Advent I Year B ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come’

T
here are people who walk around in town centres wearing sandwich boards with the following message on them, ‘the end is nigh: repent and believe the gospel’. Now to many people, they appear as figures of fun, strange religious extremists, but this morning, as we begin the season of Advent, the season of preparation for our yearly Memorial of the Incarnation, I would like to begin by considering such people and their message. Their purpose is genuine, and their message is true, and we as Christians would do well to consider what they say, and how it might affect our lives.
       We, here, this morning, as Christians are living between Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the world, we are to be ready, and to spend our time considering the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. In this morning’s gospel, our Lord tells us to stay awake, to be on our guard, to be prepared, because we do not know the time when our Lord will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead.
       Jesus tells us not to be found asleep, in the sleep of sin, asleep which says ‘I’m alright’, ‘I don’t need God’. It is this sleep which affects many people, those who come to church, and the vast majority who do not. That’s not to say they don’t try and live good Christian lives. We all do, instinctively. And yet any mention of the last things tends to conjure up images of fire and damnation, hell and brimstone preachers, thumping pulpits and putting the fear of God into people. It’s the characterisation of the religious as extremists, which affects our friend with the sandwich boards, whom I mentioned earlier. And yet, they all have a point – their message is true – but I suspect that they put it across in a way which strikes people as unpalatable, and so they switch off and go to sleep.
       And yet, what they say matters, it is true that we could all do with being reminded of it. How we live our lives matters, it affects who and what we are, and the world around us. We have but one life to live on Earth, and we must try, with God’s grace, to do the best we can. We live in a world which does not care about such questions, apparently people’s lives are their own business, and we have no business calling people’s actions into question, but this will not do. Our actions affect us, our character, our lives, and the lives of people around us – our actions have consequences, which is why our lives and how we live them matter. What we do and say matters and the Church exists to call people to repentance – to change the whole of their lives and follow Christ in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds – for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.
       Lest we get too afraid, we can turn in confidence to the words of Isaiah in our first reading this morning. The profit is looking forward to the redemption of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, a new future after exile. Against a picture of human sin, and rebellion against God, there is the implicit possibility of something better. In those times when God can seem absent, there is the possibility that God has a loving parent is giving us space to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced both of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, to enrich us with his grace, as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, and give us the gifts of his spirit.
       We’re not being left alone in all this. God both tells us the nature and source of the problem, and provides us with a solution. He even helps us along our way: he strengthens and encourages us, to turn our lives around, and follow him. That we be vigilant – and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and those around us, that we are awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.
For God asks of us – that we, this Advent, turn our own lives around, and prepareourselves to meet our Lord, at Mass, when he meets us at his altar in his body and blood, and in his words proclaimed in Scripture, we also need to look forward to meeting our Lord in the yearly remembrance of His Nativity, and in his coming in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. If we can look beyond the commercialism of a sad, cynical world, we can see that God was prepared to go to any length to meet us, to be with us and heal us. Can we not prepare ourselves, our souls and our lives to meet Him?

