Sermon: November 13 2016 (Remembrance Sunday)

This sermon was delivered on Remembrance Sunday at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

Malachi 4:1-2a
Luke 21:5-19

What a week.
I knew a great old lady—she died just a few months ago, aged 105—and while she had no memory of the beginning of the Great War, she could remember Armistice Day. She also remembered the day she was brought by friends and family to a political rally in Bavaria, where she was on holiday in her early 20s. She was told to pay no mind to the buffoon speaking: he couldn’t possibly go far. The next year, he became the Führer.

What a week.
I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. It’s one of those events that get seared into one’s memory. The coronation was one for many of a previous generation. The assassination of JFK. The first moon landing. The death of Diana.
I was up all night, waiting for the news that after 240 years, there would finally be a woman in the White House, leader of the free world. Given her training and experience, she was the most qualified presidential candidate in the nation’s history: the choice should have been easy. Instead, the American voting public, with the help of a bizarre electoral college system, chose a sexist, racist, xenophobic buffoon, whose ad campaign ended with two minutes of criticism of the financial establishment featuring video clips of prominent American Jews. It is no wonder that neo-Nazis and the KKK support Donald J. Trump.

I’m going to remember the morning of November 9th 2016 for the rest of my life, for all the wrong reasons.

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There is a curious ambivalence in the Bible. On one hand, there seems to be a sort of naïve optimism. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays., says the prophet Malachi. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life., says Jesus. The same Jesus who, of course, gets arrested, beaten within an inch of his life, ridiculed, spat upon, nailed to a cross to die, and stabbed. As for his followers: by tradition (if not legend), all but St John were martyred. By the late second century, Tertullian could write that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. The rhetoric of triumphalism is therefore tempered, to say the least, by the reality of failure and death. Of course, the Church finally did triumph in the usual sense of the word: it became the Roman imperial religion by the later 4th century, and thereby spread both gospel and tyranny around the world. It turns out that we don’t behave well when we win.

+++

81% of White evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. The figures are 58% for Protestants more generally, and 52% for Roman Catholics.

If my Facebook feed is any indication—and, of course, we know what bubbles we live in—Christians say the most sanctimonious, condescending things when things like this happen. They tell us to play nice. They tell us—as, indeed, both Malachi and Jesus do—that it’ll be alright. God is still sovereign, they say; some might even say that Trump is in power only by the will of said sovereign God.

Perhaps it will be alright. But even so, this is no reason to acquiesce, to accept the new status quo. That convenient option is the luxury of those who can afford to wait for things to pan out in the long run. The convenient option is very rarely the Christian one. No. Stand firm, he says. Which is to say, don’t back down. Turn the other cheek, to be sure; speak the words given unto you, or remain silent, even as Christ himself was. But don’t you—don’t we—dare stand by, stand back and let bigotry win the day. You will win life, he says, and if his own life and death are any indication, it is the lives of others that we must put before our own.

+++

We must never forget the sacrifices that have been and still are made by the women and men who gave up their lives in unnecessary wars that they did not start. Today, perhaps more than ever, when we have outsourced our violence to the poor, we must not forget. It is the poorest schools that are most targeted by army recruiters. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a socioeconomic gap between us and those whom we send to kill and die for us.

But this “not forgetting” is not a matter of entertaining pious thoughts about our grandfathers or the armed forces in the present day. Remembrance, Christianly conceived, is about changing the world. It is about changing the world so that nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more.

+++

We have seen this kind of demagoguery before, which has pit peoples against peoples. Time and time again, we have blamed the Other for our woes. For the bubonic plague, we blamed the Jews. For the unemployment rate, we blamed the Polish. It’s the same play, over and over, sometimes even with the same characters. And the same is happening across the ditch. According to news reports, the violence has already begun, particularly against Muslim Americans. Again, this is familiar to us: Brexit was not so long ago, with its own subsequent spike in xenophobic hatefulness. Regardless of how you voted and why, we are all culpable for propping up the culture that has enabled such things. And as any social scientist worth her salt will tell you, and kindergarten teachers: violence begets violence. Therefore, the beating of swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, is not so much a symptom of the end of war as it is a remedy, a cure.

