Wednesday, 3 March 2021

St Wilfrid & The Presentation, Haywards Heath 3 March 2021

Our scripture today is full of conflict relating to the conflict of Christ and the sort of conflict Christians should be about.


In the first reading we read of the conflict surrounding the prophet Jeremiah. ‘They said, "Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah - for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.’ (Jeremiah 18:18). The prophet Jeremiah is a pointer to Our Lord in his speaking truth to power. The foes of the prophet rationalised that they could do without him! The priests, the wise and the other prophets would give totally adequate instruction without him, they said. Seven centuries before Christ Jeremiah conflicted with a religious establishment responsible for widespread unfaithfulness to God which he prophesied as being responsible for the destruction of the original Jewish Temple by the Babylonians in 587BC. The people had been warned again and again not to make plans discounting God and his covenant.


In the gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 20 Our Lord speaks of the conflict he will have like his forbear Jeremiah with the religious authorities: ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised. (Matthew 20:18-19). The death and resurrection of Jesus link also to his prophecy of the destruction of the second Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70AD.


Then, in the Gospel, we hear of a more personal conflict involving James and John and their mother who want Jesus to push down the other ten apostles. This gives Our Lord opportunity to open up the heart of these conflicts, the heart of the human problem, a problem we all face, rooted in the heart itself, namely pride. ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:26-28)


In Lent many of our readings, hymns and prayers address this basic conflict, the toppling of pride by humility. The teaching of Jeremiah and Jesus coincided with the toppling of the Temple and its religious establishment but the toppling of pride requires more deep seated action, for which the self giving love of Calvary is eternal instrument. Examining our conscience before the Cross in Lent shows up the idolatry of pride of which James and John were guilty, indulging in thoughts of superiority out of obstinacy and a domineering attitude. They were to learn, as we have to learn, to conflict pride by the cultivation of humility. 



A good Lenten discipline is to ask Our Lord to help us in our struggle against pride by a gift of humility from the Holy Spirit. May the Lord help us deepen this gift, enabling us to ascribe more genuinely to him all the good talents and abilities we possess. More than that, to see our nothingness apart from God and actually less than nothingness through our sins of thought, word, deed and omission. Our Lord asks us, as he asked the mother of Zebedee and her sons, ‘Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?’ Praise God, we do not need to drink the Chalice he drank for us save at the eucharist as memorial of his redeeming love. God help us, though, to follow his lead in conflicting with pride, with wrong self-assertion including making important plans without reference to him. Also, as James and John learned, to embrace our humiliations after his example and hide our talents and virtues with Christ in God. 


‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave’. It is a struggle, our Lenten conflict, but we are on the winning side on account of the life of Christ poured out for us in Holy Week. That life is ours through the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost. Through our baptism and confirmation the Spirit of humility is in us but, to our dying day, alongside our pride. Christ is in us and so is sin. May these weeks of Lent help us do down pride and raise up humility and love some more. In that way we can be made greater Christians.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

St Wilfrid & Presentation Eucharist 24 February 2021

As is common in Lent and Advent the first reading is chosen from the Old Testament to illuminate the Gospel passage.


Today Jonah is the link. The story of Jonah connects with Christianity in two ways. He is seen first as a symbol of Christ dying and rising through his being swallowed by a whale for three days and then reappearing. He is like Christ secondly as one who preaches and causes people to repent. He gets a response.


Jonah, when you read the book – it can be read in 5 minutes – is seen to be a reluctant evangelist. God tells him to go to Nineveh but he goes the other way at first. God has to put him right.


Aren’t we all reluctant evangelists? Who wants to be the messenger of an uncomfortable message? Who likes putting people right when they’re in the wrong?


Actually only God can really and effectively put people right. If we speak for God with discernment, at the time and in the place he clearly suggests to us, then things happen. They happened in Nineveh and they can happen in Haywards Heath.


The clue is our getting attuned to God’s leading. If we’re living hour by hour with God it should work out. Coming to share in the Eucharist effects a deep work of tuning. Something happens to shape us up when we hearing the word and share the body of Christ.


When I take my guitar out I’ve usually got to tune it before it will make a melodious noise. So it is with you and I as we attempt to play out our lives for God. Like Jonah we need treatment so to speak, attuning – and that can mean getting stretched a little.


What’s at issue in today’s Gospel is our role in the spread of the faith. The world needs Jonahs, evangelists who can swallow their reluctance to speak out for Jesus.


Some see the tide turning for the church. We’ve been salt more than light for long enough. Especially in the Church of England our people have been proud to be salt savouring the life of the nation but hesitant to stand against it as light that lightens darkness. 


