Monday, 9 December 2019

'Grace & Hope in Christ' A Sermon on the Immaculate Conception of Mary

First preached as a sermon at St Michael & All Angels, Croydon, with members of the Cells of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham in Croydon (St Alban’s, South Norwood, St Michael’s, Croydon & Croydon Minster). Readings: Genesis 3.9-15,20; Ephesians 1.3-6,11-12; Luke 1.26-38.


The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a great gift to the Church and, indeed, to all humanity. It is the most optimistic of dogmas, because it says that by God’s grace human beings can be freed from the grip of sin, through our sharing in the life of the Word Made Flesh: Jesus Christ - Son of God, Son of Mary - the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Lord. This possibility of God’s grace first moved as Mary was conceived and knit together in the womb of her mother St Anne.

Our gospel reading today is St Luke’s account of the Annunciation, which is not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of Mary, although it often is: the Annunciation is about Christ being incarnate within the womb of Mary, the unborn Saviour, the Word Made Flesh, resting in the immaculate shrine that is Mary’s body. And you will recall that when the pregnant Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy as the Mother of the Lord entered into her presence (Luke 1.39-45). That dance of the unborn John the Baptist echoes the unrestrained dance of David before the Ark of the Covenant in the Second Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 6, esp 6.14). David danced before the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant; John dances before the presence of God, in Christ, in the shrine of Mary’s body.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about preparing the shrine in which the Christ will gestate and from which he will be born; for which all generations will call her blessed (Luke 1.48)

For some the Immaculate Conception makes them queasy. Isn’t it too much about Mary? Doesn’t it make out that somehow she’s not quite human, just a bit too perfect? Isn’t all a bit Roman Catholic?

Too much about Mary? On one level it’s nothing to do with Mary! It’s about God’s grace, of which she is described as being full of: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’, the archangel’s greeting. On another level it is everything to do with Mary; she is the person, the woman, chosen to be the mother of the Saviour.

The initiative is with God in choosing this particular daughter of Zion. That is why Mary is an exemplar of being a Christian, one who is open to the movements of God’s grace, saying yes, not no. After all, Eve – the mother of all the living, as her name means (Genesis 3.20) - was created without sin, placed in the Garden of Eden and yet, with her husband, said ‘no’ to God and ‘yes’ to the serpent. As we see in statues of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, she tramples down the serpent, reversing the transgression of Eve and bearing in her womb the New Adam.

Doesn’t it make out that somehow Mary’s not quite human, just a bit too perfect? There have been aspects of Marian devotion that have seemed to disconnect Mary from being human. This is often seen in art, but not in the New Testament or in the dogmas of the Church. Jesus was ‘born of a woman, born under the Law’ (Galatians 4.4); scripture and dogma insist on the humanity of Mary (otherwise how would we claim Christ’s humanity as well as his divinity?) Mary was a woman living in a broken world, but one who was freed by grace to act in a different way from Eve so that the bitter reality of human sin could be reversed.

What is more, the Immaculate Conception is not about Mary being conceived in a way that had no human agency. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not saying that the act of physical love is wrong, dirty or deficient. Anne and Joachim, as husband and wife, conceived their daughter in the way that any one of us is conceived; they slept together, they procreated, or whatever nice way we want to put it. Mary was human in her DNA; a woman in her chromosomes; and a child of God by grace.

Too Roman Catholic? The understanding that Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, was immaculately conceived is long held in Christianity, drawing from the gospels, of which more anon, and wider early tradition. Orthodox Christians don’t like defining things, but they still celebrate Mary’s conception as marking out her unique vocation to be the Theotokos, translated literally God-bearer, or Mother of God. Similarly, for Anglicans The Book of Common Prayer (1662) may not use the word ‘Immaculate’ but it still marks in the Calendar the observance of the ‘Conception of the BV Mary’ on 8th December each year, and that predates the Marian Dogma of 1854 in which Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception.

So there is an ecumenical consensus that Mary matters and that she is a pattern for Grace and Hope in Christ, as the document of that name from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) put it in 2005. That document shows a remarkable convergence of Marian teaching - perhaps ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ - between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. We shouldn’t ignore that not all Anglicans would assent to ARCIC, and, we shouldn’t gloss over differences, but we could all agree, I hope, with Pope St John XXIII, that ‘the Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son’. ARCIC acknowledges that there are deep and important roots to what we celebrate, today, in the Immaculate Conception of Mary:

In view of her vocation to be the mother of the Holy One (Luke 1.35), we can affirm together that Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings. This is not contrary to scripture, and can only be understood in the light of scripture. Roman Catholics can recognise this in what is affirmed by the dogma – namely ‘preserved from all stain of original sin’ and ‘from the first moment of her conception.’ (Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ: An Agreed Statement. ARCIC. p. 57-8)

So what? So this teaching is agreed by Anglicans, with Roman Catholics, to be consistent with scripture and understood in the light of scripture. Perhaps then we should ask, ‘so what’? What does this dogma of the Immaculate Conception mean for us today?

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about salvation, preparation and the human body as the dwelling of the Most High. It tells us that the journey of holiness is precisely to restore in us the image and likeness of Christ.

Mary’s conception, without sin, points to us the possibility of the redemption of human flesh as the dwelling place of God. Indeed in the Mass we receive the Body of Christ into our bodies, such that they become shrines of God’s presence. We are, as it were, a monstrance, a vessel that carries Christ, reveals Christ to the world and imparts Christ’s blessing to all creation.

In this season of Advent may we be prepared to receive Christ afresh in his coming again in glory, as surely as he came into our midst born of Mary, Mother immaculate, Mother of the Saviour, Mother of God. Amen.

Monday, 2 December 2019

'Wake up to the Coming Christ!'

Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44


The season of Advent
            which starts today
                        is a wakeup call!

As St Paul puts it:

‘Brothers and sisters, you know what time it is,
how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’. (Romans 13.11)

Wake up,
            Paul says,
to what it means      
            to live
as those who have put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

What that way of life
            looks like:
                        is honourable living;
                                    not living       
                        loose, aimless, lives
            that have no purpose
                        or meaning
            and that are not
                        caught up
                                    in squabbles and envying.

Wake up!

The wakeup call of Advent
            means we live
                        with our eyes open:
                                    open to God,
                                                in worship;
                                    open to our neighbours
                                                in kindness;
                                    open to the needs of the world
                                                - of justice and peace -
                                                in vigilance;
                                    open to the signs of the kingdom,
                                                in eagerness;
                                                and open
                                    to Christ’s coming again in glory
                                                in faithful attention:

With the call
            to be awake
comes the call of many peoples,
            which Isaiah describes.

What an invitation that is:

            let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
            that he may teach us his ways
and that we
            may walk in his paths.’

Going up a mountain
puts us on
a vantage point.

From a vantage point
            you can see all round
                        – a 360 view –
            you can survey what lies below,
                        and gaze up
                        to the heights, to the heavens.

The vantage point is where
            the sentinel,
                        the lookout,

The sentinel, the lookout,
            is the one who stays awake
                        while others sleep.

In the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25.1-11)
            - which follows on, in St Matthew’s Gospel, from today’s reading -
            all the bridesmaids all fall asleep
                        and all wake
                                    when they hear
                                                the sentinel’s cry.
Yet only five wake prepared,
to meet the bridegroom
when he comes.

That parable fleshes out
what we have heard
this morning.

The message is
                        stay awake
            and be ready,
                        for the Son of Man
            who is coming at an unexpected hour.

It’s time to wake up:
            to be looking outwards;
time to be prepared
            with our lamps trimmed,
(in contemporary terms, to have batteries in the torches).

Advent expectation
            relies on us being awake,
            to the reign
                        of the Prince of Peace.

Advent wakes us up
            to the claims of Christ
in his first coming amongst us –
the Incarnation –
of which we say in the Creed:
            for us and for our salvation
            he become incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
            and was made man.

Advent wakes us up
            to another Gospel proclamation
articulated in the Creed:

                        and he will come again glory to judge the living and the dead,
                        whose kingdom will have no end.

Advent wakes us up to
            and receiving
                        Christ, the Bridegroom

The sleeping Christ
            in the manger of Bethlehem
was watched
attentively and adoringly
            by Mary, his mother and her husband, Joseph.

Let us,
            like Mary,
gaze longingly on Christ
            who comes to us
                        in the breaking of the bread.

In this Eucharist we stretch out our hands
            to receive the Bread of Life;
may we also,
as the Advent hymn puts it,
prepare our hearts too
            to receive him
                        when he comes again in glory:

Let every heart prepare a throne,
And every voice a song.       (Philip Doddridge 1702-51)

The prayer after communion for Advent Sunday is also a good prayer before Communion on Advent Sunday, so let us pray:

O Lord our God,
make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord;
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Hope in a bewildering world


Well that was pretty gloomy, wasn’t it? In the gospel passage (Luke 21.5-19) Jesus spoke of beautiful things being thrown down; good people being led astray; wars and insurrections; nation rising against nation; arrest, persecution, betrayal, family breakdown, hatred.

It sounds gloomily familiar. We’re going to hell in a handcart?

It’s hard, watching the news at the moment, not to wonder what on earth is happening to our world.

On a global level the rules based order of international affairs is being undermined by newly dominant powers, and not helped by those trying to hold on to their place in the world: walls figurative and physical are going up; trust is going down.

Nationally our country has got itself in a terrible stew about over how our common future might be shaped; the less said about General Election campaigns, perhaps, the better.

In families the pressures of finance, be it from Universal Credit or the drive to work more and more for diminishing returns, is corroding the bedrock of society and social wellbeing in the family.

And in many individual lives the stresses and strains of navigating life in a complex and overwhelming world can lead to huge anguish, poor mental health and questions and bewilderment over identity.

And on every level those in power and in positions of influence seem desperate to meet our desires by promising that we can have it all without any cost. We don’t need an election campaign to have politicians, the advertising industry and sophisticated algorithms all telling us what we really want; and yet it is never quite within reach.

It seems, then, that Jesus’ words are less gloomy than at first glance. Jesus unmasks the deep powers of the world which we inhabit and then point to that which transforms the human predicament through hope.

Hope is one of the theological virtues, along with faith and love. As St Paul says, the greatest of these is love, and that is beyond dispute, but love is only complete with faith and hope: these three endure.

Hope has had a bad name because it has come to mean the frothy optimism of the adman and the politician, those people who try to indulge what we want which simply mask or dull our deepest yearnings.

The hope of Christians is not frothy optimism; it is earthed in reality and in the promises of that which endures. With faith and love, St Paul tells us that hope also abides, lasts, endures.

The gospel passage closed with these words: ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls’ (Luke 21.19). That is the hope-filled promise of the way of Jesus Christ. And that endurance is not dependent on our stamina, our own energies, our own self-belief, but is dependent on drinking deeply from the enduring hope of God. We endure when we allow hope to endure; if we shut out the possibility of deep hope, they we will wither and not endure.

Christian hope is a promise that is rooted in heaven and lived out on earth.

That hope is of the life of the world to come; which is a life and a hope that can be lived out now. It is a hope that knows the end of the story; a hope that knows that it is in dying we are born to eternal life.  It is a hope that takes us, with Jesus, to the cross.

Our prayer after communion today will put it like this:

Gracious Lord,
in this sacrament you give substance to our hope:
bring us at the last
to that fullness of life for which we long;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

It is a prayer first and foremost, but also a wonderful definition of hope. Hope has substance and brings us to the fullness of life for which we long.

That hope is literally placed in our hands. Hope is not a credit card in the hand; hope is not a mirror in the hand to gaze upon ourselves; hope is not a smartphone in the hand which draws us more into our selfie-ness: the hope placed in our hand today is hope in the bread of Life, Jesus Christ.

