Sermon: June 26 2016

Readings

1 Kings 19:16,19-21

Galatians 5:1,13-18

Luke 9:51-62

There is nothing particularly new about people leaving their homes, traveling far to find fortune or refuge, to spread goods or gospel. The motif of the hero’s journey is, after all—as Joseph Campbell has taught us—the monomyth common to so many of our cultural and popular stories, told and retold. Think of Abraham and Moses; think of Siddhartha and Tripitaka; think of Bilbo and Frodo. Think of ourselves, those of us who have crossed land and sea to end up here, away from our roots, our blood, living and dead.

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Let the dead bury their own dead, he says.

Being here, roughly seven thousand miles away from home, I have missed two funerals already: of my grandparents who for most of my life lived with me and raised me, while my aspirational middle-class parents worked their long days to be able, when the time came, to send me away. Despite the best of intentions and the miracles of modern commercial aviation, there is a good chance that I won’t be there when my parents die. There is a good chance that I will not get to kiss my mother and father good-bye. There is nothing particularly new, particularly unusual, about this. It is just true for many immigrants—the 28% of us here in Oxford—like me and like some of you.

    

And yet, of course, Jesus is, in his refusal of this would-be disciple’s request, intending to shock. We ought to bury our relatives: the Torah is clear on this, and the Mishnah will later make it clearer still. Even here, even today, we feel great sadness when we hear of someone who has no one to bury them; this happens more than you might think, the priest and the corpse alone in a crematorium. All the same, so Jesus implies, not even this act of filial piety takes priority over the urgent work of his kingdom.

Let the dead bury their own dead, he says, unflinchingly.

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There seems to be an exception, in Second Temple Judaism, to this expectation that we will, in order to fulfil the Fifth Commandment, bury our parents: high priests and Nazirites are exempt, even forbidden from handling a corpse, unless there really is no one else to bury the body.

A nazirite vow—from the Hebrew for consecration or separation; the word nazir, in modern Hebrew, still refers to monks—(a nazarite vow) may be taken up by a man or woman either permanently or for some finite period of time, during which they are to abstain from cutting their hair; from consuming  the fruit of the vine, including vinegar and wine; and from contact with corpses and graves.

It is unclear what relationship the first generation of disciples had with nazirite vows, but it was in the air at the time: John the Baptist’s austere asceticism and teetotalism is suggestive, as is Jesus’s saying at the Last Supper that he “shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes”. 

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At four o’clock this afternoon, Fr Jarred will be ordained to the priesthood; I hope to see many of you there. In the course of his ordination, he will be making vows too, though, rest assured, he will still be allowed to keep his hair impeccably cropped and have the occasional tipple. Also quite unlike nazirites, Fr Jarred will have rather a lot to do with the dead: the provision of the last rites and the presiding over funerals are, after all, important parts of a priest’s work.

You will, I suppose, not be too surprised to hear me say that there is an oft-neglected aspect of the priesthood, and that that has to do with it being a kind of death itself. This sense is not well expressed during the ordination service, but next Tuesday Fr Jarred will celebrate his first mass; I hope to see many of you there too. At the end of the mass, as is our custom, he will offer thirty-three roses to Our Lady, the same number as the age at which Jesus gave up his life for us. And just as my mother did last year, Jarred’s mother too will receive roses, the same number as his current age. The symbolism is not particularly subtle, though I confess that its implications are clearer for our Roman Catholic colleagues whose vows of celibacy entail a further kind of familial death: a genealogical dead end. Jarred’s mother is at no risk of that, at least. All the same, this act recalls to us Jesus saying on the cross to the beloved disciple “behold your mother” and to Mary, “behold your son”, which is the denouement of another difficult saying that “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”.

Ordination is a kind of death, then; a leaving our fathers and mothers, and all other allegiances based on worldly categories, whether biological or cultural, social or political. But, of course, our understanding of ordination is necessarily an extension of our understanding of baptism: as +Michael Ramsey would have said, Jarred’s priesthood is meant to reflect and serve the priesthood of all believers. Indeed, our baptismal liturgy is more obviously about death than is our ordinal: baptism is a kind of drowning, and is overtly described as a participation in the death of Jesus Christ, and in his resurrection to new life.

