Sermon: The First Sunday of Lent (A) – 9th March 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping 8:30 am

The readings for the first Sunday in Lent take us through the sweep of salvation history: the fall in the garden, the lament over sin in the Psalms, the hope of acceptance through Christ given in Romans, and then straight to the story of the temptation of Jesus, participating in our frailties yet triumphing over them, in Matthew,

Traditionally the Genesis story has been told as a tale of disobedience: God gives a clear command; Eve is tempted by Satan to disobey the command, and gives in.  Christ parallels the story, being tempted by Satan not in a garden, but in a wilderness.  But, unlike Eve, you and me, Jesus resists the temptation and triumphs.

Look closely at Genesis and notice that the temptation is direr than simply disobeying a divine command.  God has created humanity and then made a garden in which the creature could live.  We are given a God’s eye view of the garden: it is pleasing to the sight, good for food, and contains two trees, one of life, and the other of knowledge.  Then God gives a command Adam and Eve: do not eat the tree that gives knowledge.

The serpent accomplishes the temptation indirectly: “Did God say you couldn’t eat any of the fruit in the garden?” and Eve rushes to answer that it’s only one tree that is forbidden.  The serpent refutes the statement that the tree will cause death; instead, he says, this tree will make you like God.  The woman sees that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes and desirable for wisdom.  What she doesn’t know is that she is mirroring God’s own perspective; she is already like God but she does not believe it.  The fall is not simply disobedience, but a failure to own herself as the image of God that she has been created to be.

The significance of this reading is that when Genesis is read only as a tale of disobedience, our interpretation turns disobedience into an pompous pride in a desire to be like God, to storm heaven, as it were.  We fail to live up to what God created us to be.

In Genesis, the temptation is in the midst of a garden; in Matthew, the temptation is in the midst of a wilderness.  Symbolically, we can see the garden represents the richness of living as the image of God: as God wishes.  The wilderness, on the other hand, is the loss of that richness.  For Jesus, the only garden is Gethsemane, not Eden.  His temptation is not lush surroundings, but a desert.

Eve, not knowing who she is, gives in to the temptation to “be like God”.  Yet she is already in God’s image.  Jesus, knowing who he is, is also tempted to “be like God”; doing the miraculous things that only God could do: make stones into bread, demonstrate dramatic rescues, be recognized as the ruler of all the kingdoms of the world!  Be like God!  Jesus, knowing himself, answers each temptation simply with the refuting word of God.

Had Eve repeated the words of God she’d have felt no need to take the fruit.  Jesus, repeating God’s word, defeats the temptation, and goes on to complete redemption’s journey until once again we find ourselves in a garden, where Jesus himself is mistaken by Mary for a gardener: the garden of resurrection.

Genesis and Matthew offer contrasting stories about human responses to “temptation”.  They also offer contrasting stories about the presence and absence of God at times of “temptation”, reminders that we need to reconsider what we think the final double petition in the Lord’s Prayer means: “Save us for the time of trial and deliver us from evil”.

Some traditional unjust theologies appeal to Genesis 3 when they blame “Eve”, and all women thereafter, for spoiling life in the Garden of Eden and for handing sin on to their offspring.  Those misunderstandings limit human judgments about “good and evil” and lead to misreading and abusing scripture.  Some things the Bible says do not pass the test of time like tracing labour pains to the disobedience of the first humans, or the view that husbands are to “rule over” their wives.  The primary theme in the readings is that sin is part of the human condition, and forgiveness and Jesus’ faithfulness is its solution.

Although many have identified the snake with Satan, remember that the snake is one of God’s creatures.  It is a symbol of cleverness or shrewdness.  The woman’s reasons for eating the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” are not in themselves bad; on the contrary, they sound natural and good.  Although the snake tells the woman, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” the woman and her husband do not desire to be “like gods”.  They only wanted to eat good food and become “wise”.  How can we, or God, fault their desire for food and wisdom?  It was not the desire, or the object of their desire, that was wrong: what was wrong was their disobedience to God’s explicit instructions.

We hear lots of clever voices in our world trying to persuade us, usually successfully, to disregard what God would have us do, or not do.  We know that God wants us to care for the earth and for the poor, the sick and the hungry.  Yet we all participate in an economy that is destroying the earth, forcing more people into poverty and expanding the gap between the poor and the rich, keeping the sick in other countries from receiving healthcare, and failing to feed millions of children who die from hunger.  We know that God wants us to “love our enemies”, and not kill them; and yet, our elected politicians wage war on our behalf.

This story is good at naming the problem we face but, apart from reminding us to what God would have us do, or not do, it offers no solution to the problem of our disobedience.

It is noteworthy that the focus of Paul’s retelling of the Genesis 3 story is on the disobedience of “Adam,” and that he doesn’t mention a serpent, Eve, and the tree with the forbidden fruit.  His retelling shows an interest in only one thing: the way one person’s disobedience brought about a change in the world.  From that point on, everyone had to deal with the possibility of disobedience to God as a way of life.  That everyone subsequently participates in that way of life is an indication of its power, attraction, in the face of which our will is too weak to resist.  So, Paul’s customary way of talking about the human condition focused on human “weakness” in the face of the power of “sin” that invaded the world when “Adam” introduced disobedience as possible a way of life.

It’s not just that individuals decide to disobey God as a way of life, but also, and more fundamentally, that “Adam’s” disobedience changed the world, the human condition.  For Paul, “sin” and “death” are powers present in the world from the time of “Adam”.  “Sin” came into the world not as a power from outside the “created order” but because of the first act of human disobedience to God.  “Death”, however, came into the world as the form of God’s punishment for disobedience.  However “the whole creation” was affected, changed, by this chain of events.

Confession is first and foremost about creative transformation.  It is not about drowning in guilt.  As today’s Psalm so eloquently says, it is about opening up with full honesty in the sheltering presence of God’s “steadfast love”; it is about letting God, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, teach and counsel us about the way to new life, in the knowledge that God’s loving “ye is upon us.

In the account of Jesus’ baptism “a voice from heaven” repeated the witness of the story of Jesus’ birth, that Jesus is God’s “beloved Son”, with whom God is “well pleased” and it leads directly to the story about Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness.  In short, today’s Gospel reading is wedged between Jesus’ baptism, and what that says about Jesus’ identity, and the beginning of his public ministry following John’s arrest.

This reading does not say, “so, you, like Jesus, must resist temptation”, no matter how true the latter is.  You and I are not at all like Jesus!  It’s a story about Jesus, and by implication God and the world, and it invites our response to this Jesus, God and world.  It’s a story is about a test of Jesus’ faithfulness, and it is God who puts Jesus to this test.

Matthew now has Jesus demonstrate to God and the public that he is worthy of God’s good judgment.  Three times Jesus’ faithfulness to God stands up to the test.

The world is full of temptations to make idols of food, to live dangerously and test God’s providence and to make an idol of power and wealth.  The point of this story is that Jesus refused to make food, dominion and wealth idols; and he refused to exploit God’s “angels”, God’s “steadfast love”, for his own self-interest.

Confession names these ways, and others, that the world lures us into unfaithful lives.  Confession turns our attention to creative transformation that comes from God’s “steadfast love” for all creation.  Confession reorients our lives to Jesus’ faithfulness as the source of our faithfulness.[1]

 

Sermon: The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany (A) – 2nd March 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Celtic Christianity speaks of “thin places”, spots where the divine and human touch each other in life-transforming ways. However, every place and time reflects God’s presence and purpose in partnership with human creativity and freedom.  Every place can be a thin place; every encounter a theophany, or revelation of God, in which God calls us to arise, shine and act, for our light has come.

