Monday, 24 September 2018

Life beyond rivalry: A sermon preached at Croydon Minster

This is the text of a sermon given at Croydon Minster. It was preached during the Parish Eucharist on Sunday 23 September, 2018. The readings were Jeremiah 11.18-20 and Mark 9.30-37.

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’.


‘After leaving the mountain Jesus and his disciples went on from there to Galilee…’ After leaving which mountain, what had happened there that the mountain was worthy of mention, who was there, why is it significant? We need some context and to know why a mountain might have been important.

Mount Tabor - traditional site of the Transfiguration of Christ
The mountain was the Mount of Transfiguration, traditionally believed to be Mount Tabor, which lies on the main road from Caesarea Philippi towards Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Pilgrims still visit the place today, as I myself have, and they often recount hair-raising stories of the taxi drivers who disregard the normal conventions of the road and go up and down at breakneck pace.

What was rather more spine tingling was what happened on that mountain. It was the occasion when Jesus’ appearance was changed such that his radiance and brilliance shone out in the event we call the Transfiguration, when the divine nature of Jesus Christ, seeped visibly through the porous boundary of his humanity.

This revealed Jesus as fully divine and fully human, as we describe in our Creed – truly God and truly human – and connected him with the Law and the Prophets, through the presence of the persons of Moses and Elijah: as the Creed says ‘he has spoken through the prophets’.

Mountains in the scriptures are places of encounter with the LORD. Think of Mount Moriah when Abraham ascends with Isaac and the LORD provides a ram to be sacrificed; of Mount Ararat where the Ark rests as the waters of the flood trickled away; of Mount Horeb when Moses ascends to receive the Law; the Temple itself in Jerusalem so associated with Mount Zion. And in the gospels Jesus recasts the Law in the Sermon on the Mount.
Icon of the Transfiguration by Alexander Ainetdinov

But this morning’s gospel points to another mount - a hill – outside Mount Zion called Calvary, the Place of the Skull; because Jesus speaks to his disciples about his death. And in hearing that they come down to earth, as it were, down from the glory of the mountain to the grim and bitter reality that Jesus, like the Lamb to the slaughter in our reading from Jeremiah, which itself evokes the sacrifice of Abraham on Mount Moriah, Jesus will die.

This is the second time of three in St Mark’s gospel that Jesus speaks to his disciples about his death and resurrection. And they just don’t get it: as Mark tells us, ‘They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him’

Such was their lack of understanding that we move from Jesus speaking of his death and resurrection to the disciples bickering about which of them, of them (!), is the greatest.

It is absolutely key to realise that morning’s gospel reading is not a reminiscent glance back to a distant era for us, but is more like a mirror held up to the church today. As someone wisely said, ‘we do not read scripture; the scriptures read us’.

We are in a similar situation today. We enjoy the mystery or appreciate the teaching of Jesus. Jesus is seen by many as an admirable moral teacher, or, in his own day as much as now, as a potential liberator a zealot to overthrow the Romans: but, as Fr Alan reminded us last week, his identity is bound up with his being the Messiah of God, the Holy One. If only moral teacher or political activist his death would be meaningless. Which is just how the disciples appear to see it.

If we believe, as we say the Creed, that Christ ‘died for us and our salvation’ then we stand, figuratively, at the foot of the cross and learn a new way of living day by day. A great exposition of this can be found in Bishop Jonathan’s sermon at my Licensing here three weeks ago, when he spoke of the competitive rivalry that Jesus comes to drive out of human society, yet can be embedded –and dangerously so – in the life of the church. It is that that leads to abusive behaviour, overbearingness and rudeness.

A frieze of Christ blessing children,
located near the font at Croydon Minster
That is surely why Jesus called together the Twelve and sought to show them, by the example of a child, what greatness in the church looks like. The child in his day, as much as our own, represents the one who is present, yet is functionally silent.

Okay we can hear children in church – and as Pope Francis said recently, hearing a child in the Mass is the music of the angels of heaven (and, I would add, pragmatically, a reminder that the church has a future that needs nurturing). But just hearing a cry or even a scream does not mean that children are listened to. The place of children in church, this church or any other, tells us a great deal about how we act and behave in accordance with the Gospels.

And the functionally silent can include anyone who is routinely not given space and a voice, for example those with learning difficulties, dementia, the stranger, those who just don’t fit in or are perceived to be awkward: their honoured place is the measure of the health of a church community. I am always struck that in the Rule of St Benedict, the Abbot is told to consult the whole community in big matters, and specially to ask the insight of the young to whom the Lord will give great wisdom.

Do we simply replicate the patterns and norms of society, with the person with the loudest, most insistent voice or sharpest elbows prevailing? Or, do we take seriously a church which sets a model for society by saying that rivalry and bickering over greatness and status is not what Gospel life is about.

So this gospel reading becomes less about the behaviour of the Twelve who we could look at in a superior way and say, ‘well, we wouldn’t have been like that’ when we are doing in it now!

This gospel becomes about Jesus Christ in the heart of us and the midst of us; the one who dies and is raised again for us.

A moral teacher or exemplar, however gifted or inspired does not save us. Jesus Christ, the very presence of God, does in his life giving death and resurrection.

That’s why the cross is placed on the altar. The cross stands at the heart of things. The altar becomes again the mount on which the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world continues to feed his people, such that we are drawn into the sacrifice he made. As we break bread and share the cup, Jesus is present in our midst reminds us that what takes place on the altar.