Living the life of the Kingdom – The parable of the Talents

Oh No! It’s a parable about money. Does it mean that the vicar is going to keep on about the Parish Share and the state of the Diocesan Finances? Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, I’m not. I just thought that I’d clear that one up right away, just to put your minds at rest, so that we can get on with the task of drawing closer to the word of God, and to be nourished and strengthened by it.
Reading Holy Scripture, the Bible, can be a strange affair: sometimes it fills us with joy, sometimes it just leaves us confused. Speaking personally, I find the parable of the talents troubling, mostly because I tend to feel rather like the slave who was given one talent and who hid it in the ground. That may well be my own sense of unworthiness informing my reading of the passage, which reminds me of the need in all things to trust in God, and for his grace to be at work in me. The judgement thankfully is not my own, but rather God’s – a loving father who runs to meet his prodigal children. This is a God we can trust, who wants to see us flourish.
No parable has been more misused than Jesus’ parable of the talents. Once a parable is abstracted from Jesus proclamation of the kingdom of God, once it is divorced from its apocalyptic context – pointing to the future, such misreading is inevitable:  speculation begins, for example, about how much talent might be or whether the Master’s observation that the money could have been put in a bank might mean that Jesus approves of taking interest. Speculative uses of the parable have even been employed to justify economic practices that are antithetical to Jesus’ clear judgement that we cannot serve both God and mammon. After all, money is a means, and not an end – which is where we and the world often go wrong.
Jesus is not using this parable to recommend that we should all work hard, make all that we can, to give all that we can. Rather, the parable is a clear judgement against those who think they deserve what they have earned as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been given.
          The slaves have not earned their five, two, and one talents. They have been given those talents. In the parable of the Sower, Jesus indicated that those called to the kingdom would produce different yields. These differences should not be the basis for envy and jealousy, because our differences are gifts given in service to one another – so are the talents given to the slaves of a man going on a journey. It is not unfair that the slaves were given different amounts. Rather what is crucial is how they regarded what they had been given.
          The one who received one talent feared the giver. He did so because he assumed that the gifts that could only be lost or used up. In other words the one with one talent assumed that they were part of a zero-sum game – if someone wins, someone else must lose. Those who assume that life is a zero-sum game think that if one person receives an honour someone else is made poorer. The slave who feared losing what he had, he turned his gifts into a possession – it was a thing, and it was his thing. But by contrast, the first two slaves recognised that trying to secure the gifts that they had been given means that the gifts would be lost – so they use the gifts for the glory of God. The joy of the wedding banquet is the joy into which the Master invites the slaves who did not try to protect what they had been given is the joy that comes from learning to receive the gift without regret, without fear – simply humbly, joyfully and lovingly.
          The parable of the talents just like the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids are commentaries on the slaves who continue to work,  who continue to feed their fellow slaves, until their master returns – they are parables which teach us how to be a church of loving service. Each of these parables teaches us to wait patiently as those who have received the gift of being called a disciple of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples are not necessarily called to great things. Rather, Jesus’ disciples are called to do the work that Jesus has given us to do: our work is simple and it is learning to tell the truth and love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our Master invites us to share. It is in doing this work that we are separated – sheep from goats.
          It may sound pedestrian, or even humdrum, but living the Christian life, living the life of the Kingdom, is at a day to day level about keeping on keeping on – loving, forgiving, praying – nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, fed by Him, and with Him, freed from the fear which is the antithesis of the Kingdom, rejoicing in the gifts which God gives us, being thankful for them, and using them for God’s glory. It is what each of us, and indeed all of us together are called to be, in this we can be built up in love, together, and invite others to enter into the joy of the Kingdom, so that they may come to believe in and serve God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed this is most right and just all Might,  Majesty, Glory, Dominion, and Power now and for ever…

Trinity XXI The Conversion and Sanctification of Man

Canon Henry Liddon was quite right when he spoke to the clergy saying ‘Our end is the conversion and sanctification of man’. It’s what the church is for, and its ministerial priesthood, sharing in the priesthood of Christ, calls the common priesthood of the baptised to be conformed more and more to the image of the Crucified Lord, Our Saviour Jesus Christ.
       This is achieved by a variety of means, but particularly by prayer: where humanity speaks to and more importantly listens to God. It is a mark of the intimacy of our relationship with the divine that it is to be a regular constant conversation so that God may be at work in us. In our prayer we praise God, not because He needs it, but because it is right and good humanity, the creature to praise its Creator. We intercede for our own needs and for those of the world, and we plead the sacrifice of His Son which alone can heal the wounds of sin which mar our fallen human nature. In our humble talking to God and in the silence of our hearts there can a space for God to speak to us, to transform us, in the power of His Holy Spirit.
       When Paul writes to Titus, in this evening’s second lesson, he is concerned with the ordering of public worship, and particularly prayer. Here in a Cathedral we are not unacquainted with decent ordered worship, as one might well expect. We have standards, which are rightly high, and can serve as an example and an encouragement, but we are first and foremost a community of prayer, which invites people to draw ever closer to the God who loves us, who saves us, and redeems us.
       We pray for the Church and the World, for the living and the departed, for the sick and those in need, which is excellent and acceptable to God. We do so in order that we may strive to live an ordered, quiet, peaceable life, and thus may be drawn ever closer to the godliness which is the path to true holiness of life in Christ. His Salvation which is for all people is both an event – His sacrifice upon the Cross of Calvary, and a process – through the outpouring of His Sanctifying Grace in the Sacraments of the Church, nourished by the Word of God in Holy Scripture, the Revealed Truth of God’s love for us, and through remaining close to God in prayer, that our human nature can be transformed and perfected in Christ. It is the will of God that all people may be saved, the invitation is offered to all, freely, it costs nothing, it may be resisted and even refused, yet God in His love and mercy offers it. We do not deserve it, we cannot earn it, it is a gift which is offered and has to be accepted.
       There is one mediator between God and humanity, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all, bearing witness to the love and mercy of God, and offering himself freely as a sacrifice upon the altar of the Cross, where as priest and victim he makes the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. This simple world-changing fact is at the heart of our faith: Christ died for our sins, yours and mine, and was raised to give us the hope of eternal life in Him. This is what we preach, it is what we pray, and what we live, so that we may be drawn closer to Him.
       It is wonderful, and yet it is not easy – for two thousand years the church continues to call humanity to repentance, and while our human efforts may be haltering, nonetheless the call to conversion and sanctification is a constant one, of which we need to be constantly reminded, each and every one of us, so that we can support and forgive each other, and pray for and with each other.
       I would like to end with some words of Mother Mary Clare slg:
       Today we can easily become
       paralysed by a sense that
       there is nothing we can do
       in the face of so much suffering,
       such lack of love and justice
       in man’s relationship with man,
       but the Cross of Christ
       stands at the heart of it all,
       and the prayer of Christ,
       now as always
       is the answer to man’s need.

