Homily for the 26th Sunday of Year A

In the Gospels Jesus crosses swords with religious authorities on a number of occasions – it’s quite understandable – all they want to do is nit-pick. They want to accuse him of blasphemy, and are so fixated with what they think he may be doing wrong that they completely fail to see what he is doing right. It’s a sad state of affairs, but a very human one – we can all be judgemental, and it can blind us to what’s really going on.
The Pharisees and Elders are so concerned with detail that they cannot see the wood for the trees – they fail to recognise who Jesus is and what he does. They are troubled by John the Baptist, with his message of repentance, of turning away from sin, and turning to God and having new life in Him, through the waters of baptism. Jesus can beat them at their own game and asks them a question which they cannot or will not answer.
The central part of Jesus’ teaching is the Parable of the Two Sons: one says he will and doesn’t, and the other says he won’t and does. Actions then speak louder than words, and our faith as Christians is something which needs to be put into action in our lives – we have to walk the walk, rather than simply talking the talk –it is difficult, it is challenging but equally that is the point of our faith as Christians – as people who follow Jesus and who do what he tells us.
Unlike the religious leaders, the message proclaimed first by John the Baptist and then by Our Lord is listened to and accepted by prostitutes and tax-collectors. These people were the lowest of the low – shunned by polite society for what they did, with a reputation for being greedy and sexually immoral, and yet they despite their failings know their need of God, they have the humility to recognise their need for grace and love to be poured into their hearts, and are willing to turn their lives around. They are not stubborn, hard-hearted or proud, they are humble – the kind of people in whose lives God can be at work.
The message of repentance was proclaimed by the prophets, as we see in the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel. He calls the people of Israel to repentance, to turn away from their sins and be close to God, it is the same message proclaimed by John the Baptist, it is a message which finds its fulfilment in the person, teaching, and life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the hope for which the prophets long and to which they point. God wants us to live, to have life and have it in all its fullness by being close to him, humble, repentant, and fashioning our lives after the example of His only Son.
It is the same message which the Apostle Paul preaches to the Church in Philippi – the obedience of the Son to the will of the Father, and at the heart of it all, the Cross. The greatest demonstration of God’s love for humanity, the power of God’s reconciling love at work to redeem, to heal and transform humanity. It is truly amazing that God loves us this much and that Christ flings wide His arms on the Cross to embrace the world with God’s love. We celebrate it because it is the single most important moment of human history, which can affect all time and all people. Here is the healing for which we long, the reconciliation, the restoration of humanity, and our relationship with each other and the divine.

That is why on the night before he died Jesus takes bread and wine to point to what he is about to accomplish. He tells us to do this, and so we do – we have come here this morning to be fed by word and sacrament, to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that through the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, we the people of God, can be fed by Him, and fed with Him, so that we can have new life in Him. So let us come to Him, knowing our need of God’s love and mercy, and letting it transform our lives, strengthening our faith and helping us to live out our faith in our lives, so that we can be built up as living stones, as a temple to God’s glory, with our lives proclaiming the saving truth that God loves us, that he forgives our sins, and can heal and restore us, and let us share this saving truth with others, so that they too may enter into the joy of the Lord.

Some words of St Vincent de Paul

Serving the poor is to be preferred above all things

Even though the poor are often rough and unrefined, we must not judge them from external appearances nor from the mental gifts they seem to have received. On the contrary, if you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will observe that they are taking the place of the Son of God who chose to be poor.
  Although in his passion he almost lost the appearance of a man and was considered a fool by the Gentiles and a stumbling block by the Jews, he showed them that his mission was to preach to the poor: He sent me to preach the good news to the poor. We also ought to have this same spirit and imitate Christ’s actions, that is, we must take care of the poor, console them, help them, support their cause.
  Since Christ willed to be born poor, he chose for himself disciples who were poor. He made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that he would consider every deed which either helps or harms the poor as done for or against himself. Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor. For when one person holds another dear, he also includes in his affection anyone who loves or serves the one he loves. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor. So when we visit the poor and needy, we try to understand the poor and weak. We sympathise with them so fully that we can echo Paul’s words: I have become all things to all men. Therefore, we must try to be stirred by our neighbours’ worries and distress. We must beg God to pour into our hearts sentiments of pity and compassion and to fill them again and again with these dispositions.
  It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God. Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity. Since she is a noble mistress, we must do whatever she commands. With renewed devotion, then, we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.

