Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Advent 3
December 16, 2016, 8:24 pm
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Sermon given at All Hallows, Easton, 11th December 2016

“Lo, in the wilderness a voice, ‘Make straight the way,’ is crying.” On this third Sunday of Advent, our focus is on John the Baptist and his message.

John may seem a bit marginal to the Christian Gospel, so it might surprise you to learn that, even thirty years after John’s ministry, St Paul would find people who had heard about John – indeed counted themselves his followers – but who had scarcely even heard of Jesus? Probably they were Jews from far away, who in this crucial year had come on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem, who had heard John preach and been inspired to seek baptism from him, but had then gone back to their distant homes and never heard much about later events in Judaea, including the execution of someone John had pointed out as the Messiah. And all four  Gospels give a prominent place to John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – surely a sign that their readers would know who John was. He was still famous. The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived only a little later, has more to say about John than about Jesus.

But before going further, let’s go back to our first reading, from Isaiah. Isaiah too talks about the wilderness. In the coming Day of the Lord, he says, the wilderness (or desert) will blossom like the richly forested mountains of Lebanon or Carmel, like the fertile vale of Sharon. The world will be changed! The weak will be made strong, the blind will see again, the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and the dumb will sing – it’s not just that they will regain their faculties, but they will be filled with joy. God is going to put right everything that is wrong with the world. Those who have been exiled far away will find a clear road – a King’s Highway, in fact – to return to their homes. Jews of a later age, still oppressed by foreign conquerors, clung on to this promise.

Our second reading is, as it were, an interlude. St James is also writing to a people who are in waiting for God to put the world to rights. Be patient, he says, waiting for the Coming of the Lord. The Judge is not far away, he is standing at the door. In Hebrew, a Judge was not just a legal figure, he was a champion of the weak against the strong, like those called Judges in the Old Testament. But until the Judge comes (he is referring to the return of Christ, of course), his hearers must be patient, like the old prophets who were persecuted for speaking the truth to the great ones of their day.

Now in the Gospel, John the Baptist is precisely in that position. He is in prison for denouncing Herod’s adulterous marriage. While there, he hears rumours of what Jesus is doing. Or rather, he hears about “the deeds of the Christ, of the Messiah.” He is inspired to send some of his followers, who evidently could visit him in prison, and who may have been more puzzled by Jesus than John himself was – he sends them to ask, “Are you He who is to come?” That in itself is asking, “Are you the Messiah?” Now this was a very leading question! A very dangerous question to ask in public! Herod was jealous of his authority – that is why John was shut up – and certainly would tolerate no rival King, which a Messiah was bound to be. Jesus therefore does not say simply, “Yes.” He tells the questioners to report what they see: the blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk and so on. In other words, Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled under their very eyes!

While we wait for the Coming of the Lord, people will look at us, at our little community – even at All Hallows – and ask, what are your credentials as People of the Messiah? Are people’s spiritual eyes being opened to see the wonders of God? Are their ears being opened to hear the Good News? Are we still spiritually lame, or leaping for joy? Are our mouths dumb, or singing the praises of our God? Are we marked out by the “deeds of the Messiah,” or must they go looking somewhere else?

Advent 1
December 16, 2016, 8:21 pm
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Sermon given at All Hallows, Easton, 31st November 2016

Well, here we are again, beginning the Church’s year with Advent Sunday! My favourite season, I think, full of hope and anticipation of Christmas- with, of course, lots of preparation-work t do for that great Festival

In a way, though, Advent marks both a beginning and an end. The last few weeks, from All Saints through to Christ the King, have looked to the future, to the wonderful day when our Lord Jesus Christ will return in glory, and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth. A new earth! We easily forget that. Although (as we say) we hope to go to heaven when we die, meaning by heaven the place where God is – St Paul prefers to speak of going to be with the Lord – the point is that when Jesus returns, we shall return with him. This creation will be renewed, transformed, not abolished

Advent is concerned as much with praying for our Lord’s coming again, as with preparing to celebrate his birth “long time ago, in Bethlehem.” The Church has considered this as a time to reflect on what are called “The Last Things” – death, judgement, hell and heaven – although in the light of what I have said they might also be regarded as First Things, the beginnings of the Age to Come

I spoke of death, and the Christian attitude to it, on the Sunday following All Souls’ Day. Ever since our Lord himself passed through death, there has been no reason for us, his disciples and friends, to fear it. We are merely following him, going to be more nearly with him (though he is always with us).

