It is based, of course on the collection of poems by T.S.Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
I love Eliot’s poems and especially Macavity the Mystery Cat:
“Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity, For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity. You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square— But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!”
But my favourite poem in the collection doesn’t get mentioned in the Lloyd-Webber versions, it is the Naming of Cats
“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games.”
Today we celebrate the naming of Jesus, more properly the day on which, in accordance with Jewish law he was circumcised and formally given the name Jesus.
Names are significant in each of the readings chosen for today.
In the first reading the people of Israel are on their way from Egypt, they have left slavery behind but not yet reached the promised land. God gives Moses the form of blessing that is to be used by the Jewish people.
It is very beautiful indeed:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.
Moses is instructed to give this blessing to his brother Aaron, so it is sometimes called the Aaronic blessing. In traditional Judaism the blessing is given in the synagogue by those descended from the temple priesthood and so is called the priestly blessing.
It is said that the Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy was brought up Jewish and he adapted the gesture used by the cohens, the priests to become the vulcan hand salute to accompany the greeting: Live Long and Prosper.
The blessing is the way today’s reading from Numbers tells us that the people of Israel receive the name of the Lord.
In the second reading St Paul, writing to the church in Galatia gives us a simple name for God who we are to call: Abba, Father. And in the Gospel reading we have just heard we are reminded that the name Jesus is given to him by the angel.
For the Hebrew people, and for many ancient peoples, names are hugely significant. Adam’s first act after the creation is to name all living things.
The name of God is powerful and unpronounceable. Even now Jews when they worship do not pronounce the name of God which is spelled in prayerbooks with the four syllables yod-hey-vav-hey but instead replace it with the Greek word Adonai, Lord.
But we Christians are given a name, we do have a name for God. We have the name that was given by the angel to Mary.
We have the name Jesus. Jesus who is God really dwelling on earth.
As this new year begins the Vulcan greeting: Live long and prosper, might seem ironic. There is much to be anxious about. There is much for Christians to be anxious about and for the church to be anxious about.
There is much we can do, of course, but the best cure for anxiety is not action but stillness. We are called to be a holy people. Each one of us is called to holiness.
The way of prayer that has stuck with me best over all my adult life is a prayer of the holy name of Jesus. Often just called the Jesus Prayer. It is a form of prayer that has its origins among eastern orthodox Christians. In its simplest form it involves simply repeating two phrases:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.
Like many people who pray this prayer I carry a rope, a series of knots made out of wool. I slip my fingers around each know and pray the prayer. The combination of this simple action and the words that accompany it is powerful. Sometimes when I am most anxious or utterly exhausted just slipping my fingers over the knots is enough and the prayer prays itself.
The trick is to repeat this prayer over and over again, hundreds, thousands of times:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.
Repeat it over and over again. Sometimes, if you can and especially when you start, do it out loud.
But also learn to repeat it in your head; attach one phrase to your in-breath and the other to the out-breath.
Breathing in: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Breathing out: Have mercy on me.
If you do this for long enough, often enough the prayer will sink deep into your heart.
You will find that it becomes a part of you; a part of your breathing.
You will find yourself breathing this prayer as you go to sleep and as you wake up. It will be in your footsteps on the way to work or as you do the hoovering or cut the grass.
This prayer has sustained me as I have sat with people as they die; in moments of the greatest stress in my life; when I have felt most alone and in darkest despair.
It is not magic. The name of Jesus is powerful because of our faith in it. It is uttering the name of Jesus in faith that brings us comfort and knowledge of the sacred presence.
When I was brought up I was taught to bow my head at the sacred name. It is a wonderful custom that I would encourage among us. To recognise that when we speak this sacred name we are invoking the presence of the one who saves us, who has saved us.
“How sweet the name of Jesus sounds, in a believer’s ear” the old hymn says.
We are the temples of the spirit; we are the places of which God says
“My name shall be there”.
“Will God really dwell on earth?” prayed Solomon when he dedicated his Temple.
Does God really dwell in this beautiful cathedral, here along the banks of the Taff?
Yes, if we carry Jesus with us in our hearts and minds; if we become holy, living temples dedicated to the presence of God.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.
At the end of his poem about the naming of cats T S Eliot writes:
“When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”
Dear friends, at this beginning of the year may I offer you the blessing that God gave his people in its original beautiful Hebrew and in English:
[Photo: lighting the first Advent candle in the Deanery]
Yn enw’r Tad,
a’r Ysbrd Glân.
One of the many advantages of having spent much of my life working in schools has been the excuse to read children and young adult literature. In my opinion some of the best novels of the last fifty years have, ostensibly, been written for children and bear re-reading whether you are an adult or a child:
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials
Almost anything by Malorie Blackman
The surprisingly disturbing Hunger Games
And even Harry Potter.
I’m tempted to say that Pullman is my favourite but then remember a sequence of five books published during my own teenage years and which I have read and re-read many times.
A poem unites all five books in the sequence and ends with this verse:
Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold. Played to wake the sleepers, oldest of the old; Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea; All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.
It is, of course Susanne Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence.
There are good Welsh connections in much of the mythology of Cooper’s work, and the books won several Welsh literature prizes.
Watching the news, listening to the radio, following current events it is not hard to believe that the dark is rising. Satellite pictures of Ukraine show that the lights have gone out, the darkness is not just rising but has risen.
In August 1914 British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked to a friend:
“The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
We may well pray that such a sentence does not become true in our lifetimes.
Darkness rising is the theme of Advent.
For those of us in the northern hemisphere the days get shorter the nights longer. On December 21st we will get less than 8 hours of daylight. Two thirds of that Wednesday will be in darkness. It is no wonder that this is the season when pubs and restaurants are busiest. On the longest, coldest, darkest nights we need bright lights and the noise of human chatter.
But I love the dark.
Not the dark of the evening, but the dark that precedes the dawn. I came down to the cathedral in the last hours of the night today just to experience it in the dark, to be near the shrine of St Teilo, to feel the centuries of prayer that saturate this place.
I have always loved the dark that comes before dawn.
As I told new colleagues this week they will never get an email from me after 9pm, but as for 4am …
My parents used to ask why I couldn’t be like a normal teenager and stay in bed all morning.
The darkness before dawn is full of expectation, the day lies ahead. It is the best time to pray. The phone never rings, most people don’t send emails, the sounds are, mainly, the sounds of nature.
Darkness, expectation and the battle for the light are the themes of Advent.
Look at today’s magnificent readings:
the beating of swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks must seem a laughable expectation to the people of Ukraine. But still, says the prophet, Come: let us walk in the light of the Lord.
St Paul tells us to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.
Jesus in today’s gospel instructs us to stay awake.
We here are fortunate. We don’t have to put on body armour. the armour we need is the armour of light.
In this cathedral dedicated to five saints we live with the constant reminder that we are called to holiness.
A member of this congregation came to the Deanery for tea on Friday, and I hope that all of you will come and visit our home in due course. This member of the congregation asked me: What are you going to change?
I wasn’t quick enough to think of the real answer:
What I want to change, most of all, more than anything, is myself.
To become the holy person that God wants me to be.
To be more deeply converted, to be free from sin, to walk in the light.
Yes, I want our congregations to grow, for more people to come to faith, to know Jesus and the freedom he brings, to experience the stillness of prayer, the presence of God, the happiness, the technicolor that is living a Christian life.
Yes, I want us to have more visitors and tourists who become pilgrims.
Yes, I want the city and its politicians and artists and business people to know that this is their cathedral, to feel at home here.
Yes, I want people of all faiths and none to belong here in this sacred place.
But we will only achieve any of those things if we together,
every one, you and me, walk more closely with Jesus, put on the armour of light, deepen our prayer, read our bibles, work for justice and make this a place of welcome not on our terms but on God’s terms.
In the sermon at my installation last Sunday I presented four words for us to think about:
the first I have already used, together. I hope and pray that we will come to love one another, that is my job and my joy as your Dean.
We will do that by prayingtogether, revelling in the beauty of this building, in the music that our musicians create, by making this a space in which the people of our city, our diocese, our nation can be at home.
From tomorrow Father Mark, Mother Jan and I will be praying Morning Prayer and Eucharist every day, Monday to Saturday here in this church.
Starting the day with God.
Join us for 30 minutes of prayer.
Perhaps you can commit to a day a month, or a day a week, or maybe God is calling you to pray with us every day?
Llandaff Cathedral – Evensong – Installation as Dean
Fr Richard Peers SMMS
Yn enw’r Tad,
a’r Ysbrd Glân.
“Together we tell a joyful story, grow the kingdom of God and build our capacity for good.”
(Diocese of Llandaff vision, words from te introduction to the installation)
It was late summer 1993. John Major was Prime Minister. I had been ordained deacon just a few weeks and was serving as a curate in Middlesbrough, about as far east as it’s possible to go in the north of England.
I can’t remember when I first heard it but some time that September the Pet Shop Boys released their single Go West.
Well, it has taken me nearly three decades but finally I have come west. And I am very glad to be here.
Go West is a happy song. It is just one word from it that I want to begin with today. If you remember, as well as the lyrics of the verses there is a refrain leading into each line, one simple but profound word: Together.
This is a sermon of four words and three songs.
I’ve been a teacher all my life so I shall be testing you afterwards.
It is not good for us to be alone. Right at the beginning of the bible (hold up bible) in Genesis God makes this clear.
The Bible is the story of our not alone-ness. God wants us, you and me, every one of us here to belong.
To be together.
Over the coming years you will hear me use two words a lot:
And the most important word is Your.
Yours if you are a regular worshipper here.
Yours if you are part of the diocese of Llandaff.
Yours if you live in this city, this diocese.
Yours if you live in Wales and this is your national cathedral.
Yours to the people who are, perhaps, mostly not here today. Our politicians and business leaders. Our artists and poets. Christians in other churches. Members of other faiths. People of no religious faith.
Together I hope for three things for Llandaff Cathedral.
First of all, and underlying everything we do is that this is a place of prayer.
On this site where prayer has been lived for almost 1500 years.
Prayer is my second word for us today.
This beautiful building is here for prayer.
Friends, in this diocese, we will pray for you.
Yes, the cycle of prayer, but please tell us when you have something you want us to pray about.
There is no amount of communication that is too much. Please keep in touch with us.
From Monday next week, the 28th November Fr Mark, Mother Jan and I will be celebrating Morning Prayer and Eucharist Monday to Saturday at 8am. We will be glad to see you. Pop in on your way into the city; make a commitment to come on a day each month or join us regularly as we pray for the city, the diocese, the nation.
A special word to my sister and brother priests in this diocese, there is a strange phrase that goes around about Deans as ‘Senior Priests’ of the diocese.
Given today’s second reading that is not a phrase I am particularly fond of. But I think the role of a Dean is clear. It is my job to love you;
not just my job
but my joy.
In our prayer here we are holding you up in your ministries, the ministry of all the baptised.
My favourite definition of love is Simone Weil’s:
to love is to pay attention to.
Dear sisters and brothers I will pay attention to you.
Come and join us at our prayers here, at your Cathedral, come and have a coffee with us afterwards.
You have a home here.
Prayer is a churchy word for a simple thing, to be in relationship with Jesus.
The first reading we have just heard is my favourite in the Bible. Isaac is walking in the cool of the evening, the RSV translation has it that he is meditating in the cool of the evening. He is praying.
This passage is the only place in the Bible where someone falls in love.
To pray is to be in love with Jesus.
To see him and know him.
To pray is not difficult or strange, it is normal life, it is all of the most intense moments of our life, to fall in love, to give birth, to make friends, to do anything that is more than we are.
To be bigger than ourselves.
To pray is to recognise that it is in all our loving, as husbands, wives, friends, parents, brothers, sisters, that God makes himself known to us.
My next word is beauty.
When I was a Head teacher in Lewisham we adapted words of St Augustine of Hippo as our school motto.
– God is beauty. Deus Pulchritudinis.
This is a beautiful building. The music is beautiful, the worship here is beautiful. I watched every moment of the recent royal visit here. It was breathtaking and flawless.
When we see beauty we see God.
My hope, my prayer is that this cathedral will be a place where the visual arts will find a home. Not the art of the past, as important as that is, but the art of now. The ways in which we make sense of the present.
My final word for the ministry of this cathedral is space.
Life is busy. The world is busy.
We need space, we need spaciousness.
A cathedral is not just a bigger church.
A cathedral is a public space.
My ministry as Dean will be to create a space for all faiths, a space for politicians, a space where we meet, where we talk, where we listen.
This is not the first time I have spoken in this Cathedral.
In 2019 I spoke here about the hymn we will sing in a few moments.
The hymn known as Gwahoddiad. The welcome. The invitation.
It is a wonderful hymn because it is Jesus-centred and utterly evangelical.
Yr Jesu, to Jesus, Jesus welcomes, Jesus invites.
Mi glywaf dyner lais,
Yn galw arnaf vi.
I love those lines. We are the ones who have heard the tender voice, calling us to baptism, to ordination, to christian living.
And we are called to enable others to hear that tender voice. They will do so when we talk about Jesus without embarrassment.
When we model for all believers a natural, unforced evangelism to the 97% who don’t go to church, who have not heard that voice.
Four words and three songs.
My final song, the B side – do you remember those – of Go West. A song called Shameless.
As your Dean, I will be shameless.
May we all be shameless in talking about our friend Jesus, may we be shameless in gwahoddiad, inviting our sisters and brothers to a space where justice reigns, where we meet in peace, where we share in prayer, beauty and space.
If you were here last Sunday you will have heard Canon Graham begin his sermon with some words from Leonard Cohen:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.
This week we have three wonderful readings from Scripture to think about. As you know the second reading and the Gospel each Sunday follow in course the biblical books, this year Luke’s gospel and at the moment the second letter of St Paul to Timothy. But the first reading is chosen from anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, to shed some light on the the day’s reading from the gospel.
Today’s Old Testament passage is the famous one where Jacob wrestles with a stranger at the ford of the Jabbok.
It is a powerful and extraordinary account ending with Jacob limping away, having asked the stranger’s name, and receiving only a question in return.
It is a passage that has figured highly in Christian imaginations and mystical interpretation. The stranger seen as an angel or God himself; the wrestling the spiritual struggle, the life of faith, in modern times the limp seen as a sign of the christian minister as ‘wounded healer’. And so on.
The story has inspired art, music and poetry.
I am going to reflect on the fact the fact that Jacob wants to know the name of the stranger, but is not given it.
Names, as we know are important. At the beginning of creation Adam names the creatures. When Moses meets God at the burning bush God tells Moses that God’s name is I AM WHO AM.
We all like to be remembered by name and feel valued when we are.
In Jewish tradition God’s name is so sacred that it is not to be uttered, and when it is read or spoken outside of worship is replaced with the Hebrew word for ‘the name’ – haShem.
God’s name is elusive because God is too complex too big to be encompassed by a simple name.
Jesus, as you probably know is never called a Sailor in the Bible. But in Cohen’s song it is a powerful image. Picking up, perhaps, as it does the idea of the church as a boat on the rough seas of the world.
It is this enriching of our language and imagery for God that I think of as our wrestling with God, our efforts to define God and God’s slipping away from us.
In recent decades Christians have thought a lot about the language we use in our worship. Firstly, to be inclusive of men and women. This reflects the changing nature of language so that we cannot assume that mankind refers to all human beings. This is now largely accepted and our Common Worship texts are written in such a way as to reflect this change.
This is not altogether unproblematic of course. Many questions remain: should we change historic texts such as hymns to be more inclusive? Should Scripture translations reflect these changes?
I am not going into that today. I would rather think about the ways in which our language about God might expand to richer imagery.
I was really taken with the idea of Jesus as a sailor. The metaphor can go in many directions.
At Evensong when I am in Canon in Residence it is my task to pray the prayers at the end of the Office, just before the blessing. Here at Christ Church we keep to the traditional form of a bidding followed by a prayer in the form of the Collect. The Collect is a simple form of prayer in the Latin, western Christian tradition with a straightforward structure:
1 an address to God
2 a mention of something that God has done for us
3 a request that God do something
4 a kind of statement of purpose, why we want this thing we have asked for
5 a conclusion
The Common Worship Collect for this week is a pretty good example of this:
1 Almighty and everlasting God,
3 increase in us your gift of faith
4 that, forsaking what lies behind
and reaching out to that which is before,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
5 through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Although it misses out the second statement, probably because that would make it too long. It was written by the liturgist David Frost for the Alternative Service Book 1980.
Form like this in liturgy or the classical forms of poetry might at first seem constraining. But in fact form is what allows us freedom without chaos. The poet Malcolm Guite writes about the importance of form in last week’s Church Times, he ends by saying:
“The priest who serves the liturgy, the pastor serving their flck, the teacher working within the constraints of classroom and curriculum – all of them submit to constraints that sometimes seem impossible and yet, ‘meeting with wit and industry’, produce something ‘greater and worthier’ than unconstrained and possibly self-indulgent self-expression could ever do.”
There is a great treasury of prayers in the Collect form and many of my colleagues mine this treasury for the prayers that end Evensong.
In a small act of subversion in my time here I always use the Collect form in those prayers but always use modern collects written by others that expand our language, expand our images of God.
There are many people wrestling with language in our times in this way. Three writers whose Collects I frequently use are great wrestlers with language.
Jim Cotter, now dead, was a great wordsmith and poet and wrote many liturgical texts unfolded, as he used to say, from the traditional words. His form of Compline, Night Prayer, made its way almost entirely in to the official Prayer Book of the Anglican church in New Zealand.
Janet Morley, a writer, liturgist and social justice campaigner.
Finally a dear friend of mine, Fr Steven Shakespeare, a priest who is now Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool Hope University.
So here are three Collects for today one by each of these wrestlers with words. Notice the way they use the Collect form to contain their language and imagery:
First of all Jim Cotter’s:
1 Living Presence of justice,
2 inspiring us with passion and endurance
to embody your ways on earth,
3 that oppression and injustice may vanish from our lives.
5 We pray this after the pattern of Jesus
and in the power of the Spirit.
Unfolding the Living Word, Jim Cotter, Canterbury Press 2012
Now Janet Morley’s:
1 O God,
2 with whom we wrestle
until the break of day,
3 make us long to seek your face
beyond the limits of our strength:
4 that in our wounds we remember you,
and in your blessing
we may find ourselves,
through Jesus Christ. Amen
And finally Steven Shakespeare’s:
1 God of the dispossessed
2 you teach us to hunger for justice
even when the weak are shut out
and the powerful turn in their beds:
3 (4?) in the heat of our anger
and the bitterness of our complaints,
give us the courage to protest,
the persistence to pray
and the heart to love;
5 through Jesus Christ, the true judge. Amen.
Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Steven Shakespeare, Canterbury Press, 2008
I hope you will notice how these writers have used the form of the Collect in creative and playful ways, not always abiding exactly to it but never leaving it too far behind. Take these Collects home with you and reflect on them and the way in which they pick up on the theme of today’s readings: persistence, justice and woundedness,
Today is, if I have read the rota correctly, the last time I will preach as Sub Dean at Christ Church.
I am delighted that the exhibition for Black History Month is here.
Those of you who were here for my first sermon at Christ Church 26 months ago may remember that I had a visual aid with me.
In an attempt at homiletical parenthesis or even hermeneutical inclusio I am going to share that same icon with you again today.
It is an icon of Our Lady of Lewisham. Designed by the pupils at the school where I was Head and painted by Helen McIldowie-Jenkins. It illustrates perfectly I think the balance between form and freedom that the Collects we have looked at demonstrate. The form of this icon is a traditional Orthodox icon. But the black children who designed it ensured that not only is the skin of Mary and Jesus black, but so are their features, and hair; the fabric on Mary’s clothing is west African kente fabric.
The call for justice in church and society is like this. It is using the forms we have inherited in ways that include more people and lead to more justice.
Whether it is the inclusion of black and minority ethnic people, the ordination of women or same-sex marriage, it is finding the freedom which the form gives us and will build God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
Women, black people, LGBT people have all had to be like the woman in today’s gospel, persistent in the call for justice and more persistence is needed.
In today’s second reading from St Paul, he encourages us to be strong:
“be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.”
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, 18 September, 2022
We are an Easter people. St Augustine wrote, and Alleluia is our song.
Much has been made in recent days of the faith of our late Queen.
She was a believer.
A faithful churchgoer and unafraid to mention Jesus Christ and her faith in him.
Because she was a believer Jesus was not for her, as some of the media suggest simply an inspiration, an example to follow, though yes those things too. But he was above all the one who came that we might have eternal life.
Jesus came and did something, he died, descended to hell and rose again. He defeated death.
We say this here in this church each day as we pray the Apostles creed at Evensong and the Nicene creed at our Sunday Eucharist. You and I will say this today in just a moment. These Creeds have been prayed in this building for eight centuries and on this site for thirteen hundred years.
They are the heart of our Christian faith, the faith that the Queen shared and believed.
It is a while since I’ve brought a visual aid to church for my sermon but I do have one today.
It is an icon, Russian, I think, that is often called an icon of the resurrection but is really an icon of the harrowing of hell.
Jesus standing on the cross descends to the place of the dead, not really hell at all, but the place where the dead, righteous and unrighteous have been awaiting him.
It is worth spending some time with an icon like this, noticing the detail, the people standing around Jesus. The cross as his vehicle, it is the means by which, his death, that redeems the world.
This week each day in this church a Requiem Eucharist has been offered. But in a way every Eucharist is a Requiem, every time we break bread and drink this cup we are participating the death and resurrection of Jesus just as all the sacraments are a participation in that death and resurrection.
It is much easier to think about the resurrection of course. We all like a happy ending.
But the cross as the symbol of our faith is a reminder that we will all die. That death is inevitable and certain.
As we mourn the death of our Queen as we reflect on her dying. We also reflect on the arc of her life. We have seen pictures of her childhood, of her growing up, her teenage years, and her driving in uniform in the war. We have seen her on her wedding day and with her children, we have watched as she has got old and as she approached death.
Those final photographs as she met the new Prime Minister just a few days ago revealed a woman close to the end of her life.
A monarch symbolises a nation, a people, a monarch represents power, government and authority but also humanity.
This public life is lived so that we can all see what it is to be human. To be a person who will die. And to accept that fact and the fact of the resurrection of the dead which Jesus has won for us.
There are over three hundred and seventy tombs and memorials in this cathedral. We walk on the dead. The dead surround us.
I have been thinking a lot about the dead this week.
I come into church each day to say my prayers before anyone else gets here and I enjoy the presence of the dead.
If you don’t know it I would especially recommend that you visit and spend time with the tomb of Lady Elizabeth Montacute. It is one of the tombs that separates the shrine of St Frideswide from the Lady Chapel. It may have originally stood under the ceiling there which seems to have been painted with the same colours.
It is a remarkably detailed tomb. The pattern on her dress is visible and the shape of her headdress is is clear. Around the sides of the tomb are small statues of eight of her children. Two were Abbesses of the Benedictine convent at Barking in Essex, one was bishop of Ely. Their clothes too are clear. Sadly at some point the heads of the statues were knocked off, probably by Oliver Cromwells thugs who were too dim to realise that these were not canonised saints but the children of this benefactress who gave so much to the building of this cathedral.
I often feel the strong presence of our foundress at the shrine, but this week I have felt strongly the presence of this other Elizabeth. Lady Elizabeth Montacute, who lived seven centuries ago.
These two strong women remind me of the strong women in my life. My grandmother and mother and so many others.
They remind me that we all die but that in Jesus death is never the end.
And so we pray for Elizabeth our Queen, that her participation in the death of Jesus which was so much a part of her life will bring her a joyful resurrection.
