Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Trinity 15 (26C) St Bartholomew, Brighton 29.9.19

In paradisum deducant te angeli. ‘May the angels lead you into paradise; may they receive you and with Lazarus, once poor, may you have eternal rest’.

Those beautiful words from our funeral liturgy capture movement of the soul from earth to heaven parallel to the carriage of the body to earth. They are built from today’s Gospel of Dives and Lazarus and they provide opportunity for reflection on our ultimate destiny as believers. 

In the Gregorian chant for this closing rite of Requiem Mass the melodic highpoint comes on the name of Lazarus, the poor beggar in Our Lord’s parable. The musical lifting is pointer to the poor man’s lifting, Lazarus ‘was carried by the angels to be with Abraham’.

In today’s parable Our Lord takes an age old story of the reversal of riches and poverty in the afterlife to challenge ‘those among the Pharisees who loved money’ reminding us how those who care nothing for those less fortunate than themselves will receive harsh judgement from God in the life to come.

It’s an uncomfortable piece of scripture underlined by today’s first reading from Amos challenging those who lounge in luxury. I remember Cardinal Hume saying after visiting famine victims in Ethiopia how today’s Gospel haunted him more than any other passage in the Bible. It’s hard to shake off its force. Given our knowledge through the media of needs in Yemen and elsewhere are we not like Dives - Latin for the money-loving man in the story - unless we give at times to help famine relief?

With that thought let’s change gear to look at the Church’s teaching on the afterlife, something last year’s Unbelievable? group considered as we went through the last paragraph of the Creed. A passage like today’s Gospel has prime place in funeral liturgy but its imagery needs unpacking to unveil ‘the life of the world to come’. 

Such an unveiling happened to me personally forty nine years ago on this day, Michaelmas Day 29th September 1970.  I was just 21 then and was travelling on my Lambretta from Harwell, where I’d completed some neutron scattering on a polymer specimen, to Oxford. As I drove along the front tyre blew and despite repeated application of front and rear brakes the vehicle veered across the road into the path of a lorry. I said what I thought were my last prayers. Amazingly I passed just in front of the lorry landing on the kerb with a sprain to my thumb and shoulder and lived to tell the tale. Coming so close to death made for a fuller evaluation of the significance of my life. It contributed no doubt to a radical career switch a few years later from polymer scientist to parish priest.

My interrupted journey - it entailed a brief visit to hospital - pointed me beyond my own pursuit of truth as a scientist to Truth’s pursuit of me. Heaven came close. It  became more real to me, especially as the accident occurred on 29th September, Feast of St Michael and All Angels. As for many, God became real to me not through thinking or feeling but through circumstances that stopped me literally in my tracks. It was natural to interpret my survival to divine intervention through an angel steering my scooter a shade. I lived on, and continue to live on, aware of an unseen realm, how it pierces through on occasion into our life experience, especially at Holy Mass, and will accompany us as we look to the Lord on the day of our death.

‘May the angels lead you into paradise; may they… receive you and with Lazarus, once poor, may you have eternal rest’.

A few thoughts to conclude on the Christian doctrine of judgement, some of which we shared during November’s Creed group.

Can there really be a final catalogue of wrongdoing?  Surely there can! 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. Furthermore, and this is the good news Christians know, by his sharing in our nature and his boundless compassion Jesus Christ is well appointed to judge the living and the dead.  Did he not welcome and put the best slant on thieves and prostitutes, always ready to treat people as better than they were? As believers in such love can we fear meeting Our Lord face to face?

Christian tradition distinguishes an individual judgement at the moment of death and a general judgement which completes God’s righteous task at the Lord’s return when the dead are raised in body as well as soul. 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 as stated in Revelation 21v27. This is the origin of the doctrine of purgatory which speaks of the need for the faithful departed to be purged or cleansed of residual sin to come close to God. 

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. Purgatorial pain may be as short as that. Our wrong actions affront God in his holiness but he has given us a remedy in repentance. Hell, refusal to face God, will be our choice. As the video 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 triumphs over judgement when we allow Christ a place in our hearts! 

‘There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ we read in Romans 8v1. 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 the vision of God given in Jesus Christ we celebrate at every Mass, vision of a God of majesty, yes, but also a God more concerned to give us what we need than to give us what we deserve.

To believe in Jesus Christ who ‘will come to judge the living and the dead’ is therefore 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.

On this his Feast we end by invoking St Michael to protect us from any such delusion, especially the neglect of the poor, conscious or unconscious, using a prayer that used to be said to the Archangel after every Mass. My prayer ends with a threefold plea to the heart of Jesus which I invite you to repeat with me.

Holy Michael, Archangel, defend us in the day of battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust down to hell, Satan and all wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.

Most sacred heart of Jesus have mercy on us! Most sacred heart of Jesus have mercy on us! Most sacred heart of Jesus have mercy on us

Saturday, 14 September 2019

St Mary, Balcombe Feast of the Holy Cross 15th September 2019

Today is kept as the Patronal Feast of the Society of the Holy Cross to which both Fr Keith and I belong but in a profound sense all Christians are part of such a Society. We come together this morning as a community defined as a society of the holy cross.

