Some sermon notes since August 2017
Revd Alwyn Knight brought his characteristic stream of thoughts (almost meditations) on the theme of the Transfiguration, juxtaposed as it is by the healing of the “devil-possessed” boy and the poignancy of his father’s cry from the heart. “ I do believe, help me to overcome my disbelief”. ( Read Mark Chapter 9) In the Orthodox Church, the feast of the Transfiguration is a red-letter day. There will be an icon at the heart of their worship, not as something to idolise but as giving a glimpse into eternity. Protestants have given priority to the Word, over the image, but Bibliolatry, Alwyn reminded us, has its own temptations. We are forbidden in Scripture to make images of God, but he does make an image. He has made us in his image. And however distorted, it must have some faint resemblance to himself. George Fox, the Quaker father-figure, urged his followers to be “patterns and examples, answering that of God in everyone”. Easier when the “everyone” is, say , an innocent victim, harder when he is a perpetrator of cruelty. The only way God is “imaged” in the world is in “humanness”. Alwyn referred to the many paintings of the Transfiguration by the European “Old Masters”, the greatest , in his view, being Raphael’s final work. Not quite finished when he died in 1520, but magnificently depicting Mark’s juxtaposition of the glorious event on the hilltop and the turmoil and the demands of the sick and the sad down below. Alwyn encouraged us to “spot the sandwiches” in Mark’s Gospel, the “intercollations” reflecting Mark’s understanding that the full meaning of his account lies in the tension between the different, contrasting layers. Alwyn ended his sermon with a deeply personal description of his exploration into Ignatian spirituality, together with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Most memorable and with clear parallels to the Transfiguration experience, he recalled attending a weekend course in a gloomy subterranean church hall in Mayfair at a time when his mood was heavy and his faith at a low ebb. He took a lunchtime walk alone in the nearby tree-lined streets with the sunshine creating a dappling effect at his feet. He experienced an overwhelming sense of peace. It didn’t happen again (he couldn’t pitch camp there) though there are occasional glimpses back down in his home county of Kent in nearby lanes where the trees meet overhead, calling to mind GMH’s line: “Glory be to God for dappled things.”
HOW CAN WE (HOW CAN ANYONE) BE SAVED?
During his years of visiting and having conversations with long-term prisoners, many of them murderers, Revd Stephen Heap had encountered, along with much remorse, feelings of fear. Can the guilty ever be forgiven? A question for us all! It was Martin Luther’s “big question” 500 years ago in Wittenberg, when he “sparked off the Reformation”. In Luther’s time, life expectancy was short. And fear of the Devil, of Death, of Hell, was an ever-present reality. Luther shared these fears, very keenly. He became a monk, he prayed, did penance. It was “pressing and urgent”. As Stephen put it, he wrestled with being human. And he taught that Salvation could not be earned, by good works, or by fulfilling the laws of Moses, or even by building cathedrals: it was a free gift. (Read Romans 10 v 5 – 15) “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved”. Good News for sinners indeed! But Stephen raised a further question. How many of us could identify with the comment made by David Cameron, that “his faith was rather like the reception for Magic FM: it sort of comes and goes.” Can we still hope for Salvation? We turned then to Matthew 14 v 22 – 33. Peter, out in his fishing boat, was confident he could walk to Jesus “on the water”. He did have faith. But then it failed him (as it did spectacularly later, out in the trial courtyard). He called to Jesus to save him. We see a Jesus who is more realistic, more loving than Paul. There was no chastisement, no punishment for his weakness. Jesus saves when faith fails, or wavers. Peter had been so certain before Jesus’ trial that even if everyone fell away he would support his Lord.” But when Jesus returned from the dead, was he angry? No. He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” He gave him a role: “Feed my sheep”. Peter was brought back into the fold. Jesus saved not just Peter, but a race, a people, humankind. Humankind did not have faith. Humankind murdered him. But he revealed a God who understands our weakness. He lived our human life. Even in the depths of our weakness we are still his sheep and he is our shepherd. God is a big God. He saves his wavering people. We are saved but we don’t deserve it. “Oh that we could live lovingly, savingly, like Jesus, who reaches out to us with the hand of a victim, and of a Saviour.”