She was an Easter person and Alleluia was her song.
Today at Christ Church we are saying goodbye to Canon Nigel Biggar. He has been a canon of Christ Church since 2007, not quite the eighteen years of bondage that the woman in today’s gospel had experienced. It has not been an easy time, particularly in the last six years, for anyone at Christ Church, but I hope that it has not felt like bondage – although he has been rather cheerful as the end approaches.
I asked Nigel whether he would rather preside or preach today and he passed the short straw to me. But when I looked at today’s readings and particularly at today’s gospel it seemed appropriate for wishing Nigel well in his continuing work.
The gospel we have just heard is about freedom.
The freedom to live that is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
I have come, Jesus said, in John 10:10, that you may have life, life in fullness, life in abundance, life in completeness.
And it is that abundant life that the woman has not had.
Her life has been constrained, contained, restricted.
Jesus gives her permission to be free.
So one point of this story is the freedom that Jesus brings, that he offers to each one of us to be free.
But the story is also about the misuse of religion to constrain God. Jesus heals this woman on the Sabbath.
The biblical sabbath is a wonderful gift to the people of God of freedom. Freedom from work. A day of rest, of joy and celebration.
The glory of the sabbath is well described by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading. If we observe the rest that God gives us in creation we will ‘ride on the heights of the earth’.
But take a look at what else the sabbath consists of in Isaiah:
offering food to the hungry
satisfying the needs of the afflicted
The sabbath is not about us, me, ourselves, it is precisely about not ‘pursuing our own interests’, not exploiting others, bringing freedom to those who are oppressed by hunger and afflictions.
Our second reading today doesn’t mention the sabbath.
In our second readings we work our way through a new testament book and we are now almost at the end of the letter to the Hebrews. It is a good commentary on today’s gospel reading. It tells us that the fullness of life that Jesus gives to the woman, that he promises us, that is justice for the hungry and afflicted is a dangerous thing. A consuming fire.
Freedom is dangerous. Fullness of life is dangerous.
We saw the cost of freedom last week in the attack on Salman Rushdie.
Not, thank God, physically, but Nigel has also carried the cost of daring to write and say things which are unpopular, unfashionable in some circles.
We live in an age of high anxiety, perhaps not surprising given the destruction of the planet and the economic and political uncertainties in which we live.
In this anxiety it is easy to imagine that things would be better if we limited freedoms. It’s the illusion of control.
Freedom can be frightening and disturbing, better the prison we know than the freedom we don’t.
The woman in the gospel is free after eighteen years.
We can only imagine the excitement, the fear, the shock, that she begins her new life with.
As many of you know I was a headteacher in south east London for some years. Rather than have a punishment system to ensure good behaviour we introduced practices of Restorative Justice. It was a powerful tool for changing behaviour permanently, for enabling young people to see the consequences of their actions for other people and not just for themselves.
One of the aspects that fascinated me about Restorative Justice was that it concentrates on actions not motives. Often when we deal with children we ask them why they did something. Usually they don’t know, they can’t answer that question. As human beings our motives are too complex, too irrational to be easily explained,
I think Jesus would understand that.
When he sees the woman in today’s gospel he is not interested in her psychology, nor that of those who want to preserve the sabbath and are cross with him for healing on the sabbath. There is a straightforwardness about Jesus that is deeply attractive.
Just look at the gospel we’ve heard today. He sees the woman and the gospel says “When he saw her he called her over.” He doesn’t interrogate her. He simply says “Woman, you are set free.”
This is the freedom that Jesus offers every one of us. The simple freedom of being fully alive.
The task for each of us, for you and for me is to notice the things that make us unfree, the things that bind us.
Many of us will think of all the psychological factors, the experiences of our lives that bind us, that limit our freedom. These are, no doubt, important, but perhaps the task is simpler, more straightforward than that.
Perhaps there are simple choices that we can make not to be bound in life but to live the freedom that Jesus gives.
We human beings like to complicate things. To put up barriers, to turn the joy of the sabbath into the rules that must be kept. To limit the sharing of bread and wine in the Eucharist to those who fit, who tick the right boxes.
When Nigel takes bread and wine and says the prayers in a few moments, he is celebrating the feast of freedom.
This feast is food to sustain us in living freely for the rest of the week. To see what we are bound by and to let it go and walk away from it.
The justice of God is restorative, it restores us to the freedom that God wanted for us when he made us. That freedom that unbinds us from the narratives of our lives, of resentment and cynicism and self-obsession. It is the freedom of Jesus who does not ask ‘why’, but simply says ‘you are set free’.
We walk freely as we ascend to the altar because we have “come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus …”
I don’t know about you but my friends are a pretty rum bunch.
Sometimes I wonder how I know them, what attracted us to each other.
Some of them I have quite a lot in common with, some of them nothing in common at all.
I like the hymn What a friend we have in Jesus a lot.
But often I like to imagine that first line with an exclamation mark at the end of it:
What a friend we have in Jesus!
What an extraordinary, exasperating, irritating, challenging friend Jesus must have been.
In our year long reading of Luke’s gospel we are about half way through and today’s gospel reading contains a set of statements by Jesus, some of which St Luke shares with St Matthew some of which come from another source, that Luke has woven together.
There isn’t really a single theme to the passage and in some ways the reading cuts the flow of Luke’s narrative by choosing these particular verses. As so often with the gospels the phrases can seem so familiar to us that we ignore or just don’t notice their force. We don’t notice what an extraordinary, exasperating, irritating, challenging friend Jesus is.
Many of you will be in church today to see this wonderful historic, sacred building. For many of you this may be the only time you worship at Christ Church. Some of you will worship at your own churches when you get home, for others this may be the only Christian worship you attend this year or this month.
Wherever you come from, how ever often you find yourself in church I’d like us to look together at this remarkable collection of sayings and think about our friend Jesus. What state is our friendship with him in? How does this collection of sayings help us to think again about Jesus?
What a friend we have in Jesus: he doesn’t want us to be afraid, that’s how the passage begins. It might seem quite consoling and comforting; but I wonder if actually it is to help us face the really quite frightening and challenging journey of friendship with Jesus that he is about to describe.
I am certainly challenged by the next statement. Sell your possessions and give alms.
I expect most of us contribute something to charity from our spare income. But I certainly don’t envisage selling any of my possessions any time soon to be able to give more to charity. Filling out my tax form this week I had to add up how much I spent on books in the last financial year. If I had given all that money to charity it could have changed lives. Why do I need to buy all those books when I have access in Oxford to one of the best libraries in the world?
And this passage about possessions goes on:
Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I spend quite a bit of my time seeing people for Spiritual Direction. Everyone loves to talk about their prayer lives. The spiritual experiences they may or may not be having. But Jesus, our extraordinary, exasperating, irritating, challenging friend is much wiser than that. He knows that the real test of what we value of where our hearts are is how we spend our money.
If you want a spiritual practice this week take a look at your bank statement and see what you value. Jesus is much more interested in how we spend our money, what possessions we have than in spiritual experiences.
Then the passage changes tack.
Now we are the servants waiting for our master to come back from a wedding party, no doubt late, no doubt in the middle of the night.
We can’t afford to put our pyjamas on and go to bed or to turn the lights out.
In fact we can’t sleep at all.
This following Jesus is no easy life. We can’t coast through it.
But then look at what happens.
The Master comes home. But he doesn’t expect to be waited on, he becomes the servant, serving the servants.
Jesus is never predictable. This turn in the passage is revolutionary, it changes the world. Masters become servants, slaves get waited on.
What a friend we have in Jesus!
And then the passage turns again. No longer are we thinking about servants waiting for their Master to get back late at night or early in the morning. Now suddenly Jesus is thinking about a house being broken into.
There is a thief about.
Jesus shows us that there is a conflict. This might even be called the real spiritual conflict.
What or who has stolen our hearts? If we are not waiting to welcome Jesus what are we waiting for, who breaks into the house of our lives?
You must be ready, Jesus says, for he is coming at an unexpected hour.
What a friend we have in Jesus! Because he comes when we don’’t expect him.
We all like to see our friends, we make arrangements to see them, we invite them over at certain times. But Jesus is not that sort of friend. He turns up when we don’t expect him, perhaps even when we are busy doing something else, perhaps even in the middle of the night.
These sort of passages are sometimes interpreted as referring to the end of the world when Jesus will come again.
Others interpret them as being ready to meet Jesus in our worship, in the words of Scripture or in his body and blood received in the Eucharist as we will in just a few minutes time.
All those interpretations may be true. But I want to end by thinking of a slightly different way of understanding this.
This service, this act of worship is not the unexpected time. Quite the opposite we are here because we knew the time of the service. We expect perhaps some of us to have a spiritual experience.
But what about this time tomorrow? 11am on Monday.
Perhaps we will meet Jesus then? perhaps we will see where our treasure is, what we really value in the way we answer an email, speak to a colleague spend our money when we go shopping or online.
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer!
If Jesus is not our friend in every moment, everything of our lives he is no friend at all, we are no friend to him.
If you are serious about friendship with Jesus carry everything to God in prayer, your work, your social life, your spending, your eating, your intimate relationships.
Whether we choose friendship with Jesus or not, and the choice is entirely ours don’t do it without noticing what an extraordinary, exasperating, irritating, challenging friend Jesus is.
Did you manage to listen carefully all the way through?
Or did you think, ‘Oh yes, the parable of the Good Samaritan’ and stop listening.
It must be the most famous of Jesus’ parables. It’s given its name to multiple organisations not least the Samaritans who help those in despair or pondering suicide and who have saved so many lives.
Phrases from the story have entered the English language. We talk about those who ‘pass by on the other side’ and we thank people who have acted as ‘Good Samaritans’.
My favourite film is Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire. I must have watched it dozens of times, but its only when I can persuade somebody else to watch it with me, usually for them the first time (it’s a niche sort of film) that I notice new things about it.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a bit like that. I, we, need someone to help us look at it afresh. What I want to say about the parable has benefited enormously from the blog of Scripture Scholar and priest Ian Paul, he writes a commentary on the readings each week. I throughly recommend it.
There are three things I want to do. Firstly, look at the context of this passage, then think about two ways of reading this story prayerfully. I hope you will take your service sheets with you or look up Luke Chapter 10 in your bibles at home and spend some time with this scripture during the week ahead.
It is worth noting that this story occurs in only one of the gospels. St Luke.
There has, of course, been much scholarly activity around the relationship of the four gospels to each other and the knowledge they may or may not have had of the other texts. But it is not surprising that after preaching publicly for three years (as the Fourth Gospel suggests) Jesus would have used similar material on more than one occasion but in slightly different ways. I never preach a sermon more than once, but the stories and images I preach are repeated many times. I must have mentioned Wim Wenders’ film at least a dozen times over the years.
Nor is it surprising that gospel writers wouldn’t try to include every story, saying or variant on a saying in their gospels.
So although the story of the Good Samaritan occurs only in Luke, the passage that introduces the story, the account of a lawyer questioning Jesus occurs in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 as well as Luke 10.
Jesus’ answer to the lawyer is very important because he quotes from Deuteronomy 6, the sh’ma, the great Jewish declaration of faith that begins (and only Mark’s gospel includes this) “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God the Lord is One.”
So Jesus is doing exactly what those who questioned him are doing. I often point out that Jesus is quite good at not answering questions head-on, he comes at a tangent, but in this passage he is involved in the same task as his questioners.
This is important in challenging what can sometimes be an underlying anti-semitism in Christian readings of Scripture. Jesus is a Jew engaged in dialogue with his fellow Jews. This is an internal discussion. We should remember this in our reading of the parable too. The mention of the priest passing by on the other side of the road can too easily be read as a criticism of Judaism.
So Jesus’ reaction to the questioning from the lawyer is to direct his listeners to their Judaism, to the Hebrew Scriptures and to one of the most important passages in the Torah, the law. This is not Jesus contrasting legalism with compassion, but Jesus telling his hearers that the basis of the Torah is love of God and love of neighbour. It’s a bit unhelpful that our word law is used to translate Torah. ‘Law’ make us think of rules and regulations but Torah is much richer and broader.
So that is, partly, the context in which Jesus tells the story. How can we read it in a way that helps us hear it again and understand what Jesus is trying to say.
The first method of doing which I am suggesting this is imaginative. The sort of thing suggested by Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
I get rather cross when I am looking for a novel to read and I open the first few pages and the author gives a list of the characters with little descriptions of who each character is. I know I am probably being unreasonable but it makes me feel that the author hasn’t done his or her job properly. That if the book was well written such a dramatis personae would be unnecessary.
Jesus’ stories are generally very short and don’t contain too many people. But I actually think writing a list of characters for this story might be quite helpful.
Try it at home make a list:
the man on a journey
the robbers (number unknown)
You might want to try and imagine those people in a bit more detail.
then take each of those people in turn and imagine yourself as them.
Perhaps because we are so used to interpreting this story as Jesus telling us to be like the Samaritan and not pass by, it is probably easier to imagine ourselves as him, all be it beating ourselves up for not being like him in much of our lives.
So why not start off by imagining yourself as one of the robbers. then each of the other characters. Really use your visual imagination to do this and your empathy to imagine what they were thinking and feeling. Look at the details, in your imagination smell the olive oil and the wine poured on the man’s wounds. Hear the clink of the coins as they are handed over to the innkeeper. To be honest I would leave the Samaritan til last. I think you will get much more out of it that way.
You’ll probably need more than one sitting to do this. There are conveniently six characters in our story so you could do one each day of the week ahead.
There’s a second way you could think about the story. That is allegorically. Many writers in the first centuries of the church did this. Often pushing it quite a long way. The man is Adam, the first man, Jerusalem is Paradise where he is heading and so on.
The church has always read Scripture allegorically and it is clear that Jesus meant his stories to be understood that way.
Luke when he wrote his gospel did so with much precision. Look closely at the text and you’ll see that the turning point comes when the Samaritan sees the man and is ‘moved with pity’. The Greek means literally that ‘his bowels were moved’, its is visceral,
]tf m`acompassion is felt in our very depths. This is the key to the story, St Luke arranged his text so that this verb is at the very centre, numerically. There are the same number of words before as afterwards in this story.
It’s a word that only occurs in three places in Luke’s gospel, chapter 7 – the raising of the widow’s son, chapter 15 the parable of the Prodigal son, and today’s passage. In each case this verb is at the numerical centre.
In each of the other two cases it is clear that it is Jesus himself who is moved to compassion. So it seems likely that Jesus intends that we see the Samaritan as the Jesus figure in the story.
We are bruised and beaten, by life, by sin, and Jesus saves us.
The story has moral purpose, of course. But we should not lose sight of the fact that put simply Jesus saves us.
We don’t share from our wealth, we share from our poverty.
As St John says “ We love because he first loved us.”
The parable we know as the Good Samaritan is not about what WE do, it’s about what GOD does.
St Luke teaches us in this parable and throughout his gospel that we are those in need of a Saviour.
Jesus doesn’t teach morality tales, although they may be moral.
Jesus us shows us that we need a Saviour, that we need salvation, that we need him.
At the very heart of the good news is Jesus Christ our the only true Good Samaritan.
I have reached that stage in life that when I look in the mirror I see my dad. The grey hair, the wrinkles, the smile. I am told I have the same mannerisms.
I just hope that I am not guilty of the same jokes …
My dad was not a church going sort of person, he had been brought up in an austere religious household which rather put him off . But he was deeply, what we would now call spiritual. He felt things profoundly, and he had an unshakable moral compass, he taught me that doing the right thing was all that mattered, whatever the cost.
And he loved graveyards.
Many an hour was spent on holidays walking around church yards picking out the interesting tombs, the poetic verses, the humorous epitaphs.
A few weeks ago I called in at Boythorpe Cemetery in Chesterfield where dad is buried, in a grave with my mum and my brother David who died when he was a child. A few graves along are my grandparents, a couple of great aunts and a little way down the hill my great-grandparents, and several other members of the family.
After my brother died we went to the grave every Saturday to place flowers and keep it clean. Some of my happiest memories are from those times playing with my brother and sister. The ice-cream van that would stand at the cemetery gates. Trying to get my dad away from mum so that he would say yes to ice-creams. The oak tree and acorns, the horse chestnut and collecting the best conkers. The sense that the dead are family too. Seeing adults cry and knowing that it was OK for them to do so.
In a time when we are seeing the dead unburied, lying on the ground in Ukraine. Corpses decaying. Sons buried in back gardens: it might seem that I am just adding to the gloom by dwelling on graveyards.
But that is what our gospel tells us the women did. They went to the grave.
This is the Christian life. Not an avoidance of evil and death but a facing up to it. A recognition of it for what it is. An acknowledgement of reality.
There is a self-help book with the great title “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”.
I like that.
Scripture tells us over and over again not to fear “Do not be afraid.” And that is the right aspiration. But the reality is that evil and death are frightening. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is real. His cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, is heartfelt.
There are two reactions to the grimness of the world that Christians take that don’t seem to me be entirely satisfactory.
We could adopt a Polyanna attitude that everything is all right really. celebrating the good and ignoring the bad. I have met people who tried to do that. It is rarely sustainable. Pain and grief and loss must be expressed in the end.
The other is to try and grieve Jesus’ death as if we didn’t know he had risen. There are some dangers in Holy Week and its liturgies for us here. As if play-acting being in Jerusalem in the year 33 would somehow help us to come closer to Jesus.
Some of you might have seen the recent film Don’t Look Up. Whether it’s the destruction of the planet or sending refugees to Rwanda there are many who would rather not see, not look up. But we who are Christian look death in the face every day.
We look up to the cross.2~
We don’t run away from the tomb, we run to it.
As I watch the news from Ukraine, as we have always watched wars and famine, and even, in a small way, as we have faced the difficulties here at Christ Church a great spiritual writer helps me to live this experience.
In my chapel in the cellar of the Sub Deanery is this icon. It shows St Silouan the Athonite. A Russian – and how important it is in these times to remember all that is good and wonderful in Russian history and experience – he became a monk on Mount Athos where he died in 1933.
His writings are full of spiritual depth and wisdom. But it is one of his most well known phrases that sustains me: “Keep your heart in hell and despair not.”
Jesus did not run away. He stayed. He remained faithful.
In the face of death we are to remain faithful.
This Holy Week we have heard sermons from Sanjee Perera reflecting on justice. They are available on our YouTube channel and the texts will soon be available on the website. I hope that you will take time to reflect on them.
Injustice is a kind of death. A destroying of how things should be. A diminishment of the human person.
Injustice permeates the universe, the world as it is.
The kingdom of God, said St Paul, is justice and peace, and joy in the holy spirit.
Some days it feels like there is no justice, some days it feels like there is no peace.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God’s kingdom will come. Fervently. We pray for God’s justice and peace, in the Ukraine, for refugees, in our own lives. And we keep our hearts in hell and despair not.
In this church there are over 370 memorials to the dead. We are surrounded by them, we walk over them, lean on them, place our vestments and service books on them.
They are a reminder to us that the final resurrection of the dead has not come. That justice has not come, that peace has not come.
And we despair not.
We do not despair because the joy of the Holy Spirit is given us.
Because we connect with the living and the dead. Because we belong.
Every single memorial is a reminder of this ‘one precious life’.
Jesus, is the first born from the dead, the pioneer of our salvation.
When I was a child and I visited Boythorpe Cemetery I knew that I belonged, that I was part of something so much more than myself. Those childhood visits taught me, without anyone saying a word, that life is so much bigger than we can imagine. That the dead are close. Sometimes my colleague Philippa brings her son Gregory to Morning Prayer. As we sit around the shrine and say our prayers I love to see five year old Gregory climbing on the tombs. I like to think that Lady Montacute, Prior Sutton and even warrior like Sir George would be pleased were the resurrection to occur and as they sat up to find a little boy treating their graves as a playground.
As we, the living, pray day by day, here among the dead and the memorials to the dead, we find joy.
Joy in the greatness of life. Joy in Jesus who takes us by the hand walks into hell with us and stays with us, he never runs away and in him therefore we do not, cannot despair.
Keep your hearts in hell and despair not for the kingdom of God is joy in the Holy Spirit.
Well, I thought I’d start with three volunteers. Just to make sure that it’s not too much of a shock.
Henry, Beni and Pascahl are going to help me out.
[Choristers: look in the box one at a time]
Are you surprised. Don’t tell anyone until the end of the sermon.
One more test for you:
“I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say ‘hello, goodbye,’ I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”
Who said that?
The White Rabbit in Alice is late for his own life. he has no time.
In the gospel we have just heard Jesus uses three words for time. Today, tomorrow and the next day.
In my imagination Jesus has a rather wry sense of humour which is well demonstrated here. I can just picture a half smile on his lips. he is not going to hurry for anyone. he has all the time in the world. Which, of course, quite literally, he does.
As we know this church was for 400 years or so the home of a community of Augustinian Canons. As well as the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo who lived in Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries – which they would have read daily they would have been familiar with the other writings of Augustine. We can be sure that they would have known well his most famous book, the Confessions.
Sometimes the Confessions is described as an autobiography, even, perhaps, the world’s first autobiography. Although it does include much autobiographical detail it is very much more than just that. The second part of the book is a theological treatise. In it Augustine is concerned in particular with memory and time.
It is time I want us to think about today.
Time passes. Sometimes it passes slowly, sometimes it runs away with us.
The time from the writing of the book of Genesis to the the writing of the letter to the Philippians, mere centuries, a tint moment in the history of the universe. The time since the writing of the Gospel of Luke to our time now two millennia. the time since the Augustinian canons left here til now half a millennia.
But it’s not these great arcs of time I want to think about but the time of our own lives. the moments that make up our days and months and years and how we use them.
Centuries after Augustine at the time when there were Augustinian canons here at St Frideswide’s Priory, there was a great flourishing of spirituality here in England, particularly in the English Midlands and East Anglia. I’m thinking, of course, of Julian of Norwich, Marjory Kemp of Lynne and the unknown author of a little book The Cloud of Unknowing.
In their own way each of these fourteenth century writers was deeply influenced by Augustine of Hippo. But it is particularly the author of the Cloud and his understanding of time that I think is so fascinating.
The Cloud describe how there is a sort of cloud obscuring our view of God, stopping us seeing God. he (most people think it was a man) writes:
“Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.”
And he describes a technique of prayer for doing just that. Beating again and again at that cloud.
The way he suggests is choosing a word to repeat over and over again in our prayers. Most writers and commenters have misunderstood what the author of the Cloud is suggesting. This is not a phrase, it is not like an Eastern mantra, it is not like the Jesus Prayer. He is insistent that the prayer word should be a single syllable. he hives some examples God or Love, or even, and here I think he has the same wry smile on his face as Jesus in the Gospel, even the word ‘sin’.
The point is that the meaning of the word is completely irrelevant. It is the length of the word that is significant. I think that the Cloud is trying to help us reach awareness of the very shortest possible length of time, the moment in which we can wake up and experience the whole of that moment. To switch analogies it is a bit like the subtle knife in Philp Pullman’s book that can cut into time and experience something more.
I first started practising this ay of prayer just a few years ago, I use the word God and repeat it out loud over and over again. I sometimes start by doing this quite quickly but soon get into a rhythm that matches my breath.
Last week two small groups of people gathered in my dining room to meditate together. I’ve been teaching meditation for over 30 years.
Two things strike me about what happens when people meditate. Over and over again when I’ve taught meditation to children I child will say “It’s like there’s somebody there.” Yes!
And whatever state of anger of resentment people live in when they meditate they experience a sense of kindness. I was Head teacher of a tough inner city school in Lewisham and taught meditation to the whole school. even the toughest, most streetwise pupil experienced this sense of kindness in meditation.