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Discipleship is a costly thing, make no mistake, and it should worry us if our Christianity is entirely comfortable and comforting. It should worry us if the only price we pay is the inconvenience of parking before mass, or the mild anxiety of abseiling off a church tower. Luke’s gospel refuses to let us off the hook so easily. Over and over again, Luke’s Jesus spells out what it means to follow him. Recall his response to the rich young ruler: sell all that you have and distribute to the poor. Recall last week’s gospel reading, in which Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. Recall the emphatic instructions for us to count the cost in Luke 18, which concludes in the assertion that whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be his disciple.

This business about leaving the dead to bury their dead is hardly an isolated case, but perfectly consistent with the hard truth that to follow Jesus is to have our faces also set to Jerusalem, to the High Priest’s house, to Pilate’s court, to Golgotha.

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There is no explaining such texts away; no amount of de-mythologizing or re-contextualising will make the ethical injunctions of Christianity more palatable. The good news of Jesus Christ is not the marketable news of convenience, but the declaration that we are free to live for one another, unencumbered by our parochial and partisan allegiances, our fleshly self-definitions that so easily collapse into ethnocentrism and nativism and nationalism and other forms of mistaken identity and idolatry. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we can now leave our dead to bury their dead. We can sell our possessions and distribute them, because our financial security and prosperity is no longer our bottom line. We can—by the grace and strength of God—bear our crosses on the way to wherever, to whatever may come.

None of this makes economic sense, of course. It is no wonder that, while he was around, Jesus failed to attract masses of people; it is no wonder that people would rather kill him than follow him. There is no good reason to be a Christian, just as there is no good reason for God to become one of us, in our frailty and finitude, to be born into this messy place and to die at our hands, to put into our hands his own flesh and blood, to give us life. And yet, here we are.

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Sermon: November 2 2015

Feast of All Souls

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Among our earliest evidence for what we might recognize as “religion” are the burial practices of our hominid ancestors in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic. Certainly, by about 50,000 years ago, our forebears were burying grave goods with their dead, whose bones were often decorated with red ochre and other natural dyes.

[Incidentally, our Museum of Natural History is in possession of one of the oldest examples of Western European ceremonial burial, dating back 33,000 years. The “Red Lady” of Paviland was buried with jewels made of seashells and mammoth tusks, among other precious things. Go check him out the next time you’re there. I say him because the Red Lady turns out to be a man who died in is mid-20s.]

Consistent with such archeological findings, many anthropologists argue that beliefs and rituals about death form the very foundation of religion as we know it today. Ghosts, the say, came before gods; crypts before cathedrals. Indeed, even today, ancestor worship has a good claim to being the world’s most popular religious act.

As a child, growing up in a modern Chinese family in Malaysia, ancestor worship was my only religious act. Much like good anglo-Catholics incidentally, we too had incense on such occasions. And not only did we have sacrificial offerings of food and drink (not quite like the Mass, but not entirely unrelated), but we also burned various effigies representing everyday objects: anything from shirts and wristwatches to cars and mansions, and even gold ingots. This was our way of expressing our love and care for the dead. In comparison, modern Western Christian devotion to the dead—including the saintly dead—seems a low key affair. Indeed, my grandmother’s objection to Christianity was that if she were to convert, all she would have to eat in the afterlife would be candles (and maybe flowers).

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If there is such a thing as a Christian doctrine of death, it is that death is an outrage. It is not, contrary to the popular attempt to sugarcoat things, a “natural part of life”, but the very annihilation of life. And insofar as life is—as the Book of Genesis insists—a good thing, then its cessation is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

It is, most obviously a very bad thing for us, who are not yet dead. Some people we love are dead, and despite the well-intentioned platitudes of ostensibly pastoral figures around us, this is very much not OK, nor will it really ever be. Some people we love are dead, and it’s awful. It’s not awful all the time, of course, but once in a while, when we are reminded—on anniversaries, or when we find an old picture, or when we visit an old haunt—the awfulness might come back, and that is a truthful feeling.