We’ve made Christianity less than what it is. Now is the time to change gear and to be bold and to let our light shine. In this increasingly secular nation people are only going to hear of a purpose for living and a reason for dying if we gain boldness to open our mouths and declare however hesitantly the mystery of Christ. 


Pray for me St Paul says to the Ephesians that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel. We might pray the same!




Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Ash Wednesday 21st February 2021

In Lent we are called to discover afresh the power of Christ’s Cross.

This is why at the centre of Ash Wednesday eucharist we have the signing of the cross on our foreheads even if we must do it ourselves today.

It seems a long time since we were in Tenerife walking in the mountains.

We visited the small town of Santiago del Teide perched on the lower slopes of Mount Teide which towers almost 4000 metres above sea level, the highest point above sea level of any island in the Atlantic Ocean, and third highest volcano on any volcanic island in the world.

The volcano last erupted in 1909. When it did so the inhabitants of Santiago del Teide were faced with the prospect of their town’s obliteration. 

It’s a deeply Christian place, Tenerife. When they saw the volcano erupt the villagers didn’t hesitate to act. 

They took the cross from the altar and went up the hill to meet the lava. The flow stopped where they met and each year since there’s been a thanksgiving procession. 

I walked to the place where the lava stopped and said a prayer by the Cross there and before the original cross that’s in the beautiful church there.

The people saw burning lava halt before the Cross and the victory of their Christian faith. 

In my own experience the Cross is as sure a weapon against no less fiery assaults against my spirit. 

To believe in the Cross is to believe in the risen Lord Jesus Christ who stands behind it and beside each one of us. His power in us, by his Spirit, is greater than the power of any enemy, however powerful.

From today Christians are paying special attention to the Cross of our Saviour and how it engages with our personal struggle against sin.

You may struggle with lack of faith in yourself – the Cross says God loves you, turn from such disbelief.

You may struggle with lack of faith in other people – the Cross says God loves them as well as you and much more, so forgive those who upset you or who seem to be against you.

You may struggle with lack of faith in God – the Cross tells you God loves you enough to die for you.

When we take the ashes we take them on our heads because Jesus said God loves us so much he numbers every hair on our head.

When we make the cross on our foreheads today we’re invited to say the words Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. These words can be paraphrased as ‘God loves you. Turn from sin’.

‘God forbid that we should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ Saint Paul once wrote (Galatians 6:14) and he goes on to invite us to let the Cross bring God's grace into our lives. 

We’re now to seek such grace for the empowerment of our lives, grace that comes from the foot of the Cross.

Let’s turn there now as we think in a moment of silence of our forgetfulness of God, times we’ve let people down and times we’ve let ourselves down through not doing our best.


Photo by Budkov Denis

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

St Wilfrid, Haywards Heath eucharist 10.2.21

Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile… it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… evil things come from within, and they defile a person. Mark 7:18, 21, 23


As a priest committed to the Daily Office I am regularly brought up short when I am able to go to the monastery at Crawley Down since they say the Psalms much slower than I do in my private devotions. Through sharing their Office I recognise how much I say prayers ‘to get through them’ rather than to be fully present to God. I slow down on my return!


Left to myself my prayer easily goes off the rails and becomes self oriented. In his earthly ministry Jesus made a point of challenging self-satisfied religion as in this incident in Mark Chapter 7 following accusations that his disciples hadn’t washed before dinner as the purity laws required. Mark is handing on the story to Gentile Christians who in his day were engaged in a similar conflict over the degree they should take on Jewish practice. 


It’s not the food going into us that matters so much as the words and deeds that come out of us. How brilliant a capacity Jesus has of turning things on their head!


Jesus knew our nature through and through. His challenge to ritual law doesn’t extend to the core commandments of God but gives a reminder to examine spiritual practices lest they get disassociated from the call to obey God and become ends in themselves, and that can be true of joining in a streamed weekday eucharist!


Our Lord saw the heart of the human problem as being the human heart. Our relationship with God is from the heart, from deep within, or else it is a formality.


Melvyn Bragg once asked Rowan Williams what God meant to him. Here’s the answer he gave: ‘God is first and foremost that depth around all things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me out of that depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformation I can’t imagine. Very much a mystery but also very much a presence. Very much a person’.


Seeking God is a business of committing trustfully to him as the depth beyond all things, to see the world as no longer a flat surface but to descend to the goodness at the heart of all things and be impacted. To be caught up into something utterly mysterious and countercultural which is divine reality. 

