Sermon: The Epiphany of our Lord (B) – 4th January 2015

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

Readings:  Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Today is Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany these days simply means a revelation, a new understanding, a new insight. We thought we knew a person, and then we saw a whole new side of them, something that surprised us, something that really moved us, and so we had an epiphany.

We all have had an epiphany sometime during our lives. We might have had several of them. They don’t have to be specially religious, rather, they have to be specially moving, or encouraging or life-changing, something we won’t forget, something we will look back to, something we can appreciate because of the new understanding it brings.

This is the aim of counselling according to the humanist Carl Rogers. Through working through the issues of life the client comes to a better understanding of themselves and their world, and this new understanding can come dramatically so it is experienced as an epiphany, a life-changing event, a life-enhancing event which helps the client face whatever it is they need to deal with day-by-day.

But what about the Church’s Epiphany. What are we celebrating here? Epiphany can mean an appearance or a manifestation. Literally it is the idea of light shining all around. So you enter a dark room and you can fumble about until you strike a match and light a candle which lets the light flood into the room.

In the Eastern Church Epiphany was a celebration of the birth of Jesus. It was used to describe the appearing of God in the world. Some ancient kings insisted they be worshipped as Gods and so they used the word in their title. That’s why we have ancient kings with names like Antiochus Epiphanies. But it can be tricky if you want to associate Epiphany with the birth of Jesus because that can sound a lot like Christmas itself.

The Western Church took on the feast of the Epiphany but it was associated with the visit of the Magi, the three kings. Here the message is the appearance of God in the world to these kings. It contains the idea of announcing to the wider world the birth of this king, this Son of God.

And of course, the story of these three kings, even though we are not given a number, we just have these three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, have become the stuff of legend, appearing on Christmas cards year after year. It is hard to imagine a nativity scene without these wise men appearing somewhere.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss these men. What is fascinating about this story is that these men lift the story of the birth of Jesus onto a whole new level.

What do we have otherwise without these three Magi? We have Mary and Joseph, of very humble origins, we have some shepherds in the fields, we have Simeon and Anna making their announcements. But these are all the little people, the poor, the powerless, the outcasts. These are people who have no say in the affairs of state. These people will never have any power. If they were all we had for the Christmas story, then the whole story could be a very private affair amongst the poor and the marginalised in Jewish society.

But the story of the Magi lifts us out of that and places the story of the birth of Jesus on a whole new level.

First we can ask just who are these Magi? They are obviously significant scholars of the day. They were astronomers and astrologers in an age where no distinction was made. It was commonly believed the events on earth were either determined or influenced by what happened in the skies. It was believed the skies were a source of information regarding important events on earth. These men would have been highly educated in the movement of the planets, and would have studied them daily.

Because they were able to devote themselves to full-time research these three would have been very rich men and by definition they would have come from a royal background. They are rich enough that they can afford to travel the world in the search of the new king they believed had been born.

Also, we can note that these men came from the East. Places east of Israel such as around Babylon were famous as centres of learning. It was the Babylonians that taught the Greeks and gave them a head-start in the development of their academies. To describe these Magi as men from the East is a way of verifying their academic credentials. These are not only learned men, they are the best of the best. These are three important men, who, because of what they have seen in the skies believe a king of great significance has been born and they wanted to honour him.

Their travels led them to Israel so it was natural for them to go straight to Herod’s palace. Where else would you find a King? So what we have in effect is a summit meeting of heads of government as they entered Herod’s palace. And the significance of this is event is not lost on Herod. They had seen in the heavens the birth of a great king and these important men had come to pay him homage. Herod must have taken them at their word. Here was a pronouncement of a new King of the Jews coming from an impeccable source. No wonder Herod was frightened. His grip on power was weak and he was now an old man. He no longer had the vigour and wit that he had once relied on. No wonder he so quickly came to the conclusion that he must kill this child.

The chief priests and the scribes could tell Herod and the Magi the end of their quest must lie in Bethlehem and so they set off. And by the stars they came to the house where this special family was now staying.

Now, no doubt you have heard sermons which draw all sorts of conclusions about the three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh and their significance. At least we can say these gifts were very expensive, they were the kind of gifts that you would give a king. The frankincense and the myrrh alone would have been worth their weight in gold. Also, we can note this would be the easiest way to transport very expensive gifts over a long distance. But they also have all the characteristics of royalty. These Magi have a true understanding of the significance of this birth, of the significance of this baby. This is not just any king of the Jews. This is the one everyone had been waiting for.

This moment was the epiphany for these Magi. They had had their revelation of truth. They had seen something that had changed their lives forever, something they would never forget. And by their actions their epiphany is acted out for us in their visiting of the baby Jesus.

But there is another Bible passage that contains a good understanding of the Epiphany but I think it is rarely used. We find it in John 1. Speaking of Jesus John writes, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”

This is the message of the Epiphany for our day because as we look around our world we don’t have much trouble finding the darkness. The darkness is always with us. Of course, we have the well-known trouble spots in the middle east. We have the battles with Ebola in Africa. We hear of terrible stories of the stealing of children from orphanages. We know these things and we should respond to fight against them.

But the darkness is also much closer to home. We still have the high rates of domestic violence in Australia. One Australian woman still dies every day because of it. We still have high rates of intergenerational unemployment, and it impacts most amongst children and young school leavers who can’t get a job because their have neither the training nor the experience.

It is all so very heart-warming when we see people being given a Christmas dinner because they can’t afford their own. But they will be back next year and the year after because their problems of unemployment never go away. That darkness never leaves them.