Judgement is perhaps something we ought to think of with more trepidation, but only as, when we were young, we faced examinations at school. Provided we had worked hard during term, there was no real reason to be afraid, but we still had nerves. The same is true when we have to make a public appearance before a lot of strangers. “We believe that he will come again  in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” Judgement will mean that he exposes the truth, which is so often concealed now. Lies and propaganda will be shown up for what they are, “the mighty will be put down from their seats,” and the humble and meek will be exalted. We trust, not in ourselves and in our own merits, but in his manifold and great mercies. We are his friends, not simply to be judged, but to be associated with him in passing judgement

Hell – well, that’s an unfashionable topic! But we need to have a proper understanding of it. Have you noticed that, in the great parable of judgement in St Matthew’s Gospel, when the King comes to pass sentence on those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked etc. (or have failed to do so), this serving (or failing to serve) the King himself, he says to the first group, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.” The kingdom is prepared for US. But he says to the wicked, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Hell was not prepared for human beings, but evil spirits. The kingdom is for those who love God with all their heart and soul; hell is for those who refuse to love, who fill their hearts with hate and selfishness. No-one is “sent” there against there will. They go there because they cannot bear to live in love and charity with others. Hell is inside them

And heaven? Well, I supposed I’ve already answered that. It is the state in which we accept and reciprocate the love God has for us, in which we rejoice in the company of those who love God and love us, and whom we love. What more do we need to know about it

To show his love for us, God took human form and was born on earth. Not in a royal palace, surrounded by luxury, but in a stable, entrusting himself to the care of his pure and humble mother, and her loving and loyal husband Joseph. In just four weeks time we shall celebrate that stupendous event, which the high and mighty do not and cannot appreciate. God is love, not simply power (though he is Almighty). Eight months ago we celebrated the moment when he first took human nature in the shelter of the Virgin’s womb. Week after week he grew towards the moment of birth. Soon he will emerge into the light, who is himself the Light of the world. He will experience infancy, childhood and adolescence. He will know hunger and thirst, cold and pain. In manhood he will set out on a journey that will bring him to the Cross, to death and to resurrection. Yes, this season marks a beginning, and looks to an ending. But that end will also be a new beginning

O, come quickly! O, come quickly! O, come quickly! Come, Lord, come!

Remembrance 2016
November 26, 2016, 6:50 pm
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A sermon preached at All Hallows Easton, November 13, 2016

When this annual Act of Remembrance, which we shall take part in at the end of Mass, was started nearly a hundred years ago, people were actually remembering those that they really remembered and grieved for – sons, fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, fiancés. People they had known personally, who had gone out to France and died on the Somme or elsewhere. We can’t do that. No-one still alive can do that. Even if they are still living, they would have been too small to recall anyone personally. That is nearly true of the Second World War too. You would have to be older than me. My own father fortunately survived, though he might well not have done, but if he had been killed I would have scarcely any memory of him now. You have to be some way older than me to do that.

So we are only remembering at second hand. Remembering things we have been told, remembering the fact that certain things happened. But from our own personal experience we remember that these sort of things are still going on. The Great War To End All War did not do so. Because the peace was mishandled, the seeds were sown for a second war, and since then, in my lifetime, I have known wars in Korea, in Viet-Nam, in Iraq, and even now in Syria and Iraq. To say nothing of civil wars in all sorts of places. Human beings do not seem to know how to live at peace with one another.

Our focus today, if our Act of Remembrance is to mean anything, must be on prayer for peace. Prayer that men and women find some other way to settle their differences than by violence and warfare. We still remember the human cost of failing to do so. Not just the soldiers, sailors and airmen from this country or our allies who paid the price with their lives, but those of our enemies too. As Christians, we still count them as brothers and sisters. And the millions of civilians caught up in conflict, unable to escape. We remember them.