+++

We must not forget. And Christian remembering—eucharistic remembering—is about changing the world. Our celebration of the this most holy sacrament is, of course, our central act of remembrance and, at the same time, our central act of sacrifice, in which we are ourselves offered in Christ to be broken for the hungry and split for the thirsty.

We must not forget, but we must stand firm to win lives, allowing ourselves to lie down only if it is a laying down of ourselves for the sake of others.

This morning at Sunday School, the children were told about the brave women and men who were so brave and gave up their lives for us in times of war. And they were asked how they too could be brave. In our times, the answer could not be more obvious. We must be brave against bigotry and bullying, standing firm with and for those about whom the angry mob cries “Crucify, crucify—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ—even if it, God forbid, inconveniences us. Their lives must win, must trump hate.

The mass ends with an exhortation to go, to go out into the world, bellies full of Christ, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. And what a world it is now. We have our work cut out for us.

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Sermon: October 30 2016 (All Saints Day + Baptism)

The Feast of All Saints (and baptism of Anne Barkham)

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

Ephesians 1:11-23

Luke 6:20-31

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

The communion of saints: communio sanctorum. That is—so the Catechism tells us—the sharing of holy things among holy people: not half bad as far as definitions of “the Church” go.

In the current fashion of democratisation, we are quick to insist that we are all saints, all holy people, all of us who have, in the waters of baptism, died with Christ and risen with him into new life. And of course we are. But this is not what the Feast of All Saints is about. It is, in the first place, not about the Church militant, those of us currently here on earth, faithful and feckless in equal measure, souls made both of wheat and tares. I mean, we would be very tall poppies indeed, if we dedicated a feast day to ourselves. Nor is it about all the Christians who have come before us: we have another celebration of that great cloud of witnesses, to which we too will one day all belong, the Feast of All Souls, which falls just one day after All Saints’ Day. 

And so it is that today, Anne is being initiated into the communion of saints—she is being made one of this holy people, who will share holy things—and yet, she is not among those we celebrate today every year. Today is about her, and yet not about her Or rather, it is about her and about who she, and we, are meant to be, whether or not we make it before our times are up.

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Who we are meant to be.

Love your enemies, he says, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Holy people who share holy things, unequivocally asked to live impossible lives that go against, if not our natures, then the cultures into which we are all born, that quid-pro-quo dog-eat-dog world in which revenge and meritocracy are confused for justice.

Give to everyone who begs from you; he says, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Holy people who share holy things, and therefore share all things, as if those things were not our own to hoard because, well, they’re not our own to hoard. In baptism, we have been drowned, and the dead have no private property, no rights to withhold things from the needy: in the eucharist, even we ourselves are broken to feed others, even as we feed on everlasting life.

There can be no mistaking who we are called to be, who Anne is called to be: what saints look like.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I see when I look in the mirror.

+++

She’s a funny old thing, the Church. Invariably, we who are not saints nevertheless make saints: recognise them, canonise them. In an odd way, they are saints only because of us, only because we share with them this holy thing. And, of course, in a different way, we too are only here because of others: we were baptised, some of us as adults and others as infants, but always by someone else. One does not baptise oneself: there is no room for that kind of individualism in Christianity, that ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, the theological anthropology of Thatcher and Reagan (not to mention Rogernomics and Ruthanasia) that still infects us today like a bad jingle stuck ringing in our heads.

One does not baptise oneself, and this is because the Church is not made up of autonomous individuals who, having given informed consent, plunge into the waters of baptism as if bungee jumping on a Queenstown holiday. It is a mystery, even to the compos mentis, even to the most sober and reflective and well-read of theologians. In this way, those of us baptised as adults are really no better off than those received as infants. It may be clear to see who we are meant to be, but information does not in this case help us truly to know anything about the Christian life into which we are baptised.

One does not baptise oneself because the Christian life is not one to be lived alone, but with one another, in a community of mutual self-giving that nourishes each of us to nourish the world. We know the Christian life by living it together for the sake of others. There is no short cut available.

