Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tying up loose ends

Before the sermon, a little something for St Cecilia's Day





Sermon for the Sunday next before Advent

Is Sunday the first day of the week or the last? 

Either way it has its place in the weekend in the same way that a piece of string has two ends: one of those ends is a beginning.

Sunday is always about Resurrection. It is the centre of our Faith and the beginning of a new week. It is the first day of Creation; it is the first day of the Church Militant; it is the first day of the liturgical year.

Today, however, is a last Sunday. How can a last ever be a first?

[PAUSE]

In our experience, life falls into cycles and circles: as we orbit the sun, we see the seasons come and go; as the planet spins, we see day become night and night become day; we see birth and death and we think they are different.

But there are cycles we don't see because we don't live long enough. Ice ages have come and gone; there have been mass extinctions as the planet has changed and new species have risen to take their place. Our whole solar system orbits the galaxy every two hundred million years. 

It seems everything happens in cycles. Ends and beginnings get tied together.

But the Incarnation of Our Lord, His Life, His Work, His Death, His Resurrection, aren't these just a one-off? These aren't repeated. And neither are we. We don't go round again, do we?

[PAUSE]

Sunday gives us the answer: the first day of Creation, the day of Resurrection. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself ties our creation to our resurrection. We die because we sin and we sin because we die as St Paul tells the Romans. Death and sin are tied together. In being made Man, God gives us someone for us to tie ourselves to. Our births and our deaths become united in Him and we are raised to a new life with Him.

But we cannot be tied to Christ and to sin. A string only has two ends and we need both our ends to be tied to Christ. 

[PAUSE]

As our liturgical year ends, so we are reminded that the cycle begins again in order to help us untie ourselves from sin and unite ourselves to Christ. Now is the time to reflect on the year that is gone and prepare for the year that is coming. Now is the time to see Christ ascend into Heaven and prepare to see Him in the manger. Now is the time to allow the cycles of the Church year to tie our loose ends together more tightly in Christ.

In tying ourselves to Christ we tie ourselves to Eternity and to joy.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Exclusive Inclusivity and the Church

Sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Trinity

Have you ever been forced to do something you didn't want to do through sheer peer pressure?

[PAUSE]

The way that a human society holds itself together is by making the idea of being an outcast very unpalatable. These days, being inclusive is something that we strive for: everyone must belong to our society as a valued part. It's very reasonable and well-intentioned. We Christians know full well that every single human being is a precious child of God.

These days we would not exclude people from society for being blind. We involve them in playing an active part and give them access to the same opportunities that are available to everyone. The fact that they are blind does not pose a barrier to being included in our society.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with the man born blind of whom St John is speaking in his gospel. This man is excluded precisely because he can't see: he can't work or contribute or participate in the temple; he probably looks different too if his eyes are not properly formed. The assumption that society makes is that he is blind because he has sinned and therefore he ought to be avoided by polite society. 

To an extent the Church agrees with that. Both St Peter and St Paul say that unrepentant sinners are to be put out of the Church until they do repent: those who seek to sin damage the community and that's not on.

But the blind man hasn't sinned. There's no sin here. There's no reason for his exclusion. What there is is incompleteness.

[PAUSE]

And so, God in Christ - He who formed Man in His own image from the dust of the earth - He takes the dust of the earth and completes the man's eyes Himself.

This is direct evidence that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

The man acknowledges his blindness and receives sight. And, just because he is healed by Our Lord, he is cast once more from polite society because he dares to tell the truth. He is cast out because he bears witness to Our Lord.

The sad thing is his parents do not stand by him. 

Oh yes, the world must hear of this wonderful healing from the lips of one who was blind but now sees, but his parents sell him short. They do not stand with him. They want to remain part of polite society and will not tell the truth so they don't get thrown out.

[PAUSE]

No society can be truly inclusive. Groucho Marx says that he would never join a society that would have him as a member. There is always some rule of conduct.

The Church is no different. The Church enjoys communion with God in Christ. Those who sin separate themselves from God therefore they separate themselves from the Church. But God gives a way back - repentance. Until we repent of sin, we remain apart from the Church. And only God can say what sin is because sin depends on what God is not.

[PAUSE]

Jesus seeks to bring the once-blind man back into society from which he should never have been excluded. And, thankfully, we have learned from this that the blind are to be included in our society to the fullest. If, however, a blind man tries to drive a car then he is acting unlawfully. Even in an "inclusive" society there are things in which it is for everyone's good to exclude the blind. It isn't cruel to do so nor diminishing but acknowledging the truth. 

[PAUSE]

The same is true for each of us. Human nature is broken and imperfect. It is true and honest to recognise and accept our imperfections and limitations. There are things which we cannot do without sinning. It is true and honest to recognise that we are tempted to go beyond our limitations and so fall into sin. It is true and honest to see where we have sinned and turn back.

[PAUSE]

As for the once-blind man, he is excluded from society for telling the truth. Our Lord shows that it is worth being excluded from such a society. The Church seeks the Truth because the Church seeks Christ. How can the Church embrace the falsehoods that Society wants us to hold?