I will be brief. If possible, I like our Act of Remembrance to be as near as possible at the eleventh hour. Armistice Day itself was on Friday. Acts of Remembrance took place in this city and throughout the land, to say nothing of other countries, at the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month. There is significance in this. It reminds us that, though we pray to God for salvation, that salvation may only come at the eleventh hour, when all human hope has been lost. Peace does not come about by merely human effort- history proves that. It is the gift of God, be prayed for and received with humility. One of our Lord’s great titles is Prince of Peace. Let us ask him to send down upon this troubled world the great gift of peace.

A belated sermon: All Hallows
November 26, 2016, 6:44 pm
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Third Sunday before Advent (Trinity 24) 2016-11-6

2 Thess 2.1-5, 13-17; Luke 20.27-38

(This sermon was preached at All Hallows, Easton, especially to the children.)

What is this? A pumpkin
Anything special about it? It has a face carved into it.
When do we see this sort of Pumpkin? At Hallowe’en.
When was that? Last Monday
Anybody go trick or treating? (I had three lots of trick or treaters calling)

So what is Hallowe’en all about? It is the day or rather the evening) before All Saints’ Day, sometimes called All Hallows (like our church)
Do you know what the day AFTER All Hallows is called? It is called All Souls Day.
This is the day when Christians especially remember family members and others who have died.

It is very natural to be sad when someone you love dies. But the great Apostle Saint Paul, in one of his letters, tells us that, although we may be sad, we should not be without hope. Every Sunday, we all stand up in Church and say, “We look forward to the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Unlike some other people, we know that, if we follow Jesus and trust in him, when we die we go to be with him; and just as he rose from the dead on Easter Day, he has promised the same for us when he comes back to set the whole world to rights.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus was arguing with people who didn’t believe this, who thought the whole idea was ridiculous, and wanted to make it look ridiculous. Jesus told them that they were WRONG. No-one dies in God’s eyes, but when in our eyes they pass away, they are safe with him. And when Jesus returns, they will return with him- WE will return with him.

To people who don’t believe and trust in Jesus, dying seems frightening and terrible. It is called “The Last Enemy”. But Jesus is stronger than death itself, he is alive for ever.

And that (partly) is why we have Hallowe’en, with witches and skeletons and all things other people connect with death. AND WE LAUGH AT THEM, we make fun of them, and make scary heads out of pumpkins . Death is not something we should be afraid of. Yes, we may be afraid of illness or pain. Jesus was afraid of the things leading up to death, the cruel things the soldiers did to him. But he was not afraid of dying, because he was going back to his heavenly Father.

The month of November is the month the Church especially remembers those we call “the Faithful departed”, all the people who have finished their earthly lives, and now wait in heaven for the new heaven and the new earth which God has promised. We pray with them, and for them, as they do for us.

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the unjust judge
October 17, 2016, 7:16 pm
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A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, on October 16th 2016Sacred Heart Icon

