Homily for Trinity XVI

Being a Christian can be hard and difficult at times. It can be very easy to feel as though we are experiencing something of the vision of the prophet Habakkuk in this morning’s first reading. The best advice comes from St Augustine, who said the following words to his people over sixteen hundred years ago: ‘“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 can be easy to see bad things happening, but not realise is ours to be the change we want to see. For ‘the righteous shall live by his faith’ (Hab 2:4). If we want to live in a word filled with love, kindness and generosity, then it is up to us to do something about it. 

In Luke’s Gospel this morning the apostles ask for the Lord to increase their faith. He does this firstly after His Resurrection, and secondly with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Likewise our growth in faith is a gradual process: it takes time, a lifetime in fact. It happens by the grace of God. We may long for something instant, but God’s ways are not our ways. Faith is like a mustard seed, it starts small, but in time can grow into something large. How does it happen? The parable which Jesus tells gives us the answer: through service. Not the most glamorous of answers, certainly, and that’s the point. All we can say is, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Lk 17:10). We are not worthy: God makes us worthy, through His Son, who dies for us and fils us with His love. 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). 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.

We should not be afraid as God has given us ‘a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.’ (2Tim1: 7) Self-control is not exactly the most glamorous of things, but it is crucial if we want to grow in faith. Through it we grow in virtue by the grace of God. It goes hand in hand with the service envisaged by the Gospel passage this morning. We imitate the example of the saints, we ‘follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.’ (2Tim 1:13-14) By imitation of virtuous examples our characters are formed. We become what we imitate, and most of all we imitate Christ, who gave himself for us, and who comes to us this morning under the outward forms of bread and wine to feed us with Himself, so that we might become what He is. So that we might be transformed, more and more into His likeness, to live out our faith in the world, and share our faith with others so that they might come to believe and sing the praise 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.

img_0270

16th Sunday of Year C – Mary and Martha

It is easy for us in the twenty-first century to forget just how difficult it was to travel in the past. And how important hospitality was. In a world without service stations, hotels, and only few inns, you would depend on the kindness of strangers offering you a place to refresh and recuperate before returning to the road. 

In our first reading this morning, from Genesis, we see visitors arrive outside Abraham’s tent by the oaks of Mamre. It’s the scene pictured in the famous icon of the holy Trinity by Nicholai Rublev.  And these are not just any visitors, but God in embodied form, which is quite surprising, and very uncommon in the Old Testament. Abraham called the three persons Lord, the One God. He offers them water to cleanse themselves, and bread to nourish them. Sarah, Abraham’s wife,  takes three measures of flour. These we understand as representing faith, hope, and love, the virtues of the Christian life, which we receive in our baptism. Abraham takes a calf, which prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, the truly gentle one, who does not refuse the Cross. After the visitors have eaten, they promise that Sarah will have a son. In response to their hospitality, generosity and faithfulness, the patriarch and his wife are rewarded. Their kindness is repaid. 

In this morning’s epistle, we see that for Paul our actions as Christians are firmly rooted in our relationship with God and our understanding of His will. As Abraham’s vision of angels in Genesis gives us the merest glimpse of what God is like, in the Letter to the Colossians we see that the person of Jesus Christ is the image of the Living God, in Him we can see both what God is really like, who God is and what God does.

This morning’s Gospel follows on directly from last week’s Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is another story about making a journey, but a more positive side of travelling is shown by Martha’s welcoming of Jesus and his disciples into her home, continuing the theme of the earlier passage, although this time the travellers have arrived safely and haven’t been attacked by bandits. Martha is a model of hospitality, and looks after her guests: they’re hungry and thirsty after their travels. Martha puts her faith into practice. But she goes too far, and gets distracted by all the serving. She takes her eyes off Jesus. She forgets whom she is serving and why. However, she is not rebuked. Her service is valued. 

Her sister Mary has chosen to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him. Mary has chosen a good part, and is being nourished in her faith. However, the point is not simply to prefer the contemplative to the practical, or the spiritual to the physical. That would be Gnosticism. Instead we need to balance our physical needs with our spiritual ones. It is Mary who will anoint Jesus in Bethany just before His Passion. Thus faith and action need to be lived out together.