It is better to be excluded from falsehood and included in the Truth for there is Christ and there is God. If you offend Society by telling the truth then Society will cut you off as Our Lord predicts. If you seek the Truth, however, then you are very much welcome in the Church.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Unreal Idols and Real Ikons

Sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Trinity

What a strange way to end a letter! No "yours sincerely", no "all my love", no "warm regards". St John's first letter ends simply with

"Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen."

It's possible that we lost the rest of the letter. If we did, then that's a shame but it cannot have contributed to our understanding and relationship with God. If this is it then it seems a very abrupt way to end a letter.

[PAUSE]

Clearly St John wishes us to impress upon us that idolatry is a big problem and he has spent much of his letter telling us why: we are to worship the true and living God and not created things.

St John has spent much of his ministry in Ephesus and has seen the idolatry of the Greeks and Romans with their whole phone-book's worth of gods to worship: Artemis, Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon.... Since St John is Jewish, he is also aware in his culture that there are people who worship Baal, Ashtoreth and the disgusting Molech. In such an environment, how is anyone to know the true God?

[PAUSE]

St John begins his letter drawing us to the fact that he has seen God, hugged Him, even laid his head upon the divine breast. He knows Jesus: he knows God.

He knows that there can be only one God. Another St John - this time St John Damascene - says that if there were two true gods then one would limit what the other can do and God can do all that can be done. Thus there is only one true God that exists: Jesus bears witness to Him and the Holy Spirit bears witness to Him.

Further, the Apostle St John whose letter we are reading, says that on earth there are three witnesses that God is with us in Jesus: the witness of the Holy Spirit throughout His ministry, in His miracles and in His preaching; and in the witness of the blood and water which poured out of His side on the Cross. All this points to one truth, one reality: that God Himself became flesh and dwelt among us.

[PAUSE]

This is the truth. Any god that is not seen in Our Lord Jesus Christ is an idol - a thing of our own creation.These are shadows and phantoms without any substance and whose demands haven't the power even to save a flea.

St John is clear, our faith in God is expressed in our striving to lead sinless lives by which he means lives that seek God and stick to Him like glue. When we sin we must confess and repent and we will find ourselves back with Him. We cannot  say that we love God and then ignore Him and what He asks us to do for then we are worshipping a false God which looks like the real one but who agrees with our sinfulness: if God wants us to be joined with Him, why should He tolerate anything that separates us from Him.

[PAUSE]

Unrepentant Idolatry is a sin unto death because we refuse to let go of the god that we have created and who accepts what we do without question. The true God will show us our sins and bear them for us upon His Cross. His pain and suffering will bear witness to that. Will our struggle to know and fight against our sin bear witness to our love for Him?

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Relics of the Unknown Saint

Sermon for the solemnity of All Saints

How many saints are there?

There are some who believe that there are only 144,000 people who are going to Heaven based on reading St John's words in the Book of Revelation. Yet, a careful reading of this shows us very clearly that this number is formed from twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. If we are going to be literal about the number then we have to be literal about the people we are counting. If the Book of Revelation is being literal in its truth, then the only people going to Heaven will be Jewish. That rather contradicts the Gospel proclaimed to the Gentiles, doesn't it?

Yet, St John is clear. The communion of Saints is innumerable. We cannot count the number of the saints. Even looking at the collection of Saints in the Martyrology, we see so many saints that go unnamed, and whom history seems to have forgotten. 

The vast majority of saints go unnamed, without saints' days, without being recognised, without any earthly veneration.

Is this a tragedy, or is it a good thing?

[PAUSE]

Of these unknown saints, there is nothing left. "Some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them."

The World has forgotten them. Even the Church seems to have forgotten them. They appear nowhere in calendars or in reliquaries. Yet, perhaps these unknown saints bear witness to something more truly glorious.

[PAUSE]

Of course the Church has not forgotten them: they are the Church. They may not have magnificent tombs or people begging their prayers, but they bear witness to the sheer transitory nature of this life. Their bodies may have turned to the dust and been blown to the four winds. But, in time, this will be true of all of us. 

The fact is that our cathedrals will crumble; our books, discs, even our digital data in the cloud will decay and rot to nothing. Human civilization will evaporate as if it had never been. There will be a time when there will be no evidence for the existence of the Church whatsoever.

Depressed? Don't be. This is good news.

[PAUSE]

When the Church has disappeared from Earth, then its existence in Heaven will be complete. Earth forgets about Heaven but the Church does not.

Saints may disappear on earth. "Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore."

God does not forget, neither does the Church. When the world pronounces us insignificant, God remembers. When our work is disregarded, God remembers. When our suffering is ignored, God remembers.

[PAUSE]

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. In remembering the saints we know, we venerate the saints we have forgotten because all saints stand together. We, too, will be saints forgotten by the world but that means we have ceased finally to be of the world.