The Cross! It takes our guilt away; it holds the fainting spirit up; it cheers with hope the gloomy day, and sweetens every bitter cup.

Jesus crucified is in our midst – the source of forgiveness, upholding, good cheer and transformation that the hymn speaks of. We are the dying and rising people of a dying and rising Lord.

“J shaped people” as someone put it – and if you see a J as an “I” pushed down ready to spring up you’ll get the idea of that. To live as a society of the holy cross is to live with the sanctification of passion, of pain and suffering. You can’t put a Christian down because the things that bring people down are endured with Jesus who cheers with hope the gloomy day, and sweetens every bitter cup.

There is passion – suffering – and there is sacred passion. Or, as a typing error reminded me once, there is scared passion and sacred passion.

The making of a woman or man is suffering and how we bear it. Is it taken fearfully or as part of sanctification? The Cross makes the coward spirit brave, and nerves the feeble arm for fight; It takes its terror from the grave, and gilds the bed of death with light.

You know I’m always quoting books and here’s another, W.H.Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. I see it as an antidote to some over simple forms of Christian enthusiasm – I speak as former diocesan mission and renewal adviser! There is Christianity around that somehow goes unmarked by the sign of the Cross.

This book illuminates from the example of Our Lord the stature of things that the world or even the church, alas, is uncomfortable with nowadays – the deep significance of our waiting and our dependence. These are consequences of Jesus living in us with his life, his passion and his resurrection. In Mark’s Gospel, Vanstone reminds us, a half of the Gospel is all action but the last half of that Gospel – Holy Week – has Jesus not acting but being acted upon as he waits and as he depends upon others. 

How much of that quality do we share as a congregation, dear friends? I counted 47 organisations on page 23 of the Village Magazine excluding the Church. Though in some ways we’re central to the life of Balcombe we’re also on the periphery waiting and depending on others. Horsted Keynes where I was Rector is similar. The church is central in one way but in other ways an awkward reality within the village. Sometimes we feel pushed out. Other times when there is grief and pain to be shared people look to us to help lift their burden.

What a fruitful thing, though, to be one in this with Jesus as his society of the holy cross. One with the one who promises Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). It’s a countercultural thing to be one with Jesus who is one with suffering humanity but is also something freeing since by his cross he lifts our burdens day by day!

Has humanity ever known more of suffering? Has this country ever had less inclination to seek through prayer to address that suffering and make it holy?

What I mean is how without precedent television and social media bring images of pain day by day into our homes and you wonder how people deal with this. In our living room, we have the Cross looking down on the TV. This is potentially a grace since we can choose to look up to the Lord in prayer as we hear and see the suffering of fellow human beings. The Cross over our television does something to lift minds and hearts burdened by the world’s agony to the Lord who sees all and loves all.

Holy Cross Day celebrates the symbol of our faith. It is a reminder to honour that symbol by living it as a society that’s one with the holy cross. One with Jesus crucified and risen. The history of this Feast is associated with the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine. 
It was his mother, Helena that uncovered the True Cross and lifted it up for the veneration of the faithful.

So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life we heard in the gospel (John 3v13-17). 

To live as the church is to live as the society that lifts up Jesus: in his word, in the Blessed Sacrament and in the hearts of all his faithful people. In the eucharist we lift up the consecrated Bread and Wine and we lift up the Gospel book. Such liftings place us with Mary and John looking up from the foot of the Cross to the breadth and length and height and depth and … the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3v18b).

As Christians we grow closer to Christ through his surprising gifts and through suffering. There’s a sermon of Austin Farrer that recalls a sign outside a florist entitled crosses and wreathes made to order. The Lord orders our circumstances to be filled with his gifts from on high given from his left hand as well as his right hand.

I thought of that quote from Farrer crosses and wreathes made to order when I read of this year’s harvest celebration on 6 October. It will use our gifts to serve those in need through the auction in the Half Moon pub. This will hopefully touch the generosity of villagers to serve those at the sharp end of things through the agency of our church and school. What distinguishes any society of the cross is such service to the suffering and marginalised that’s true to Jesus.

Such ministry can be acknowledged at a more profound level. 

People who give allegiance to Christianity in this or any day seem to do so when they encounter Christian communities like our own that have intrigued them, communities that have something in their soul that is of Jesus and against or beyond what’s the cultural norm. 

Pachomius, a fourth century founder of Christian monasticism, came to faith as an army conscript. He had pagan parents and no foundation in Christianity at all, but as a soldier he was intrigued by a group of people who freely gave food to the troops. Who are these people? He asked. Oh they are Christians and Christians do that sort of thing he was told. He went on to investigate what it was that led these Christians to go out of their way in the service of strangers. He found the dying and rising people of a dying and rising Lord.

How impressive it must have been in the early church to find people so fearless of death that they would care for the sick risking disease themselves, for this is the origin of our hospitals.