So our challenge for this new week is to see in all our relationships, between parent and children, wives and husbands, neighbours and friends, those with whom we share our lives just how we can live lives as those who chose the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross and set aside dissension and strife, and live life in all its fulness.

© Andrew Bishop, 2018

Monday, 10 September 2018

"Openings" A first sermon at Croydon Minster

This is the text of the first sermon I have preached at Croydon Minster as Priest-in-Charge. It was preached during the Parish Eucharist on Sunday 9 September, 2018. The readings were Isaiah 35.4-7a and Mark 7.24-37.

"Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the man, ‘Ephaphtha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’."


So, I have been parish priest here for some six days now. God may have created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, but I cannot claim that I have achieved anything like the same impact! But that is not what I am here to do.

Those of you who were able to share the Eucharist for my licensing will have heard Bishop Jonathan remind us that the task of the parish priest is not to try to be a superhero, or a lone ranger or a prima donna, but someone who looks to tend a community of faith in which the love of Jesus Christ is reflected and made real in preaching, teaching, the administration of the sacraments and in pastoral care.

So let us turn to our scriptures for this morning and see where they take us.

“Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the man, ‘Ephaphtha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’.”

The scriptures today speak of refreshment and renewal and revival – through God’s creative power and grace, not through any strategies and bright ideas of a new incumbent: that would be the early heresy known as Pelagianism, when we fool ourselves into thinking that we achieve without God’s grace. That grace, flowing like water in a desert, is what the Prophet Isaiah describes.

The scriptures today challenge us to consider how we dismantle the barriers we place in the way of people accessing God’s grace: whether that is by spoken, or unspoken, rules, or in ways of doing things that just need busting; like the dominance of the ‘in crowd’ and the exclusion of those who just don’t seem to fit. That’s what Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician women highlights.

The scriptures today invite us to ponder how open our ears are to the Good News and how we listen attentively to the proclamation of the scriptures and God’s Living Word, Jesus Christ. That’s what the encounter with the Deaf man with a speech impairment points us to.

There’s an interesting little verse in that gospel: “Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the man, ‘Ephaphtha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’.” What did he want opened: heaven or the man’s ears? Perhaps it is both. ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened’!

We need our ears opened: first, to hear and then carefully to listen. Once we’ve listened then we can speak so we know what we are proclaiming. That’s because the heavens are open too!

The message: be open to God; be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit; be open to the possibility that God can touch you afresh so that your tongue is released and you can speak. It means we open up to God, to one another and to the community on our doorstep.

Part of what I am about at the moment is a time of careful, discerning listening – I need to keep my ears open! After my Licensing on Monday I was asked if I have a ‘plan’. Well, I don’t have a blueprint of what I want for this place tucked in my cassock pocket.

It’s not about personal preference, mine or anyone else’s, to be enacted like the swipe of a smartphone.

Rather, it is about the Body of Christ in this place listening carefully together with open hearts and ears. A great role model in this is Our Lady, Mary. She heard, she listened and she pondered God’s call. And then she sang of it, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour’. We see it in her life: she listened to God’s call, responded and sang God’s praises.

So I don’t have a ‘plan’, but I do have guiding principles and markers, and the example of our Patron Saint, John the Baptist helps frame them for me.

Baptism. The first call of the Christian is to be faithful to Christ through our baptism. John the Baptist embodied the words from the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water’. (Isaiah 35.7a) That is about renewal, refreshment, revival. Baptism gives birth to life in the Church. I want to see each person here to take hold of what that all means for you: ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’; ‘drink deeply from the wellsprings of salvation’.

Eucharist. When seeing Jesus, John the Baptist proclaimed, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world’, a text we use in the Eucharist, of course, which invites us to the banquet of the Lamb, a banquet anticipating heaven and feeding us now on earth. We respond by saying ‘I am not worthy’ - how can we be? – but the Good Shepherd sets that aside, spreads a table in our sight, and doesn’t just leave us with the crumbs but feeds us with his very self.

Confession and reconciliation. John went into the wilderness calling for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

To be healed, to be reconciled, to be forgiven means we need to be aware of where we fall short because only then can we begin to be restored and renewed. We have already used words of confession and have heard words of forgiveness: do we believe it?! Do you really believe you have been forgiven? So many of us carry burdens of guilt and self-doubt such that we can only assume we’re guilty in God’s sight, and our self-doubt leads to doubting God’s capacity to love and forgive and our own capacity to do the same. I’m speaking to myself at the very least, if no one else: the Sacrament of Confession, sometimes known as Reconciliation, enables that deep searching self-examination that opens up God’s assurance, forgiveness and healing.

Holiness and prayer. Holiness is an unfashionable word today; it smacks of being ‘holier than thou’ or so other worldly that we are of no earthly use. But the journey of holiness is the journey deep into the love of God. Baptism, Eucharist and Confession all advance us along that journey. This journey is undergirded by prayer. For us to be a praying church means that we root ourselves, in the way that John the Baptist points us, which is back to Christ then out to our neighbour.

Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the man, ‘Ephaphtha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’. Let’s not sigh in a dispirited way, but sigh by breathing out that which is not of God and then draw in our collective breath, fill our lungs with the Spirit of God, and allow our hearts, minds and bodies to be open to God: may our souls magnify the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God, our Saviour. Amen.