Sermon: Christmas Day – 25th December 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am

Readings:  Isaiah 62: 1-12  Psalm 97   Titus 3: 4-8a  Luke 2: 1-20

With all the evident evil that we have witnessed in recent weeks we can think that we live in a dark work, an evil world. What with the killing of those school children in Pakistan, the murder of the children in Cairns, the siege in the Lindt cafe, the seizing of many people in Africa and many other horrific episodes, but, with all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. In Genesis we read,

“God saw everything that God had made and indeed it was very good.”

What we are celebrating is the festival of the Light of Christ coming into the work; the theme of light runs through the celebration of Christmas. Everywhere you go at this time of year, be those places secular or religious the concept of light is the common emphasis. Stars twinkling in shops, Christmas lights decorate homes and trees. At Christmas carol services it usually is understood that there will be candles. We had many here last Sunday evening and we have not quite so many here today.

Many of the readings that we have this morning and at all the other services of the celebration of Christmas, last night and today, refer to light and the effects of light. For example;

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” Isaiah 9

“An angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Luke 2

“Light dawns for the righteous.” Psalm 97

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John1

The celebration of the birthday of Christ is all about God’s light coming into the world in a very special way. This is a beautiful, if somewhat difficult world at times and so we need special insight into living our life the best manner that we can because we only get one shot at life.

Jesus is the great light. If we follow the teachings of Jesus, God’s Messiah, then we will have a beacon to aid us step into the next unknown moment. The philosophical concept of existentialism reminds us that we live in the moment. Our life is always lived on the edge of an abyss. The apostle Paul said that no one has all the answers. He said that; “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) None of us have all the answers. Faith is about things unseen. As it says in Hebrews, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Uncertainty is the norm for everyone.

We are constantly stepping out into the next unknown moment. We all have to be continually making decisions about the next moment as life comes our way. No one else is able to do it for us, although we would love them to. Part of our essential humanness is our freedom to make decisions for ourselves. In this world of exponentially increasing rate of change, it can be a very daunting task to determine what we are to do. The light of Christ guides us to the understanding that while we can’t be in control as we would like to be we can be guaranteed that where we go the Light of Christ will be there to assist no matter how frail our faith maybe. It maybe the darkest night of our existence but God in the form of Christ comes to light our path and to give help and assistance.

The light is there all the time. We only have to reach out to the person whose birth it is we celebrate today and he will share our troubles. They may not go away, but we can be assured that we will have the special insight that Jesus gives to deal with the difficulty. We are lifted up and put on higher ground.

An extension of the help that Jesus gives us is that we too can bring the light to others in Jesus’ name. By allowing the Christ Child to be born in us this Christmas, we can help others to be healed of the maladies, indispositions, fears and misgivings that inflict them in their experience of darkness of their life.

Remember the light of Christ is for all people and that we too must let that light shine through us and into the lives of all whom we touch. Christmas is about the freedom that the light that Christ brings. Remember the old children’s hymn.

“Jesus bids us shine with a pure clear light;

Like a little candle burning in the night.

In this world of darkness, so we must shine –

You in your small corner and I in mine.

 

Jesus bids us shine then for all around;

Many kinds of darkness in this world abound –

Sin and want and sorrow; so we must shine –

You in your small corner and I in mine.” [1]

 

“Let your light shine before others…”[2]

 

The Reverend John Cornish

 

[1] Susan Warner, Verses 1 and 3, Number 684 Golden Bells, Scripture Union and CSSM, London
[2] Matthew Chapter 5 verse 16.

 

 

 

 

Sermon: The Fourth Sunday in Advent (B) – 21st December 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am

Readings:  2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16   Luke 1:46b-55  Romans 16:25-27   Luke 1:26-38

Luke’s distinctive attention to God’s work among ordinary people continues to be evident in this morning’s readings. The angel Gabriel appeared first to Zechariah, an old priest going about his duties in the Temple and then to a young girl not yet married. God chose the lowly rather than the high and mighty to fulfil the plan of redemption. Instead of sending Gabriel to a queen or princess, God sent the angel to a young girl engaged to a carpenter. They lived in an insignificant town in an unimportant province of the Roman Empire. Nothing about their circumstances would have led anyone to suspect the role they would play in God’s plan.

Mary has been chosen, favoured, by God, but it is a strange blessing. It brought with it none of the ideals or goals that so consume our daily striving. Today many assume that those whom God favours will enjoy the things we equate with the good life: social standing, wealth and good health. Yet Mary, God’s favoured one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a common criminal. Acceptability, prosperity and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing. The story is so familiar that we let its familiarity mask its scandal.

