Sermon: September 13 2015

Readings

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

Psalm 116: 1-8

James 3: 1-12

Mark 8: 27-end

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Amen.

I had the good fortune of spending this past week in Rome and the Vatican. It is—being the See of Peter, and therefore arguably the centre of the Western Church—as good a place as any to consider the text before us today. And so, for this past week, I have found myself sitting or kneeling in chapel roafter chapel, before relic after relic, in church after church, considering the words of Peter and Jesus both, as they are found in Mark’s gospel.

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I must confess, it is all a bit much for my tastes, the high baroque exuberance and excess with which Rome is more than adequately endowed. And although I take the point—that it is all to reflect the glory and generosity of God, et cetera—I cannot help but think that the Protestant Reformers had a point, though it clearly landed on deaf ears at the time. It is not iconoclasm that I am entertaining—no Anglican Catholic would endorse that—but I do think that this over-the-top-ness obscures something important. The glare from the gold and jewels stops us from seeing something crucial about the saints trapped underneath the delicate reliquaries that house them: that they gave up so much for Christ. Certainly, many gave up riches and power and social status; and too many to count—St Peter himself among their number—gave up their very lives.

This might be understating things, but there are two important Petrine sites in Rome. The first is the obvious one: St Peter’s Basilica, and the piazza at the end of which it is located. It is a gobsmacking sight; of this, there can be no doubt. The basilica itself contains countless impressive works of art and precious relics, including those associated with Peter himself. Indeed, he is said—improbably, in my opinion—to be buried underneath the high altar, over which Bernini’s bronze and gilded baldachin is placed. Even more improbably, his episcopal throne—allegedly, a wooden chair—is said to be in the apse, just in front of the baldachin, encased in another Bernini sculpture of gilt bronze, this time a reliquary in the shape of a gigantic throne. It is, as I said, all a bit much, particularly because the relics themselves are hidden from sight by these impressive structures.

The second important Petrine site is, I would argue, the church of Santa Maria del Poppolo. In one of the side chapels are two paintings by Caravaggio, one of which is the Crucifixion of St Peter. Now, it would be egregious of me to say that this is the more important of the two Petrine objects, but I am nevertheless tempted to express so outrageous an opinion. I am thus tempted because there is nothing particularly Petrine about the famous piazza, basilica, baldachin, and throne. They tell us more about the genius of Bernini and the wealth of the Vatican than they do about the life of St Peter. Caravaggio’s painting, on the other hand, is tucked away in a church that was mostly empty when I was there, and is a crystal clear window—an icon, if you like—of what Peter, and today’s gospel text, is about. An aged Peter, complete with white beard, though clearly still an imposing physical specimen, is seen being strapped to a cross. It takes three men, obviously struggling (perhaps more than just physically), to hold him down and hoist him up. St Peter himself is gazing out of the picture, but not at the viewer. Rather, if one traces his line of sight, it becomes clear that he is looking directly at the altar, probably at an altar crucifix [like this one here]. He is, of course, as tradition holds it, being crucified upside down, having insisted that he is unworthy to die as his Lord did.

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“You are the Messiah”, Peter says, and for all his (perhaps accidental) theological accuracy, he is rebuked and silenced.

“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to the same Peter, who was, after all, as baffled as we would have been about Jesus’s macabre fatalism.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”, Jesus utters these least comfortable of words.

The evangelist’s intention seems clear, given the location and arrangement of these brief exchanges. Peter recognises that Jesus is the Messiah, but—as the second section demonstrates—fails to understand that this messiahship necessarily involves self-sacrifice for the sake of others. So far, we are nodding along dutifully. Yes, of course Peter is right; Jesus is the Messiah. Yes, of course Peter is wrong; Jesus has to die. And that’s when Mark turns on us in our complacency by having Jesus turn toward us. Peter may have been wrong about what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, but what have we been assuming about what it means for us to confess him as such? It means, whether we like it or not, denying our selves, taking up our crosses, and more starkly still, losing our lives. Anything less, and we are to be counted among those ashamed of Christ and his gospel.

