Revelation – Easter 6, 22 May, 2022

One of the little things I always like teaching is how to remember the number of books in the Bible. Well, if you look at the titles “New Testament” and “Old Testament,” there are three letters in “new” and “old” and nine in “testament.” Then all you have to remember is that the Old Testament has 39, the New Testament has the multiple of the letters, so three nines make 27. So 39 books in the Old and 27 in the New. I’m going to skip the Apocrypha at the moment like a good Protestant, but there are 14 there. That number is harder to remember.

Now another curious thing about these numbers is that if you add them, 39 and 27 make 66, and the number 666 is talked about in the 66th book of the Bible, the Book of the Apocalypse, or the Revelation of St John. By the way, this St John is almost certainly not the same writer St John of the Gospel and letters. We are using the Book of Revelation during the end of the Easter season, as the Church starts to look forward to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. This book was perhaps the last book to be taken into the Bible as we know it: and even then it’s had a history, being loved by all the wrong people. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther described it as “neither apostolic nor prophetic. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.” Martin Luther was very heavily into Romans and justification of faith, and as a result didn’t like Revelation or the Letter of St James either which didn’t fit into his theology as easily. He even called James “an epistle of straw.” John Calvin, who we very ecumenically remember this week in the calendar of holy people and saints despite being a heretic, wrote commentaries on every book in the New Testament, except Revelation. Today, among Eastern Orthodox believers Revelation is the only book that they don’t read in their public liturgy. But there is a sort of poetic balance here – we start in Genesis with the Garden of Eden and we finish in Revelation in the City of God, and our journey is from one to another.

But amongst the loonies Revelation has been well loved. The two churches most common for sending its members knocking on doors to “evangelise,” Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, nearly always begin their door spin with Revelation.

More troubling is the extent to which Revelation is fascinating larger numbers of contemporary evangelical Christians, especially in the United States, as seen in the Left Behind series of books. That view that Christians will be taken suddenly, the rapture, is one that only originated in the 19th C and was popularised in the late 20th but has no place in mainstream Christian belief.

But that’s not what the book is about. The Book of Revelation shows us a picture of the beastly powers of violence finally collapsing into their own hell-hole of violence, together with a plea to the faithful to maintain their faith. In the midst of relating his vision, John of Patmos pauses to speak directly to those faithful:

Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Rev 13:9-10)

Could the call to nonviolence be any clearer? Yet the images of violence, including the possibility of divine vengeance, seem to overpower such a call to nonviolence. How does one sort through this barrage of images that are rather foreign to our modern worldview? For those who see the New Testament as a call to nonviolence, being able to interpret the Book of Revelation as part of that overall message depends primarily on a strategy of seeing how Revelation takes violent apocalyptic imagery from the Hebrew tradition and means to subvert it from within, primarily through the dominant actor in Revelation, the Lamb slain. It’s that Lamb who was slain who is the light of the Temple that we heard in our second reading today.

The point of Revelation is that it is conveying to us, that the terrifying violence that we so often face in this world is decidedly not God’s violence but the violence of empires under the deception of Satan, the dragon. Earthly empires need to resort to violence: heavenly ones do not. God’s defeat of that violence is not one of superior firepower, of simply having more of the same kind of violence to subdue that of the empires. God’s defeat of violence is to expose it through the love of the Lamb slain, whose self-giving love lets itself be slaughtered by the violence, and the Lamb’s resurrection shows its power of life to be victorious. Disciples of the Lamb follow, not in a hope that there would be a different kind of victory someday, a victory in which the Lamb became a Lion and devoured all its enemies. That’s not what it is about. But followers of the Lamb believe that his slaughter and resurrection have already won the victory, so that we wait with endurance and hope, following in the Lamb’s loving nonviolence if we must, until the day when Satan’s violence finally becomes its own defeat, collapsing in on itself.

Revelation begins to subvert this hope right from the very beginning with the one who has truly won God’s victory on the cross, the Lamb slain. And the Lamb is never portrayed as someday coming back like a lion. Even the great battle in heaven, when Michael fights against the dragon makes the point that the victory is not by force, but by the blood of the Lamb. (Rev. 12:7-12)

This is why in Our Lord’s ministry he does not fight. It is the self-giving of Our Lord through his death for us that brings about the resurrection. Exposed by the greater power of loving self-giving, human beings need no longer look to the Satanic powers of violence as heavenly powers. Duped by the beastly deception, we will continue to be led astray for a time. But the battle has already been fought and won, signified by Michael and the angels throwing Satan out of heaven. And was this victory won by superior divine firepower? No, the nature of the victory is made crystal clear: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” It is a continuation of the ministry begun on this earth by Our Lord and furthered through his disciples – his witnesses (martyr in the Greek) – who continue in his way of loving self-giving instead of hate-filled vengeance.

This way of discipleship is obviously not an easy choice. It requires great faith indeed. We love the idea of a sacred divine violence, a Lion of Judah, to attack and destroy evil-doers, is a hope deeply engrained in our way of creating gods to justify our own violent actions against enemies. The Satanic powers of violence have been our heavenly powers since the foundations of our human worlds. But God the Father doesn’t work like that. He gives his Son, Our Lord, into the hands of those who make him a sacrifice. Then that Son, Our Lord, the Lamb, rises again at Easter to unveil that violence. We are then shown that God is not about violence, not about legality, but about the heavenly power of unconditional love and forgiveness, a revelation that continues to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit that we now turn for and wait at Pentecost. We worship the Lamb slain, the great symbol of Revelation.