If Mary embodies the scandal, she also exemplifies the obedience that should flow from blessing. Mary was favoured and would bear a king, but only if she gave herself obediently in response to God’s call. The greatest blessings are bound up in the fellowship God shares with us. They are not rewards separate from that fellowship. Perhaps we would inject more realism into our Advent celebrations if we recognised that the glory of Christmas came about by the willingness of ordinary people to obey God’s claim on their lives.

The ultimate scandal is that God would enter human life with all its depravity, violence and corruption. Therefore, the annunciation ultimately is an announcement of hope for humanity. God has not abandoned us to the consequences of our own sinfulness. Rather, God has sent Jesus as our deliverer. There is no other way; life under the Lordship of Jesus is without end.

The Annunciation contains the classic statement that the impossible is possible, “for nothing will be impossible with God”. Again the roots go deep in the memory of the Jewish nation. Out of the barren woman there comes the child of promise; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the mother of Samson, Hannah and now Mary’s kinswoman, Elizabeth, are the bearers of God’s miracle of salvation. When there seemed to be no hope at all, the impossible became possible.

Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy is a sign to Mary and to us all, that an even greater event will take place. God’s own son will be born of a virgin. That which defies the natural order startles us into attention. Truly God is faithful and what has been promised through the ages will be done.

What tremendous power of the Spirit is set loose in those who believe that “nothing will be impossible with God”. They are impregnated with prophetic vision, radical courage and enduring compassion. They are companions of the one who has come, is to come and who will come again at the end of the ages.

Mary humbly waited for the promise of God to be fulfilled through her own flesh. Her trusting openness to love gave birth to Love in the world. The impossible became possible. Through her radical courage, she was willing to have the miracle take place within her and through her. This same power of love and hope can be liberated in us and through us. Hope is born anew, for with God nothing is impossible.

Another way of looking at the theme of these readings is listening in as the angel tells the perplexed teenager that she has formed such favour with God that her baby will receive “the throne of his ancestor David” and “of his kingdom there will be no end”. In the Magnificat, Mary reveals good news for the poor and marginalised for in the birth of Christ, the Mighty One has “lifted up the lowly” and “filled the hungry with good things”.

This is not simply charity, but a levelling of the social playing field. Mary says God has “scattered the proud”, “brought down the powerful”, and “sent the rich away empty”. With the help of the angel and of the Davidic tradition, Mary can see that God made flesh will bring deep justice and systemic transformation.

When people like Elizabeth and Mary find the courage to cooperate with God, the impossible becomes possible.

As Christmas dawns with this new year of our lives dare we pray together the prayer of Charles de Foucauld. “The Prayer of Abandonment.”

Foucauld was a French religious and priest living among Tuareg people in the Sahara in Algeria. He was assassinated in 1916 outside the door of the fort he built for the protection of the Tuareg and is considered by the Catholic Church to be a martyr. His inspiration and writings led to the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus among other religious congregations.

Charles de Foucauld was an officer of the French Army in North Africa where he first developed his strong feelings about the desert and solitude. On his subsequent return to France, and towards the end of October 1886, at the age of 28, he went through a conversion experience at the Church of Saint Augustin in Paris

The prayer goes like this,

“Father, I abandon myself into your hands; Do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you; I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures, I wish no more than this, 0 Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart. For I love you Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands. Without reserve, and with boundless confidence. For you are my Father.”

Here is a poem by that prolific person who seems to have always been with us, anonymous, in this case from the 15th century. It reminds us that most of what we know about Mary is poetic and imaginative. Its called “I sing of a maiden”. It reminds us that we are all called to be bearers of the Word and through our actions great things can happen.

“I sing of a maiden

That (that has no match):

King of all kinges

To her son she (chose).

 

He came all so stille

There his mother was,

As dew in Aprille

That falleth on the grass.

 

He came all so stille

To his mother’s bower,

As dew in Aprille

That falleth on the flower.

 

He came all so stille

There his mother lay,

As dew in Aprille

That falleth on the spray.

 

Mother and maiden

Was never none but she;

Well may such a lady

Goddes mother be.”

 

Have you ever experienced the impossible becoming possible? Have you ever seen love come to birth because of someone’s courage and vulnerability? Where can you see the signs of saving justice and fair judgments, faith and constancy, that mark God’s reign in and around you? Have you been asked by God to help bring about some change during the past few weeks?