But the darkness is even closer when it enters our own hearts as we think of the hopes and dreams we had that will never be realised, when we find so much of our lives lived as a compromise, when the gap between what we hoped for, what we dreamed of and what we achieve becomes ever wider and so much of each day becomes an exercise in making do and we find the cold grip of darkness enter our hearts.

Like Job, the mountain of suffering and disappointment can grow so large it can almost crush us. And yet, it was when he was at his lowest, Job had his epiphany, and uttered those wonderful words, “I know that my redeemer lives.”

That is the magic of Epiphany, when everything seems hopeless, when disappointment overwhelms us, when the emptiness and the loneliness become too much, we discover at the centre of Christmas is the beating heart of the love of God who wants to get so involved with us, so close to us that he does the impossible, he becomes flesh and blood so that in every way he can say he understands us, that he is with us, that he loves us. The Epiphany is the gift of God to us, it is that wonderful understanding, that great “ah ha” moment, that everything we read of what was done at that first Christmas was done for you. It is all – for you.

 

The Reverend Ross Weaver

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

Sermon: Advent Carol Service – 30th November 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 6pm

A couple of years ago, I shared my research with you into the origins of services of lessons and carols. It was rather disillusioning to find out that they had been instituted to replace the walk around the parish, singing carols outside parishioners’ homes but moreso, to keep the men out of the pub on Christmas Eve. Since 1878, these services have developed significantly in form and in value for those who prepare them and participate in them. They allow us to tell again the seasonal stories of our tradition about the impending first and second comings of Jesus and to do it in an expanded, reflective and polished way, with the best available in word and music. This results in a rich experience to set the scene for our approach to Christmas. I hope tonight that we might expand that richness just a little further by the mention of two works of art.

The words of our introit tonight are those traditionally used to introduce the Advent Carol Service. They come from an early medieval Advent Sunday Responsory, so as we use them, we take our place among the generations of believers who have looked forward at this time of year, both to the birth of Christ at Christmas and to the second coming of Christ, set to usher in the fulfilment of God’s coming Kingdom.

Hear again those words that were sung:

“I look from afar: And lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth. Go ye out to meet him and say: Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel? High and low, rich and poor, one with another, go ye out to meet him and say: Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep. Tell us, art thou he that should come? Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come to reign over they people Israel.”

This focus is complemented by the words of the welcome to the Advent Carol Service at Christ’s College, Cambridge, which say “Advent is a season of restrained and prayerful preparation for the joy and jubilation of Christmas. It is also a time when we consider ‘the end of all things’. But above all, it is a time to contemplate ‘Immanuel’, (‘God with us’). In our readings, carols and prayers, we rehearse in a distilled way the story of the human journey, from creation to our redemption. In some small way, we encapsulate that most profound of all mysteries: that God became a human being…

We all come to recognize afresh the hope that Christ brings, hope for the individual, hope for communities and hope for the whole of creation. This hope is not a vague longing but a deep recognition of all that God has done in and through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. This promise helps us to see the possibilities of the future and to live here and now in the light of all that will be, things that are perceived with the eyes of faith alone. It has been said that all too often, contemporary Christianity is marked by the immediate and shaped by the world rather than by the eternal dimension which offers true hope to the world. In Christ, the present and the future are connected and completed.   This is the key to understanding the essential ambiguity of Advent, when we correctly think forward to celebrating the past event of the coming of the baby at Bethlehem and welcoming the second coming of the returning Christ, we know not when.

Rowan Williams, in an Advent Carol service three years ago said we need to look at the world in the “angelic way”, a term used by Thomas Aquinas, where we see everything in terms of our relationship with God. He says we need to look at the world at least with the imagination of the angel Gabriel, who the then archbishop described in a very free translation, as coming to Mary and saying: “You may be a teenager in a village nobody has heard of, on the edge of the Roman Empire in an occupied country, without any education, without a vote, without even a change of clothes, and you are going to be where God happens.”   He urges us to peel away the temptation to see things in terms of ourselves and to align ourselves more with the angelic way of seeing things, just like the angel Gabriel. Look at the world he says, and see it “pregnant with God”, full of possibilities. Advent signals tensions and paradoxes; at the end of the four week journey, we meet the most extraordinary paradox of all, the power, the love, the energy that made and sustains the universe – speechless, helpless, cold, homeless, a baby. Our selfish hopes and fantasies about controlling our world need to go, for us to come to terms with this God, who is beyond compare, this God whose energy and power are paradoxically in the weakness of being made flesh among us. It is this Advent realization that enables us to look with Gabriel-like eyes at our neighbours and the things of the world as pregnant with God.

Let us think for a moment about looking with Gabriel-like eyes. On the front of your service sheet tonight, you will find a tiny black and white reproduction of Giotto’s famous Annunciation, depicting the angel coming to Mary. There are many traditions associated with this representation, eg the position of the angel vis a vis Mary and the traditional colour she is wearing. Mary is generally depicted as demure and humble with downcast eyes in her response to the angel’s message. Sometimes the angel appears a modest messenger, but some artists depict him as an exotic, heavenly being compared with Mary’s essential ordinariness. In this representation, we have an elegant, stylized angel of beauty, slender wings, unspoiled folds in his robe, approaching a humble Mary with his message. This is a very traditional portrayal and draws a respectful, devotional response from us.