Death is also, in a different way, a very bad thing for them, for those who have died. It is very different for them because, well, being dead, they don’t experience the badness: it’s not so much that they don’t miss us terribly, more that they don’t know what they’re missing at all. Perhaps on the principle that “ignorance is bliss”, the dead are better off than the living, but this is a dubious principle indeed. Upon death they—as we all will—lose everything, including themselves. There is, in that sense, no them, just as when we die, there will be no us.  Death is the ultimate deprivation.

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Religion, many people think, is meant to provide solace for the bereaved, and to mitigate our fear of death. In Christianity, talk of heaven is, we are told, supposed to comfort us, by dissipating both the unknowability and the finality of death. We believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” and therefore, as that poem now ubiquitous at funerals goes, “death is nothing at all…[the dead have] only slipped away to the next room”.   

This all seems uncontroversial enough. After all, Christ has, in his death, indeed defeated death. The Christian faith is an Easter faith, a resurrection faith, in which we proclaim with confidence that Christ has robed death of its sting, and the grave of its victory.

However, the Christian faith is also the faith of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, with his anguished prayer; and on the Cross, with his cry of dereliction. Death does not, for Jesus, seem like “nothing at all”, a mere relocation.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally misleading even in the assertion that the Christian faith is a resurrection faith and also a faith of Christ’s passion and death, as if passion, death and resurrection were independent and separable phenomena. But the resurrection of Jesus is not best thought of as one event that occurs after another, that is his death. Nor is it really a response to the death of Jesus, a sort of magical CPR, so much as the consequence—the unfolding, better yet, the meaning—of what happened in his death. What happened in the death of Jesus is the perfect and selfless and total (in other words, the miraculous) outpouring of the love of a human being for God, and at the same time because of who Jesus is, the perfect and selfless and total outpouring of the love God for us. To believe in the resurrection is nothing other than to believe that we—and those whom we love, but see no more—can be caught up in this perfect love between the Father and the Son. In other words, it is to believe that, we will, in the end, be in God.

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This is, I think, not a sentimental view of death and the life everlasting. It is, in some ways, the opposite. There is no dispelling of mystery here, no theory of life after death, no comforting image of reunion with our loved ones gone before us. If there is any sense at all in which we will be with them again, it is in that we will all together be with and in God. There is really little more to be said about this, but then Christian doctrine is less about saying, and more about doing.

The Christian doctrine of death takes death seriously, refusing to offer illusions that it is inconsequential, either because it is a “natural” part of life or because it is a temporary state of affairs. And this, I think, allows us to mourn our dead properly: to grieve with honest intensity. This is an important corrective in a world that is obsessed with happiness, and treats grief as an impediment to productivity.

This insistence on the finality and tragedy of death is also an affirmation of the importance of life. Jesus’s consistent response to the sick was to heal them; and to the dead, to raise them up. If there is no “pie in the sky when we die”, then we had better get along with the business of ensuring that nobody starves to death here and now.

This work is, for the Christian, because of her resurrection faith, essentially an act of hope, and not one of mere desperation: it is what it means for her to “look for […] the life of the world to come”, the new and abundant life made possible by the self-giving love of God in Christ, that is the very life of the Triune God.

The Christian faith cannot be mistaken, therefore, for a nihilistic faith. But our hope is not in some particular and particularly fantastical post-mortem scenario, but in the eternal God who will, in the end, put all things to right, a work that—because of Christ’s work on the Cross—has already begun and is happening even here and now, in your lives and even in mine, and in the lives of all those who have gone before us.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: June 21st 2015

If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation;

the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.