Some moments, however, may more fully reflect God’s intention in the dynamic divine-human call and response.  As the season of Epiphany portrays, God can choose to be more present in some places than others: for example, the birth of Jesus, the encounters with Jacob and Moses, the call of Mary and Joseph and the dream of the magi.  However, even here in these life-defining experiences, human response is still needed.  Even when we are “moved by the Holy Spirit”, those who are moved experience the Spirit from their own unique vantage point.  Still, all places and encounters can reveal something life-transfiguring about God and us.

Transfiguration captures the spirit of Epiphany.  The season of Epiphany begins with a world transforming star, guiding the magi from the East, and concludes with glory abounding on a mountaintop.  The mood of Epiphany, perhaps more than Christmas, is a time of wonder and glory, radiating from a humble dwelling to encompass the whole earth.  During Epiphany, we are given vision to experience God in our individual vocations and gifts and then in all persons and places.  This truly is a transfigured world.

During Epiphany we have been immersed in Jesus’ message.  This message focussed on the Commonwealth of God that through his work was beginning to appear, and on the radical character of the life it was calling into being.  We have seen that his message both continued the prophetic tradition of Israel and also how it transformed it.  We are called to understand we must spread the news that Jesus announced and show how he enacted the fulfilment of that tradition.  It was about him that the prophets spoke.  He was God’s King: The descendant of David.  He inaugurated the Kingdom of God for all humanity.  It is still in the process of completion but Jesus is the King now and forever.

Today our attention is called to the person of Jesus and how the true God was revealed through him.

For the second time in Matthew’s account, God breaks in to tell us who Jesus is.  The first time was at Jesus’ baptism by John.  If we wish to get to the root of the question of who was Jesus, we should pay attention to God’s recorded statement about him.  In today’s passage, God repeats the words he spoke at the baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.  This time God adds: “Listen to him”.

On one hand the gospel writers affirmed that we are all children of God.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that peacemakers would be called “children of God”.  To declare Jesus to be God’s son would not necessarily separate Jesus from others who serve God faithfully.  Clearly those who heard God speak understood the words involved to be more significant than that.  Jesus is God’s “beloved son” in whom God is well pleased.  God’s declaration certainly singles Jesus out as bearing the title in a unique way.  Jesus is not just one among many “sons” of God.  Jesus is uniquely beloved, uniquely pleasing to God.

On the other hand, we cannot read back into the words he attributes to God the supernatural ideas of later generations of Christians.  Like Moses and Elijah, he is clearly a human being.  Like them he is a truly extraordinary human being with an extraordinary message and mission.  For most Jews, equality with Moses was virtually unthinkable.  Yet, here, in the midst of a vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, it is Jesus whom God singles out for recognition.  This singling out of Jesus from among all the spiritual giants of Jewish history as the one to whom we should especially listen continues to be appropriate for us today so that we can apprehend God.  Matthew shows that through Jesus God is fulfilling all that the Old Testament prophets spoke about and predicted.  That was sufficient for Matthew.  Listening to Jesus’ words over the years has too often been blocked by mystifying disputes, the Gospels reveal Jesus.  The church would be renewed if believers once again really listened to him.

Today is the anniversary of Wesley’s death.  We who sing Wesley’s hymns are fortunate.  We sing two of his hymns this morning.

“Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appear.”

And,

“Author of faith, eternal Word,
Whose Spirit breathes the active flame;
Faith like its finisher and Lord,
Today as yesterday the same.

To Thee our humble hearts aspire,
And ask the gift unspeakable;
Increase in us the kindled fire,
In us the work of faith fulfil.”

More than the other Reformers he put listening to Jesus ahead of speculations about his nature.  For Wesley listening to Jesus opens us to listen to others as well.

Of course singling Jesus out as the one to be listened to involves beliefs about him.  One must believe that he was peculiarly free from the distortions of race and gender, nationality and culture, social role and economic class that block the understanding of all of us.  We can see that from his dealing with the people of his age; Jews and non-Jews, women and men, adults and children, sinners and saints, that that is so.  We believe that his openness to God attained a truly extraordinary purity.  God is in all of us, but in Jesus, God becomes uniquely visible to us.  We need an exalted view of Jesus just because he was truly and fully human.  Matthew gives us that.

It is interesting, however, that in Matthew’s account Jesus forbids the three disciples who were with him to speak of their experience until after his death.  One may wonder that once again Jesus wanted to avoid using marvels as an argument for supporting him.  He wanted people to respond to the truth of his words on their own merit.

In the passage from 2 Peter we see the alternative approach at work.  After his death, the story of God’s confirmation of Jesus in the transfiguration is used as an argument supporting the teachings of Peter.  The resurrection appearances were more often appealed to in this connection.  None the less, Jesus would have preferred that we believe these stories because we listen to him rather than listen to him because of these marvels.

Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus invites us to think further about the relation of Jesus to Moses and Jewish tradition.  In the Sermon on the Mount we found Jesus both affirming the Mosaic Law and transforming it.

In Exodus God speaks to Moses.  God’s words are as follows: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there, and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction”.  God has singled out Moses for an enormously important role.  It is he who is to take God’s written words to the people and demand their obedience.  Much as Jews admire and appreciate Moses, it is the law mediated to them from God by Moses that is the focus of their spirituality.  They have learned over the centuries how to refine, develop and apply this law in ever changing circumstances.  The person of Moses and the law given through Moses are quite distinct, even separable.

It is different with Jesus.  We are to listen to him.  His followers wrote down some of what they remembered.  This enables us to listen.  But our listening is bound up with what we know of his person, his life, his transfiguration, his death and his resurrection; listening to him giving careful attention to what he is reported to have said.  But none of this is separable from his person.  We interpret what we believe he said in light of what he did, just as we interpret what he did in light of what we believe he said.

God’s call to us is to listen to Jesus.  To do so is dangerous.  It is also saving.  It transfigures us.[1]

Sermon: The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (A) – 16th February 2014 – Jane Chapman

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Deut: 10. 12-22; Psalm 119: 1-18; 1 Corinthians: 3: 1-9; Matt: 5: 21-27

“Go and first be reconciled to your brother

or sister and then come and offer your gift”.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of

the Holy Spirit, Amen.

All of today’s readings have something to say to us about how we do relationship: with God, with each other and with ourselves.  The Old Testament reading has that lovely image where it bids us to: “circumcise the foreskin of your heart”;  i.e. to prepare ourselves for a life made ready to be lived in the image of the God who made us.  Circumcision is the preparatory ritual to a life lived within the compass off God’s love: to walk in God’s ways; to learn of the heart of God; and to live both in concert and communion  with the One who is all love and all-loving.

The psalm assures us that ‘walking in’ God’s way is the process of keeping us within the boundaries of love.  In Corinthians, Paul assures us that growth  in relationship and life,  is also growth in God:  we do not have to construct our own growth in this relationship: Paul and Appollos have planted the seed , but it is God’s-self who holds the relationship together and will guide us in the way of love.

And so, we come in the Gospel to the part we have to play:

in response to God;

in response to each other; and

in response to ourselves.

As God’s creatures, we are invited into intimacy on each of these 3 fronts: God, other people and our own inner world.  But it is only an invitation…until we take it up and start to work with it, and in it.

Jesus reminds us today that we have a particular kind of relationship to be aware of and concentrate on:  And it is the kind of relationship that needs to be protected from rivalry and bitterness.  Thus, he bids us to repair relationship with each other, well before we approach God in acknowledgement and worship.  Indeed, Jesus wants us to go out of our way to reconcile with each other.  Only then, he implies, are we free to come before his Father’s throne.

And it’s not always easy to do that act of reparation.  God is often much easier to approach than someone who seriously gets up our nostrils.  God is reliable, merciful and ‘out-there’: no real threat.  Our “enemies” and “rivals” are dangerously and annoyingly close-by…and, of course we avoid them like the plague.  Who wouldn’t?