Then by way of contrast, I would like us to look at the picture of a sculpture at the end of the service sheet. I am sorry that space did not allow us to show the whole of the scene. You might like to pause on your way out and have a look at a slightly larger version of both these works of art. This is an unusual sculpture of the annunciation from the Cathedral of Reims in north eastern France, also from the 13th century. The two life sized figures stand on the front of the cathedral. Earlier on, statues were generally part of supporting pillars of a building. By the 13th century, they were emerging to be free standing as Gabriel and Mary are here. At this time in art history, sculpted figures often had a stylized facial expression to indicate beauty and blessedness. It has come to be known as the “Gothic smile”. It is often a bland and rather anemic smile. Records show that the now one armed statue used to hold a trumpet to joyously announce the imminent arrival of Christ. The theme is salvation and hope rather than the final judgment so often depicted on Gothic cathedrals. But look closely at little picture of the face of this Gabriel. The look is not stylized, but is astonishingly real and flesh-like, for a sculpture in stone. It is not a blandly beautiful face, but it comes close to having a huge smirk, a knowing smile that says “Young woman, I know something terrific from God that you don’t yet know, and I can hardly contain myself; I am bursting with it!” I ask myself whether Gabriel, at that moment in history, was able to convey that joyful anticipation, the sense of a great and mighty wonder to the young Mary. Whether or not she was able to grasp that then, we are! Tonight we have the means in word, in music, in painting and sculpture, to catch again the wonder of the season of advent as we begin to move towards Christmas.

In this lie authentic hope and joy, as we look forward to the celebration of the coming of Jesus into the world at Christmas, and then again, at the end time. In the ambiguity of the season and the anxiety it is easy to have about the future, we take confidence also from what may be for us the most important verse in tonight’s readings, from Isaiah: “I call you by your name. I surname you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” We are declared by God to be family, to be kin, if God indeed surnames us.  Is this perhaps the other side of the coin of God’s taking our flesh upon God’s self?

We are called then to go forward into advent, with its looking back and its looking forward, in a strong position, an amazing position, as God’s own. We can be confident to obey the urging of the introit, “Go ye out to meet him.”.  Sharing the sculpted Gabriel’s knowing smile, we remember at this season that God is with us.

 

Ruth Shatford

Sermon: The First Sunday in Advent (B) – 30th November 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am and Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church

Readings:  Isaiah 64:1-9;  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19;  1 Corinthians 1:1-9;  Mark 13:24-37

The first Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s new year.

Advent is the season of waiting: of promise and patience, of presence and absence, of fullness and emptiness. The seed has been planted but the growth is invisible and fragile. In the midst of the growth process, threats abound. Will the seed burst forth into the sunlight? Will thorns choke its life and stunt its growth? Will it receive adequate nourishment to grow into a great tree, giving shelter and fruit for all around? Will we and our church communities survive, and better yet flourish, amid the chaos of today’s religious pluralism and postmodernism?

Advent is a month long “Holy Saturday”. The great news of Christ’s birth is on the horizon and we want to sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come” however, we must first spend four weeks with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” before we greet the child in Bethlehem! In Holy Saturday, we don’t know the outcome for the crucified Jesus or ourselves. In Advent, we have the same impatience with ourselves, history and God and we live “For the Time Being”, as W.H. Auden asserts. Two thousand years later, we may still recite, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again”, and wonder what this coming of Christ means when we struggle with congregational life the growing pluralism and the apparent reduction in the influence of Christianity, and the uncertainty of where the world will be tomorrow or when our children and grandchildren grow up. Advent is filled with hope, but not certainty. I f God is present everywhere at all times, God is frustratingly subtle, barely recognizable in our world unless we look for God’s movements evident and obvious in the many Godly actions of people and Godly institutions.

In the first reading Isaiah captures the Advent spirit with words of impatience, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence”.  Isaiah talks of the apparent inconsistency between the stories from Israel’s past of God’s mighty works of liberation and the current situation of divine absence and national turmoil in terms of God’s anger at the people. God’s anger appears, at least to Isaiah, to have a relationship to current circumstances in which the nation finds itself: “You were angry and we sinned…. we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand”. The people have turned away from God, but God’s hiding is a result of their sinfulness.

It feels to Isaiah like our pain must be God’s doing: God must be punishing us, withdrawing God’s presence, because we have gone astray. God is angry with us and God’s anger takes the form of apparent abandonment. Isaiah and his community are going through a severe case of “separation anxiety”. Isaiah assumes that God’s distance, which allows for freedom and creativity, is the same as God’s abandonment and anger. Perhaps, as later Jewish mysticism suggests, God must withdraw for creation to burst forth in creativity and freedom. In spite of us wishing to blame God for our misfortunes God does not micromanage our lives, despite God’s moment-by-moment presence in our lives. We are free agents; God has given us freewill. We are not God’s puppets. There is risk in God’s withdrawal. We may fear that God is gone forever and may misuse our freedom, but the emergence of new possibilities demands that God give us space for growth.

Perhaps, the divine absence is the reflection of our responses to God’s overtures to the world and us. God comes to us to give us a vision of possibilities and lure onto new horizons. We can easily assume God is absent when our actions have, in fact, limited God’s presence in our lives and communities. Still, we hope for greater inspiration and energy and this hope opens the door for new revelations of God’s love.

The Psalm presents this same contrast of presence and absence, and desperate hope for divine revelation in power and love. We need restoration and God must be part of the process of renewal. We need healing and only God can give us the energy to find wholeness. Our cry of help may open the door to a greater influx of divine possibility and energy in our lives and our communities. The Psalmist assumes that our cries make a difference to God. God hears our pleas and prayers and they open the door to God’s presence in healing ways. They do not change the character of the liberating and healing God but make God’s presence more obvious and life giving. God needs us to answer the knock, to open the door, and to seek and to ask. The dynamic and interdependent call and response relationship between God and humanity bring new visions to the world.