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This is a challenging question indeed. To understand our Lord’s parable, we need to know a little bit about how Jewish courts worked in those days. There was no clear distinction, as there is now, between civil and criminal courts. If a Jew believed he had suffered wrong from another person, he or she had to take their own case before a judge, who made his decision according to the Jewish Law. The other party to the dispute would also be able to put their case. When the Judge eventually made his decision, he was said to have “vindicated” or “justified” the person in whose favour the decision went.
In the story, the plaintiff is a widow who has been wronged by some adversary, and she wants the Judge to give his verdict in her favour. But this particular Judge is a bad man- probably in the sense that he took bribes, and was delaying his verdict in the hope of getting a back-hander. But the widow keeps on pestering him until he is so fed up he gives her her verdict anyway.
The first thing to say about this is that Jesus is not suggesting that God is an unjust judge who takes bribes! Quite the opposite! The point of the story, or one point, is to persevere in prayer. We can all take this at an individual level. But the first hearers would have taken a further meaning. Israel itself felt it was suffering wrong, through the Roman Occupation and through the corruptness of their own rulers, be they civil like Herod or religious like the Temple hierarchy. So at this level, the widow who cries to God for justice is Israel itself, the whole nation and especially those who were devout and faithful to God’s Covenant. To them, the message is: Don’t despair. God will vindicate you, even though he seems to delay. Although there were many and various ideas about how God would intervene to save his People (as he had done of old at the time of the Exodus), the Hope of Israel was that, in his own time, God would intervene. He would send his Messiah and usher in a New Age of justice and peace. This is the core meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
But notice: Jesus says that God will vindicate his People “speedily”. He is here hinting that the Day of Judgement, or Vindication, is close. He is not referring to what we now call “The Day of Judgement”, but to his own impending death for the salvation of, not just Israel but the whole world. In an unforeseen and unexpected way, this is how God would intervene.
And so the parable now takes on a further level of meaning. Our Lord is speaking particularly to and about his own followers. They themselves, like their Master, would be called upon to suffer persecution and hardship, maybe even death, on his account. In their trials, they would continue to call on God for vindication, and would continue to cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long will you delay.” This is the situation of the Church down to our own day, when Christians are persecuted and killed for their faith in many parts of the world. We pray (and Advent is getting close when this prayer is more frequent), “Come, Lord Jesus. This is the context of our Lord’s wistful words, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The coming of Christ in judgement is one of the basic articles of the Creed: “He shall come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” The first Christians took this very seriously, believing that the Lord would, or at least might, return within their own lifetimes. How seriously do we take it? However long the Lord’s return may be delayed, whether we are still alive on earth or have already died, we shall all be involved in it. He will come to judge both the living and the dead. But when he comes, will he find faith on earth? As we look about us at the world of today, we may well wonder.
Only thirty years after the death and resurrection of the Lord, St Paul foresaw a time when even some Christians would turn away from sound teaching, but choose to follow teachers who told them only what they wanted to hear. There have always been such teachers, and there are plenty today. I have just been in Malta, where St Paul is everywhere, as are the saints in general, our Lady and above all our Lord. Statues, pictures on every street corner or at the doorways of houses. This does not prove present-day fervour, but I went to an ordinary week-day evening Mass near our hotel, and there were over fifty in the congregation. But in England? Would it not be good if we could make our Lord as visible here in the streets of Easton, here at All Hallows? Pray without ceasing, and strengthen your faith through the Scriptures and the Sacraments, above all by attendance at Mass, not just on Sundays but whenever you can..

The existence of Jesus
August 17, 2016, 2:21 pm
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Every so often one comes upon the claim (I did so recently) that “Jesus never existed.” No reputable historian of the first century takes this seriously, but because such a claim can be made and believed by even intelligent people who are not historians, I outline just a little of the evidence that refutes it.

The earliest first-century reference to Jesus is found in the letters of Paul of Tarsus. No-one, I think, doubts the existence of Paul (he is even in some quarters credited with the invention of Christianity), or suggests that the letters (most of them at least) are forgeries. They date from the fifties of the first century, and are addressed to various communities that Paul had either visited (Corinth, Galatia) or intended to visit (Rome).

It is clear that for some years prior to the letters Paul had been travelling around Asia Minor and Greece teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah (“Christos”). In so doing he had not surprisingly incurred the hostility of both Jewish and Roman authorities. It is absolutely clear from the letters that Paul himself believed that Jesus had lived and had been executed in Jerusalem by the Romans some twenty to thirty years earlier. He also tells his readers that, to his shame, at an earlier stage of his career he himself had persecuted those who made the same claim that he now accepted. This period of his life must be dated to the thirties of the century. This is therefore evidence that by that time, only a few years after the supposed execution of Jesus, there was already a group of people in and around Jerusalem who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, and who attracted unfavourable attention from the authorities. Elsewhere, Paul gives the names of some of the leaders of this movement, Peter and James. No-one, I think, claims that they did not exist.

It is totally incredible that, in the context of first-century Judaism, a Messianic claimant could be put forward who simply did not exist. Claims regarding his supposed resurrection were countered by accusations that the disciples had stolen the body, not by saying that of course there was no body, because no such person had existed. This (on the evidence of Paul’s letters) must have been within a few years of the events in question. If Jesus never existed, we have to believe that, quite spontaneously, there arose a movement of people who claimed to have known him personally (though presumably outside the movement no-one could even remember him) and that he had been so notorious that the Romans had executed him as a Messianic claimant (though, again, no-one else could recall this), all within a year or two of it supposedly having happened.