St Matthew

Death and taxation are two things which none of us can escape, try though we might. Most of us, I suspect, while we recognise the fact that taxation is necessary, don’t particularly enjoy having to hand over money, though we recognise that for the greater good of society it is necessary. It was, I suspect, always thus.  In the Roman Empire the business of tax collection was privatised – people paid money for the right to collect taxes, and as a result tended to collect a bit extra so that they could recover the cost of their having to buy the right to collect taxes. This could make tax collectors very wealthy indeed, and so they were not exactly the most popular people – they had a reputation for being corrupt and greedy and selfish, and were not exactly the sort of people with whom one might choose to associate.
       And yet at the start of this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus walking past a tax collecting booth and he says to the man there, called Matthew, ‘Follow me’ and he gets up and follows Our Lord. An invitation is offered, to which he responds, which changes his life, and has left us with his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That evening at dinner many sinners and tax-collectors want to be near Jesus, they want to listen to him, to what he has to say. For the respectable religious elite, the Pharisees, it is all too much. Why is Jesus hanging around with social undesirables? It isn’t what you’re supposed to do. Hence Our Lord’s reply ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.’ These are people who know their need of God, who are humble enough to come to him, so that they can be healed by him. He tells the Pharisees to go away and learn what the prophet Hosea meant when he said ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’. He has come not to call the righteous but sinners, not people who think they’re fine in the sight of God, but rather those who know that they are not.
       The invitation which Jesus makes Matthew is the same one which the Church continues to make – we say to the world ‘Come and follow Him’ and the Church continues to exist because people continue to respond to that same call. The Church continues to invite people to the banquet of the Kingdom, not because they are worthy or respectable, because they have enough money or social standing, because they are the right sort, or people like us, but rather because we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, people who need healing and restoration. We are the sick who need a physician, the physician who offers the medicine which can heal our souls – His Body and Blood. His sacrifice of Himself in Atonement for our sins and those of the whole world, to heal us and restore our relationship with God and with each other is that for which our sin-sick souls cry out. We need God’s mercy and a sacrifice which does what not human sacrifice can do. That is why we are here, so that we can be nourished with Word and Sacrament, we can be fed by the Lord, with the Lord.
       As we are fed by Him and with Him, we can likewise respond to His invitation: ‘Follow me’. Our conversion is both an event and a process, the work of a lifetime, to draw ever closer to Him, and to seek to follow Him, and invite others so to do. This is the work of the kingdom – to continue to stand against the desire of the world to make the Church respectable, full of people like us, and to fling wide the doors and invite people into the banquet of the Kingdom. It is not a treasure which we keep to ourselves, jealously guarding it, but rather which we offer to all, for this is what it means to follow Him – to do what He tells us and to live lives which proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God here and now, for all humanity.

       So let us come and follow Him, let us respond to that invitation and encourage others so to do. Let us be fed by Him and with Him, so that our souls may be healed, so that we can experience the fullness of God’s healing love and mercy, which we do not deserve, but which nonetheless he gives to us so that we may have life and life in all its fullness. 