Based on a paper by Paul John Nuechterlein of the Lutheran Church in the USA.

Love – Easter 5, 15 May, 2022

If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? What cherished hope or dream would you share? What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer?

In our Gospel this week, we hear Our Lord’s answer to this difficult question. Judas has left the Last Supper in order to carry out his betrayal, the crucifixion clock is ticking down, and Our Lord knows that his disciples are about to face the greatest devastation of their lives. So he gets right to the point. No parables, no stories, no pithy sayings. Just one commandment. One simple, straightforward commandment, summarising Our Lord’s deepest desire for his followers: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Then, right on the heels of the commandment, a promise, or maybe an incentive, or maybe a warning: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What doesn’t Our Lord  say? When death comes knocking, and the Son of God has mere hours left to communicate the heart of his message to his disciples, he doesn’t say, “Believe the right things.” He doesn’t say, “Worship like this or attend a synagogue like that.” He doesn’t even say, “Read your Bible,” or “Pray every day,” He says, “Love one another.” That’s it. The last dream of a dead man walking. All of Christianity distilled down to its essence so that maybe we’ll pause long enough to hear it. Love one another.

What’s staggering about this commandment is how badly we’ve managed to botch it over the last two thousand years. It’s simple, and we can easily memorise it, yet we fail so badly at it we remain embarrassed how poorly we comprehend it and put it into practice.

It’s not too hard to name why we perpetually fail to obey Our Lord’s dying wish. Love is vulnerable-making, and we would rather not be vulnerable. Love requires trust, and we are naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and we feel safer and holier policing our borders. Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and we are just so busy.

And yet Our Lord didn’t say, “This is my suggestion.” He said, “This is my commandment.”

For the St John in this Gospel, for the word “commandment” he uses the word “entolen” that means precept, advise, instruction and prescription. It is like the prescription that a doctor writes to get the medicine needed to cure an illness. It is up to the patient to follow or not to follow what it prescribes. In this case a command is not a peremptory order or something we must do. When the Gospel talks about the Law of Moses, he doesn’t use that word“entolen”, but “nomos,” which we translate as Law. But this is not what Our Lord is talking about. To follow and to serve Christ we don’t need that sort of rigid law. Our relationship with God is much more than to follow some rules even if they are good. God has given us commands (entolen) that guide us, shape us and takes us on his path, indications that manifest his willingness for our salvation.

We do this commandment therefore not out of fear, but because this is what we need to do, like taking medicine, to live lives full of health.

But what does it mean that Our Lord commands us to love? We fall in love. Love is blind, it happens at first sight, it breaks our hearts, and its course never runs smooth.

But we know that true love can’t be manipulated, simulated, or rushed without suffering distortion. Try commanding children love each other never works. The most we can do is insist that they behave as if they love each other: “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.” “Don’t hit.” “Use kind words.” But these actions — often performed with gritted teeth and rolling eyes — aren’t the same as what Our Lord is talking about.

Our Lord doesn’t say, “Act as if you love.” He doesn’t give his disciples (or us) the easy “out” of doing nice things with clenched hearts. (I doubt that the people who flocked to Our Lord would have done so if they sensed that his compassion was thin or forced.) He says, “Love as I have loved you,” for real. The whole bona fide package. Authentic feeling, deep engagement, generous action. Doesn’t it sound like he’s asking for the impossible?

Maybe he is. G.K Chesterton once wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Imagine what would happen to us, to the Church, to the world, if we took this commandment of Our Lord seriously? What could Christendom look like if we obeyed orders and cultivated “impossible” love?

We may ask these questions fearfully, because we don’t know how to answer them, even for myself. We know fairly well how to do things. We know how to make care for the homeless, or send money to my favourite charities. But do we know how to love as Our Lord loved? To feel that depth of compassion? To experience a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that we rearrange our lives in order to pursue it? To empathize until our heart breaks? Do we want to?

Most of the time, if we are honest, we don’t. We want to be safe. We want to keep our circle small and manageable. We want to choose the people we love based on our own preferences, not on Our Lord’s all-inclusive commandment. Charitable actions are easy. But cultivating the heart? Preparing and pruning it to love? Becoming vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain? Those things are hard, hard and costly.

And yet, this was Our Lord’s dying wish. Which means that we have a God who first and foremost wants every one of his children to feel loved: not shamed; not punished; not chastised; not judged; not isolated: but loved.

But that’s not all. Our Lord follows his commandment with a terrifying promise: “By this everyone will know.” Meaning, love is the litmus test of Christian witness. Our love for each other is how the world will know who we are and whose we are. Our love for each other is how the world will see, taste, touch, hear, and find Our Lord. It’s through our love that we will embody Our Lord, make Jesus relatable, possible, plausible, to a dying world.

