Sunday, 26 December 2021

Christmas Morning - Getting Our Priorities Right

Preached on Christmas Day at Croydon Minster.  Readings, Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14



I wonder what your greatest priority is today? The turkey, the presents, the Queen’s speech, seeing family?


A few days ago the message from the Chief Medical Office was clear: this Christmas decide on your priorities. What a good question at Christmas!


So what’s your priority then?


Priorities are about what we put first. By being here today what we have put first is to come to worship God in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.


For Christians the number one priority at Christmas is Christ. We come to worship him now, as many did during the middle of the night too.


All other priorities flow from that. For it is God who created the world ‘in the beginning’, who gives us breath and life through his Holy Spirit, and who shows us the way to be the people he made us to be, sons and daughters of the Most High.


Our faith tells us that when all is stripped away we discover something deeply precious; this is what we call hope, the bedrock, the priority of our lives.


God’s priority at Christmas, is God’s priority every day: his priority is that we, his creatures, make him [God] our priority. The Church Fathers speak of this ‘Royal Exchange’: Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity, that we might share in his divinity.


The grandeur and majesty of God is revealed in a totally new way. God is made known in the child of Bethlehem.


Mary’s child, God’s child, is born like you and me, born naked into the world, vulnerable and entirely dependent on others; first of all his mother, Mary, and also his guardian, Joseph.


For now the naked child is wrapped in swaddling bands, and he starts calling, drawing and wrapping people around himself to become a community of willing response, obedience, love and adoration: his Church.


We gather today in the footsteps of shepherds and Magi, of countless men, women and children who have heard the call of the Child of Bethlehem, and made their response to that call their priority in life.


What Mary and Joseph gazed on was the fullness of God; the normal, expected trappings of divinity stripped away. They beheld the Word Made Flesh, and saw his glory. His glory would be seen again on the cross when all his garments are stripped away and we see his saving love.


Light shines out of darkness, hope and blessing abounds and, however gloomy things get, the darkness will not overcome it. As St Paul reminds again:


‘It is the God who said let light shine out of darkness”, who has shone in our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4.6)


As our top priority every day, let us direct our gaze back to the Christchild, the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, for he is known as Emmanuel, meaning ‘God is with us’.


Midnight Mass - Christ at the Centre

 Preached at Midnight Mass, Croydon Minster 2021, readings Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14



In the birth of Jesus Christ human history has a new trajectory.


In the birth of Jesus Christ, the inevitability of human estrangement from God is halted.


In the birth of Jesus Christ, and our new birth in baptism, we can now see ourselves, and our fellow men and women, as sons and daughters of the Most High.


Without Christ we find ourselves wrapped up in our own ego-dramas, the stories we narrate about ourselves with ‘me’ at the centre.


With Christ we are drawn into the Theo-drama, the unfolding mystery and wonder of God – with Christ at the centre - in which we have a precious place and cherished part.


If you connect in anyway with the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus Christ, you have joined the Theo-drama, a movement described by Isaiah: ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined’. (Isaiah 9.2).


In embracing our place in the wonder and mystery of Jesus Christ we are walking out of the darkness, into Christ’s marvellous light.


That’s the Gospel! Gospel means ‘good news’.


It’s the message too of our second reading, from the letter of St Paul to Titus.


Paul’s is saying that, because of Christ, it is not inevitable that we get caught up in a self-centred play of the power games and manipulations of the world, and the assumptions that there is no God, no hope, no heaven. Rather, we find ourselves looking beyond ourselves to the source of all that is good and pure and true. It’s the move from darkness to light.


We have come here tonight, in the darkness, to rejoice in the light of Christ.


‘That’s great’ some might say, ‘but look at the world two thousand years on from the birth of Jesus: will things ever change? There’s lots of darkness’


Just look at the gospel reading tonight. There are parallels with our own day:


In the diktats of Quirinius, Governor of Syria under Augustus, the Roman Emperor, we see overbearing government regulating the movements and lives of the people: tyrants abound in the world today.


In the shepherds we see underpaid labourers, working what we now call ‘zero hours’ contracts, doing anti-social hours in dangerous conditions: oppressive labour systems still exist, not least in the form of modern slavery.


In Mary and Joseph unable to find decent shelter, we see a vulnerable family excluded from the warmth, comfort and acceptance of society: in the ‘global village’ today, people are excluded from having a voice and agency and live in grinding poverty.


We find that all shocking: now as then.


But it is only shocking because of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  


It has not always been taken as read in human history that we care for the weak and sick and frail, the unborn and the young, the excluded and isolated. In past times, and in some dark places today, all those groups of people are tossed aside as inconvenient and getting in the way of the ego-dramas of the privileged.


When you worship God and see God in Jesus Christ - the very presence of God, the Word Made Flesh, as a tiny vulnerable infant, worshipped by shepherds in a cattle shed - then you get an insight into how the world cannot be the same anymore for creation is renewed.


The birth of Jesus, as our gospel reading showed, connects the whole renewed creation: angels representing heaven and what is beyond us; shepherds, representing the poor and the exploited; the animals, representing all God’s creatures; the coming of the Magi, representing those outside God’s first-chosen people - all now gather around the Prince of Peace.


Before Christ, ‘peace’ had come to mean something like the imperialist imposed truce of the ‘Pax Romana’ of Caesar Augustus, rather than the shalom of God, that deep well-being of life in God. After Christ we are drawn into the peace of God which passes all understanding.


At Christmas we can’t go about our lives in the same old way. We walk now in the light.


Mary, the Mother of our Lord and God, pondered all these things in her heart.


Tonight, this Christmas, may we ponder just who this child is. May we all continue to walk in the light and rejoice that we now share the divinity of Christ and he humbled himself to share our humanity. For when we ponder Christ, life and the world can never be the same again.

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

Mother of the Lord: Ark of the New Covenant

 Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2021. Gospel: Luke 1.39-45



In our gospel today we see a most beautiful scene. It combines energy and serenity. It is a thumbnail illustration of some really important aspects of the Christian spiritual life. Spiritual energy combined with spiritual serenity.


The energy is that of Mary who sets out with haste from her encounter with the archangel Gabriel to share this wonderful mystery! It is of John the Baptist, the child in his mother’s womb, who leaps for joy in the presence of Mary and her child! It is of Elizabeth who exclaims a loud cry of proclamation, and becomes the first to articulate that Mary is Mother of the Lord!


And what of the serenity? It is the serenity of Jesus Christ, the still centre of the presence of the Most High in a tumultuous world. This is the serenity of Jesus who sleeps in the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and embodies the peace, the Shalom, of God.


So where do we go with this gospel scene? What does it speak to us of our lives?


First it has to take us to Christ. He is the heart of this scene even though no action or utterance of his is described, merely his presence; that is enough.


The energy of the scene draws solely from Christ’s presence and serenity. This might help us see the need to pay attention to Christ, to orientate our lives to notice his presence in our midst and recognise those who bear his light and life.


That’s what Elizabeth and John saw. Elizabeth found herself overcome by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which inspired her to ‘exclaim with a loud cry’, ‘Blessed are you, Mary, among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. These Spirit given words, form the bedrock of the great and ancient prayer the Hail Mary, which combines the Archangel’s greeting and Elizabeth’s words: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus’.


It’s Elizabeth, not a Pope or Church Council, who makes the first dogmatic statement of who Mary is: Mary is the mother of the Lord.


The unborn, yet totally spiritually attuned, John makes this recognition too. This clearly isn’t a run of the mill foetal kick. Elizabeth the pregnant mother knows it is more. She connects her child’s leap for joy with Mary’s arrival.


And this takes us into rich and fertile Biblical territory.


In the second book of Samuel there is an intriguing episode. The ark of the covenant was being taken from a town called Obed-edom to the city of David, Jerusalem. King David, the shepherd king (from Bethlehem, remember), offered sacrifices before the Ark and then ‘David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod (2 Samuel 6.14).


So what of the Ark and the linen ephod?


The Ark of the Covenant was the vessel, the box, effectively, that contained the stone tablets of the commandments, Aaron’s rod (a miraculous wooden staff) and manna from the wilderness, the bread shown to the people. For the Israelites the Ark contained the most holy of things, the presence of the Most High.


The linen ephod is the vestment, the robe, of the high priest. David was claiming priesthood. By heritage John the Baptist was a priest as was his father Zechariah.


Yet John knows that all that is contained in the Ark of the Covenant – Law, the wooden rod that buds, the Bread – everything in the Ark before which David danced is fulfilled in the true High Priest, Jesus Christ himself: John knows that Jesus is the New Covenant; John knows that just as the wood of Aaron’s rod budded into life, so the wood of the cross becomes the source of life and salvation; John knows that the Bread of Life is not the manna that goes stale, but Jesus Christ who calls men and women into abundant life.


Now if that is who Jesus is, the Holy Presence in the Ark, what, or rather who, is the Ark of the New Covenant?


The answer is Mary. This is an answer from the earliest times, for example St. Hippolytus (c. 170 - c. 236), who writes:


At that time, the Saviour coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, which was gilded with pure gold within by the Word, and without by the Holy Ghost.


Mary’s body is the bearer of the fulness of the presence of God. She is rightly the Ark of the New Covenant because within her body is the fullness of the Divine Presence, the Incarnate Lord.


Elizabeth knew that and declared it. John the Baptist knew that and danced before her and her unborn Son.


Where do we go with all this?


First, to acknowledge Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant and proclaim her ‘Mother of our Lord and God’ places us with Christians through the millennia, from Elizabeth and John onwards. What we say of Mary is always in relation to Christ. Devotion to Mary always takes us to Christ, in moments of salvation: his Incarnation; Christ’s miracles; his passion on the cross; his Resurrection; his Ascension; the descent of the Holy Spirit; the promise of heaven.


Secondly, it acknowledges the human body to be worthy of bearing Christ. Our culture seems intent on splitting human identity in two: the pure me, my spirit or mind, and the less than ideal me, my body, my physicality with all its limitations and distortions. There is a lot of talk today about being ‘body-affirming’: the Incarnation of Christ which is at the heart of the Christmas proclamation is body, mind and spirit together-affirming. Christ the redeems the whole person. That’s why our expression of faith is embodied. We don’t just think our way to salvation, we speak it, we enact it in acts of devotion and service to God and neighbour.


Finally, we find Christ to be at the heart of all things, the serene presence who dwells in Mary’s body. We place ourselves in his presence now to receive his presence now in the way he promises to be with us in his Body, in this sacrament. We make Mary’s ‘yes’ her ‘let it be to me according to your word’ our own. We become bearers of Christ, who give birth to him in the world, having received him and welcomed him into our lives.

Sunday, 28 November 2021

People Look East: An Advent Sermon

 Preached at Croydon Minster on Advent Sunday, 28 November 2021. Readings: Jeremiah 33.14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-end; Luke 21.25-36



Today, Advent Sunday, begins a new church year.

The cycle of the mystery of our redemption unfolds before us


This beginning puts us in touch

with the creation of the world

and our place within it

as those

named, known and loved

by the creator and maker of all things.

 For Advent Christians,

time is not an endless loop;

what the atheist philosopher Nietzsche called the “eternal return of the same.”

 At the other extreme

the Bible does not envisage a naïve, relentless, linear progression

where everything turns out just fine

with the passing of time and ticking of the clock.

For Advent Christians time is a process of sanctification,

an upward spiral if you like.

Eternal mysteries are re-presented and we grow and flourish.

Life, like good music, takes us on such a journey, even repeating themes, the leitmotif,

are different in a new context

and our spirits are raised.

Our lives move to a definitive purpose;

that’s what we call the Christian Hope


Advent takes us to the very end of things –

death, judgement, heaven and hell –

and to the renewed creation

such as is described in the Revelation to John:

a new heaven and a new earth,

where all gather around in worship of the Lamb of God,

at the heart of the heavenly city.


This time in between, in which we find ourselves, which is but the fraction of a blink in God’s eye,

is what we are left to navigate.

It is a precious moment in which we live.

It is the only moment we have.


So this is where Jesus’ description of the days that will come

before the coming of the Son of Man

are pretty bewildering and disorientating.


Signs in the heavens.



Fainting from fear and foreboding.

It could almost be a description of our own days.


It’s funny though, because that is what every age has concluded.

Every age has seen itself, in some way, as being in the End Times –

be it through plague,

adverse weather,

a significant date in the calendar like the Millennium,

or the apparently dissolute youth.


So how do we read today’s gospel?


We read it knowing

that Advent is the anticipation of the hope that is coming.

That is Good News;

that is Gospel, the Evangelion.


The dramatic description of the sun and the moon and stars,

of raging waters

and then the sprouting of the leaves of the trees,

takes us back to the description in Genesis of the Creation,

when God,

with the Word eternally present,

ordered the heavenly bodies,

stilled the waters of chaos

and caused plants and trees to sprout on the earth.


The birth pangs ‘in the Beginning…’ echo

the birth pangs of the New Creation.


This is not about time

as we know it.

It is a call to be

alert, vigilant, expectant, hopeful.


This is a call to centre ourselves,

orientate ourselves,

anchor ourselves

in Christ, the Word of God who endures through trial and tribulation.

Orientating ourselves in Christ happens

when we are alert at all times,

when we pray for strength not to get entangled

in all these things that are taking place,

when we set our sights beyond ourselves. 

In the Liturgy our focus is not one another, or even the ‘community’ we have together,

it is always beyond ourselves.

 The way we share the Peace emphasises that.

Positioning the Sign of Peace

at the heart of the communion

tells us that ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’

is not generated from within a community, however good spirited,

but is a gift from Christ, who is our peace

a gift from beyond ourselves which we receive and share.


               Likewise, Christian  since early times celebrated the liturgy facing East,

the direction of the rising sun – s-u-n –

to see beyond ourselves

to see the coming Son -s-o-n – of Man, Jesus Christ

As an ancient Advent cry goes up: ‘People Look East!’


At the eye of the hurricane is a peaceful, still centre.

For Advent People, the still centre is Christ;

Christ whom we receive in the Eucharist.


               Fix your eyes beyond yourselves,

beyond any priest

to the Body of Christ broken for you.

                              ‘People Look East.’


The ancient Carthusian monastic order has the Latin motto:

‘Stat crux dum volvitur orbis’,

meaning: ‘The Cross is steady while the world turns.’


At the East end of the church above the High Altar; there is Christ on the Cross

for us to behold.


This Advent,

in a spinning, disorientating world, where time both flies and drags,

let us fix our eyes afresh on Christ.


Let us centre ourselves on Christ to discern

the ‘still small voice’ of the tranquillity of the Divine Presence.


People Look East!

Monday, 4 October 2021

Give us this day... A Harvest Sermon


Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on 3 October, Harvest Festival. Gospel reading Matthew 6.25-33

‘Give us this day our daily bread’




This is one of those phrases that we say in the Lord’s Prayer, but perhaps don’t pause on it and ponder very often.


To pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is to pray some very powerful and deep words.


It is about grace. Grace is the way in which God gives of God’s own self to us, gratuitously, freely, without charge. Amazing!


‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is about savouring what we have and extracting every ounce of goodness from life.


‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is about looking forward, to the future, in an utterly non-anxious way.


Grace. Savouring. Non-anxious anticipation. These three things that flow out of the Lord’s Prayer all speak into the harvest thanksgiving we make today and to the way we navigate the cares and concerns of the world at the moment.


Ponder our gospel reading, where Jesus tells us not to be anxious but to focus on the gifts of God in creation. The petition, the request, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ encapsulates and distils that message.


That reading speaks of gifts freely given in creation, of savouring the moment we are in and a non-anxious anticipation of what is to come.


Yes, we might say, but that’s hard when people are, quite reasonably, feeling worried: where will my next tank of fuel come from? Will I eat or heat this autumn and winter? What will come of the ecological disaster that is unfolding in front of our eyes? And more besides.


So the Gospel of Jesus Christ responds:


From first principles. Everything in the world is fundamentally a gift, freely given. Life is not cheap, but it is free at source. I didn’t do anything to earn being alive; and nor did you. There is nothing anyone has ever done that could have brought the creation, with its abundance, richness and diversity into existence.


A gift is not an entitlement.


So we savour what we have. Last week the Church celebrated St Therese of Lisieux. Therese invites us to see God in the little details of life. Considering lilies in the field or birds in the air, the beauty of the little things is profoundly of the Gospel.


The Gospel moves us to notice beauty, and when we notice beauty then we can savour it. It may be the tiniest pleasure like a beautiful little flower, a robin redbreast: savour it. When you can savour those things then you can savour yourself more, and as you savour yourself anxiety loses its grip.


And what of non-anxious anticipation? That is the application of knowing life and all that you have to be a gift of God. That is the awareness of the little things of beauty and beginning to savour them day by day.


To be sure, being non-anxious when there is so much to be anxious about is hard: paralysing anxiety is not easily cast out. When anxiety and fear take hold of us they have a physiological impact that drags us down physically as well as mentally, and indeed spiritually. Savouring God’s moment means we act now, rather than wait for the future to come.


What the gospel invites us to is to begin to place our anxieties and cares into the loving heart of God. Our fears, anxieties and worries then are not solely about ourselves.


‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is a petition that is encapsulated in Jesus being the Bread of Life: it references the manna God gave to the Israelites in the wilderness, when they had just sufficient for each day; it takes us to the lavish Feeding of the Five Thousand in the Gospels, to the intensity of the Last Supper and the glory of the Banquet of Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread takes us into the mystery of the Eucharist.


It asks that our material, bodily needs are met, so that we do not go hungry in body, or in soul. That is echoed in our Harvest Thanksgiving too. And as Jesus says in response to Satan, ‘we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’.


‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is a prayer that keeps us in the here and now, in the present moment. Daily bread is about the present, not about yesterday’s stale bread, or tomorrow’s not yet baked bread, but what we have to face here and now.


So this Harvest Thanksgiving let us give thanks for grace, for all good gifts around us; let us savour what we have and be alert to its beauty; let us be non-anxious as we anticipate more than just tomorrow, but the coming kingdom of God, where ‘sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting’.

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Worth the salt?

 Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on Sunday 26 September 2021. Readings: Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16,24-29; James 13-end; Mark 9.38-end.

Jesus said: ‘For everyone will be salted with fire.

Salt is good; but if salt has lost saltiness, how can you season it?

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’ (Mark 9.49.50)




Fr David, the new priest at St George’s, Waddon, loves food.


‘Don’t’ we all’, you might say. Yes, but Fr David takes this love of food to levels you can only dream of. He is passionate about where food is sourced from, how food, meat in particular, is prepared, how it’s transported, how it is preserved and how it is cooked.


Food is a massively significant part of our lives. At the moment we are rightly very concerned about food prices, which will almost inevitably affect the poorest people most. In society the quality of diets and food is a major ongoing concern.


Last week I learnt more than I might ever have imagined about salt, as Fr David and I were discussing this Sunday’s gospel reading. I have been reading the entry on salt in his copy of an amazing book called ‘McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopaedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture’.


Salt is often taken for granted and has a bit of a bad press. High salt in ready meals is bad, and too much salt in the diet leads to high blood pressure. Salt is good for us, but the salt in manufactured foods gives the average person 10 times more salt than they need. Too little salt can increase cholesterol.


McGee tells us about salt production, granulated table salt, iodized salt, flake salt, kosher salt, unrefined sea salt, fleur de sel ( a most delicate salt!) flavoured salts and coloured salts.


It's when we get to McGee on ‘The Virtues of Salt’ (p.640) that we start to get an insight into Jesus’ mysterious words, ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’



Salt is like no other substance we eat and ingest. Sodium chloride, salt, comes from the oceans, and ultimately from the rocks that erode into them. It is an essential nutrient which our bodies cannot do without. Traces of salt from the soil appear in vegetables to make it way into our diet.


Salt is the only natural source of one of our handful of basic tastes, which is why we add salt to many foods to fill out their flavour. Salt both enhances and modifies flavours. It also suppresses bitterness in foods.


We even keep it, in pure form, on a table to add to our food  for individual flavouring.


Salt is amazing enough, but there’s more! Salt discourages the growth of destructive bacteria while allowing harmless, and flavour producing bacteria to grow, for example in meat. That is how it preserves and improves flavours at the same time.


Salt can even de-ice roads to make the way clear and navigable.


‘For everyone will be salted with fire.

Salt is good; but if salt has lost saltiness, how can you season it?

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’


These ‘virtues of salt’ help us understand how to be ‘salty Christians’.


Salt comes from the rock. To be a ‘salty Christian’ is to be connected to the bedrock of salvation. As the LORD says in the prophet Isaiah:


‘Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,

   you that seek the Lord.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,

   and to the quarry from which you were dug.(Isaiah 51.1)


Salt meets one of the four basic human tastes, along with sweet, sour and bitter.[1] A basic human desire is for God and to ‘taste and see that the LORD is gracious’.


Being ‘salty Christians’ means that we enhance the flavours of God’s world and people, in how we speak and act.


That’s what Moses and Jesus are doing when they recognise works of healing and prophecy and do not stop them, even if not done by a disciple. Do not stop someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name for ‘no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me’ (Mark 9.39).


Enhancing and flavouring human experience and existence is what ‘salty Christians’ do. We see it in the letter of James today. ‘Salty Christians’ pray for the sick, call the elders of the church to pray for them and anoint them (James 5.13). That saltiness restores them to wholeness.


Just as salt de-ices roads and pathways, so ‘salty Christians’ are called to melt wicked hearts and remove stumbling blocks, trip hazards and slippery ways that obstruct access to Christ for the little people of the world: children; the frail; the vulnerable.


Those who cause stumbling blocks and abuse children will find themselves in a place, of endless salt, a salt mine, sterile and barren like, like the extreme saltiness of the Dead Sea.


Salt suppresses bitterness. Being ‘salty Christians’ means we weep for the pains of the world. And what do we notice about tears? Yes, they’re salty. Little wonder the great saints have talked about the gift of tears, in other words the insight to see and be compassionate for those in bitter pains and then be moved by the Holy Spirit of God.


And like salt, there is much ‘salty Christians’ must preserve. The Tradition is not preservation in aspic; it is living faith that has been handed on with the essentials intact. So the Tradition is salted. Remember salt discourages the growth of destructive bacteria whole allowing constructive, and flavour producing, bacteria to grow. That is how ‘salty Christians’ are custodians of the Good News; never destructive, always flavour enhancing.


‘Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another’: so, as a disciple of Jesus, as a church, are we worth our salt?

[1] Some say this oversimplifies it and there are nine basic tastes.