The church as the society of the holy cross is also the society of the resurrection for the two cannot be separated. “J shaped people” with the “I” pushed down ready to spring up as surely as Christ is risen! For if we have been united with Jesus in a death like his Paul writes to the Romans (6v5, 8) we will certainly be united in a resurrection like his…if we have died with Christ we believe we will also live with him. 

My friends, sisters - and brothers - of the society of the holy cross Jesus does not ask us more than to come close to him in his passion so that our waiting and our dependence on others becomes invested with his presence, the presence that draws the whole world. 

It is into that presence that we now enter in this Holy Eucharist. 

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Trinity 12 (23rd of Year) 8th September 2019

Who’d be a preacher?
We have to set forth God’s truth without making it an obstacle to good living and call for love of the truth that’s wholly practical.
Christianity’s a matter of principle – we need these principles stating and re-stating - but it’s tailored to people, and people fall short in their allegiance to principle.
Those verses in Deuteronomy 30 and Luke 14 shook me up. 
I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him….. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 
Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.
We’re here this morning to give an hour of our life, Jesus’ hour, for him to impact and take hold of us afresh in word and sacrament and Christian fellowship. We can’t underestimate the value of Sunday obligation. For many of you, all of you hopefully, this morning’s attendance has been a victory, a going out of your way to synchronise a variety of commitments to honour God as the Lord of your life by coming to Church this morning.
You’re here to be one with the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s day, in the Lord’s house and round the Lord’s table. Alleluia!
You’ll leave hopefully with more of a taste for Jesus Christ, more set to face the cost of being his disciple and more attentive to what he has for you in the coming week. 
Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.
Saying our prayers, coming to Church, reading our Bibles, serving our neighbour and reflecting upon our need for God are expressions of that commitment.
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.
To commit to God as a Christian is to commit trustfully to the eternal God as the depth beyond all things, to see the world as no longer a flat surface but to descend to the heart of things and be impacted. To be caught up into something utterly mysterious and countercultural. 
The second reading touches on this, where Paul commends the runaway slave Onesimus he’d helped to faith to his master Philemon. Onesimus had found these depths, that transcend the way the world is, in the person of Jesus. Now, as Paul insists, his being a slave is a lesser point, but not so much less that Onesimus shouldn’t return to Philemon, the master he ran away from. Paul’s letter survives, shortest in the Bible, to affirm among other things how in the depth of things there’s no hierarchy of power. 
Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.
Once we’re surrendered we are, in baptism, made equal to one another in a new way of living that’s no longer two dimensional and superficial but one that’s surrendered to God as ground of our being. The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms we read in Deuteronomy 33:27.
Christian belief isn’t something cerebral, contrary to those thinking you build belief or disbelief by argument. It’s whole life surrender. It’s not a matter of thinking your way into a new way of living but living your way into a new way of thinking. 
Faith’s the act of the whole of our being. Doubt by contrast is a partial business employing that part of the mind that questions what we’re about and what its right to think. This questioning is set for Christians within the wholehearted surrender of faith. We believe in the resurrection not with our minds but as we live out the death of the old self so the Holy Spirit can bring us new life through the agency of faith. We believe in the Cross as we make sense of suffering with the assurance that not all that happens is determined by God's plan but that all that happens is encompassed by his love. 
We are loved by almighty love and we are loved for ever, that is the reality Christian faith sees for sure. Paul knew Philemon knew this when he wrote I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. 
Could that be said of me, of you? Would it were so!
A year or so back I read and reviewed for Faith in Sussex Rupert Shortt’s God is no thing published 2016. It’s by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement who’s well familiar with how religion’s seen in Britain today. 
Many believing artists and writers in the UK are advised to conceal their faith if they want a following. Such is our local scenario: secular humanism dominating the world of ideas with pretended neutrality. Meanwhile secularism is losing ground worldwide with three quarters of humanity professing a religious faith, said to be heading for 80% by 2050. The world over people evidently see in Christianity a vitality and coherence that’s being lost or obscured in our own culture. Reading Shortt was a tonic. Here is his summary of what we’re about: Christianity - at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts - forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence. It provides the strongest available underpinning for values including the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, and human responsibility for the environment. I like that phrase love’s mending of wounded hearts as a description of the dynamic of faith. It’s a long way from that over hasty perception of religion as a bully. Shortt sees the problem for religion and secularism as the tendency to bully rather than reason with one another. 
Following God means surrendering your whole life to him. I can’t escape as preacher underlining that Christian basic this morning, praying it will touch more hearts here at St Mary’s into wholehearted service, lay or ordained - and, yes, the church won’t survive without clergy so many here should remain open to being called into that overarching ministry of Christian service.  The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms…. God is also the activity that comes to me out of [the] depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformation I can’t imagine.  That transformation isn’t just for you but, like Philemon, for all in your orbit. May this Eucharist fill you with the joy and encouragement that filled him to overflow, so that you can more fully love God and make him loved in the networks you’re part of!