This should make us tremble. What Our Lord seems to be saying is that if we fail to love one another, the world won’t know what it needs to know about God, and in the terrible absence of that knowing, it will believe falsehoods that break God’s heart, that is, that the whole Jesus thing is a sham, that there really is no transformative power in the resurrection. That God is a mean, angry, vindictive parent, determined only to shame and punish his children. That the universe is a cold, meaningless place, ungoverned by love. That the Church is only a flawed and hypocritical institution — not Christ’s living, breathing, healing body on earth.

Such is the power we wield in our decisions to love or not love. Such are the stakes involved in how we choose to respond to Our Lord’s dying wish, hope, prayer, and commandment. Such is the responsibility we shoulder, whether we want to or not.

But here’s our saving grace: Our Lord doesn’t leave us alone and bereft. We are not directionless in the wilderness. He gives us a road map, a clear way forward: “As I have loved you.” Follow my example, he says. Do what I do. Love as I love. Live as you have seen me live.

Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Touch the untouchables. Feed the hungry. Welcome the child. Release the captive. Forgive the sinner. Confront the oppressor. Comfort the oppressed. Wash each other’s feet. Hold each other close. Tell each other the truth. Guide each other home.

In other words, Our Lord’s commandment to us is not that we should wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we’re invited to abide in the holy place where all love originates. We can make our home in Our Lord’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence. Our love is not our own; it is God’s, and God our source is without limit, without end. There are no parched places God will not drench if we ask.

“Love one another as I have loved you.” For our own sakes, and for the world’s.

Based on a reflection by Debie Thomas.

The Good Shepherd – Easter 4, 8 May, 2022

Today, as well as being the 4th Sunday of Easter, is also the feast day of a remarkable lady, Lady Julian of Norwich. Lady Julian was an anchoress: she lived in a room attached to her parish church, which was dedicated to St Julian, hence she took this name, and said her prayers and shared her faith with anyone who happened by. As an anchoress, she never left the room she lived in, but she was not a hermit who avoided human contact. She welcomed those who sought her wisdom and advice. It could fairly be said that there was nothing at all ordinary about her lifestyle, but in fact she was a very ordinary person whose faith was nourished by a rule of life, by the sacraments of the Church, and by a remarkable insight into the ways God makes himself known to us in very ordinary things. In icons of her, she is holding a hazel nut because of a vision she had of God, who showed her that all of the beauty and mystery of God’s vast creation was manifest in a tiny hazel nut. She is also remembered by the beautiful saying, that all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well; that wonderful assurance of God working everything out.

In her life as an anchoress, Lady Julian was trying to do what all Christians try to do: she was trying to understand how to be a better Christian. Today we might speak of holiness of life. In the 14th century, the term ‘divinity’ meant much the same thing when used in reference to the devout Christian life. This was not something private and definitely not something otherworldly. Rather, it was, as Lady Julian described it, ‘full homely.’ For Christians who believe in the Incarnate God, a God who became one of us, holiness is not an ethereal, otherworldly state, and certainly it is not private. To be ‘homely,’ in the language of the 14th century, means two things. Firstly, it signifies that which is here and now, like the Incarnation. Secondly, it denotes that which is habitual, a regular and practiced part of daily life.

Many things characterize our Anglican tradition at its best. We begin with the Book of Common Prayer, which is nothing more, or less, than a system for the daily, and thus very homely, practice of the Christian life. Our Prayer Book is a unique document. No other communion or fellowship of ordinary Christians has anything quite like it. Its essential message is that liturgy and daily prayer are the very heart of Christian living. Traditionally, the Prayer Book is not a shiny volume to be borrowed from a church shelf on entering and carefully replaced on leaving. It was a beloved and battered personal possession, a life-long companion and guide, to be carried from the church to kitchen, to parlour, to bedside table; equally adaptable for liturgy, personal devotion, and family prayer: the symbol of a domestic spirituality; it is a full homely book.

It has sometimes been said that Anglicanism has a particular insight into the mystery of the Incarnation. Rome, it has been said, focuses on the glory of the Cross, and Orthodoxy on the mystery of the Resurrection; the Reformed Churches are transfixed by the Sovereignty of God and Pentecostals by the Coming of the Holy Ghost; but Anglicanism, in its homeliness, has found the centre of its theology and spirituality in the stable at Bethlehem where the Word became flesh. These emphases (and that is all they are, for every family of true Christians embraces the whole faith) influence the way Christians of different traditions live out their faith. So, for Anglicans, there is a particular tendency to incorporate what some might regard as the mundane into the practice of our faith.

Which then brings me onto the Gospel of today. The passage from John 10 is part of a bigger passage when Our Lord tells the people that he is the Good Shepherd and the Gate for the sheep. It is also starts by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, the place where the sheep were driven into the city in preparation for the sacrifices at the Temple. The imagery of this passage takes place not in wide open fields with woolly lambs but with frightened sheep awaiting sacrifice.

Think then of the gate or gatekeeper that Jesus calls himself. A gate is where the shepherd finally leaves his sheep for good — or for ill, if you’re a sheep. The shepherd does not enter the stockyard with his sheep. He abandons them to the slaughter at the gate.

But Our Lord is the Good Shepherd who walks right in that gate with the sheep and “goes ahead of them,” out the other side of the holding pen into the Temple courtyard to be slaughtered. So, Our Lord isn’t just laying down his life out in the field for some dangerous wolf. The most dangerous place for a sheep in Our Lord’s day was out in the Temple courtyard. The wolves are already a metaphor for the sacrificers who come to slaughter the lambs for sacrifice. Our Lord lays down his life as the Lamb of God on the altar of sacrifice.