Be Prepared – Matthew 25:1-13

The Scouting Movement has as its motto ‘Be Prepared’ which rather sums up the message of this morning’s Gospel. As people who live in the countryside we are more than used to having a supply of candles and batteries ready at hand to deal with the inevitable winter power cuts caused by bad weather. It makes sense, so that we are not caught out – having to endure the cold and dark.
      The Gospel speaks of a more serious preparedness, one which we must all face.  Our earthly lives are finite, and we have to be prepared for our end. We know that as Our Lord came among us born as a baby in Bethlehem, so he will come as Our Judge, and we have to be ready to meet Him. Rather than face this future with a feeling of uncertainty, of dread, we can as Christians have hope, we can watch and wait in hope, in the darkness, in the knowledge that Christ loves us, that he gave himself for us, he died to take away our sins, and that we can live for and through Him. It need not catch us unawares, as we have been warned, so that we can be prepared, we can be ready, with the lamp of faith and good works ready, trimmed and burning – a light burning in the darkness.
      It is a very human fear, and clearly the Christians in Thessaly around ad55 were more than a little concerned about what might happen. They can have the hope that ‘so we will be with the Lord forever.’ (1Thes 4:17) and therefore confident in that hope, they can begin to live out their faith here and now. They can live out the justice and righteousness which is pleasing to God, as it is how he wants us to live, so that we can have life in its fullness in Him.
      If what we believe in our hearts and how we live our lives are in perfect sync with each other, then we need have no fear, as the promise of sharing in Christ’s Resurrection is there for us – we do not need to be afraid, and we can get on with the business of living our lives secure in our faith. When we do this we can begin to see something of the just and gentle rule of Christ, as we will transform the world, and will be truly alive, living the life of heaven here in earth. Each day, as Christians, we pray, and we say the prayer that Jesus taught us which includes the petition ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. So that our words are not empty, as well as praying for the coming of God’s kingdom, we have to do something about it – we have to show how prepared we are by listening to God and doing what he tells us.

      We pray, we are nourished by the word of God, in reading the Bible, we are nourished by the sacraments of the Church, by the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, so that we may be strengthened in our faith, strengthened to live it out in our lives, living out the sacrifice so that we may be drawn into its mystery, carrying our own Cross, and being conformed ever more and more to the example of Our Lord and Saviour, living in Him, living like Him, living the life of the Kingdom here and now, so Christ’s kingdom may come here on earth, that His will may be done. 