The Power of the Cross

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory. 
How do we live as a Church? How do we live out our faith in lives in an authentic and authoritative way? These are questions which trouble us in the Church, and so they should, for they lie at the heart of what it is to be a Christian, to follow Jesus; and they help us to understand that how we live our lives affects how we proclaim the Good News, the saving truth of Jesus Christ to the world and for the world.
It goes without saying that we, as human beings sin, we say and think and do things which estrange us from each other and from God. Recognising this is part of one might like to term Spiritual Maturity – recognising that we miss the mark, and fall short of what God wants us to be. If this was all that there was then we could quite rightly wallow in a pit of misery and regret, out of which we could never climb by our own efforts.
Thankfully the solution can be found encapsulated in this morning’s Gospel: Peter asks Our Lord how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him – seven? Jesus reply, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’ looks back to the establishment of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:8 – ‘You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.’ The jubilee of the Old Covenant is made real in Jesus – here is the forgiveness and the renewal for which Israel longs. It is radical, and powerful, and can transform us, and the world.
Jesus explains his message of forgiveness with the use of a parable, that of the dishonest servant: he owes a debt which he cannot pay, and begs for the chance to try. Yet, when faced with a debtor of his won, he fails to exhibit the mercy, the kindness which has been shown to him. For this he is rightly and justly punished, to show us who hear the parable that as we beg God to forgive our sins, so we need to forgive the sins of others.
It really is that simple, it is why when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray he says ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. As Christians this is how we pray, but these cannot simply be words that we say with our lips, they need rather to be actions in our lives – we need to live out the forgiveness which we have received. Thus the Kingdom of God is a place where God’s healing love can be poured out upon the world – to restore our human nature, to heal our wounds, and to build us up in love, for our own sake, and for the sake of the Kingdom.
We see this forgiveness in Paul’s Letter to the Romans – here are people learning not to judge others, learning to live as people of love, freed from all that hinders our common life together. If we consider for a second the fact that for three centuries Christians were persecuted for their faith – they were sentenced to death for preferring Christ to the ways of the world, and yet they were not angry, but rather lived out the love and the forgiveness which they had received, it was this powerful witness which brought others to believe and follow Christ.
We have to follow their example and try to live authentic lives together, forgiving each other, and living in love – putting aside the petty rivalries, the squabbles, the slights, all the little everyday annoyances. For how can we ask God for forgiveness and not be ready, willing and able to show the same forgiveness to our brothers and sisters? We would be hypocrites: more to be pitied than blamed for failing to grasp the fact the heart of the Gospel is love, and failing to live this truth out in our lives.
That is why we celebrate the Cross of Christ – the simple fact that for love of us Jesus bore the weight of our sins upon himself, and suffered and died for us, to show that there was no length to which God would not go to demonstrate once and for all what love and forgiveness truly mean. It is our only hope, the one thing that can save us from ourselves, from that which divides, and wounds, which separates from each other and from God.

It may seem utterly ridiculous that the Gospel promises unlimited forgiveness to the penitent, but how can we learn to forgive others without first coming to terms with the fact that we are forgiven. The slate is wiped clean, but this does not mean we can sit back and say ‘I’m alright Jack’ – we cannot be complacent, instead we are humble knowing that we rely upon God for dealing with things. Sin matters, it matters so much that Christ died for it, and rose again, to show us that as the Church we are to have new life in him. The Kingdom is here, now, amongst us – it is up to us to live it, as a community of truth and reconciliation, showing that same costly love which our Lord exhibits upon the Cross, and proclaiming that same truth to the world.

Sermon for Evensong Trinity XII

It has been said that in the hereafter there are two smells: brimstone and incense. Needless to say, we should prefer the latter to the former, and also it reminds us of the religious practice of our brothers in faith the Jews: incense was offered in the Temple to God every morning and evening, a laudable practice which the Church continues.
It should also remind us that the Church Militant here in Earth just like the Church Triumphant in Heaven is focussed on one thing: the worship of Almighty God. This building was built for the glory of God, to give us something of a foretaste of Heaven and as a place of worship, where the praises of God might be sung: as above, so below:
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!”
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Rev 4:8-11)
We praise God and thank Him in our worship not because He needs or wants it, but for the simple reason that he is worth it. We are grateful for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
Our worship expresses our hope, our thanks and our praise, it reminds us to be grateful for what God has done for us, in giving His Son to be born for us, to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom to us, to die for us and to rise again for us, to show us how we might have life and life in all its fullness in and through Him.
Therefore our vocation as Christians is to be a joyful people. There is nothing worse than seeing a sad miserable Christian: we are called to proclaim Good News, to live out the new life of our baptism, regenerate, born again, singing the praises of God who rather than condemn us loves us and saves us, who gives himself as priest and victim upon the altar of the Cross so that we might feed on Him, to heal our wounds, to transform us, so that His Grace can perfect rather than abolish our nature – it is wonderful, utterly mind-blowing, it has the power to transform the entire world if only we could stop getting in the way, and let the transformative power of God’s love be at work in the world.
We proclaim this Good News in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds, and the more we do it, the more it shapes our character, making us people of praise, people of worship – it can become all-encompassing, taking all of who and what we are, and using it for God’s good purposes. This is what Our Lord means when he says ‘whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ (Mt 16:25) This is life in all its fullness for we are never more fully alive than when we worship God, demonstrating our love for Him, and letting His love shine through us.
This characterised the first Apostles – how could they do otherwise after what God had done for them in Jesus, and we should be just like them, with the same singularity of vision and purpose.