And so it is that we—you and me, those of us entrusted with Anne’s pastoral care and Christian formation, and those of us looking on—(we) will be making vows today too, to be their people, their holy people who will share with them holy things, that is, all things, denying them nothing they need, if ever needs should arise, and they will. Today, we will be making vows to have their backs, just as others have made vows to have our backs. We have no idea what this will mean, and neither do they: we are again, in this, the same, in the same dark, which for God is light, to whom the night is as bright as day.

+++

Anne, you may or may not always remember this day; days have their way of bleeding into each other, and our minds are fragile things. But that’s what we are for: we will remember, we will remember you, even if you decide some day to walk away from us, even if you decide to hate us and curse us, even then (though we would really prefer you didn’t), we will be your people, who will love you and withhold nothing from you. Holy people, sharing holy things: all of us, saints for your sake, so help us God.

Sermon: October 16 2016

This sermon was delivered at Holy Trinity, Edmonton.

Jeremiah 31:27-34

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Luke 18: 1-8

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

Words from the Gospel according to St Luke, the eighteenth chapter, the seventh verse.

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

Jesus seems to be terrible at asking rhetorical questions. Immediately, he responds to his own setup: I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet.

And yet there are desperate people everywhere, praying their hearts out, knees bloody and eyes raw with tears. There have always been, and justice has not been granted them with anything like the promised swiftness. To say that they—victims of war and colonisation and genocide and natural disaster and disease and poverty and domestic abuse—have not prayed enough, have not been found to have enough faith, is a morally bankrupt cop out, a dodgy means to cling on to our convenient and comfortable belief that we will be granted our recompense in timely fashion. But this is nonsense on stilts.

Is Luke’s Jesus wrong, then? Sure, if we can stomach saying such a thing. But, of course, we need to look no further than the Garden of Gethsemane for our proof. There, four short chapters from here, Jesus sweats blood, he prays so painfully: and all God can muster is the cold comfort of bodiless, sexless celestial beings, not even the vigilance of his brothers and friends, let alone grant him what he actually wants. What we all want: not do die in agony and humiliation.

+++

Justice has precious little to do with it, with the Christian faith, if by “justice” we mean fairness, which is the way most people talk these days.

The unjust judge does not play fair by pandering to the pathetic pleas of persistent peasants. And neither would it be fair for God to do so, not that God does. God does not answer prayers based on the fervour of the petitioners. If God did, the Church would make pots and pots of money in the racket of manipulating sports results and election outcomes. And given the baffling dalliance between Christianity and the Republican Party in your belligerent neighbour to the south, Donald Trump would probably be doing better in the polls. Thank God, God’s arms cannot be twisted by people who have nothing better to do than moan about things.

Thank God that God does not play fair, does not allow the divine will to be swayed by the likes of us. The God who plucks up and breaks down, to overthrow, destroy and bring evil, God chooses to build and to plant, despite the sins of our forebears and, God knows, our own sins.

But this is the covenant that I will make…: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

There is nothing fair about that. There is nothing fair about Jesus’s bloody prayers remaining inadequately answered for our sake, we who fall asleep, we who abandon him in his darkest hour, we who participate in the exploitation of labour and the devastation of the natural environment, not least by our everyday consumer choices; we who fail to call our mothers and make time for our families, let alone for strangers and aliens; we who exclude those different from us and therefore probably inferior to us, even if refuse to face our own prejudices and call them out for what they are. We who are nevertheless here gathered to celebrate this Mass to the glory of almighty God, for whom justice looks like an innocent body broken and blood spilt for the good of the despots and denizens who crucified him. We who are crucified with him, whether we feel it or not, who are murdered with him, drowned in the waters of baptism, and broken and offered in this eucharist; we who are living sacrifices or so we mumble, sometimes thoughtlessly, not realising that we are committing ourselves to live unjustly, forsaking our own demands, even our own rights, for even those whom we might deem our opponents.

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Bread and wine, or—we joke—poor imitations thereof, and yet, the most intense of moral and political symbols, the symbols of the revolution that began years and years ago and begins still even now, with a covenant a faithful God makes with a feckless people, with a promise of words inscribed into our innermost flesh, with a mother’s son bloodied and broken, dead and risen, with this most mysterious consumption of food and drink through which we give ourselves over to be consumed by a hungry world and thirsty for hope, pleading persistently, widows all of them, all of us, bereft of all manner of things. For these things to be well, all manner of things to be well, we have to repent of the injustice of exploitative consumption and convert to the injustice of reckless grace.

It is, of course, unfair of me to lay the troubles of the world at your feet. And yet, here you are, here we are, perhaps no longer wet with the waters of our baptism, but certainly, in a moment, we will have our bellies full of Christ, and we will be sent out into the world he loves, for which he died. And we will, with some luck, realise that the command to “do this in remembrance of me” is about a lot more than a piece of bread and a drop of wine, so help us God.

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

Sermon: September 25 2016

Readings
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-end

The Bible is sometimes difficult to interpret, difficult to apply to our 21st century lives; it is a complicated thing, not to mention culturally foreign to us, written centuries ago in faraway places. Times change, and context matters. Sometimes, it is difficult to work out, from what the Bible says, how we ought to live now.

This is not one of those times.

In their wisdom, the putters-together of the lectionary have made the moral effect of today’s readings about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. Much misquoted, but the original is not without its force.
“As for those who in the present age are rich […] be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.
“During your lifetime, you received good things…[now] you are in agony”.

Now, it is tempting to think that these passages aren’t directed at us. We are not rich, certainly not like the rich man was in the the morning’s reading from Luke’s gospel. We are solidly middle class, after all.

But of course the median income in the UK is roughly £22,000. This puts the average Brit in the top 1.46% in the world, in terms of income. In global terms, we are obscenely rich. The average house price in Old Marston is £490,000. This is 22 times the UK’s median income; if the average Brit spent every single penny to buy a house here, it would take a little less than half of her entire career to do so. Most of us here today—even if we do not live in this idyllic neighbourhood—are in that top 1% that people keep going on about, when they are complaining about oligarchs.

And, of course, here in Oxford, though perhaps less so here in the suburbs: there are myriads of homeless and other people panhandling on the streets. Lazaruses abound. However, all to often, like the rich man, we just walk on by, comforting ourselves with the knowledge that the City Council discourages us from giving people cash. We don’t stop to remember that the City Council says nothing about having a chat or sharing a hot drink on a cold day.

“If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will be they convinced even if someone rises from the dead”.

Ain’t that the truth? We have gotten very good at minimising the ethical import of transparent passages like these, explaining away clear commands to us. We spiritualise the message of Jesus: we insist that our call is to be poor in spirit, so that we can maintain our comfortable middle-class lifestyles. We forget that when Jesus read from Isaiah, he said that he came to “bring good news to the poor”, full stop. “To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”. And to be sure, we are spiritually poor, morally blind, oppressed by systems of power that manipulate consumers and voters and exploit workers, especially if they don’t look like us, and preferably if they live far, far away. And therefore the good news is for us too. But our spiritual enrichment, our restored sight, our freedom from oppressive desires, these are not simply for us to enjoy, patting ourselves on our backs. We have been healed and set free to heal and set free.

“As for those who in the present age are rich […] be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.

How shall we live? It could not possibly be more obvious.

Sermon: August 28 2016

Readings

Luke 14:1,7-14

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

You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just, he says. To which I am tempted to reply: are we there yet? Not because, mind you, I have racked up enough feasts for the poor, maimed, lame, and blind to qualify for great rewards in heaven, but because this claim seems evasive to my admittedly very short-sighted eyes. I feel like a child, who is constantly asking his mother when he can have those sweets, only to receive in unwavering reply the single ambiguous familiar declaration: later.

What could it mean, after all, to say that we will be rewarded at the resurrection, at the end of history, in an unimaginable future where it is not at all clear that words like “future” or the concept of time make any sense at all? In real terms—that is to say, in the terms of cold, economic logic—it means approximately nothing.

I mean, what would you say if I borrowed a large sum of money from you, and said that I would repay you—even with interest—at the resurrection of the just?

It is as though our Lord lacked the psychological insight to know that human beings are dispositionally and incorrigibly bad at deferring gratification. I can barely wait two days for my Amazon parcels to arrive, let alone take the time to find another place to buy my books and dinosaur figurines. Another place, which does not calculatingly exploit their workers and meticulously avoid their taxes. I can barely wait two days for justice, let alone until the resurrection of the just for my recompense.