We will be forgotten, but the Gospel that we preach will resound until there are no ears left to hear it, and then there will be nothing else to hear but the song of worship sung by the innumerable cloud of saints for Eternity.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Kingdom of Truth

Sermon for the feast of Christ the King

Throughout the day, we have been standing with Our Lord Jesus as He stands before Pontius Pilate. We have spent today gazing upon this one scene looking at all the aspects of what it means to be king and it brings us back to this meeting of leaders. What we witness here is a struggle between kingdoms and yet only one is a real kingdom. 

This is a strange struggle, though, as we don't see soldiers fighting. Our Lord says that He has legions of angels at His command and yet He will not use them. The battle we are witnessing is not like anything we know. No cannons roaring or bullets flying; no swords nor spears; no skirmish or battle cry - at least none we recognise and yet, here, in the Roman Governor's office a battle is raging between kings.

[PAUSE]

Kingship involves imposing control somehow. Every king must face the struggle of exercising their will. Some do this by brute force; some do this by persuasion and diplomacy; some do this by careful manipulation.

How does Jesus rule?

[PAUSE]

God rules by the sheer act of creation. Things are as they are because He wills it. He says as much:

 Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

The truth is what really is. We owe our existence to God: only He makes things exist. More than that, God uses the very existence of things to communicate with us. We know that the Heavens are telling the glory of God. They have no speech or language and yet their sound has gone out into all lands. This is the truth that we hear and what we hear is the voice of God.

[PAUSE]

Kings exercise control in order to impose their will whatever the motivation behind that will may be. The truth of God's kingship is that it is motivated by goodness and love for us. His will is to love. He does not seek to dominate us. He does not seek to terrorise us or gain some pleasure by pitting us against each other. He does not play with our lives or seek some demeaning services from us. We are indeed to serve Him but in serving Him we find true joy.

We have a king who truly has our best interests at heart.

As He stands before Pilate, Our Lord is intent on proclaiming this truth that He is here to save us from evil and that, in a few hours time, He will do that on the Cross. That is His declaration of sincerity. It is His new covenant with us.

[PAUSE]

The rule of a king depends on those who accept his authority. The struggle is with those who do not accept it. Standing before Pilate, Our Lord is struggling. He struggles not against Pilate, nor against Pharisees, or Rome or the world: if He were then these would not stand. Christ fights against all the forces of Evil which have infected us since Adam and Eve.

He fights and His victory is our freedom. We are fully free to choose and that is God's victory on our behalf for true love allows the beloved to make a free choice. The truth will set us free. We could, like the Devil, choose to reject God and that distance from God will be ours for Eternity. 

Or we could accept the rule of Christ and see the truth. That truth will open our eyes to own selves and we shall behold His glory as the One Who sits upon the throne. His control over Creation gives us life and this life with Him will be Eternal.

Friday, October 23, 2020

A little something for Halloween

I was dared by a friend to turn this famous "true" story into a ballad. This is the result. Sleep well.



1) 
As Charlie's reign draws to its end,
a fable rather strange
begins its haunt at the Low Hall
that's known as Croglin Grange.
Two brothers and a sister lease
this Hall that's near the church.
The graveyard's old; the stones are worn,
and there the phantoms perch.

2)
One night, the winds are high and howl
around the sister's room,
and from her window she can see
some movement in the gloom.
Two points of light, red fire aflame,
flit swift from tomb to tomb.
Afraid, she shuts the casement tight
and draws back in her room.

3)
And, as she swoons upon her bed,
wracked by foreboding plain,
she spies those self-same points of light
at her dark window pane.
A scratch upon the glass appalls
and pins her to her bed.
The beast outside, to entry gain,
unpicks the window's lead.

4)
A pane falls in, a finger long
creeps in and lifts the latch.
And through the window wide it slinks,
its victim now to catch.
It stands up, tall and thin and dark,
its face a shrivelled brown.
its eyes glow red and, to her bed, 
it holds its victim down.

5)
And into her poor throat all white
its fangs it deftly sinks
her roseate blood it trickles out
as Croglin's vampire drinks.
The brothers hear her screams and burst
into the sister's room.
The girl it drops and, whence it came,
flies out into the gloom.

6)
 The sister lives, though wounded sore.
Her neck the brothers bind.
They send her off to Switzerland
for health of mien and mind.
A few months pass, the girl returns
to Croglin's haunted hall.
She takes her chambers back again
to bilk the vampire's thrall.

7)
Yet, when the next the winds are high,
and red lights show their gleam
once more at sister's window pane,
she straightway starts to scream.
The brothers enter, pistols cocked
and see the vampire's frame.
A bullet fired into its leg
renders the monster lame.

8)
Across the grounds it limps and flees
towards the churchyard near.
And close behind, the men pursue,
no longer slaves to fear.
They find a stone all cracked and rent.
Beneath, a coffin old
its lid part off, the fiend within
all rank and all a-mould.

9)
A stake is driv'n; a spade is raised
and slices off its head
and, by the morn, the monster's burned
with its foul reign of dread.
Now, when the wind at Croglin's high
by candlelight, it's said
you may still hear the scratching sound
of unpicked window lead.