Well, Jesus wouldn’t…and it is the human Jesus as much as the divine Jesus who urges us into reconciliation.  ‘Reconciliation’ is an interesting word.  It comes from a word in Latin which means to “reunite with”: i.e. to reconcile is to become ‘one-with’, or, more specifically, to become ‘one-with’ again.

This command from Jesus is sometimes very difficult to respond to: all the more so if, in the process of splitting away from another person, we are – or believe ourselves to be – firmly “in the right”.  But Jesus does not deal in right and wrong: indeed, we would be in serious trouble if he did.  Jesus deals in love.

‘Love your enemies’, he says…and this applies to “neighbours” who become enemies in our minds through friction, disagreements or – most difficult of all – guilt within ourselves.  None of these things is comfortable to live with.

To live reconciled to Christ, we needs must be reconciled to and with each other…and to find the courage and the generosity to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, we need first to be generous enough to become reconciled – more “at one with” –  ourselves.  The path to reconciliation is much more a matter of personal wholeness than it is a function of a begrudging movement towards someone who tees us off.

To put this hard commandment into practice, often I need to ask myself the question:

“What kind of person do I wish to experience myself to be?”

If I want to be hard-nosed -‘right’ all the time, I’m going to be extremely hard to live with.  Nobody but God is ‘right’ in that sense of the word.  If I want to be whole and happy – and that is the wish and the will of our heavenly Father – then ‘right’ makes no- never-minds.  It’s love that works: not always the emotion of loving but both the willingness and the decision to be loving: to be what the God who makes us in God’s image, dreams we are to be.  This – and only this – is the path to wholeness.

‘Love your neighbour’ is a tough call.  ‘Love yourself’ is a tougher one.  ‘Love God’ is seriously not a cliché:

We need to practice loving: it’s something that requires work.  God is our starting point.  Jesus is our sign-post to God.  Indeed: that is Jesus’ primary task: to make God accessible.  Once we truly know ourselves to be not only made in love, but always held in love, we can reach out for the Jesus who unites us with his Father and his Spirit.  Only then do love for neighbours and love for self begin to come easily.

It’s hard to appreciate how much work we may have to do to be loving. But it is a world’s-worth harder to live without love and a fundamental belief in the love for which God has fashioned each of us: including – indeed, especially including –  those we experience as enemies.

 

Sermon: The First Sunday after Christmas (A) – 29th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

Sermon:              The First Sunday after Christmas Year A

The Christmas season is a continual reminder that God is with us, sharing in our joy and sorrow, moving through ordinary life and providing insights when we are in greatest need of them.

God comes to us directly, Isaiah claims, without the mediation of others.  God doesn’t need messengers to convey God’s will, although prophets are often sent to share divine wisdom and challenge.  God is with us in the here and now.

If God comes to us directly, what are the medium of divine communication?  Does God directly speak to us or provide insights, and dreams?  Does God come to us through our encounters with others?  How do we know that our experiences of the divine reflect divine direction rather than personal self-interest?  Does our perspective and life experience shape the nature of divine revelation as well as our understanding of it?

God comes to us each moment in terms of possibilities for actualization and the energy to achieve these possibilities.

God comes to us in our experiences of general and personal transformation.

We experience God through our encounters with other people.

God encourages us to share God’s possibilities with others.

All revelation can reveal as much about ourselves as they reveal about God.

The initial praise to God is not only about mercy in times past, but is the statement of faith that provides a foundation for asking God’s continuing mercy in the present.  These verses invite us to praise God for divine mercy shown in the birth of Jesus in the past; but they are not only about the past; they also invite Christians to pray for God’s mercy made obvious through God’s action in the life and ministry of Jesus and continuing today.  This is a picture of a God intimately and feelingly related to God’s creation; it is in direct opposition to the idea of a God who feels no emotion even though divine actions may appear compassionate to human recipients.

God’s salvation is manifested in “no messenger or angel but his presence”, stresses God’s real and personal involvement in saving action.  The saving significance of Jesus is not simply in the message he proclaimed or the divinity he revealed; the saving significance of Jesus is in the active presence of God in and through him, a presence into which he invites the faithful to come be present to God themselves.  What is unique about the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus is the intensity, intimacy, and deliberate manner in which Jesus received and actualized in his human occasions the divine aims of God’s saving love.  Thus Isaiah’s recognition of God’s presence, in the history of salvation serves to enhance, not to diminish, the recognition of God’s saving presence in Jesus the Christ.  It encourages us to recognize God’s real presence in contemporary acts of prayer, liturgy, community and justice.  Therefore the celebration of Christmas is not only about a birth two thousand years ago; it is about God’s mercy and love made present today.

Psalm 148 reminds us that all things can praise God because God touches all things, both human and non-human.  God is present in the groaning of creation and our own yearnings.  God is revealed in the sighs too deep for words within us and the sighs of all creation.  The universe reflects a dynamic call and response at every level.  Although we have defaced creation and ourselves, we still live in an enchanted universe in which all things reveal the movements of God’s Spirit.

The Letter of Hebrews tells us that we can grow in grace and share in Christ’s divinity because Christ transformed humankind through the incarnation.  Christ saves us by becoming one of us and experiencing the world from our perspective.  God became human so we might become divine.  Christ lived through every stage of life, thus making every stage of life holy.  Christ suffers as he experiences our pain; God feels our pain and is truly the fellow sufferer who understands our experiences.  Christ invites persons to holiness.  God’s experience of our world is fundamental to divine revelation.  In sharing our lives, God lures us toward full humanity and the glory of God in human history.

The Gospel reading needs to be rated “R” for violent content.  The slaughter of the innocents is graphic in its violence, and sadly we are familiar with such images of death and destruction, whether by terrorist actions, ethnic violence, drone attacks.  Institutions, like persons, are ambiguous: they can do much good in the world, but they can also wreak violence on innocent children.  Military instruments such as drones, intended to reduce innocent suffering, become instruments that destroy families.  As we ponder the killing of toddlers in Bethlehem, we are forced to our own examination of conscience as individuals and citizens.  In what ways are we, through our own actions, the actions of churches, the actions of our lawmakers and political leaders, harming children?  How do we cope with the institutional and family sexual betrayal of our young children?

We catch a glimpse of the members of the Holy Family running for their lives.  Joseph, Jesus and Mary are political refugees, immigrants, similar to today’s legal and illegal immigrants throughout the world who depend solely on the kindness of strangers.  Their flight reminds us of our responsibility to today’s immigrants.  Regardless of their legal status, they are God’s beloved children who deserve our compassion and support.

The first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel are filled with life transforming dreams: Joseph chooses to stay with pregnant Mary as a result of an angelic message in a dream; the magi have a dream that warns them to return home without reporting to Herod; Joseph is warned to leave Bethlehem; another dream inspires Joseph to return home.

One of Matthew’s ongoing motifs throughout the Gospel is to present Jesus as a new Moses, mediating a new Covenant.  The brief episodes in this passage echo episodes in the life of Moses.  As Moses’ birth was threatened by the decree of Pharaoh that Hebrew boys should be killed, so Jesus’ birth is threatened by Herod’s murderous order.  As Moses was separated from his people and raised among Egyptians, so Jesus was separated from his people and raised in Egypt.  As Moses returned to the land of promise but did not dwell in it, so Jesus returned to Judea but did not stay there, moving instead to Nazareth in Galilee.  What is being suggested is that as God was at work in Moses, and more so is God at work in Jesus.  Jesus is the true representative of the people in mediating a new Covenant

God comes to us in many ways.  We need to take time to pause, notice and then respond to the many ways divine revelation emerges each and every day.  In this holy season we remember and celebrate that God came to us as one of us so that w can be one with God.[1]

 



[1] This sermon prepared using mater written by Bruce G Epperly and Paul S Nancarrow found at www.processandfaith.org.