Christians are often criticized for what is assumed to be our motivation for doing good: we only do good, they say, to ultimately benefit ourselves. We only do good to curry favour with God or to avoid incurring his wrath. I am sure that there is some truth to this; and yet, just a brief moment’s reflection must make us—and them—see how obviously unappealing the deal is. No sensible human being would live the life Jesus demands for maybe pie in the sky when they die. We are—human beings are, even the least sensible among us—(are) too shrewd, too cynical, too impatient for that. Christians truly do believe many impossible things, but this—the naïve notion that we ought to be virtuous for treasures on the other side of eternity—is surely not among them.

The truth is, as usual, even more unusual—even more absurd—than the caricature. 

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The scales fell from my eyes when I was about sixteen, reading the Gospel of Matthew. It was that story Jesus told, the one about the workers. Some of them turned up before dawn, and agreed to work for a day’s wages. Others turned up looking for work later that morning; others still appeared at midday; others came in the afternoon; and even a mere hour before the working day was done, there were people seeking employment. The guy who ran the vineyard, he paid them all a denarius each, a day’s wage.

The gospel, it dawned on me, had—unlike the rest of the world familiar to me at the time and still—(the gospel had) nothing whatsoever to do with cold, hard, economic logic. The gospel, I realised, was opposed to my world of carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, cost-benefit analyses, just desserts, tit-for-tat strategies for achieving Nash equilibria.

It all suddenly made sense, this God for whom one and one and one made one; who tells stories about householders who provide to each according to his needs after receiving from each according to his ability; who has no need for us, but made us anyway, and lived and died for us, who killed him, and rose again to bring us home.

It all suddenly made sense. And the kind of sense it made was, of course, totally and unrepentantly absurd. Sure, Christians believe impossible things, silly things. We believe that we were and are loved into being; that our primary identity is like that of a child born into a family that had no need for her nor desire or agenda for her except that she flourish. We believe that this love who gave us breath and life came alive among us, and died, and changed all lives forever. All lives: even the lives that don’t matter to us, the lives different from us, the lives we would rather marginalise, avoid, or exploit. We believe that all this grand stuff about creation and redemption are as true for them as they could be for anyone else, as they could be for us. And therefore, we believe that we should all sit at table together: not just symbolically, on some anaemic definition of symbols, but really, in the flesh and the blood. Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. He’s not kidding. I’m not sure why we think he is, though we sure act like it most days; God knows I do anyway. Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind; God knows he did, invite us in our own impoverished visions of the world, our crippling insecurities, our moral blindness.

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Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to apply biblical texts or theological precepts to the modern day, to our every day lives. This is not one of those times. The thing we are called to do and be is difficult, to be sure, but it’s not our inability to understand that makes it so. Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. Not because we will be repaid at the resurrection of the just, whenever that might be, but because we are made and saved—sons and daughters of love itself—(made and saved) to defy our basest instincts, even when they are tarted up, made respectable and entrenched as ostensibly moral or political or economic necessities.  Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. Because our source and sustenance and salvation is love. No hermeneutical lens is required here, no reading between lines. God help us, then, that healed and strengthened at his table, we will be able to open ours.

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

Sermon: August 14 2016 (Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Readings

Revelation 11.19, 12.1-6, 10

1 Cor. 15.20-26

Luke 1.39-56

 

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

 

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

 

Of the two—the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception—the Assumption is by far the more reasonable dogmatic assertion. This is not least because it would have been an egregious failure of filial piety for Jesus not to have brought his mother along with him. I mean, my mother would never let me hear the end of it.

 

I confess—don’t tell Fr Peter—that I struggle with the idea that Mary was born without original sin. This is because it makes it difficult for me to relate to her, and to see her as an example for my own life, or for the lives of others not similarly blessed. No doubt, evidence of my own lack of moral fibre, I find myself making excuses for my petulance and disobedience by thinking that faithfulness would come much easier if I too were unsullied by the “stain of original sin”. This is, of course, absurd. There is, after all, nothing easy about the life of a Jewish peasant girl in the backwaters of Roman occupied Palestine, pregnant out of wedlock, who had to watch her son be tortured and publicly murdered. In contrast to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that Mary was, at the end of her earthly life, “assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” resonates perfectly with everything I have come to know and love about this faith we share.