Words from the second epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

It was a dark and stormy night. The scene, like the much parodied cliché, is hardly an unfamiliar one. The Bible is full of dark and stormy weather, and it is doubtless the evangelist’s intention for us to call to mind such highlights as Jonah walking the plank; and Moses trapped between an angry army and a salty sea; and maybe even those echoes, scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures—in Job, and elsewhere—of still older myths from the ancient Near East, of God wrestling with the watery forces of chaos and darkness and death, the subjugation of which is the very condition of peace and light and life. Water is, in the symbolic universe of the Bible, that most ambivalent of elements.

The waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. There are really only two possible endings for stories like this: either the protagonists survive the turbulence, or they are overwhelmed by it. Good stories try to have both, of course, and the biblical narratives aren’t half bad on that front. I mean, they—Jonah, Moses, Jesus and the disciples in the boat—all survive in the end, and maybe even in a rhetorically cheap way, literally with a deus ex machina to save them. But this is not to say that their lives were not really ever in danger. Jonah is forced to jump into the darkness, and is engulfed, first by the waves, and then by the monster, and in it, Jonah descends into the depths. Moses and the Israelites are forced to flee, having thought that they would just walk free; and there they were, trapped, seemingly doomed to perish, whether by spear or sea. The boat was already filling, and Jesus was asleep, as terror and despair fell upon his disciples.

But none of these stories go far enough, as we well know, on this side of Good Friday and Easter. They are, at best, pale premonitions of a much better story: one in which the protagonist not only faces the prospect of death, but death itself. The voice that once commanded winds and waves—and they stopped—it would be silenced. The hands that calmed the storm, they would be nailed to a tree; and then they would hang limp; and then they would go cold in rigor mortis. The dead Christ would be as dead as they come. As dead as we will all go.

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A week from today, I shall—God-willing—be ordained to the priesthood. On the ensuing Tuesday, I will offer the Mass for the first time, and I hope that many of you will be here for that. On this occasion, it is customary—at least in our circles—for the newly ordained priest to present Our Lady with thirty-three roses: that is, our Lord’s age when he offered up his life for our sake. At the same time, the new priest is to present his mother with a bouquet of roses too: the same number as the age at which he was ordained. Whether intentional or not, the symbolism is striking, if also rather blunt: just as Jesus gives up his life, the priest does so also. Put more starkly: just as Jesus is dead to his mother—recall his words on the cross, entrusting her to the care of the beloved disciple—the new priest is dead to his mother. Frankly, I’m not sure that my mother would approve.

In any case, this connexion made between discipleship and death is not, of course, limited to how we talk about priesthood. Or, better yet, it is how we talk about the priesthood of all believers. For all we say at baptisms about water as an element of life and vitality, or freshness and purity, it is—as we have seen already—also the agent of chaos and death. After all, in baptism, the new disciple is drowned: she is plunged into the depths with Jonah, who foreshadows Christ, to die the death that Jesus died, so as to rise in his resurrection. Appearances notwithstanding, that font is a dangerous place.

All have died, St Paul tells us, and therefore we live no longer for ourselves, but for him who for our sake died and was raised. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. If our deaths are not faked, not mere symbols, on a thin and toothless understanding of symbolism, then surely something must be different now. We are, after all, all of us people of the resurrection, dead men and women, walking.

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But what does this mean?

We might go straight to The Dead Poets’ Society (or, more likely if you are a regular at Mary Mags, Horace’s Odes), and adopt a sort of carpe diem attitude of living each day as if it were our last, by which people typically mean a sort of indulgent form of self-actualisation or, at best, the warm-and-fuzzy sentiment of telling our friends and family how much we love them. This is fine as far as it goes, but it hardly goes anywhere at all.

More characteristic of Christian circles is the injunction to be dead to our base desires, by which religious leaders typically mean our sexual or otherwise carnal desires. This too is fine as far as it goes: there is certainly room for expanding our theologies of asceticism and abstinence. But it is also so easily and so often perverted, not just into a hatred of the body, but also an instrument of oppression and control. To be dead in this way is to be inert, passive and lifeless: that is, the opposite of participating in the abundance of resurrection life.