 

 

 

Sermon: Christmas Day (A) – 25th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am

Readings: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 2:11-14; Matthew 2:1-20

The Christmas stories are provocative propositions.  The theologian A N Whitehead said that, “it is more important that a proposition be interesting than true” and that “the importance of truth is that it adds to the interest”.

The Biblical accounts of the first Christmas have been under vigorous study for the last two hundred years, by scholars and religious leaders and even Pope Francis has entered the debate concerning the accuracy of our Christmas pageants.  Such study and the resulting findings are important; but are they interesting?  Do they add to the vitality of life or lead to personal transformation?  There is a deeper truth that has emanated from the Christmas stories that can never be captured by scholarship alone.

When it comes to the important business of passing on our Christian tradition, we tell stories.  For the most important stories, we dramatize and make them tangible.  At Christmas we tell our stories in many ways such as the crib scene below me, we sing carols, have Sunday School presentations; all these are to anchor our memories.  Our legacy to those who follow us in the journey of life is a rich storehouse of images for the times, both good and bad, that may lie ahead that point out that no matter what may happen God, who is revealed as a human baby in the usual process of life, goes with all those who have faith in the stories of the Nativity.  This treasury of images and stories combine both personal stories and the overarching, transcendent story.

While we may never know the exact details of Jesus’ birth, the Gospel shows the holy family as a pilgrim family, temperately without shelter and desperately seeking a place for the birth of their child.  No one would have noticed them as unique among the many travellers that evening.  They were citizens of an oppressed people, compelled to take an inconvenient and life-threatening journey and subject to the whims of forces beyond themselves.  Soon they would have to flee for their lives as political immigrants, dare we say illegal immigrants, depending upon the kindness of strangers for their survival.  Yet, God’s universal energy and power, God’s vision for the ages, is centred upon the birth of a baby.

The Christmas stories mark both Mary and Joseph as particularly sensitive to the divine possibilities and their perceptiveness opened the door for a leap divine self revelation to them and their child Jesus.  The stories of this season are those of birth.  Perhaps unconsciously, we will return to them at other times during the coming year.  As some of you know, I love to play Christmas carols through out the year, especially in the depths of winter.  At times when we feel dead inside, we will turn to those memories of birth and some trace of Christmas will stir within.  Then we who were suffering from amnesia will remember who we are and whose we are.

Luke sees divinity bursting forth in a stable and in revelation given to shepherds, people at the margins of society.  There is nothing romantic about the real life of real shepherds.  They live their lives in the moment unsure of their future.  They lived outside in all weather conditions, were a bit shiftless in the public eye and were not part of polite society.  Yet, they receive a visit from angels, which opens their eyes to a new possibility for themselves and for all humanity.  Dwelling in darkness they have seen a great light.  God’s salvation comes at the margins of life, making the margins the frontiers of a world to come.

The accounts of the first Christmas are not a process that would fit in a rulebook or on a balance sheet, because they are more closely akin to poetry.  The poet knows that everything has the potential for grace, that the divine can reveal itself in the smallest, strangest places.  Isaiah would never fit on a ledger sheet, he wrote of the ruins of Jerusalem breaking out in song.  It wouldn’t appear in an anatomy text, but John imagined people born neither from human will nor physical processes, but from God.  The pragmatists might scoff at such insights, but without such stories, we perish.

So today we celebrate the poetry of new life.

“There is something afoot in the universe that looks like gestation and birth”,

wrote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  In John’s gospel, it looks like order and purpose, a design established from the beginning.  At the designated time, the forerunner appears, then in a burst of light, the Son.  The letter to Hebrews calls him

“the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

As though the brilliance might be too much for human eyes, the story tells all who wish to listen that God comes to us in a form we can handle, the light filtered, the glory toned down.  God so honours our freedom that God does not dazzle us with radiance, but comes in what is closest, most intimate, small as a baby.

Another way of telling the story of the festival, is to talk about the joy of the resurrection, of the Christ who is present through his conquest of death and decay entering our hearts at Christmas.  This recognition that it can only be the risen Christ whom we encounter seems strange and out of context, yet the atmosphere of the liturgy drives us to make the connection.  For this is above all else the day of light.

To tell the story of Christmas by showing the centrality of the symbol of light as common to both incarnation and resurrection is to see how inseparable are the Christmas and Easter mysteries.  Together they consti­tute the basic framework of God’s activity in and beyond his­tory and time, as they form the heart of Christian faith and hope.  Without Easter, Christmas has no point; without Christ­mas, Easter has no meaning.  Both incarnation and resurrection have significance because in these events God is glorified in the flesh.  The flesh becomes the source of light, the raw material of glory.

The light of Christ is a persistent light.  It shines through the most powerfully oppressive darkness, shines in the midst of devastation and upheaval, yet without explaining them, justifying them or making sense of them.  The gospel of incarnation and resurrection is not the answer to a set of questions.  It is a persistent and defiant light, its persistence is paradoxical for the truth of the gospel of incarnation and resurrection is paradoxical.  For the truth of the story of the gospel of incar­nation and resurrection stands in contradiction to, and seems to be contradicted by, the realities of the world in which there is still no room and where the dead bodies pile up, inexplicably, meaninglessly.

Is the story we tell of the light of Christ, then, no more than an illusory comfort, a false reassurance that all is well when in fact all is clearly unwell in the “demented inn” of the world?  Certainly religious light is often of this illusory kind but the gospel of incarnation and res­urrection cannot be told in an authentic and truthful way unless it faces the terrible reality of homelessness and meaning­less death.

These two realities provide the only possible material context for the light of Christ.  For it is as the story of the homeless unwanted Christ of Bethlehem and as the naked condemned Christ of Golgotha that the light shines with its strange persist­ence and its baffling power to draw people to its shining, enabling them to become dynamic agents in the historical pro­cess, lights in the world.

May the stories of Christ’s birth two thousand years go, bring you the light of meaning this Christmas enabling you to see God’s presence in the world and in your life.[1]


[1] This sermon produced using material from ”The Living Spirit”, editor by M Hebblethwaite, Canterbury Press, Norwich, www.preparingforsunday.com/ Living the Good News, Episcopal of East Tennessee and material written by B P Epperly, www.processandfaith.org

Sermon: The Third Sunday in Advent (A) – 15th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; The Magnificat; James 5:7-10 ; Matthew 11:2-11

Advent invites us to imagine “impossible” futures for our world, and then open ourselves to their power of the Spirit to lure us forward.  Advent invites, and it also judges.  Advent asks, “Where are we going in our personal lives?  How far are we from the vision imagined by Isaiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus?”  Spiritual teachers speak of the examination of conscience and this examination is at the heart of Advent.  We are a long way from Isaiah’s vision, but the spiritual arc of history challenges us to continue our pilgrimages toward God’s realm.

The metaphor of a highway through a desert that is in bloom is an exuberant way to describe the heart-lifting experience of opening oneself fully to God’s creative, transforming power.  A desert is usually thought of as trackless, or with barely discernible routes.  A highway is a broad thoroughfare that invites travel, incites curiosity about what lies ahead and implies companions along the way.  A desert in bloom is a landscape of beauty and wonder that welcomes travellers.  With words like gladness, rejoicing, joy, abundance and singing, the prophet declares the pathway of God, the “Holy Way”, as endorsed by Creation itself.

Although this passage is a poem of return of the exiles, is it any surprise that early Jesus followers would associate these verses, with the advent of Jesus?  In a world famous for the mastery of Roman roads, one can almost imagine these early followers picturing Jesus as striding down this highway, a living link from the prophetic vision of the past to the pressing need for its renewal in the present.  They would see this “Holy Way” of God, in contrast to the Appian Way of Rome, as a declaration of the right road to take.  They found in Jesus a way to affirm the peace of God over the peace of Rome achieved by violence.

The desert shall bloom, the weak will become strong, the lame will dance and the frightened will become bold.  God’s plan for us is aimed toward wholeness and redemption.  The adventures of ideas of a transformed world reflect God’s vision for nature and humankind.

How shall we respond to Isaiah’s amazing vision?  Is it just a picture in words alone?  Will God somehow bring about this new age of Peace?  Are our efforts essential to realizing the realm of Peace in our world?  However we look at this passage, it is an ideal that shapes history, leaving us with a holy discontent, and an inspiration to creative transformation, first, of ourselves and then the world around us.  In contrast to world-destroying apocalyptic writings, Isaiah’s vision emerges from our world, imaging what a transformed world could be like.  Isaiah seeks a restored world, continuous with the past, but revealing new energies and possibilities, and a new human orientation.

Mary’s song places God on the side of the vulnerable and oppressed.  God’s justice will be done and the poor will be uplifted, the wounded healed, and the wicked punished.  The creator of heaven and earth is biased toward justice.  In the beginning, God brought forth order from primordial chaos.  Throughout history, God continues to bring about new forms of order, confronting the disorder of injustice with the powerful vision of a just and orderly society.  Order is not static in the song’s vision but the foundation of creaturely creativity and adventure: a new heaven and a new earth.

The Advent readings connect divine order on the intimate and the inclusiveness of the cosmos: humanity and nature are synchronized as a result of God’s dynamic call, eliciting innovative responses from human partnership.  Mary’s song imagines a divine reign radically different from any religion past or present.  There is no coercion or domination, but invitation and transformation.  Freedom and creativity are preserved and aligned with the greater good of all creation.

The song exalts God’s preferential care for the poor and dispossessed.  It unites the microcosm with the macrocosm: what God is doing in her life reflects God’s aim for history.  Mary shows the way similar to John the Baptist.  She discovers herself as a bearer of a new age to come.  Her humble and risky situation mirrors the challenges the vulnerable and poor are facing.  God’s work in her life reveals God’s intention to lift up the forgotten and desperate.  God is praised for God’s justice and care for the “unimportant” and not the exercise of brute and coercive power.

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of empire.  The way of God is described over and over again by the prophets: take care of society’s most vulnerable; limit the gap between rich and poor do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends; do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor.  So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed.  This is the way of God, definitely not the way of empire.  Nor is this news as reported by political tricksters as it is the good news that can be seen and heard by anyone who is paying attention.

The question put to Jesus is this: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  By implication, the question is also put to us: is this the one we are to follow or can we prolong business as usual for a while longer while we wait for someone else to come?  If Jesus reveals God by his unswerving fidelity to God’s way of being in the world, then do we not reveal the same when we act in fidelity to Jesus?

The incarnation of God in the world is always already happening, but we can act in ways that bring more light to the strangers in our midst, to our neighbours, our friends and family members, and to ourselves.

John is looking for signs of the Way.  Jesus responds in terms of action there are no creeds or self-referential Messianic statements.  Take a look he says.  Here’s what’s going on.  Jesus has inaugurated a healing community that potentially encompasses the whole creation.  Jesus is embodying Isaiah’s dream and Mary’s praise.  Healing abounds: cells and souls are transformed.  God is doing a new thing that transforms minds, bodies, spirits and relationships, and God wants us to become part of a divine holistic healing adventure.

The passage ends with what, at first glance, appears to be a diminishment of John the Baptist; “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  This should be read as similar in tone to John 14:12, when Jesus asserts that those who follow him will be able to do greater things than he.  Jesus is affirming our role in the realm of God.  We are to be agents in God’s realm of healing.  We are God’s creative partners in healing the earth.  We are to claim our own energy and power in relationship to God’s loving vision.  Open to God’s vision, we can do great things that heal the world.

Advent presents us with an invitation to partnership, grounded in a holy unrest.  God’s aims for history and our personal lives are always somewhat at odds with the concreteness of our lives and social structures.  Their dissonance invites us to imagine and then embody God’s vision of a new heaven and a new Earth.  We are prone to hopelessness, as reflected in our complacency regarding the growing gap of wealthy and poor and the threats to the Earth through global climate change.  Still, Advent’s horizon of hope inspires us to join a healing pilgrimage, with no certain destination, but with the companionship of God.[1]



[1] This sermon based upon material written by B Epperly and J Slettom

found at www.processandfaith.org.

 

Sermon: The Second Sunday in Advent (A) – 8th December 2013

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping 8.30am

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-21; Romans 15:4-13 ; Matthew 3:1-12

“Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ,” wrote Thomas Merton.  It is the time Christians set aside for spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ celebrated at Christmas.  Even as Christmas has become more secular, the Advent season still brings joy and the observance of ancient customs.  Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath; children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas arrives.

Advent is also a pilgrimage.  A time of sacred travel.  It is a way that we answer “the holy longing”.  During Advent, we will leave the place of our birth to journey to the birthplace of another.  It is an invitation to be born again.

“There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things, until the habit of Advent returns to us.”  The disciplines of Advent are ones that teach us to do small things greatly, to do few things but do them well, to love in particular, rather than in general.  This habit of small successes generates creativity, a sense of well-being, a generosity of spirit rooted in satisfaction.  It generates hope.

Christians engaged in social transformation often get discouraged.  We are acutely aware of the evils of the world.  At times, we despair or allow our anger at injustice to be the source of energy in our lives.  Sometimes we actually create despair and depression in our lives when we only fight losing battles.  It is mandatory that we commit ourselves to disciplines that generate hope.

Having fun is not the same as having hope, but they are related.  Dipping in the deep refreshing pool of joy and contentment is one reminder that the world and everything in it, good and bad, belongs to God.  It is our work to live each day as it comes along, receiving our daily bread, doing good, offering hospitality, choosing compassion and forgiveness, serving the “least of these,” singing, praying, and, when night comes, giving our bodies and souls over to sleep.

We light the Advent candles to remind us that things are not always as they seem, and that hope springs forward at the sound of its name.  In William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”, he wrote:

“I give you the end of a gold string.

Only wind it into a ball,

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate

built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

The followers of The Way in the first century wove together a “gold string” that reached back to the creation of light in the Genesis story and forward to this very Advent.  There is a golden thread that sews us together as students of Jesus.  Paul calls this thread the “grace of apostleship”.  It is passed, hand to hand, from one generation to the next.  Like young children being guided on a field trip through the big world, we are given a rope and told to hold on.  We know that the rope reaches all the way back to the teacher, the anchor, the shepherd.

Advent is a time to marvel at the golden thread and to make sure that we have not become separated from it.  If, by chance, you have become separated from it, do not be afraid: Jesus extends the end of the string to you again.

The challenge in Advent is less about the future or the past, but about keeping our eyes wide open to where and what God is up to now.  When Advent focuses solely on Christ’s first coming we turn our faith into something that happened back there.  When we focus on his ultimate coming in God’s future we turn the faith into something otherworldly and out there.  In both cases, we risk failing to see Christ’s saving work in our lives right now.

In a classic Advent text from Isaiah, appropriated by the church very early on as a prophetic witness to Jesus being, Great David’s greater Son.  A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and his reign will be glorious.

Israel’s greatest king was David.  After David’s son, Solomon’s reign, things deteriorated.  After one hundred and fifty years of faithless kings and political turmoil, Isaiah reminds the people of God’s promise, saying that though Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor the Davidic dynasty fall.  The vision Isaiah sketches here is not intended to be a utopian dream about God’s ultimate future.  This is a promise about a king to reign among God’s people now and the quality of life that would come from such a reign.  True, the words about wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, living together in peace and the lion eating straw push the vision out onto the future that is signalled by the words, “On that day reminds us that this promise is as much about now as a future then.  The Spirit-filled Messiah who brings righteousness and justice to bear in the day-to-day lives of his people is named Jesus, and has been living into his messianic reign in the lives of his followers for two thousand years.  When members of his community have embraced his reign, the future becomes present; equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness emerge.  When the church has not embraced that future present, the old patterns of abuse of privilege and power remain.  The question is are we seeking equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness, or simply the privilege of belonging to the king?

John’s call for repentance is simply a warning to the people who have long looked for the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the Day of the Lord is about to break in with its judgment on those who have abandoned God’s ways.  They want to be washed outwardly but not inwardly.  For all of their piety, for all of their religious observance, for all of their public display of faith, the issues of equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness, the social implication of God’s reign, were missing in them and they seemed not the least bit concerned about it.  They were, after all, children of Abraham and Abraham’s children who were instructed to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.  Can we look the other way in matters of justice, mercy, righteousness and faithfulness and simply claim our relationship to Jesus?  Even now, says John, God’s judgment is unfolding against any one, no matter how pious, no matter how religious, who fails to produce the fruit of the kingdom.

John’s point is simply this: the reign of God is breaking into life and he is simply preparing the way with a baptism of water as a sign of preparation for its coming.  The coming one is so powerful, so anointed with God’s Holy Spirit, so full of God’s presence, that John is not even worthy to carry his sandals.  His baptism will be different from John’s.  It will not be a sign of something we have done.  It will be God’s act immersing us in God’s Spirit and fire.

That is the fundamental difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism.  John’s baptism was a sign of decisions the people coming to him had made.  It could be done repeatedly as a continuing sign of their repentance.  Those baptized by John were responding to his fearful warning, the coming of God’s reign was a fearful thing.  There was good reason to repent.

The Coming One’s baptism would be different: it would bring with it the results it symbolized.  It would fill the recipient with God’s Spirit, with God’s presence and power and bring with it fire that accomplished God’s judgment.  Christian baptism is first and foremost what God does.  God is filling us with God’s Spirit and Fire.

The Spirit and fire of Jesus’ baptism is God’s presence to touch, awaken and claim us.  God unites us to Christ and empowers us with the Spirit.  We receive God’s presence to judge and destroy those things coming between God, and us and coming between us and our being God’s people.  The Spirit and fire is God’s power to make us into a community that welcomes one another as Christ has welcomed us, a community that is seeking equity, justice, and righteousness as marks of its faithfulness.  The Spirit and fire of God hold us in the transforming presence of Jesus Christ so that we not only trust him as our saviour, but also find power to follow him faithfully in life as Lord.

The reign of David’s Greater Son has come in Jesus Christ.  What John was not ready for was the fact that God’s fire could cleanse and preserve without destroying.  John expected the coming one to be the fierce judge, cutting down trees that did not bear fruit, throwing them into the fire and sweeping the threshing floor clear of wheat to be stored in the granary before burning the chaff with an unquenchable fire.  However, Jesus comes as one who welcomes and forgives sinners, accepts and dines with them, announces God’s love, desire and intention for them and calls them to respond to God’s presence in him.

The One Isaiah proclaims has come and continues to reign in those who welcome him, those who trust him, those who entrust themselves to him.  These he leads into faithfulness.  This is not a future promise.  This is the future present, a promise that is being fulfilled, day in and day out as you and I open ourselves to Christ’s presence in our lives.

The Father sends the Spirit through the Son, to touch us and to awaken us to the fact that we are His, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, and that we and ours belong to God in Jesus Christ.  In so doing, God’s fire emerges within us to consume those things that seek to separate us from God and God’s love and begins to purify and preserve us, tempering us for lives of discipleship.

Water, Spirit and Fire; in baptism they make us the Lord’s, enabling us to love and serve Jesus Christ in this world, living in hope; a hope, says Paul, that fills us with the joy and peace of believing.

Let God glisten in your life.  Let God sweeten your days.  Hold on to your golden string, as your Advent journey is a continuation of your life’s string from God.  “Only wind it into a ball”, my friend, and “it will lead you in at Heaven’s gate”.[i]



[i] This sermon composed using material from http://www.mapc.com/worship/sermons/2007/12/09/water-spirit-and-fire

The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson and, www.sojo.org/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep_subscription, Rose Marie Berger

Sermon: The Feast of Christ the King 2013 – 24th November 2013 – Martin Davies

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Song of Zechariah; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

It is wonderful to be here again at S Alban’s, where Julianne and I experienced great warmth of welcome and hospitality, in the all-too-short time that we were able to be part of this community of faith.  Julianne is sorry not to be here today, as she is in the diocese of Machakos in Kenya on an ABM visit.  Thank you Fr John for inviting me to preach at today’s liturgy.

——–

The title of today’s feast, of Christ the King, may lead us to think also of earthly kings and rulers.  In biblical and other religious and secular histories, it was common to locate the events and people being described, within the reign of the emperor or king at the time.

So for example, if I were to describe myself in this way – which to our ears now seems somewhat odd – I would say that I was born in the second year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  I might also want to locate myself even more specifically within a particular religious, civil, and geographical context, and in a particular era.  So I could add, that I was born during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, during the arch-episcopate of Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury, and the episcopates of Edward Joyce and Alwyn Warren, respectively Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops of Christchurch NZ.  At that time, in that land across the water, Lord Norrie was Governor General, and Sidney Holland Prime Minister.

The Feast of Christ the King is a very different type of celebration than that of an earthly civil or religious ruler.  Today is also sometimes known as the feast of Christ the Universal King.  While there have been rulers who aspired to universal power, once that sort of language is used, we can no longer relate it to our ordinary experience of temporal rulers, unless they are power-crazed maniacs.

To get a better understanding of Christ as King, let us go back to today’s Gospel reading.  Have you ever considered, that even in their taunting, the leaders, the soldiers and the criminal in today’s gospel are made to acclaim Jesus as the Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King of the Jews.  Likewise, the repetition of the word saved  –  he saved others  …  let him save himself  …  save yourself  …  save yourself and us as well  –  acknowledges even in scorn, what we proclaim in faith; that Christ is our Saviour.  By this twist of irony, S Luke transforms the cross into a throne of victory, the accusation of crime into an act of faith, and mockery into confession.

The inscription placed above the crucified Christ was intended by Pilate to provoke the Jews.  Both the soldiers and the leaders mocked Jesus; and it was one of those crucified with him who took Jesus seriously, with his prayer Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.

In a meditation, the twelfth-century Cistercian S Bernard of Clairvaux asks that Christ will remove the stumbling-blocks within himself, so that Christ may come to reign in Bernard.  He says

Greed comes along and claims its throne in me; arrogance would dominate me; pride would be my king.  Comfort and pleasure say: We shall reign!  Ambition, detraction, envy, anger fight within me for supremacy, and seem to have me entirely in their power.  But I resist insofar as I can; I struggle against them insofar as I receive your help.

The lesson for us from S Bernard, is that Christ’s kingdom is not a place, but is a people who give their hearts lovingly to him, by shaping their lives according to the Gospel.  It is possible to live with Christ within us, if we open our lives, our hearts and our very being, to the grace of God.

Today’s gospel invites us to ask what and where are the signs and places and events of Christ’s way – Christ’s reign – among us?  Christ’s reign in our lives and in the Church won’t appear as if by magic.  It requires our cooperation, our willingness to host it, to bring it about.  In the same way that Jesus’ birth could not have taken place through Mary without her cooperation, so too, Christ cannot live in us without our wholehearted assent.  The reign of Christ is, surely, a new creation.  It is, as S Matthew’s gospel spells out for us, a world in which the sick and poor are visited, the hungry are fed and the thirsty quenched.