 

Here, we have the taking up of Mary’s whole humanity to be with God: body and soul, past and present, her whole story, the immaculate bits and the not-so-immaculate bits. The messiness of being human is brought into the perfection of the divine life. Here, therefore, is the fundamentally Christian insistence that the entire created order is good, and not just a special, sanitised or spiritualised, corner of it; which is just to say that the entire created order is loved.

 

There can, for Christians, be no hatred of the body, no denigration of the physical, no retreating from the world, so common these days in convenient and commodified versions of spirituality, knock-offs of the real thing. To begin with, our doctrines of Creation and Incarnation are unmistakably positive about the world: God made the world and saw that it is good, and, furthermore, it is worth saving. The doctrines of the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary are yet other ways of saying that God loves the world, not only enough to make it and become a part of it, but enough even to embrace it, welcoming us with arms outstretched, to redeem us and make us whole.

 

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The Church’s teaching on the Assumption gives us a clue about why we venerate Mary.

 

It is often said, quite rightly, that devotion to Mary is an expression of our belief in the Incarnation: Mariology is Christology. As the early Church argued, if Jesus is God Incarnate (which he is), and if Mary is Jesus’s mother (which she is), then it follows that Mary must be the mother of God Incarnate: the veneration of Mary thus begins with the simple recognition that she is theotokos, the bearer of God.

 

But this is only one side of the story, of course. Our veneration of Mary is also—and perhaps even primarily—a prayer to be like her. And this is only possible because she is like us. The logic of the Incarnation—for us to be like Jesus, he has to be like us—applies here too, perhaps even more so, because Mary is simply fully and wholly human, and not at all divine, except by adoption. Indeed, the most important fact about Mary—her most significant trait—is not the circumstances of her birth or even the circumstances of her pregnancy, but her humanity. It is precisely by being human that she brings God into the world as a human being. It is by being human that she can be for us a sign: a sign of our salvation, body and soul.

 

The Assumption of Mary is therefore our assumption, our invitation and reception into the life of her Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever world without end.

 

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So, we celebrate the Assumption of Mary, and venerate her, because she is our sign that God loves the world, the whole world. Creation, Incarnation, Ascension, and Assumption, all point in the same direction. On this, Christianity refuses to be subtle.

 

And as if these were not reminders enough of this most central message of the Gospel, we are given also the Eucharist, in which we participate in Creation, Incarnation, Ascension, and Assumption. We take into our bodies the Body of Christ, which earth has given and human hands have made; and the Blood of Christ, fruit of the vine and work of human hands; and in and through this bodily ingestion of these earthy elements made heavenly, we are ourselves received as gifts—souls and bodies—to be sent out, to live and work to the praise and glory of God.

 

Even as we have a share in Mary’s Assumption, so also we have a share in her work as bearer of God.

 

Our bellies full of Christ, our call—like hers—is to brave the world and its messiness, our own messiness, and to bring what we see and hear to God in prayer, and to bear witness, in word and deed, to the good news that God loves the whole glorious thing, and will bring it home.

 

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

Sermon: August 7 2016 (Transfiguration)

 

Readings

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14

2 Peter 1.16-19

Luke 9.28-36

 

Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him. […] And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”. And Peter answered, “The Christ of God”.

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

Words from the gospel according to St Luke, the ninth chapter.

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Gods are to be found on top of mountains. Everybody knows that. Zeus rules from atop Olympus; Shiva the Destroyer meditates on Kailāśa; Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, was born from a stone on Huāguo. On Mount Sinai, Yahweh dictated the law to Moses and came to Elijah, not in the furious wind that split the hills, nor in the earthquake that followed, but in the soft whisper of a voice.

“Who do you say that I am?” he asks.

“The Christ of God”, we reply, not knowing what we are saying.

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Christian theology, like Christian discipleship, is a quixotic enterprise that begins by asserting its own impossibility. God is not only that being greater than which none can be conceived, but also that which is simply inconceivable.

That this is so is hardly surprising. After all, our brains evolved to deal with medium-sized objects located in time and space. Being the source of all things, including time and space themselves, God cannot be counted among objects, medium-sized or otherwise. Much more so than even the weird and wonderful things posited by theoretical physicists—that pantheon of fermions and bosons; those n-dimensional space-times—God is a mystery beyond our telling, the mystery of existence itself.

All of this is just to say that whatever it might mean to know God, it cannot be like knowing anything else. This can be seen in the way theology is actually done. One model is presented to us at the end of the gospel reading: they kept silence. Their stunned silence was temporary, but since the days of the early church, silent contemplation and adoration has become, in some circles, the ultimate goal of theology. But another model is exemplified for us in the reading from the book of Daniel: here, the author is not silent, but is desperate for words, furiously drawing from various aspects of the created world to express something of God. There is snow and wool; there are wheels and flames, thrones and multitudes, ever world without end. The Church has always lived in both these modes: responding to the Word God speaks, who is Jesus Christ, with her own babblings and her sighs too deep for words, both supplied by the Holy Spirit.

For Christians then, the route to knowing God is not—for the most part—to scale mountains uninvited: not ours are the stories of Babel and Bellerophon. Rather, our knowledge of God begins and ends with God’s self-revelation and invitation to us into the divine life. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, intercedes for us. We are brought to the mountain to pray with Jesus.

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It is easy enough to see that the story of the Transfiguration is about revelation: Jesus of Nazareth is revealed as the Giver of Light, the fulfilment and consummator of both Law and Prophecy, the very Son of very God.

It is also easy to see how this revelation is meant to reassure the disciples, in the harsh and cruel shadow of the Cross, upon which their would-be Messiah was broken, and with him, their hopes of new life. “We have the prophetic word made more sure”, they told themselves, “we were there with him on the holy mountain; we heard this voice: this is my beloved Son”. Despite all appearances to the contrary, our faith is true: or so the experience of the Transfiguration allows us to say.

But we pass too quickly by what Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about: his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. To put it more bluntly: his death. Paradoxically then, in this scene—in which Christ is revealed in cosmic splendour, and the voice from on high confirms his Divine Sonship—it is the mortality, the finite humanity of Jesus, that is the topic of conversation.

We must, therefore, not misunderstand the Transfiguration as a demonstration that the Second Person of the Trinity is merely temporarily pretending to be a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. The comfort we derive from this event must not be based on the notion that when Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, he does not really die, but only appears to. No: the Transfiguration is precisely a repudiation of this heresy that we call Docetism. It is also a repudiation of a tempting view of the Christian life associated with this and other similarly dualistic heresies. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Peter is recalled as having said to Jesus, “It is well that we are here; let us make three booths”, the implication being that they should stay there, on the mountain, and at least Moses, Elijah, and Jesus ought to have shelter. But this God is not to remain on the mountain top, far from the troubles of the world: this God has gone already to the hill-country and will go now into the city, to be mocked and tried, tortured and murdered. In the same way, we are not to stay on the mountain, above the fray—good though it surely is to be there—but to follow our Lord wherever he may go, which is everywhere on earth, even to its hells.

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Christian theology is like Christian discipleship, because that’s what it is.

Knowing God is not like knowing other objects, because God is not an object.

Talking about God is not like talking about other objects, for the same reason, but also because the goal of theological speech is not merely unilateral declaration, in which an active human subject makes assertions about a passive divine object. Christian knowledge is, in this sense, decidedly not power, if power is power over something or someone else. Rather, it is a response to the Word God utters, even from creation.

Finally, to know and respond to God is to live. The voice from above the mountain says “This is my Son”, but also “Listen to him”: revelation entails commission. To see God—in the transformation of dull flesh into dazzling light, or in the pillar of cloud that envelops us, or in bread and wine made holy for us—(to see God) is to see a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. Lamps are not just for staring at in silent adoration or just for propositional predication; lamps are first and foremost for following, as they light our path. The Transfiguration of the Lord is therefore not merely for our intellectual benefit—now we know what it means semantically to say that Jesus is the Christ—but for our own metamorphosis into the very likeness of this Jesus.  

Thus, whether we think we are learned or ignorant, loquacious or economical, to know and respond to God is to be transformed and, in so being, to transform the world. Quixotic, to be sure: and yet, no less than the very meaning of our confession that Jesus is the Christ of God.