So let us worship God not only with our lips but with our lives, so that all we are, all we say, all we think, all we do, may praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to  whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

A Choice

Humans are social animals, we live together and as creatures of habit we become that which we do habitually – our thoughts and actions form our moral character and thus the society in which we live. It is why the Church is concerned with such things, not to take on the role of a policeman, but rather to help us to flourish as human beings, to live as God wants us to live, so that we may have life, and have it to the full – this is the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom, a proclamation anticipated by the prophets who look to a future in Christ, a proclamation and a kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, which continues to be the work of his body, the  Church. The message and the choice offered is a simple one.

The prophet Ezekiel is at pains to point out the need for Israel to turn away from its sins, to turn back to God. Sin can separate us from God and each other, it is divisive, it wounds, whereas the kingdom of God is a place of healing. As Christians we believe that Our Lord and Saviour died upon the Cross bearing the weight of our transgressions: he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who once and for all deals with the problem – human sinfulness and its effects upon us and the world. It is why at the beginning of his public ministry he proclaims the same message as John the Baptist: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’. To repent is to turn away from sin, to turn towards God, to be healed and restored by him. It is why our acts of worship as Christians often start with the recognition that we have fallen short; that we need constantly to turn to God, and ask for forgiveness, for the strength to live the kind of lives which lead to human flourishing. It affects each and every one of us, you and me, and we need help – we simply cannot manage on our own, we’re not strong enough. One can and should point out where someone is going wrong, but unless there is a conscious recognition of having fallen short, it is as though the grace of God can be resisted. Such stubbornness is part of the human condition, and it is why for two thousand years the Church has proclaimed the Love and Forgiveness of God, and its message can always be lived out better in our lives. The Church exists to continue to call people to repentance, to carry on the healing and reconciling work of Jesus, here and now.

Two thousand years ago the Christians living in Rome, to whom St Paul wrote his longest letter were prone to the kinds of behaviour which we can still see around us today, and which we, all of us, still indulge in. The Cross is the supreme demonstration of the fact that God loves us. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ [John 3:16-17]. We can recognise the problem and its effects but also be assured of a solution in the person of Jesus Christ, whose forgiveness is for all, who gives us baptism so that we might have new life in Him, and gives himself under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we might feed on His Body and Blood to be healed and restored by Him.

This is not cosy or comfortable, but rather a radical transformative message, one which has the potential to change not just us, and who and what we are, but the entire world. Here in the Eucharist we are in the presence of the God who loves us, and who saves us, who heals and restores us. We have a foretaste of heaven; we can come far closer to God than Moses did on Mt Sinai. We have the medicine for which our souls cry out. So let us come to Him and let His Grace transform our lives.

At the end of this morning’s Gospel we see a promise made by Jesus firstly that prayer will be answered and of his presence among us. Part of repentance, the turning away from the ways of the world, is the turning towards God in prayer, listening to Him, being open to his transforming love in our lives, so that God’s grace can perfect our human nature, and prepare us for heaven here and now – so let us live the life of the Kingdom, having turned away from all that separates us from God and each other, with tears of repentance and a resolve not to sin, and with tears of joy that God gives himself to suffer and die for love us. We cannot be lukewarm about this: for it is either of no importance or interest to us whatsoever, or the most wonderful news which should affect who we are and what we do.

There can be no complacency, no simply going through the motions, turning up to be seen, to provide a veneer of social respectability. It is a matter of life and death, whose repercussions are eternal. We have a choice to make.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh on Forgiveness

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these  two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory.