Sixteenth Sunday of Year A Mt 13:24-43

If I were to mention Hell to you, you would probably expect me to also mention damnation, the wretched sinful nature of humanity, and why we all deserve to burn for ever in eternal fire and unquenchable brimstone, striking the pulpit in the manner of a Non-Conformist preacher. You would naturally think this was somewhat out of character for me. But here I stand I can do no other. This morning’s Gospel is quite stark and uncompromising in its portrayal of judgement and the afterlife, and we have a choice to make. We have got used to people not talking about Hell nowadays, we’re far too polite to mention such things. It’s certainly not the Anglican way to dwell on such matters. But we cannot simply bury our heads in the sand and forget that such things exist. We need to understand them.

One of my favourite religious anecdotes comes from Northern Ireland, and relates to this morning’s Gospel, after hearing it read someone asked, ‘What if you’ve not got any teeth?’, to which the preacher responded, ‘Teeth will be provided!’ amidst the humour there lies a serious point – It is real, and  we have a choice to make. Do we want a future without God, cut off from Him, through Sin?  Do we want to condemn ourselves to an eternity of misery, cut off from His love? Or do we want to have life in Christ, life in all its fullness.

Jesus comes to save us from Sin, Death, and Hell. He does this first by proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom and secondly by dying for us on the Cross, bearing the burden of our sins, and overcoming the power of death and Hell, and rising again to New Life. The Church preaches Christ Crucified, and offers salvation in and through Christ alone.

But lest we get too gloomy, let us pause for a moment to consider something important. In the Gospel, the time for the separation of wheat and weeds is not yet. There is time, time for repentance, time to turn away from Sin, and to turn to Christ. The proclamation of the Kingdom is one which calls people to repent, and to believe, to have a change of heart, and to turn away from the ways of the world, the ways of selfishness, which alienate us from God and each other. It is not merely an event, but rather a process, a continual turning towards Christ, and reliance upon His love and mercy, a turning to Him in prayer, being nourished and transformed by our reading of the Bible, and being nourished with the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

The good news is that we are not simply condemned, and we, all of us, have time to make sure that we are wheat and not weeds. Ours is a generous and a loving God, who longs to see His people reconciled, healed, and redeemed. The fact that the wheat and the weeds can grow together until the harvest is done for the sake of the wheat, lest it be pulled up by accident. Ours then is a patient God, who provides us with the opportunity for repentance, time to turn our lives around and follow him. And the Church, just like the world is people good and bad, on various stages of a journey, as earth is a preparation for heaven, we are given all the chances possible to rely on God’s transforming grace in our lives.

It is a hopeful message, a message of healing and reconciliation, that God does not simply give up on us, but rather does all he can to make sure that we are wheat and not weeds. It is the wonder of the Cross, that God sends his Son out of love for humanity, of you and me, to suffer and die for us, to show us the depth of God’s love, That he rises from the tomb so show us that death is not the end, to give us hope. It is the best news there is. And we are told about it now, so that we can do something about it, and we can tell other people too. We can share the message so that others can hear, and repent, and believe, and live new lives in Christ, freed from slavery to sin. So that all the world 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.

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An Advent Meditation

The whole problem of our time is not lack of knowledge but lack of love

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

The season of Advent has an interesting character: it is one of joyful waiting, as we await our yearly remembrance of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s Birth, the dawning of the new hope of Salvation for mankind. It is also a season of penitence, when the church considers the Four Last Things, one for each week of Advent: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Such matters are nowadays rather passed over in our Christian discourse, and while this is understandable, it is not a good thing. Human life on earth, is, by its very nature finite: we are born and we die, we may live for minutes, or decades, even a century – but in the end death comes for us all. This is not morbid, it is a fact of life. The world around us finds death strange and scary: it is sanitised, medicalised, shut away in a hospital or a care home. What was once commonplace and domestic has been put out of sight and out of mind as we seem no longer willing or able to face our own mortality.

As Christians we have hope that this earthly life is not all that there is, we believe that Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem, died on the Cross, and rose again on that glorious Easter morn, and after forty days ascended into Heaven to show us that this is our hope, this is the fruit of our reconciliation with God, and each other. As the Preface for the Dead puts it:

Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur: et dissoluta terrestris hujus incolatus domo, aeterna in caelis habitatio comparatur.

