Monday, 27 January 2020

'Come, follow me'

Preached as a sermon on Sunday 26 January, Third Sunday of Epiphany. The gospel reading was Matthew 4.12-23


‘Come, follow me’

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Mark Twain once said, ‘It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand’.

In other words, it’s when we recognise and see plainly what’s going on in a passage of the Bible that we can feel more bothered and uncomfortable than when we don’t really get it.

This morning’s gospel passage describing Jesus’ abrupt call to the disciples - and their instant response - is a case in point: Jesus calls; the disciples respond. We can understand that.

And that’s what’s bothering: it’s instant. Didn’t they sit down and think it through? Is it a bit unlikely, or even a bit weird or strange? Didn’t they calculate their loss of earnings from fishing against what the finances being an itinerant disciple would be? What about their families; what about their friends?

‘Come, follow me’. Clear, understandable and bothering.

It gets more bothering: if he calls them, what about me? And if he calls me, what is he calling me to leave behind? What’s he calling me to take up? And if he calls and I resist, what happens then?

This is the stuff of what we call vocation, from the Latin root vocare meaning ‘to call or to name’.

Often the language of vocation in the church gets narrowed down to tasks and roles within the church which, important though they are, are an expression of a deeper call that is laid upon each one of us.

Calling into existence, into being, is God’s pattern. In the beginning God names and calls the creation into being; calling light and darkness, day and night; waters and skies; vegetation and plants; sun and moon; birds and creeping creatures into being; and then humankind, male and female he created them.

That is the deep calling of God. What we might label Calling, with a capital ‘C’. That Call is the call to life in its all abundance; it’s a call to reconciliation with God, and one another, a call to healing, to forgiveness and to being restored, as God call and made us to be.

This call is richly brought to bear on us all in baptism. The waters of baptism are the waters of new creation, where the light of God the Father shines, and where the Spirit moves over the face of the waters afresh.

Remember vocare means ‘to name and to call’. This is what is drawn on when someone is confirmed: ‘God has called you by name and made you his own: receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’.

That’s the first call of a Christian. ‘N, come, follow me’

Being a priest, a monk, a nun, a Reader, a Pastoral Auxiliary, a Verger, a Children’s worker, a cantor, an intercessor, being a husband, being a wife: they are all callings with a small ‘c’ that flow out of who we are called to be deep down.

Come, follow me. Baptism grafts us into God’s call to all creation to be alive to God and responding to God’s majesty, mystery and awe. And we will all do that in different and particular ways, which taken together make up the beautiful, rich, diversity of the church.

The call today then is to go deeper, to listen - patiently and attentively – to God’s call and claim on your life. That may be a most immediate, perceptible call, or it might run far more slowly and unfold over time.

Remember: those disciples already had a job and task in life as fishermen: they knew where they were, they were secure; life was set. Now they were asked to put down their nets and follow Jesus: come, follow me.

Actually, it is clear in the gospels that the disciple-fishermen carried on the trade and craft of fishing, but they took on a new character by being disciples of Jesus. They were going deeper. As Jesus says to them elsewhere - which shows they continued their skills as fishermen after their call – ‘put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch’ (Luke 5.4)

From casting their nets into the deep waters of the sea to catch fish, they would now cast another sort of net, deep into the life of God in Christ, finding their deep and true identity in him and drawing others into that love.

One of the phenomena of our times, magnified, but not created, by social media is the role of ‘influencers’. They’re the glammed up stars of Instagram, YouTube and such like, who influence others by what they wear, how they think and how they carry themselves: a form of ‘follow me’. Influencers need us to be customers; nothing more. They have no interest beyond the superficial and selling products and labels. The people they seek to influence are mere objects of income, not persons to be cherished.

Our true self is not to be found in the brands we wear, not in the consumer choices we make, not in our postcode.

The call of Jesus Christ for us today is to go deeper: go deeper into the mystery of God in prayer, contemplation and worship; go deeper into the mystery of how you relate to other people being patient, forgiving and kind; go deeper into the mystery of yourself as someone precious and, yes, complex, but a loved child of God.

This is the call to holiness, which is the gentle crafting of a response to God which takes a lifetime and leads to abundant life; this is the way of Jesus Christ.

Mark Twain found the bits of scripture he understood bothered him. Scripture should bother and unsettle us to keep us open and fresh.

‘Come, follow me’ is plain in its meaning. ‘Unpacking’ it is not bothersome, but inspiring, liberating, life-giving: Jesus says, come, be part of me in relation to God; go with me deeper into places you’ve never been before, see things you’ve never seen before; be the person you are most deeply called to be.

No wonder the fishermen put down their nets and listened, and then went and followed him.

Can we?

Postscript – not preached

The fascinating thing is that elsewhere in scripture, in the Old and New Testaments there is much more hesitation. The call of Jeremiah is marked by him questioning God and trying to wriggle out by saying that he’s only a boy, far too young to do God’s will. Er, no, is the response back. Likewise Isaiah, whose call comes in an incense-filled Temple, says it really couldn’t be him because he is far too unworthy to be God’s prophet. Zechariah the priest is struck dumb, literally, by the thought that he is called by God to be the father of John the Baptist, the prophet of the Most High. Even the Blessed Virgin Mary says, ‘but how can this be?’ to the Archangel Gabriel, before saying, ‘let it be according to thy will’.

With the call of these fishermen disciples, by the shore of Galilee, we don’t get any dialogue, just the action. We can speculate why this was. Dietrich Bonhoeffer - who was someone who followed Jesus’ call even to death in a concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis – explores this in his book The Cost of Discipleship. He notes how we desperately want to explain why Jesus’ call evokes an immediate response.

Bonhoeffer is quite blunt with us:

The story of the call of the first disciples is a stumbling-block to our natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate [the call of Jesus from the ready obedience of the disciples]. By hook or by crook a bridge must be found between them, some psychological or historical event. Thus we get the stupid question: surely the disciples must have known Jesus before, and that previous acquaintance explains their readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent on this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a person’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, the disciples follow at once.

'Sing to the Lord' A sermon for Be A Boy Chorister for the Day


Preached as a sermon for the annual 'Be a Boy Chorister for the Day' event at Croydon Minster on Sunday 26 January

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‘Sing to the Lord a new song: sing praises lustily unto him with a good courage’ (Psalm 33.3)

Those are words that our choristers, and aspiring choristers, sang earlier. It’s from the Book of Psalms, which is sometimes known as the hymn book of the Bible.

Psalms were traditionally composed by King David and Christians share them with the Jewish people. In Islam the Psalms, known as Zabur, are understood to be, along with the Gospels, as one of the texts revealed by God.

The psalms are rooted in the human experience of God. They express lots of different moods and emotions: sadness and lament; joy and celebration; adoration, worship and praise; some tell the stories of God’s people and some of individuals. There is a psalm for all occasions.

Jesus knew the psalms well. The psalms are his most quoted book of the Bible. Even as he died on the cross Jesus’ spoke words from Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

I love singing the psalms, which are the backbone of the daily prayer of the Church. Sometimes they are sung to the ancient tones of plainsong; sometimes, like tonight, in what is known as Anglican Chant, a particular style in the Church of England for some five centuries now; sometimes they are sung by a worship band; sometimes they are whispered quietly.

When a choir sings the psalm we have a chance to engage with the text in a different way from when we say it ourselves. But always remember that everyone present makes up the choir of a Church: we all sing praises to God. The singers we call the choir are like yeast in dough or the fizz in a drink, they use their God-given skills of singing and making music to lift us all in our praise of God.

The psalm that we sang tonight reminds us why we sing and make music to God. First of all, it is just plain good to sing praises to God who made us, loves us and saves us! As the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘it becometh well the just to be thankful’ (Psalm 33.1).

As it continues the psalm encourages us again, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song: sing praises lustily unto him with a good courage’ (Psalm 33.3) and then it gives the second reason why we sing psalms: ‘For the word of the Lord is true: and all his works are faithful. He loveth righteousness and judgement: the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.’ (Psalm 33.4,5)

That is why we sing to God and praise God’s Holy Name: because he is our hope and our salvation.

As St Paul writes, ‘sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God, making melody to the Lord in your hearts’ (Ephesians 5.19).

Amen.

Monday, 20 January 2020

'The Lamb' A Sermon


First preached as a sermon at the Parish Eucharist at Croydon Minster, 2nd Sunday of Epiphany. The readings were Isaiah 49.1-7; John 1.29-42. NB This sermon is very much inspired by Jean Vanier's book Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus, which I would wholeheartedly commend.

‘The Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Revelation 7.17)

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The Lamb is at the heart of the Christian life:

‘Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sin of the world’

‘O Lamb of God, you take the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
‘O Lamb of God, you take the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
‘O Lamb of God, you take the sin of the world, grant us thy peace’.

In the invitation to Holy Communion and in the anthem Agnus Dei Christian liturgy refers to lambs, or rather a particular lamb, the Lamb of God: the one to whom John the Baptist points.

As a church dedicated to John the Baptist let’s reflect on what he is revealing to us as he first sees, and then declares, Jesus Christ to be the Lamb of God.

Often in art and iconography John the Baptist is represented either holding a Lamb or pointing at one: just look around this church, inside and out to see that.

The revelation that Jesus was the Chosen One of God, the Son of God came to John at the Baptism. That experience enabled him to see and recognise and then tell his own followers:

Look, the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world. John 1.29

Francisco de Zurbar├ín Agnus Dei 
But what a thing to say. That Jesus is a lamb, the Lamb of God, ‘such a meek and gentle little animal.’

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To declare Jesus to be the Lamb answers a question posed, in deep time, by Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham.

God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a multitude of people, ‘more numerous than the stars of the sky’ (Genesis 22.17) and yet had asked Abraham to sacrifice the son who he had Sarah had so longed for.

Abraham and Isaac went up the mountain, with Isaac carrying the wood (evocative, as Origen notes, of Christ carrying the wood of the cross to his own death) and Abraham carries the knife and fire for the sacrifice.

When they get to the place of the sacrifice Isaac asks his father, ‘where is the Lamb for the burnt offering?’ And Abraham replies, ‘God himself will provide the lamb, my son’ (Genesis 22.7-8). That day a ram was caught in a thicket and they sacrificed it.

But John the Baptist gives the long awaited answer: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God’.

To understand the significance of the lamb for the Jewish people we must go deep into the scriptures.

In the story of the Exodus it was the blood of the lamb that saved the Israelites from death and enabled them to flee from slavery on the path to freedom. During the feast of the Passover, recalling that deliverance, Jewish people today remember, like their ancestors, by eating roasted lamb.


Again, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the servant who will suffer on behalf of the people, a servant who was pierced because of the fault of others and who brought peace. Isaiah says,

He was led like a lamb to the slaughter…
he did not open his mouth…
he bore the sins of many
and made intercession for our transgression. (Isaiah 53.7, 12)

In Holy Week we walk the Way of the Cross with the Suffering Servant Messiah. At Easter we speak of the Passover Lamb of God; that is Jesus Christ, the deliverer into freedom and life in all its fullness.

This Lamb stands in the face of the power and armies of Caesar, of an overbearing Empire: an Empire that endures today in systems of violence, consumption, oppression and environmental degradation.

In the face of all that what can this Lamb do?

In his writing Jean Vanier says:

The lamb will break down the walls of fear, of aggression, of violence, of sin which imprison people in themselves and incite them to seek their own glory. He will liberate in each person a new life of communion with God, with other people and with what is deepest in the self, sowing seeds for universal peace. (Jean Vanier Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus p.34).

That’s what the Lamb can ‘do’.

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The scriptures and the prophets, after the example of John the Baptist, prepare our hearts to receive Jesus.

So often, people look for the spectacular. When Jesus comes, it’s not in the spectacular; not as the persuasive celebrity; not as the influencer with a million likes. He comes as a gentle Lamb.

In response our heartfelt cry is, ‘O Lamb of God, I come’. Lamb of God, I come to you messed up and in turmoil, with petty envies, and jealousies and niggles: with, as the hymn puts it, ‘fightings within and fears without’, and yet still, ‘O Lamb of God, I come’.