The great Russian Orthodox theologian Fr Alexander Schmemann, called the liturgy the journey of the Church into the dimension of the kingdom.  In other words, liturgy sets out to cooperate in recreating the world in God’s terms.  Therefore what we say and do in the actions and words of the Eucharist, we have to translate into how we are and what we are, after we have said as we are leaving, that We go in the name of Christ. (For the Life of the World)

In a word, if the reign of Christ is to be in us, and is to be evident in us, we have to become the bread of the Eucharist.  Like that bread, we have to be offered, blessed, broken and shared for the life of the world.  And we need to be mindful that we share the bread of the Eucharist in an unsharing world.  We then need to discern what we can do to change that.  We may not be able to influence world economics, but we can assess whether our personal attitudes and actions are consistent with sharing for the life of those around us, or whether we are closed off and remain within ourselves.  The Eucharist with its bread – and us – being offered, blessed, broken and shared, and with its wine poured out for the life of the world, is the model of how we are to be, in the reign of God.

To paraphrase the great S Teresa of Avila, for the reign of Christ to be in us and among us, we must be Christ’s eyes and ears, being attentive in our seeing and hearing; we must be his hands and feet, going where he would go and blessing where he would bless; we must be Christ’s mouth now, speaking his words and speaking for those who have no-one to speak for them.

We have heard of this throughout the year of the proclamation of S Luke’s Gospel.  Luke gives us a picture that is well summarized in the wonderful canticles of his Gospel, of Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and as we heard this morning, in the Benedictus.  Listen to those urgent and welcoming Benedictus words and phrases: holiness and justice; living in God’s presence; making known salvation; forgiveness of sins; guiding into the way of peace.  These themes echo all the way from the justice and righteousness we heard in today’s reading from Jeremiah.  I like the sound of this kingdom more and more.

It is a kingdom that should be very contagious.  I have a book at home with the title, The Contagion of Jesus: Doing Theology as if it Mattered (Sebastian Moore OSB).  Although the book itself is a wonderful collection of essays, more than anything it is the title itself that catches my attention.  Put aside our common linking of contagious with winter ‘flu and with disease, and imagine for a moment a happy contagion where the life, the reign, the kingdom of Christ is so irresistible, that we truly live the kingdom within us and around us, as if it mattered, as if our life depended on it.

When we put together what we can begin to see in the Benedictus, of the shape of the reign of God that Christ came to bring, and put these words alongside the beautiful Colossian Christ-hymn which we heard today, we do indeed see a vision of Christ as Universal King which far exceeds the rule or the powers of any earthly ruler, or any comparison with them.

He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn of all creation;

for in him all things in heaven and on earth

were created,

… in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

and through him God was pleased to reconcile

to himself all things…

 

Sermon: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (C) – 13th October 2013

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

Readings: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:(1-7) 8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Some years ago I woman I worked with, a single lady, fell seriously ill. She was off work for many weeks. She was very weak and confined to her bed. What made things more difficult was the fact she lived alone. Yet very early into this illness the man next door visited with his wife. He noted how ill she was and he promised he and all his family would nurse her and feed her and care for her until she was well again. And he and his family kept their promise. She enjoyed the best of care and all the rest she needed until she was restored to health and able to return to work. She wanted to pay them for their generosity but they wouldn’t take a cent. They said they were doing their duty as neighbours.

The point of this story is, this family was Muslim. Up until her sickness my friend had been war of this family. She had rarely spoken to them. She had felt uncomfortable whenever she saw them in the street. And they had responded to all of this xenophobia with love. I tell this story because it is so similar to the type of stories Luke gives us about Jesus. It is only Luke that tells us the story of the Good Samaritan. The Jews held the Samaritans in contempt. They avoided contact with Samaritans if they could because they were regarded as unclean. The crowds would have regarded Jesus behaviour as perverse to dare to tell a story where the hero was a Samaritan and perverse for Luke to bother to record that parable. It is not mentioned in any other gospel.

Yet it was characteristic of Jesus’ behaviour. He tells stories about Samaritans, he heals Samaritans and in John 4 much of that chapter records Jesus having a long conversation with a Samaritan woman. There were two social taboos in the one event. First she was a woman and then she was a Samaritan. No wonder the disciples were shocked. What was Jesus doing? What is Luke doing by recording this healing in chapter 17?

It helps if we remember from chapter 1 that Luke is addressing his gospel to a man named Theophilus. With a name like that we can be sure he wasn’t Jewish. He was probably Greek. And this was Luke’s aim. He was writing his gospel for the wider world so he includes stories about non-Jews, stories that illustrate that the ministry of Jesus was to go beyond Israel, that the blessing of Jesus were to overflow into the wider world.

But look at that name Theophilus. It may be there was no such person. Rather, it could be a literary device. The name means “lover of God” and perhaps Luke has addressed his gospel to all lovers of God from anywhere around the world. So he is at pains to make it clear that this message of Jesus cannot be contained within Israel. Rather, it is a message for all people. The good news about Jesus is a universal message for all of the world. So of all the healings Jesus must have performed Luke makes sure he tells us about this one.

Leprosy was a generic word that covered a range of skin diseases from the ancient world. Some of them you could recover from. But you won’t recover from Leprosy. In those days lepers were forced to live as social outcasts, depending upon whatever food was left out for them for their survival. It was a miserable existence where only death gave relief. So as Jesus looked at these ten men he probably couldn’t have imagined a more pathetic sight.

But see what these men do. They stand at a distance. They know they cannot come near to Jesus. They can’t approach him. And so they shout out their prayer. And it is striking in its simplicity, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” It sums up the longing of their hearts. But they are saying more than just “Help!” They are calling for mercy. And mercy itself is a key theme in the gospel of Luke.

Throughout Luke’s gospel there is a debate concerning how to relate to God. What is the best form of worship? What does God expect from us? The Pharisees had a very clear answer. They believed that God expected them to obey the law. So the essence of their worship was obedience to the law. But sadly, over time their law-keeping had become corrupted. It had lost any sense of true worship. It became a system whereby they could justify themselves.

But Jesus calls upon a more ancient tradition from the Old Testament. True worship is expressed when we call upon God for mercy and where we show mercy to our neighbour. It is this same mercy that led Jesus to heal on the Sabbath. One can break the law of God if one is fulfilling the requirement of showing mercy. Showing mercy clearly has precedence over keeping the law. And calling upon God for mercy is simply another way of showing faith in God. Asking for mercy is an acknowledgment of who God is and our inability to rescue ourselves. Asking for mercy is a demonstration of our need for God.

Throughout Israel’s history, Israel is condemned for its failure to call upon God for help, to call upon him for his mercy, and in that act – demonstrating their faith in God. Yet these lepers, stripped of everything we value in life, family, home, community, wealth and health, bring their simple petition to Jesus. And its all summed up beautifully in that simple phrase, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Yet that simple phrase contains such profound depth. These lepers were well aware of their condition, they understood their deep need for rescue and they recognised Jesus as the master, the one who could show them mercy, the one who could be the answer to their prayers. So these lepers are an example to us for right worship – that we get that creator/creature relationship sorted out.

But Luke’s story goes further than that because we have the return of the one leper, who comes back praising God and thanking Jesus for his healing. This shows us the dynamic of our interaction with God. It is not just about reconciliation though that would certainly be enough. It is also about celebration because of what God has done. Its just like the parable of the prodigal Son. Jesus includes in that story not just the return of the Son but also the celebration because of what had happened – this son was dead but now he is alive. He was lost but now he is found. And then as well – the fact that this man was a Samaritan – a leprous Samaritan – you couldn’t sink any lower in that society. Yet Jesus uses him to teach the Jews about right worship. It would be hard for Jesus to be any more offensive.

