration jealousies set disciples against one another
  • Jesus sees into their and our hearts - can show up what’s needful, especially they sin of pride
  • Alexander Schmemann - the signs of pride are: the absence of joy, complexity and fear. Signs of humility: joy, simplicity, trust
  • Those who serve others have a joy about them, they are the greatest
  • How do we get there? ‘Know yourself, love yourself, forget yourself’ (the discipline of Christian meditation which takes us out of ourselves in contemplation – encouragement of last week’s Week of Guided Prayer)
36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
  • Paradox of child centred society cf ancient culture and many other cultures which gave or give children no legal rights. Christian legacy.
  • Striking act of Jesus to take the most powerless and exalt them
  • Who are the powerless around us? Who are those most in need of our help? Those without money – FSW summer holiday scheme run by workers, 7 to 11 this autumn. Those who can’t leave room or home through age or disability. Refugees. The young struggling for a job….
  • Last verse shows Jesus before us in the powerless: Whoever welcomes one such my name welcomes me. Cf Matthew 25 Jesus ‘in the least ’
  • To see this we need the insight, or spectacles of holy scripture: 'Without God's Word as a lens, the world warps’
  • We need the sense of Jesus before us that the eucharist schools us in.
  • Blessed and praised be Jesus Christ upon his throne of glory, in the holy scriptures, in the most holy sacrament of the altar, in the hearts of the needy and in the hearts of all his faithful people.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

St Mary, Balcombe Trinity 16 (24B) Mark's Gospel 16 Sept 2018

  • Today we return to Mark, Year B’s Gospel source back from a few weeks of John and today’s Gospel from 8.27-38 is the hinge of Mark.
  • First 7 chapters show us who Jesus is. Now we move into why God sent him and what it means to us. Time on all three

  • Why I like Mark:
  • Short to read eg I used to give baptism and marriage couples a copy of this (show Gospel)
  • Action packed – always picked up on & Holy Week change to passivity (Vanstone’s Stature of Waiting)
  • Earliest Gospel 40 years after resurrection copied by Matthew and Luke. Only Paul’s letters are earlier. Papias 130 AD: Mark being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he recorded he wrote with great accuracy
  • Mystery of uneven ending -  the original may have got lost from the end of the scroll to be replaced by other texts in Chapter 16
  • Clear purpose set forth in Chapter 8 [giving credit to Christianity Explored] show us who Jesus is, why God sent him and what it means to us.
Who Jesus is
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28 And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29 He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
  • A crucial paragraph. In Mark 1-7 we’ve followed how Jesus’ identity emerges through miracles, healings and teachings. Today’s the hinge: ‘Who do people say that I am?’
  • Variations in how people see Jesus – then and now
  • ‘You are the Messiah (Saviour).’ Peter’s role (Papias) of voicing what was the truly the case. Wisdom given Peter by God (Cf Matthew 16)
Why God sent him
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
  • As Messiah Jesus didn’t and still doesn’t fulfil Jewish expectations
  • A suffering Saviour sent to rescue us from sin.
  • The world isn’t as it should be because we’re not as we should be. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.
  • God’s Son was sent to earth to show us our sin and to show us his own heart and bring us, in Victor Hugo’s phrase, to ‘life’s greatest happiness’ which is ‘to be convinced we are loved’
  • Visual God made us for friendship. Sin made a barrier to this. Jesus died to destroy the barrier so restoring friendship with God.
What it means to us
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
  • Taking up your Cross: A church member in hospital offering their pain for all who’re there focussed outside of themselves with Jesus for all
  • Faith is ongoing choice for God and his provision in Jesus
  • In baptism Jesus’ principle of losing life to gain it is impressed on us
  • v38 Jesus is alpha and omega

Saturday, 8 September 2018

St Mary, Balcombe patronal September 9th 2018

An elderly lady told me of an incident at the death of her mother. With the family gathered at her bedside, mother uttered her last words: ‘Thy will be done’ and immediately the blind fell of its own accord! Mother spoke her last words and died and all went black in the room as the blind came down.

I remember the tale because those words - thy will be done - are too often uttered as passive resignation to God as fate, as in the dramatic circumstances of that death which spoke of the darkness of the beyond.