A thought for the day from S. Charles Borromeo

Practise what you preach

I admit that we are all weak, but if we want help, the Lord God has given us the means to find it easily. One priest may wish to lead a good, holy life, as he knows he should. He may wish to be chaste and to reflect heavenly virtues in the way he lives. Yet he does not resolve to use suitable means, such as penance, prayer, the avoidance of evil discussions and harmful and dangerous friendships. Another priest complains that as soon as he comes into church to pray the office or to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for the office or for Mass? How did he prepare? What means did he use to collect his thoughts and to remain recollected?
  Would you like me to teach you how to grow from virtue to virtue and how, if you are already recollected at prayer, you can be even more attentive next time, and so give God more pleasing worship? Listen, and I will tell you. If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless chatter.
  If teaching and preaching is your job, then study diligently and apply yourself to whatever is necessary for doing the job well. Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing, but live otherwise, and your words will bring only cynical laughter and a derisive shake of the head.
  Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself. You have to be mindful of your people without becoming forgetful of yourself.
  My brothers, you must realise that for us churchmen nothing is more necessary than meditation. We must meditate before, during and after everything we do. The prophet says: I will pray, and then I will understand. When you administer the sacraments, meditate on what you are doing. When you celebrate Mass, reflect on the sacrifice you are offering. When you pray the office, think about the words you are saying and the Lord to whom you are speaking. When you take care of your people, meditate on how the Lord’s blood that has washed them clean so that all that you do becomes a work of love.
  This is the way we can easily overcome the countless difficulties we have to face day after day, which, after all, are part of our work: in meditation we find the strength to bring Christ to birth in ourselves and in other men.

Living the life of the Kingdom

Our blessed Lord began His public life on the Mount of the Beatitudes, by preaching, ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the earth.’ He finished His public life on the hill of Calvary by practising that meekness: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’
Fulton J. Sheen The Cross and the Beatitudes, 1937: 3
It is probably a good thing that Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was not an advertising executive. Fundamentally He tells it like it is – there is a simplicity and a directness to Him that is not always comfortable. He does not tell us what we want to hear, but rather he tells us what we need to hear, which is often far from pleasant or comfortable. He has been teaching in the Temple, about the Kingdom of God, and how to live out the faith in our lives and now He turns to the future.
      The Temple was the single most important place on Earth for religious Jews, it was the centre of their life; it was where they came close to God. The prospect of its destruction was surely the most dreadful prospect, something not to be countenanced at all. Yet it would happen, and rather than hide behind the false hope of a pleasant image, he teaches people the plain unvarnished truth. Rather than a sugar-coated pill he gives us a bitter draught, so that we can be prepared.
      False teaching is always a possibility for the Church – people want to pervert the Gospel, to twist it for their own ends and to suit their own agenda – it is happening now, and has always happened. We need, therefore to be vigilant, to know what we believe and why, so that we can discern the true from the false, the good from the bad.
      In human terms the future looks bleak – human beings have an immense capacity for doing the wrong thing, and yet in the midst of all this we know whom we can trust, whom we can look to, where we can place our hope and our confidence. The possibility of being tortured or killed for professing faith in Jesus Christ is still very real, here and now, in the world in which we live. It’s a deeply unpleasant thought, and while none of us I suspect would like to undergo such treatment, we have to be prepared for the possibility, we have to be willing to stand up and be counted, to know that we place Christ before and above all things.
      At one level it is quite understandable, what Christ stands for, what we stand for: love, forgiveness, selflessness, are never going to be popular in a world obsessed by power. But we’re not here to win a popularity contest, but rather to bear witness to the truth of Christ, and to know that we are set free by it. The love of many may grow cold; indeed it has, so we need to be that love in the world to make Christ known and to call others into His loving embrace. Against a human nature which takes a perverse delight in selfishness and sin, in not living how God wants us to, we need to take a stand.
      Fundamentally the calling to be a saint is there for each and every one of us. We are called to be like Christ, and through our baptism to die to the ways of the world and live for him. In our baptism we are given the grace of God and His Holy Spirit, we are given all that we need to get to Heaven, because Christ loves us, and gave Himself to die for us, to take away our sins, to show us what love and forgiveness really look like, so that we can do the same.
      On our own, each one of us individually doesn’t stand much of a chance, it’s too difficult, it’s not how it is supposed to be, rather we need to live out our faith together, as a community of believers, helping each other, supporting each other, praying for and forgiving each other, being built up in love together, so that together we can truly be the people of God, forgiving each other, loving each other, and helping to make the Kingdom a reality here and now.
      We come to be nourished by Him, to be fed by the Word of God, nourished in our faith, to be fed with His Body and Blood, to be given a foretaste of heaven, fed by Him, fed with Him, to be built up in love together, strengthened and nourished to live out our common calling to sainthood, and to encourage others to join us, as this is what God wants us to do – this is life in all its fullness, following the Truth which sets us free from the ways of the world – its selfishness, its lust for power and control, its fear and anger, all those things which separate us from God and each other.

      So let us come to Him, let our lives be transformed by Him, so that we can live out our faith together, in our common calling, and encourage others so to do, so that they too may believe and give Glory to 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.