The clue is—I think, and you will not be surprised to hear from this pulpit—in the Eucharist. In this, our central act of worship, we encounter the dead Christ who is forever alive. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ has always raised a perfectly sensible theological question: where is he now? The correct answer is, of course, “at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf” or, if we are trying to be just very slightly less anthropomorphic, we might say that Jesus is “in Heaven”. But this is not a terribly helpful answer, seeing as we clearly don’t mean that Jesus is located spatially to one side of God the Father in a place far, far away from here, and it is not clear at all that these spatial metaphors really help us to say what we do mean. And what we do mean is that having died, been raised, and ascended, Christ makes himself available to us all, and not just to his disciples in a Jewish backwater of the Roman Empire in the first century, but across all time and space. The Eucharist then, is the manifestation of this access: in the bread and wine, Christ gives himself to us, and there we encounter the whole Christ, dead and risen. And if our participation in his death is also a participation in his risen life, then it must also be a participation in this, his giving of himself for all. In consuming the flesh of God who is by nature the one who gives himself in love, we enact our willingness to be consumed for the sake of others. All of which is to say that to be dead—for the old to have passed away, and the new to have come—is to be alive for others.

As I was was writing this sermon (and struggling with the ending, as usual), the web-enabled twittering classes began beeping and buzzing about something Pope Francis had said during a Tuesday morning Mass in the chapel of Casa Santa Marta. I don’t know why people are shocked when the Pope talks about our moral responsibility to the poor or to the natural environment—things at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching—but that might be the topic for another occasion. Anyway, what he said, among other things, was this:

Being poor in spirit means going on this path of the Lord: the poverty of the Lord, who lowers Himself even so far as to become bread for us, in this sacrifice. He continues to lower Himself into the history of the Church, into the memorial of His passion, and by the memorial of His humiliation, the memorial of His poverty, by this bread He enriches us.

What seemed to scandalise people, was his description of this “poverty of the Lord”, this “Christian poverty”, which Pope Francis says is:

that I give of my own, and not of that which is left over – I give even that, which I need for myself, to the poor.

Hearing this, it occurred to me that this was probably what I’ve clumsily been trying to say, not just about the poor, but really about everyone. To be a new creation is to live for others, to give of ourselves, and not just what is left over. And so, as we eat and drink his Body and Blood, let us consider how we might be the fruits of redemption, also to be consumed for the sake of others. 

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon: Good Friday 2015 (April 3 2015)

Good Friday

Death is an outrage. We try and reassure ourselves with assertions that it is just a natural part of life, but this is nonsense. Death is nothing less than the end and destruction and absence of a life, not a proper part of it. And so what if it is natural? Lots of things are natural, and they are no less awful for being so. Death is an outrage, and so are feeble-minded attempts to deny or sugar-coat the stark and awful fact that, one day, we will all die, and—worse still—chances are that some of the people we love most will die before we do, but the world will just carry on until the universe itself eventually peters out into the cold stagnation of maximum entropy. It is almost enough to make a person wish the world away, to curse the God who gives and takes away, as if the giving were some kind of cruel joke.

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I do not pretend to know how his mother felt about this whole sordid business, but this I do know: that parents should never have to survive their children. They so frequently do—it is a story tragically often told: the story of young death by disease or desperation or deprivation or destructive violence—but it shouldn’t be so. It is a story often told, too often told. 40 out of every 1,000 babies born die before they turn one; suicide is among the top three causes of death among adolescents in most Western democracies; and nobody really knows how many thousands of young men and women perish in areas of armed conflict every year. And so, always and everywhere, mothers and fathers weep and gnash their teeth, and ask why?

There is, theological casuistry aside, no why, no good reason for the kinds of suffering that go on and keep going on. It is almost enough to make a person wish the world away.