For the life of thy faithful people, O Lord, is changed, not taken away: and at the dissolution of the tabernacle of this earthly sojourning, a dwelling place eternal is made ready in the heavens

Hence the Christian talk of a good death, a happy death. It is nothing to be feared, but rather to be embraced, as a means to an end, namely the hope of unity with God.

After death comes judgement, and the simple answer is that no single human being deserves to go heaven (with the obvious exception of the Holy Family). We all deserve to go to Hell, ours is a fallen world and we sin, each and every one of us, every day in a multitude of ways. It is that simple, and we cannot work out way to heaven through works, but rather through God’s grace and mercy, through our Baptism, which makes us one with Christ. He gave S. Peter the power to loose and bind, to remind us that sin is a serious matter, it destroys the soul, hence the sacrament of reconciliation, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God, of forgiveness and mercy. The message Our Lord first declares is exactly the same as John the Baptist ‘καὶ λέγων ὅτι Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ· μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Mk 1:15 ESV) This is the message of Advent: repent and believe in the Good News of the Kingdom of God, Good News which starts at the Annunciation, which brings about Our Saviour’s Birth. This is why we say Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

This leaves us a question, ‘Will we follow Him?’ There are two ways, one leads to Heaven, one leads to Hell; the road to Heaven, the life of faith is not an easy journey, it’s hard. That’s why we have the Church, a frail body, comprised of sinners, but who trust in God’s mercy, and though we keep failing, yet we stumble on, knowing that Heaven is our goal, that the way of the world leads to a future without God, bleak, cold, and devoid of love.

God is a God of mercy, a God who will judge us, knowing that His Son has paid the price, conquering sin and death, so let us believe in Him, trust in Him, and follow Him, let us prepare to celebrate His Birth with joy, and commit ourselves to walking in His way, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us experience that mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, let us be fed with His Body and Blood, nourished by His Word, and the teaching of His Church, praying together, loving and forgiving together, so that together our hope may be of Heaven, where we and all the faithful may sing the praises of 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.

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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.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

The world around us can be a strange place. We dislike death, that’s understandable, and yet it is inevitable. People now seem to think that in the name of compassion that we should be able to choose when and how it happens, which is highly problematic. As Christians, we believe that life is sacred from its very beginning to its end, and it is something which we must all face. And yet, in Christ we have hope, that our earthly existence is not everything, and His Death and Resurrection shows us that our destiny is to be with God, forever in heaven.
       As for the matter of judgement, we leave such things up to God, we cannot know, all we can do is to trust in His mercy, and try to live out our faith. Rather than trying to usurp the place of God, an act of pride, and judge whether we are wheat or weeds, we leave such matters up to Him. Instead we need to realise that as the Body of Christ, the Church, we are to be concerned with living the life of the Kingdom here and now. Our faith is not a private matter; it affects who we are and what we do. As people who have received the love and mercy of God, we are to live accordingly.
       It’s why we are here, it’s why Christians gather on the first day of the week, to pray together,  to listen to the Scriptures, and to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we may have live in Him, so that we may be strengthened to live lives of faith in the world, not conformed to it, not going along with what it says or does, but living out a radical alternative, of costly love and forgiveness, looking to God to heal our wounds and restore us, and trusting in His unfailing love.
       It isn’t easy, it is difficult, and it is hard, and for two thousand years we have been trying, and getting it wrong, but we don’t simply give up – no, we keep trying, and keep trying together. Our faith matters to each and every one of us, and we’re all in it together. The work of the kingdom is communal and corporate. I’m no better than any of you, I’m weak, sinful, and foolish, I follow Christ in a particular way, that doesn’t make me special or better. You look to me to lead, to teach and to nourish, but I can only do so with your love, support, prayers and forgiveness, so that together, as the people of God in this place, we make the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of peace, joy, love and forgiveness, a reality in this place.
       In so doing, we are following Christ – this is what it means to be a Christian. We follow someone who was not content just to go along with the ways of the world, someone who enjoyed celebrations so much that he was called a drunkard, but who ignored the petty judgemental comments, who ate with tax-collectors, sinners and prostitutes, to take a stand against a society where people think that wealth or birth, or anything else make one intrinsically a better person. Only God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness can do that, which those whom society scorned both knew and recognised and responded to.

       Our calling then is a radical one, which aims at nothing less than the transformation of the whole world, starting here and now, to make the Kingdom of God a living transformative reality in this place for the glory of God. We can only succeed if we do it together, and trusting in the God who loves us, who heals and restores us, whose Kingdom it is.