Monday, 15 October 2018

'Being loved to be good': A Sermon preached at Croydon Minster

A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on Sunday 14th October at the Parish Eucharist. The readings were Hebrews 4.12-16 and Mark 10.17-31.

Last Tuesday the priests and lay ministers of this Parish of Croydon, the Minster and St George’s, met together to begin a pattern of regular weekly meeting so that together we can discern the task of ministry and mission with you and for you here in church and beyond into the wider community.

There was of course business to discuss, such as how we best enable pastoral care in the parish and about how we encourage Christian learning, growth and discipleship. But rather than start around the business meeting table we started by gathering around the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.

By doing so, we were doing what we are all doing now; putting ourselves in remembrance of the great gifts and acts of God, mercies that can seep out of our memory during the week and need replenishing, as again we hear of the source of our life, hope and salvation.

At that Eucharist we prayed especially for the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Being open to the Holy Spirit of God is not the preserve of certain types of Christians, but is what it means to be open to God in all God’s fullness.

Being open to all God’s fullness brings us to the heart of this morning’s gospel reading. For in it we see Jesus prompting a good and well intentioned person to go deeper, go deeper beyond the outward signs of success, and even his religious observance, to know and meet God at the core of his being.

Sometimes we all wrestle with the questions about being good: am I good? How good am I? How can I be good? What does it mean to be ‘good’?

The man who approached Jesus in this morning’s gospel was a good person, of that there is no doubt, and ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him’. What a tender and precious verse to hold on to: Jesus, looking at you, loves you. And that love was not connected to his goodness; he simply beheld him and loved him. Make that your own: ‘Jesus, looking at me, loves me; ‘good’ or not.’

And looking at him and loving him Jesus then places a demand upon him to sell what he owns and come and ‘follow me’; follow Jesus.

I sometimes wonder what made the man grieve and walk away. Was it, as the gospel writer suggests, that he had many possessions, or might it also be that Jesus’ call ‘follow me’ was a step too far? Of course, both are intimately connected.

To follow Jesus means setting aside our own preferences, our treasures and possessions, such that we ask: do we possess our things, or do they possess us?

The man who came to Jesus was possessed by his possessions, despite his honest, disciplined and sincere keeping of all God’s commandments.

He was missing out on mercy and without mercy we cannot be saved.

This call to ‘follow me’ and to lubricate all our actions and deeds with mercy moves us from the realm of our behaviour, to the realm of our being, our inner disposition. Life is not just about being ‘good’ but living mercifully.

This is disruptive and hard. It shatters smugness and complacency. It blows apart comfortable assumptions. But ultimately it is life-giving. Little wonder the Holy Spirit is both a gentle, dovelike, breath and a raging, roaring fire.

In a book I have just finished reading the author, Abbot Erik Varden, puts it like this:

‘The gospel offers more than a moral code. It proposes the transformation of the human person.’[1]

In other words we can no longer say ‘look, I have done a good deed and have accomplished the work of God’.

Good deeds are a useful barometer of whether we can be called ‘good’ or not and where we are on our inner journey.

But the true measure of our good deeds, our keeping of the commandments, is to know from where this springs.

It’s something St Paul picks up on in the famous passage of the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians in which he names agape - self-giving, loving, mercy - as what changes a deed or action into something of immeasurable worth to God. He even says, and I paraphrase, ‘If I give away all my possessions, and if I give away even my own body so that I can brag of that deed, but do not have love, I gain nothing’ (1 Corinthians 13.3).

Then who can be saved? The disciples ask. How can I possibly do all this, if even my good deeds aren’t enough? Those are natural questions: is this way of Jesus even possible?

‘For mortals’ Jesus says, ‘this is impossible, but not for God’. This is where the transformation of the human person comes in, transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the capacity to love, the Holy Spirit who enables us to interrogate our words and actions to ask if they are from God or from our own vanity.

In this we need to become, what one writer describes as, ‘habitations of the Holy Spirit.’ When we are habitations of the Holy Spirit then we do not bolt God on to justify what we do and call it ‘good’, but rather what we do bubbles up from our awareness of the loving mercy of God. This short-circuits moralistic and cruel actions in the name of faith and allows us to make our good deeds not only ‘second nature’ but ‘first nature’ to us.

