Sermon: Bartlemas Chapel, Cowley, Oxford 23rd August 2020

St Bartlemas Chapel, Cowley

Vigil Mass 7:30pm Sunday 23 August

Isaiah 43: 8-13   Acts 5: 12-16.  Luke 22: 24-30

Three Scriptures:

You are my witnesses, says the Lord,

and my servant whom I have chosen,

so that you may know and believe me. 

Is 43:10

Many signs and wonders were done among the people

Acts 5:12

I am among you as one who serves.

You are those who have stood by me in my trials.

Lk 22: 26

When did you last hear the Lord speaking to you?

God longs to speak to us, with us, god longs for us to hear his voice.

And the first way in which he speaks to us, the fundamental place for us to go to hear him is in the words of Scripture. Which is why faithful, day by day reading of the bible is fundamental to Christian living. So perhaps this week you might want to spend time with the three beautiful Scriptures gifted to us on this feast of St Bartholomew apostle and martyr.

It is in three single verses, one from each reading that I believe the Lord spoke to me as I prepared to preach this evening.

You are my witnesses. The Lord say in Isaiah 43:10. 

We are all of us, by virtue of, that is the strength given us in baptism called to be witnesses. But we are not all called to be preachers and evangelists, this is what St Paul says in Ephesians 4 (11 ff) only some are called to evangelise.

For the writers of the New Testament the word for witnesses is the Greek word, martures; from which we get our word martyr. It was this word that the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that the the new testament writers knew, was used here in Isaiah.

God calls all of us, you and me, each of us here; every baptised person to be his martyrs. Now in a strange way I find that quite liberating.

If witnessing simply meant talking about Jesus, telling people about our faith and encouraging people to come to church; well, it is all a bit one -dimensional. In some of the literature on mission it can all be made to seem a bit too easy. “Bring a friend Sunday and we can double our congregations.”!

“You are my martyrs”; is a whole other ball-game. We are all called to die for Christ. Well, at one level, of course, that is true. We are certainly all going to die one day. But this call is a call to be martyrs to die for a purpose and that purpose is made clear by Isaiah, it is so that “you may know and believe me.” Not so that others may know God, but so that we may know God; when we are martyrs; when we die;  we know God better. This is important.

It is in today’s Gospel  that we move to doing things for others. “I am among you” Jesus says, “as one who serves”.  And then he immediately describes the service the disciples have given him, “you have stood by me in my trials.”

I think the teaching given in these two readings is profound and important. The martyrdom we are called to; which I have come to believe is the only, the single aim of the spiritual life is what Christian writers call abandonment; what the new testament describes as dying to self. The possible New Testament references I could give here would take most of the night, so you will be pleased to know that I am not going to suggest more than a few. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Jesus said “”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself …” (Lk 9:23), “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” (Jn 12:24 “whoever loses his life for my sake” (Mark 8:35) and so on.

This is the very heart of the gospel, and it is gospel, it is good news because it is profoundly liberating. 

When we are seeking to shore up our sense of self; when we are constantly seeking to affirm ourselves, even our identities; when we need possessions, or status, or qualifications, or power; or whatever it is that to make us feel like we exist; that we are real; the pursuit of all that is relentless; it is exhausting; and like any drug the more often we get it the weaker the effect and the more of it we need.

The alternative; letting go of whatever props us up may seem scary at first, perhaps even impossible to do but it sets us free. It releases us and allows us to see what is really important. Perhaps, in these Covid days of lockdown and strangeness you have seen how you can live without something that you once thought was vital to your life and well-being? Perhaps, you have found this in standing with someone in their trials?

I suggest one way in which we can both work on our dying to self, our martyrdom and in which we can measure our progress on this journey which is really, of course, a lifetime’s journey.

It is the extent of our capacity to pay attention to another person; to another human being. To be truly present to them.

To encounter them in a way which honours them, which recognises them as a revelation of the image and likeness of God.

There are some people who seem to have this gift naturally. Who, to meet is a pleasure and joy because they are not constantly thinking of the next thing to say, of what their response is going to be or even of somewhere else they would rather be; or someone else they would rather be talking to.

These people have the gift of being really present to us. Giving us their full attention.

My suggestion is that the scandal of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not that God is present; but that we are not.

This is captured beautifully by one of my favourite poets, Denise Levertov in her poem Flickering Mind. I will read it and it is also on the cards I have handed out.

Lord, not you,

it is I who am absent.

At first

belief was a joy I kept in secret,

stealing alone

into sacred places;

a quick glance, and away – and back,

circling.

I have long since uttered your name

but now

I elude your presence.

I stop

to think about you, and my mind

at once

like a minnow darts away,

darts

into the shadows, into gleams that fret

unceasing over

the river’s purling and passing.

Not for one second

will my self hold still, but wanders

anywhere,

everywhere it can turn. Not you,

it is I am absent.

You are the stream, the fish, the light,

the pulsing shadow,

you the unchanging presence, in whom all 

moves and changes.

How can I focus my flickering, perceive

at the fountain’s heart

the sapphire I know is there?

In our second reading tonight, from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told of the signs and wonders that were done among the people. It was this; not talking about the faith, not bring a friend Sunday that,  grew the church; it was the power of faith acting in the lives of the disciples that so struck those they met that they wanted to be a part of it.

When we meet someone who pays attention to us it is compelling. The poet Rilke says that to pay attention to is the best definition of love. I would call it holiness.

And we can learn to do it by spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. By bringing even our absence; even our flickering mind, to be present with Jesus. Just sitting there without expecting a spiritual experience, a revelation, without thinking about what to say. Just our own, ordinary, simple, straightforward presence. To be with Jesus in the way that Bartholomew was who he described as being without guile. To be guilelessly present to Jesus just as he is guilelessly present to us.

When we do that, rather than something for ourselves; when we do that, rather than accumulate something that builds up our ego. Then we are entering into abandonment; then we are becoming present to the Real Presence and then we will do signs and wonders; then we will stand by others in their trials; then we shall be martyrs, witnesses, that God is real; that God is true.

You are the stream, the fish, the light,

the pulsing shadow,

you the unchanging presence, in whom all 

moves and changes.

How can I focus my flickering, perceive

at the fountain’s heart

the sapphire I know is there?