Hold that image and I’ll give you another, the grave of the priest who helped bring me to Christian faith and that has another clause of the Lord’s Prayer upon it - ‘Thy kingdom come’. This priest, seeing his death with active resignation, wanted a statement placed on his grave for the cause that would outlast him, namely the ongoing, death-defying work of God to bring ‘the kingdom of this world to become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ’ (Revelation 11:15)

What a different feeling there is to those two stories, all the difference between passive and active resignation and its the latter I’m commending on our Patronal feast, the active resignation we see so notably in our Patron the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.

Faced not with death but with virginal conception - pregnancy outside marriage and its consequences as God-bearer - Mary says in this morning’s Gospel: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Luke 1:38

Her bow to Gabriel celebrated in art for a thousand years is no passive bow to fate but the active acceptance stated in the Creed For us and for our salvation [the only Son of God] was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.

We magnify Mary our Patron on account of that collaboration in service of God’s kingdom. Through her ‘Yes’ to God, given to Gabriel, salvation is ours. Through that ‘Yes’ confirmed in the hardships she bore Mary models to us active obedience. Simeon prophesied her heart would be ‘pierced with a sword’ in Luke 2:35 and we see this fulfilled in Mary’s presence at the foot of the Cross, obediently following her Son in his sufferings. She is model Christian, one with us, modelling active resignation to God’s will in sorrow and in joy. At the Marriage of Cana she gives advice to the servants we take for ourselves: ‘Do whatever [Jesus] tells you!’ John 2:5.

What is the Lord telling us here at St Mary’s Balcombe on our Patronal Festival?

I asked the church officers and this was their reply: ‘we need a priest, someone who loves Word and Spirit, but also the colourful tapestry of village life, and wants to lead us to Jesus and communicate in that environment.  Someone who keeps things transforming, who’ll help us be part of the subversive work of the kingdom of God’.

I sensed the Holy Spirit behind that perception and thought it important to repeat it to us all this morning as we mark a full year of our pastoral vacancy. As that vacancy continues - and all the evidence is that vacancies can continue and continue and continue - good will come as God’s people draw close to God and with Mary make the most of the divinely appointed challenge.

Yes, we should see the interregnum in that positive light. The lights didn’t go out in Balcombe when Fr Desmond left to carry his light elsewhere. Each one of us has in blessed Mary an upbeat reminder of how facing hardship, as in the vacancy, can bring faith aflame. This little light of mine I’m gonna make it shine!

Ten days ago I was in the congregation at a midweek eucharist and after Communion I sensed there was a sort of cobweb in my right eye. Off I went to A&E and the next morning A&E at Brighton Eye Hospital. I arrived mid-morning and left before lunch having received laser treatment for a retinal tear. Alongside that miracle I was given assurance that my brain will find its way through the cobweb, which I can still see when I chose to focus on it, and that it should fade away in the weeks and months ahead.

It's a challenge to set the Lord before me, as Psalm 34 verse 5 invites me, look to the Lord and be radiant. Active resignation is a gift but it's also a struggle, a challenge to get on with what God wants, looking away from myself to the needs of others and the agenda of the kingdom of God.

This morning as a congregation gathered on its Patronal Festival we have a similar challenge to see ourselves preparing the way not just for a new priest - so we can then sit back - but for the agenda God has in Balcombe and its surrounds. Remember Our Lady’s counsel: ‘Do whatever [Jesus] tells you!’.

As individuals we also have our struggles in which the gift of discernment is so very important. Sometimes it's a clear invitation, as in my eye floaters, to look forward in faith. Two men looked through prison bars. One saw mud and one saw stars.

Other times we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to show us what’s most important in our predicament. That knowledge when acted upon can have very large consequences as our lives move more towards what’s good, an upward trajectory which can take us out of darkness more rapidly than we’d ever think could occur.

Life can’t be lived without suffering but as believers we can see hardship as God’s megaphone, his way of showing us what’s most important. Where we catch on to this,  see things we need to put right in our lives and circumstances, good things always come our way. We just need to fix the things we know need fixing that we also know are within our power to fix. Something easier said than done though it's good to say it in the pulpit - there’s no word of God without power!

As we offer this eucharist may our prayer be that of blessed Mary: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

Here we are at St Mary’s, actively resigned to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness for ourselves and for the people in our village.

Here we are each one of us, prepared to offer God our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice actively resigned to his will, to his praise and service, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom be praise with blessed Mary, saints in heaven and saints on earth!