We are called to be generous as a church, both in our hospitality and our attentiveness to God. In our proclamation of the Good News, in our making the Word of God known, and inannouncing Christ, the hope of glory, through His Death and Resurrection.

As is so often the case in the Gospels it isn’t a case of ‘either…or’ but rather ‘both…and’. We need to be both active and contemplative, and always keep our eyes on Jesus, the centre of our faith, the great example of how to live a fully human life. Christians need to hospitable and welcoming, as well as prayerful. It’s something which lies at the heart of Rule of St Benedict. This begins by telling us to listen with the ear of the heart, and to welcome guests as we would welcome Christ, so that in all things God might be glorified. Prayer and service, love and contemplation, balancing physical and spiritual needs, is how God wants us to live. It is how we flourish. We are nourished at the Eucharist, so that we can live out our faith in our lives, in a balanced way. Ora et labora, pray and work, the monastic motto 

Jesus’ teaching is that the way to show real hospitality is to pay attention to one’s guest, rather than just fussing to show hospitality. Instead of busyness, God tells us this morning that, like the Good Samaritan, we should be attentive to God and his message for us in the Gospel. In doing this we, like Mary will choose a good part. This choice has a moral dimension: in truly listening attentively to what God says to us, our actions and our character will be formed, helping our growth in holiness. Nourished by Word and Sacrament we progress in living out the virtues of faith, hope, and love0, which we received in our baptism, and prepare for our inheritance with the Saints in glory. We do not achieve this through prayer and contemplation alone, but by making our prayer and our work, all that we do and all that we are, a response to God and our neighbour. We are truly living in love, a love which is the nature of God and which binds together the persons of the Trinity, a love which transforms both us and our world. A love which we share so that all the world may sing the praises of 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. 

Mary-Martha-Lazarus-icon.jpg

22nd Sunday of Year B – Living like Jesus

How we live our lives matters greatly. It is important because what we do helps to form our moral character, how we know to do the right thing. Human beings are creatures of habit. The more we do things, the more they become second nature. We become what we think or do often. There’s no point in just having the appearance of someone good. Outward conformity isn’t what God wants of us. Quite the opposite! We need to bear in mind God’s word to Samuel,‘for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (1Samuel 16:7 [ESV]) 

So how do we live the life God wants us to live? The simple answer is by trying, failing, and keeping on trying. The Christian faith has at its centre Love and Forgiveness. God shows these to us in Jesus Christ, and we have to show them to one another. The Church, you and I, all of us, are called to love and forgive each other, as we will fail. And we will fail often. We can’t earn our way to Heaven through what we do, Jesus has paved the way for us through His Death and Resurrection. We can, however, try to live out our faith in our lives, loving and forgiving each other when we fall short.Not being judgemental and overcritical. Then we can be built up in love, together, as a community reconciled to God and each other. It sounds simple and straightforward, but in practice it is really difficult. This is why we have to keep trying, allowing God transform us more and more into his likeness, through His Grace. 

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is uncompromising when dealing with the hypocrisy of the Scribes and the Pharisees: their religion is a façade, a sham, something done for show, for outward appearance, whereas we know, from the teaching of the prophets onward, that God looks at what is truly in our heart. If our motives are suspect then, we’re in trouble. The point is simple: what we do affects who and what we are, hence the need for the people of Israel to observe the statutes and ordinances without any additions or subtractions. 

Likewise, the advice of the Letter of James is that people should in all gentleness and humility both listen to the word of God and do what it says, so that their thoughts and words and actions proclaim the truth that Christ died to save them from their sins and rose again that they might have new life in Him.

Rather than the pharisaic obsession with exterior cleanliness (and the letter of the Law) Our Lord and Saviour is concerned with the cleanliness of people’s souls, as it is from within, from the human heart, that sinfulness can spring. His point is a simple one: we become what we do, and thus the formation of a moral character is important, and can only be brought about by doing the right things.