But in the end we have to ask what about us? What impact should this event have upon us? Why is Luke telling us this story? Jesus healed many people. Why choose this story to be passed on for generations. Luke tells us more than the fact that Jesus was a great healer. There is more to this story. We need to consider this healing as a metaphor. In the end this story is about us and it is about hope.

When you think about it, you couldn’t get further away from God in a Jewish world than a leprous Samaritan. They would have been considered outside the orbit of God’s blessing. Even worse, their condition would have been regarded as evidence of their rejection by God, that their condition was evidence of the judgment of God – only likened to those recently who claimed that AIDS was God’s judgment on a corrupt world.

Yet it is this Samaritan who was not only healed but who is commended for his faith. As well, he is a reminder to us that for a whole range of reasons we can drift far away from God. For so many reasons we can find ourselves in a place where we feel a long way from the blessings of God. Yet the message of this Samaritan is that it is never hopeless. Like the good shepherd he is, Jesus is always seeking us out, always calling us back, always restoring and refreshing and forgiving us. Jesus’ mission is not just to make these lepers better, but to make everything better.

We can only just imagine the joy that must have filled this man’s heart as he realised he was at last free of that dreadful disease. We can only just imagine the way thanksgiving must have risen in his heart, as the words of thanks tumbled from his lips. But in that healing we have a clear picture of the gospel message. Jesus not only preached good news, he was good news to a suffering world and that good news continues from generation to generation. So we are never without hope, never without forgiveness, never without joy as that same transforming love goes to work in our own lives, that love that will never leave us when we have the wisdom to turn to him and say like those poor lepers, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Sermon: The Festival of Saint Francis of Assisi (C) – 6th October 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Genesis 2:4b-9a, 19-22 Psalm 148 1 Peter 2:1-5 Matthew 6:25-33

“All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and let us sing Alleluya, Alleluya! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silvers moon with softer gleam: O praise him, O praise him, Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya!”

“Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love; where there is injury your pardon, Lord; and where there is doubt true faith in you.”

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

“While you are preaching peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”

These are words ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose life and contribution we remember today. The first few lines are from the first and second hymn this morning. Francis is especially remembered for his commitment to the Gospel and God’s providence, to peace and to driving a proper understanding of the beauty and value of God’s creation. This morning’s readings dwell upon some of the concepts that may have influenced his theology.

The accounts of creation found in Genesis are placed at the beginning of the Bible even before the accounts of Israel coming into being. Such a placing in the Bible shows the universal activity of God. God’s creative activity not only brought the world into being but also engaged in the lives of individuals and peoples long before Israel came into being. God was at work creating before Israel understood what this activity was all about.

God’s actions in the world are of more importance than what humans understand that God has done. Israel eventually catches up with what God has long been about. How humanity understands God’s action in the world comes after God has acted.

Human beings in all times and places have experienced, even if they have not known it, God’s creative acts before and alongside God’s saving acts. We receive our lives and all our natural gifts from God apart from our knowledge of God. God’s salvation takes place within the world and within individual lives, which have been brought into being and sustained by God’s care.

The placing of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible demonstrates that God’s purpose in redemption does not finally centre on Israel. God as Creator has a purpose that spans the world. God’s salvation shown by and offered through Jesus is universal.

The reading from Matthew concerns how then we creatures of the Creator are to live. The instruction “do not be anxious” is not only directed to rich people; those inclined to the self-satisfaction and arrogance because of their wealth. Poor people can idolise what they do not have and become anxious. Jesus contrasts the life of a believer with that of the non-believers. His challenge to trust in God’s providence does not exclude working and having property. The words are directed to people who were involved with sowing, reaping, storing in barns, toiling and spinning, but who are called to see that their life is not based upon such things. Such people are called to see that their life is not based upon these things. Such persons are not called upon to become birds or lilies, but to consider God’s providence for all creation, including birds, lilies and human beings.

Francis was born in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He died on 4 October 1226. His early years were frivolous, but an experience of sickness and another of military service were instrumental in leading him to reflect on the purpose of life. One day, in the church of San Damiano, outside of Assisi, he seemed to hear Christ saying to him, “Francis, repair my falling house”. He took the words literally, and sold a bale of silk from his father’s warehouse to pay for repairs to the church of San Damiano. His father was outraged and there was a public confrontation at which his father disinherited and disowned him, and he in turn renounced his father’s wealth. One account says that he not only handed his father his purse, but also took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father’s feet, and walked away naked. He declared himself “wedded to Lady Poverty”, renounced all material possessions and devoted himself to serving the poor.

In his day the most dreaded of all diseases was something known as leprosy. It is probably not the same as either the modern or the Biblical disease of that name. Lepers were kept at a distance and regarded with fear and disgust. Francis cared for them, fed them, bathed their sores and kissed them. Since he could not pay for repairs to the Church of San Damiano, he undertook to repair it by his own labours. He moved in with the priest and begged stones lying useless in fields, shaping them for use in repairing the church. He got his meals, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetable from trash-bins and by working as a day labourer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money. Soon a few companions joined him.

Dante in his Paradiso has Saint Aquinas say of him:

“Let me tell you of a youth whose aristocratic father disowned Him because of his love for a beautiful lady. She had been married before, to Christ, and was so faithful a spouse to Him that, while Mary only stood at the foot of the Cross, she leaped up to be with Him on the Cross. These two of whom I speak are Francis and the Lady Poverty. As they walked along together, the sight of their mutual love drew men’s hearts after them. Bernard saw them and ran after them, kicking off his shoes to run faster to so great a peace. Giles and Sylvester saw them, kicked off their shoes and ran to join them …”

After three years, in 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. “Friar” means “brother” as in “fraternity”, and “minor” means “lesser” or “younger”. These titles could be taken to mean that to be that a Franciscan, upon meeting another Christian, is to believe “I am your brother in Christ, and your younger brother at that, bound to defer to you and to give you precedence over myself”.

Francis and his companions took literally the words of Christ when he sent his disciples out to preach recorded in Matthew chapter 10:

“Preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” … You have received the Gospel without payment, give it to others as freely. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, no spare garment nor sandals, nor staff.

They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to preach, “using words if necessary”, but declaring by word and action the love of God in Christ. It has been suggested that he it was who set up the first Christmas manger scene, to bring home to human hearts and imaginations as well as to their intellects the Good News of God made human for our salvation.

In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to preach to the Muslims. He was given a pass through the enemy lines, and spoke to the Sultan, Melek-al-Kamil. Francis proclaimed the Gospel to the Sultan, who replied that he had his own beliefs, and that Muslims were as firmly convinced of the truth of Islam as Francis was of the truth of Christianity. Francis proposed that a fire be built, and that he and a Muslim volunteer would walk side by side into the fire to show whose faith was stronger. The Sultan said he was not sure that a Muslim volunteer could be found. Francis then offered to walk into the fire alone. The Sultan who was deeply impressed but remained unconverted. Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides, and drew up terms for one; the Sultan agreed, but, to Francis’s deep disappointment, the Christian leaders would not. Francis returned to Italy, but a permanent result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian shrines then in Muslim hands and animosity between Christians and Muslims remains strong today.

From the first known letter from Francis to all Christians:

“O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as The Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbour as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshipers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers, saying: “Our Father, who are in heaven”, since we must always pray and never grow slack.

Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also love our neighbours as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Remember the words from Matthew’s Gospel this morning;

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”1

 

 

 

1 This sermon produced using The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volumes I and VII, Abingdon Press Nashville, and material fromwww.http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/