This is what growing in the image and likeness of God is about: loving first and acting second. And the source of that is in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and turning again and again for forgiveness in confessing our sins.

All this doesn’t make us more ‘good’ than anyone else, but it does mean that when we’re not motivated to be ‘good’ or feel we’re running out of steam on the ‘goodness’ front, we turn again to be replenished by the only one who can truly be called ‘good’; and that is God, the Holy Trinity, whose wellsprings of life and love are inexhaustible.

Let us now draw on those wellsprings, through the Holy Spirit, in this sacrament to renew us for today, this week, for life.

For the Christian we do ‘good’ not to be loved; but we do ‘good’ because we are loved.

© Andrew Bishop, 2018

[1] Erik Varden, The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance, Bloomsbury, 2018. p. 121-2.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Grace in Harvest: 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 7 October, 2018. The readings were Joel 2.21-27 and Matthew 6.25-33.


Harvest festival is one of the big markers of the seasons and rhythms of the year.

Even in pluralist, secularizing times the harvest thanksgiving remains on the landscape along with Mothering Sunday, Christmas and Easter, and is celebrated as much in Croydon as Chipstead, where there are actual farms and farmers.

Driving down the Brighton Road you’re not likely to be held up by a combine harvester. You will be held up by a bin lorry taking away the detritus of our consumption.

Here we are in a place that seems rather remote from the production of food and the actual work of harvest. But we all buy and consume the fruit of the land, and not just from this particular land, but from all around the world.

A wander along Surrey Street market brings that close to home, as do the African, Asian and East European shops as much as Tesco, Aldi or Waitrose.

All the world, and its foodstuffs and drink, is here in Croydon: we see, taste and enjoy the fruits of all year round, global harvesting.

Harvest festival, then, is a time
to give thanks for what we enjoy;
a time to be penitent about the way our buying and consumption has an adverse impact on the environment
and a time to be mindful of and act for those who go hungry and thirsty in our world, and on our doorstep – literally the doorstep of this church - who do not enjoy the fruits of any harvest.

Into all that, what our scriptures for harvest festival prompt us to consider another world: a world of abundance and not scarcity; of gratitude and not grudging; of generosity not tightfistedness. It is a world and way of life sketched out by Jesus and it comes down to a single word: ‘grace’.

‘Grace’ is about giving a gift that is not in the slightest bit earned, worked for or merited. At school we get ‘merit points’ and ‘commendations’ if we do something extra. But God doesn’t work like that; God doesn’t even give out merit points, because God’s grace is a gift for all who choose to receive it.

Grace is what St Paul describes in his second letter to the Corinthians, the farmer tends the ground, plants the seed and then just waits. Fertilisers notwithstanding, any growth is not the farmer’s work. The grain lies in the ground and awaits God given sunshine and rain. Living and growing is God’s gift to us.

The poet T.S. Eliot put it like this, ‘Take no thought of the harvest, but only of the proper sowing’.

We can prepare the ground, be it for the grain to grow or the seed of God’s word, but only God will give the growth as we tend and nurture what he grows for us.

Harvest thanksgiving today is not about measuring, counting and earning, but about knowing all our life to be a sheer gift of God, a result only of grace.

I did nothing, you did nothing, to merit being born, and yet we were, and God gives us breath and life, and thank God others have tended and nurtured us in our lives.

This is at the heart of Christian generosity; the awareness that everything is generously given in the first place.
We give not to receive;
we give not to buy the outcome we want;
we give mindful of all we have received, because our money is a sign, a token, of all that we are given; a token of grace.

The Eucharist reminds us of this truth; the Eucharist is a weekly feast of grace and celebration of the gift of God.

The earth, and everything in it, is God’s. Anything we present before him and offer is already his: grain for bread; grapes for wine; money for the work of the church in ministry and pastoral care; toiletries, bags of pasta, marrows for food banks.

‘Indeed’ says Jesus, ‘your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things – food, drink and clothing - will be given to you as well.’ (Matthew 6.33)

© Andrew Bishop, 2018.