The problem is that, despite our best intentions, we will fail in our endeavours. So what do we do? Is it simply a case that having tried and failed we are written off, cast aside and prepared for hell and damnation? By no means! Just as in the Gospel Jesus commands his followers to keep forgiving those who sin; our lives should be ones where we are continually seeking God’s forgiveness and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that slowly and surely, as part of a gradual process, as people forgiven and forgiving, we try day by day to live out our faith in our lives. It is something which affects us all, each and every one of us, and it is only when we can live it out in our lives that our proclamation of the Kingdom can look authentic rather than running the risk of being accused of hypocrisy. 

So, we seek forgiveness and forgive others, by being close to God in prayer, in reading the Bible, and in the sacraments of the Church, and in the love and service which we have for each other as a Christian community. A Christian community which recognises that we fail but also that together we can be something greater and more wonderful than we would be if we are apart.

In recent years as a reaction to the frantic pace of modern life people are re-discovering slowness. There is a slow food movement even slow television. We are encouraged to be mindful and meditate. These are good things, an antidote to the modern obsession with instant results and gratification.

This is the work of a lifetime, a work of slow progress, and frustrating setbacks. It is not easy. To succeed we need to rely upon God to be at work in us throughout our lives. The French Jesuit priest and poet, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote :

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something

unknown, something new.

….

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

….

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

[Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 57.]

Through the love of God being poured into our hearts, and through that love forming who we are and what we do, that self-giving sacrificial love shown to us by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in his dying for us, so that we might live in Him, let us be attentive to the Word of God, the Word made flesh, and not simply listen but also act –- relying not upon our own strength but upon the love and mercy of God, seeking His forgiveness, to do His Will.

When we are formed by God together then we can be built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. We proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, through forgiveness and sacrificial love, rather than by being bitter and judgemental and blind to our own faults: like the scribes and Pharisees: eager to point out the sins of others and yet blind to their own faults, failures and shortcomings. Instead, clothed in the humility of our knowledge of our need of God’s love and mercy, let us come to Him, to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, to be healed and restored by him, so that we can live lives which speak of the power of his kingdom 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. Amen

compressed-vilnius-jpeg

Thoughts for the day from S. Francis de Sales: on gentleness and anger

‘Learn of me,’ Jesus said, ‘for I am meek and humble of heart.’ Humility perfects us towards God, mildness and gentleness towards our neighbour.

But be careful that mildness and humility are in your heart, for one of the great wiles of the enemy is to lead people to be content with external signs of these virtues, and to think that because their words and looks are gentle, therefore they themselves are humble and mild, whereas in fact they are otherwise. In spite of their show of gentleness and humility, they start up in wounded pride at the least insult or annoying word.

Present life is the road to a blessed life, so do not let us be angry with one another on the way. Never give way to anger if you can possibly avoid it; never for any reason let it enter your heart. It is safer to avoid all anger than to try and guide our anger with discretion and modesty. Directly you feel the slightest resentment, gather your powers together gently. When we are agitated by passion, we must imitate the apostles in the raging storm and call upon God to help us. He will bid our anger be still, and great will be our peace.

One form of gentleness we should practise is towards ourselves. We should never get irritable with ourselves because of our imperfections. It is reasonable to be displeased and sorry when we commit faults, but not fretful or spiteful to ourselves. Some make the the mistake of being angry because they have been angry, hurt because they have been hurt, vexed because they have been vexed. They think they are getting rid of anger, that the second remedies the first; actually, they are preparing the way for fresh anger on the first occasion. Besides this, all irritation with ourselves tends to foster pride and springs from self-love, which is displeased at finding we are not perfect.We should regard our faults with calm, collected, and firm displeasure. We correct ourselves better by a quiet persevering repentance than by an irritated, hasty, and passionate one. When your heart has fallen raise it gently, humbly yourself before God, acknowledging your fault, but not surprised at your fall. Infirmity is infirm, weakness weak, and frailty frail.

Introduction to the Devout Life III:8-9

img_0390

Fulton Sheen on the Signs of Our Times

These words were spoken in 1947, and are as true now as they were when they were first spoken. Fulton Sheen preached the truth which the world still does not wish to hear.