Paul’s words to a struggling community are intended instil hope in a time of waiting “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Perhaps, written in light of Paul’s image of the body of Christ, Paul is reminding the church at Corinth that when they operate as an integrated and interdependent body, unified and vision-inspired, they have everything they need. God is generous with revelation and is working through the many gifts of community to bring forth something of beauty that will give light to the world.

Paul’s words give hope and, more than that, energy and ability to individuals and communities. God wants all of us to flourish. God has given us the gifts we need to be faithful and to share good news. God is growing in our lives, despite the external circumstances and the delayed return of Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel portion describes both terror and fulfilment. Nature will be transformed prior to the coming of God’s Chosen One. Many of us can identify with such apocalyptic thinking, although we view it in naturalistic rather supernatural terms. Our planet is in trouble: many of us see signs of destruction, of dying species and collapsing glacier and fear a random collision with a meteor that will alter our planet forever and put an end to the human enterprise.

Mark sees the suffering as the birth pains of new creation. We need to observe the signs of the times and act accordingly. No one knows the hour or day. Trying to pick dates and numerological calculations of the Second Coming are misguided and foolish. What is needed is wakefulness and self-awareness.

Those who study the origins and development of the universe Cosmologists say that every place in the universe is the centre. Theologians say that God’s ever presence everywhere means that God is wholly here in this present place and moment. Accordingly, if no one knows the moment of Christ’s coming, then every moment is a call to transformation. Every moment, whether at dinner table, working on your laptop, answering e-mail or praying at church, is a moment of encountering divine possibility. No need to look into the future, for God is fully present in the here and now. Possibilities for transformation are ever-present for those who seek to be awake to the divine. Any moment can be transforming and transfiguring: God’s self-revelation abound!

Fulfilment may always be a receding horizon. The heavens may not be torn open, but the daylight may slowly emerge. In the midst of waiting for a revelation that is beyond our understanding and exceeds our imagination, we have much to do. We are called to stay awake and choose to be people of a future which we can’t fully fathom, a future of holy relationships, healed persons and transformed ecology and economy. We can be citizens of the emerging realm of God right now. We don’t need angelic visitors or natural disasters to know what time it is for it is always God’s time and the advent of life-transforming possibility.

Open to unrestrained possibility, we can sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with the lively spirit of “Joy to the World” for God is here![1]

 

[1] This sermon based upon material written by the Reverend Bruce Epperly and found at http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2011-11-27/first-sunday-advent

 

Sermon: The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 9th November 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Joshua 24; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Don’t miss out! We know how the advertisements work. Don’t miss out on this amazing bargain! Book now: don’t miss out on the great event! Arrive very early: don’t miss out on being inside the Town Hall at Gough’s service.

Of course we often do miss out on things. Sometimes we forget, or we’re running late, or something prevents us. Sometimes we miss out simply because we took things lightly, or we didn’t get around to doing anything, or we didn’t think it was all that important anyway. The theme of missing out is an important theme of today’s Gospel, and our reading from 1 Thessalonians.

Over the next three weeks, we shall be reading Jesus’ message in Matthew 25, as he tells three stories to illustrate truths about the Kingdom of God. And in today’s story his message is: “Be ready for the coming of the kingdom. Don’t miss out!”

He tells a story about a wedding, and about ten girls who went out to meet the bridegroom as he brought his bride home. In Israel in those days the exact timing of the wedding festivities was not a big deal: a few minutes, a few hours, perhaps even a few days didn’t matter all that much.

But this was the night the bridegroom was expected. It was the custom for the girls of the village to meet him in the street as he brought his wife back from her family’s home. The girls would have torches to give light and provide a festive atmosphere, and they’d hope to be asked to join in the festivities when they arrived back at the groom’s home. The torches were probably long sticks with a rag on the end which had been dipped in oil, so that the torch would burn brightly. There were ten girls in the group, but only five of them had taken account of the reality that the timing was uncertain. These five girls had brought a small flask of oil with them in case more oil was needed.

The evening went on later and later. Why was the groom so late? Wasn’t that what brides do? Actually they probably assumed that there was an extended argument going on about the size of the dowry expected by the bride’s family!

The girls got more and more tired, and began to fall asleep. That was fair enough: they would wake up with the noise as the groom got near. There was no point in being too exhausted to enjoy the party.

Finally the girls hear the shouts: “He’s on his way!” The girls get up and check their torches: more oil is definitely needed. Five of them get out their spare oil, and their flames shine brightly. But what about the other five?

“Have you got any more oil?” they ask. “Sorry, we’ve just got enough for our own. You’d better hurry if you going to get some!” Off they rush: the supermarket is closed, the convenience store is out of oil. And by the time they get back, the bridegroom has not only passed by: he has got home, and the girls who were waiting there with their torches have been invited in to the festivities. It’s too late for the other five: they’ve missed out because they weren’t ready. They had not been wise in their preparations.

And Jesus says that’s what it will be like for those who wish to enter the kingdom of God. Here were five girls who thought they would be at a wedding celebration: they thought they were ready, but they were wrong -and they missed out. It is a serious warning from Jesus. And it links up with our reading from 1 Thessalonians.