TWO MEN AT PRAYER
Canon Ian Tarrant invited us to look very closely at two men praying in the Temple (just as Jesus did in recounting this parable to the attentive crowd gathered round him): A Pharisee, one of a Jewish sect keen to fulfil the whole letter of the law, reminding God of his generous tythes and his conscientious fasting. A tax-collector, employed by the Romans, the enemy, regarded as disloyal, unclean, even dishonest. What a pair. The Pharisee asserts his moral authority. He lifts himself up and puts the other man down. A popular pastime today. “We are civilised; those others are barely human!” Even churches are guilty of it. Think they’ve “got it right”. These two were not praying together. Had they even greeted each other? How often do we separate rather than come alongside? The tax-gatherer’s prayer is simple. No bargaining. No attempt to put himself in the right. Confessing his unworthiness. “Have mercy on me, a sinner”. (Part of what we now know as “The Jesus Prayer”.) Jesus’ comment was not at all the outcome his listeners expected. “This man went home right with God”. An illustration of the upside –down values of the Kingdom. “Those who humble themselves will be exalted”. This truth becomes normative for the outworking of our Christian discipleship. The Pharisee had hoped to earn God’s favour, but he needed to go back to Isaiah ( Ch 58 v 1 – 8) to be reminded of what kind of fasting is dear to God. Bringing the poor into the circle, relating to people unlike yourself; much more challenging than temporarily going without food. Ian offered an unexpected conclusion: He commended both men. They were both there to pray. Not many people around to mark their piety, so clearly not a busy service time. But they had come. They turned up at the holy place. We should do this, day by day. Come before God in prayer. There is a hunger, so widely felt in our society, for something beyond our selves. And to that great Kingdom feast all will finally come “from north, south, east and west”. And we can imagine those two men, both sitting at the feast, even though they had stood apart in the Temple. Luke 18 v 9 – 14
WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?
Rev John Edwards looked at two examples of “two-stage enlightenment”, next to each other in Mark, chapter 8 v 22 to 38 and 9 v1. First the lovely incident, when Jesus took a blind man aside quietly, giving him his full attention. First anointing his eyes, at which point the man saw partially “but with people looking like trees”; they were “upside-down”, their legs waving in the air like branches. The first stage of healing. Then Jesus laid his hands on him and healed even the way his brain must make sense of what his eye was seeing. He was completely healed. Jesus also takes the disciples away from the village. It’s a turning point in his ministry. The have gained some insight. But how much have they really understood? “Who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter is bold, “You are the Messiah”. Yes, but now the disciples must learn the significance of this. They need to know what will / must happen. But it was repugnant to them. Peter rebuked him. And when Jesus did indeed die, they still hadn’t really grasped what it was all about. They hadn’t seen it coming. They had felt secure with him, feeding the 5000, calming storms. What could go wrong! But now they had lost their Lord. Impossible to blame them in their bewilderment. Jesus endured terrible agony, even the sense of dereliction by his Father as he hung on the cross. He experienced evil. But in truth his Father was always there with him in the pain. We see evil in the world, people turned into monsters by a perverted dogma. But even in bereavement and pain our God is there. This is central to our faith. The love that cannot let us go. How do we relate to Jesus? John spoke personally: “He is my God, my friend. “Though I walk through the valley of death, you are with me” . His mind was made up. Were we with him? Psalm 23
HE DIDN’T SAY IT WOULD BE EASY
Rev Ola Franklin had huge chunks of teaching ( both from Jesus, Matthew 16 v 21 – 26 and from Paul, Romans 12) from which to take her theme. She drew a contrast between the familiar technique of today’s salesmen with their “amazing free offers” and the more sombre approach that Jesus took in explaining that those who wished to be his disciples must “deny themselves and take up their own cross and follow him.” He turned upside down familiar ideas of kingship and status: “Whoever loses his life for me will find it.” What does self-denial really mean? It’s not a week on bread and water and looking miserable! It’s something much more productive than that. It’s about putting the things of God, the needs of others at the centre of our thinking and acting. (Ola listed dozens of words that that describe the ego-centred life: Self-sufficiency, self-importance, self-interest and so-on.) And what of this cross we are to take up? Sometimes people use the expression lightly, perhaps even referring to a tiresome neighbour or demanding relative. “We all have our cross to bear”. But those men listening to Jesus knew what extreme agony was involved for someone “carrying his own cross”. A horrible execution as a criminal. Admiring Jesus is not enough. It can involve sacrifice, determining on our lifestyle and our principles and turning aside from our own needs in seeking to serve others. And all this only comes with prayer and Bible study and fellowship with other Christians. Learning to trust Jesus, to become more like Jesus. If we cling short-sightedly to this material life we will lose our Christian integrity. Ola concluded with one of Luther’s stern warnings: A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.
HOW LONG DO WE HAVE?