What can we do? Love God, and each other, and hold fast to our faith in this time of trial, safe in the knowledge that Christ has conquered sin, evil, and death. Let us be hopeful and confident.

Evensong Trinity IX (2Peter 1:1-15)


A brother came to Scetis to see abba Arsenius. Having knocked on the door, the visitor and the monk who was with him entered; the old man greeted them and they sat down without saying anything. The brother from the church said, ‘I will leave you; pray for me.’ But the visiting brother did not feel at ease with the old man and said, ‘I will come with you,’ so they left together. Then the visitor said, ‘Take me to abba Moses who used to be a robber.’ When they arrived, the father welcomed them joyfully and then took leave of them with delight… That night the father prayed to God, saying, ‘Lord explain this matter to me; for thy name’s sake one flees from men, and the other for thy name’s sake receives them with open arms.’ Then two large boats were shown him on the river, and he saw abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in one in perfect peace; and in the other was abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.’
Receiving letters: first loves, pen friends, when you’re far away – important, meaningful, something we’ve lost in a modern world with mass instant communication.
It’s hard for us to imagine just how it felt to be a Christian in the Early Church – small isolated communities, persecuted, illegal, in desperate need of encouragement, prone to going astray. A situation with profound differences and similarities to ours, here and now.
They need help – which starts with faith – what and whom they believe in – God the Father, the Creator of all, God the Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit which sanctifies the people of God, the bond of love.
They and we become partakers of the divine nature, how and what God is , not by the abolition of our human nature, but by its transformation, through the grace, the free gift of God. Grace perfects nature, it does not abolish it. Likewise when we talk of the Incarnation of the Son of God, we should be mindful of a phrase in the Athanasian Creed ‘not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by the taking of the manhood into God’ The miracle of the incarnation is the means by which humanity can come to share in the very life of God, the fleshiness of God will lead to the Eucharist where God gives us his flesh and blood to eat and drink, so that our nature might be transformed. This is also what the Cross and the Resurrection achieve – a complete victory over this world, it makes it possible.
     So then what are we to do? We are to supplement our faith with virtue – in that human beings are creatures of habit, we become what we do often, hence the need to cultivate the practice of the moral virtues, the more that we do them the more they become not only what we do but what we are. It helps us to keep on keeping on with the Christian life , the life of faith, a process which began with our baptism, wherein we are regenerate, born again in the Spirit, freed from sin and its power, and our souls are infused with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity so that we be prepared for life forever with God.
     So far so good, in theory, but in practice it isn’t quite that simple, we need to live out our faith in our lives, we have to live with other people, and that is where it gets difficult. It always has. It would be easy to have a rose-tinted picture of Christian communities like those of the Egyptian desert, but they squabbled and quarrelled and bickered and fought just like us, they needed to be reminded of who and what they were, they needed encouragement, cheering up as they tried to live the Christian life together. They failed, as do we, which is where God’s forgiveness, and his love and mercy come in. The Cross cancels the debt we cannot pay, and if we can say sorry, and repent – make a conscious decision to turn away from sin, and to turn to Christ, then we can keep going on our journey of faith, forgiven, and forgiving others, so that we can be built up in love, a loving forgiving community which makes Jesus Christ known by what it is and what it does, that communicates the Good News of the Kingdom and shares it so that others may come to believe and give glory to…

Sermon for Evensong (2nd Sunday after Epiphany)