There has been a barrage of imagery in the Good Shepherd speech: shepherds and sheep; gated pens and pastures; hired hands, thieves, and wolves; life and death. Our Lord switches between the two main images in this chapter: he’s the Good Shepherd who walks into the sheep yard, and then, all of a sudden, he’s the gate. Why the gate? In that passage the sheep go freely in and out through the gate to pasture and back again. They no longer will be herded to the altar of sacrifice. In Jerusalem, the place of slaughter for sheep, Our Lord is saying that the sacrifices will end, and the sheep will be led out again. The sheep have a relationship with the Good Shepherd, who can lead them out of the place of sacrifice, because he too is the Lamb of God who has been sacrificed.

It all comes down to a relationship. He knows them, each of them.  He knows us best and loves us most.

Religion is not about reward and punishment. Some of us believe that we are going to heaven or to hell. Some of us believe that what we do determines whether we go to heaven or to hell. It’s called a work righteousness.

Some of us believe that if we go to church and put money in the plate we are in the fold. It is simply not true. What we need is a relationship. The relationship is about love…God’s love for us and our love for God.

We cannot save ourselves. We cannot confess enough. We cannot repent enough. There is not enough water to save us. You, me – we are saved by grace, the grace and the love of God. Works don’t save us, works are the result of our faith and grace instead.

Now in response to that grace, in response to that love that knows no limits, we do confess, we do repent, we are baptised, we may even get confirmed! We commit ourselves to Christ and to his Church – all in response to the love we have received.

Relationship…Our relationship with God Almighty and with the Son, through the Spirit. Do you love God more than life? Are you willing to follow Christ no matter where that takes you? Are you ready to feed his sheep and tend his lambs? Are you ready to think of yourself last instead of first?

Relationships…Are you ready to give all you have and all you are and all you will ever be to the Lord who gave his life for you?

I don’t understand those who fuss about coming to mass and then complain when someone has a deathbed conversion and is not fair. Yet, there is no greater privilege than to come to God’s house to worship with God’s people.

I know that God loves me, that God provides for me, that God protects me from myself. God is calling my name. I recognise his voice and yet I bolt off alone at times, heading for disaster.

Do you ever do that?  God is calling your name. God knows you. You are part of his flock. You know his voice. The Good Shepherd leads you out of the place of death. It is all about relationship. Come on home.

For when you come home you find the truth of the words, that all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Easter Saints: 24 April, 2022

If you look at your pew sheets for the week ahead, we have an abundance of saints coming up. In part, this is because during the week before Easter, called Holy Week, and the week after, called Easter Week or occasionally Bright Week, no saints days are observed because we concentrate solely on the journey to the Cross and resurrection, culminating in the three great days, called the triduum. So, all the saints days get pushed out of the way, either dropped altogether or held over, like our own St George’s Day which is pushed from 23 April to the next available Sunday, that being next Sunday 1 May.

So, we have coming up this week: the Seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood, Solomon Islands, 2003; St Mark, Evangelist and Martyr from the early church; Peter Chanel, religious, missionary in the South Pacific, martyr, who died in 1841; Catherine of Siena, Mystic, Teacher, 1380; Pandita Mary Ramabai, translator of the Scriptures, 1922 and our own George, Martyr, Patron Saint, circa 304. So, a lot of people in the seven days following.

Now Mark was the writer of the Gospel of his name and legend has it that he went to Alexandria in Egypt and was martyred there in around 68. He is still revered as the founder of the Coptic Church. The seven martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood, the largest of our Anglican orders, were killed in the Solomon Islands only 19 years ago, when they tried to bring peace between the warring groups there. Peter Chanel was a Marist Father, who was a missionary to the Pacific, and was martyred in the Hoorn Islands, close to Tonga. He was the first martyr in the Pacific islands (and Captain Cook does not count). Catherine of Sienna was a mystic who convinced the pope to return to Rome and make it again it the centre of the Church again after they had relocated to Avignon in France. She died in 1380. Pandita Mary Ramabai was a high caste Hindu woman who converted to Christianity and became an advocate for women’s rights in India, and translating the Scriptures, dying in 1922. As for George: well, I will leave that till next week, and we will see what the bishop serves us up.

This group relate to the Gospel today because they all have to do with belief and doubt. All of them had struggles in the religious life, from Mark the Jew learning what it means to follow Jesus, the brave Melanesian brothers who set out to try and bring peace in the Solomons. The Gospel reading today, the second Sunday of Easter, is always on the story of Thomas from John’s Gospel, as it deals with doubt and faith.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Gospels, is that they do not sugar coat the disciples. They are presented as people who fail: fail but getup and try and gain. We see that time and time again particularly for Peter, from the incident of walking of the water to his denial three times on the night that Our Lord was arrested. Today we have the story of Thomas, who does not accept the good news second-hand, but only when he sees Our Lord directly.

The two appearances of Our Lord recounted in the Gospel today start with Our Lord saying, “Peace be with you,” and the obvious joy the disciples have when they see the Risen Lord. The first time Our Lord gives them the gift of the Spirit, and in the second Thomas confesses, “My Lord and my God!” The resurrection of the Lord changes the disciples dramatically. They now know that death could not hold Our Lord, and that he is God indeed. This changes them from a frightened group hiding behind locked doors, as we heard today, to disciples who would go out into the world and die for their faith.

This is the story of the Cross. We take up our cross in life, but we do so, knowing about the Risen Lord. It is that hope of resurrection, that hope of meeting Our Lord, that gives us the courage to undertake the Cross that we bear in life. The Gospels show the transforming power of belief. It changes Thomas from a sceptic to a missionary, and it would go on the change Mark as he became the bishop to the Egyptians, the Seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood, as they went out trying to bring peace to a troubled land; Peter Chanel, who left the comfort of France and his parish to work and die in the other side of the world so others could find the faith, Catherine of Siena, who had the courage as a woman in the Middle Ages to reprove the pope; Pandita Mary Ramabai, who would challenge the conventions of Hindu life in India.

This is why the Gospels are still read, day by day, Sunday by Sunday, Easter by Easter, so we can learn the path of the Cross. We must embrace the sufferings that come our way and learn that there is always hope and new life, faith and resurrection, on the other side. Yes, it would always be easier to deny the Cross. We can take our pieces of sliver and betray. We can stay where we are comfortable. We can ask for more and more proof until we can put our hand in Our Lord’s side. But this is turning our backs on the greatest gift that can be offered, the love of God that gives resurrection when all hope seems lost.

The most important thing that the gospel stories tell us about the power of the resurrection is that our choices in Christ are worth it; worth even for dying. Death is not the fearful end for us; death is only the welcome to new life in Christ. Faith can be a tremendous risk: to learn forgiveness, to let go of bitterness, to have courage, to find joy when it seems impossible.

I will finish on a small detail about the seven martyrs of the Melanesian Brothers. Their feast day normally would be today, but it’s pushed to tomorrow. The first brother went to the militants to try and stop them and was murdered. When the brothers heard this, they sent six more, hoping to stop the militants. They were all shot. The six knew that risk but decided they had to take the risk. As a result of their murders there was such a revulsion that the militants lost support. The Australian government helped with the RAMSI peace force there for several years. That force helped bring the militants to trail and recovered the bodies. Martyrdom is still a very close experince for many Christians. We may not be martyrs, but we are invited to still take up our cross and follow where it leads.

Good Friday: Behold My Servant – 15 April, 2022

Let’s start today is with the people of Israel and their story. Long, long ago, as Genesis tells us, God promised Abraham that, through him, all the peoples of the earth would be blessed—that it was Israel’s vocation to show the world who God is and what God is like. Abraham and his people settled in the Promised Land. At times they listened to God, and they prospered; and at times they didn’t. But through their faithfulness they were saved in Egypt, and through Moses and Joshua they returned, and through David and Solomon a Temple was built.

Then, six hundred years before Our Lord, the Babylonians descended upon Jerusalem and destroyed it. They weren’t content with destroying the city and temple; they wanted to destroy the inner strength of its people and of their society as well. So, they rounded up the leaders of the community, all the people who in our time would be bankers, and lawyers, and doctors, and teachers, and professional musicians, and union leaders, and clergy, and they bound them in chains and led them on the long trek to Babylon to become the servants and slaves of their captors.

Fifty years passed. Fifty years of bitter servanthood for the exiles and their children. The Psalms are filled with their hymns of tears, and through the Psalms, their tears became part of their tradition: and of ours.

Then the Babylonian Empire fell to Persia, and a different Great King had a different policy. Cyrus the Great, the Persian King, let the servants go home; he let them return to their own country and rebuild their land and temple.

Through both the darkness of exile and the first rays of hope, Israel kept asking, “Why have we suffered so much? Why us?” Then a poet appeared among them, a poet-theologian, who wrote songs of unsurpassed beauty to suggest a hopeful answer to those searching questions of human grief. He sang new songs, different and amazing songs. These songs come to us in the middle of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, and today’s first reading is the heart of these songs.

This magnificent prophet focused on the servant status of his people. They were slaves and servants in bondage and oppression, and the poet took this image of servant and re-worked it in terms of glory and salvation. It looked as though his people were servants of oppression, but actually, they were servants of God. And their suffering, when born in hope and as an act of faith, was the key not only to their salvation but to the salvation of the world. It was the promise of Abraham. Their suffering brought forth God’s gift.

For the first time in human history, the mystery of sacrifice, which had almost universally been a part of the religious life of the people, was seen as more than a way of giving an angry or a hungry god something it needed, or wanted, or demanded, or deserved. For the first time, sacrifice was seen as a rejection of the world’s categories of worth, value, power, and victory, and was understood instead both as God’s way of faithfulness and redemption for his chosen people, and as the hidden path to the salvation of all creation. The songs of the servant in Isaiah are about this, and they are new songs.

Our Lord himself grew into his own sense of vocation and mission under the power of these words, and he saw himself as that servant, and his path as that way of gentle faithfulness that all too often leads to suffering. This cross is what that faithfulness finally came to look like in his world, at his moment. The inspired song from Isaiah is revealed in its fullness, and with its greatest power, in the agony, defeat, and shame of Golgotha. To be a Christian means to sing this way. It means to look for, and to find, in this peculiar and distressing direction, the depth of God’s truth.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting that all suffering leads directly to salvation. Even less do I want to imply that suffering is somehow a good thing and that we would all be better off if there were more of it. Nothing as simplistic or as facile or as grotesque as this is going on here. Nonetheless, the suffering of Christ who was made the slave of oppression and who was vindicated as the Servant of God goes on—and it’s still the key to the world’s transformation.

In Our Lord, and in his cross, we can begin to see how this ancient poet of Israel, so long forgotten and ignored, was given the gift of seeing into the deepest heart and soul of God. In spite of what the world thinks, in spite of what seems to us the way things are, and the way things have to be, in spite of our own values, hopes, and dreams, in spite of all of that: Here is the meaning of life; here is the way of God; here is our hope, and the hope of our world.

This is the great meaning of the Cross: we are all called to take up our Cross in the world and follow. How we take on the Cross is the secret to our lives. We can try and avoid it, we can become bitter at the chances of life, or we can learn joy in our suffering in the knowledge that ultimately, paradoxically, everything is in God’s hands and there is love. That the blessing of Abraham still works, that we bring that blessing to the world. That the Suffering Servant of Isaiah brings the joy of salvation.

The hope hidden in this Cross continues: we can make it our own. We can recognize that only here can our own inner divisions, our own sinfulness, our own brokenness, receive the possibility of healing and of wholeness. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a Chassidic rebbe, a Jewish brother, once said, “There is no heart so whole as a broken heart.” Such is the fruit of this sacrifice. But remember, as with Isaiah’s Servant and as with Our Lord, the wholeness we receive is for the life of the world.

Here, at this cross, is also given the opportunity to discover once more that today’s servants of oppression: the poor, the victims of war in the Ukraine now, the dis-valued of the earth, the others; that these are the clearest face of Christ for us today. In their suffering, we may see the very cup of suffering that Our Lord took, symbolised today in the blessed sacrament in the chalice brought to altar; for God’s work is to bring to all creation the truth of his Servant, and so to bring his vision of hope renewed to all humanity.

On the one and only day we call Good, we stand at the foot of an ancient mystery of sacrifice and salvation, given poetic voice by the rivers of Babylon and fully revealed only here. We can choose to embrace this mystery, this path, this Cross as our own, or we can turn away, and seek our own path, and deny the Cross. And we will do one or the other.

What it means, what it looks like to embrace this Cross—to choose faithfulness over security, to choose self-giving love over self-protecting alternatives, to choose painful honesty over comfortable denial—to struggle to move this man on a cross to the centre of our lives and of our character. What this looks like in our world, at our moment, cannot be predicted, let alone described. It is the taking of our Cross to follow Our Lord. That’s part of our mystery, and of our hope. But this cross is the path of life.

Palm Sunday – 10 April, 2022

In the rubrics for today’s solemn mass the following note appears after the reading of the passion:

Because the procession and Passion Gospel are in themselves an eloquent proclamation of the gospel, the sermon may be omitted.

I don’t know if is because of our extreme Protestant heritage, but I have always felt that a Sunday mass without a sermon is like scones without jam and cream. Edible, but not the best. But I sympathise with the need to allow you to get to your meals and I will not detain you for long.

Throughout Lent I have been using the theme of the Cross that we must carry. A Christian is continually challenged to take up our Cross and follow our Lord. Each one of us will have a different cross, but all of them will involve some burden, some grief, some sorrow. We are challenged as Christians to take up our crosses. We can ignore this; and try to live lives that escape this challenge. But a life without a cross becomes a life without depth. The easiest way to think about this is to consider the cross of growing old. We can go for the expensive hair treatments or facelifts or try mutton dressed as lamb, but ultimately our bodies have their say. How we grow and accept the challenge of aging is a cross that we bear. We can do it with joy or anger, but age we must.

That’s the simple level. But there are other crosses that are harder, that come from life. Family problems, work problems, legal problems, health problems: there are endless ways that we are challenged in life to take up our Cross and follow Our Lord.

The Cross is a central theme in the gospel readings today. Uniquely, we have two Gospel readings in the Solemn Mass today: the entry into Jerusalem with the salutation of a king, and the death of Our Lord on the Cross. This is a juxtaposition of temptation and fulfilment. The entry into Jerusalem is a temptation to become the earthly king. Our Lord could have continued the progress into the Temple, he could have directly challenged the authorities of the world: Pilate and Herod, and become a king. He would have been the Messiah that many wanted, a ruler, an authority, a power on earth.

But we hear that Our Lord did not take up this temptation. He had already faced this temptation at the start of his ministry when the Devil offered him the kingdoms of this world. But that was just between him and Satan – now he publicly refused that power.

So, the crowd then turns on him, and with the authorities, the powers of the world, manipulating, he is seized and condemned instead. The leaders and the soldiers echo the words of the Devil in the Wilderness with the Temptations, with “if you are the King of the Jews”. But Our Lord knows that his Cross is far greater than any power of the world. St Luke also records the penitent thief, asking Our Lord to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. We, also, remember Our Lord each time we take the bread and brake it. The thief receives the assurance that we all dream of having, that this day he will be with Our Lord in Paradise, the assurance that we receive his body in the sacrament today, that sacrament that is bound with his Cross.

Our Lord has taken the Cross of Suffering, and drunken its bitter dregs, to death in agony. This was the Cross that he had to take; had to, to show his love for each of us. He could have walked down from the Cross, he could have ordered legions of angels, but his agony and refusal not to avoid the Cross is his love for each of us.

Our Lord chose the true Cross of suffering for us today. From this comes resurrection, the giving of new life and hope. This is the challenge for us when we take up our cross and follow him. We, too, can take up lesser, or easier crosses. We too can listen to the false crowds waving palms: but this is not the true Cross. If we are going to find true joy and happiness, we must tackle the hard road of the Cross that awaits us all.

 

The Second Part of Lent Starts – Passion Sunday, 3 April, 2022

Here we are at Passion Sunday, in the second part of Lent. Just a reminder, we are called to prayer, fasting and almsgiving, calls that are never too late to start. If you don’t have a Lenten rule worked out, then it’s not too late, the best part is still to come. Next week is Palm Sunday and then it’s Holy Week and all the fun. So time to get on with it.

You may be wondering though, if Lent is all about prayer, fasting and almsgiving, then what does the Gospel reading have to do with it. Today is the story, from John, of the woman caught in adultery. It does not seem to fit the pattern of Lent in many ways. In many lectionaries it no longer falls as part of the Lenten cycle.

It’s a strange passage. In some of the earlier document traditions this passage does not occur, so it has been marked with suspicion: we are not sure if it originally formed part of the Gospel according to John or was a very early insertion. If it was an insertion, we don’t know where it came from as it doesn’t form part of the other Gospels either. It’s also the only time we hear of Our Lord writing, as well. So, it’s all a bit mysterious, but that’s another story.

It starts with the woman being dragged before Our Lord. It’s early morning and the scribes and Pharisees we hear bring this woman and make her stand before Jesus. The element of coercion is very clear. It begs the question: if this woman had been caught in adultery, then where is the man? He is a glaring omission, and the Law was clear that both a man a a woman caught in adultery were meant to suffer the same passage. But, it’s a man’s world, and the man does not have to face the music, so these other men make this woman stand before Jesus.

The whole idea is to catch out Our Lord here. But then Our Lord does this really odd thing, the only time we hear of him doing anything like this, he bends down and writes on the ground. In fact, it is mentioned twice he did this. What was he doing? Was he writing other texts out for the scribes and Pharisees to read? But by bending down he also does not face these men either.

Then there is the challenge: Let any one amongst you without sin throw the first stone. Normally we would like to challenge people face to face, but Our Lord is avoiding their gaze. He’s not forcing them into a corner, to challenge them to declare their self-righteousness, but letting each one of them think on the words as he is bend over writing on the ground.

And they go away, one by one, the elders first.

The Gospel says quite a bit about forgiveness. It tells us we need to endlessly forgive. What that means we are still working out. Here at St George’s we look after the Oblates of St Benedict, those who follow the Rule of St Benedict that was written for the guidance of religious communities from the 6th C, and it still being read chapter by chapter each day. It’s a fascinating way the Christian life has shaped communities. St Benedict has rules for members who sin grievously: first they are shunned then if they don’t get better they are told to leave. The point is, that although we are called to endlessly forgive sometimes healing can only be done by exclusion. A brother in a community that endlessly breaks the rules needs to go to see if this is where he is called. The same applies in our lives. The child on drugs, the unfaithful partner, the cheating work colleague: at times we need to exclude people for their own good from the community to which we belong, for the good of the person involved to let that person sort things out if he or she wants to remain. Forgiveness is one thing, but communities do exclude for the sake of the sinner.

Which gets me back to that woman forced to stand before Our Lord. Alone. Without the man who had been caught with her. Now without her accusers. Our Lord asks her, where her accusers are, the first time he addresses her. She now has a voice and says no one. Then Our Lord says to her, that neither does he condemn, and go and sin no more.

It’s worth noticing that the woman does not ask for forgiveness. Being dragged before all those men was enough. Our Lord doesn’t make her beg, he just gives her that forgiveness she needs. It that lovely touchy point of the compassion of Our Lord.

This passage is part of the Gospel readings for Lent as it reminds us about the nature of sin. Sin is never just something that hurts an individual, grievous though it can be, but also hurts a community. When we sin, we not only let down ourselves but let down others. But sin is not about condemnation to death: sin is about Jesus telling us to go and sin no more. Forgiveness is always about new chances and new life: not punishments and condemnation.

When you think again about prayer, fasting and almsgiving, you also start to realise that it is the opposite of sin. They are the works of mercy, the works we can do to make the world a better place, and even perhaps make ourselves better people. They are the opposite of sin: making communities better as well. Don’t underestimate the power of these works. The power of of prayer, the power of fasting, the power of almsgiving. All are the weapons we use in the fight against the evil of the world.