The members of the church in Thessalonica were worried about people missing out too. Paul had taught them about Jesus, about forgiveness and salvation, about judgement and eternal life. They knew that Jesus was coming again, and that it would be soon; and they looked forward to the promised fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.

But of course, “soon” is not an exact word. When we read in scripture that Jesus is coming soon, we have a completely different perspective from the Thessalonians. They expected it within weeks, months, certainly not many years.

Today we who believe in the second coming of Jesus don’t really expect it to happen in our earthly lifetime: perhaps we are inclined to take it in some sort of figurative way. It is easy to take the whole idea very lightly indeed! We might say it’s just around the corner, but it is not clear how big the corner is!

But the Thessalonians had a different problem. Some of their number had died, and Jesus hadn’t come yet. What would happen to these friends and family members who had already died? Would they miss out on the kingdom? Would these believers be left behind? Would they be at some disadvantage?

Paul reassures his readers that when Jesus returns in glory, both those who have died and those who are still on earth will be involved. No believer will be left out on that day. And he ends our passage with these positive words: “We will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Paul’s message is that Jesus’ coming is for all people!

Of course, we still don’t know the date of Jesus’ return. Indeed, as Paul puts it in next Sunday’s reading from 1 Thessalonians 5, he will come like a thief in the night, without appointment or warning.

The point of both these readings is this: we need to live as those who are always ready. We don’t know when we shall die: so often death comes unexpectedly. And we don’t know when Jesus shall return. So we must live as those who are always ready. We can’t take things for granted as those five unprepared girls did.

Jesus brings us warning, while Paul brings encouragement. We need both. For instance, people can be tempted to say to themselves: “I am baptized, I have been confirmed.” But the realities to which baptism and confirmation point need to be lived out in our lives.

People may have had profound spiritual experiences: but if they are just experiences, they are just history – not reality. People may have grown up in a Christian household and had a strong Christian upbringing. But can we simply rely on these things when Jesus comes? We are called to be children of God, not grandchildren of God.

It is Jesus who by his grace enables us to be ready for that day. As the old hymn puts it: “On Christ the solid rock I stand: all other ground is sinking sand.” It is not our church attendance or our good character or our kind deeds that makes us ready, though they are important: it is Christ who enables us to stand. And it is as we trust in him, as we depend on his gracious love, that we open up to the blessings of the Gospel. By faith in Christ – not our own worthiness – we can be confident that we have a place in his kingdom.

Of course, genuine faith is always lived out. Faith is not a theoretical matter: it is never “believe, and do whatever you like”! If it is genuine, we will seek to live the life of faith. There are indications that some of the Thessalonians thought that faith meant sitting back and doing nothing. That inactivity gave them the opportunity to become spongers on the generosity of others, and to become busybodies and gossips.

But Paul makes clear that faith is to be expressed in purposeful living, in godly lives and in loving generosity to others. Yes, we must depend on Christ for our forgiveness and salvation: but we are not to take advantage of the generosity of others, using them to make life easier for ourselves.

Christ’s call to readiness is not a call to panic or frenzied activity. It is a challenge to keep trusting and following him. It is a reminder that life has a direction, life has a purpose. No, we don’t know that date of Christ’ return in glory. We don’t know the date of our death. But both are realities for which we are always to be prepared. Let’s keep going in our Christian lives and our Christian living. Let’s determine to be in it for the long haul – although in the light of eternity, it’s not all that long! Salvation is a gift, not an achievement: but we mustn’t take it for granted. Let’s keep trusting, keep following, keep loving. Amen.

 

 

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 9th November 2014

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

Readings:  Joshua 24; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Any wedding is a special occasion. When you’re invited to a wedding you make all the appropriate preparations. First, you check you diary to make sure you’re free on that day to attend. Then you make sure you have something appropriate to wear. And then there is the purchase of a gift. And then you check your maps to work out how you will get to the venue. And if you’re really organised you’ll have your sat. nav. set up to show you the way. This is how we usually behave when we attend a wedding.

But it doesn’t always work. Jenny and I were very involved in the organisation of our daughter’s wedding. We had the church organised. We had the venue prepared for the reception. The invitations were sent out. The catering was organised. We thought we had it all covered.

On the day, the guests arrived, the minister arrived, the musicians were in place, the groom showed up in good time. We were there with our daughter. But there was just one problem. There was no photographer. He had become lost. Eventually, someone rang him. He had gone to the wrong church. So the wedding started about 15 minutes late. And then the celebrations began.

When Jesus came preaching, his message was about the coming of the Kingdom of God. And he likened the Kingdom of God to banquet or a wedding celebration. So it is not surprising that at the beginning of John’s gospel we find Jesus attending a wedding where the wine ran out. Jesus turned many gallons of water into the best wine.

This miracle was a way of acting out his message. If you want a picture of the kingdom of God this is what it looks like. Jesus taught about the coming celebrations where God issues his invitation to all people to come to his party.

So here the message we learn from Matthew 25 it that we must be prepared for that great day. Here Jesus speaks of a wedding and the 10 bridesmaids. We must remember this was in an age where there were no clocks or watches. If you were lucky you might hear a bell which announced each hour.

These 10 girls had to wait for the bridegroom to arrive but they could never be sure exactly when he would come. 5 girls brought extra oil for their lamps and 5 girls didn’t. When their oil ran out they went off for some more. In the meantime, the bridegroom arrived, and the wedding began. But those foolish girls missed their opportunity and were shut out of the celebrations.

So from this the message of Jesus is simply “be prepared, be ready.” But throughout Jesus short life we see again and again people who weren’t ready. The Pharisees, the Levites, the teachers of the Law all knew about the coming of the Messiah. But they wouldn’t accept him when he came. In spite of their great learning, when the opportunity came they simply weren’t ready.

The irony was that those who were furthest from the Temple, those who felt furthest from God, the poor, the sick, the unclean, the outcasts and the tax collectors were those who flooded to Jesus. They saw the miracles, they heard the teaching and they believed Jesus truly was the Son of God.

So Jesus told parables about two groups of people –those who were rejected and those who were welcomed into the Kingdom, because this was being played out everyday in Jesus life.

In the same way in this parable we have two groups, one group was not prepared and the other group were ready for the bridegroom and entered into the celebrations. Jesus’s message is simple –be prepared.

It is the very thing we do normally with so many things in life. When you were at school you prepared for the yearly exams, specially if you wanted to pass. When you go for a job interview you go prepared. You demonstrate you know something about the company. You show you understand the requirements for the position you want to obtain.

When you propose marriage you come prepared with a bunch of flowers and a good speech. When you face retirement you make sure you have your finances in order. Being prepared is something that comes naturally to us. It is not hard for us to show wisdom in these areas.

But Jesus wants us to be wise regarding the things of God as well. Life will always have its uncertainties. Things will happen that we never planned for. Bad things can happen and we may wonder what God is doing in those situations. And we need to remember the goodness of God. We need to be familiar with the character of God.

It is a shame we don’t spend more time studying the book of Job. There we know Job went through the most appalling suffering. Few people in history have suffered as Job did. Throughout the book Job argues with his friends about his condition and why was God letting him suffer in this way.

The friends were convinced Job must have committed some terrible sin though they didn’t know what that might be. Job was sure he had led a good life and surely did not deserve this suffering.

But the brilliance of the book is that it never answers the question of suffering. This is where we can relate to this book because we will probably never understand why we must endure the things we suffer. But for Job, he finds another solution. The more he meditates upon the character of God the more he experiences the peace and the comfort of God.

Job makes that bold statement, “I know that my redeemer lives.” Job 19:25“ Redeemer” might sound like a churchy word but when Job uses it, redeemer has the force of the word “champion”. In other words, while my champion lives I know I have very little to fear.

So it is not surprising that the major section at the end of the book of Job is an extended meditation upon the character of God. This is what Job really needs to sustain him through his sufferings. Bad things will always happen to good people and we know we will never get an answer to the “why” question. We will end up frustrated if we try. But the real comfort if found in meditation on God himself.

In those six years I spent working at Braeside Hospital I saw so many people facing death. They were of all ages and all conditions in life. Death can come at any time so how can we prepare for that? I was always impressed by those Catholic patients at Braeside who brought their missal with them. Each day they read their prayers and went through the readings for the day. Each day they prepared themselves spiritually for whatever that day might bring. It was such a clear example of them following Jesus instructions for being prepared. They were just like those 5 bridesmaids, they were vigilant in their praying and reading.

So those are some of the things we need to prepared for, the tragedies and the disappointments of life itself, and then the biggest challenge of them all as we face our own mortality.

Now you would think that would be enough but there is yet one more thing we need to consider and that is the return of Christ himself. Whether it occurs in our lifetime or not it is something that we will all be caught up into. And there will come the day of Christ’s rule over all the earth – a great and glorious time when at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and earth and under the earth and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

Are we ready for that great day? Jesus warning to us is – be prepared.

 

Ross Weaver

Sermon: All Saints Day (A) – 2nd November 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Many years ago I went to an art exhibition which included a very unusual picture of Jesus. In traditional religious art, Jesus has generally been presented as serious, saintly, unworldly, often with a halo to stress that he is not like us. But in this picture Jesus had a huge smile on his face, and his disciples were smiling and laughing and grinning too. They seemed all to be having great fun. Jesus is jumping about, almost like someone in a Toyota or a Jetstar advertisement. This is not a distant or mournful or weeping Jesus, but a wildly happy Jesus: a Jesus whom we sometimes forget about in our desire to take him seriously. After all, Jesus could tell a funny story; he got on with all kinds of unexpected people; and he enjoyed good company. Perhaps this side of Jesus, the happy side, is one we all tend to forget about!

And when we think about the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, our traditional versions can lead us to miss out on something very significant. We call them the Beatitudes, and they describe a group of people who are blessed. But this word traditionally translated as “blessed” has nothing to do with the ordinary word “to bless”.

The word is just the normal word meaning “happy”. And indeed some of the more recent translations of the Bible have actually used the word “happy”: happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, and so on. The word describes someone for whom life is good, for whom things are going well. Perhaps it is more about the way things are for you, rather than whether you are wearing a silly smile or jumping and waving your arms about. You might say: it’s good if you are poor in spirit, it’s good if you are mourning, and so on.

What is odd is that so many of Jesus’ word pictures in this passage don’t seem to describe someone who is happy. And perhaps that’s why the traditional translation as “blessed” developed.

But who really are those blessed by God? I believe that Jesus’ words here – and indeed throughout the Sermon on the Mount – describe the life of the Saints. And how do you become a saint? A fairly relevant question as we celebrate All Saints’ Day!

We know that the traditional churches have set procedures for a person to become a saint. We know of many saints of the past, often but not identified specifically as St. Peter, St.Paul, St.Aidan, and so on. And in our opening liturgy we acknowledged a number of official and unofficial saints!