Our two lessons this evening provide us with contrasting pictures of people in their relationship with God and each other, understood in sexual terms. Now it is an accusation often levelled at the Church that it is all we are concerned with, though that is in fact far from the case, and whereas the Victorians pretended that sex did not exist, modern humanity especially since the 1960s has acted as though nothing else does.
       In our first lesson the Prophet Isaiah is looking forward to a future when Israel, having returned to God and been purified, is understood as a land wedded to God. It looks forward to a Messianic future, one which we as Christians see as brought to fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who is the righteousness and the salvation of Israel, who gives himself for love of us, that we may be pure and holy and through Him. The image of married love and intimacy is profound: it speaks of mutual love and generosity, it is what God wills for our human flourishing, it is the place for children to be born and brought up, in love.
       Whereas the Church in Corinth is in a really bad way: as well as taking each other to court, Christians would appear to be behaving in a way which falls short of Christian morality. They appear to have understood freedom from the law as though it were freedom from any law: extreme antinomianism – that anything goes; that they can just do as they please. This is, however, not the case. How we live our lives, and what we do with our bodies matters. For those of us who have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit, we are called to be in Christ, clothed with him, and living a new life, conformed to him and not to the ways of the world.
       There are some in the Church in Corinth who have been arguing that all things are lawful, to which Paul has to counter that while something may be lawful, it may not be advantageous, as Christians like others in the ancient world would generally subscribe to an idea of virtue ethics, put simply ‘you are what you do’ or in greater depth, our actions help form our moral character – we become what we do habitually, and thus the more we do the right thing, the more we are disposed to do such things, and thus to progress in virtue.
       While they claim the freedom from being made subject to anyone, they would appear to be subject to base appetites, to lust and gluttony, neither of which help in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Thus the proper place for sexual activity remains holy matrimony, where a man and woman are joined; they become one flesh, in a life-long exclusive union where children may be born.
       Christians are to love their bodies, as ours is not a spiritual religion, which despises the flesh, but which rather wishes to see it used for the glory of God and for our mutual flourishing. We receive the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity in our baptism, where we are regenerate, born anew in Christ, we are not our own in that we now live for God, and we glorify him in our bodies by how we live our lives.

       The messianic hope expressed in this evening’s first lesson finds its fulfilment in Christ and in the Church which is his body, we were bought at a price, not thirty pieces of silver, but life of God’s only-begotten Son, who suffered and died for us, for you and for me, and for the sins of the whole world, past, present, and future. How else can we begin to try and repay such love and such generosity than by living the life that God wills for our human flourishing – gentle, generous, and exhibiting the same costly love which Christ showed to us.  This glorifies God and shows due respect to the wonders of creation and salvation, it helps to form our moral character and to live out true faith and charity in our lives, supporting one another, praying for each other, forgiving one another when we fail, and being built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. And by living out our faith in our lives we will proclaim the truth and the freedom of the Gospel – others will come and see and enter into the joy of the Lord 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.

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.

Slapping Heretics

The world and the church have a picture of St Nicholas, it is a safe picture, he is a kindly man, a Bishop with a big white beard, who gives presents to children and does lots of lovely things. That’s all well and good, and there is much that can be said about the gentleness and generosity of the man, and how that points us to Christ. But recently I have found myself pondering another aspect of this great Saint. At the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in ad325, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra slaps Arius for denying the coeternal and consubstantial nature of the second person of the Trinity, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Nicholas got angry and his fellow bishops and the Emperor Constantine didn’t exactly approve of the pugilist prelate. 

If it were to happen today I could imagine the media outcry, Twitter would be flooded with #bishopgate and #TeamArius posts. No doubt some eminent theologian would state that it’s perfectly alright to say that ‘there was a time when he was not’ and that Adoptionist or Subordinationist positions are all equally valid points of view and that one Christology is as good as another, that this was Arius’ truth and it needs to be affirmed, that we need to feel his pain and resist the patriarchal oppression of an authority figure like Nicholas and so on.

Nicholas slaps Arius because orthodoxy really matters, what we believe about God and the Church really matters. The Word of God, who was with his Father in eternity, before all time, and matter, and space, becomes incarnate in the womb of the virgin, for the salvation and redemption of all humanity: true God and true man, consubstantial and coeternal. It may be easier to deny this, it may make more sense, or be consistent with a philosophical position, but it will not do. As St Ambrose put it: non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum (it was not the will of God to save his people through dialectic) [De Fide 1:5, §42]. The Incarnation is a scandal and a mystery which defies human understanding and intellect, reason and philosophy it is something to be experienced, to be tasted and felt. 
This is what we await in Advent, the coming of Our Lord as a baby in Bethlehem and his second coming as Our Judge, bearing in his glorious body the wounds of love, borne for us and our salvation. So let us live lives which proclaim his saving love and truth to a world hungry for meaning and love and thereby honour God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the consubstantial and coeternal Trinity, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.