It is odd to think that Jesus is accusing Peter of being ashamed of him; after all, he was, in the first of the three short narratives, an over-exuberant proclaimer of Jesus’s messiahship. But this is precisely the point: talk is cheap, not least from the lips of one who would end up denying him when the going got tough. But, as Caravaggio shows, the old boy did good in the end. It is for this reason that we celebrate him as we do; it is for this reason that we build monuments to him, so as never to forget the example he provides. And yet, if the glistening gold of our monuments distracts us from the real treasure—the self-sacrificial lives of the saints who have come before us—then they are so much dust and refuse.

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Make no mistake, these are difficult words. The polarity is stark. If we want to follow Jesus, then we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. To do otherwise is at least to misunderstand the claim that Jesus is the Messiah, and is at worst to be ashamed of him and to deny him. 

I cannot speak for the rest of you, but I cannot bring to mind any occasion in which I can reasonably be said to have “taken up a cross” in any real sense that does not bring insult to Christ’s own sacrifice, and Peter’s, and those of the countless other saints whose relics I visited and venerated this past week. This is, in part, because we no longer live in a world where we get crucified or otherwise murdered for our religious conviction. But this is not to say that we no longer live in a world in which self-sacrificial acts of conviction and generosity are somehow no longer necessary. We do not have to interpret Jesus’s words literally, to mean that we have to subject ourselves to physical torture; but we do have to resist the temptation to interpret the moral seriousness of the New Testament away, to contort Jesus’s words to fit within our own middle class comforts.

The Christian faith is not meant to be easy, and if we have covered it in so many shiny things—so many pretty externals, whether they be gilt bronze, or elegant liturgical choreography, or eloquent Cranmerian prose—that the moral force of our theological convictions are lost, then, well, perhaps we need the same kind of telling off that Peter received from Jesus.

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The Eucharist is meant to be the high point of our Sunday celebrations, and so it is. In the Eucharist, we receive Christ’s body and blood into our own, and in our consuming, we are ourselves consumed, given up to God through Christ, for God’s purposes in the world. In the Eucharist, our sacrifice—not just of “thanks and praise” but also of our “souls and bodies”—is made possible by and joined up with Christ’s. In other words, the Eucharist too carries moral force, or it should do, no less rigorous than the difficult words of the New Testament. Among our prayers then, is that it is effective in transforming us into the kinds of people who can and will take up our crosses to follow Jesus, the kinds of people who can and will take seriously the command at the end of Mass, to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. I must confess, at least for myself, I am not always confident that it is efficacious, but I do know that it is my only hope.

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Sermon: July 12 2015

Readings

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Mark 6:1-13

It is not difficult to see why Nietzsche thought that Christianity led to a sort of slave morality, in which followers of Christ participate in their own oppression and subjugation. All this business about boasting of weakness, and being content with insults and hardships and persecutions and calamities; all this talk of being strong when one is weak, and even of strength being made perfect in weakness; these all seem to be so much fodder for the claim that Christianity is the religion for losers.

The chequered history of the church—and, indeed, her present malaise—is, at least in some part, driven by the common and understandable temptation to refute this claim, that Christianity is a religion for losers. A long, long time ago, we effectively abandoned the socialism and pacifism of the early Church, embracing instead the bold and bloody values of empire. As Nietzsche would say, we turned from slave to master. In certain parts of colonial Christendom, this master/slave analogy is painfully and tragically apt.

This response—this turn to a triumphalist version of Christianity that glories in its military might, material wealth, and political clout—is entirely wrong-headed. Its error stems from our failure, perhaps even our wilful failure, to see the true strength that is in what we are told is weakness.

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Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?

If there is a central Christian attitude, it is that things are not what they might seem, are often more than they seem. Recall the Bible stories we were told as children, or which we tell to children. Moses is a stutterer and murderer, who leads his people into the Promised Land. David is an adulterer and warmonger (we might not tell this to our children), whose kingdom shall have no end. Jonah is a xenophobe and coward, whose words save the people of Canaan. Yahweh is a fickle brute of a tribal god, who is the infant Jesus and Christ crucified, for the sake of the world. (Come think of it, there’s a lot here that we might not tell children, though I can’t help wondering if we should.)

Jesus marvelled at the unbelief of his countryfolk, but what’s to marvel about? ’Twas ever thus, that we fail to see, fail to recognise God in the mundane and familiar. We have always wanted splashy miracles, charismatic leaders, dramatic victories. Even in our gospel text, the evangelist seems keen to include at least some miracles of healing into his story, and even miracles of exorcism into the very next one. 

And yet, pray God, that the scales fall from our eyes, that we might step into the light, and see the God in unexpected places. This—coming to church, listening to sermons, participating in liturgy—is meant to be a sort of practice, a kind of training for our senses. And not just training to see God in fashionable places, outdoors surrounded by rolling hills and babbling brooks and all that. But training to see God in difficult, messy places; in mundane, seemingly boring places. Pray that we might see God in weakness and brokenness, in pain and suffering; of our own to be sure, but more importantly, those of others, so that we may be God for them. Pray therefore, as we celebrate these sacred mysteries of the Body and Blood—which by all appearances, are bread and wine—that we may, in this eating and drinking, be consumed by God to be put to God’s purposes for the sake of those weak and broken, in us, among us, and in the whole world.

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

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: December 4th 2011

Readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

A voice says:
Cry out!
Get up to a high mountain!
Lift your voices, and do not fear!

A voice cries out:
In the wilderness, prepare the way!
In the desert, straighten the path!
The mouth of the Lord has spoken!

But what has the Lord said?
And what are we to cry?

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It is the second week of Advent.
Last week, we heard about endings that hark toward new beginnings.
The destruction of the temple
and with it, the end of one way of being the people of God.
The destruction of the cosmos
and with it, the end of one way of being people, of being human.

This week, we hear: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The beginning. The good news. The Son of God.
It is the first line of the New Testament, proclaiming a new story, a new world.

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Advent is a funny old thing. Like Lent, Advent is a time of anticipation. [Purple, you will recall, is our liturgical colour for preparation as well as penitence, which both Lent and Advent have in common.] And yet, in both cases, we seem to be preparing for and anticipating events that have already occurred, we seem to be looking forward to things that are already behind us. There is something very odd about this.

But of course, even if there were some sense in which Christmas and Easter were one-off historical events that happened far away and long ago in the past, there is surely a greater sense in which the Incarnation and Resurrection are cosmic events, which define our present reality. They are crucial elements in the logic of the story in which we find ourselves as members of the Body of the One Who was Raised.

Furthermore, neither the Incarnation nor the Resurrection are done. In the risen Christ, God is still ever working at the heart of things, reconciling the world to Godself. The Christian faith is full of such now-and-not-yets. The Kingdom of God is among us, and yet—as we shall pray together later—we yearn for its coming. We are raised in Christ, and yet—as we shall confess together later—we look forward to resurrection and new life.

And so it is that the Incarnation was and is and is to come; has happened, is happening now, and has yet to happen in full.

And so it is that, in Advent, we commemorate and celebrate and anticipate the Incarnation all at the same time. We come and gather together to tell the story that is also our story; and we go out and enact a world that has already come but for which we are still waiting.

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The story unfolds slowly, and we shall have to wait a while before we hear the details about the things Jesus said and did, and the things that were said and done to him. Nevertheless, right at the beginning of the New Testament, we are told what the story is about. It is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Much ink has been spilt on the allegedly political nature of this good news. This first sentence in Mark’s prologue certainly seems to contain anti-Roman or anti-imperialist undertones. For example, the word evangelion—“good news”—also referred to announcements of great victories, or the birth or accession of Roman emperors. Furthermore, the language of divine sonship, its potential theological implications aside, was similarly used in reference to Caesar; indeed, not just the Romans but even the Jews used the title “son of God” for the Davidic monarch. Speaking of which, “Christ” or “Messiah”—that is, “the anointed one”—was also a royal title, used most obviously in association with Saul and David. Considering this use of language, some biblical scholars have argued that Mark’s prologue is an attempt at subversion against the Roman Empire, whose forces seiged and destroyed Jerusalem and her Temple around the time Mark’s Gospel was written.

Whether or not this particular anti-imperialist reading of the first sentence holds water, the immediate invocation of Isaiah 40 surely stirs us to imagine a world under different management. As we have heard, the way of the Lord is to be made ready, and when God comes:

God comes with might, and yet
God leads gently, like a shepherd:
nourishing his flock
gathering the lambs in his arms
carrying them in his bosom

This is the world, which has been established, and yet for which we await, and therefore which we are to enact, not only at Advent, but always. We wait for and we hasten the putting right of all things; that is to say, we prepare and preparation is not passive. There are paths to prepare for the God who has spoken and speaks still peace. There are paths to prepare for peace. And for righteousness, and for faithfulness, and for love. The psalmist paints a stunning picture of peace and righteousness and faithfulness and love meeting and kissing, almost dancing in mid-air, bridging earth and heaven. But these abstractions and metaphors, while beautiful, are perhaps less than helpful. Words are slippery things, so easily abused or over-used into meaninglessness  Religious words are no exception; indeed, they are perhaps most susceptible to distortion, to domestication.

Peace. Righteousness. Faithfulness. Love.

Of course, we exchange the sign of peace—a handshake, perhaps a kiss, and a platitude that is, by the way, sometimes as creepy as it is mindless—but let us not mistake the sign for that which it signifies. Let not our acts of peace be confined to a weekly handshake. The handshake, you might know, originated as a gesture to demonstrate that one was unarmed, but the absence of conflict is surely only the beginning of peace. The kind of peace we are talking about is the state of affairs in which conflict is unnecessary, in which mutuality and generosity renders it so. It is about making room for ourselves and others to flourish with integrity; and so, against any form of oppression or domination, it is about right relationship between persons, with the rest of the natural world, and with God. That is to say, it is about righteousness.

Just as peace is about more than the cessation of armed conflict, righteousness is about more than being clean-cut, well-spoken, and uncontroversially liked. Let us not confuse respectability for righteousness. The public perception, and to a worrying extent, the inward reality is that for the Church, morality is a matter of what happens in the bedroom, rather than in the boardroom. This is a travesty, not because personal relationships are irrelevant [of course they matter], but because puritanical obsessions are so narrow, so short-sighted. To be faithful to this vision of the world, captured in the story we are told and that we continue to tell, we need a more radical morality. Alas, the effort to domesticate the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God—by bracketing off politics and economics from its ethics has been overwhelmingly successful. Even here at All Saints’, we demure from discussing public policies and consumer choices from the pulpit. We are happy for our clergy to give us marital advice, but far be it from them to try to tell us how to vote or what to buy. That would be unbecoming. The concern for respectability has unfortunately superseded the concern for righteousness. But we must resist this temptation—and the temptation to be wilfully ignorant about the repercussions of our democratic and consumer choices—if we are to be faithful to the story we are told, the story we continue to tell, the story in which we find ourselves.

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It is the second week of Advent. Christmas is coming, and with it the characteristic increases in consumption, usually manifested in feasting and gift-giving. The sharing of material goods, and especially of food, is certainly not foreign to Christian practice; indeed, we will soon be engaging in precisely these acts, as we take up the offering and as we share the Eucharistic feast together. But how we share food and other material goods—what we eat and buy—is crucial, and we must ask if our practices are faithful to the gospel. Is it, for example, faithful to the story we tell about peace and righteousness and love, to financially support those who underpay their labourers, mistreat their livestock, and pollute the Earth? If not, how might we begin to foster and maintain right relationships with the people who produce the things we eat and wear and use; indeed, how might we begin to foster right relationships with the things we eat, and the land from which it comes? Such considerations should, indeed they must inform how we celebrate Christmas and how we live out the rest of our lives, the rest of our stories.

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What does the Lord speak? What are we to cry?
The Lord speaks peace, and righteousness and faithfulness and love.
Therefore, we too cry such things, preparing the way in the wilderness.
Furthermore, tenderly, the Lord forgives and comforts, pardons and promises.
Therefore, patiently and penitently, we prepare and we await the day when we will at last be at home with righteousness.

What a glorious day that will be. Amen.