A thought from Henri Nouwen

All of this is simply to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be. Why is this so? Why do we children of the light so easily become conspirators with the darkness? The answer is quite simple. Our identity, our sense of self , is at stake. Secularity is a way of being dependant upon the responses of our milieu. The secular or false self is the self which is fabricated, as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions. ‘Compulsive’ is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by the world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failure and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same – more work, more money, more friends.

These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of the secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. What else is anger other than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. And when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus greed and anger are the brother and sister of a false self fabricated by the social compulsions of the unredeemed world.

Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who making them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.

It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, London: DLT, 1990: 14-16

1280px-egypte28099s_desert_mountains_2009a-1140x500

Augustine on the works of mercy

Two works of mercy set a man free: forgive and you will be forgiven, and give and you will receive.

When you pray we are all beggars before God: we stand before the great householder bowed down and weeping, hoping to be given something, and that something is God himself.

What does a poor man beg of you? Bread. What do you beg from God? – Christ, who said, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven’.

Do you you really want to be forgiven? Then forgive. Do you want to receive something? Then give to another. And if you want your prayer to fly up to God, give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.

But look carefully at what you do: don’t think it is enough to fast if  it is only  a penance for sin, and does not benefit someone else. You deprive yourself of something, but to whom do you give what you do without?

Fast in such a way that you rejoice to see that dinner is eaten by another; not grumbling and looking gloomy, giving rather because the beggar wearies you than because you are feeding the hungry.

If you are sad when you give alms, you lose both bread and merit, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

hyla-blue-largposter-copy

St Augustine on imitating Christ

Pride is the great sin, the head and cause of all sins, and its beginning lies in turning away from God. Beloved, do not make light of this vice, for the proud man who disdains the yoke of Christ is constrained by the harsher yoke of sin: he may not wish to serve, but he has to, because if he will not be love’s servant, he will inevitably be sin’s slave.

From pride arises apostasy: the soul goes into darkness, and misusing its free will falls into other sins, wasting its substance with harlots, and he who was created a fellow of the angels becomes a keeper of swine.

Because of this great sin of pride, God humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, bearing insults and hanging on a cross. To heal us, he became humble; shall we not be ashamed to be proud?

You have heard the Lord say that if you forgive those who have injured you, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But those who speak the world’s language say. ‘What! you won’t revenge yourself, but let him boast of what he did to you? Surely you will let him see that he is not dealing with a weakling?’ Did the Lord revenge himself on those who struck him? Dying of his own free will, he uttered no threats: and will you, who do not know when you will die, get in a rage and threaten?

900ab-crucifixion_013

St Augustine on Ps. 19:9

The Pharisee

Shall a Christian go and live apart from the world, so that he may not be tried by false brethren? Shall he who has progressed in a righteous life separate himself so that he need not suffer from anyone? Perhaps people have suffered from before he was converted. Has no one anything to put up with from you? It would surprise me – but if it is so, then you are stronger and thus able to endure other people’s failings.

Do you propose to shut out bad men from good men’s company? if that is what you say, see if you can shut out all evil thoughts from your own heart. Every day we fight with out own heart.

You say you will go apart with a few good men and admit no wicked brother to your society. How do you recognise the man you wish to exclude? Do all come to you with their hearts bare? Those who wish to come do not know themselves, they cannot be proved unless they are tried.

Nowhere in this life are we secure, except in God’s promise – only when we have attained to it, when the gates of Jerusalem are shut behind us, shall we be perfectly safe.

Beloved, mark the apostle’s words: ‘Support one another in charity.’ You forsake the world of men and separate yourself from it. Whom will you profit? Would you have got so far if no one had profited you?

5445613926_49f4d3ed25_o-1

‘I am the Bread of Life’ Trinity X (19th of Year B)


I was somewhat troubled when I first read this morning’s Gospel. I find it all too easy to moan about all sorts of things, it is a very human failing, one to which we all, from time to time, succumb. But it’s something which Our Lord tells us not to do, and so I pray that through God’s grace I may live a life which more closely imitates Jesus, and follows His commands. It reminds me of a passage in the sermons of St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church: ‘“You all say, ‘The times are troubled, the times are hard, the times are wretched.’ Live good lives and you will change the times. By living good lives you will change the times and have nothing to grumble about.”’ (Sermo 311.8) It reminds us that the work of the Gospel is at one level up to us, the Body of Christ, His Church. We have to live our faith out in our lives (as fine words butter no parsnips) and we have to live the change we want to see in the world. Christianity is a way of life, a way mocked and scorned by the world around us, written off as irrelevant, and yet close to the God who loves us and saves us.