We now officially have St.Mary McKillop as an Australian saint. Her life and work had to be carefully investigated before she could become a saint. She had to be shown to be a worker of miracles. She was beatified during these procedures: she became the Blessed Mary McKillop – an interesting connection with these words of Jesus! And finally the Pope and the Catholic Church acknowledged her as a Saint.

Now I think it is a worthwhile thing to acknowledge those who have served Christ and his people faithfully and lovingly and sacrificially. We can learn from them, and be encouraged and challenged and inspired by their examples. I am a bit wary about the emphasis on proving that they worked miracles. But this process of identifying saints can distract us from what the New Testament actually teaches us about saints!

A saint is a person who is holy, who is different, who belongs to God in a special way. But that actually describes everyone who is a Christian believer, one who trusts in Jesus, one who lives as a follower of Jesus! Paul wrote his letters to the saints in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and so on. The letters were not just to the outstanding Christians, not just to those who could work miracles: they were to all the members of the churches, those strong in faith and those who struggled and even those who got it wrong far too often. They all were saints!

A Christian is a saint. That’s why in the two churches I’ve ministered in which were called “All Saints”, I would often point out around this time of year to members of the congregation that we are all saints! So as we trust and follow Jesus, even if we don’t see ourselves as outstanding Christians, we too are all saints.

And if the Sermon on the Mount describes the life of the saints, it’s describing the life that Jesus calls us to live: not in order to become saints, but because we are saints, and Jesus in his love has already welcomed us into his family.

In the beatitudes, Jesus describes some significant aspects of living as a Christian, but he is also giving encouragement: he is saying that even when it feels hard, things are actually good, they are better than we might see them. In that sense we are blessed, things are actually OK.

So the Christian is “poor in spirit”: we need God’s love, we can’t put him in our debt. Instead as we acknowledge our spiritual poverty we depend on God’s love in Christ, who brings us forgiveness and hope.

Christians are those who mourn: mourn not just when a loved one dies, but when we are reminded of the evil and injustice, the pain and suffering in this world – and when we remember that we play our own part in it. We pray that those who suffer might be helped, and that we and others might live lives of justice and love.

We are called to be meek, humble in our attitude to God and also to other people; not putting ourselves above others so that we look down on them or dismiss them as unworthy of our concern.

We hunger and thirst for righteousness, looking and longing for that day when God will finally put things right and establish his perfect kingdom. And we look for ways to play our part in putting right some of the things that are wrong in this world.

We are called to be merciful, recognizing God’s kindness and mercy to us, and therefore ready to show kindness and forgiveness to others.

We are called to be pure in heart, sincere in our faith and undivided in our commitment to Jesus our Lord.

We are called to be peacemakers, living at peace with others, forgiving them when that is needed, and seeking to bring people together rather than pushing them apart.

And being willing if necessary to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake: being faithful to Jesus and the values of his kingdom, even when it makes us stand out, and when it may bring criticism or misunderstanding – even when it may be awkward or costly, or even dangerous.

Being meek and merciful and pure in heart is not easy, nor is acknowledging our spiritual need. Striving to forward the cause of righteousness and peace can bring us into difficult situations. But Jesus assures us that even when faithful living is difficult, even when it is painful and even sorrowful, there is a bigger picture: things may be tough at one level, but behind it all, God is still at work, forwarding his wonderful purposes, and preparing the way for his kingdom, where all will be put right, and righteousness and justice and glory will be the reality for us all.

And if we think: I’m not always humble, sometimes I take the pains of the world and of others far too lightly, I find it hard to forgive some people, and so on; if we feel we too often fall short, we can always come back to the first of those beatitudes. We are spiritually poor in ourselves: we need God’s help; we need the forgiveness of Jesus, the strength and wisdom of the Spirit. So Jesus is describing the Christian outlook on life, and acknowledging the pain and struggle, but also pointing us to the hope.

I seem to often remind us that we fall short, that we haven’t made it yet, that we are still on the journey. In a sense the beatitudes remind us of that: we’ve still got a way to go, but things are actually better than we might be tempted to think, because God loves us and accepts us, even as he challenges us to keep going.

When I was a boy and first became aware of the Beatitudes, I misread the word. I thought it was “beautitudes”, and I think that perhaps I wasn’t too far wrong. There is beauty in this description of the Christian outlook and the Christian life: and the hope to which they point us is gloriously beautiful.

Let’s keep going as we seek to live this beautiful life. Let’s keep living as true if imperfect followers of Jesus, as saints seeking to become more like the great saints and the glorious Saviour, until we see him in his glorious kingdom. Amen.

 

Paul Weaver

Sermon: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 26th October 2014

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

Readings:  Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-13; Matthew 22:34-46

Over time, on occasions, I have used the sermon preparation material found at the Sojourners website (sojo.net/preaching-the-word). I am going to do the same today, using what some people have said about the readings set for today and the concepts that arise from them.

The first commentary is called On the Way of the Cross, by Jim Douglass.

“In today’s gospel, Jesus joins the greatest commandment of the law in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind) with a second like it from Leviticus 19:18 (loving one’s neighbour as oneself). But the crux of his teaching is not this conjunction of the two, but his scandalous interpretation of the second.

The verse in Leviticus is a national creed. It limits the love of “neighbour” to one’s own people: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

It is when Jesus extends love of neighbour to include the enemy (recorded in today’s Gospel) that he identifies himself as the traitor to every nationalism and imperialism. He is thereby on his way to the cross, as are his followers in the Roman Empire and our own.