After declaring Jesus to be the Lamb of God, John continues to point him to others, continues to draw others to the love of God’s lamb. Inspired by John, as followers of the Lamb, let’s keep pointing him out to others.

Not to would be cruel.

For the Lamb, ‘comes in a very simple way, opening our hearts to people with the breath of peace and a quiet shaft of light, a gentle kiss. He comes into that part of our being that is our treasure, that sacred space within us, hidden under all the fears, walls, [frustration] and anger in us so that we may grow in the spirit of love’ (Jean Vanier Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus p. 34-5).

‘We are called to be gentle followers of the Lamb, not people of power.’ (Jean Vanier Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus p. 35)

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And the Lamb invites us to the Supper, what the Book of Revelation calls the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb.

Jan van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece
This is the captivating image of heaven. It’s portrayed by Jan van Eyck in his Ghent Altarpiece which shows the Lamb of God standing upon an altar, and around the Lamb are a multitude of peoples and nations, the saints and martyrs, people of every background and class:

for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7.17)

Today we gather around the altar of the Lamb of God, as young and old, men and women, with heritage of many nations and languages as followers of the Lamb.

We hear afresh John the Baptist’s description and invitation:

‘Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb’.



Monday, 13 January 2020

Flowing Blessings: A Sermon for the baptism of Christ


First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, 12th January 2020. Readings: Isaiah 42.1-9; Matthew 3.13-17
                                                                            
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The liturgical year moves swiftly on,
like a mighty flowing river.

No sooner than we celebrate the birth of Jesus
Than we celebrate the Epiphany,
            and the visit of the Magi would have been some while
            after his birth.
And today we celebrate
            the Baptism of Christ,
which we know to have been 30 years after his birth.

The liturgical year
            isn’t concerned with keeping to time,
                        but with
            revealing the mysteries of God.

The Baptism of Christ sits beautifully
            in this wonderful season of light    
                        that spills out
            from the celebration of his birth.

It is a rich,
and densely packed,
mystical moment.
            The heavens open!
It is another Epiphany,
            a manifestation,
                        a showing forth
            of the glory of God
                        revealed in human flesh:
            it is an incarnation moment.

It is a moment
when we apprehend
the movement of the Blessed Trinity –
            Father, Son and Holy Spirit –
                        the Spirit descends like a dove,
                                    and the Heavenly Father declares
                                                of Jesus,
                                    ‘this is my Son, the Beloved’.

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I was at our cathedral church in Southwark last week
            for the Mass of Requiem
of a former Vicar of Croydon,
            Bishop Ronald Bowlby,
who died just before Christmas.
Bishop Ronnie was Vicar during the centenary celebrations
            of the consecration of this church,
                        and this afternoon we begin our celebrations
                                    of 150 years since the consecration.

In the cathedral
there is a crib scene
of life size figures around the font of the cathedral.
Flanked by his blessed Mother, Mary, and St Joseph
            the Christchild
appears to be resting on the font itself.
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition
            of the birth of Christ
                        and our baptism.

Baptism is a birth:
            birth into
                        the life of the heart of God;
            birth into
                        the Church,
                                    the Body of Christ;
            birth in
                        the Holy Spirit.

And that life itself
            should flow out of us
            into the world
                        that is created
                                    and hallowed
                        by God.


One of the tasks of a Christian
             day by day
is to proclaim,
            live out
                        and be
God’s blessing
            in a world that seems bereft of blessing today.

An expression of that
will take place today
from the cathedral, as, after the Eucharist,
the Bishop and congregation goes out
            to bless
                        and hallow
            the waters of the River Thames
from the bridge linking Southwark Cathedral with St Paul’s.
It’s not just a quaint ceremony,
            but a confident declaration
                        that God’s blessing
            is the life
            running through our communities
                        like a mighty river.

As Christ was plunged into the waters of baptism
            at the hands of our own patron saint, St John the Baptist,
so he bestows
            and hallows
the waters of the new Creation:
            as he says,

‘The water that I will give will become in [you] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4.14b).

Water is the stuff of life;
            the stuff of life
                        is made holy
            by Christ:
                        the One
            who transformed water
                        into rich wine at the Wedding Feast.

The River Wandle
            no longer runs past the Minster,
but if it did,
I hope we would be out there
            blessing the waters.

In the absence of an actual river
            we’re prompted to reflect on the blessings
                        that we yearn
                                    to see
                                                flowing
                        from this church today:
            we can touch people’s lives and hearts
                        with the flowing blessings of Christ.

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We want to see
            the gospel of Jesus Christ flowing
                        like a mighty river
            through the heart of this town of Croydon.

We said that in our church vision day last summer.

This church
            is the ancient
                        and enduring
            spiritual heart of Croydon.
We don’t want it to be
            a stagnant tributary,
                        but a life bearing river,
            teeming with blessing
                        and hope.

In the prophet Ezekiel
            we see a vision of the Temple
from which flows water.
            It’s the text known as Vidi Aquam
                        that will be sung
            as water is sprinkled
                        from the font in this liturgy.

Water flows from each corner of the Temple
            getting deeper
                        and deeper,
            flowing from the Temple,
                        out
                                    beyond itself
            into a stagnant salty sea
                        which is then transformed
            and teems with fish
                        and life.

Oh to be that sort of Temple!
In the 150th year
            of the hallowing of this building
                        may our culture and expectation here
                                    be one of abundance
                                                and not scarcity;
            one that celebrates the blessings,
                        the life of the teeming town of Croydon.

When it rains heavily
            the Minster can appear to have a moat,
such is the poor drainage.
We don’t want to be
            a moated,
            cut off community –
                        quite the opposite! –
            we yearn to be
                        a community that flows out
            with life beyond ourselves:
                        are you; are we, ready for that?

A church is consecrated;
            people are baptised.
Both
are temples of the Spirit,
            houses of prayer
                        and of the abiding presence
            of Christ.

Tomorrow the Church Council, the PCC,
            will be considering
                        how we renew the life of this church
            by beginning to sketch out a ‘strategy’
                        for our work with Children and Young People (CYP).

            The young bring life.

As we consider the place of the CYP of our church,
            and honour that place,
we find that it tells us about the sort of church
            we might really be.
Do we merely tolerate
            or really welcome
the young,
            or anyone for that matter?

How a church treats its CYP
            reveals a great deal:
                        about
                                    how seriously it really welcomes, cherishes and values
                                    everyone - regardless of age, background etc, - unconditionally;
                        about
                                    how open it is
                                    to transformation
                                    and growth;
                        and about
                                    how it really values people
                                                for who they are now,
                                    not just as some sort of insurance policy
                                                for the church
                                    continuing when we’re all dead!

Developing a strategy for CYP
            is one a way in to clarifying a vision
                        of the church
            and it has a missional impetus too:

engaging with CYP means
also engaging with
                        their families
            and supporting parents and carers,
                        who are the primary catechists –
                                    teachers and nurturers in the church;
it makes us reflect
            more widely
            on catechesis beyond the young in years,
                        to the young and immature in the faith
                                    (who may be advanced in years);
it makes us reflect
            on the sacraments of initiation – baptism and confirmation;
            about how we equip,
                        and are equipped to be,
                                    lifelong disciples;
it makes us think
            about how we connect
                        with other aspects of the life of our wider community
                                    institutionally and personally,
                        with schools, playgroups, young carers.

Christ stepped out of the River Jordan
            and his public ministry
                        of healing,
                        forgiving
                        and revealing the mysteries of God
            flowed out from him
                        in the wilderness.

As we celebrate the consecration of this building
            and our own baptism
both to be temples of the Holy Spirit,
may we be:
             healed and healing;
                        forgiven and forgiving;
                                    alive and life-giving.

Then we will truly be
            a blessing
                        to our community
                                    it all its teeming diversity.

Pray that the Holy Spirit
            will flow around this church,
                        and this community.
Pray for discernment and wisdom
            and please pray particularly
for our children and young people,
            giving thanks
                        for the life they bring to us
                        in Christ.

Amen.