Monday, 11 November 2019

'Reconciling peacemakers: A Remembrance Sermon'

A sermon preached at service for the Civic Act of Remembrance at Fairfield Halls, Croydon

Jesus said: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God’


‘What were you doing 80 years ago?’

There aren’t that many people around now who can give you an answer to that question: I couldn’t.
One person I can ask is my mother-in-law, now aged 97: she lives with me and my family.

80 years ago she was 17 years old. And she still remembers the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, 80 years ago this year.

She remembers the broadcast by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain; the distribution of gas masks; and the beginnings of getting the country’s economy on a war footing as imports of food such as oranges and bananas dried up.

The other thing my mother-in-law was doing 80 years ago was joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force: she was a ‘WAAF’.

80 years ago my late father-in-law was 18 years old. He had joined the army and was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Artillery following his training as a gunner at the Woolwich Military Academy.

My mother-in-law’s war saw her working at airbases around the country from deepest Cornwall to the very north of Scotland – in what she remembers as the hottest summer she has ever known –
to being on the liner sailing in convoy to the Quebec Conference when Churchill met Roosevelt for key discussions about the course of the war in Europe and working in the Cabinet War Rooms, off Whitehall.

My father-in-law’s war saw him commanding 30 Indian troops when he was only 19 leading men in fighting in North Africa, and then in the campaign through Italy.

Today is clearly not just about my family stories. But it is about stories, like those of my mother and father-in-law, which are woven into the fabric of our national life.

You might have your own family stories, some distant, some far more recent and possibly quite raw.

We all have our nation’s story and experience, which still shapes who we are today.

On Remembrance Sunday stories and experiences –  whether from the Second World War, or the First World War, the Korean War or Northern Ireland, the Falkland’s War, Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Syria – stories and experiences are remembered and shared, so that we may resolve that never again
should this happen in our world.

What started 80 years ago this year – in 1939 – lasted for 6 years. 6 whole years of global warfare,  
resulting in the death of an estimated 70–85 million people – military personnel and civilians, men, women and children – killed in action, dying by starvation or disease brought on by war, or by genocide, most notably the Nazi Holocaust.

Like a pebble dropping in a pond war sends ripples throughout nations, communities, families and individual lives: health and wellbeing, physical, mental and spiritual is affected.

No part of the world is left untouched: the earth is wounded, God’s creatures in the animal kingdom are harmed. The ripples of war continue down the generations as people live and struggle with loss and grief and absence.

Remembrance Sunday calls to mind both the worst depravity of human nature in war and violence
and also the greatest glory of human nature in sacrifice for others: the risking of lives that others may be free to live.

Remembrance Sunday asks us not just to remember what we were doing at such and such a time,
or what was happening in the past, eighty years ago or whenever but it taps into a deeper human memory of how we might live our lives in freedom, fullness and abundance.

In this country many faith communities search their scriptures and traditions to shape a peace-filled world. With Her Majesty the Queen, our nation draws deeply on the message of blessed peacemakers in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches peace and urges reconciliation.

Reconciliation means reaching across boundaries of hurt or pain. Tearing down walls of division: like in Berlin 30 years ago. That’s true for relationships on a global, local and personal level, between warring nations, within torn communities, or within families and relationships.

The message and priority of reconciliation is for all men, women and children.

We need reconciliation now more than ever given that our nation and communities are at odds over Brexit, traumatised by austerity, terrified of burgeoning knife crime and unsettled by a General Election campaign.

If someone asks you in 5, 10, 50, or even 80 years’ time: ‘what were you doing in 2019?’
I wonder... what you would say.

On this Remembrance Sunday I hope I could say, I hope you could say: I was playing my part in reconciliation; I was reaching out beyond my comfort zone; I was engaging with people different from me I was being a peacemaker.

Do that and you will be honouring, in the deepest way, the legacy of those who we remember today who fell in war, so that the story of our nation would be one of liberty, safety and prosperity.

Today let us renew our commitment to honour those who died that we might live by shaping our nation’s story that each and every one of us can be a reconciling peacemaker.