Of course, apart from Paul’s letters, but only a little later, we also have the accounts of Jesus’ life we call the Gospels. Though there is clearly some interdependence, they each have their own special features, complementary but not contradictory to one another, which suggests that they reflect real events. One author (Luke) stresses his efforts to establish the historical facts; and he continues his narrative of Jesus with an account (admittedly schematic) of the early years following, including an outline of Paul’s career that seems independent of the letters we have.

In any other context, such literary evidence would be regarded by historians as more than sufficient to establish the main facts. It is backed up by what we know from secular sources about the rise of the Christian movement within the Roman Empire. Given the shortness of the time-scale involved, and the unpopularity of the movement with religious and political authorities, it seems incredible that it should flourish when the obvious and then easily-established riposte might be made, “But Jesus never existed.”

The Assumption of Our Lady
August 16, 2016, 9:44 am
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A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, Sunday August 14, 2016

Assumption 2

We are keeping tomorrow today- that is, we are celebrating today tomorrow’s feast of the Assumption of our blessed Lady into heaven. In a way, Christians are always celebrating tomorrow today, because we believe that the eternal life which God has promised us hereafter has already begun in this life. In Baptism we renounce the old life and standards of this sinful world, and “put on Christ”- clothe ourselves, as it were, with the life and standards of Christ. True, we often fall short of those standards, so that the new life we live is weakened; but unless we deliberately renounce our discipleship of Christ (and even then he never renounces us) we will reach our journey’s end in heaven.

Today we celebrate Mary’s journey’s end. For the most part, the details of that journey are hidden from us. We see her first as a girl in Nazareth, answering the angel’s call: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.” We follow her through the next year, visiting Elizabeth and travelling with Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of her son, and soon afterwards she disappears for about twelve years, until she and Joseph search for Jesus and find him in the Temple. then she disappears from view again until Jesus begins his public ministry. At Cana she speaks: “Do whatever he tells you,” and some three years later stands at the foot of the Cross, and receives the disciple John as her new child and also he carer. She is with the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, and the rest is silence. How long afterwards she remained on earth we have no idea.

From a very early time, the Church has believed that at the end of her life Mary was received body and soul into heaven. While the bones of practically every other saint have been revered and enshrined, and some of the claims seem unlikely (it is said that the head of John the Baptist is preserved in several different places), there has never been any claim that the bones of Mary might be found on earth. Why should this be?

This is where we need a bit of theology. Right at the beginning of the Bible, we learn that God did not intend human beings to die. This truth is couched in story form, in the way that could be understood and remembered in a less scientific age than our own. God places the first human beings in a garden, a garden in which grow the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. Because Adam and Eve tried to snatch a certain equality with God (that is the meaning of “eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”), they were excluded from access to the tree of life. Their lives would be marked by sorrow, and would end in death. The whole Bible story after that is the story of how God seeks to rescue his children from their self-inflicted exile, to save them from death, and eventually to create a new heaven and a new earth for  them to live in.

St Paul speaks of Jesus as the “Second Adam”, one who did not snatch at equality with God (as the first Adam had), but emptied himself and became obedient even to the death of the cross. Then he was raised bodily from the tomb, and ascended into heaven as the King of all creation. Christ was sinless, yet he died for our sins. In him, God as it were “re-booted” the universe, and gave it a fresh start. Christ is the New Adam- but where is the new Eve? In the original story, Eve was the indispensible help-meet of Adam, as innocent as he was until their common fall. God made mankind male and female, sharing the task of tending God’s world. And that is how we must see the position of Mary in the new order of salvation. Her obedience (“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.”) countermanded the disobedience of Eve. Standing at the Cross, she united herself with Jesus in his self-sacrifice for our salvation. Receiving John, she received all her son’s disciples as her children.

The Church’s belief in the Assumption rests on these principles: Mary, the new Eve, was as innocent as the first Eve prior to the fall, and became the indispensible instrument whereby the new Adam entered the world. Jesus is “Emmanuel, God-with-us”, and Mary is mother of God. Like her son, she passed through the gates of death at the end of her earthly life; but like her son, death could not hold her, and so she already has the fullness of the resurrection.

Never forget: our destiny is not simply “going to heaven when we die.” That is only the intermediate stage. Every Sunday in the Creed we say that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. In the Apostles’ Creed it is even more explicit: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Easter Day and August 15th testify that we really mean this. New heaven, new earth, new bodies. That is our tomorrow.