I hope that we can all say in this time of the Advent of our Lord,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.[i]

 

The Reverend John Cornish

[i] This sermon produced using the resources of www.sojo.net, The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol IX Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995, the New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Oxford, 1988 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_de_Foucauld.

 

 

 

Sermon: The Third Sunday in Advent (B) – 14th December 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am

Readings:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11;  Psalm 126;  1 Thessalonians 5:12-28;  John 1:6-8, 19-28

In the reading from 1 Thessalonians Paul instructs his readers to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”. How do you pray without ceasing or rejoice in all circumstances? One person I know prays as she walks. That suits her it may not suit you.

Most of us would want to adjust Paul’s words, to qualify them. Perhaps we wish Paul to say “in some circumstances” or “in some things”. That would be more acceptable for our own practical tastes, more suitable for our own set of realities but in every circumstance? That has to be one of the most adventurous voyages of thought ever embarked on the rough waters of reason and logically, it seems destined for shipwreck.

Paul certainly does not qualify the circumstances. He means “all”. Has Paul asked his church to do the impossible? Can a person face a fresh set of abuses every day and give thanks? Can a person rise above the doubts left by years of abuse at the hands of a parent or a spouse and give thanks? “Give thanks in all circumstances?” In another place Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. They would seem easy words were they not also written from a prison cell. Such encouragements can be trusted. It should be understood that while Paul’s words may lack qualification, they are based upon at least two basic truths.

The first truth is that worship of God is the context for all of life, not just the part we devote to God during our time in church here each Sunday. In the words of Karl Rahner, a twentieth century Jesuit theologian, “Everyday life must become itself our prayer”. If all of life is worship for those who seek to do God’s will, then giving thanks is a necessary and inevitable product. Paul does not say thanks should be governed by circumstances. Whether good or bad be the lot, a life of worship, of seeking to please and honour God and of doing God’s will, means perpetual thanksgiving

The second truth is that life’s depths, not solely its surfaces, must receive our attention. Another theologian, Paul Tillich a Lutheran of the Twentieth century, speaks of the “depth of existence” as the “ground of our historical life … the ultimate depth of history”. Tillich’s words are not a call for living our lives near shallow waters, where thoughts are restricted to family and routine supports near the shore. Yet, most of us live near such shallow waters. Consequentially, we judge our lives by visible, surface and indeed superficial influences, that is, the occasional good things or bad things that happen to us.

There is a famous small Russian book, which is translated into English and is called called, “The Way of a Pilgrim”.

Readers of The Way of a Pilgrim quickly discover two levels of story in this simple and unassuming nineteenth-century religious classic. The first level presents silent prayer in the Orthodox Christian tradition, namely, the “ceaseless” prayer or the so-called Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The Way of a Pilgrim is imminently practical in its advice to simply start praying.

The second level of narration, which underlies the entire work, is the literal but subtle presentation of the hermit life. The narrator is a solitary and a wanderer calling himself a pilgrim. The wandering hermit’s example is presented as the model existence for those who would truly lead a spiritual life.

The origin of this spiritual classic is in many ways a mystery. No one knows for certain if it is a literally true story, or even a marvellously creative piece of spiritual fiction intended to propagate the prayer of the heart, particularly the Jesus Prayer.

The pilgrim is the universal person on a pilgrim’s journey without real destination on earth, a pilgrim journey in which “the way” is itself the whole point. The book is divided into four sections or chapters in which the narrator tells of his travels and experiences.

He writes, “By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. A knapsack and some dried bread in it, and a Bible in my breast pocket are my worldly goods. And that is all.”

Twenty-first century observers would scorn his habits and appearance but his contemporaries would have recognized a holy man on the brink between madness and sanctity, for even the narrator himself will tell us of the homeless along the way who are thieves, criminals, drunkards and lunatics.

Nowhere is it sensed in the pilgrim’s narrative that he is not fully conscious of himself and of his circumstances. He invites us to recognize how society has formed everyone he encounters, but that only spirituality and not society can redeem them.

The pilgrim recalls how he heard the Biblical admonition to “pray ceaselessly”. He has set out to discover how. “For a long time I wandered through many places,” he tells us, until he discovered a starets who advised him to learn how to pray ceaselessly. A starets is an elder of a Russian Orthodox monastery who functions as venerated adviser and teacher,

He was told to, “Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient and repeat the process very frequently”.

At first the pilgrim repeated the prayer 6,000 times a day, and upon the starets advice, increased to 12,000 a few weeks later. Soon, as the starets had suggested, the pilgrim found the prayer at his lips and in his mind every waking hour, as spontaneous and effortless as his breath itself.