Dr Sally Barton had considered choosing readings other than those in the Anglican Lectionary (read Ezekiel 33 v 7 – 11 and Romans 13 v 8 – 14). But with the mood of international uncertainty triggered by the US / N.Korean situation and the spate of terrorist atrocities, they were in fact appropriate. The question could well arise: “How much time do we have left?” And even if this wasn’t referring to “the world”, how about individually ? Did we have our own “bucket lists”? What did we want to achieve in our lifetimes? Would our aspirations be mainly self-centred? The Ezekiel reading underlines the fact that God wishes no-one to perish. But there is great urgency in Paul’s message, the need to turn away from evil and turn to those things that promote love. “Remember how critical the moment is!” It’s not just about “not breaking the commandments”. It’s about “putting on Christ”. Because of Jesus, we do not fear the wrath of God. But we want to live up to this assurance, letting love, above all else, guide our actions.
WE HAVE A FORGETFUL GOD
The final words of Jesus from the cross: Father forgive them. What does forgiveness mean for us? The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18 v 21 – 35) makes it clear that we are commanded to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be forgiven “as we forgive those who sin against us”. Doing wrong does have consequences, but forgiveness is a big factor in healing relationships. Forgiving even if the other person has no remorse (Leo Cheng included Oscar Wilde’s classic comment on this: Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.) Forgiveness is good for the forgiven, but equally vital for the forgiver. It can be hard: “I want justice! It’s too difficult”. Everyone thinks forgiveness is a good idea until he has something to forgive, said Leo. But it clears the way for reconciliation. Leo gave us some moving examples from his experiences with patients healed of terrible disfigurements through the work of Mercy Ships. He cited several who had gone back to families who had previously abandoned them or sought often gruesome assistance from witch doctors to cleanse them of evil spirits. But after they were healed they went to their families and forgave them for the bitter hurts, and were re-united with them. He also cited the example set by Pope John Paul 11 in extending complete forgiveness to the man who tried to assassinate him. He even developed a friendship with him and visited his family. In the light of the unreserved and totally undeserved forgiveness demonstrated on the cross of Jesus – our sins as it were “lost at sea, forgotten” – we too must try to forgive without reserve, and try to live “ as if the wrong had never happened”.
WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
The words of Louis Armstrong’s famous song reminded Major Paul Holifield that Harvest focusses on beauty and provision. He recalled how in his youth the churches were filled with local produce on Harvest festival Sundays. These included, despite the smell, fish in seafaring towns. When he was a serving God in Kidderminster locally made carpets were sometimes a feature. Harvest also however gives us an opportunity to reflect on our need to be good stewards of God’s abundant provision. Today we live in an age of disposable goods where there is a huge amount of avoidable food wastage, amounting to nearly 2 million pounds a year. We are all guilty of buying too much from time to time. The Salvation Army is involved in a ‘fair share’ scheme locally in which they pick up and distribute to those in need perishable produce beyond its display date from local supermarkets. When we read the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand we marvel at the miracle of abundant provision but seldom notice that our Lord instructed the disciples to collect the left overs so that nothing was wasted. Surely we should follow his example, not only with food, but also with our time, talents and abilities. Do we value them as God values them?
FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD
When Jesus called the twelve apostles to follow him it was a two-way process: they were looking for the Messiah and he was looking for them. Over the next three years he turned these twelve strangers into friends. Revd John Edwards reminded us that when we approach the communion table we should remember that the Eucharist is about God, not about us, for whom it is sufficient just to be in his presence. When we focus on Christ all will be well, but if we lose that focus in our own selfish preoccupations we will start to sink as Peter did when walking on the water in Galilee. We find examples of this focussing on others rather than ourselves – egotransference – in human relationships from marriage to the communal response to disaster. In praising the Good Samaritan Jesus reminds us that any neighbour should be our friend. Drawing from his own experience John recalled that although there were 72 tribes in Zambia when he was there Kenneth Kaunda stressed the importance of becoming one nation.
Having spent three years with Jesus enabled his disciples to survive after he had left. If we too live with Jesus we will, like the disciples, be strong in the Lord and the power of his might. Bad things happen to good people but when they do John wants to be with the God who chose us all to be with him and bring others to him for evermore.
A JAW- PUNCHING MESSIAH?
Fr Christopher Owens directed us to Psalm 19 v 1-4,7,8,10,14 ( The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul. The Lord’s instruction never fails, and makes the simple wise), and to Matthew 21 v 33-46 where we are in the period between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Jesus’ message has a urgency about it. We feel disgust as he unfolds the shocking parable of the tenants ignoring the messengers the owner sends, and finally plotting to kill the heir, the owner’s son. As the hymn puts it : “For his death they thirst and cry”. They won’t credit or understand his assertion that the tax-collectors and prostitutes will be entering heaven ahead of the religious authorities. The tenants are fools: there is no way they would inherit the land. They ignored all thoughts of future judgement. How could the religious leaders recognise this “dying, paradoxical Messiah”? It was a jaw-punching, triumphal Messiah they expected. Not in their wildest imaginings, a God who dies for Love.