Augustine knew what God is like. Augustine took seriously the beginning of the book Genesis just a few Chapters earlier than the reading we heard today.
God created us, Genesis tells us, in his image and likeness.
[Get the choristers out again: what is in the box? a mirror]
God’s first revelation of Himself is ourselves.
Augustine famously described elements of the human personality as reflecting the nature of god as Trinity, sometimes referring to the three elements of memory, understanding and will in this way. I don’t think we have to worry too much about labelling those elements. What Augustine knows is that when we examine ourselves, reflect on ourselves, we will find God.
This is why he is so obsessed with time, like the White rabbit we lose ourselves in our busy-ness in the endless flow of events. When we stop and experience just now fully and completely then we can see God.
Augustine would have known the Delphic aphorism ‘Know thyself’ through the writings of Plato. In his Confessions he is not interested in the details of his own life for their own sake but only in so far as God reveals himself in them.
Today, tomorrow and the next day Jesus says coolly in today’s Gospel.
There is far less biography of Jesus than we would wish in the gospels. Even less an examination of his personality. We have to glimpse this as we do here in his coolness in the face of those who will lead him to his death. In his sense of being completely at home in his own skin. Nothing is going to deter him.
The final editors of the book of psalms chose a very beautiful text to begin the psalter. Psalm, it is a reflection on the Torah God’s law which as Augustine would say is imprinted in the very fabric of the universe and of our human nature. When we meditate on that law day and night as Jesus did we will be like a tree that is planted by flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade.
Dear friend, we are exhausted by plague and war. the world is weary.
I promise you that if you practice this way of prayer you will be deeply refreshed.
Please indulge me this morning and let’s spend some moments in prayer. I am often amused in church that those of us who lead worship ask for a few moments silence and then start talking straight away. When I pray I often use a sand timer to measure the silence in my prayer.
One minute, two minutes, three, five or ten … !
Well, I will be kind this morning! Just two minutes.
Will it go slowly or quickly for you? In the silence what ill you find? The psalmist says: Be still and know that I am God.
“Now concerning spiritual gifts … I do not want you to be uninformed.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you believe in the miracle of the wedding at Cana?
It might not seem like a very important question. Some people suggest that there is a hierarchy of Christian beliefs. On such a list I suppose the miracle at Cana would not register very high. Few people would claim that not believing in this miracle would endanger your immortal soul.
I am not so sure.
In a few minutes time, when I have stopped speaking we will declare that we believe in the most extraordinary series of things.
That there is a God, that he is the origin of everything that exists. That this God chose to be born a human being, that a woman called Mary was his mother. That he died, and wait for this rose again. The, as if that wasn’t outrageous enough ascended to heaven.
And so on.
So, are we prepared to say we believe in all those outrageous things and not in the wedding at Cana?
Or to put it the other way around. If we are sceptical about the wedding at Cana is it really likely that we believe in all the assertions of the Creed?
It would be quite possible for me to preach on the wedding at Cana in an allegorical way. And indeed I have preached in this very church in the recent past on the importance of allegory for understanding Scripture.
But today’s second reading should powerfully inform our reading of the Gospel.
It comes from St Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. It is the beginning of the rightly famous chapter 12 which includes the beautiful reading so often used at weddings: Love is patient, love is kind.
It is worth reading Chapters 12 – 14 of this letter in one go. I would really recommend going home and doing so some time this week.
The whole section of the letter is about the spiritual gifts, the charisma that come with being a Christian.
To summarise. It is about what difference being a Christian will make to our lives. Quite simply it is that the unexpected will happen. That there will be miracles, that we will be given gifts of the Spirit.
There is a pernicious rumour among certain christians that prayer should be difficult. That we will experience dark nights of the soul, that a sign of spiritual maturity is that we will feel abandoned, as if in a spiritual desert.
I have to say that I can’t find anything about that in the New Testament. If I am missing something I would be delighted to be corrected.
I also have to say that the very idea of spiritual maturity seems to me something rather odd. As if we make some sort of progress in the spiritual life.
I’m not speaking entirely from ignorance here. For mm teaching degree thirty something years ago I wrote a dissertation on ideas of spiritual development, as if it was some sort of ladder to be climbed.
I just don’t believe in that any more.
St Paul is very clear, just in today’s reading that it is quite normal for a Christian to experience spiritual gifts, the ones he names in this reading are:
utterance of knowledge
working of miracles
discernment of spirits
interpretation of tongues
That’s quite a list. Nine overt manifestations of the Spirit.
How many are you experiencing in your life at the moment?
Elsewhere in the New Testament those gifts of the Spirit are extended further. I would particularly draw your attention to the gift of tears.
It seems to me that in our society we hold so much on to grief and don’t allow ourselves to cry.
So much of life is loss. The failure to get what we want, for the world to be the way we want it to be. Life is a journey from birth into the ultimate loss, death.
Tears are a gift of the Spirit that liberates us, helps us to let go. To admit that we are not in control. That we will die.
There is only one way to experience the gifts of the Spirit. Ask for them.
If you are not praying other than at church find a time every day to pray. For most people early in the morning is the best time. Just after brushing your teeth. And talk to God.
Ask God to send you the gifts of the Spirit. Believe that he will send you these gifts, just as we claim to believe in Jesus, in his resurrection.
Dearest friends, belief is never the same as certainty. I am certain that my dog Teilo exists. I could go and get him and show him to you. You could touch him and stroke him. He would love it.
Belief is not certainty, it is an act of the will, a choice. Like love. It is no surprise that the beautiful passages in 1 Corinthians about love are part of today’s passage about the gifts of the Spirit. Because love too is a gift.
To be open to these gifts we need to open our hearts and allow them to be softened, to expand.
Rational learning, theological knowledge are hugely important. But they need to be matched by the movement of the heart.
There are no gifts better for this than the gifts of tears and tongues. When we are willing to weep, we are willing to be open, to be vulnerable. When we allow our lips, our words to be led by the Spirit we have let go of control.
The gifts of the Spirit are essential if we are to free ourselves from our bondage to sin. The trouble with sin is that we tend to think of it as something extreme. Well, in the cathedral today there will be people who have committed extreme sins.
But for the most part we commit small sins quite often.
I think that the gifts of the Spirit are particularly liberating of the sin of irritation.
I defy anyone here today to tell me that they are not frequently irritated, several times a day, by our fellow human beings. I am irritated minute by minute by the things people say, the way they act, sometimes even by the way they eat, or even walk.
Here’s the good news: I am not in control of the things they say, the way they act, their eating habits or even the way they walk.
The things that irritate us, the people that irritate us don’t tell us anything about other people, but they teach us a great deal about ourselves. And we can be changed. This week try noticing who or what irritates you and take that to your prayer time. Ask God to send his Spirit of love to you that you may lean to love that person and their irritating habits.
It might not seem like a big miracle compared to resurrection from the dead, or even turning water into wine but it is these everyday miracles that St Paul calls us not just to believe in but to experience. To see for ourselves.
The gifts of the Spirit are God’s promise to every Christian. Prayer not as a barren desert but as a fruitful, blossom filled garden.
Weeping in prayer, praying in tongues are all ways for me to embrace, to practice not being in control. To let God be in control.
The Spirit sets us free.
I believe in miracles. I believe Jesus turned water into wine.
I believe that Jesus changes our lives.
About that I will not keep silent.
Our sinfulness, our irritability, reveal to us our poverty.
All of this is in today’s Collect, have a look at it on page 6 of today’s booklet:
Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory;
Three readings. Three sentences, one from each reading:
‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’
the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.
“a servant does not know his master’s business”
In the name of the Father …
Reading the Gospel we have just heard. Full of beautiful phrases that leap out of the page I was struck by the words I’ve just quoted:
A servant does not know his master’s business.
We are called not to be servants, but friends. Friends of God, of Jesus and friends of each other.
If we were servants we wouldn’t know the father’s business. But because we are friends we do know. Or should know.
It would be very easy to concentrate on the love in today’s gospel. And that is important. But I want to think about this aspect of knowing the father’s business and what that means for our Christian, our spiritual lives.
In the 1980s, it seems so long ago now.
I trained as a teacher. Back in those heady days we believed in progressive methods of education. Children would learn by discovery. we wouldn’t make them learn things off by heart, there would be no tedious rote learning.
I have to say that over the 35 years I worked in schools my ideas changed somewhat as they have for many (although not all by any means) in education.
Knowledge based learning is at the heart of what human learning is. memorising is at the heart of acquiring knowledge.
This shouldn’t surprise us as Christians. When Jesus wanted to leave his followers the most sacred and important way that he would be present to them after his death he said as I shall say at the altar in just a moment
“Do this, in memory of me.”
We are what we remember.
So I want this morning on this Founder’s Day of your beloved community that has been so committed to education, to reflect on one of the disciplines of the spiritual life, indeed of the religious life: the discipline of study.
Study has always been linked closely to religious life. The Rule of St Benedict with it Lent books; the link between Benedictine monasteries and education. In Oxford the close link between religious life in all its variety on the Christ Church site alone Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans and, of course St Frideswide’s original community.
Christ Church has also produced the Wesleys whose ‘method’ was simply an ordered, systematic approach to the spiritual. Father Benson of Cowley, another Christ Church student and of course your own William John Butler (an Honorary Canon of Christ Church) both of whom died on this day. In some ways the religious life is itself just a systematisation of the spiritual life, the baptised life.
Religious life needs study: study for the proper and meaningful celebration of the Divine Office. The psalms are difficult. If they weren’t they would hardly bear singing for a whole lifetime, we would become bored and tired of them.
So what might the discipline of study look like for us in our time?
A book that I return to over and over again and have been recommeding to people for thirty years is Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline. It is a simple book for simple people. It has fed me in so many ways. I hope you will forgive me for reading a whole paragraph to you that begins the Chapter on the discipline of study:
“The purpose of the Spiritual Disciplines is the total transformation of the person. They aim at replacing old destructive habits of thought with new life-giving habits. Nowhere is this purpose more clearly seen than in the Discipline of study. The apostle Paul tells us that we are transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom. 12:2). The mind is renewed by applying it to those things that will transform it. ‘Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Phil. 4:8). The Discipline of study is the primary vehicle to bring us to ‘think about these things.’ Therefore, we should rejoice that we are not left to our own devices but have been given this means of God’s grace for the changing of our inner spirit.”
I would like to suggest three ways in which the discipline of study can be integrated into our lives.
Firstly, in our spiritual reading. It is always good, I find, to have some spiritual reading on the go. I think this is best something that we know fairly well. I return again and again to Julian. You will have your own favourites. Spiritual reading time is not time for novelty, or for innovation.
Secondly, in lectio divina, in light of today’s gospel on friendship with Jesus I have always thought of the four classic stages of lectio as stages in a relationship with a text.
Thirdly, formal study. And we need to be systematic about this. To have. a plan. What is my study going to be this year.
The best way I have found of managing this is around my annual retreat. For a number of years I have chosen a book of the Bible to use for me retreat. In the year beforehand I collect together books and articles on the book, spend six months or so reading them, and then, on retreat use lectio as my main study tool but with the reading I’ve done informing and enriching it.
It works for me, other techniques may work for you.
But the most important thing is to learn texts by heart. Yes, of course, poetry and literature and spiritual writing. But fundamentally we should fill our minds and hearts with the words of Scripture.
Eighteen months ago my mum died. It was one of the most beautiful deaths I have ever been privileged to witness. A faithful catholic her whole life my brother and sister and I prayed the Rosary with her in her last hours. She began being able to join in and then just her lips moved, finally there was just a movement of her lips at each Amen.
It was beautiful because these prayers, mostly words of Scripture were so embedded in her heart.
As we build the discipline of study into our lives may we embed the words of the Lord deep in our hearts so that we know the father’s business, but also so that we may fulfil in our lives those other two sentences of Scripture I began with.
If we have memorised Scripture so that it is part of the fabric of our being it will be the case that
‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’
And that even in the darkest times when fire tests the quality of our work, the Spirit in us will endure.
Perhaps you think of a well known Fair Trade brand of chocolate?
Perhaps you are as old and outrageous as me and remember the 1980s drag act: Divine.
Or it might be that you think more of the verb, to divine the meaning of a thing.
The Victorian poet Christina Rossetti’s wonderful poem, Christmastide, which you should have been given on a card as you entered the cathedral today perfectly describes what we are celebrating in this Eucharist and throughout the day in our homes and families.
We know what love is. Most of us know how to love, most of us know what it feels like when we feel loved. Most of us know what it is to want to be loved.
But we also know that our love, our loving, our loves, are a mixture.
Of course, we all want to have a fantastic Christmas which is perfect from start to finish. But we know that we will irritate one another, there will be moments when things don’t go right, or to plan, or we find we have made a hopeless present choice. We will disagree about what to have on the TV or what time to go for a walk.
We know that our world is a mixture. Perhaps feeling like it is balanced too much to what is not good at the moment. Endless bad news about Covid, the economy, troop movements on the border of the Ukraine, or even our own problems here at Christ Church or in each of our on lives.
It can seem that love, loveliness and the divine are very far away.
There is a small ceremony in the Eucharist that you probably don’t even notice. After putting wine into the chalice we add a few drops of water.
This may have its origins in the Roman custom of adding water to wine, and therefore may have been done by Jesus at the last supper.
For Christians too it is a sign of the water and blood that flowed from the side of Christ in John’s account of the crucifixion.
As such it is a sign of the sacraments of Christian initiation, baptism in water and Eucharist in blood.
In the three Eucharists of Christmas Day two contain short readings from the letter to Titus in the New Testament . The one we have just heard and the one that we heard at the Midnight Eucharist that I’ve printed on the cards with Rossetti’s poem. I hope you will take the cards home and pray with these texts this week. The whole letter to Titus is very short, just two chapters, it would be a good text to read in this Christmas week to feed your prayers. In the text on your cards St Paul writes of the “cleansing water of rebirth … and the renewing … with the Holy Spirit”.
As the water is added to the wine in the chalice there is a very ancient and very beautiful prayer that many of us use:
hyn“By the mystery of this water and wine,
may we come to share in the divinity of Christ,
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
What we are celebrating today is a great mystery.
It is God becoming human. But there is a far greater mystery that we often forget, the mystery of our sharing in his divinity.
Our becoming like God as we were created to be in God’s image and likeness.
The Latin word (particeps) that is often translated ‘share’ in the little prayer, is actually much stronger than that.
We are not called to receive a portion, a share, of divinity
but to participate in divinity.
When the water is poured into the wine it is utterly mixed the water becomes wine just as Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana. When we pour ourselves into the divine, we lose ourselves and become divine. When I pour those drops of water into the chalice I try to think about those parts of myself, that I would like to be taken up by God’s divinity and transformed into something better, something selfless and God-like. Something Divine.
Christina Rossetti tells us what this divinity is that we are called to participate in,
it is Love.
God is Love.
St Paul wrote in the letter to Titus:
“When the kindness and love of God our saviour for humanity were revealed
it was for no reason except his own compassion” (JB)
Love, lovely, divine.
Sadly we can’t share the Eucharistic cup in these Covid times but the Eucharist, and the mixing of the water and wine in the chalice show us what the shape of love is.
The shape of love is the mixing of the divine and the human in Jesus.
the shape of love is the mixing of the divine and human in me, in you.
The shape of love is the mixture of joy and sorrow that is every life.
The shape of love is the irritations and frustrations, the joys and delights of living with other human beings.
The shape of love is the gift of marriage in which we mix two lives that they become one.
The shape of love is the welcoming of migrants and refugees because the water of our lives is enriched by the wine of other cultures.
The shape of love is the living of our lives not for ourselves alone but for others.
The shape of love is God in Jesus.
By receiving the Eucharist today and any day we are giving assent to the participation in God that is our birthright by baptism.
We are saying yes.
Yes I want to Love
saying I want to live by love and shape my life by love in the way that Jesus did.
Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love divine; Love was born at Christmas, Star and angels gave the sign.
Love shall be our token, Love be yours and love be mine, Love to God and all men, Love for plea and gift and sign.
Whether you are drinking water or wine today, whether you are alone or with others
may you taste the kindness and love of God.
Dear friends, in this love is all the ahppiness of Christmas. Happy Christmas.
Hopefully, the Precentor and my fellow canons will forgive me for being a little controversial this morning.
Controversy entirely driven, I should say, by the gospel we have just heard.
I am thinking of establishing a new campaign group in the Church of England:
The Movement for the Abolition of the Feast of Christ the King.
Actually, the Church of England really doesn’t need any more campaign groups, and this one might be a rather niche, one member group, also MAFCK isn’t an altogether memorable acronym.
However, to say I have reservations about today’s feast would be something of an understatement. It is, in my view, a mistake. It is problematic and should be abolished.
Even the Roman Catholic Church only invented this feast of Christ the King in1925. It was added to the Church of England’s calendar in the 1990s.
I can see how it happened. Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Making this a grand festival has a theatrical neatness about it; this is the finale, the show stopper! Better a bang than a whimper.
But actually I think a whimper is exactly how we should end the liturgical year to be ready for the great longing of Advent that is to begin next Sunday.
The Church of England has also tried to tie together the whole of November, All Saints, the dead, and Remembrance. Kingdom is a convenient tie for that.
Although I think there is a good deal of difference between the kingdom of justice love and peace and this glorification of Christ as king.
The Book of Common Prayer has the beautiful ‘stir up’ Collect for the Sunday before Advent, in place of an epistle Jeremiah reminding his hearers that ‘the days come’ and John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand – all of which segues much more neatly into Advent than our current grandeur.
The fundamental problem as I see it is really that the Bible is actually just so much more ambiguous about kingship than today’s feast would suggest.
As is Jesus.
Just look at today’s gospel. Jesus certainly doesn’t call himself a ‘king’. The furthest he will go is “You say that I am a king”. When we make such a deal out of Jesus as King we are much more like Pontius Pilate than we really might like to be.
St John in his gospel has carefully woven together a complex picture of who Jesus is. So it seems a shame to mis-use his gospel to claim a title for Jesus that neither St John nor Jesus himself actually claims.
Seven times in his gospel Jesus uses the powerful phrase I am. Ego eimi. Claiming for himself that revelation of God at the burning bush in Exodus: I Am Who I Am.
These are seven mighty statements in which Jesus edges right up to claiming his own divinity. And being a king is not among them.
These are the sayings, and we would do well to know them off by heart.
I Am, Jesus says:
the bread of life
the light of the world
the Good Shepherd
the way the truth and the life
the true vine.
This is how Jesus wants us to understand him and know him.
Jesus does of course talk about the kingdom of God (in Luke) and the kingdom of heaven (in Matthew). I wonder if there is some Trinitarian confusion here, if Jesus is the king of this kingdom who or what is God the Father?
When this feast was invented liturgical texts had to be found. The feast of the Ascension was heavily mined as you can see in the Collect chosen for today by the compilers of our own Common Worship.
But, it seems to me, this entirely undermines the meaning of the Ascension.
The Ascension is an historical fact for Christians, in which Jesus does not get levitated to some heavenly throne room and crowned king of heaven. Rather it fundamentally illustrates that our human flesh, our very bodies are incorporated into the divine nature. Essential if we are also to believe and understand the resurrection of the dead, not as disembodied souls dwelling in eternity but a real resurrection of real bodies.
Perhaps this is what is wrong with today’s feast: it is an abstract concept, not a moment or person in history. It is the only abstract concept celebrated in our Anglican Calendars. As such it is clearly an alien intrusion.
Let me be clear that I do not object to the feast on the basis of some Guardian reading dislike of monarchy. Far from it. I am devoted to our Queen and can’t see any system of leadership for a nation that would improve on what we have.
Nor do I think that we are called to any less than obedience and submission to God and to recognise Jesus as the ultimate authority in our lives. But this is Jesus who is glorified on the cross, who calls us his friends not servants (John 15:15). We are called not to be subjects in the Kingdom of God but fellow citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19).
Let’s look at the biblical evidence. Jesus is not called the king or a king directly in any places other than in front of Pilate by him, and, ironically, on the sign Pilate directs to be placed on the cross.
In the remainder of the New Testament there are a mere three other possible direct references at 1 Timothy 6:15 where Jesus is called the king of those who are kings and in Revelation 17:14 and 19:16 . So a mere three examples. Compare that to the number of occasions when Jesus is called ‘Teacher’ in the gospels, 45 times.
let’s have a feast of Christ the Teacher … no, I’m not serious.
We have to admit that the Bible is very ambiguous about monarchs.
Most of Hebrew Scripture was written or compiled when there were no kings in Israel. And it certainly appears to be the case that allowing Israel to have kings rather than judges was a grudging concession of a kind God. God had rejected Moses’ call for a monarch and it is only Samuel who anoints Saul and then David as king.
Even the ideal king, David, is a somewhat ambiguous figure, to say the least. Just ask Bathsheba or even more her husband (cf 2 Sam 11).
As so often I think the psalms can help us understand the problem with today’s feast and set it into a larger context.
The compilers of the book of psalms took great care when they put together the texts they had in front of them. Many of them are what contemporary scholars call Royal Psalms, some of them seem to be ancient Hymns for the Enthronement of a King. But the editors choose to always balance the royal psalms with wisdom and Torah psalms and they begin the psalter not with a great clang of monarchy but with a quiet, reflective psalm on the Torah. Like the editors of any book they set their stall out right at the start.
While I am more than happy to accept, as an article of faith, that the messianic psalms refer to Jesus, it is clear that the Enthronment, many of the royal and the great creation psalms which refer to a king are talking about God the Creator and Sovereign of the universe. God the Father, or God the holy Trinity, not Jesus alone.
And when Jesus describes himself as ‘the way the truth and the life’ he is directly referring to the longest psalm in the psalter, Psalm 119 where these are recurring images for Torah, the law, or better the way of life that God wants for us.
Jesus is in fact saying not that he is a crowned king, but a personification of the Torah, a living Torah. Far more revolutionary.
Outside of the gospels the New Testament does link Jesus to the royal psalms, notably Psalms 2 and 110. And we are, famously, made by baptism into a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter). But it seems to me that this is much more about each of us being made ‘little christs’ by baptism and therefore being of great, royal dignity by virtue of that.
The most carefully worked out spirituality of royal imagery is in Francis of Assisi. However, there it is really chivalry rather than royalty that captures his imagination, Francis is indeed the ‘herald of the great king’, but that king is God the Father. Jesus is more like the leader of the chivalric knights.
Jesus’ kingship is profoundly a shared kingship. His kingship is never unqualified. Preachers around the world will be making that exact point today and talking about the servant king, the cross as a throne and so on. But I would rather we avoided that necessity.
In my (slightly teasing) antipathy to this particular day in the liturgical calendar I suggest it should empower us to do two things:
Firstly, to read our bibles. It is part of our Reformation heritage as Anglicans that we all of us do that for ourselves. Read them and work out what God is actually saying about his kingdom; read them and see what Jesus himself says about who he is.
Secondly, when we have worked out who Jesus is let’s spend time with him, with the images that he uses to describe himself.
For the Prayer Book this is Stir Up Sunday. When we stir up the rich fruit and ingredients that will make our Christmas puddings. How about this week we spend some time in our prayer stirring up the rich multitude of images that Jesus uses to describe himself.
I may be over extending my metaphors somewhat but images of royalty, the royal priesthood we all belong to, should be like the brandy in the cake not the main ingredient.
What does it mean to you and to me to stir up in prayer Jesus who is
the bread of life
the light of the world
the Good Shepherd
the way the truth and the life
the true vine?