Saying our prayers, attending the eucharist, reading our Bibles, serving our neighbour and reflecting regularly upon our need for God are expressions of that quest.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

St Wilfrid, Haywards Heath talk on perseverance 3.2.21

I think the letter to the Hebrews is a Godsend at this time. We’ve been reading it as first lesson at the eucharist for the last month. It was written to help Jewish Christians make sense of a time of tumult that included the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70AD [sculpture from Titus Arch in Rome]. 

This brought to climax the divisions between Christianity and Judaism with the loss of the sacrificial cult. The author of Hebrews explains the coming of the Messiah as being not that of a ruler but that of a priest, fulfilling Temple worship, whose rule will come later. As Jews turned to synagogues in place of the Temple there was a parting of the ways between the first Christians, who continued to worship in the Temple until its destruction but were rejected from synagogues by fellow Jews. This division occurred parallel to the mission to the Gentiles initiated by God from Jerusalem across the world through Saint Paul.


In today’s passage we have wisdom about making something of suffering linked to the first believers' sense of loss at the destruction of the Temple and the hardship of being shunned by fellow Jews. ‘Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons. Has there ever been any son whose father did not train him?.... hold up your limp arms and steady your trembling knees and smooth out the path you tread… always be wanting peace with all people, and the holiness without which no one can ever see the Lord. Be careful… that no root of bitterness should begin to grow and make trouble; this can poison a whole community’ (Hebrews 12)


What wisdom and implications for us! Our lives have a lot of suffering at present as the coronavirus pandemic locks us down, weighs us with concern for those we love and the heavy media preoccupation with it dampens our spirits. According to Hebrews we are to see these privations as a spiritual discipline allowed by our loving Heavenly Father. ‘The Lord trains the ones that he loves and he punishes all those he acknowledges as his sons’. The letter to the Hebrews encourages us to see Our Lord alongside us in our sufferings, working things for good, inasmuch as we put faith in God. Here is the rub. Are we able to see life’s circumstances, however hard they may be, as willed by God. Just as Our Lord saw his crucifixion, wrong as it was at a human and legal and moral level, as a saving event.


To accept the hand of God in suffering is not fatalism. In the case of coronavirus we are minimising our sufferings and the sufferings of others by costly precautions and vaccination. One day we will look back at the pandemic, as our parents looked back at the World War, or those first Jewish Christians looked back at the Temple’s destruction. We will look back like them and see the good that grew out of the hardship. For us in February 2021 the letter to the Hebrews resonates with a perspective that sees God at work. Protecting that work in us is our prime concern, less the business of interpreting his hand working through coronavirus, though that will one day be made clear to us. Seeing our trials as part of building patience in us, precious gift from a Father patient beyond limit, seeking to build peace, uprooting bitterness - all of this is the gift of Christian faith which will bring its reward.


To accept the hand of God in suffering is not fatalism. In the case of coronavirus we are minimising our sufferings and the sufferings of others by costly precautions and vaccination. One day we will look back at the pandemic, as our parents looked back at the World War, or the first Jewish Christians looked back at the Temple’s destruction. We will look back like them and see the good that grew out of the hardship. For us in February 2021 the letter to the Hebrews (12:4-7, 11-15) resonates with a perspective that sees God at work. Protecting that work in us is our prime concern, less the business of interpreting his hand working through coronavirus overall. Seeing our trials as part of building patience in us, gift from a Father patient beyond limit, seeking to build peace, uprooting bitterness - all of this is the gift of Christian faith which will bring its reward.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

St Wilfrid, Haywards Heath Candlemas 31.1.21

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel. Luke 2.29-32


The Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon is a Gospel Canticle used daily at Evensong or Compline, at funerals and each year at Candlemas in the Gospel and again at the blessing of candles. 


It breathes fulfilment, peace and joy. Inspired by the Spirit the elderly Simeon comes to the Temple, takes the infant Jesus in his arms and joyfully breaks into the canticle which signals fulfilment of God’s redemptive plan and the peace and joy of salvation.


The Church puts it on our lips at the evening of each day to remind us darkness is no darkness to the Lord who is Light of the world, who fulfils believers, lending us peace after the day’s strife and anticipates unending joy beyond death’s night.


A few thoughts on such good news - the Christian good news of fulfilment, peace and joy.


The elderly Simeon was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. The same Spirit brought him to the Temple coincident with the Holy Family and used Simeon to announce the arrival of fulfilment, peace and joy in the person of Our Lord.


Like many I haven’t got a particular moment of fulfilment, of seeing salvation. It’s been a process in which faith has lit up my life and made increasing sense of it. Before lockdown on a stormy sea journey to Dieppe at one point on our crossing of the Channel the sun broke through the storm clouds. Light streamed on the turbulent sea reflected forwards in a scene of extraordinary beauty. You couldn’t look at the sun but you could feast on a remarkable display of light reflected from the moving waters. Their threatening look was changed into a scene of immense beauty. The traumas of my personal life - I had just been bereaved - were put into a new perspective. Like Simeon approaching death I felt, like the sunlight on the stormy sea, the light of faith transfiguring life’s dark circumstances showing me God in the midst of them.


Lord, now you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.


Christianity fulfils us because God’s word is true to life. Then, as Simeon proclaims, we live in peace. The good news of Christ settles our rough waves as the stabilisers on that ferry settled the impact of the storm on the passengers. 


Like me you are travelling through this storm of coronavirus. Put faith in Jesus Christ as your stabiliser and keep fellowship with others in the ferry which is his Church. You’ll one day reach harbour and be part of the rejoicing felt after a stormy voyage! Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis breathes the peace of God passing human understanding as the old man sees salvation in the young child, a sight that fulfils and settles him as he looks with gratitude to his own end. St Seraphim spoke of this peace in these telling words: ‘find peace in your soul and thousands round you will find salvation’.


Lord, now you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.


Fulfilment, peace - then joy! Our good news first announced by Simeon, Zechariah and Our Lady in their canticles at Christ’s infancy thrill with joy. The Nunc Dimittis, Benedictus and Magnificat express the church’s joy in our daily offices and all are rooted in joyous encounters. As Simeon’s face lit up at the sight of the Christ Child so this morning’s liturgy lights our faces both outwardly through candles and inwardly through the Holy Spirit. To meet up with a friend is cheering. Our eyes light up! So it is as Christians meet the Lord in his word, in prayer, in the breaking of bread and in fellowship with one another. My own eyes have seen your salvation and there’s joy in that, joy that by joy’s very nature can’t be contained in Israel - I mean the church - but has to flow out from us to our circle and, indeed, to the nations. 


Simeon’s smile and those of the Holy Family reach down to us this morning through 80 generations brightening our lives on the Feast of the Presentation. As we present ourselves with Christ to the Father in his Sacrifice at this eucharist may the joy of the Lord be our strength, joy triumphing over the hardships we bear bringing peace and fulfilment.


Lord, now you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel. 




Wednesday, 27 January 2021

St Wilfrid, Haywards Heath talk on the word of God 27.1.21

 

Some years back I was representing Chichester Diocese on an interfaith pilgrimage which visited Damascus. As the light streamed through the window of my hotel room at dawn my spirit was drawn to the account in Acts 9 of the conversion of St. Paul. Within an hour or so we were walking where the newly illuminated Saul of Tarsus walked, along Straight Street (v11), visiting the house of Ananias, the Christian instrumental in Paul’s conversion and also the traditional site of Paul’s escape in a basket from the walls of Damascus (v25). As we trod where the key apostle of Christianity trod we became aware of how scripture’s record of God’s workings is rooted in space and time, the very space we inhabited that very day! Even looking at Straight Street – which is barely ‘straight’ - made us aware of the truth in a degree of irony in Luke’s own description in Acts 9v11 of ‘the street called Straight’. Damascus was a place where you could feel and hear the ring of truth about the scriptures.

In today’s parable of the Sower Jesus speaks of the word of God. Like all of his parables they strike us at many levels. You can’t tie down or systematise Christ’s teaching. It reaches beyond human understanding with different layers and levels that open up to us over our lifetimes as we plumb its depth. As I read again Mark’s version of the Parable of the Sower with its interpretation in Chapter 4 of his Gospel I came back to how that passage about St Paul in Acts 9 came alive to me on a visit to Damascus in 2005. As it was only Monday that we kept the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul that experience in Damascus is fresh in my mind and seemed a good illustration of today’s Gospel.

‘The sower sows the word…. those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ (Mark 4:14, 18-20) There is no word of God without power but to gain that empowerment we have to hear God speaking, particularly from scripture, by deliberately putting aside other cares to apply ourselves to attend, as we are doing here at the eucharist. It is always a challenge to embrace the word of God, not least putting aside other concerns to take up our Bibles. Through reading or, as today, listening, to scripture our minds are engaged with the truth of God but that is only the beginning. For the word of God to empower us the words of the Bible need to reach down through our ears and minds into the depths of our being. The Collect for Bible Sunday puts it very well: ‘Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’.

There is no word of God without power but to gain that empowerment we have to hear God speaking. As we keep silent for a moment let us digest what God has to say to us individually so at this hour our lives may be put freshly into gear.