The pilgrim took a job on a farm, close to the starets, but the starets died and the farm work ended with the summer, so the pilgrim decides to move on. “I wandered about for a long time in different districts”, he writes, but eventually he determined to go to Siberia because there, “I should travel in greater silence”.

“I took to walking more by night and chose to spend my days reading the Philokalia sitting down under a tree in the forest. … When I came to a village I asked only for a bag of dried bread and a handful of salt. I filled my bark jar with water and soon set out for another sixty miles or so. The Philokalia, which translates lover of beauty”, is a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries written for the guidance and instruction of monks in “the practise of the contemplative life”.

From the Philokalia he learned that true prayer worships in the Spirit, and that the kingdom of God is within us. To the pilgrim, the Jesus Prayer revealed the “inner secret of the heart” and the “knowledge of the speech of all creatures”. The wandering hermit life has brought the pilgrim the physical serenity and the detached independence of mind and heart to become receptive to a higher spirituality. The pilgrim quotes the Gospel passage of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, identifying himself with them as completely dependent on God, so that whatever happens nothing can separate him from God.

Typical of the pilgrim’s advice to those he meets on his journeying is a passage such as the following where the pilgrim stays a while with a pious family, but the pilgrim was not always so fortunate. Among the difficulties he experienced were two that might befall a homeless wanderer and hermit in Russia at the time.

Once he was attacked by a wolf but was turned away when he struck the wolf with his prayer beads. In another incident, the pilgrim advises a young woman who is about to be forced into marriage and is trying to flee her future husband and his cronies. The pilgrim is falsely accused of a crime, jailed overnight, released the next morning by the local judge when the charge is dismissed, but is flogged before being let go. Still, the pilgrim does not murmur but construes the whole incident as a lesson from God.

At this point in the narrative, the pilgrim reveals a little about his life. His parents had died in his childhood and a grandfather raised him together with his older brother. The older brother was a “madcap” who had pushed the younger brother from a height when the latter was only seven years old, crippling the child’s left arm and making him useless for serious manual labour.

The brother only worsened with age. He became a shiftless alcoholic.

When the pilgrim came of age, the grandfather found him a wife, but was unable to assuage the violent and jealous older brother. The pilgrim dearly loved his wife. Sensing his approaching end, the grandfather bequeathed the house to the couple and a thousand rubles, and then passed away. The older brother was furious, and in a drunken rage one night burned down the house, leaving the couple penniless. They eked out a subsistence, worsened by the pilgrim’s inability to secure work due to his bad arm. He read to her while she sewed garments for a little money. The wife died of a fever. The pilgrim found himself alone and impoverished.

He continues, “Since that time, for the last thirteen years, I have wandered from place to place. I made the rounds of many churches and monasteries but now I am taking to wandering over steppes and fields”.

He has come from Siberia, he says, to Kiev and now decided to travel to Odessa and embark for Jerusalem. It is fitting for a pilgrim, he concludes, especially in his thirty-third year of age.

“I do not know whether God will vouchsafe to let me go to Jerusalem. If it be His will, when the time comes, my sinful bones may be laid to rest there.”

And, so ends The Way of the Pilgrim. On the last page, the pilgrim is speaking to a starets, relating his latest adventures and his desire to go to Jerusalem. However, he admits, “I have already chatted far too much and the holy fathers call even spiritual talk mere babble if it lasts too long”.

The two levels of The Way of a Pilgrim, the prayer method and the life of the wandering hermit, give readers of either disposition entry to fresh approaches to prayer and to the hermits lifestyle. The authenticity of the homeless wanderer is well sustained by his simplicity of belief and practice. Whether we are prompted to incorporate the Philokalia into a short list of religious classics or to count the narrative as a heartfelt testimony of an hermit’s life, The Way of a Pilgrim has universal appeal. The work complements and extends the traditions of spiritual simplicity while confirming the simplicity and insightfulness of the hermit life.

Life is beautiful but each one of us has dark days and praying ceaselessly, however you carry that out, is the way to walking the way of the cross and living as a member of the Body of Christ.[1]

 

[1]This sermon composed using material from http://www.hermitary.com/articles/pilgrim.html, www.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philokalia, and www.sojo.net and “Advent in the Wilderness” by Conrad Hooper and “Celebrating Advent in a Prison Cell” by Bill Wylie-Kellermann.

 

The Reverend John Cornish