       In the Old Testament reading this morning we see the prophet Elijah being fed, we see God providing food which gives strength, strength for the journey. It prefigures the Eucharist, it looks forward to the reason why we are here today: to be fed by God. We can have the strength for our journey of faith, and the hope of eternal life.
       In the letter to the Ephesians we see that as children of God, loved by God, we are to imitate him, after the pattern of Christ, who offered himself, who was a sacrifice who has restored our relationship with God. It is this sacrifice, the sacrifice of Calvary, which has restored our relationship with God, which will be re-presented, made present here today, that you can touch and taste, that you can know how much God loves you; that you can be strengthened and given the hope of eternal life in Christ – that God’s grace can transform your human nature so that you come to share in the Divine Nature forever. Paul’s hope for the church in Ephesus should be ours to. This is how are supposed to live together as a Christian community, living in love, fed with love itself, here in the Eucharist, where we thank God for His love of us.
       In this morning’s Gospel we see Jews complaining, ‘how can he be from Heaven, from God, we know his Mum and Dad’. It is a difficult thing to understand, especially before Jesus suffers and dies, and rises again. It can be hard to understand who and what Jesus is. The Jews can see him only in purely human terms, they cannot see beyond this, the Messiah whom they long for is in their midst and they fail to recognise him. The notion of consuming human flesh and blood is so abhorrent to Jews that it would represent something sinful and polluting. Jesus’ answer is simple and challenging: stop complaining. We are to accept, we are not to moan, to complain, but instead to trust him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
       Jesus is the Bread of Life, the true nourishment of our souls. It is through him that we can have life as Christians. He came down from heaven and became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. He was born as a human being, and in him our human flesh has been raised to eternal life, to glory with God. Jesus speaks of the Eucharist, the sacrament of his body and blood as providing us with eternal life, of opening the way to heaven. So we come to be fed by God, to be fed with God, to have a pledge and foretaste of the joy of heaven, of eternal life with God, to experience true love in the source of love – the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
       We can have such a hope because Jesus gives himself, to suffer and die, and rose again, for love of us. It is this life of love and sacrifice which we are to imitate. Jesus gives himself to us for the life of the world – it is through being fed by him that the world can truly live. It is in experiencing God’s self-giving love that the world can find true meaning. Life in Christ is what true life means. Fed by him, strengthened by him, to imitate him and live out lives of self-giving love, to draw others closer to Christ so that 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.

Sermon for Evensong of the First Sunday after Easter

An old man said, ‘Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and placed it in a clean garment within a new tomb, which signifies a new humanity. Therefore let each one strive attentively not to sin so that they do not mistreat the God who dwells within themselves and drive him away from their soul.’
It is a good thing that we have time at Easter to take in and make sense of what we have commemorated: Our Lord’s Passion, Death, & Resurrection. They are linked and form part of a larger whole of the history which stretches back through the Incarnation, of the Word made flesh for our sake, to the Creation of the World.
 In the 8th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we see the meeting of Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch, who is reading the very passage which we have just heard  as our first lesson this evening– the Suffering Servant. Philip asks him if he can understand what he is reading. He replies that he cannot, unless someone shows him the way. ‘Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35 ESV). Isaiah’s prophesy is fulfilled in Jesus and this is the proclamation of the Church: we proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified.
We read scripture so that we can understand it, and see in its words how it discloses the truth of the Word made flesh, who suffered and died for our sake. Isaiah prophesies Our Lord’s Passion and Death, it, like the rest of Scripture points to Christ and finds its true meaning in Him, and thus it makes sense, it can be understood, and the more we come to understand, the more we come to know just how much God loves us.
Thus for Paul in the Letter to the Romanshe needs to show them how Abraham, the father of our faith is rewarded by God not through his observance of the Law, as the Pharisees would argue,  but rather by the obedience of his faith in God which can lead to his righteousness.
As Christians we believe that we are saved by grace through faith – by grace, by the unmerited free gift of God who gives his own Son to be born, to suffer and die and to rise again for us, so that we might have life in Him, through our faith, through believing in the God who does this.  We can put our trust in a God who loves us, who dies this for us, to heal us and restore us, and thus we can have new life and eternal life in Him. It is unmerited: we do not deserve it, but it is a free gift rather than a reward, something earned.
In Christ the promise made to Abraham comes true in that through the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world Abraham can become the father of many nations, the word for the non-Jewish peoples of the world – he becomes a spiritual parent to Christians because of Abraham’s faith in God, he trusts God, even to the point of being ready to sacrifice his only son, which itself points to Christ, who as the Lamb of God who takes  away the sins  of the world is a type of the lamb caught in the thicket at Bethel. Abraham trusts in God, puts his faith in Him, and is rewarded for that faith. We put our faith in Him, and are fed by Him, fed with Him, so that we may share in his Divine life, strengthened and nourished by God, so that his grace may perfect our nature.
Thus we are to follow Abraham’s example and put our faith in the God who loves us and saves us by His Son, who suffered and died and rose again for our sake. It’s all about faith: faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for us, who was delivered up for our sins and raised for our justification, this is what we believe, we have to be like Philip and share it with others, so that they too may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom ….