The Faith of Joseph – 18 December, 2022
When examined as a group, the Gospels for the masses of Advent may seem to be ordered in a rather peculiar way. They are in fact arranged chronologically backwards. On the First Sunday of Advent, the Church reads from about the signs of the end time from Matthew 24. This sets a theological note that will be repeated throughout the season; the first coming of Christ to redeem the world is often contrasted to the second coming, when He shall return to judge it. Then the next two weeks the readings jump back to deal with the story of John the Baptist. Now we listen to the story of Joseph’s dreams, in Matthew 1. We move back in time to reach the birth of Our Lord, the pivot of our times.
So, in our gospel lesson for today, the spotlight falls on Joseph. We have this story about an ordinary, quiet, faithful man. Joseph might have been uncomfortable in the spotlight. But our Gospel asks us to look closely at him, because through the quiet faith of this ordinary man, God was accomplishing extraordinary things.
In the history of Christian reflection on the birth of Jesus, from the heights of art to the simplicity of Christmas pageants, Joseph is almost never front and centre. In paintings of Mary and the child, Joseph is often absent. If he is present, he seems set off uncomfortably to one side. He seems like a man who is not too fond of family pictures. When the camera comes out for the family photo, Joseph is like the man who is a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. He knows that as wonderful as pictures are, they distort reality, because life isn’t all wonderful moments. Life is more about the grace of daily obligation, the hundreds of small decisions we make every day. For Joseph, a carpenter, a man who was probably more comfortable working with his hands than talking, life is more like finding the right tool for the right job than a face book picture.
In Christmas pageants we all know who the star is: Mary. While we’ve all probably heard plenty of stories of little girls who were disappointed because they did not get to play Mary in the Christmas play, there are fewer stories of little boys who felt slighted because they didn’t get to play Joseph. If you are a little boy, you want to be one of the three kings, or, if not a king, at least a shepherd so you can wear a tea towel wrapped around your head. After all, when you think of Christmas pays the images that probably come to mind are of Mary and the baby Jesus, the three kings bearing gifts, shepherds and angels, maybe even oxen and sheep. Joseph almost seems like an afterthought.
If Mary was the first to hear the good news of the birth of Christ, Joseph must have been the second. But for Joseph, the news that Mary was pregnant was anything but good at first. In fact, it must have been quite a shock, because he knew the child could not be his. Our gospel says, “Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, it is not good news. It’s bad news, very bad news.
Joseph, like any man in his position, might have felt hurt, humiliated, disappointed and even angry. But Joseph must have been a man of few words. At least, St Matthew in the Gospel does not tell us what Joseph was feeling. What we do know is that Joseph was an ordinary man. He learned the woman he was engaged to was pregnant. He knew the baby wasn’t his. He drew the obvious conclusion. What more was there to say?
But St Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, which means Joseph loved God and tried to follow God’s law. In all things, a righteous man will try to follow the commands of God. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, he turns to God’s law for guidance. According to the law, he has two options. His first option is to bring charges against Mary in public. He could publicly accuse her of the sin of adultery. The penalty for adultery under the law is death. His second option is to divorce Mary privately. In the presence of two witnesses, he can write out a paper of divorce and present it to her. In this case, there would be no public charges against Mary. There would be no penalty. People would eventually find out that Mary was pregnant and unwed, but she would be at least spared the public hearing and punishment.
Because Joseph was a righteous man, he had to choose one of these options. As much as he might have loved Mary, he could not disregard the law. He could not put his own will above the will of God revealed in the law. To do so would be to say that his relationship to Mary exists outside of their relationship to God. Unthinkable. He was a righteous man. But as Joseph surely knew, God’s righteousness is always tempered with mercy. He decides to dismiss Mary quietly. Righteousness tempered with mercy.
Then something extraordinary happens to this ordinary, righteous man. Joseph has a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
That’s an amazing revelation! Yet, how does Joseph respond to this extraordinary news? St Matthew’s narrative is terse, but it fits exactly the character of Joseph. He responds like the ordinary, righteous man that he was. When he awoke from his dream, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. Full stop. Joseph was a righteous man. He spent his entire life trying to follow God’s commands. Out of a lifetime of devotion to God and to following God’s law, Joseph knew when he was being given a message from God. He needed no extra words, no extra explanations.
The young Mary, when she had heard the news of the birth of Christ, quite naturally asked, “How can this be?” But Joseph was older. Joseph would have known the passage from Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph awoke after the angel of the Lord told him he should take Mary as his wife and name their child Jesus, that is exactly what he did. No extra words. No extra explanations. Joseph, an ordinary man, a faithful man, a man of few words, did what the Lord commanded him to do. He had been doing it his entire life.
The wonder of this story is that through the faithfulness of an ordinary man, God was doing something extraordinary. The amazing news that God is sending his son to be born of a virgin, to be the Saviour and Redeemer of the world, is working itself out in the faith and obedience of a humble man like Joseph. The angel proclaims the miraculous news that God is coming among us as a little baby, and unlike Mary, who responds with joyful exuberance by saying, “my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,” Joseph speaks no great words. Joseph was not a big talker. He was a carpenter, a practical man.
Joseph was also a faithful man, but he didn’t need to make a big show of it. He listened for God’s word, and he tried to follow it. And when God spoke to Joseph in a dream, Joseph got up and did all that the Lord commanded. He married Mary. He got them to Bethlehem. He named the child Jesus. And through his no-nonsense, faithful response, God was working out his plan for the salvation of the whole world.
Not all of us are called to showy displays of faith. Joseph is a good model for most of us. We used to have his statue up in the sanctuary but we moved it down to the back of the church many years ago, so most people pass it as they enter. I like it there, as we all have to pass this remarkable man. It’s a reminder to just work away at the faith. Trust God. Do God’s will. That way the quiet and long-term plan of God will be done and we will be the better for it.
Based on a sermon by Fr Joseph S. Pagano of Annapolis, USA.
Expectations – 11 December, 2022
The Third Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday, so called because of the heightened excitement in anticipation for the birth of Christ, hence the antiphon of the day, the first words of the mass, were in Latin Gaudete, or rejoice. But as we listen to the gospel appointed for today, it may strike us that there is not so much rejoicing. We find John the Baptist languishing in prison. He had heard what the Messiah was doing, and he was not happy.
A week ago, the gospel from Matthew 3, told of John the Baptist’s high hopes about the Messiah, for whose coming he was to prepare. He explained to the crowd who went to listen to him in the wilderness of Judea: “I baptise you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
It is possible that this expectation of the Messiah emboldened John in his preaching. He was notably fearless in confronting the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them that lovely phrase, “brood of vipers,” and calling out Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying his sister-in-law. It was because of this that Herod had him arrested and put behind bars. But perhaps John did not mind going to prison because he was expecting that once Our Lord had settled into his role as the Messiah, he would make everything right. He would make quick work of their Roman enemies and rescue him from prison.
But after many months of waiting in prison, it has become evident that Our Lord did not live up to all the hype that John heaped upon him. When he heard what Our Lord had been doing: healing the sick, casting out demons and teaching people that the meek and the persecuted are blessed, telling them to turn the other cheek and to love not just neighbours but enemies, he sent his disciples to Our Lord to ask if he is the one who is to come, or should they look for another. It has become disappointingly clear that John’s expectation of Our Lord did not work out.
Like John, we may have expectations of God and may have experienced being disappointed by God. Some of us believe God to be invincible and powerful and hope that God would use the divine powers to heal the sick, solve world hunger, wipe out injustice and racism, stop all wars and reward our faithfulness with material and spiritual blessings. Like John the Baptist, we wish Our Lord, our saviour, would not act like us finite, ordinary humans, but rather be more like Superman, flying through the sky, putting things to right.
But Our Lord is not Superman. He did not come with military might or wealth. His way of saving the world is through another power – sacrificial and loving service. It is no wonder that when one looks at the religious landscape, at conservative, liberal, or whatever, John’s question seemed to have become the reality as people reject the Jesus of the gospels and look for another version of the Messiah that fits their lifestyle and ideology.
This Advent, as we get ready to welcome Christ anew, we are given another opportunity to get it right. For although Our Lord did not give an easy and clear answer to John, he gives him some concrete hints about what he’s up to: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
These words of Our Lord recall the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s lectionary. These words describe what will happen when the Messiah comes. It was not a popular image associated with most of the Jews’ expectation of the Messiah at that time and yet there it is, hidden in plain sight.
In other words, Our Lord tells John that the work of God is not bombastic or earth-shattering as John and many of us imagine it to be. John expected that Our Lord would come with an axe to cut down the trees that are not bearing fruit, separate the wheat and store it in the barn and burn the chaff. Instead of this, Our Lord tells him to break free from his narrow expectation that has figuratively imprisoned him, to see beyond the destructive and angry God that he expected the Messiah to be, and open up to the God who heals, who teaches to transform people, who desires not the death of sinners but that all might repent, who shows love, mercy, and compassion. In short, the gospel invites us to open our eyes and our ears to the handprints of God in the hidden, non-traditional, and unpopular, amid our anguish, disappointments, and doubts.
Then, perhaps, when we begin to see God in these “hidden” places, we can be a sign to the world that what Our Lord said is true. We can be Jesus’ answer to John’s question. We can be the blind whose eyes were opened, the lame whose legs can walk again, the lepers who have been cleansed, the deaf whose ears have started hearing, the dead who have been raised, and the poor who have received good news.
The gospel does not tell us whether John eventually understood, accepted, and set aside his assumptions of Our Lord. What we know is that Our Lord welcomed his questions and his doubts and praised John as “more than a prophet” in front of the crowds. This tells us that we should not be ashamed or afraid to voice our questions, name our doubts, and share our stories of disappointments. Often, we do not raise questions because we are embarrassed that people might think of us as ignorant, and we do not share our doubts because we are afraid people will think we are weak. But the way we move past our ignorance is by raising questions; we open ourselves to other possibilities, and we remove the sting of our disappointments by naming them. It is when we share our stories of darkness that we begin our journey toward the light.
The story of John ended tragically when he was beheaded by the order of Herod. The price of preaching the gospel is that people receive the Good News and are healed and made whole. The other side is that others who enjoy the oppressive status quo will be offended. So, just like many of the prophets before him, John died, standing up for the truth and serving as light in the darkness. We might wish that Our Lord would have done more than praise John and would have rescued him from prison. But the gospel is not a fairy-tale with a happy ending. The gospel is a kaleidoscope of joy, pain, hope, suffering, peace, fear, triumph, surrender, faith, doubt, disappointments, meaning, loss, and fulfilment. Using rhetorical questions, Our Lord shakes up the crowd as he tells them to look for God – not among those who are dressed in soft robes or live in royal palaces, and Our Lord is being deliberately insulting there; but rather among the least and vulnerable, among God’s prophets, like John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Zechariah.
Based on a sermon by the Ven. Irene Egmalis-Maliaman, of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine in Tamuning, Guam.
Repentance and Change – 4 December
There seems to be a fundamental disorder in the first reading today. We listen and hear that the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard with lie down with the kid, while the calf will be with the lion. We are hearing of a world that is overturned in its natural order. As we know, wolves and lambs do not live together, leopards and kids do not lie down together, nor do calves associate willingly with lions.
But note that the disorder is from both sides. A wolf will not willing lie down in peace with a lamb, nor will a lamb overcome its timidity to lie down with the world. Similarly with leopards and kids, calves and lions: both sides have changed to be able to associate together. It is not that one has become fiercer, or one more timid, there is a new balance in operation here: all have changed. Cows and bears can graze together because the grass is satisfying enough for both; a whole new order has come into play.
This new balance is the result of the vision of Isaiah: the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the ancestor of the house of David. This new order is the result of the holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.
When we come to the Gospel reading, we are once again struck with a note of disorder: John the Baptist. John is not a normal person, he wears camel hair clothing and his food is locusts and wild honey. Even for two thousand years ago, this is abnormal behaviour.
His abnormal behaviour is shown also when he deals with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders. They are not given respect; instead John calls them a brood of vipers. But they are not the only ones going to him: we hear that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going to him. All people were going: like the wolves and lambs a whole society comes to him, and all are baptised. A new order is being called into being.
Yet John speaks of what is happening as a start. He baptises with water only for repentance, and speaks of the new baptism to follow, a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.
The poor Sadducees and Pharisees are warned that they must bear fruit worthy of repentance, worthy of this baptism he gives them. So how do we bear such fruit? How is this repentance to be done?
Repentance comes in the Gospel from the Greek word metanoia, which means to turn around. It means doing a 180 degree turn. We not only turn from sin, but we turn our backs on it and face God. It is not enough to try and turn away from sin, because if we do that we are left without a vision to replace it. You have to turn right around. We have to find the new vision of God to replace the call of sin. It’s not enough to stop sinning, that’s only a partial turning: we can stop, perchance by ourselves a short time, but unless we find a replacement we drift back into sinful ways. Repentance means turning away and finding a new vision of God to fill the place of sin. That is turning around, not just turning away from sin. That is how we bear the fruit worthy of repentance, fruit that only comes from a complete change and new vision.
It is that new vision that can change us: it can make the wolves peaceful and the lambs brave.
John speaks of the new baptism that is to follow, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The early church continually makes the distinction between the baptism of John and the baptism of the Christians. The early church baptised in water, like John, but then made the point about a new life that follows. The baptised is baptised and comes out of the water and is dressed in new clothes of white, and then anointed and hands are laid upon the person to show the Spirit comes to make a new place. Once more the symbolism shows: we must not only repent and renounce evil, we have to fill the place of evil with the Spirit to replace it, or otherwise we drift back to evil ways. Similarly in the promises made before baptism, it was the custom in many places to renounce evil facing west, then to turn east and makes the promises to follow Christ, symbolising that 180 degree turn of repentance.
There is also another element in this idea of repentance being a turning around. Sin in one definition is being turned into oneself. Sin is essentially a selfishness, an ability to do without regard to the consequences to others. Sin is to do what we want without regard to others. When we start to worry about the consequences to others, how we hurt others but what we do, then we know that we are turning away from ourselves, and opening to god. Repentance is taking place.
Advent is the time when we wait for the coming of the Lord. We do this by repentance, turning away from evil, and opening ourselves to God. John calls us today to the coming of the kingdom of heaven. But the response to this is not praise and merry making, but rather repentance, so we can open ourselves to its renewing possibilities.
Maranatha – 27 November, 2022
Welcome to the start of the Church’s year. For Christians, we start the year now, with the season of Advent, when we look forward to coming of the Lord. So, in today’s Gospel, we read about the Second Coming of Our Lord; the great, awe- inspiring day, when the Son of Man returns.
First things first, the heresy of the day is the heresy of the Rapture. This is an American invention that on the the Lord is going to take up all the worthy suddenly on the last day and leave the rest of humanity to rot. The elect will just disappear from view.
This is not what the Church expects. Now Our Lord spoke Aramaic and maybe Greek, but we don’t have many traces of Aramaic after two thousand years of Greek, Latin and English. The only Aramaic left are Amen and a short prayer called Maranatha — which means “Come, O Lord!” It is a prayer literally begging Christ to return ASAP! That’s all that is left, and both survive because they are deep in the faith.
Instead of praying to be raptured away and not have to face Christ’s return, the early Church prayed daily “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and Maranatha, Come O Lord. None of this rubbish about just disappearing out of view
Maranatha reflects what the early Christians saw about the return of the Lord. The end of time is not about the terrible destruction of the world, nor a sudden abandonment of it by Christians, but its restoration, its healing, its perfection. In this life, we catch only fleeting glimpses of the nature of God: in an embrace, in a joyous conversation, in a beautiful object, in a delicious meal: in these, we have shodows of what pure goodness, what pure love, or what beauty is.
But at the end of time, God, who is the actual source of all joy, all peace, all light, all love, will infuse every fibre of creation. St. John tells us that on that day there will be no light from the sun nor moon, because they will be as nothing compared to the light radiating from the face of Christ, from the throne of the Father, from the presence of the Holy Spirit. The fire of the glory of God will radiate from all things and fill the New Creation. Christians look forward to the end of time not to leave and let everyone else suffer, but for Our Lord to come and make all things new.
In today’s gospel passage, Our Lord is reminding us that not even he, nor the angels, know when God will come. Some like to think that God will come in terrible retribution with flames and violence. These people look for signs in international politics and weather patterns that God is coming to judge and destroy the world. This is the Day of the Lord, the great apocalyptic coming of God to be with the creation fully. The reason that so many doom-sayers with signs that say, “The End is Nigh,” say what they say, is because the prophets and gospel writers, even Our Lord, used language like this: great tribulation, division, floods of fire and water.
The point they are trying to make, is that when God comes to be fully wedded to creation, the existing order of things will be reversed. Instead of violence and oppression being used to secure economic and political flourishing for some, the Kingdom of God will be established so that peace and justice will walk hand-in-hand.
These reversals of the worldly ordering of life is a trademark of God’s presence and it always comes as a surprise because that kind of life, one marked with peace, justice, presence and love can be achieved in the here and now.
Our Lord, in today’s reading, is calling us to be awake and prepared for it. Our Lord is reminding us of the importance to be in a ready for God’s coming. This is part of what Advent is all about. Advent, it turns out is not, is not, a countdown of shopping days until Christmas, or a hoped-for escape to heaven to watch the suffering of the damned, but a reminder to be ready, a call to training our spirits for God’s arrival.
The Christian tradition recognizes that God has come, and will come, to be with us in three distinct ways.
The first coming of God was when God walked with us in Jesus of Nazareth. We will celebrate that coming in a few weeks at the Feast of the Incarnation, otherwise known as Christmas.
Another coming of God is the final coming which Our Lord makes mention of in today’s reading, when God and creation will be as they were meant to be, fully united. The strongest image the Bible has for this union is a marriage between God and creation and, make no mistake, heaven is coming to Earth.
The third coming of God happens between the first coming and the final coming of God, between the coming of Our Lord and the final marriage of God and creation. This coming of God is the daily visitation: God with us in our prayers, finding God in our neighbours, seeing God in those we are privileged to serve.
What we see in these three visitations is that all of them are the hoped-for Day of the Lord. Each of these visitations carries with it the reversals of the normal, worldly order but also the loving and just presence of God.
There is a telling portion of Scripture that happens when the disciples have just seen Our Lord ascend into Heaven. The disciples are looking up, dumbfounded. Finally, some angels appear and ask, “Why are you looking up, trying to find him?” The implication is, “Don’t look up to find Our Lord, look out, look in.”
Our Lord is always one step ahead, going into the city, into Galilee, into life, we are meant to seek and find him there. That’s how we stay ready for God’s coming, we daily, hourly stay on the lookout for God, not in the clouds, not in the powerful events of the world, but in the quiet, domestic ways that God visits us. God may indeed someday come in the clouds but it more than likely will come in your life.
Advent is a reminder to be awake and ready for God. This is why Advent tends to be described as preparatory, not just for the great celebration of Christmas but for the final coming of God and also for the ever-present daily visit of God with us in the here and now.
God is disruptive to our normal hard-hearted ways. Be ready, be awake because the love of God will disrupt and turn over our comfortable notions of how things ought to be. God will send us into the waters of justice, peace, presence and love. It can be disorienting, but if we have trained ourselves to be ready, then we might work with God to establish God’s Kingdom more deeply in our hurting world. Maranatha indeed!
Christ the King – 20 November
This morning we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. Now in our calendar we have many special feast days. Some are very ancient – Easter and Pentecost for example which goes back to our Jewish origins. Some came in the Middle Ages, such as the Feast of the Trinity, which moved in during in the dynamic 14th C.
For a festival that is so well established now, the Feast of Christ the King has a surprisingly late origin. It was introduced by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Now festivals introduced by popes in the 20th C usually don’t become widely popular with the rest of the Christian churches so easily, specially in the first half of the 20th C when the rivalries between the churches was much more heated.
In the 1920s the world was recovering from the effects of the Great War of 1914-18. The devastating effects of that war, which saw the destruction of most of the ancient kingdoms in Europe and the tentative establishment of new countries and new democracies, which were being undermined by the uncertainties and disillusionment of the post-war years. There was a growing interest in fascism, that would lead to the establishment first of Mussolini’s regime in Italy in 1922 and his adoption of the title of El Duce in 1925. This establishment of an absolutist state would be followed by many other countries and lead to the start of World War II. In Russia, the Communists were cementing their hold on power with the death of Lenin in 1924 and the rise of Stalin.
So the 1920s was a period of political instability and yearning for new certainties. The old monarchies were gone. The new absolutism was rising.
Pope Pius wanted the new festival of Christ the King to speak to Christians about the role of Christ as our King and leader. Earthly kingdoms may rise and fall, but Christians had to remember that in all things Christ was their king.
Our King, Christ, was murdered on a Roman cross, condemned by the authoritarian regime of Caesar, still offering God’s love and compassion to another so condemned. Mocked by the empire as a so-called king, Our Lord exhibits the characteristics of a true king anointed by God. Remember what the penitent thief next to Our Lord asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Our King then gives the greatest and most valuable kingly gift of all: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The message of this feast was popular, and it has been adopted by Anglicans and some other denominations, and is now placed at the end of the church year by another pope, Paul VI, so we remember Christ as our ending and beginning, our King for all times.
However, the theology of kingship is important as well. The 20th C French theological and Cardinal, Yves Congar, who was at Vatican II Council with Paul VI, pointed out some of the implications of this in his theology. Christ as King is the model for the Church. As King and Priest he draws the Church into a teaching and sacramental union. We live in the body of Christ in the Church. The ordained ministry in particular, takes on a special role as the person of Christ in the Church. The clergy lead and teach in the place of Christ, imperfect and flawed though we may be.
However, Congar also pointed out that in the New Testament, the words priests are not applied to the early ministry. Priesthood is a reference to either the Aaronic priesthood of Judaism or the Priesthood of the Baptised.
So, the real model of priesthood and kingship is that of the Church and the world. As the Old Priesthood led the people in sacrifice, the New Priesthood of the entire baptised make the model of Our Lord’s kingship clear. It is the Baptised who make Christ’s kingship and sacrifice clear in the world. That is, is the whole church who show how Christ is King, how Christ is their leader and guide in the world.
The implication is that the Priesthood of the Church, that is the ordained ministry, is a reflection of the priesthood of the baptized in the world. The Church has as its model our Lord Jesus Christ, our King. By the gift of the Spirit, we are moved as one people to modal that love to the world: as Our Lord is King and servant of all, so the Church must also be king and servant of all.
This leaves us with two questions to ponder: how is Christ our king? How do we find that kingship in our Church? Secondly, how do we model that kingship to the world?
The kingship of Christ for each of us is a question – that question that Our Lord asked Peter and asks each of us, but who do you say that I am? That is oen we ask time and time again in our lives as our love waxes and wanes, hen we repent and try again, always heeding that question in our lives.
Our model of kingship is also important. Now this year we have also seen the death of one monarch in the form of Our Queen. Her model was one of a constitutional monarch, advising but never interfering. But each of us are called to be monarchs in our own way, with our families, with our homes, with our jobs with our resources. In the same way we are called to question how we exercise our kingship over all these gifts: is it with power, control, love servanthood? What model do we use?
Finally, remember, what we want to hear is what the penitent thief finally heard, that we too might be with our one king in paradise.
The Penultimate – 13 November
The word for today is “penultimate.” It’s from the fine old Latin word paenultimus that means “next to the last.” Not the last, that’s the ultimate, but next to that, before that. The penultimate things are not the ultimate things, but the things that are a step down from them, things come before them.
Penultimate is a great word to hear and ponder as we listen to these wonderful Biblical stories about the end of all things, about “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” and the day of the Lord burning like an oven, and how not one stone will be left upon another. We always hear stuff like this as we get close to Advent; it’s good for us, and these saying are really all about that little word.
Let’s start with the temple in Jerusalem. In the first century, the temple was absolutely the centre of Jewish religion, history, culture, civilization, and civic pride. Here all the Jews could go. In its thousand-year history, the Temple had never been as glorious, as extensive, or as popular as it was when Our Lord and his disciples visited. Herod may be remembered as a tyrant from the Scriptures, but he was also a great builder and he had significantly rebuilt the courts around the Temple and made it a magnificent centre of Jewish worship.
Yet Our Lord was ambivalent about the Temple. At times he seems almost hostile: he drove out the money changers and the animals, causing the sacrifices to stop. The Tempe was a centre for Jews: but still a place where divisions mattered: Gentiles were separate from Jews; men from women, and priests from laity. Even God was separate: hidden away behind the curtain in the holy of holies. Our Lord continually taught about a kingdom of heaven where Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles could enter, certainly not a temple. Also, he seems to want to end the whole notion of sacrifice, that blood offering of animals can transfer our responsibility for hate.
There are two things that Our Lord predicts in the Gospel today. The first is, that the Temple would soon be completely destroyed – that not one stone would be left upon another – which is exactly that the Romans did about 35 years later, after an unsuccessful Jewish rebellion.
That’s the first thing Our Lord says. The second is more subtle: as he predicts the destruction of the temple, and the chaos that goes with it, Our Lord also says, (again quite correctly) “the end will not follow immediately.” The Temple will crumble, there will be problems, but things will go on pretty much as before. There will still be much to do. There will be people to help, and evil to resist, and prayers to say – just like before the Temple was destroyed. So, the Temple falls, but “the end will not follow immediately”.
That must have been a hard thing to hear. It was almost impossible for any Jew to imagine the destruction of the Temple. What would be even harder to imagine was the destruction of the Temple and the rest of the whole world not coming to an end right then. After all, everyone knew that the Temple was the ultimate thing, the final thing: if it went, everything else was sure to go, too.
But that was wrong. The Temple was not the ultimate thing after all, it was only one of the penultimate things, something that was next door to ultimate, maybe, but that’s all.
All of creation did not hang on it. The main thing, the one truly important and indispensable thing, is God, and what God is up to. Everything else is penultimate.
Everything else takes a back seat. Everything else can – and will – crumble to dust. Anything else can, and will, crumble to dust. The fate of creation hangs on none of them. Who God is and what God is up to: this is what abides, this is the main thing. This alone is ultimate.
It can be difficult to remember this. When the Temple actually fell, (and the world did not end) the fledgling Christian Church in Jerusalem (as well as many Jewish groups) faced a huge crisis of faith.
Many people then simply could not separate what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to them from what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to God. For many, the Temple’s fall was devastating, and seemed to prove God false. They had confused the ultimate with the penultimate.
But Our Lord left something instead of the Temple – a new way of living through his body, through his sacraments. It was a way that all people could enter, as St Paul puts it, Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave. The Temple made distinctions: Christianity was not meant to do so. The Temple meant transferring our guilt and hate into sacrifice: the taking of bread and wine was meant to overturn sacrifice and make us a community based on love.
Now, of course we failed. But we can never forget that at the heart of our faith is our God as the victim, making it impossible for us to persevere in our prejudices.
We all also have our temples, our penultimates. We all have our own ideas of what is indispensable to creation – these may be personal things, or religious things, or social things, or cultural things, or election results, things we cannot conceive being otherwise, or doing differently, or losing – things we cannot imagine that either we or the world or God could ever live without.
But also, every now and then, we need to be reminded that these things are not quite ultimate.
It’s very important to be able to make this distinction—to be able to realize that our special concern, our pet project, our current passion, is not really the same thing as the kingdom of God, nor the will of God. This whole business of the last things, the end of the world, all of that is here to remind us that our stuff, no matter how important it may be, our stuff is not ultimate. It will all pass away. Remember that word…penultimate.
Instead, it is who God is and what God is doing, right now among us, that is of ultimate importance. Nothing else matters nearly as much, nothing else will matter for so long. The point is not to hang on tight to what we have. The point is to keep our eyes and hearts open, and our hands busy at what we need to be about.
Partly based on a sermon by Fr James Liggett. Liggett of Midland, Texas, USA.
All Saints & All Souls – 6 November, 2022
Let’s ponder grief and joy. We all know what they are and have felt them: grief at losing something or someone, joy in finding and loving.
They are opposites, but of course related. We need both to be able to tell the difference. We also cannot escape them in life, but will feel both.
In one sense this is why we organise the calendar of the Church in a particular way. Wednesday was the feast of All Souls, when we remember and pray for the dead, and also remember our grief. Today we keep, in the octave from Tuesday, the Feast of All Saints, when we remember those in heaven now.
Christians have had a long theology about these two days. In the early Church people just remembered the faithful dead as the saints. After all, saints just means holy ones, and all who have persevered in faith are holy. In the early centuries there were no Christian cemeteries, the Christians were buried with their pagan neighbours in the cemeteries, and on the days of anniversaries of the dead the relatives, pagan or Christian, would gather at the grave of a beloved and have a feast there. Pagans would pour libations to feed the soul of the dead. Christians developed the feast of the mass in memory of the departed.
But gradually, at the ending of the Roman age, people started to worry more and more about the nature of the departed. In part this reflects the growing social disruption of the age, when pagan barbarian hordes invaded and disrupted settled life. One tends to be complacent about death until one lives with the fear of sudden death from a barbarian with a large sword turning up in your backyard unexpectedly. Was everyone going straight to heaven? Even all the nasty ones? Most people were prepared to believe the obviously good go to heaven and the obviously evil go to hell; the sheep and the goats that Our Lord had talked about. But most people also realised that the vast majority of people did not fall automatically into either camp, they were the almost good and the almost bad, the middling people for whom most of us categorise ourselves, a bit of sheep and a bit of goat.
It was in this time that a change started to happen in our theology and burial practices. People wanted more assurance that they could get to heaven. Christian cemeteries sprung up to show assurance that we would all go to heaven together. Also ideas about purgatory were developed: people who had not grossly sinned could be purged of their last imperfections and find entry into heaven.
In line with this grew the two festivals of the Church, All Saints and All Souls. All Saints commemorates those we remember in heaven. They see God now. All Souls were for those we were not so sure about, those perhaps in what is called purgatory. The dates for these festivals partly reflect the dedication of early churches to All Saints, such as the Pantheon, in Rome. All Souls grew around the need to help the dead in purgatory, by saying prayers for their release and freedom from the last pains before entering heaven at the end.
However, these festivals also reflect earlier beliefs, that still shadow us in things such as Halloween, the fear of the dead, as if the dead were envious of us and seek to possess us to live again. Against these fears Holy Mother Church has long been opposed. Our Lord Jesus went down to the dead and rose again to show that the dead were not some closed evil company, but a place where even God has been. This is what we sometimes call the harrowing of the dead. Death ultimately is not a place of fear for us, for our Lord, the God of love, has been there. Do not be afraid, the dark realms can have no hold on us.
Nowadays, there is not the same obsession about the afterlife. People certainly still fear death, especially a long painful death, of that I am sure, but they don’t want to talk about it. Many just believe in oblivion, a wiping out at the end, and no life beyond. The sense that they can help the dead by prayers on All Souls has diminished. Even at the few non-church funerals I go to, all fear and grief is kept away by happy pictures and a glowing report card on their life that often hides the reality that many people are just difficult and not easy to live with. But the presentations like to show we are all going to the Good Place.
But we still need to grieve. All Souls, and the customs of Christian funerals are designed to make the reality of death clear. It hurts. We will not make such friends again. We will not know such love again. Grief is part of the human condition and needs to be dealt with. We have to learn in our lives that grief is there, so we can face the tragedy of the world and help others in need. All Souls, with its black vestments, names of the departed and imitation coffin, are part of that process. We do not forget those whom we loved: and neither does God. These are who we continue to pray.
All Saints is the other part of that process: we grieve, but not without hope. All Saints is the joy of believing that God has a place in heaven for all that is created. Today, All Saints, we think of the endless blessed in heaven whom rejoice in the presence of God. This is what we hope for. These are who we ask their prayers to help us now. In contrast to the black of All Souls we have the white of joy and celebration, the colour of Easter and Christmas. We know that even the thief on the cross was promised paradise by Our Lord as he too died in pain. In the same way, we to, thieves and other sinners, look forward to that same paradise.
Salvation has Come – 30 October, 2022
Being in a crowd is always an experience. Everyone wants to see something, and there is a jostle and push to have a good view. At this time of the year, I remember once going to the Melbourne Cup. I joined the vast crowd in the position well away from the end, where the wealthy had the members stand. Being where I was, I did not see much – I remember only seeing the tops of the jockeys and a lot of dust as the race went by. Usually, in a crowd, there is a sense of companionship and rivalry as all strive for the best position. Yet usually, the crowd is not malicious. Children are let through to the front so they can see. There is a sense of fair go to allow all to see.
That is what is unusual in the Gospel reading this morning. Zacchaeus was a short man, yet the crowd froze him out. They used his shortness to gang up on him. The reason was because he was disliked. The crowd disliked him for his job and money. I suspect usually they did not get a chance to dislike him openly, but in a crowd they could push and shove and little disliked Zacchaeus was pushed away – no one was to blame, but no one was sorry that he was left at the back with no chance to see.
Now normally I suspect that Zacchaeus would not have bothered competing with a crowd. With his money and influence he would have arranged things otherwise to get a good view, some sort of members stand elsewhere, some window of a friend who was happy to oblige a rich and important man. This time there was no time, and Zacchaeus was left in the cold.
A man like him would usually just walk away. Yet Zacchaeus did something unusual. He climbed a tree.
Now they may have been a few catcalls to Zacchaeus that day – wealthy men don’t climb trees, and I wonder how long since Zacchaeus had climbed a tree. But Zacchaeus was desperate, so desperate that dignity did not matter. He wanted to see.
And he was seen. He was welcomed by our Lord. He was to have our Lord to his house.
I suspect that crowd was not happy. Here was this man of faith going to eat with the wealthy and hated. Maybe our Lord lost a few friends that day who thought he was not being holy enough.
Yet Zacchaeus continues to surprise people. After climbing a tree, now he gives away ill-gotten gain. It is a day of the unusual for him. He knows that this is his chance, this is his moment to put things right. He will never be a tall man, but he can be a good man. That is why he wanted to see Our Lord. He knew that his life, though comfortable, was wrong, and he knew that he would never be content. This Jesus was a chance in a lifetime to make a lifetime change. He might have been a little man, but he stood tall as he made his promises for a better life. Our Lord knew this and knew that this was the moment when a good man could be born. So, he stopped with Zacchaeus and had lunch, and a soul was saved for the kingdom. That’s how St Luke in his Gospel delights to show people: the most improbable, the most unlikely people, are all called into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Luke ends by pointing up something which is also pointed out in that passage about the Road to Emmaus. There the two travellers thought they were the hosts and Our Lord their guest, only to find that he was hosting them. Part of what the presence of Our Lord in the midst of people feels like, is just this curious inversion of perspective. At the beginning of our story here, it is Zacchaeus who seeks to see who this Jesus is, working around all the complexities of his relationship with the crowd so as to get a glimpse. But from the moment that Our Lord looks up at him, calls him by name and tells him he must spend the night in his house, it is clear that the whole relationship has been inverted. Not only is it, once again, the apparent guest who is the real host. But all along, it was Our Lord deliberately seeking out this particular person, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’s seeking of Our Lord had been real, if still embryonic; it was the seeking of someone who was tied up in a very complex pattern of desire. Perhaps the beginning of Zacchaeus being found lay in the fact that, as part of his lostness, he had had to begin to detach himself from the immediacy of crowd desire, just so as to be able to get a look at Jesus. Even that detachment, leading to his moment of unexpected vulnerability, is part of the process of his receiving the love which recreated him, is part of what being sought and found by our Lord feels like.
Now for each of us the story also applies in some way. For we too stand on the road each day as our Lord walks by. We may be the crowd, wanting to see the spectacle go by. Or we may be like Zacchaeus, desperately aware that something in our life is wrong and we need to touch the holy to change. Or we may be a bit of both, a little Zacchaeus, going down a track that gives us worldly comfort but spiritual death, and a little every one in the crowd, not too bad, not too good, not too interested.
But our Lord still walks by, seeing not the crowds but a soul in need. Our Lord still walks by; wanting to stop with those who need is most. And the crowds still grumble, because our Lord does not stay with them, but stays with those who seem the strangest choice.
When is the Lord staying with you?
Modern-Day Donatism and the Gospel – 23 October
Let me tell you today about my heresy of today, Donatism. This goes way b back to the church in North Africa in the fourth century. Between around 303-312, the Roman Emperor Diocletian persecuted Christians throughout the Empire, including North Africa, which was then Roman. During the persecution, any Christians who renounced their faith, made offerings to the Roman gods, and turned over any sacred scriptures they had were spared. Those who refused, especially those caught with Christian texts they refused to hand over, were usually killed. While many Christians resisted and were martyred, many others did not. They renounced Christianity, allowed their books to be burned, and were spared.
Now, let’s fast forward a little bit. The persecutions died down and with Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, it became a lot easier for Christians., as he became a Christian himself, the first Christian Emperor. So many of those who had denied their faith returned to the Church. But what really upset some people was that a number of clergy, who had lapsed or renounced their faith, returned to the church and were functioning again as clergy. Many Christians in North Africa did not want to allow lapsed clergy to return. They considered it offensive to the memories of those who had the courage to become martyrs. They believed that such priests might return to the Church as laymen, but not as clergy ever again. This issue split the Church and a person named Donatus became the chief spokesman for the rival church. Donatus said lapsed clergy were ineligible to perform the sacraments, and that any which they may have performed were invalid. So, for example, if you were baptized by a lapsed priest, you weren’t really baptized. They thought the impurity of the clergy somehow infected the whole Church. They wanted a pure Church, led by pure clergy, composed of pure members. The opposing Church, which became the mainstream Church, responded by saying that lapsed clergy could be restored to full authority after having performed appropriate penance. They based this on the concept of forgiveness for all. They claimed that the holiness of the Church is not based on the purity of its leaders or the purity of its members. All are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. The holiness of the Church rests entirely upon the holiness of God who graciously forgives us our sins in Jesus Christ. This became the orthodox Christian position. It was a question of what is orthodox – to be orthodox was to believe in the right dogmas, but what we call orthopraxis was right behaviours, and we all fall short there.
Now Donatists, both ancient and modern, are people who are really worried that the impurity, moral failings, and erroneous beliefs of others – or perhaps better, what they perceive as the impurity, moral failings, and erroneous beliefs of others — will somehow corrupt or infect them. It’s not just in the Church. People can become really concerned with their ideological purity, political purity, nutritional purity, moral purity, you-name-it purity these days. And this modern-day Donatism affects people of all-stripes. There are liberal Donatists and there are conservative Donatists. The incivility of our public discourse is a manifestation of this modern-day Donatism. People treat others with whom they differ not just as people who they think are wrong, but as abominations that can be abused. It’s a relentless search for orthodoxy and orthopraxis, we must not only believe in the right things we must be purer than pure in what we do.
Now, if we are concerned about the Church, we should be troubled by the ways in which Donatism is affecting it. Sadly, the Donatism in the Church often mirrors the modern-day Donatism in the broader culture. Christians simply adopt the rhetoric of the broader culture and then use it in their fights against other Christians. Name a hot-button issue and you will find a group people claiming that unless you agree with them you are corrupting the faith and the Church, and that either you should leave, or they will in search of a purer, more doctrinally correct, more liturgically correct, more politically correct, more you-name-it correct church.
It seems to be everywhere these days. It’s in our broader culture, it’s in our churches, and, God help us, it’s in our souls. It’s everywhere, perhaps, because it’s a manifestation of human sinfulness. As St Paul tells us, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s the sin that wants to point out the speck in our neighbour’s eye and ignore the log in our own. It is the human tendency to put ourselves in the place of God, to be the judges of good and evil, of who’s in and who’s out.
Remember, Our Lord had to deal with a similar issue in his day. The Pharisees thought that Our Lord and his followers would somehow catch evil by eating with sinners and tax collectors. But Our Lord said that you’ve got it wrong. Our Lord doesn’t get corrupted by coming into contact with sinners: rather, sinners get healed by coming into contact with him.
So, our Gospel today tells us, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” It’s the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
So, Our Lord then tells the story of the Gospel today, the Pharisee giving a progress report to God on how well he has done, and the tax collector seeing his sins and asking for mercy.
The surprise ending of the story is that the Pharisee, who gives a wonderful performance in the temple, goes home empty. He came asking nothing of God; and he goes home getting nothing from God. The tax collector, despicable fellow that he is, shows up empty-handed asking for God’s mercy; and goes home justified, that is, in right relationship with God. In other words, both were orthodox, as they were worshipping in the Temple, but only the tax collector was othopraxical, reflecting on how he acted.
Donatists always go home empty. They are so sure of their holiness and purity that they don’t think they need anything from God. Perhaps the only thing they might ask is if God could keep the tax collectors, the impure, at a safe distance so they don’t get infected.
Tax collectors and sinners paradoxically go home full. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. When we come into God’s presence not trying to puff ourselves up by putting everyone else down, but with an honest and humble acknowledgment of our emptiness, God fills us with his love and forgiveness.
The Church’s answer to our Donatism then and always is the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. None of us, none of us, is worthy or deserving of God’s grace and mercy. Our Anglicanism, our liberalism, our conservativism, our environmentalism, our vegetarianism, our good works, our acts of piety, our love of puppies will not get us into heaven. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The Good News is that while we were yet sinners, God sent his Son Jesus Christ who through his life, death, and resurrection has made us acceptable in God’s sight and through his holiness has made us holy and acceptable in him. My purity or goodness, your purity or goodness, human purity and goodness has nothing to do with it. It is all about God’s choice, God’s good pleasure, God’s grace freely bestowed on us, through the cross of Christ by which we have received forgiveness.
This, my fellow Donatists, is good news. We have no purity or holiness apart from the grace, love, and mercy of God. Now, how we respond to this good news ought to make a difference in our lives. In gratitude for the free gift of God’s grace, we ought to lead better lives, good lives, indeed, holy lives. Now if that sounds like a paradox, it’s because it is. It is the paradox Martin Luther describes when he says we are simultaneously sinners and justified, sinful and righteous at the same time. It is the paradox that we are utterly dependent on the forgiveness and grace of God, and that we are also called to a devout and holy life. But the Church, in its wisdom, has said that the call to a holy life ought not to lead to Donatism, the tendency in flawed human beings to purge and purify, to cut others off, and to retreat into enclosed communities of the ideologically pure.
All are one in Christ Jesus our Lord: Jews, Gentiles, Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, Greens, Collingwood supporters; even modern-day Donatists. In Christ, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace that he lavishes upon all of us. My purity, your purity, the Church’s purity has nothing to do with it. And for that, we say, thanks be to God.
Based on a sermon by Fr Joseph Pagano of the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa.
Persistence – 16 October
We can all sympathise with the the persistent widow in the Gospel reading today. If you have ever had to deal with an insurance company or a government agency, or in some cases even a child’s school or a hospital or the justice system, you might know how it feels to wonder if anyone is listening or responding to your needs. Let alone being stuck on a phone waiting, waiting waiting, to get through to a real voice.
We all experience the micro-aggressions of bureaucracy, but sometimes our needs are serious and the experience of feeling unheard in the middle of an emotional or desperate situation can be devastating. There is a famous Greek myth about a man called Sisyphus: struggling to lift a heavy weight up a mountain, and just when he has thought he has reached the top, it rolls all the way back down and he is forced to start at the beginning again. More often than not, it is our persistence, our unwillingness to let things go by, our unwillingness to lose hope, that eventually leads to success.
It isn’t always comfortable to keep advocating for what we need, and of course, it would be much easier if everyone with the authority or capability to do so would help, but at the end of the day, our constant reminders, our relentlessness, make a big difference in getting the job done. Like the persistent widow in the Gospel, if we keep making our case, we may eventually get a response: even if only because the people in charge are so annoyed that they just want to get us off their backs.
History is full of people whose success can be directly attributed to their persistence. Tradition claims that Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken tried to sell his chicken recipe 1,007 times before it was eventually picked up. More heroic figures like William Wilberforce, Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela sought justice and social change through careful, thoughtful, bold persistence. William Wilberforce tried bringing the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire for twenty years in parliament, and only succeeded a week before his death. If any of these figures had gotten tired or burnt out and had given up, which likely crossed their minds from time to time, the world would be a very different place. The pursuit of justice requires perseverance; the ability of individuals and communities to persist in seeking justice can change the world.
In the parable, the widow eventually gets what she wants even from this judge who, in his own words, had “no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” To be a widow in the ancient Near East was to be among the most vulnerable of society. As a widow, this woman would have had no advocate, no social standing upon which to plead her case. She was helpless in the deepest sense of the term. All she had was her will to persist; to not give up; to demand that someone listen to her. Sometimes, when we are most vulnerable, when we have the least to lose, we are also most likely to be bold. Despite the widow’s marginalised status in society, she exhibited great strength.
The unrighteous judge eventually does what is right, but only because this nagging woman has made him feel trapped. He does not respond out of a changed heart. Very often social change is like this, too. The present discussion about the indigenous voice in parliament is part of a long conversation about Colonialism and our responsibility about the poverty of our Aboriginal neighbours to this day. It’s just part of a long journey, another step in finding equality.
Achieving justice is sometimes easier than changing the heart of a society. There is hope in getting justice, but there’s always more work to do. We don’t know what kind of justice the widow in this parable sought, but we can imagine that whatever social circumstances led her to be treated unfairly did not immediately disappear at the judge’s ruling.
The Gospel assures us that God is not like the unrighteous judge. God does not respond to our needs only when we have pestered so much that it would be easier to just give in. The Gospel says that God will vindicate us. or bring us justice, “quickly.” So, how does God bring justice? How does God respond to our prayers? God did not settle a court case for this woman. God did not end slavery in the British Empire, blackbirding in Queensland, colonialism in India or apartheid in South Africa.
That’s our work. It’s our job to persist, to advocate for ourselves when we feel helpless; to advocate for others when they are the most vulnerable. God’s justice is much more comprehensive than what can be achieved through legislation or courts. The Gospel promises us that God will respond to our prayers much faster than the unjust systems of society. If even an unrighteous judge can be merciful in the face of a persistent woman, then how much more merciful is God who loves us and created us and knows every inch of our being?
The promises of God in Scripture are hard to grapple with. When justice in society comes so slowly and is often so limited, how can we believe that God is at work, providing us with unbounded love, mercy, and speedy vindication? Where do we see that? God’s vindication is not necessarily courtroom justice or even change in society, though God is with us in those struggles. We believe in a God who came to be with us and suffered alongside humanity. Our Lord himself experienced injustice at the hands of a government that neither feared God nor regarded man. We believe in a God who is always at work, changing hearts and minds, transforming lives, bringing the dead to life, turning the normal systems and power structures on their head. making the weak strong and the vulnerable powerful and giving resounding voice to those who have been ignored for too long. Just listen to the words of Mary in the Magnificat!
God is in the cries of the helpless. Imagine the widow in the parable going to the judge again and again to plead her case. The judge ignored her, but God was with her the whole time. God knew. God watched. God judged. God gave her courage. God gave her hope. God kept her persistent. As God can for each of us.
The hope that we have in God is not the same as the hope we have in society. Society will change; injustice will eventually end, but our hope in God is that God is with us through it all; that God hears us when we first cry out; that God’s love for us will give us the strength to persist; and that God’s justice will transform our lives and the hearts and minds of everyone in the whole world.
Contentment and Healing – 9 October
There are some awful whingers in the world. You probably have met a few as well: perhaps in the supermarket, when they carry on long and loud conversations that make you heartily glad you are not part of their family. If they are part of your family, you have my sympathy. People who feel they need to complain about everything and anything: the whinger.
Well today is a day to give thanks that Christians are not naturally whingers. Today’s gospel is all about giving thanks for what is given to us.
The ten lepers in the Gospel today all plead for healing, and Our Lord tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. In faith they turn and go, and on the way, they find themselves healed. But only one, a Samaritan, then turns back to give thanks to our Lord for the healing.
So, what’s the difference with this one. He not only finds that he is healed, but he sees it, and understands it, in other words he is converted, he gives thanks to God: he recognises God’s action in the healing. Our Lord then assures him that his faith has made him well, a slightly different word that implies saving as well as health.
The Samaritan is different in that he takes his healing to a different level – he reflects on it and is moved to give thanks. Not only is he physically changed, from a leper to a healthy person, but he is spiritually changed, he sees God in the healing and is moved to give thanks.
The other nine are still healed – but they have not spiritually changed. That is the difference.
It’s interesting that Our Lord says to the ten to go and show themselves to the priests, not priest. Is Our Lord seeing already that they are different beliefs: nine would go to the Jewish priest at the Temple and the Samaritan would go to his priest. But then consider what the Samaritan does: he does not choose his priest, but returns to Our Lord, seeing in him, his new priest. Also consider the fact of the healing of the ten. When they are all lepers they live together ignoring their differences. When healed they are restored to their religious differences: healing in the body exposes the fault lines of their religions. Yet the Samaritan is the only one who takes the healing in gratitude and gives thanks, seeing Our Lord as his new priest.
The Samaritan leper has become instead a modal of the new faith in Christ – he is filled with the grace of thankfulness of what God has done. That is why the Gospel uses a different word here from when the leprosy left him: he is not only cleansed, but also healed and saved. He has had a double healing.
This is the point about having a sense of thankfulness and grace in our lives: it makes us different. We can, at times, obtain health, but we rarely obtain thankfulness for where we are. Yet thankfulness is the secret of contentment in life.
There is a dreadful curse in our consumerism to take more and more. The greediness comes form a sense of inadequacy, a lack of contentment. We are not content within ourselves, and therefore we revert to rivalry with each other to show superiority. We therefore need the bigger car, the better house, whatever that helps who we are better. Yet we do this by discarding what we have already. We do this so easily because we do not give thanks for what we have already. We know that this system is unsustainable, yet we seem to be locked into this disease.
Obtaining a sense of thankfulness is the escape. When we find the presence of God is who we are and what we have, we find the contentment of peace. Not only that, but we also become more readily an instrument of God, able to do God’s will. We learn to be grateful for what we have and not obsessed by what we do not.
So, learning to give thanks is important, and we can teach ourselves this by prayer. One of the old simple ways of prayer that we are taught is to remember the letters ACTS: that is when we pray we should adore God in A, then confess our faults in confession in C, then give thanks to God for what we have received in T, and finally ask God in our supplications for what we need, in S. For thanking God is an important step before we can really work out what we need. If we don’t appreciate what we are given, how can we use whatever new gifts our Lord can give. Our God is a rather frugal God – he only gives his Son once for all, and tends to expect us to make good and durable use of the gifts we are given. We cannot do that, unless we appreciate them, and we can only do that by reflecting on what we have and learning to praise God for those gifts and continue to give thanks.
It’s a horrible thing to end up in life as a grumpy old thing whinging and boring our friends and family. But that’s not how God wants us to be. We need to continually learn to give thanks for all the gifts we are given, the beauty and the friends and the life and our faith in Jesus. We can do this if we remember to search and see the wonderful things the Lord has given to us every day and give thanks for those wonderful gifts.
An Act of Love – 2 October, 2022
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” This is according to G.K. Chesterton, who found Christians, including himself, did not put their faith into action. Chesterton was a great writer, perhaps best remembered today by his Father Brown stories, the original ones, not the banal tv versions. But even Chesterton would agree there was a notable exception.
Let’s think about St Francis of Assisi, the saint who launched a million birdbaths, hundreds of thousands of statues, including our one here, and the occasional service of Blessing of the Animals, who was, for Chesterton, the one Christian who actually lived the Gospel.
Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant and as such part of the new Italian middle class that was coming into its own. His father’s wealth and Francis’ own natural charm made the young man a leader of the youth of his town. Francis gained a rock-star like following by the early 1200’s. He remains famous today not because of his own words and actions so much as because his words and actions conformed so closely to those of Our Lord.
As a boy Francis dreamed of earning glory in battle. He had his chance at an early age when he enlisted, along with the other young men of Assisi, to fight in a feud against a neighboring city-state. Assisi lost the battle and Francis was imprisoned for a time. Defeat in battle and serious illness in prison caused Francis to turn away from his visions of glory on the battlefield.
Francis’ path toward God took a series of turns closer and closer to God, rather than an all-at-once conversion. However, the course of Francis’ life was profoundly changed by at least two formative experiences. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis saw a beggar outside of St. Peter’s. The Holy Spirit moved him to trade places with the beggar. Francis exchanged clothes with a beggar and then spent the day begging for alms. That experience of being poor shook Francis to the core.
Later he confronted his own fears of leprosy by hugging a leper. Leprosy was one of the great feared diseases of the Middle Ages, with no known cure. Like trading places with the beggar in Rome, hugging a leper left a deep mark on Francis. Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper, he had a strong identification with the poor. Francis cut himself off from the opulent lifestyle of his father and sought out a radically simple life.
By the time of his death, the love of God had compelled Francis to accomplish much toward rebuilding the Church. He could look on thousands of lives transformed by his call for repentance and simplicity of life. His Franciscan friars travelled and preached a simple message to those who felt the church no longer reached them. Yet, Francis of Assisi was simply a man transformed by the love of God and the joy that flowed from a deep understanding of all that God has done for us.
Francis’ approach to his life of Christian service fits with Our Lord’s words to us in today’s Gospel reading which tells those who follow him that they are to serve with no thought to reward. Our Lord said, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?’ Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
So, when you come in from doing something for God, don’t expect a reward, only more work. It’s a wonder the crowds followed Our Lord at all. But what exactly is the work of God? In what way are we to serve him? We have the example of Francis, to add to that of Our Lord’s own life and ministry. Yet, how can we in our own time and place attempt to live more fully into the Gospel?
Scripture teaches that all Christians are ministers of the Good News by virtue of their baptism. Then as ministers, each of us has a wide variety of jobs to do in the kingdom of God based on the gifts God has given us. While congregations benefit from the ministry of priests and deacons, the real work of the church happens when the people in the pews live out their faith in their day to day lives. This includes many thankless tasks, showing love and mercy in even small ways and even if no one notices.
You know how thankless these tasks are because you have the same issue at home. Do you get thanked every time you do the dishes? Or mow the grass? Or wash the laundry? Or make your bed? Probably not. But permit time to pass without doing the dishes, cutting the grassing, washing the laundry, or making your bed and you are sure to hear about it. These are thankless tasks, and you take them on with no thought to getting praise for doing them.
Notice that in this Gospel reading, Our Lord tells of the servant who does what he or she is supposed to do, in response to the disciples asking for more faith. Then he tells them the parable of the mustard seed and how the tiniest amount of faith is enough to accomplish great things for God. Then he goes on to describe the thankless task of serving God his Father. It is in serving God that we find our faith strengthened.
We are not to serve others for the thanks we get. We are to serve others as serving Our Lord, because that is the life God calls us to, knowing that we will benefit more than the people we help. We will benefit in increased faith and increased love. Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to trust that he could hug a leper, though he was terribly afraid. In the process, he found the faith to work among lepers. So, again and again, his steps of faith emboldened Francis to trust God more. It is the same for us. Each step of faith strengthens our trust in God to follow even more boldly.
To come back around to G.K. Chesterton, he advised, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” That was Francis, living out a love affair with God. When we are living into the love of God, then Christianity will have been tried and not found wanting, nor will it be a series of thankless tasks.
Walking the life of faith then is not done in search of thanks or praise but is simply an act of love. Then you and I can join Francis in saying that we are merely servants doing what we were called to do. We call ourselves servants knowing that what we do, we do for love, for the one who knows us fully and loves us more than we could ever ask for or imagine.
Based on a sermon by Bishop Frank Logue of USA.
Michaelmas – 26 September
Let me tell you a little bit about the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas. Michaelmas has long been observed as a significant day in our history. It is one of the four quarter days, along with Lady Day, John the Baptist and Christmas, each of them linked with the course of the sun, the two equinox days and the two solstice days. Quarter days were the traditional times for paying rents and dues. There used to be a great tradition of cooking and eating a goose on Michaelmas day, as well.
Michaelmas thus marks the beginning of spring for us, when the days get longer and the nights shorter, it’s the equinox for us. Remember too, that Daylight Savings starts next Sunday, a sign of the changing season. Summer is before us. It’s fascinating that, while the observance of Michaelmas seems to have begun in Rome in the seventh century, in cold, northern Britain, there was a kind of inculturation or cultural adaptation to that British climate, going on, and Michaelmas was always a popular feast there. We took it with us here to Australia, and we have churches dedicated to him here, such as Mitcham, and our chapel here as well. For this is the changing of the season, the days of growth and abundance are before us now, and so there is a natural looking for light, consolation, and warmth. Three great themes to talk abut today.
Light, consolation and warmth; all these things are associated with angels.
First, “Light.,” for the days of light are ahead of us. Biblically, angels are associated with the presence of God; they are spiritual beings who dwell in the realms of light.
St John is the great writer about light, and there is a great contrast between light and darkness; the latter symbolises unbelief, sin, evil, death. The Archangel Michael, in the Book of Revelation, is a warrior angel, fighting against the dragon, who symbolises the Satan and all evil; in other words, all the forces of darkness: “And there was war in heaven.” That passage is the heavenly equivalent of what was happening on the Cross; Michael’s victory is the victory of Our Lord. In the fourth century, when the Church, free from persecution, began to celebrate daily morning and evening prayer, the evening service, when darkness was falling, began with the lighting of the lamps, accompanied by a prayer and hymn of thanksgiving – we still sing the hymn “Phos hilaron,” “Hail, gladdening light.” The joyful kindling of light celebrated the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness; it witnessed to the fact that Christians live in eternal day, for darkness has been banished. Angels add to this sense of the victory of light, the victory of love.
Second, “Consolation,” for the days of abundance are ahead us. In the northern world, the long days of winter were before the Church with the dark nights, when the curtains are closed so early, and the lonely evenings seem interminable. The beautiful collect for Michaelmas says, “Mercifully grant, that as thy holy Angels always do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth.” The Collect makes an important point. Angels are sent by God’s appointment; they are emanations of his Presence. They, as it were, watch over us, hence, the tradition of “guardian angels” in Our Lord’s teaching. They mysteriously communicate God’s presence and will to us, hence the messenger role of angels that we find in both Testaments, exemplified by Gabriel, in Luke’s Gospel, or the angel of the Lord in Matthew’s Gospel, who announce the Incarnation, the vocation of Mary, and the role of Joseph as the protector of Messiah. In Mark’s Gospel, after his temptations, angels came to minister to Jesus, while in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he wrestled with his vocation, Luke states that an angel appeared to him to strengthen him. The point is that God is present to us, and sometimes he makes himself especially present to strengthen, console or reassure us.
Third, ‘Warmth’, for hot summer is sneaking up upon us. Angels are associated with fire, especially the seraphim, mentioned in Isaiah 6 and the cherubim in Ezekiel 1. Indeed, the seraphim seem to be fiery serpents, and fire is a common symbol for theophany, the revelation of the Presence and power of God.
Indeed, the role of angels can be to bring us reassurance and warmth when spiritually we feel the cold, when we still feel the winter, or even when we reduce God to the merely rational and earthly. Angels bring a little of the warmth of heaven to our cold earth.
We should never have any difficulty in believing that God’s creation is infinitely greater than anything we can conceive, and that his creation is multi-dimensional. There are invisible realities that we do not see, hear, or perceive in the normal round of life. But sometimes, we catch a glimpse, we hear a fragment. The great hymn we will use as the processional at 10 am is Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones catch some of the poetry and majesty of angels. I always love that hymn, with the line “Raise the glad stain, alleluia!.” It was written by a wealthy Anglo-Catholic with the grand name of Athelstan Riley, whose wonderful house near Kensington Place had a private oratory decorated by Charles Kempe, who was a great stained glass maker as well, and whose pupil was Charles Tute, who migrated to Australia and lived for a while in Adelaide, and made the great west windows here, replete with the angels, especially Michael on the left, fighting Satan, censing in heaven, and holding the scales of judgment, and on the right, Gabriel. One of those little connections that help bind history together.
So today, the angels elbow their way into our worship through hymnody. The ministry of angels merges into that of the risen presence of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. All these things speak to us of a God who is not remote and absent from us, but engaged in our lives and in our world; heaven and earth are close to each other; the invisible mingles with the visible, the spiritual with the material, and if we can’t grasp that in St George’s, we never will.
Lord, give eyes to see and ears to listen, and as we turn towards summer, even as the cold still makes us shiver, may the angels of Our Lord bring us light, consolation and warmth. And if you are cooking a goose this week, enjoy!
Eulogy for the Queen – 19 September
Like most of you, I suspect, you have been swamped by images and stories of our late Queen over the last week. Photos, endless documentaries, and then the coverage of the movement of her coffin from Balmoral to the great Hall of Westminster, that ancient building over 900 hundred years old. Tonight, we are looking forward to another fest.
One of the most touching images for me, and for many people it seems, has been seeing the video of the Queen with Paddington Bear for the recent Jubilee. It has appeared time and time again, and I think it tells a good story of Paddington Bear going to tea at the Palace.
There are only three characters in the clip, and we can discard the role of the footman for now, although he did play the stiff upper lip so well when the cream went everywhere, including his face. Then there is our Queen, and then Paddington Bear. Think about it though, our Queen is a real person, playing herself in an imaginary situation, of having tea and marmalade sandwiches, with an imaginary character, Paddington. Now Paddington Bear is from most of our childhoods, a refugee bear that never ages. In contrast, the Queen filmed this in the last year of her life, in her 90s, and had considerably aged from my memories of her in my youth. Paddington never ages, but the Queen did.
This touches on one of the great yearnings of all people: the yearning for constancy and stability. Christians believe this yearning is hard-wired into us: we worship a God who is eternal and never changing, ever-loving. As we are made in that image we too yearn for that same ever-loving stability, we yearn for a constant love and stability, a timelessness that will only exist outside our world.
For here in this world, we are subject to the whims of time, yesterday has past and is unalterable, tomorrow is unknown, and now we are subject to change and decay.
But at the same time, we yearn for that constancy. When we see it we identify with it and see in it something of the divine.
So it has been with our late Queen. For seventy years she has been a factor in our lives, always there. Yet more than that, always constant. She has ruled over changes and tempests, a steady constant voice of authority and concern that has marked her reign. Not for her public tantrums and fights that mar so much of our ruling elite, but a devotion to duty that was constant and never ending. Constant, but aging, we all knew her.
Her yearly Christmas messages, which were here reflections on the year past, were also a Christian message each year, taking the chances and tribulations of the year, and giving it a constancy by seeing the presence of faith that she declared in her public witness, year in and out.
She may have aged over the years, but like Paddington Bear, her messages remained timeless.
Yet Paddington Bear is ageless and constant as well.
Now, you may think it strange that I take Paddington Bear as part of the image of God. But God is not shy on using the smallest and most humble thing to teach his message. After all, God used a humble poor girl called Mary to bring his own Son into the world. God is also not shy in offering his love and presence in all our lives.
With our Queen he also did that. She was one of the greatest in the world – but not because she featured in the newspapers every day because of her fights or dramas, but because she was the same. Slightly dowdy maybe, but dependable and constant, greeting person, after person, with a sure smile and concern that would bore most of us to death. She did this out of loyalty to her belief in her role as queen and the strength of her faith. I could tell you a lot more about her faith, but I am reminded of one comment by a bishop who preached for her, the former bishop of London Richard Chartres in a very good article about her faith in the Spectator, was that the best advice he received about preaching for her was that she didn’t Mind high church or low church, but she did like short church. Advice that I will take.
Therefore, when she met the immortal Paddington Bear, she touched the symbol of constant love and the presence of God in that sense of duty and love that never wavered.
At the end of that meeting, after Paddington had drunken all the tea, stood on the cream cake, and offered a marmalade sandwich too here, to only find that she, too, kept one for after in her ever-present handbag, Paddington said a simple thing, thank you for everything. That simple statement is what we all year for in many ways. A thank you for being constant, a thank you for giving love, a thank you for being something constant and good in our lives over seventy years.
And she replied, that’s very kind.