Sunday, 17 February 2019

St Richard, Haywards Heath 6th of Year (C) 17.2.19

How can we be the Church better?

Both Fr Chris and I started our priesthood in Sheffield Diocese and I recall from my days a diocesan theme of that name which was very successful: Being the church better. It was a challenge to do no more but to put more into what we were doing.

As a somewhat repentant former mission adviser I’m aware of how diocesan initiatives can sap energy by putting extra burdens on busy priests and people. That being said I rejoice in our diocesan year of vocation because our calling or vocation flows straight from what we are in Christ so it is timely to open God’s word with that in mind.

How can we be the Church better and better fulfil our Christian calling?

We’re human beings not human doings. Even if, like me, a lot of what you do is pottering around as a retiree you can still forget to ‘take time to stand and stare’ as the saying goes. Jeremiah and the Psalmist draw an analogy between the life of faith and trees sinking roots into subterranean water. When I was a Curate in Doncaster I woke up one summer morning to find a crack right across my bedroom wall. Four thirsty plane trees in the garden had drunk the water under the Clergy House in a drought such that the House came to subside! Such is the power behind a tree - or four trees.

How much more power there is in a trustful life! Happy the one who has placed his trust in the Lord… yielding fruit in due season… all they do shall prosper. Being the church better is about putting roots into the word of God, savouring for example this week’s readings from Jeremiah 17 and the first Psalm day by day, being reminded whenever you pass a tree - and we are much more blessed with trees to remind us in Chichester Diocese than we were in Sheffield Diocese!

We’re two weeks or so from Lent. Not all of us can make extra groups or services though I hope to and hope you will also try to, when you can. Being the church better for many of us might be less about coming to extra things as putting extra heart into our Sunday celebration of the eucharist. Being a regular Mass attender I wrote an article about this in February's New Directions. It's a reminder to myself and the readership of the awesome reality of Mass. Here’s a bit from that article:

‘It is the perception of the eucharist as the God-given transformative action it is that draws me day by day into its orbit.  As often as we celebrate the eucharist we advance the work of salvation through no simple transaction but a showing of Christ crucified which helps bring the world into what he wants it to be. So many times I have been able to look back days or weeks later at the fulfilment of intentions I have taken to the eucharist even concerning world crises.

Day by day we have an invitation to participate in a blessing and distribution of bread and wine that impacts the cosmos through the eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus who died in our place and comes here and now, there and then, to be in our place and that of the whole world before our Father. His institution of the eucharist calls forth obedience - ‘do this in remembrance of me’ - but more profoundly obedient self-offering in his own for our salvation and that of the whole world. ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (Hebrews 10:7)’.

How can we be the Church better?

Talk to your priests or fellow church members about the meaning and power of the eucharist. Get a book to read or some guidance on what terms to Google so you can get more rooted in the faith of the church through the ages.

After last autumn’s week of guided prayer there was quite a ripple of God talk around at St Richard’s. When we as individuals deepen our prayer the joy of that ripples out compensating less joyous demands of church life like seeing to the challenge of the electrics. Rewiring will make for a better and safer church, yes, but need I say a membership more lit up with the light of the Lord will best serve the Beacon aspiration Fr Chris sets before us.

In the second reading we’re challenged to a fuller sense of the Church as God’s never-ending family. Saying farewell to Tony and Frank is reminder of those words we just heard from St Paul: ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied… Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’. As we prepare through Lent for Easter what better preparation than aim to share with our circle how in the last resort there are only two alternatives: either to have God, and in Him everything, or to have nothing but yourself. The hope of heaven needs strengthening in us if we’re to be effective witnesses in such a materialistic culture. We don’t need to do extra things to strengthen that hope, just pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us to books and individuals that thrill with such hope.

How can we be the Church better?

The Gospel has the Beatitudes abbreviated from nine in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount to four here in Luke’s sermon on the plain with four woes all with something of a sociological take compared to Matthew who has Our Lord declaring the ‘poor in spirit’ blessed rather than the ‘poor’.
You could read and compare the two versions in your own time to help you take the Beatitudes more to heart, especially Matthew’s call to poverty of spirit, purity of heart, hunger for righteousness and so on. When we read Christ’s Beatitudes they’re a tall order but to be the church better we need to spiritually ‘stand up straight with our shoulders back’. As Jordan Peterson summarises their challenge: ‘Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is’.

To be the church better we need individually to take the shock-treatment of the Holy Spirit without running away. Sinking our roots more in the promises of Scripture may we prosper like healthy trees people look up to. Rewired in spirit through using our imagination more about the way we pray may we discover afresh the meaning and power of the eucharist. I end with a description of the anticipation of heaven we are thankfully about this morning from the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann:

‘When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfil, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the life of paradise. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect eucharistic being. He is the eucharist of the world. In and through this eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.’

Behold the Lamb of God this morning - the risen Lord coming to be present in bread and wine - blessed are those called to his supper both here and in the age to come!

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Holy Trinity, Lower Beeding 5th of Year (C) 10 February 2019

I wonder if you’ve had the experience of coming to the end of your tether with something. Standing back for a time the mental and emotional fog clears and you see a clear way forward.

As a strategic thinker - I used to be diocesan mission and renewal adviser - I’m used to planning for church growth but I know from my own experience as a parish priest that you can actually try too hard on that front. Sometimes it's when we stand back from schemes, admit our inadequacy to fix the numbers crisis and look to God that, again, the fog lifts and people flow in.

God protect you all the same from any diocesan stand back concerning your pastoral vacancy! Even if it keeps priests like me in a job! I’ve been covering vacancies at the Ascension in Haywards Heath, Balcombe and St Bartholomew, Brighton. The first two are filled, thank God. My old parish of Horsted Keynes is also getting a priest two years after I left. Yes, we need a parish priest here as soon as possible - but even with a priest you won’t lose a materialistic culture indifferent to the things of the Spirit such that folk trickle into Church nowadays.

We need strategies but we also need serendipity, alias the surprises of the Holy Spirit. This is true for us as individuals and as a Christian community. Its precisely when we stop ourselves pursuing what’s proving useless that we become open to receiving what the Spirit has to bring. All we do is nothing worth unless God blesses the deed.

Such thinking flows from and now back into our scripture readings for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany where we read of how Isaiah, Paul and Peter are brought to their knees and get up changed to help change the world around them. As we get on our knees this morning let’s invite such transformation for ourselves, for the impenetrable situations we live in, for Holy Trinity, Lower Beeding, for Sussex and the world. So here goes - a little engagement with the word of God.

Isaiah in our first reading is brought to his knees in the year of King Uzziah’s death by a vision of the Lord surrounded by angels crying holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. His glory fills the whole earth. It's the verse placed at the heart of every eucharist, a verse aweing us to think how different God is from us. It awed Isaiah. I am lost he says. Put in his place he is made open to serve God in a new way. Here I am he says to God. Send me. It's almost a contradiction, isn’t it? When God shows us we’re nothing in the same breath he shows us he needs us!

Then in the second reading the apostle Paul, recalling the factual basis of Christian faith, confesses putting himself last of all the resurrection witnesses. God had to throw him off a horse on the Damascus Road to demolish his pride. The Lord reinvents proud Saul as humble Paul confident no longer in himself but in God who raises the dead. I am the least of the apostles; in fact since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle; but by God’s grace that is what I am, and the grace that he gave me has not been fruitless. I wonder whether you’ve ever had a dressing down from God in your life? A time when your faithfulness was shown to have cracks in it? When you lost it loving or believing God or neighbour? Such times, brought down by circumstances, discovering your inadequacy from God with fresh discovery of his own love and adequacy for your life. As Paul writes later in Corinthians: ‘our sufficiency is of God’ (2 Corinthians 3:5). What a delusion self-sufficiency is? Think of your funeral - where will you be at that?

Today’s Gospel shows Our Lord tackling Simon Peter’s self sufficiency. ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch’. ‘Master,’ Simon replied ‘we worked hard all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so, I will pay out the nets’. And when they had done this they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear… when Simon Peter saw this he fell at the knees of Jesus saying ‘Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man’. Interestingly St Luke changes Simon’s name to Simon Peter here, as Saul got changed to Paul, recalling Christ’s renaming him as ‘the rock man’ elsewhere in the Gospels. Only as Peter professes his nothingness before God is he made aware of God’s acceptance of that yoked to God’s love for him and his need for him. Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch’.

We are gathered, brothers and sisters, to encounter the same God who made Isaiah, Paul and Peter aware of their nothingness. With Isaiah we cry I am one of unclean lips. With Paul we profess it’s by God’s grace I am a Christian. With Peter we say, as we already said in this Eucharist, Lord, I am a sinner. All three were privileged with a vision of God that both put them in their place and affirmed them. This can be for us if we can see beyond this Sunday hour the awesome yet accessible God revealed in Jesus Christ.

So awesome he brings us to our knees! So accessible he takes us and uses us as his instruments of service in this place.

The Lord show us afresh both our lamentable insufficiency and his glorious sufficiency!

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed!

Saturday, 2 February 2019

St Bartholomew, Brighton Candlemas 3.2.19

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. Last month 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’d just been bereaved of a friend - 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 may be travelling through a storm in your life. 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 our 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 Mass 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.