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Sermon St Frideswide, Patronal Eucharist 21st October 2021
Fr Richard Peers SMMS
God of peace and strength,
whose abbess Frideswide
built a community of love and learning
with the gifts of the Spirit
and in the strong peace that comes from you:
renew us with healing waters of salvation,
increase in us courage and resolve
and inspire us, like Frideswide, to teach your truth
and bring hope to your world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
If you have a small black Book of Common Prayer in reach, you may want to turn to page 87. You will see there that this is where the ‘Collects, Epistles and Gospels’ begin. They continue to page 292, making this the biggest section of our Prayer Book alongside the psalter. There is much that could be said about the arrangement of Scripture, the Epistles and Gospels, in this section, but this evening I want to reflect on the Collects.
The Collects are the short prayers that we use at Morning and Evening Prayer and at the Eucharist. No one is entirely certain why they are called ‘collects’, but the most convincing explanation I have read is that they are called this because they are the prayer that is prayed once the people have gathered, collected together.
Collects of this short style and form are unique to Latin Christianity, the church and churches of the West. Eastern churches have much longer prayers of a completely different style.
In Latin the Collects have a sparseness of language, a spareness of phrase and a density of meaning that is really quite extraordinary, this is very much the ‘genius’ of the Latin rite. A ‘noble simplicity’. Many of these prayers are very old indeed almost certainly dating to the seventh century.
The Church of England has long treasured the Collect form of prayer, Thomas Cranmer’s translations and his new Collects in the Prayer Book rightly seen as a unique treasure handed on to us. In times past Anglicans would learn these prayers by heart to win prizes at Sunday school but also we hope to deepen their prayer.
The Collect has a particular form, although with considerable flexibility. A good example is the one for the current week in the Prayer Book, on page 241:
First of all God is addressed “O Almighty God”, quite a lot of the traditional Collects begin with this phrase for this week, Trinity 20, additional information is given about God, he is described as “most merciful”.
A request is then made “keep us we beseech thee, from all things that may hurt us” and then the consequence, the benefit of that petition being granted is explained “that we, being ready, both in body and soul, may cheerfully accomplish those things that thou wouldest have done.”
It is a delightfully simple formula. I have often taught it in schools and even Primary age children can enjoy writing their own Collects.
I should point out that liturgical scholars would wince at my simplified version of the Collect form. Daniel McCarthy, for example, suggests that the simple fourfold shape I have described should really be seen as 8 elements:
Cause or motive
Well liturgical scholars have to justify their existence somehow!
In modern times many new Collects have been written. very often this is to expand the language to be both more inclusive and also richer and more poetic.
There is no ancient Collect for St Frideswide, a ‘common’ collect, for abbesses was used. Several modern Collects have been written for her. The latest appears in today’s booklet for this Eucharist, it was written by our Precentor, Philippa, and is rather lovely I think. A few of us stuck an oar or two in at various draft stages. There are many dangers to writing liturgy by committee but I hope you will take your booklet home and pray this prayer. We need much prayer here at Christ Church and it would be good to think of you praying for us using these words.
So to turn to our Collect.
God of peace and strength,
The first line addresses God very simply and offers a description of his attributes, peace and strength. This is of course the meaning of Frideswide’s name. For the bible peace is an important attribute of a life lived in harmony with God. God’s shalom, in the Hebrew Scriptures is fundamental to his intention for the world. Shalom is not simply the absence of conflict but a sign of God’s wholeness, of completion.
For Muslims and Jews shalom is a common greeting, shalom aleichem / aleichem shalom. Last week after the Court Service here the High Sheriff Imam Monawar Hussain took many of us out for a curry. After dinner he invited various people of different faiths to speak. A Jewish man present sang one of my favourite pieces from Jewish worship: Oseh shalom … “may he who makes peace in high places, make peace for us “
Few of us would argue that peace was not a key concept for the Bible and for Christians. Strength is more complex though. We can be nervous about strength, we even talk about ‘brute strength’. The key is, I think, where the strength comes from. If it comes simply from muscle power, or position, it means little.
But the psalmist says: “the Lord is my strength and my shield” (Ps. 28:7 ) when the strength we rely on is God’s it is utterly reliable. Be strong and courageous says Deuteronomy (31:6)
and “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” writes St Paul (Phil. 4:13)
We yearn for peace but we need strength to endure the lack of peace which is part of the reality of our lives. So,
God of peace and strength,
our prayer begins.
whose abbess Frideswide
built a community of love and learning
Community too is fundamental to Christian living. Right at the beginning of the church we are told in the Acts of the Apostles (4:32) that the early Christians shared all their goods in common and were ‘of one heart and mind’. Christians have always gathered, collected, together to practice our faith; we gather for worship; church, from ecclesia means those called out to be together.
Love hardly needs any comment at all. God so loved the world. (Jn 3:16). Love is the motivation for the incarnation, for Jesus who saves us and died for us. Love in all its facets is the test of the Christian life. The famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13 is a challenging read at the end of any day if we ask ourselves:
Have I been patient?
Have I been kind?
Am I envious?
Do I boast?
Am I proud?
Do I dishonour others?
Am I self -seeking, easily angered?
Do I let go of wrongs, delight in evil, rejoice in the truth?
Do I always protect, trust, hope and persevere?
A community of love is demanding indeed.
But Frideswide’s community was also a community of learning. Of scholarly activity.
This is hugely significant. Love is wonderful. But we can all too easily – perhaps in our times more than any other – regard love as a feeling, an emotion. This is not how Christians have classically understood it. For Augustine love is an act of the will.
It is only by learning, by studying theology. By knowing the Bible that we can experience the fullness of faith and challenge the misconceptions of the world.
The next two lines of the Collect make it clear where that fullness comes from;
with the gifts of the Spirit
The ‘gifts of the Spirit’ can, of course, relate to a sort of generalised sense of the presence of God imparting grace to us, but in Christian history it has been used to identify seven gifts, referred to first of all in Isaiah 11. This is a passage about God’s kingdom of peace, shalom and the longed for Messiah who will come with
delight or piety
fear of the Lord
Augustine linked these to the Beatitudes and they are traditionally said to be the gifts received in Baptism and Confirmation.
Next in our Collect we have the line:
and in the strong peace that comes from you:
Clearly, this is an echo of the opening line reflecting on the meaning of Frideswide’s name. It makes clear that this peace and strength is the fruit of faith, and that it comes from God not from our own power. This is the gift of salvation we receive in baptism, our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That death when water and blood flowed from his side. Which we enter into in baptism and renew our selves in in the Eucharist, water and blood. These are the healing waters of salvation that the Collect refers to next:
renew us with healing waters of salvation,
increase in us courage and resolve
But it is also the water associated with Frideswide, the well at Binsey that so many of us value visiting, to which students in our chaplaincy will be walking on Sunday afternoon.
I like the mention of ‘courage and resolve’. Frideswide had courage, she refused the way of life that was to be imposed on her and was determined, resolved to live a life in Christian community. A resolve which is a reminder once again that Christian living is not just feelings, however fine, not some spirituality but a decision, resolve, a determination, an act of the will. As we say to the candidates in baptism who are old enough to respond, after we’ve recited the Creed. Is this your faith? And they answer, we hope with courage and resolve: “This is my faith.”
And so we come to the end of the prayer:
and inspire us, like Frideswide, to teach your truth
and bring hope to your world;
The gift of faith is never for ourselves alone. We are all, every baptised person called to teach the faith. It is not possible to watch the news, it is not possible to listen to the needs of those who come to us, it is not possible to look at our own lives and not realise that we need a Saviour, we need Jesus. And that is why this prayer, every Collect ends with five simple words.
through Jesus Christ our Lord …
We pray only through Jesus, we know him as the Christ, the anointed One, the one chosen by God to do this for us and we name him, we acknowledge him as Lord.
In the end it is all, St Frideswide, the well at Binsey, this cathedral church, the Augustinian canons, the life of Chapter for five centuries, even our beautiful music. It is all pointless, if it does not bring us to him, to Jesus.
God of peace and strength,
whose abbess Frideswide
built a community of love and learning
with the gifts of the Spirit
and in the strong peace that comes from you:
renew us with healing waters of salvation,
increase in us courage and resolve
and inspire us, like Frideswide, to teach your truth
A recurring irritation for Anglicans is the accusation that our church was founded by Henry VIII. Most of us would prefer to think of our founder as Jesus Christ. And if one were to choose a monarch Elizabeth the first probably has as much claim on foundation as her father; not to say Charles the second making a not insubstantial claim after the interruptions of the Commonwealth.
If the question turns to Who founded Christ Church? at least frees us from looking back to our Lord and Saviour. Henry’s claim here is stronger, but of course Thomas Wolsey is a very close second. Dean Fell after the Protectorate can surely place a stake for re-foundation. And we must not forget Prior Sutton Augustinian builder of this church whose tomb lies at the edge of the Latin chapel, and probably none of us would be here, of course, without Frideswide before even him.
Like the Church of England it is easy to characterise Christ Church as an anomaly, a random historical accident, an English eccentricity. All of that may well be true, but the gospel we have just heard includes two words that make that historical accident, that random eccentricity important for those of us here who are Christians.
Fourteen months ago when I arrived at Christ Church I could have had no idea of the year ahead. What a year it has been. That long year ago I had no experience of Oxford, the university or even of working full-time in a cathedral. But I am now convinced in a way I could not have been then of the blessing that our joint foundation can be to the church and the importance for the academy of this meeting of higher education and a faith community.
Good teacher, Jesus is called in today’s gospel. It is good to have some of our academic staff here with us this morning. I am not in any position to judge whether they are, like Jesus, ‘good teachers’, but the fact that they are teachers is important to us.
Jesus is addressed directly as teacher 45 times in the gospels, 12 times each in Matthew and Mark, fifteen in Luke and six times in John.
As someone who has spent most of my life as a teacher it puzzles me that this designation of Jesus as teacher has been so neglected.
Puzzling too because it ignores Jesus own command to bring the children to him, or the Deuteronomic imperative, prayed three times daily by Jews in the Sh’ma to teach the Torah to children and write it on our hearts.
I have been observing teaching for over twenty years. Judging the quality of lessons and the progress that children make. I am fascinated by pedagogy, the art of teaching, how we learn. And I am fascinated by pedagogy in this university, by the tutorial system, lectures and the work expected of graduates and undergraduates. The requirements to teach and supervise others that comes so early in academic careers. Fascinated too by the limited interest shown in pedagogy and relative lack of reflection on the very systems of teaching being used.
On holiday last month one of the books I read was Amartya Sen’s memoir Home In The World. An economist and mathematician, but really a polymath he reflects on his childhood in what is now Bangladesh and the interaction there of religious communities Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Buddhist. Sen takes the title of his book from Rabindranath Tagore’s Home and the World. The fundamental question for Sen, for Tagore and, surely for all of us is how we can be at home in this world. We can try and force ourselves to be at home by creating what is comfortable for us or we can be at home by valuing the diversity and difference of the world.
This week has been my first real Freshers’ Week. It has been good to see – because of Covid spacing reasons – all our freshers here in the Cathedral for many of their induction talks. Becoming ‘at home’ here in the House.
It will be good this coming week to welcome Oxford’s High Sheriff and his team, a first, of chaplains from many faiths. And after Evensong is finished to hear each of them read a short text from their own tradition.
On this Safeguarding Sunday we all know that religions can be forces for bad as well as for good. Fundamentalisms exist when there is a failure to bring academic scrutiny to claims to truth. The church, all religions need to be examined by the academy. We need the rigour of departments of theology, academic scrutiny from the inside; and the challenge of knowledge in all academic fields.
The academy too needs its practitioners to include people of many faiths, to bring the experience and practice of faith into its life, which is, of course, anyway unavoidable.
Jesus the Good Teacher. He is a good teacher because his method, his pedagogy is rarely to tell. His method is so much more like a good tutorial, he asks questions, he causes his hearers to think and to reflect.
Amartya Sen describes a world in which religious traditions mingled with mutual interest and mutual enrichment.
Our joint foundation means nothing if it is simply a sharing of a building, a parallel existence for this building as college chapel one minute and cathedral the next.
It has been a very beautiful thing to see the Freshers in this building this last week not just at the induction events but also in the evenings when the chaplaincy team opened it up with candles and lights and music. To see our undergraduates coming to be at home here in their chapel, their cathedral.
Over the next few weeks I hope that all of you who are regulars here will visit the restored Chapter House. It too is a beautiful building. A Chapter House is, of course, a place for discussion, conversation. A space for encountering others.
One of my hopes is that it will allow us to be even more a place where people of many faiths and of no religious faith encounter one another and can feel at home together.
The encounter of the world’s religions is still in its infancy. I can think of only one living systematic theologian who takes this encounter seriously in every area of his theology.
Christopher Lewis, the last Dean of Christ Church edited a book on Inter Faith Worship and Prayer with the subtitle “We Must Pray Together”, one of its contributors is the Muslim Imam who is now the High Sheriff of Oxford.
The joint foundation is an opportunity not just for the academy or for us as a Chapter, a congregation; but an opportunity to encounter good teachers and to demonstrate that we can be good learners.
In the Preface to his memoir Amartya Sen writes:
“From the Crusades in the Middle Ages to the Nazi invasions in the last century, from communal clashes to battles between religious politics, there have been tussles between varying convictions, and yet there have also been forces for unity working against the clashes. We can see, if we look, how understanding can spread from one group to another and from one country to the next. As we move around we cannot escape clues to broader and more integrative stories. Our ability to learn from each other must not be underestimated.”
Dear Christ Church freshers here we are at one of the world’s leading universities. You will be taught by great people, you will have many good teachers, but you will learn much from your friends too. We hope that you will be at home here in Christ Church, at home in this your cathedral your chapel and most of all that you will never underestimate the ability we human beings have to learn from each other.
Discerning the Mystery, Andrew Louth, Clarendon Press 1983
Praise Seeking Understanding, Jason Byassee, Eerdmans, 2007
I will make your name to be remembered
through all generations :
therefore shall the peoples praise you for ever and ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In just over two weeks time I will, God willing, be staying in Burgundy just a few miles from the Taizé Community in France. Taizé is a community of brothers, monks, founded in the second world war, drawn from both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. There are now dozens of brothers in the community and every year, Covid notwithstanding, thousands of young people gather to pray, live and work with the brothers.
It is an extraordinary, life-changing place.
I have visited almost every year of my adult life. As a Headteacher in Lewisham we always took a group of Year 10 pupils, fourteen and fifteen year olds, for a week’s pilgrimage to Taizé.
In the community church there are many large icons. In 2012 the pupils I had taken asked me if we could commission an artist to paint an icon for our school. When the new school year began we consulted with the School Council and Governing Body and a small group of pupils was selected to oversee the project.
We found a well known iconographer, Helen McIldowie-Jenkins, and invited her to come and visit us. The pupils liked her at once and she set about showing them many icons and talking about what they wanted. The school was a majority black school and Helen showed the pupils pictures of some of the world’s famous black Madonna statues and images, they immediately noticed something about these figures. Most of them may have dark skin but the features were European not African. Occasionally a Madonna with dark skin would be accompanied by a distinctly Caucasian looking Jesus.
The pupils were determined that both Mary and Jesus should be properly African, in shape of face, skin colour and hair.
This is a reproduction of the original icon which is about twice as big and covered in much gold leaf. I think it is very beautiful.
Jesus’ afro hair is clear, as are Mary’s braids emerging from her head covering. The cloth of Mary’s clothing reproduces west African Kente fabric but using the school logo. The four medallions at the top represent the four archangels the school’s Houses were named after. Mary is seated on the throne of wisdom, the teacher’s seat, and points to Jesus. At the foot of the icon are two rivers representing the two rivers running through Lewisham, the Quaggy and the Ravensbourne. At the centre of the foot is a well, illustrating the holy well that had been a feature of medieval devotion to Mary, Our Lady, in Lewisham and giving its name to the area known as Ladywell to this day.
In today’s gospel Mary in her great hymn of praise sings of overthrowing powers, of the lowly being lifted up.
I don’t want to reflect this morning on the significance of the Magnificat in issues relating to race.
Rather I want to apply this overthrowing of the powerful to the academic world of biblical studies which has so dominated the way Christians read our Scriptures.
I suggest, quite strongly, that we need to overthrow the model of biblical studies that has been dominant for over a century and a half and raise up the church’s traditional way of reading Scripture that has been treated as the lowly cousin of true academic study for too long.
Historical-critical methods of reading Scripture have dominated not only the academic community but clergy training and seminaries, bible studies and popular reading on Scripture. Our life, the life of the church has been diminished by this dominance, we have been starved of our connection to the christians of the early centuries, our imaginations have been blighted, our connection to Jesus in the Old Testament severed and our understanding of the way that the biblical writers themselves read Scripture left rudderless.
Look at the icon of Our Lady of Lewisham. Of course Mary, the woman of Nazareth, Miriam married to Joseph, was not a black African, she didn’t have braided hair or wear Kente cloth, Jesus did not have Afro hair.
But that is to miss the point entirely.
When you look at the icon of our Lady of Lewisham you are looking at an allegory in picture form. Mary, the first believer shows us all the way of faith in Jesus. Her ‘yes’ is the ‘yes’ that every human being, black women, black men, white women, whoever we are we can say ‘yes’ to Jesus.
We all have human biology, it is not that which makes Mary the one, who as Psalm 45 put it, will be “remembered through all generations”.
And of course, whoever wrote Psalm 45, however many centuries ago could not possibly have any idea that these verses would be sung, in a twenty first century cathedral in Oxford about a first century woman in Nazareth. Thank you to Amici Coro for singing this psalm so beautifully this morning.
To put it bluntly and, no doubt simplistically, the historical critical method of reading Scripture asks only one question: “What was the original author’s intended meaning?”
This is not an unimportant question, and the answer for the various genres of Scripture is certainly not in itself uninteresting or unhelpful, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough to sustain our Christian lives, to enable us to meet Jesus in all of Scripture, not enough to deepen our prayer, to convert us ever more to the holy living that is God’s intention for each of us.
It would not be enough if we were talking about literature of any place or time. Yes, it is great to see productions of Shakespeare that seek to reproduce how a play might have been originally performed. But how much more wonderful to see as I did in the Cathedral Garden two weeks ago a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 70’s disco gear and woven in with ABBA hits.
Now just in case you are worried that the Sub Dean has taken leave of his senses, which, after all might be perfectly understandable, what I am calling for is nothing original to me. I think that the theologian Andrew Louth is responsible for the phrase, back in 1983. It is nothing less than a “return to allegory”.
Louth describes allegory “as a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the scriptures”.
A recent writer, Jason Byasee, goes so far as to say that “Christianity is an inherently allegorical faith”.
It is when we abandon allegory that we end up with fundamentalisms of all kinds. It is simply a myth that there is any such thing as “the plain meaning of Scripture”, or that it would desirable that there were.
Life is complex. The world is complex. Simplistic explanations are the fake narratives that lead to Donald Trump being elected President of the United States.
For the complexity of Scripture let’s think for a moment about the psalms. the psalms are the essential element of Christian prayer. Psalm 45 which we have just heard is a good example. Historical criticism tells us that it is a “royal psalm” possibly used as a wedding song for the marriage of a king of Judah. Some think that it may date to the time of Solomon.
All of that is good to know. But for us as Christians, this psalm is chosen for this feast of Mary, we read it in relation to her, think of her a syou hear these words:
10 Hear, O daughter; consider and incline your ear :
forget your own people and your father’s house.
11 So shall the king have pleasure in your beauty :
he is your lord, so do him honour.
12 The people of Tyre shall bring you gifts :
the richest of the people shall seek your favour.
13 The king’s daughter is all glorious within :
her clothing is embroidered cloth of gold.
14 She shall be brought to the king in raiment of needlework :
after her the virgins that are her companions.
15 With joy and gladness shall they be brought :
and enter into the palace of the king.
16 ‘Instead of your fathers you shall have sons :
whom you shall make princes over all the land.
17 ‘I will make your name to be remembered
through all generations :
therefore shall the peoples praise you for ever and ever.’
To return to Jason Byasee, he places Scripture and Creed at the heart of our Christian faith, indeed we shall recite the Nicene Creed in just a moment, that Creed is from the heart of the Patristic faith, faith of our fathers and mothers, the faith hammered out in the early centuries of the church.
Byassee states “You cannot have patristic dogma without patristic exegesis; you cannot have creed without allegory … the theological heritage treasured in common by Protestants and Catholics alike rests upon a “foundation” of allegory.”.
So my plea on this feast of Mary, is that we embrace complexity and reject simple falsehoods. That we use our imaginations to read Scripture multi-vocally, to hear many voices. To allow the Word of God to speak to our own complex selves. To meet Jesus in the psalms, to recognise him as the living Word at the very beginning of creation.
As I think of Mary, I have never, even as a child, been able to imagine her as a demure and obedient maiden. That didn’t match any actual girl or woman I knew.
Now, in later life I imagine her rather like those older women you see in Malta, or Greece or southern Italy. Women dried out by the sun and by life, but with eyes as sharp as ravens. Women about whom it could so easily be said ‘takes no prisoners’. I love those women. I love Mary and I love having her in my life.
When we commissioned the icon of Our Lady of Lewisham the school chaplain, Mother Juliet wrote a prayer for her.
source and fountain of life,
in Mary, Mother of us all,
we see courage, boldness and strength
risking all to welcome your Son Jesus.
As we celebrate our diversity
grant that her ferocious love may well up with us
to bring justice and establish your peace.
May Our Lady of Lewisham, pray for us, may we know her in all her complexity, may we experience her ferocious love.
Song of Songs 3.1-4, 2 Corinthians 5.14-17, John 20, 1-2, 11-18
Fr Richard Peers SMMS
As you probably know services at Christ Church begin five minutes later than official UK time would suggest. This is to take account of our position west of Greenwich and the meridian there. Scholars of Lewis Carrol, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson believe the White Rabbit’s lack of punctuality is a nod to this eccentricity at Christ Church. Whether you regard it as a pleasant eccentricity or an irritating sense of entitlement will depend on your wider view of things.
For me it is a good reminder of the crucial religious significance of time and its relationship to physical existence, to the reality of living on this planet with its rotation and its turning around the sun. Realities which we ignore at great peril, as the climate crisis shows only too clearly.
Time is at the heart of the incarnation. It was only “when the fullness of time had come” as St Paul puts it in Galatians 4, that Jesus could be born. The times of the passion of Our Lord are carefully recorded by the evangelists – and disputed in academic papers – starting with the dawn cock crow when Peter denies his friendship with Jesus, and contrasting beautifully with Mary Magdalen’s faithful arrival at the tomb “Very early on a Sunday morning” as we have just heard in today’s Gospel.
The Holy Spirit comes to the disciples at the third hour; nine o’clock in the morning. In the Acts of the apostles Peter goes up to the housetop to pray at noon, the sixth hour; at the ninth hour, the time of Jesus’ death when the world was plunged into darkness and the veil of the temple torn into two, Cornelius sees a vision of an angel of God.
Scripture is full of references to time. It is an account, a sacred, theological account of redemption which takes place in the actual history of the world.
From those very first days of the church Christians have gathered daily at certain times to pray, what we now call the Daily Office, the Liturgy of the Hours.
Time is essential to all three of today’s readings. For St Paul it is significant because old and new can only exist because of time.
For St John that early morning in which the women come to the tomb is not an accident, and for the author of the Song of Songs the whole passage depends on the timing, in the dark, at night. Easy in the heat of last week to imagine sleepless nights, nights of yearning and longing; seeking.
In the Old Testament he psalmist implores the people of Israel to listen to God’s voice ‘Today”.
In the New Testament two words are famously used for ‘time’, chronos, linear, measurable time, and kairos, the right moment for decisions, for choice, for faith.
On the great days of the christian year the church sings Hodie! Today. Today he is born, today he is risen. Now is the moment.
St Augustine in his Confessions spends a whole book of his work discussing the nature of time. And the the whole of the Confessions is a personal salvation history, an account of God working, in time, in the life of an individual.
The author of the fourteenth century Cloud of Unknowing is determined that our prayer should penetrate time, cutting into it like Lyra’s knife in His Dark Materials, by using the smallest word possible, repeating again and again a single syllable, so that our minds might be attached to a single moment in all its butterfly slitheriness and impossibility to grasp. The Cloud’s teaching is often misinterpreted as suggesting a Christian use of a multi word or multi syllable mantra. It does not. Deeply Augustinian its purpose is to separate us from all that distracts us to past or future, it is the precursor of the sacrament of the present moment.
And yet in our culture we hide from the reality of time, of the turning of the planet; of the reality of sun and moon and stars of the changing length of the day. With clocks and lights, with television and internet, we treat each moment as if it was the same; a commodity to be used and filled.
I wonder how many of us here today know what time the sun rises at the moment? When dawn, the fore-lightening of the sky is noticeable?
Sunrise in Oxford this morning was at 5:14 am.
It was glorious in Christ Church Meadow as the light hit the mown hay.
Dawn, comes an hour or so sooner than sunrise at this time of year. A foretaste of the full light of the day that is to come.
Sunrise will be an hour and 7 minutes later on the last day of July than it was on the first. It makes a huge difference, the days are getting shorter and the nights longer already.
In April in Jerusalem the sun rises around 6:30 am, dawn will have been earlier than that so Mary Magdalen and the other women must have got to the tomb about 5 or 5:30am, St John tells us it was still dark.
Mary Magdalen used her time well, like the wise virgins of Jesus’ parable she was there, ready and awake.
Time is a sacred gift; only in time will we meet the risen Jesus, only if we are ready, awake, waiting will we find the one who comes to us unexpectedly, who we mistake for the gardener but who knows us by name. Only if we use the time that is given to us wisely will we hear him speak our name so that we can hold him and never let him go.
So our use of time; the way in which we inhabit time is at the heart of our spiritual lives.
It is a good exercise to write down how we think we spend our time. How much time we think we spend eating; travelling; watching television; listening to the radio; relaxing.
And then do it, for one, fairly typical week record how you actually use your time.
I have never done this exercise with an individual and not seen a huge difference between how they think they use time and how they actually do.
Time is too precious for that!
Don’t let it slip through your fingers.
How we use the whole of any day is of enormous importance. But I want to offer a challenge, about one small element of time, but one that is deeply sensitive to people.
It’s a challenge about the time that you get up.
It is one that I have offered in other situations and I am not yet convinced that I am wrong, although some people quite strongly want me to be.
Simply put I believe that those words we have just heard are so important: On the first day of the week Mary the Magdalene comes early while yet it was dark.
If we are serious about our spiritual lives, if we are serious about developing a life of prayer there is as far as I can see no alternative to getting up very early in the morning; for most of the year, while it is still dark.
It is graced time. It is a liminal time when the day moves from darkness to light. There is an energy in waking at this beautiful turning point of the day, sitting in the darkness, expectant and hopeful. And always, always, always being gifted with light, a new day, a new series of moments, a new time in which to meet the risen Lord.
I know that some people will say that they are night-owls not early birds. I just don’t believe that the human race is divided in some genetic way like that. Our sleep patterns are deeply habitual but habits can be broken and new ones created. I am told that it can take about 90 days to create new habits, so don’t try this for a week and then tell me that it doesn’t work for you. Try it for three months and then tell me.
I am not for a moment suggesting that you reduce the amount of sleep you have, simply go to bed earlier, turn the television or the emails off. Drink less so you get quality sleep, at least 7 hours for most people, and set the alarm.
Then wallow in the joyfulness of vigiling the Lord.
This may seem a small matter that I am making too much of, but years of talking to people about their prayer and their lives convinces me that it is very significant. Obviously, it will be affected by having small children, particular jobs and the patterns of partners and family but I do not know anyone that has a serious life of prayer who does not find the time for that in the early hours. I have not yet met or know anyone who stays up late in the evening and spends that time in prayer, lectio or meditation. At the end of the day the energy is all wrong for that.
The great Paschal vigil is the model on which we can base our daily lives. Not the lazy celebrations on Holy Saturday evening ending with everyone going to bed, but getting up in the night and vigiling the light. Greeting tea dawn from on high that breaks upon us each day and welcoming which fills us with energy, enthusiasm and passion
What we actually do with our time, just as what we eat and drink, how we spend our money is the real subject matter of our spirituality; not what experiences we have or how we feel.
Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go …
The writer of the Song of Songs finds the beloved by doing one simple thing. Getting up.
The love of Christ controls us, says St Paul. A better translation is compelled. We are never controlled by God but the love of Christ, our love, compels us. The disciplines of the Christian life are never obligations imposed on us; we feel freely a compulsion to fast, to keep vigil, to pray, to get up early. Compulsions that replace the compulsions, the addictions of the world.
Our Christian freedom is shown when we are not controlled by staying up late, but when we behave differently to those around us. When the patterns of our life, the habits of our use of time are set by the gospel.
“Suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by [Alice].
There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” (when she thought about it afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but, when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it …”
Are you curious to know the risen Jesus, to hear him speak your name?
Don’t be like the White Rabbit, always late, wake up, and very early in the morning, while it is still dark you will meet him.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Please sit down.
Wow, bishop Paul/Bev.
Wow, diocese of Liverpool,
Wow, everyone watching on livestream.
22 amazing people to be ordained priest here today. 22 amazing priests.
22 people who are sincere, serious, prayerful, big-hearted.
It was a deep joy for me to spend even just a few hours with you this week. A privilege to be at this service with you today, to pray for you and to to talk to you, your colleagues, your families and friends, about our friend Jesus.
1967, the summer of love.
The Beatles had released their album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the end of May that year. Brian Epstein signed them up for a TV Deal for one song, to be broadcast live on June 25th.
The instruction was clear: the song was to be broadcast simultaneously around the world, the lyrics had to be simple enough to be understood anywhere, in any language.
John Lennon set about it and in the broadcast 400 million people heard for the first time: All You Need Is Love.
That television broadcast was a programme called One World. In 1967 One World experiencing the same music, One World aspiring to love.
In 2021 One World is frighteningly real. One World in which a virus can spread to every corner of the globe in just a few months, in which variants come to dominate within weeks of emerging.
All you need is love?
All of us here in the cathedral, all of you watching at home, what do you need, what do we need, this morning/afternoon?
Possibly you need the preacher not to go on too long.
If you are X …. you need to be ordained priest.
To get to this day the women and men to be ordained priest needed to discern a call to priesthood with the Church and their bishops. They needed to absorb and regurgitate in essays knowledge of Scripture and theology. They needed to confirm that call to priesthood with their Training Incumbents and title parishes in this deacons’ year.
All You Need Is Love.
To love is to be people of heart. St Benedict in his Rule writes about enlarging the heart, expanding the heart.
X … this is the thing you need most for this ministry,
to be big-hearted people.
In my conversations with you over the last two days, short as that has been, that is what has encouraged me most – to see the bigness of your hearts.
To be a big-hearted person is not to absorb all the pain that you will meet in your ministry; it is not to take into yourself and hold there the brokenness of the world.
It is not to solve all the problems the loveless; the lonely; the desperate by your own actions, your own love.
If you try and do all that you will quickly burn out.
If you try and do all that your heart will soon whither.
To be big hearted is to be spacious.
To have enough room in your heart not for your love, but for God’s love.
To be empty enough of yourself and your own preoccupations for the love of God to dwell in you.
The opposite of a big heart is a hardened heart.
A heart that holds on tightly, a heart that is too full of its own hurts and injuries and in which there is no breathing space.
As I spoke with you this week some of you shared the pains, the sorrows, the brokenness of your own lives.
And this is the best news yet.
This is how God tenderises our hearts. How God softens us.
How we are opened up to recognise in our own suffering the suffering of others.
To see that life can be tough and painful and sad, and that’s OK.
All you need is love.
There are various stories about how and when Lennon wrote the song. Perhaps it was quickly in just the few weeks leading up to the One World broadcast.
He wrote a song in simple words to say profound things.
That is the task ahead of you dear friends being ordained today.
There’s no hurry, you can spend the rest of your life doing it.
From the spaciousness of your hearts, from your tenderised hearts, can you speak in simple words, as simple as the words Jesus uses:
love each other?
From the spaciousness of your hearts from your tenderised hearts, can you demonstrate in simple actions that glorious freedom that being loved by God gives us?
The freedom from our own histories and narratives.
Freedom from our own internalised images of ministry; freedom from the projections of our society on us of ministry.
Only one thing can give us that freedom, only one thing can fuel our ministry.
All you need is love.
One of my favourite spiritual writers talks of the need we have for ‘beginner’s mind’.
In the beginner’s mind there are endless possibilities.
A beginner doesn’t mind failing, is happy to laugh at themselves,
is serious about the task but doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
A priest is never an expert.
A priest is always a beginner.
Always open to new possibilities, always a learner.
For a priest there are always endless opportunities.
Bread and wine that can become the Body and Blood of Christ. Sins that can be forgiven. Lives that can be healed and blessed.
One of the things I loved over the last two days as I spent time with our wonderful priest candidates was that there was no sense of entitlement.
None of you thought you had it sussed, that you had arrived.
You talked of being completely surprised by this call; of wanting to go deeper.
The church of God, the Diocese of Liverpool, the communities you serve are blessed by your beginner’s minds.
Christian writers in the east speak of the mind descending into the heart, so that all your knowledge and experience dwells in the centre of your being in a spacious heart. A heart where love is not simply an emotion but a decision, a choice, as you are making a choice for your lives today.
A choice for love and freedom.
Only one thing can give us that freedom, only one thing can fuel our ministry.
All you need is love.
And that love is what we find in the gospel we have just heard.
It is friendship with Jesus.
X … never forget that above all else, above all the things that you will do and will fill your diaries and lives with, you are called to friendship with Jesus.
You will have to guard time to sustain that friendship by reading and studying Scripture, by praying, by having a friendship with Jesus that you can talk to other people about in the same simple language that Jesus uses.
You may not be John Lennon, but you do need to talk about Jesus from your own knowledge and experience.
And that’s the question posed to all of us who are Christians in this building today or watching on livestream:
how is our friendship with Jesus doing,
how is my friendship with Jesus, how is yours?
And to those of you who don’t know Jesus who are here perhaps to support a relative or friend, what does Jesus mean to you?
Perhaps you didn’t come to the cathedral this morning/afternoon expecting to discover love but that is what Jesus is offering you.
If you want to know more about this amazing friendship that he offers speak to one of these newly ordained priests, or give them a break and speak to one of the rest of us after the service.
Ask us about Jesus, test us out and see if we speak truthfully, authentically about this friend we have.
One of my favourite poems is W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innesfree’.
It is just twelve lines in three verses, here’s the first:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
What a lovely thought.
A life of simplicity.
From the romanticism of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’, to the island idyll of Robinson Crusoe the simple life appeals.
Jesus is sometimes portrayed as living the simple life. An itinerant preacher wandering around Palestine from place to place with a band of friends.
But I don’t think there is anything simple about Jesus at all. He is one of the most complex, interesting, fascinating people I know. I never tire of talking to Jesus when I pray; I never get bored of reading the things he said, the stories he told..
I don’t imagine that Nicodemus thought Jesus was simple either. Quite the opposite.
If you want to see Jesus’ complexity read the gospel we have just heard, the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. It is wonderfully complex.
Light, darkness, world, flesh, spirit, born again, testimony, earthly and heavenly things; Moses and serpents.
Almost any sentence of this gospel could fuel a lifetime of research.
Poor Nicodemus comes off none too well. He is the foil to Jesus; to those who do understand, the believers.
His ignorance, his not-knowing and not understanding is typical of what is often called John’s irony.
But we should not be too pleased with ourselves if we place ourselves among those who do understand .
For those who compiled the lectionary, the series of readings from Scripture that we use week by week and day by day, Trinity Sunday must have posed a bit of a challenge. The Trinity is present implicitly in Scripture, of course, but nowhere explicitly.
I don’t know if the compilers chose today’s Gospel ironically, but there is definitely a sardonic quality in reading this passage about not understanding on a day when we celebrate a doctrine that is, to put it mildly, difficult to understand.
Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed in me if I tell you that I won’t be explaining the Trinity to you this morning. You are not going to leave Christ Church cathedral with a two sentence definition of the nature of God. I will leave that sort of thing to my canon professorial colleagues.
Quite the opposite. I don’t want to give you any explanations or definitions. I want you, us, to live with not knowing, not understanding.
It may be somewhat radical to say this from the heart of an Oxford college but it seems to me that living with not knowing, living with the questions is as important as getting the answers right.
This is at the heart of the spiritual life. To acknowledge that we are not in control, that we cannot know everything.
Simplicity can be attractive just as all fundamentalisms are attractive. They remove complication, ambiguity and complexity. They reduce the complex to standard answers and easy formulas.
We see this over and over again in politics and history. The simple lies that some politicians tell attract votes and supporters.
We see it too in our labelling of people. People are either saints or sinners, good or bad, heroes or villains. yet in my 56 years I have never met anyone who was only one of those things. I have never met anyone who is not a sinner, is not capable of doing bad things, of appalling indifference or failings of judgement. I know I am.
Yet we are deeply understanding of our own complexity and deeply unforgiving of anyone else’s.
I think it is better sometimes to stop trying to explain the Trinity but to examine what we can learn from the complexity of God.
There is (inevitably) a theory of complexity. One definition of this complexity that I found describes it in six ways.
are dynamic, they are continuously changing
are far from equilibrium, have the potential to change and take alternative paths
are open systems, that interchange energy and information
involve feedback. What happens next depends on what happened previously
are systems where the whole is more than the sum of the parts
are causaland yet indeterminate
I like these as ways of thinking about how we as Christians can be, if we allow our lives to mirror the life of the Trinity. If we live with complexity. If we become more God-like, more divine.
Having the right answer all the time is deadening. Asking the questions is dynamic.
The Christian life is a life of constant conversion, of changing, of admitting that we got it wrong and need to do something differently.
The church needs to be the least closed system, it must interpret the world to itself and to the world.
The church needs to be receptive to feedback; self reflective.
The church is always more than any one of us.
The church needs to create change, not simply reacting to the world but proactively creating God’s kingdom of justice, love and peace.
And each of these can be applied to us as individuals too.
Are we dynamic, continually being converted? Are we able to change? Are we open to new information, new energy? Do we receive feedback from others, and reflect on our lives?
Are we able to collaborate effectively with others to bring more justice in the world?
My reading of the gospels makes me think that Jesus was like that. Despite our images of him as somehow simple and straightforward, he is very far from that. Like every other human being he is complex, complicated and fascinating. Over and over again in the gospels he refuses the simple answers. Rather he comes at things at a tangent, unexpectedly.
He refuses Nicodemus simplistic answers and presents him with a range of ambiguous words:
Light, darkness, world, flesh, spirit, born again, testimony, earthly and heavenly things; Moses and serpents.
So as followers of Jesus, as friends of Jesus, let’s live with complexity. Let’s embrace complex truth and reject the simplistic lie.
And the church gives us a way to rehearse complex living; to practise living with ambiguity, in our life of prayer.
It is infinitely practical, infinitely doable. And it is my challenge to you today to take up this practice if you are serious about Christianity, serious about praying, if you seriously want to embrace complexity.
It is the daily, day by day, praying of the psalms.
Rowan Williams in his book ‘On Augustine’ says this:
“The church’s worship … is not accidental or marginal to the church’s very being. … the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”
This is so important. If you want an immediate, routine way of becoming more Christlike it is to take your bible, or your prayer book and open it at the psalms and pray them. If you have a Book of Common Prayer it gives you a way of doing that over a month. Praying them over and over again until they become part of the fabric of who you are. This is not one pious practice among others, one among a range of ‘spiritualities’, it is the normative way for Christians to pray. The routine way of Christian prayer.
The psalms are wonderfully, deliciously complex and ambiguous. They are never tiring, never dull, you will never be bored by them. Praying them day after day they become good friends, companions on our journey through life with all its ambiguities and complexity.
I love the image from our first reading in Isaiah of the hot coal touched to the prophet’s lips. Nothing could be more complex than coal, formed in the planet’s depths over millenia, the residue of living organisms.
If you pray the psalms daily, get to know and love them, you will see that they are hot coals, burning with divine energy, the result of centuries of formation and reformation. They will touch your lips and you will be burnt.
It is no surprise to me that our complex and ambiguous God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity should give us such complex and ambiguous texts to pray with.
The psalms contain everything. Anger. love, friendship, repentance, light, darkness, war, enemies, violence, depression, despair, delight, ecstasy.
When Frideswide and her community prayed here on this site in the seventh century, they prayed the psalms, when the Augustinian canons prayed, they prayed the psalms, the canons of Christ Church have prayed the psalms for nearly five hundred years as we do day by day now.
For Christians, the psalms, because of their complexity, because they are difficult, contain, as Augustine puts it the whole Christ, the totus Christus. And therefore they contain the whole Trinity. The Creator of the universe in all his majesty, the Messiah-Son who is anointed king and the Spirit, the voice that thunders on the waters and which is the abyss, speaking to abyss.
This is why each time we as Christians, pray the psalms, as we do here at Christ Church, day by day, we end each psalm with the doxology. We embrace and immerse ourselves in the complex, life of God who is Trinity. God who defies all simplistic explanations and all fundamentalisms. God who is so gloriously impossible to explain.
And if you only read one psalm when you get home today or some time this week. Here is a psalm for the Trinity, Psalm 29, God’s threefold voice echoing the Holy, Holy, Holy of Isaiah.
In Hebrew the Lord’s voice is Kol Adonai, I will never forget singing this in synagogue with Jewish friends, the Lord’;s voice Kol Adonai, repeated as we sang”
3 The Lord’s voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters;
4 the voice of the Lord, full of power,
the voice of the Lord, full of splendour.
5 The Lord’s voice shattering the cedars,
the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon;
6 he makes Lebanon leap like a calf
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 (The Lord’s voice flashes flames of fire.)
8 The Lord’s voice shaking the wilderness,
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh;
9 the Lord’s voice rending the oak tree
and stripping the forest bare.
3b The God of glory thunders.
10 In his temple they all cry: “Glory!” [Grail Psalms]
Towards the mercy-seat: the psalms in Christian life
Two years ago my mother died.
It was wonderful to be able to be around her bed as she breathed her last breath.
I am even more conscious of that privilege now that most people are not able to have their loved with them as they die. This is very real for you and also for my family, news of my dad dying coming on Palm Sunday afternoon.
As my mother died my brother and sister and I prayed the Rosary together and it was very beautiful to see her lips move with the prayers, so familiar to her, even though she could not make any sound.
Last words are rightly important. Jesus’s final words, the famous ‘seven last words’ are rightly treasured and meditated on by Christians. the fact that he chose words from the psalms My God, my God why have you forsaken me. is not insignificant.
Jesus in his dying breath gifts us the book of psalms as the very foundation of Christian prayer.
The apostolic church when it met together prayed with ‘hymns and psalms’.
Christians at all times and in all places have prayed the psalms, sanctifying time with the daily round of psalmody.
Psalms are, of course, the bread and butter of all Christian prayer but especially of the monastic life which is, after all. just an intensification, a living out of the Christian, the baptised life.
In my three talks this week I am going to reflect on the psalms. Today on praying Jesus in the psalms, tomorrow on the place of mercy in the psalms and on Wednesday a close reading of one psalm, psalm 28, from which, in the Coverdale, Book of Common Prayer version we get this lovely phrase: “towards the mercy seat” which is the overall title for my talks.
I love the psalms. I hope that i communicate something to you of how rich, delightful and lasting the psalms are for prayer; how much they delight me every single day with their complexity and density. I have been praying the psalms seriously for over 40 years and I never tire of them; I endlessly find new things in them; they constantly speak in me and for me in new ways. Most of all, I find Jesus in them. Over and over again I hear him speaking; over and over again they speak of Jesus.
Of course, that might seem odd. The psalms were written some many centuries before Jesus.
Finding Jesus in the psalms , praying Jesus in the psalms is essential to our Christian praying of the psalms. these are not simply ancient texts hallowed by use over the centuries. they are living prayers which give us the words to pray; which pray in Jesus, of Jesus and to Jesus.
The psalms are not simple. If they were they would become dull very quickly. We need to work at them. they are serious stuff. I always have a commentary by my prayer stall. John Eaton on the psalms is excellent. But if I could recommend one thing to read on the psalms it is Rowan Williams book ‘On Augustine’ and only one Chapter in that book, the second chapter on Augustin’;e reading of the psalms. I have sent M. Katherine a series of extracts from that chapter which pick up the key themes.
Here are two of the most significant things that Rowan has to say about Augustine’s reading of the psalms:
“Singing the Psalms … becomes a means of learning what it is to inhabit the Body of Christ and to be caught up in Christ’s prayer. Just as Christ makes his own our lament, our penitence and our fear by adopting the human condition in all its tragic fullness as the material of his Body, so we are inevitably identified with what he says to his Father as God (e.g. en.Ps. 30 (ii) 3–4; 74.4; 142.3). Our relation to Christ is manifested as multi-layered: ‘He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our Head, he is prayed to by us as our God’ (en.Ps. 85.1). The meaning of our salvation is that we are included in his life, given the right to speak with his divine voice, reassured that what our human voices say out of darkness and suffering has been owned by him as his voice, so that it may in some way be opened to the life of God for healing or forgiveness.”
Listen to that key sentence again:
‘He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our Head, he is prayed to by us as our God.’
When we pray as Christians we pray as Christ. We are the body of Christ, every baptised person prays in persona Christi.
And Rowan goes on:
“The church’s worship … is not accidental or marginal to the church’s very being. Obviously Augustine has much to say about the Eucharist as the prime locus for discovering ourselves as the Body; nevertheless, the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”
Listen to that final sentence again:
“the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”
Our praying of the psalms is the most immediate routine means. Our daily bread.
So, let’s look at one psalm together now. If you have your Office book or a Bible in front of you turn to the book of psalms and find Psalm 119.
Until a reform of the liturgy in 1910 Psalm 119 was prayed in its entirety every day at the Little Hours of the Office: prime, terce, Sext and None. by all who used the Roman Breviary. Many Anglican religious communities did this and continued to do so in to the 1960s and beyond. In the Rule of St Benedict this was the pattern on Sundays but on other days the psalms of Ascent were used.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm with 176 verses. It is an alphabet acrostic with every verse of each section beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Evert verse except one (122) also contains a synonym for the Torah, the law.
But we should not think of the ;aw as a set of regulations. Torah is a much richer word than that. If you have ever seen Jews dancing with the Torah scrolls in the synagogue or reaching out to touch and kiss the scrolls you will know the passionate devotion and love felt for Torah.
And this is key to a Christian praying of the psalms.
Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life John 14:16.
In Psalm 119 Torah is described as the Way: nine times; the truth 7 times and as life 12 times.
When Jesus says this he is saying that he is the living Torah; Torah made flesh if you like.