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There is no good reason for the kinds of suffering her son went through. There are causes, to be sure, and political historians and psychologists can and do tell about how it came to pass that in such a time and place, a would-be messiah was abandoned by his own people, scared and insecure, and executed by imperial forces, a political criminal on trumped up charges. But to think that there are reasons, that it somehow makes sense for a young man to be mocked and beaten and hung up and killed even for the sake and salvation of the whole world is to commit to a perverse economic logic in which means justify ends. The answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” must be, if we have souls left to save, that there is no answer. It is a damned thing, what happened to him. It is a damned thing, what happens in the world everywhere and every day, to the innocent and the guilty alike, at the fickle mercy or cruelty or indifference of physics and politics and personal human action and apathy, yours and mine, in our own ways whispering, “Crucify! Crucify!”.

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Who knows what solace she took from believing, if indeed she believed, that her boy was in a better place now? Who knows what solace anybody takes from talk of heaven? Who knows what comfort is provided by our pious assertion that her son, who is gone, is yet strangely present when we gather to break bread and eat in his name? But this conviction is what we have, is what we have been given. The Christian faith and gospel provide no quick solutions to grief and loss and death. Instead, our affirmation is that he who conquered death by dying himself is himself living and present in our sharing of the symbols of sustenance that are our sources of salvation. We have no conjuring tricks up our sleeves, no pastoral platitudes to offer. What we do have are these mysteries: the sacrament of the broken body that calls us to die to the sorts of sinful desires that perpetuate the suffering of others, and instead to share life with others, which—as we remember this and every Good Friday—is the only way to conquer death.

Sermon: June 9th 2013

Readings

1 Kings 7:8-24

Galatians 1:11-24

Luke 7:11-17

In the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Parents should never have to survive their children. And yet, of course, they so frequently do; it is a story tragically often told, the story of young death by disease or desperation or deprivation or destructive violence. Parents should never have to survive their children, but they do, and it’s almost enough to make a person wish the world away.

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It is a story often told. Once upon a time, there was a widow in Sidon who trusted the man of God, and gave him all that she had, a meagre amount of meal and oil. And in return, or so it seemed, the man’s god let her son die, all she had left in the whole world.

Once upon a time, there was a widow in a crowd in a town called Nain; who knows why there were so many people there, perhaps she was well-loved, perhaps her son was. The widow wept for her son, whom she loved, now dead in a bier in this crowd in Nain.

It is a story often told. In our own time, 40 out of every 1,000 babies born die before they turn one; suicide is among the top three causes of death among adolescents in most Western democracies; and nobody really knows how many thousands of young men and women perish in combat every year.

It is a story too often told, if not always heard; it is almost enough to make a person wish the world away, this world we have made in the image of goodness knows what, in which our cravings for cheap food and fashion and pharmaceuticals and fancy gadgets and fake peace and false freedom come at the cost of the lives and souls of our sons and daughters. Like Elijah, we have taken from the poor and powerless, and the result is death; at least he had the courtesy to ask first, not to mention the ability to bring the boy back to his mother.

For most of us living in the real world, there will be no wandering prophet who comes by to raise our dead. Or, at least, no wandering prophet who is not ourselves, you and I, made and called, ourselves plunged into death and risen into new life, equipped in a million ways except with parlour tricks that void here and now the occasion for tears. And yet, and yet, where does that leave us, before such texts as these that seem to suggest magic or shamanism as the solution to our deepest and darkest miseries?

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Once upon a time, there was a woman in Jerusalem, and her son had just been killed, a would-be messiah, a political criminal. In the days after, they said they saw him, and maybe she did too, or thought she did, but not long later, he was gone for good.

Who knows what solace she took from knowing, if she knew, that her boy was in a better place? Who knows what solace anybody takes from talk of heaven? Who knows what comfort is held by our theological acrobatics about how her son, who is gone, is yet strangely present when we gather to eat and drink in his name? But this conviction is what we have, is what we have been given. The Christian faith and gospel provide no quick solutions to grief and loss and death. Instead, our affirmation is that he who conquered death by dying himself is himself living and present in our sharing of the symbols of sustenance that are our sources of salvation. We have no conjuring tricks up our sleeves; what we do have are sacraments that call us to die to our sinful desires and to share life with others, which is the heart of defeating death.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.