In our reading from Deuteronomy, just before he dies, Moses goes up the mountain. And God shows him the Promised Land. Moses looks northward to Galilee, westward to the Mediterranean, and south to the wilderness of the Negeb. “But you shall not cross over there”, (and) God tells the prophet of the people who will cross over.

On the night before he died in Memphis, (America’s) greatest modern prophet Martin Luther King Jr. also had a view of the Promised Land. He saw it in the midst of striking sanitation workers. He saw that land of freedom not in terms of a nation but rather a transformed, global people, most of them poorer than the sanitation workers and some of them his enemies. Following Jesus, he saw the way to freedom for their whole people as the cross he was about to experience from his enemies:

“… it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And (God has) allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The second reflection is written by Richard Rohr and is taken from his work Pure Passion: The holiness of human sexuality, and it is called God’s Longing, and it concerns loving our neighbour as ourselves.
“… the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who is passion. God is not the passionless and omnipotent abstraction of the philosophers, although we have often tried to make it seem so. God is angry, tender, jealous, and seems to be hopelessly in love. God is so “out of control” with this love that he makes unilateral promises and covenants that we cannot break or change. God is apparently willing to wait around for centuries for a believing response, and puts up with all kinds of abuse in the meantime. A real fool, of sorts.

But that is what passion does to you: it makes you feel and it makes you suffer – so much so that we use the same word for both meanings. As you might expect, we are not quite sure whether we want a God with passion. We have not yet learned how to live with that reality. But God seems to be here to stay, and I think that will finally make all the difference. God is not going to change. But we will, I’m sure. We cannot resist God’s passion for us much longer.

 (God is also) faithfulness (personified). It has almost taken us this long to realize that time itself is the great revelation. “Staying in there” gives us the time in which to see the patterns and rhythms of life and love.”

If we listen, if we keep listening, we will know. If we remember, and we keep remembering, we will meet. If we are willing to go deep in at least one place, we will recognize continuities, direction, and purposefulness. We will say, “Who is upholding me?” “Who is this being good to me?” “Is there someone walking with me, or ahead of me?” Then we will meet the Faithful One. And then faithfulness will make sense. In fact, it will be the only thing that will make sense out of anything. Faithfulness is the pattern of God. “Staying in there” is the sign of salvation.

… the Jewish tradition in particular makes us aware of the constant danger and nature of idolatry. It teaches us that we are habitually addicted to the making of gods. We are fascinated with absolutes and answers. We are terrified by ambiguities and paradox. We want a “rightness” that we can always rely upon, a power that is always in control and on our side. We want a warm body that will protect us from our own coldness. We want almost anything rather than journey, and search, and trial and error. So we make gods that do not last, “their makers end up like them” (as it says in)(Psalm 135:18).

The tradition tells us, however, that all human and created things are to be relativised and put in harmonious balance. This includes our relatedness to and expectations of others, our sexual taboos, our bodily pleasures, and even our individual rights to happiness. As old-fashioned as that sounds, I think that is what the scriptures are saying. As someone once said, conservatives are not necessarily wrong about their certitudes. It is just that they are too easily certain about too much. That form of conservatism creates a lot of idols for all of us and keeps us from religious surrender.

In this area of sexuality we all seem to have our areas of blindness and our sacred cows that cannot be touched. The liberals will find some way to say that it is always good, the conservatives are determined to enforce the law. Both seem to be nervous about nuancing.

Idols, with clear shape and explanation, seem to be easier to live with. The wisdom from the tradition, therefore, is that whatever God is doing, it is certainly beyond cultural fears, fads, and social taboos. This is particularly true in this area (of sexuality) where there has been so much overlapping, and where it is most difficult to distinguish what God is really saying from “what my mother told me”, and from what my mother church told me. Only the tradition gives us the criteria for individual and wise discernment.

I think that the tradition has handed on to open and obedient people a very intuitive and almost common sense wisdom about what is real and what is unreal in regard to our sexual relatedness. It gives us an arena in which to move and discover our true bodily and spiritual selves.

The Catholic Theological Society’s 1979 study Human Sexuality summarized it rather well when it stated that our sexual actions must aim to be “self-liberating, other-enriching, honest, faithful, socially responsible, life-serving, and joyous.” That is certainly the task and journey of a lifetime, but it is no more or no less than what Jesus said when he taught the greatest commandment of love of God and love of neighbour. The two loves “resemble” (Matthew 22:39) one another. They are each the school of the other. We will learn how to be properly sexual as we understand the properly passionate relationship that God has with us. And we will learn how to be properly spiritual as we come to understand the true character of human longing and affection.

… the only biblical mandate that matters is to copy and allow the pattern of God’s love in us. If this sounds soft and liberal, perhaps it means that we have never loved “all the way”. We have never let it carry us through all its stages, all of its internal ecstasies, lonelinesses, and purifications. Maybe our very theological argument over grace and good works reveals our inability to put love and work together. To attain a whole and truly passionate sexuality is going to be hard work. We are going to have to want it more than almost anything else.

As the mystics always said, “God’s love can be a thousand times harder than his justice”. So can human love! And of this I am certain: it is God’s love that we are afraid of, not his justice. It is one another’s goodness that we are protecting ourselves from, not the law.

God’s way of loving is the only licensed teacher of human sexuality. God’s passion created ours. Our deep desiring is a relentless returning to that place where all things are one. If we are afraid of our sexuality, we are afraid of God.

So once again, in (Thomas) Merton’s fine phraseology, we must “make ready for the Christ, whose smile, like lightning, sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh.”