And this is how we can pray this psalm. Richard Meux Benson reviver of the religious life in the Church of England and former student of Christ Church where I am writing from now suggests that a form of devotion we could use is pray this psalm replacing the synonyms for Torah with the holy Name of Jesus.
Here is an example secion:
153Under affliction see me and rescue me,
for I have not forgotten Jesus.
154Uphold my cause, and deliver me;
true to Jesus, grant me life.
155Unknown your mercy to the sinner
who do not study Jesus.
156Unnumbered, Lord, are your blessings;
according to Jesus grant me life.
157Under all the assaults of my oppressors,
I keep true to Jesus.
158Unhappy I looked at the faithless
because they did not keep Jesus.
159Up, Lord, and witness the love I bear Jesus;
in your kindness preserve my life.
160Unchanging truth is your Word’s fountain-head,
Jesus is just.
One of my favourite short commentaries on Psalm 119 is by Jonathan Graham who was a monk at Mirfield.
In this quotation he captures something profoundly special for me about the praying of this psalm.
“Psalm 119 is a love song.
Not a passionate love song; certainly not.
It is not the song of love at first sight,
nor of the bitter sweet of emotion and desire.
It is the song of happy married life.
That is not to say that it is, literally, the song of a poet happily wedded; but it breathes all the way through
the charmed monotony of a life vowed to another;
it repeats with endless variety and sweet restraint
the simple inexpressible truth that can never grow weary or stale
– I love thee. Thou, thee, thine;
every verse of the poem, except the three which introduce it,
contains thou, thee or thine.
And a very large number of them echo: I, me, mine.
Well might its author find the sum total of his song in the high priestly prayer of Jesus:
All mine are thine and thine are mine.”
May the praying of the psalms teach us this charmed monotony of a life vowed to Jesus in the vows of baptism, in the vows of religious life.
As we know well, the psalms contain the whole of human experience: lament and praise; passion and longing; victory and defeat; depression and ecstasy. An even, as we say in yesterday’s talk, in Psalm 119 the gentle and charmed monotony of daily life.
The psalms are compendium of human experience; an encyclopedia of our human-ness. By praying the psalms day by day we are giving prayerful voice to the sentiment that “nothing human is alien to me”.
In the proclamation of the Christian faith in our time we face an enormous hurdle in what I like to think of as the existentialist fallacy; the myth that we are merely accidental organisms existing in isolation from one another. Christianity relies on our having a shared, common humanity; that the stuff, the material of which we are made is something that we have in common with every human being that has ever and will ver exist. This is important because without it the incarnation is unnecessary and the redemption wrought by the cross and resurrection can have no possible effect on us.
We are saved only because our common human-ness is saved.
That human-ness has its roots in the biblical account of creation where God creates us in our own image and likeness. Again, this is really important because it both means that God’s first revelation of God-ness is in our own being but also that when God became man in Jesus the gulf is at the same time immense and yet not impossible. God could become human because it was always going to be a good fit, to use clumsy language. When mystical theology speaks of our becoming divine, our divinisation, the gulf is not impossible to bridge because we are already God shaped.
So when we recite the psalms they both help us to realise our human-ness and remind us that there is something in that which correlates closely to divine nature.
For many years i have taught mindfulness meditation to children and adults. Simple mindfulness of breathing and occasional loving-kindness visualisations. Adults are always rather self-conscious about describing their experience but children speak very powerfully about it. Over and over again i have heard children say two things: It is like there is someone there.” and “Its’s like coming home, like I belong.”.
This is exactly right, our busy-ness the many things which we pass the time and fill our days all too easily alienate us from ourselves. So that we experience the nausea that the existentialists identify.
Yet when we sit in stillness we can ‘come home’ to our basic humanity. And we can find that there is someone there.
The psalms function like that too. By repeating them over and over again we come home to being human and we find in their narration that Someone who is the constant in the story: God.
That recitation of the psalms either in order, as in the Prayer Book Office, or in some other arrangement has an objectivity to it that is important. Our common human-ness is not based on any individual’s ability to empathise with others. Nor is based on feeling that feelings that are expressed. The psalms simply reflect a human experience that is real, that exists, that is.
So I have described how the events that we are celebrating in this Holy Week rely on our common humanity to be efficacious, to have any effect. They also rely on another aspect of our human nature that is essential to make redemption not only possible, that is, of course, sin.
Sin is why we need saving. It is what makes salvation necessary.
In our world sin is not very fashionable. We prefer a more therapeutic understanding human nature. I believe therapies of many kinds are important and helpful, but if we don’t recognise sin in ourselves we will find it impossible to understand the Christian faith let alone participate in salvation.
The psalms of course are full of sins. The psalms of repentance; the penitential psalms; psalms that express anger and hatred and wish destruction on our enemies. I very much recommend that you pray those psalms too and don’t omit them as many modern arrangements of psalms for worship do. If we whitewash over human nature we are missing out on a crucial part of the picture.
When we think of sin we have a tendency to think of it in a legalistic kind of ways; as lists of rule-breaking; particular individual things that we wrong. This is, of course, true. We all commit sins; we all do break the rules.
But sin is more like the fundamental orientation of our lives. A picture that I find helpful is of a bicycle on which the front wheel is not properly aligned with the handle-bar. If you have ever tried to ride a bike in that state you will know how difficult it is. It is impossible to cycle in a straight line no matter how hard we try.
We are sinners.
That is who we are and who we will remain as long as we live.
The psalms show us how God reacts to the fact our sinfulness. It is in a simple Hebrew word, hesed (pronounced with a soft ‘ch’ at the start like Scottish loch).
It occurs an amazing 127 times in the book of Psalms in contrast to the next books where it occurs most often 1 Samuel and Genesis where it occurs a mere 11 times each.
hesed is translated a variety of ways. Most often in the Prayer Book-Coverdale psalms, as loving-kindness, but sometimes just as kindness, or mercy or goodness.
The problem with mercy is that it can all too easily sound like God’s reaction to that list of sins, a ticking off in the sense not of telling off but of forgiving each sin individually.
In fact God’s loving-kindness is much deeper and more significant than that. It embraces the whole of us, it embraces us as sinners.
Because of our culture people often come to the Confessional with deep seated self hatred. shame and loathing. I occasionally as a penance propose using a praise psalm for the sin. Praising God for the fact of sin which has brought us to the means of grace; brought us to repentance and which reveals our need for God, our need for Jesus.
I love the Jesus prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
It contains that hesed, that mercy which is God’s reaction to us.
It acknowledges that I am a sinner, and I find that tremendously liberating.
I am a sinner, I always will be a sinner, I will always need Jesus.
I don’t know if you have been able to make your confession this Lent, this Holy Week.
Allow me to set you a penance.
Read Psalm 135.
It is a great litany of hesed.
The refrain Great is his love, love without end.
His mercy endures for ever.
His hesed will never end.
Towards the mercy-seat
Read psalm 28 in the Coverdale/BCP version:
. PSALM XXVIII. Ad te, Domine.
1 Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my strength :
think no scorn of me; lest, if thou make as though thou hearest not,
I become like them that go down into the pit.
2 Hear the voice of my humble petitions, when I cry unto thee :
when I hold up my hands towards the mercy-seat of thy holy temple.
3. O pluck me not away, neither destroy me with the ungodly and wicked doers :
which speak friendly to their neighbours, but imagine mischief in their hearts.
4. Reward them according to their deeds :
and according to the wickedness of their own inventions.
5. Recompense them after the work of their hands :
pay them that they have deserved.
6. For they regard not in their mind the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands :
therefore shall he break them down, and not build them up.
7. Praised be the Lord :
for he hath heard the voice of my humble petitions.
8. The Lord is my strength, and my shield; my heart hath trusted in him, and I am helped :
therefore my heart danceth for joy, and in my song will I praise him.
9. The Lord is my strength :
and he is the wholesome defence of his Anointed.
10. O save thy people, and give thy blessing unto thine inheritance :
feed them, and set them up for ever.
Biblical scholars on the psalms have spent much energy identifying different types or genres of psalm. Psalm 28 is agreed by all scholars to be a lament of an individual. There may also be a royal element to this with the voice of the speaker being identified with that of the king; we know that the psalms are traditionally ascribed to David and this one even includes the word Anointed in verse 9. As Christians we know that Jesus is the descendant of David and the anointed messiah, so we should always sit up when we notice the word in Scripture.
It is in fact a rather nicely constructed psalm and typical of psalms of lament that move from woe to praise. This is, of course true of Psalm 22 which Jesus prayed from the cross and moves from the desolation in the opening to praise at the end, a movement frequently commented on in devotional writing about the crucifixion.
I am going to comment on two features of the psalm.
The first is the passage that forms verses 4 – 6 (read them again). In the current form of the Roman Catholic Daily Office these verses are omitted as being unsuitable for public worship. I imagine this entire psalm does not appear in Common Worship provision either.
As I said earlier in the week I think it is a shame to omit this important part of human life.
One of my favourite psalms is psalm 93. It is a psalm I have often used in school assemblies.
When I was Headteacher of a rage comprehensive school in south London almost all of the children were black. The older boys would quite often be stopped by the police and sometimes searched, the controversial stop and search policy; if the young men reacted badly they might find themselves taken done to the local police station. On one occasion our Head Boy thus found himself under arrest and his mother rang me to meet her there to take him home. I had often spoken to the school about the importance of good manners and how we are more likely to get what we want by speaking politely. By the time his mum and I got there he had calmed down and was being extremely polite. He was soon released and we were on our way out.
As we walked out of the station this young man bent down (he is very tall) and whispered to me the opening lines of Psalm 93. Do you know them?
Here is the Grail version:
O Lord, avengingGod, avenging God draw near.
I was thrilled. He understood that his anger was appropriate, but he also understood that there was an appropriate time and place and means of expressing it.
These psalms, these verses are important. We might like to think ourselves incapable of wanting revenge, or even victory, or even of having enemies. But that is probably unlikely. What is certain is that these are common human feelings. Acknowledging the reality of them is essential if we are to be fully human and if we are to allow that full humanity to be redeemed.
The second element in this psalm that I want to draw your attention to is in the second half verse 2 when the psalmist talks of the mercy-seat.
Mercy-seat has now become an established part of the English language. Even some modern translations use it.
When Miles Coverdale was translating the psalms in the early sixteenth century he consulted the German translation of the Bible that Martin Luther had produced. In that text this word gnadenstuhl appears. Mercy-seat, is a translation of the Hebrew word kaporet. It doesn’t really mean seat at all. It refers to the lid on the box or container in which the tablets of the law were stored. The lid, the kaporet had a statue of an angel, a cherubim at each side. If you google this you will find some images. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur – kippur having the same root as kaporet) the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed ram on the kaporet.
I like the translation mercy-seat because it captures the sense of something concrete, is not an abstract concept or even a place it is a thing. I haven’t found any modern translation that does better; most do worse by turning it into something abstract.
In my first two talks I have reflected on the Christian use of the psalms, this word kaporet is a good example of that.
In the century before Jesus the Hebrew bible was translated, allegedly by 70 scholars, into Greek. These seventy led to the translation being called the Septuagint, often in books indicated by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. It is this version of the Hebrew Bible that St Paul quotes from.
The Septuagint translates our word kaporet by the Greek word Hilasterion. This word occurs just twice in the New Testament, both in St Paul’s writing at Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5.
In Romans this verse is key to understanding what Jesus does.
[Christ] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. [ESV]
I have already spoken about the importance of sin in Christian life and the necessity of our common humanity for Jesus’ saving work to be possible, to be effective.
the hilasterion, the kaporet, the mercy seat is the propitation, the offering of Jesus himself.
Reading the psalms, reciting them day by day as Christians takes us to the heart of our biblical, Christian faith. The Old and New Testaments as we call them are not in any way separate. They are a continuum; the new is foreshadowed in the old because they are simply the single story of salvation history; of God’s plan for humanity. Just as our very humanity, our own beings reveals God to us because we are created in his image and likeness.
This Holy Week, we are on pilgrimage to the mercy-seat. Not to the container of the tablets of the Law but to the living Torah, Jesus himself who is the way, the truth and the life.
Sacred, Christ Church Cathedra, Oxford 21st March, 2021
Sub Dean, Fr Richard Peers and his partner Jim Cable, horticultural writer
When I learnt my catechism as a child I learnt the first question by heart:
Why did God make me? He made me to know him, to love him and serve him.
God wants us to know him. One way I have come to know God better is in gardens.
I’ve been examining the Church of England’s calendar of saints recently. Those people we remember as we celebrate the Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer each day.
Someone not me has done the maths and worked out that 80% of those commemorated are men. Just 20%, a fifth are women. And just as strange is that only 5% were married. Part of the vocation of LGBT+ people in the church is not to have the conversation about homo-sexuality but to embrace the conversation about sexuality.
This is particularly strange to me because after my baptism as a Christian, my 35 year relationship – so far- with Jim is the principal means of grace in my life. It is this relationship that most converts me, most turns me from self-centredness and sin, and most engages me in the universe. It is my relationship with Jim that is my principal call to holiness, even though I constantly fail.
When I marry couples, I always give them a present, and the present I always give is a crucifix, that sign of Jesus dying to self, dying for us.
Christian marriage is a way God gives us of growing in holiness. Of dying to self. Jim constantly makes me, has to work making me less self-centred.
I am often amused at the etymology of the word homosexual. It means same, of course in the Greek. In what Jim and I are going to say tonight I hope that you will see that apart from gender, we are incredibly different. I feel more hetero than homo to him. It is that difference, his love of gardening; his physical work; his finding Jesus in the garden, through gardening that enriches my life and draws me a little closer to holiness.
When I was a child my parents were restless and their marriage not altogether happy. We moved house several times and my way of coping with the upheaval was to create my own little gardening space each time. It helped root me in the new place.
Gardening is a skilled practical task. It cannot be rushed. Many jobs require a high level of concentration. So when I am pruning, for instance, I am looking closely at where the buds are that will produce new branches and imagining the shape of the pruned tree or shrub that will result from my actions. There is a rhythm to it. At the same time, it is not that difficult – once you know what you are doing – so the mind, lightly tethered, can drift to some extent. …And that is where God creeps in.
Psychologists refer to a state of flow. We might say we are in the zone. In any case we are deeply absorbed but also receptive. It is one reason why time flies in the garden.
I guess you could call this informal prayer and it comes naturally to me but Richard taught me by example early on in our relationship how to take what is on my mind to God in more ritualised ways. I was baptised and confirmed as an adult during the time Richard was at theological college.
Part of the difference between us is that I am a very religious person. I love going to church, worshipping, being with other Christians. I enjoy almost every kind of worship I have ever attended. From Pentecostal to Greek Orthodox.
Jim came to faith while I was at theological college in the 1990s but his experience of prayer is very different to mine.
As well as the mindful craft work I described a garden can be a place for more defined prayerful practice.
I have been involved in two projects where a labyrinth has been central to the design – one outside a church in London and one in a historic walled garden open to the public. Lose yourself in a maze, find yourself in a labyrinth goes the phrase. And while trite it does hold some truth.
At Minsteracres retreat centre, near Consett, in County Durham there is a grass labyrinth near the main housedesigned by Michael Grogan. It is used spontaneously by visitors but also as a teaching aid for groups on retreat. Gardener and lay member of the community Lya Vollering explained to me that for people who find formal ‘religion’ difficult the labyrinth helps them get in touch with themselves, nature and a ‘higher power’. The journey to the centre of a labyrinth reflects the inner journey we all face, that of letting go of all that blocks our way to God. The Minsteracres labyrinth has a shiny stainless steel gateway at its centre. You see see yourself in the mirrored surface but in the context of the utterly beautiful County Durham landscape. God’s creation – the trees, the sky, sheep and wildlife. The centre offers a moment to give thanks before you begin your outward journey back into the world. Lya has used it many times with family and friends of substance misusers. Weather permitting, she encourages them to walk barefoot… “to feel the earth, the grass, to be grounded”.
One of my favourite Christian writers is St Augustine. Augustine describes God as beauty. When we experience beauty we experience God. When I was a Head teacher we chose a new motto for the school and we came up with Deus pulchritudinis. God is beauty.
I love many human made works of art, poetry, music, art. But there is something about the beauty of nature that involves no effort. We human beings can end up trying too hard. It is all about succeeding and even competing. But But nature is unselfconscious. Natural things are at ease with themselves.
When we garden it is almost impossible not to marvel at God’s creation.
Perhaps the obvious thing we look for in a garden is flowers. We enjoy their colour, scent and intricate arrangements.
Flowers have evolved to aid pollination and perpetuate a species. They are not for us human beings so why do we respond so positively towards them – that miniscule leap deep inside when we stumble upon a perfectly formed bloom. We don’t often eat flowers; they serve no practical function and yet they speak to us.
As the poet, Louis Hemmings, puts it:
How do flowers bring hope?
How do their silent lips speak?
What dreams their sweet scents evoke?
Flowers give strength to the weak.
It is a bit of mystery. Colour may be significant. The ability to spot ripe fruit amongst vegetation would have been a useful and rewarding skill to our ancestors. I feel symmetry has something to do with it. As Professor Jonathan Edwards, of University College, London puts it “The beauty of the delicate flower is in the sexy invisibility of an unbelievably intricate act of creation and our attraction to it is likely to be an exaptation – of no usefulness in itself but a sign of a useful attraction to things that show ordered complexity.”
I do a lot of work with individuals as they reflect on their spiritual lives. I have worked on my own spiritual life with directors since I was a teenager. I have hundreds, thousands of books about prayer and spirituality. But if I had to sum up spirituality in a single phrase it would be remarkably simple.
The whole of the spiritual life, consists, I believe in doing one thing: letting go.
When Jesus died he was letting go.
Letting go of control, letting go of life itself, letting go of holding on.
Gardening is a creative interaction with Nature. It is a form of control made most manifest in the grand formal gardens of the 17th century but, try as we might, the results are never perfect. While formal gardens are impressive, I prefer a lighter touch. I love the wilder areas of my garden but in a sense, they work in contrast to the imposed neatness of the more ‘gardened’ areas. Letting go is an important counterbalance to discipline and that juxtaposition makes a garden. Thankfully we are learning that since it is futile to attempt to control what is a living eco system there is no place for chemicals in our gardens.
W creating a new garden I like to recycle what is on site rather than filling a skip and buying new.
If you come and visit us at the Sub Deanery here at Christ Church you will see lots of versions of this famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev. The Trinity is what we as Christians think God is like.
For me one of the most powerful lessons of the doctrine is existence of difference at the heart of God’s own being, God’s own life.
LGBT+ have an important vocation in the human family because we will always be different; always be the minority and that’s good.
I believe profoundly that when we are most ourselves we allow other people to be themselves.
Over my career working with volunteers in a garden setting has been a great joy. The two places where I have encountered the most diversity in the people I engage with have been within the Church and in the sphere of Horticulture. Gardening seems to be a great leveller. And of course, as a physical space a garden can be a great place to meet others. We are blessed here at Christ Church with a garden in the centre of a city. Now the grip of the pandemic seems to be loosening we are looking forward to entertaining in the garden and hearing people share their unique stories. There is something about being in the safe living embrace of a garden that helps us relax and be honest with one another just as walking in the countryside or even going on a long drive together can help us speak the truth. Perhaps one day we can hold an open-air Sacred in the Sub-Deanery garden?
One of the things I am enjoying most about being here at Christ Church is the opportunity to meet and form friendships with our academic colleagues in the college and university. This Lent I have been interviewing some of those colleagues as part of what we are calling Open House which is a conversation we live stream on Monday evenings.
In my preparation for one of those I had a great discussion with Mishtooni Bose, a professor of literature about suffering. How we cope with suffering she said is the fundamental question of human life.
In this pandemic the whole human race has been confronted with the reality of suffering.
It is no accident that the principal sign of Christianity is a cross or crucifix.
Suffering, and how we deal with it is who we are.
The Church year has a definite structure and overlays the natural cycle of the seasons. A true gardener loves winter as much as high summer. It is a time for work as well as waiting. The death of winter is merely a transition time with life slowed to an almost silent tick within the dormant plants, bulbs and seeds.
At this time of year, during Lent, gardeners are acutely aware of the lengthening days of spring. Easter is a time to sow and nurture and marvel at the reburgeoning of the garden that will lead to an abundance of food and flowers for the summer feast days.
Jim and I met 35 years ago. We knew pretty early on that we wanted the same thing.
We wanted a shared life, a life together.
As the Song of Songs in the bible says love is a strong as death, fierce
But I am also with St Augustine once again. Love is an act of the will, it is a decision.
To commit is to make an irrevocable decision. It’s a bit counter cultural. We like to think that we have a choice, choices all the time.
Although I had been brought up in a Christian family it was as a teenager that I committed my life to Jesus. I had an experience of God, of the Holy Spirit that was so powerful that I knew there could be no going back.
My commitment to Jesus, my commitment to Jim are both part of the same thing.
They are choices I have made as I craft my life.
Gardening is a craft.
I have spent most of my life as a teacher in schools as well as a priest.
The thing I most want children and young people to know is that we are the craftspeople of our lives.
I think it is safe to say Richard is better at prayer and me at gardening but maintaining a prayer life or a garden each demand discipline and commitment. I know that gardening can be a solace in the hard times.
I am reminded of Kipling’s famous poem The Glory of The Garden –
Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him seesThat half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away!
Schoeps, Hans Joachim. “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 65, no. 4, 1946, pp. 385–392. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3262158. Accessed 27 Feb. 2021.
Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Romans 4
Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35(3) 207–241
Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A; Baker Academic 2007
Well, we now know the road map. there is light at the end of the tunnel. If all goes well by June 21st we will be out of lockdowns.
I expect there are things you are yearning to do.
I am yearning to see my dad in his care home.
To go for a long walk that ends up with a pub lunch.
To invite people for dinner and sit at a table with friends.
I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly a travel addict but I am also yearning to go abroad, to hear people chatting in other languages, to see places I’ve never been before.
And I am yearning to worship in other languages. I love to go to church in France and pray in French.
One of the places I am missing most is the little Burgundy village of Taizé perched on a hill a few miles east of Cluny. I first went there when I was 17 and I have been most of not quite every year since. It’s the home of an ecumenical monastic community where thousands of young people gather over the summer months. I am excited that Clare, our college Chaplain, and Dirk an academic in chemistry and next year’s senior academic (Senior Censor) at Christ Church have agreed to come with me and a group of of students on a chaplaincy pilgrimage in June 2022.
When I am Taizé I maintain my discipline of celebrating Mass, the Eucharist every day by concelebrating with one of the monks in the little crypt chapel under the main community church. the chapel is full of icons and very beautiful. In the corridor outside there is a stunning stained glass window. It is tall and narrow and this canvas is a photo of just the lower half of it. It’s an image of a boy, perhaps seven or eight years old and you can just see adult hands , one on each shoulder. In the whole window you can see that the hands belong to the man stood behind him, a man with a long beard.
The window, made by one of the brothers of the community at Taizé portrays a story from Genesis 22. It’s a searing and heart breaking story. And even though I have this canvas on the wall in my cellar chapel here at Christ Church I can hardly bear to look at it. The boy is Isaac and the man is his father Abraham. The story in Genesis 22 is the account of God asking Abraham to take his son, his first and most beloved son up a mountain and slaughter him, to kill him as a sacrifice.
Looking at this picture, this stained glass, the trust on Isaac’s face for his father is total. His faith in him is total. His eyes look up secure in the knowledge that his father will care for him.
Genesis 22 is one of the most powerful passages, among many, in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jews today read this account on the High Holy Day, the Days of Awe, the Day of Atonement and the Jewish New Year each Autumn.
In our first reading today St Paul reflects on the Abraham cycle of stories. The letter to the Romans where our first reading comes from is notoriously complex and Paul’s argument is difficult to understand. It is particularly hard for us to follow when we get snippets to read like today’s passage which really make no sense without the larger context, the whole argument. It is even harder to understand because our minds are full of the arguments of history. Our reading of St Paul is overlaid with thoughts about faith and works that owe more to the sixteenth century Reformation than to first century Judaism. Finally, it is hard for us to lay aside centuries of Christian anti-semitism that makes us think of the ‘superior’; Christian grace taking over from the supposed ‘inferior’ Jewish law.
Romans 4 is a key passage in Paul’s letter. Almost all of the commentaries will point you to Genesis 15 as the key text on which Paul is commenting. They do so because Paul is clearly reflecting on the promise made to Avram – who has not yet been renamed Abraham – that his seed would many. That Abraham would be the father of many nations.
However, I want you to think of this picture of Isaac as vital to understanding Paul’s viewpoint. Paul was clearly familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, almost certainly in the popular Greek translation made at Alexandria. he would certainly have been familiar with what we know as chapter 15 of Genesis. The covenant God makes with Abram. But chapter 15 is hardly the most memorable , the most colourful, the most dramatic of the stories of Abraham.
The covenant is in some ways an important turning point in the story but it is not the heart of who Abraham is. It tells us very little about Abraham’s character or history.
The whole of that character, all of that history would have been in Paul’s mind as he wrote his letter and as he reflects on Abraham here.
Abraham is fascinating because (in Genesis 12) he leaves his homeland, his family and community behind. He leaves everything. In his travels he meets Melchisdech, an otherwise unknown king and priest; a priest without lineage. God makes this covenant with Avram that his descendants will be as many as the stars of heaven and then he is asked to sacrifice his son, presumably necessary to make that happen on the mountain of Moriah. And Abraham obeys. he takes a knife, would to burn the body of his on on and goes up the mountain.
Only at the last minute does God intervene and halt the sacrifice.
Puzzlingly St Paul doesn’t make much of the obvious parallels between Isaac and Jesus, later Christians have often done this. I think that’s because Paul is much more concerned with Abraham as the image of the true believer whose faith is absolute trust in God.
Paul must surely have known what we call the Lord’s Prayer. The remarkably simple, seven clause prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray. Again it is so familiar to us that it is hard for us to read it as if for the first time. It is the fourth clause that stands out for me every time I pray it. “Thy will be done”.
Just think about how extraordinary this is. We spend our whole lives making plans, making sure we are in control of things, and then we pray Thy will be done.
We pray it but we don’t mean it. We get ourselves worked up for job interviews, we pray Thy will be done: but mean: God, make sure I get this job.
Abraham really meant it. If God’s will meant leaving home and everything he knew he would do it. If it meant killing his beloved son, he would do it.
As I’ve already said I miss worshipping in French. So I ahve been using some French in my prayers lately. One of my favourite French prayers is by Blessed Charles de Foulcauld, a hermit priest who died early in teh twentieth century and will soon be formally named as a saint:
The paryer begins Mon Père, Je m’abandonne à toi. My Father, I abandon myself to you.
It’s an impossibly hard paryer to really mean.
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures – I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.
An impossibly hard prayer to mean. But really all it does is extend that clause of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done.
That is Paul’s faith, that is Abraham’s faith. Total abandonment to the divine will.
This picture of Issac reminds us of nothing ore, but nothing less than all the crosses and crucifixes in this building. It is the sign of abandonment. The sign of giving ourselves totally and utterly to God.
This is the heart of the Christian faith. This is what Paul understands: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
Forget sterile arguments about faith versus works. Pauls’ understanding of Abraham is utterly simple. As simple as the faith of a child. Into your hands I commend my spirit, my life my all. Je m’abandonne à toi.
It is dreary. The same, few places, the same few people – no matter how much we love them.
The endless Zoom calls and tedious Teams meetings.
In 1902 the central European poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited the small zoo in the botanic garden, Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
One of the animals pacing in the cages there was a Panther.
It inspired one of Rilke’s most famous poems. Here is the translation by Stephen Mitchell:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a centre
in which a mighty will stands paralysed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly —. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
We are not caged by bars. But our lives are caged. The same, few, places, the same few people – no matter how much we love them. The endless Zoom calls and tedious Teams meetings.
But there is hope. Images can enter between the bars. there can be moments of revelation.
Moments of revelation like those experienced by the prophets, like Malachi in the first reading; like the prophet Anna in the Gospel.
By our baptism we are all called to be prophets, priests and kings. You and I are called to be prophets just as much as Malachi or Anna or Simeon.
Malachi is the last of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. The final book of the Old Testament in Christian bibles. But he is firmly in Israel’s prophetic tradition. He is the successor of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Ezekiel and Haggai.
Lots of Christians are disappointed in their prayer lives because they think there is something extraordinary about mystical experiences, about the spiritual gifts, including prophecy. As if these gifts were something strange, something reserved to the famous prophets, to times past.
But just look at what the prophets do. Like the Panther pacing in his cage they get a glimpse of what lies between the bars. They see the world, the actual world, and they read it theologically. They understand it in the context of faith and speak of it with the language of believing.
For Jeremiah it is the boiling pot, for Hosea it is his failing marriage his unfaithful wife (who some of us have been hearing about at Morning Prayer this week). For Malachi it is the refiner purifying gold and silver.
To be the prophets of our own lives is to take the ordinary stuff of our day to day existence and to understand it theologically, to describe it in the language of faith.
So what is the stuff of your life?
How do you spend money?
Who have you fallen out with?
What do you resent?
Who annoys you?
What are the unexpected things in your life?
I heard the Archbishop of York say to a group of priests earlier this year that the most useful thing our Spiritual Directors could see was our bank statements.
Don’t ask God to appear in a blaze of light, ask God what he is telling you in your diary, your emails, how you spend your money.
Over the last few months I have been re-reading Susan Howatch’s novels about the Church of England. They are not especially fashionable at the moment but I recommend looking at them again or for the first time if you don’t know them. They are written in blockbuster novel style and are an easy read, and they are significant.
Howatch is brilliant at showing how impossible it is to understand the reality and complexity of human life in only one way, only one dimension. We need a variety of narratives if we are to avoid self delusion and grow in maturity.
Howatch shows how our personal narratives can be unpeeled like an onion, how our own accounts of ourselves need balancing with other people’s realities. She is superb at illustrating how psychological narratives are profoundly helpful in dissecting our self-delusions and self-centredness. But she also shows the limits of our ability to understand things only rationally and the necessity for religious language and experience. She never says this narrative is true and the other isn’t. For her spiritual realities are deeply true, and so are other narratives. And she is brilliant at exposing power and the shadow that lies behind glamour. For her there are many powers, not all of them good.
On Friday I was the speaker at the school assembly for our Cathedral school – on Zoom, inevitably – and I showed the pupils this statue which I have in the Oratory in the cellar of the Sub Deanery. The Oratory is dedicated to St Joseph and this is a statue of a Sleeping St Joseph. Clearly it is St Joseph asleep, but I prefer to call it the Dreaming St Joseph. In the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel Joseph has four dreams, take a look, most people can’t list all four.
I encouraged our pupils to enjoy their dreams and pay attention to them.
Anna and Simeon were dreamers. They had dreamed the dream of a Messiah.
Like all dreamers they were ready for the unexpected. They had eyes that could see when Jesus was brought into the temple. They had beginner’s mind. They were open to possibilities.
To be a dreamer is to be open to our imaginations, to be those who trust the many layered nature of reality, the multiple narratives we need to make sense of our lives; to allow ourselves to be changed and transformed.
To be a dreamer is also to be open to the horror of life. When Simeon looks through the bars he sees the sword that will pierce Mary’s heart.
If your prayer seems dry, if you are not glimpsing the world beyond the bars; use your imagination. Don’t worry so much about whether it is just your imagination; ‘just’ is such a poisonous word; allow God to speak to you through that imagination. Imagine God speaking to you.
Like Susan Howatch allow yourself the possibility that there are many ways of describing the reality of your life. reflect on your life prophetically. Abandon the lie that events are random and meaningless and imagine that all the events of your life reflect spiritual realities.
Anna and Simeon were ready and prepared. It can’t simply be that they had not thought of the presence of God in their lives until this day in their old age when ker-pow the messiah appears. They were ready for the Messiah, ready to meet Jesus, ready to recognise him immediately because they had been looking for God in every event of their lives. Every encounter, looking for him, finding him and seeing him.
To live without this spiritual muscle, is to see only the bars of our cages. Not just the cages of lockdown but the cages that diminish and hinder our lives at all times. It is as if our mighty wills are paralysed. Our powers bound.
Dear friends, my prayer for you this week, for all of us is that we will dream dreams; that in our prayer our imaginations will run wild. And that in the cage of this lockdown the images you see between the bars will plunge into your hearts.
St John writes: We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christmas in a time of pandemic. Christmas when the world seems dark and the news full of shadow. Christmas when we hear as we did in this church just two days ago the great prologue to John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word …” and the good news that the darkness does not overcome the light.
And the first Chapter of the first letter of John deliberately echoes that prologue, with its themes of light and dark. Its mention of the beginning.
This Christmas I’ve been re-reading Lord of the Rings where the themes of light and darkness, and the struggle between good and evil is so strong.
It is, of course, a deeply consoling book. Good does triumph, the One Ring is destroyed, Sauron is vanquished.
There is consolation in the elves, the ancient ones, even in the Ents, those slow moving trees. And homely wisdom in the Hobbits. Not least in the grounded Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s friend. Describing the darkness of their time Samwise says:
“In the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”
But I want to think about another theme in 1 John 1 which we have just heard and which finds a strong echo in the title of the first volume of Tolkien’s story: “The Fellowship of the Ring”.
We know the word fellowship well. We use it here in this church every day at the end of Evensong when we pray the grace: the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
It has a more technical meaning in this House and in academic life generally. But in the New Testament this is one of those occasions when we have to go back to the Greek to really understand how crucial, how significant this word is.
It translates, of course, the Greek KOINONIA.
It’s not a word that appears much in the Gospels, just a cognate once each in Matthew, Luke and Acts. But Paul uses it extensively and intensely to describe the relationship between Christians and between Christian churches.
Here in 1 John there is something really quite extraordinary. The use of koinonia to describe the internal relationships of the Trinity. That of the Father and of the Son and the participation of the author and his readers in that koinonia.
The word can be translated in many ways. The Latin communio is often used, and in the current translation of the Roman Catholic Mass where the Grace may be used as a greeting at the beginning of Mass it is that Latinisation which is given. koinonia means a sharing in, participation, a partnership.
Nicholas King a Jesuit across the road at Campion House uses communion in his excellent translation of the New Testament, but suggests in his notes that it can also be translated as fellowship, union, partnership, community and solidarity.
I’ve been struck by the number of people who were deeply moved by the Queen’s speech this Christmas day. One phrase has been much quoted on Twitter: you are not alone.
This is the heart of the meaning of the word koinonia. By our baptism we participate in the life of the Trinity; we have a share in the divine life. And our relationships with each other as Christians are made of the same stuff as the relationship between the Divine persons.
Think about how radical that is. When I chat with members of the congregation here on Zoom, or talk outside the porch on Tom Quad, when I meet with my fellow Chapter members, the nature of the relationship is the same as the nature of my relationship with God, and even more startlingly the same as the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Now this presents us with two problems. The first is that we human beings are difficult; we fall out with each other; we irritate one another; we fall out and disagree. That’s not how we want to relate to God and not, surely, what the life of the Trinity is like.
But there is a second problem that I think is even more fundamental, more serious for us in our mission to the world, our ability to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the existentialist lie. The untruth that we are somehow individuals, that we are alone. This untruth undermines all Christian doctrine, most fundamentally the incarnation and redemption. Which simply lose all meaning if we are not all intimately connected by our common human-ness which God in Jesus has come to share in. His death and resurrection have an effect on me because we share in common humanity.
And this common stuff, this human-ness of which we are made precedes, of course, the incarnation. It exists because of creation, “In the beginning” as St John says, “without him, was nothing made that was made”.
I have been teaching the practice of Mindfulness meditation to children for over 20 years. Over and over again children report common experiences: a feeling of kindness; a feeling of connectedness, of belonging, at-homeness, and a feeling of Presence, that there ‘is somebody there’.
None of that should surprise us Christians. We are created in the image and likeness of God. We are hard-wired for God and the pattern of his being is reproduced in ours.
At the Eucharist when a little water is poured into the chalice with the wine many priests pray:
“By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
Just as Jesus shares in our human-ness, so do we share in his God-ness. And remember that koinonia has that meaning of sharing, participating in.
In the Queen’s speech she powerfully states a simple truth, we are not alone, we can never be alone; we are always part of something more than ourselves.
This is just as true of Jesus as it is of each one of us. Yes, in his divinity, but also in his, in our humanity. That is why it is so important that John who we celebrate today is loved by Jesus. It is Jesus that is doing the loving. Our ability to love is part of the God-given pattern in our very beings that draws us out of ourselves. It is why the church in these days after Christmas celebrates the saints: St Stephen yesterday, St John today, the Holy Innocents tomorrow. These are the comites Christi, the companions of Christ. When we celebrate the incarnation we are celebrating connectedness and Jesus is the ultimate connected one.
This connectedness is not just an abstract concept. I’ve been thinking about that connectedness a lot in my first four months here at Christ Church. In this building I have felt deeply connected with those whose memorials surround us. The dead who live in Christ.
Deeply connected to those living and working on this site in a time of pandemic.
And deeply connected to the hundreds of people who are part of the Cathedral’s community but who can’t be here. In some ways the grief at not being able to be here makes that connection all the more real. Absence, strangely, can be as much a presence as presence itself.
On Christmas Day Canon Graham organised Mulled Wine and members of Chapter made cakes for some of the international students who have been stranded here at Christ Church this Christmas. The gathering in the marquee in the Master’s Garden covered Egypt, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and probably more. It was a reminder to me of the profound significance of this joint foundation, our being both cathedral and college; and the gratitude of the students a reminder that simple gestures can reflect profound truths. “Micro-ecologies of kindness.” As Canon Graham put it just before the service today.
We don’t know how much longer lockdowns are going to continue, what it is going to be like living with this virus as part of our world. There are certainly going to be many weeks, months in which absence continues to be a reality. But that absence is not disconnection. As our Queen said: we are not alone.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A poem, by the British Australian poet Kevin Hart:
It’s not too late, Dark One,
For you to come
And have me close
And stay an hour or two,
It’s not too late at all
For you to slip
Past fossil light
And quickly touch my hand.
It’s deepest night, Dark One,
I look straight up
And won’t be born
Another billion years
If you’re so far away;
Come closer now
So that I taste
Your breath: I have been here
On tiptoe all the night,
And I shall wait
For you, Dark One,
Till all those years are done.
Christmas will soon be here.
We know that the days are still getting shorter, that the darkness appears victorious but we light the candles. The light grows stronger as we light more candles each week of Advent, as we deck our trees with lights. Our homes with Christmas decorations and strings of light.
And yet the darkness grows stronger.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, this terrible year of plague draws to a close with vaccines within our reach; multiple ways of defeating the virus seem possible. We can almost begin to think think that life will be normal again, one day.
And yet the darkness grows stronger, we are told that it will be a hard winter, there will be many deaths. We can’t visit the elderly; we are encouraged not to see family and friends at Christmas.
We’ve just heard from the final chapters of Isaiah of the frustration the people feel. It is sixth century Jerusalem. The rebuilding of the city, the restoration of the temple and its worship are possible. But they have not happened yet. The people are still walking in darkness and even worse God appears to do nothing. “O that you would …” the prophet cries. He cries it because God doesn’t. God does not tear open the heavens, the mountains do not quake, fire is not kindled, the water does not boil.
These are the things the people expected. Wanted. Hoped for.
And they do not happen.
What do you expect, want, hope for from God?
How does God disappoint frustrate you? Refuse to answer prayer?
Why doesn’t God act as you would like him to?
God is the one who acts in ways that we did not expect. He acts today, in my life, in yours, in the world, in ways that we did not expect. And do not recognise.
Our great expectations will never be met. God of surprises he has been called.
The unexpected God.
The unknown God St Paul identified at Athens.
Jesus is unexpected. Christmas is unexpected. It’s not the story we would tell of God coming; of God made known. And Jesus tells us how we should live our lives ready for the unknown God, the unexpected God:
Jesus is unexpected; he doesn’t give the answers people want; he is not the Messiah they were hoping for; he did “awesome deeds we did not expect”.
To be alert, to be awake is to have beginner’s mind; to be open to possibility; to refuse to be the expert; to swim in uncertainty and to delight in the provisional.
This is where the dynamism of Christian living comes, where the energy of prayer is to be found. This is why God always reveals himself to us when we are waiting; when we are in-between; when things are not turning out the way we planned them; when the paper is blank, the road ahead unknown. When we remember that we are always beginners and never experts.
Is there room for the unexpected in your life as you prepare for Christmas?
As we emerge from lockdown what will you change? What will be different?
This will be an Advent like no other. There won’t be the office parties; the family get togethers; the queuing in shops; the meals out.
It is an Advent we did not expect.
The question is can we allow ourselves to be alert, awake, can we allow ourselves to meet the unexpected God?
Friends, I suggest something quite simple. That you change something about the way you pray.
Perhaps you only pray when things get really bad; or only when you come to church; or even every day just before you go to bed. Whatever you do break those habits and try something different. Make a regular time every day to pray. Pray without expecting anything other than the unexpected. Put it in your diary. An hour before lunch, or in the afternoon or best of all get up an hour earlier, when the world is dark. That special darkness that is giving way to dawn.
I don’t know anyone who has a solid practice of daily prayer, who is growing in holiness who does not spend time early in the morning to pray. Whatever you tell yourself there will be interruptions, appointments, phone calls, emails at every other time of the day.
We say that God is light, but we find him in darkness. He will be born in the middle of the night.
It’s not too late, Dark One,
For you to come
And have me close
And stay an hour or two,
Darkness is a nurturing place; it is the place to escape the overstimulation we subject ourselves to.
It’s not too late at all
For you to slip
Past fossil light
And quickly touch my hand.
This Advent we have a better chance than ever of feeling the touch of God’s hand. Of finding him in the unresolved situations of our life; the time we would have spent at parties; or meals; or preparing for friends and relations.
Keep alert Jesus says,
keep awake Jesus says.
As he did to his friends on that night in Gethsemane when they fell asleep. Keep awake, stay on tiptoe. Be ready.
During the first lockdown I took rather a lot of funerals. Many of the clergy around where we lived were elderly or had health conditions and were shielding. It is always a privilege to be the officiant at a funeral. To seek to pay attention to family and friends, and to the person who died. To weave together a liturgy that reflects that person, that is true to them, that is true to our uncertainties and doubts, our existential questions.
At every funeral that I led in those weeks I was asked to pray one particular text. What interested me was that as I visited the various crematoria where the funerals were held there were a lot of civil celebrants offering not so much humanist or secular funerals but just non-church funerals. the same text that I was using at every funeral, they were using as well. Psalm 23.
When everything else is peeled away this beautiful psalm remains part of our culture, our heritage. It speaks to people. It is a very appropriate psalm for funerals. The image of passing through the valley of the shadow of death speaks profoundly of the need for lament in the face of death and destruction but also offers hope. Death too is a passing over, a journey to something else.
It is also a very suitable psalm for today’s feast of Christ the King when it is set as the psalm for the Eucharist although for Covid reasons we are not having a psalm in our liturgy at the moment. Suitable at the end of this month of November when we have been praying and remembering as we do every year in November, those who have already passed through death’s dark valley.
It is a psalm that I pray daily as part of my thanksgiving after I have celebrated the Eucharist. It is a deeply sacramental psalm. The Eucharist is itself foretold in the banquet that is laid and the cup that overflows; but other sacraments are also present: the still waters of baptism in which we have been incorporated into Jesus, the anointing of confirmation in which we acknowledge the gifts of the spirit, and the anointing of ordination for those of us ordained to ministerial priesthood.
It is of course, a suitable psalm for the feast of Christ the King because it shows us what sort of King Jesus is. Like his ancestor David he is a shepherd-king. A king leading his flock. A shepherd, as Ezekiel tells us in today’s first reading who will rescue his sheep from all the places to which they have been scattered.
And just as the sacramental journey of each Christian rehearses the ministry of Jesus so this psalm shows us Jesus baptised, anointed, gifting us himself in the Eucharist and passing through the dark valley of the shadow of death.
Psalm 23 is a profoundly Jesus psalm. In it we walk the path of redemption, the salvation he has won, the basic doctrines of the christian faith, the thing he has done for us.
As I have prayed this psalm over the years. At funerals, in the daily Office, after Mass there is one line that constantly calls to me. It’s a line that doesn’t normally attract much attention, certainly doesn’t conjure romantic images of fields and ponds and placid sheep idly grazing.
It’s the second line that speak: ‘there is nothing I shall want.’
The hebrew is two simple words: lo ech-sar.
I know how far I am from wanting nothing. My Amazon wish list currently has 62 books on it. I want the house to be warm, good food on the table. I want to be able to go to France again soon. To visit friends in New Zealand. Well, you get the picture. I am a bundle of wants. Like so many prayers I can only pray this line hoping that one day I might be able to mean it just a little bit.
I have been reading the Rule of Saint Augustine over the last few weeks, and I invited you as a cathedral community to join me in doing so. I’ve been commenting on the daily portions on our cathedral blog.
Augustine understands our wanting, our desiring. He might easily be called (dare I suggest in the presence of Canon Harrison) the theologian of desire. Augustine recognises that desire is what leads us to God. Without desire we would not be searchers. But he also understands that we are at our most vulnerable when we follow our desires. God alone can satisfy our desire, our longing. Everything else will leave us desiring more, wanting more needing more. We are like addicts seeking the next fix.
Even if I were to buy every one of those 62 books, do you, do I, think I would be satisfied …?
Today’s gospel paints the inverse picture. The things we don’t want. We don’t want to be hungry, to thirst, to be strangers, without clothing, sick or in prison. Being a Christian is always about facing the truth of these things we don’t want, leaning into them and not running away from them.
And this leads me to another way that helps me understand the second line of the psalm: There is nothing I shall want. How do we lean into the nothing. Not to embrace some fatalist nihilism (the Latin version of this line is, after all nihil mihi deerit) but to find the freedom that is the goal of the Christian life.
John of the Cross the sixteenth century Spanish master of prayer drew a picture of a mountain to illustrate the spiritual life. At the top he repeats the Spanish nada, nothing, over and over again:
“Nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, and even on the mountain, nada.”
The spiritual life has nothing, nada, as its goal.
“To reach satisfaction in everything,
desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to possession of everything,
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all,
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of everything,
desire the knowledge of nothing.”
Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book One, Chapter 13
This is what Jesus shows us on the cross. Giving up his God-ness, his divinity, was not enough, becoming human was not enough, even death was not enough, it had to be a shameful death, ‘even death on a cross’.
And in his dying he too discovered that God is nada: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”
All my desires, all my wants are for some-thing. But God is not a thing, he is literally no-thing.
Quite often when people speak to me about prayer they say how hard it is, how they struggle with prayer.
As long as we continue our wanting in our prayer, our desiring this or that spiritual experience, we are wanting a thing. When we let go, when we stop struggling, when we embrace the no-thing we will have found nada. God. And that nothing is to be totally free, it is as Augustine knew total grace, total gift.
In your praying today, in your praying this week my prayer for each of us is that we find the true freedom of nada, we find no-thing, we find God.
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford 1st November, 2020 Eucharist
Fr Richard Peers SMMS
These are they who have come through the great ordeal.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How is the new job going?
The question I have been asked most often in the last 8 weeks.
So how is the new job going?
Well, there are a lot of rules, I say.
There is the Blue Book, that is the lengthy document that sets out the rules for those of who live in here at Christ Church.
Then there are the rules for our worship in the Cathedral.
As Sub Dean I read the second lesson at Matins when the Dean is not present, unless I am Canon in Residence in which case I read the first lesson, and the second only if the Dean is not present but I can give away the first lesson to someone else, which is usual, and when I am also Officiant I give away both lessons.
Well, you can see what I mean: there are a lot of rules.
Rules can seem stifling, imprisoning, trapping. It can fee like they asphyxiate the Spirit, the very breath in us, the very breath of God.
I haven’t even mentioned the rules that the Pandemic has caused. Rules which we have struggled to keep up with. How many people are allowed in any house? How many in a bubble? How long should I wash my hands for? Where and when do I need to wear a mask.
We can feel trapped, stifled. We are almost literally asphyxiated, our breathing hampered by these horrible bits of material on our faces. I yearn to tear mine off in church, to speak clearly, to hear clearly.
Rules, can, of course, be oppressive, tyrannical. They can be motivated by a desire to control, to dominate.
But I like rules. We need them, we can’t live without them. We need the rules of the game, of sports and board games to be fair, to enable the game to be played. To keep us safe. We needed the rules of Rugby yesterday when England won, but needed them just as much if we had lost. We need the rules of the American election to ensure a safe transfer of power if Biden wins.
We need rules.
I suppose, it will be no surprise to you that as a former Headteacher I like rules, I enjoy the rules of this House, of this Cathedral.
I am glad to be part of a team of wonderful people who are teaching me the rules.
I love receiving Mother Philippa’s Rubric copies of our worship booklets with the rules in Red.
I loved being able to text her yesterday to remind me if I was doing the intercessions at Evensong and I loved getting her one word answer: Yes.
Rules keep us safe. They keep the chaos at bay. Sitting in the comforting stillness of my stall before Matins begins as my colleagues arrive and take their places I am not panicking, wondering what’s going to come, whether I need to read this lesson or that. Like a smooth, well-oiled mechanism the prayer flows and the Spirit is present.
It is that daily unfolding of prayer that is the real answer when I am asked how the new job is going.
It has been the greatest of joy for me.
The most exquisite experience of rightness, the joy of tumbling into this bubbling stream that has bubbled in this place since Frideswide lived here and which bubbles still.
These eight weeks have been among the most prayerful of my life. This is the easiest building I have ever known to pray in. Kneeling in the Latin chapel I physically feel Frideswide’s presence tangibly next to me.
Places like this are sometimes called thin places, Places where the barrier between the natural and the more than natural is barely there. Thin places is a good phrase. But this is also a place that is thick with the prayers of the centuries, thick with the memories of goodness, thick with the known and unknown, thick with those who will come after us, the centuries ahead when the pandemics of 2020 will be carved into monuments and stones and you and I are long gone.
Rules are important. After Frideswide’s community it was Augustinian canons who lived and prayed in this place; built our oldest buildings; the buildings that are the heart, the core of this place, this cathedral, the Chapter House and the Prior’s House. Preparing to move here and since I have been here I have been praying the Rule of Saint Augustine that was the rule of life of those canons who lived here. It is a beautiful document. Very short, I’ve arranged it so a short paragraph can be read each day over a month. Barely 3000 words in English. Just a hundred or so words a day.
Today we face new rules for the month ahead and perhaps even longer. Rules that are devastating to those of us who love to gather for worship. Rules the like of which we would never have imagined when this year began. Rules designed to keep us safe, to protect us.
Whatever those rules turn out to be in the next few days as bishops and lawyers send us, no doubt, many pages of guidance. Whatever those rules, the stream of prayer in this place will continue. Whether we can gather together in this building, or whether the saints will have to murmur the prayers in here for us while we pray in our homes. Whether it is online daily or weekly. Please in your own homes know that we, you, I, all of us, are praying together. The communion of all the saints is the water we swim in, the air we breathe.
When I meet with my sister and brother Chapter colleagues (on Zoom) in the next few days I am going to suggest to them that we commit to praying two texts in the weeks ahead.
Firstly the Rule of St Augustine. It is a document of its time, it has some wonderfully quirky sections. But it is very beautiful and simple. Please watch out on our website and elsewhere for posts about our praying this or some other text (they may not agree!)
The other text I would like us to pray together is the key section of today’s Gospel, the Beatitudes.
It is one of the most profound and complex texts in the gospels, yet deceptively simple.
Most scholars believe that there were originally just the central eight invocations of the blessed, omitting the final one. It is these eight which form a perfect poem, a canticle to blessedness.
I’ve been praying the Beatitudes at mid-prayer each day for all my adult life. I learnt the habit from the prayer book of the Taizé community in France which I first visited as a 17 year old.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted!
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heav’n.
The Beatitudes are a wonderful rule of life. As we pray them together or at home as we dwell in them, we will be formed and shaped by them. They are a complex rule, they don’t tell us who is to read the second lesson, or how often to sanitise our hands. But they are a rule nevertheless.
A rule can be a tool for measuring. They help us to judge our lives and ourselves.
A rule keeps us accountable to each other and to God.
To what extent am I poor in spirit and meek? Am I really hungering, yearning or justice? Am I always merciful? Am I known as a peace-maker?
Is the kingdom of heaven the start and end of my life, of my day, as it is the start and end of this poem that is the Beatitudes?
Brother Roger who founded the Taizé Community distilled the Beatitudes into a simple statement:
‘Every day let your work and rest be quickened by the Word of God; keep inner silence in all things and you will dwell in Christ; be filled with the spirit of the beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy.’
So, this is my suggestion, that as the Christ Church community in the lockdown ahead we think about our common life by praying these texts every day. Whether you are a long standing member of the congregation, one of our wonderful sidespeople, guides, choristers, organists, employees or a member of Chapter. Whether you have just dropped in on YouTube or Twitter, whether you have been here for thirty years or like me just arrived
Dwelling in these words and allowing them to dwell in us.
The limpid simplicity of the Beatitudes, their complex depth, will help us bear the grief of these times, we will be those who mourn the many losses of lockdown and plague. Enduring this we will be those who have come through the great ordeal for Jesus is at the centre of the throne, he is our shepherd and he “leads us to springs of the water of life.”
In this pandemic may Jesus keep us all in the spirit of the Beatitudes, joyful, simple, merciful.
Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
Sermon pre-recorded and broadcast at and from St Asaph Cathedral
13th September 2020
Masks are disconcerting to those who see us wearing them. They conceal. I have failed to recognise people I know quite well. They make it hard to intuit mood, to hear – how much more lip-reading I must do than I ever realised. But they are also hard to wear.
I still haven’t learnt how to wear glasses with a mask and not steam up.
the first time I had to wear a mask for several hours I felt dizzy – perhaps I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
I have spent much of my adult life teaching people how to breathe. To have good posture, to show them the science lab lungs and explain that its the diaphragm that does the work not the lungs. I have urged people to raise their chins so as not to hamper their breathing, to open their chests out, shoulders back.
And now we do this thing of putting a mask on; deliberately hindering our breathing.
Musicians, and especially singers, know all about breathing and its importance.
For most of us we are usually unaware of our breathing until we have difficulties, a cold, asthma, or find ourselves in a room full of smoke.
But one of my earliest memories is of breathing.
My favourite hymn is Breathe on me breath of God. Since this is a music festival perhaps I will upset a good proportion of you if I tell you my preferred tune. And it is a hymn text set to a remarkable number of different tunes. But for me I will always associate the words with Charles Lockhart’s Carlisle.
I love this text because it reminds me of being a small child. I had fallen in the garden and my knee was bleeding. Running into the house my mother scooped me up and sat down with my on the sofa. As I sobbed my heart out I felt her breathing. Her warm breath on my head and her chest rising and falling. That moment has stayed with me for the whole of my life. Breathe on me breath of God. The breath that mothers me. The breath that brings me back to my true self. The breath that weathers storms external and internal.
Musicians know the importance of breathing.
But breathing is important to us all. It is important because it is literally life-giving. In the book Genesis God breathes into the dust, the earth, to give it life. In Hebrew the ruach the spirit is the wind and breath that bring life to dry bones. In the Greek of the new testament the spirit is pnuema, the breath, the air and for Christians the hagia pneuma the Holy Spirit is God. God who gives life and gifts.
Last summer my mother died and my brother and sister and I sat around her bed in the hospice where she died. Over her final hours we followed her every breath as they became shallower and shallower until finally she just stopped breathing.
Breathe on me breath of God.
learning how to breathe might sound like something we don’t need to do.
I teach breathing as part of teaching Mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness is very much in fashion these days. But Christians have been practising mindfulness throughout Christian history. One collection of texts in the Russian and Greek Orthodox tradition, the Philokalia teaches the combination of careful breathing with the word of the Jesus Prayer; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
But words are not necessary. Mindfulness of breathing, just being aware of our breathing wakes us up to awareness of so much more. We live in shadow, in twilight for much of our lives not noticing the miracles that surround us; that are us.
Noticing our breathing. Breathing in and knowing that I am breathing in. Breathing out and knowing that I am breathing out.
Music too can be like that. Taking the very ordinary, sounds. And arranging it in a way that helps us notice them.
I am a great fan of the jazz musician John Coltrane and I love this icon of him that has been painted. Carrying the saxophone with the fire of the Spirit showing in it the words on the scroll are a quote from him:
“God breathes through us so completely so gently we hardly feel it. yet it is our everything.”
Breathing is not just about what we do any more than music is just about what any of us does. Breathing connects us to something larger, something greater than just me.
The poet Don Paterson captures this beautifully in his series of sonnets on Orpheus. here is one called, simply Breath.
Breath, you invisible poem –
pure exchange, sister to silence,
being and its counterbalance,
rhythm wherein I become,
ocean I accumulate
by stealth, by the same slow wave;
thriftiest of seas … Thief
of the whole cosmos! What estates,
what vast space have already poured
through my lungs? The four winds
are like daughters to me.
So do you know me, air, that once sailed
You, that were once the lead and rind
of my every word?
When we breathe we breathe in something that is not us and can recognise that we are dust that breathes. That this little breath that I breathe now is part of the air that inhabits the planet.
It is a sign that we are connected to everything that is.
This is why our pollution of the air is so frightening. We are polluting the stuff of our own lives. We are polluting ourselves.
It is a spiritual issue.
There is a wonderful book by Donald Miller the subtitle is “Non religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality” The book’s title is Blue Like Jazz and some of you may know the famous album by Miles Davis A Kind of Blue. That would probably be the album I would save if the waves took the remainder of my Desert Island choices.
In his introduction to his book Miller writes:
“I NEVER LIKED JAZZ MUSIC BECAUSE JAZZ MUSIC doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve.”
We live in an unresolved world. We live in unresolved times.
None of us can se ethe way ahead in this pandemic, or even know with certainty that we will be able to gather for this music festival in person next year or the year after.
Living with that unresolvedness is hard. It is stressful and creates anxiety.
But when we breathe we are always letting go. Our out breath matches our in breath. We might be able to hold our breath for a few seconds or even minutes but we can never hold on to our breath.
And as we let the breath go; if we wake up and recognise that God breathes through us, in us, that it it is the breath of God we will find a peace deeper and richer than we have ever guessed, we will breathe the breath of God.
Christ Church Cathedral and Church At Home, Diocese of Oxford (on-line service)
Having worked in schools for much of my adult life I’ve heard the line “That’s not fair.” on multiple occasions.
Children and young people have a heightened awareness of fairness. At its best this can lead to the wonderful idealism that the young have and heroic works for justice in the way that Greta Thunberg has been doing.
At its worst an unrealistic expectation of fairness can lead to resentment.
Fairness is not a reward for good behaviour and is in short supply in the random-ness of disease, accidents and tragedies.
The two readings we have just heard are wonderful, but quite complicated.
The key to understanding them, it seems to me, is to remember that both Jesus and St Paul were not so much in the business of converting individuals as in creating a community.
A community of the converted.
A community of disciples.
Paul’s letters to the first Christianity communities are almost all about that community-building and how those communities deal with the real, practical questions.
In today’s first reading what it’s ok or not ok for Christians to eat and what christians should do, if anything, about keeping holy days.
Jesus’ public ministry was relatively short, probably just three years. But that is still quite a long time to be travelling with a group of people.
The disciples were a very intense form of community. It’s not surprising therefore that a lot of what Jesus teaches us about is how to be community, and particularly how to deal with the intense feelings that arise when human beings live and work together.
One of the key themes of many of the sayings and stories of Jesus is resentment. Fairness and unfairness.
I think Jesus profoundly understands the corrosive nature of resentment as one of the key poisons that can destroy communities and individuals.
Over and over again there is a clear reflection on the causes of resentment:
The labourers who work an hour at the end of the day and get paid the same a those who have worked all day;
the older son who has stayed faithfully at home but then has to watch while a party is laid on for his younger brother who has just squandered half the family assets; resentment about who is the greatest, the favourite, among the disciples.
Today’s story is also about fairness and therefore about resentment.
And it refers to a pattern of resentment that I see over and over again, with colleagues, church communities and across human societies.
When someone is treated generously – like the servant in today’s gospel – they resent it and go on to treat others badly.
Now there are, no doubt, in-depth psychological reasons for this way in which we human beings sometimes react to generosity.
But I want to think very practically about an issue of our own time and how we react to it.
In the twenty first century Christians, for the most part don’t worry too much about what food we are permitted to eat, although the climate crisis might raise more questions than most of us face on this.
And most Christians are pretty settled about how we observe Sunday as the Lord’s Day and when we are most likely to worship. Although changing work and leisure patterns might suggest that we need to question that more than we do.
But we can’t get away from facing up to the crucial justice issues of our own day. I am fascinated by reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept across not only American cities but around the world and very strongly here in the UK.
It’s a matter of justice that resonates deeply in my heart. Not only because we good Anglicans, are, of course, opposed to racism. But also because of my experience as a Head teacher in south east London where my school was a majority black school, and as a priest there at a church where the congregation was also majority black. Hearing the accounts that my friends, colleagues, pupils and their families shared about everyday racism shook me to the core.
And noticing racism in action myself.
When I was a school chaplain to a black Headteacher, if she and I were stood together or alone in a room when a visitor came in the assumption that I was the Head. This happened almost every week.
Or taking a group of pupils on a school visit and people walking passed black colleagues to talk to me, the white man at the back of the line. This happened on almost every school visit I went on.
And these are minor examples. Casual racism. Every black person I know can tell much more horrifying stories, but those accounts belong to them not to me.
Of course as good Anglicans we are opposed to racism.
But are we really?
In so many of the conversations I’ve heard about Black Lives Matter someone says, usually not very far into the conversation:
‘But what we need to teach is that every life matters.’
That is a classic resentful response. Noticing someone else’s need and then switching to universalise it.
As if there is some kind of shortage of mattering. As if there is something unfair in noticing someone else’s suffering.
An answer, a solution to this can be found in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we had as our first reading. It comes towards the end of the reading after Paul has laid out the presenting issues, and then he comes in with a typical major statement:
“We do not live to ourselves,
and we do not die to ourselves.”
It’s the sort of sentence from Paul that we are so used to hearing that we hardly notice it.
And yet it’s the heart of the gospel.
It’s the revolution that is fundamental to conversion.
We are no longer the centre of our universe.
When we are resentful it is from a position of self-centredness; it is claiming I deserve that; that’s mine; don’t take it from me.
When we don’t live to ourselves; when Jesus is the centre of our universe we realise that we are connected in him with everyone; Black lives matter because there is no longer me and them; there is simply us.
So how do you feel about Black Lives Matter?
I want to suggest a practical thing that we could all do to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter in our churches. It isn’t a revolution; it may appear at first to be a very shallow thing. But doing it can have a powerful effect on us.
So in my sermon available to the whole diocese today online in the Church At Home material I am suggesting that we go into all our churches including this cathedral church
and list all the pictures of all the people that you can see.
Perhaps its the clergy team photos, or the PCC members, list them;
then go on to the pictures, in the stained glass windows, banners and other pictures. Then do the same for church websites.
Now add up the people of colour we can see.
Because of my time working with so many black people I have a large number of pictures of black saints, black heroes, and images of Jesus, Mary and others as black people. here are two of my favourites. The first is based on a famous icon of the story of Genesis where Abraham meets three angels or lords. It is often called the Trinity and seen as an image of the way Christians understand God to be. here the artist Meg Wroe has painted a version with the faces of three people from the diocese of Southwark on it. The original is in Southwark Cathedral and is, I think rather beautiful.
The other two are by Yvonne Bell an artist who worships in our diocese at Winslow in Buckinghamshire. Christ of the Flowers, and Mother of God of Clemency.
When I moved here to Christ Church a few weeks ago
among the removal team were two young black men.
As they packed my collection of pictures and icons they were beside themselves at all the black images. It sparked long conversations with them as we worked about race, Black Lives Matter, faith and their own experiences of racism and church. It was a very beautiful conversation.
For Christians, working for justice is not about fairness. It is about God revealing himself.
Right at the start of revelation in Genesis we are told that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Every human being is a revelation to us of God. Our reaction to every human being needs to be awe, wonder and reverence.
We can depict Jesus as black, not because he was of African origin but because God reveals himself to us in every person.
Imagine if every church in our diocese had images of black and minority ethnic people in it. If every website included images of non-white people.
this is especially important in areas (like rural Staffordshire where I’ve been living for the last few years)
where no black people live.
I have been talking often in my first week about that little carving of the listener above the Sub Dean’s stall.
Paying attention to Black Lives Matter, to the young in their yearning for justice is to show our love for them, show that we receive the image of God in them.
To make this building a home for all people is to make it a place where everyone can walk in and find themselves here, see themselves in the images, experience the divine in the holy women and holy men of the past, women and men of all races and nations.
Once we live God-centred lives we realise our true equality. As St Paul says at the very end of the first reading “We will all stand before the judgement seat of God.”
Thank fully God’s judgement is merciful and for that mercy “every tongue shall give praise to God.”
“We do not live to ourselves,
and we do not die to ourselves.”
Canvas prints, commissions and cards of icons by Yvonne Bell cans be purchased via her website here.
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.
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
into sacred places;
a quick glance, and away – and back,
I have long since uttered your name
I elude your presence.
to think about you, and my mind
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
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.
Monday in Holy Week is the day when the Diocese of Liverpool gathers at the Cathedral for the blessing of oils and the Renewal of Commitment to Ministry. In this time of pandemic the diocesan communications team prepared a video service. The Bishop of Warrington, The Rt. Rev’d. Bev Mason, offered a reflection on the powerful gospel reading John 12:1-11. It is a profound and deep meditation that moved me greatly. I am grateful to Bishop Bev for allowing me to post her words below. You can watch the service here:
In our reading, Jesus is back in Bethany. It’s after the raising of Lazarus so you can imagine his celebrity status there, and the cult following he’s attracting. It’s also just 6 days before the crucifixion, and he’s having dinner with Lazarus and his friends.
Wouldn’t you have just loved to have been there, listening and participating in the conversations. Undoubtedly, he was preparing them, as well as himself, for his formal entry into Jerusalem as the Messiah. (We’d have celebrated this, from our places of confinement, yesterday on Palm Sunday).
Well! Suddenly the conversations are interrupted by Mary – she’ the one, remember, who would sit with the disciples at Jesus’ feet as they’re being apprenticed. I don’t know that anyone would’ve noticed her getting up …. But they’d certainly have noticed what happened next! She quietly fetches some nard oil … she goes back to Jesus, she kneels down and she pours the oil over His feet.
Now Nard was an exotic oil – it comes from the Himalayas and so imagine how costly this was. And she doesn’t just take a few drops – she takes a pound of Nard. She gently massages it into his feet. And then letting down her hair, she wipes his feet with it.
It’s so intimate, that it almost feels intrusive that anyone else should be present: In this most tender and beautiful expression of love, the oil is soaked up from one body to the other … and the aroma of love, fills the room.
Usually when hear of incense and aroma in the Bible, they’re associated with priestly offerings and sacrifice. Mary would have known this – as I’m sure, she’d have known the teaching from Hosea, where God says,
“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. ESV Hos 6.6
In this ritual Mary is participating in Jesus’ death.
I wonder if she knows that in doing so, she’s participating, too, in his risen life.
Mary was a disciple of Jesus. She’d listened and watched and prayed and learned from Him.
She knew that had Jesus been present when her brother was ill, he would’t have died.
She saw him raise her brother from the grave.
Through Jesus’ proximity to her and her, what we call, teachable spirit, her asking and searching …. and desire to learn, Mary grew in the knowledge of God.
Did she know she was in the presence of God?
At Jesus’ trial, just a week later, the Chief Priest will ask Jesus outright: “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Son of God’… . News that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead had spread and this was clearly what people were claiming on the streets of Bethany and in Jerusalem.
Is this what Mary believed?
I suspect so! And I suspect it’s the knowledge of this and the fear of how this was all going to unfold, that brought her to her knees before him.
This is a woman before the Messiah, the Son of God, giving herself to him.
Today in this (Not the Chrism Mass!), from our places of isolation, we recall and we shall renew our commitment to God’s call upon our lives … and the promises we’ve made to :
give ourselves to Him;
and to follow and to serve him ….. in the good times and in the challenging times.
We are each called in different, yet life-changing ways
and each tasked with particular vocations and responsibilities.
Friends, I believe Mary teaches us so much about the Christian vocation.
She sets before us a model of humility and service …
She dares to buck stereotyping;
In a room of men, she lets down her hair and exposes herself to rebuke – even though she’s about the service of Christ.
She pre-figures the footwashing by Jesus of his disciples, in the Upper Room. (I wonder if Jesus recalled this moment, as he washed his disciples’ feet!
Mary embraces the drama of the anointing …. without explanation or commentary … and in no small measure she pours out the costly oil, which speaks of the immeasurable love Christ pours upon us; and WE, in turn are to pour out upon others.
One of the immense challenges for each of us in these days of Coronavirus, is understanding what vocation means when things are unfamiliar. When we can’t minister in the tried and tested ways and when we mustbe distanced from people. Mary draws us back to LOVE which is the essence of our being, our thinking, our actions, our service. I think it’s this that Jesus was driving at, when he said, ‘I no longer call you servants. You are my friends.’
God calls us friends as he calls us to minister to him, and through him, to the world.
And at the heart of calling and service is love.
This is exactly what we’ve been seeing in these present trials:
Friends, Bishop Paul and I are so very deeply touched and profoundly humbled by the faithful, creative and imaginative ways colleagues have adapted to the Corona crisis and how you’ve endeavoured to support, encourage, pray, lead praise, and provide pastoral care and bereavement support. This is happening in parishes, hospitals, schools, prisons and very many other work places. Each in your way, and under very challenging circumstances, are pouring out the NARD of blessing of your calling – we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your inspirational ministries!
For some Colleagues, confinement is something of a gift of time to pray and read and learn. I encourage you all to make time to attend to and build up your inner life.
And as we journey, each in our way, through Holy Week, to the Cross and the Empty Tomb,
may the life and joy of the resurrection touch and bless each of us, making us ready for the new morning – and the world beyond isolation.
God fill your heart with love. God keep you safe and bless you. Amen