Which is why we have this Gospel reading today. Life is, and will always be, a lifelong struggle with sin. Our struggle with sin will finish only when we have been dead for ten minutes. Lent should not be skipped over. The calls of Lent are small things in themselves: a little less to eat, a few extra dollars out, a minute to say a prayer. God will take any thing we offer, no matter how small. God doesn’t need it: but we need it. We need to give what we can, give our best, to be the best. So when we start with little things, such as even saying no to chocolate during Lent, we start our training. By learning to struggle with little things we learn to face big things. We learn to face sin and deal with it. Sin exists and we need to face it: as our Lord faced it for us in the Cross. Then the Cross he takes, we can take, knowing in the hope of the Resurrection. Welcome to the second part of Lent, and the training for the rest of our lives..

The Sons – Lent IV, 27 March, 2022

This Gospel reading today is one of the best loved and most beautiful of all readings, with the image of a God with open arms ready to receive us in a loving embrace. God is always waiting; God is always willing to take us in; God does not obsess over our own failed past, but God offers us the immediacy of love. Keep this image before your eyes.

“All this is from God,” St Paul assures us in the second reading, the epistle, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” This act of reconciliation is rather difficult for us to understand since reconciliation implies that each side has been estranged before coming together, that, as we have drawn away from God, God has drawn away from us. Here is where language fails us, because, as both Our Lord and St Paul make it quite clear, it is we who have moved away, we who must return and be reconciled. God’s arms remain open in order to embrace us when we return. These arms never push us away. Never.

In the familiar parable of what has come to be called “The Prodigal Son,” the father has never stopped loving the child who chose to go away, to live a dissolute life. Through one powerful sentence in the story; “But while he was still far off, his father saw him,” we too see the father constantly on the lookout for his lost son. And even though this formerly rich, well-nourished, and well-dressed young profligate is now filthy, skinny, and in rags, the father recognises him from afar and runs to meet him with open arms.

The picture of the younger son who lives a life of sin and estrangement is nothing new. We recognise him all too well. He is the perfect image of selfishness; he takes what the father offers and goes away in order to waste it. We recognize human selfishness because it resides in all of us; we recognise the sin of saying “I am my own, I belong only to myself, I owe nothing to my Creator; I will do as I please.” We see younger son in this parable lowering himself to the ultimate degradation for a Jew of his time; to live among pigs. In the eyes and ears of Our Lord’s Jewish listeners, nothing was dirtier than dealing with pigs.

If the story ended there, with expressions of “It served him right because he was an ungrateful son,” the depression and desperation would be complete. But, it doesn’t. The young man looks at his condition and is first aware of the terrible needs of his body, of hunger: “Here I am living among pigs while even my father’s servants have enough to eat.” Of course, this is a selfish reaction, but we are tied to the needs of the physical self and it’s an honest reaction. God gave us life and life must be preserved. But the young sinner acknowledges his sin and does not conceal his guilt: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” This is the beginning of repentance, of turning around, of knowing that we don’t belong to ourselves alone. Our separation, our sin, is first against heaven and then against those who have loved us. Acknowledging this state is the first step toward reconciliation.

The younger son sets off to return to his father, confident that he will be received, because he knows his father’s heart: and he is not wrong. The father is indeed keeping vigil, his arms open, his eyes searching the horizon to see the returning son, to recognize him as his own, no matter how disfigured he now is. The son is welcomed home, the fatted calf is killed, and the party starts.

Now we could leave this parable here or explore a little more the nature of mercy and forgiveness. Sometimes the reading we hear of this parable stops here, in the interests of brevity. But there is a far deeper meaning and this parable goes on.

It’s the other son. He comes back tired from his work and hears the party. Then he refuses to enter, and the father comes out and pleads with him. The father ends with the words: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

But the parable ends there. We don’t know the response of the elder son. The parable ends there, with the father’s plea, but the elder son is still outside the party, in the evening gloom, with the music going inside.

Think for a moment for whom St Luke was writing the Gospel. We think that they were probably more Greek than Jews, maybe to an area north of Galilee, maybe where Syria is today. Early Christians met on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, which was a work day, so they met early. So, they certainly didn’t have a late night.

To be honest, most of us here today are very similar. We didn’t party hard last night. We, like the early Christians for whom Luke wrote, probably have more in common with that elder brother than the younger. Not many of us have had to live with pigs, not many of us spent our lives in the fleshpots of Adelaide spending our money on fast living. We, like Luke’s congregation, have probably worked hard, just like the elder brother.

It may just be that the elder brother is meant to be us.

So, the elder brother becomes much more important for us. We have seen the others go off and enjoy the fleshpots of life and waste their money. Perhaps we have even gloated when fate catches up on them. Perhaps we resent when after all the damage they have done they are welcomed back with a party. Perhaps they remind us of a brother or sister we know who has wrecked our families.

Maybe we are the ones who are standing outside the party full of resentment, hearing the party going on, but not going in.

Maybe that’s the whole problem of the Church in the world today, we are outside in the darkness, refusing to go into the party, full of moral judgment and indignation.

Now Our Lord doesn’t give us an easy answer. He leaves the fate of the elder brother in the air. That’s the parable challenging us. That’s where we leave it. Where do we stand at the moment? When do we stand in the darkness, hearing the party going on, but refusing to enter because our anger and judgment? When do we forget to celebrate but make our work and routine justification? When do we forget to forgive?

There is Always Hope – Lent III, 20 March, 2022

Well, we have a great passage for Lent today. It asks some of the most common and complicated question that challenges our faith. It is a question that virtually everyone who has experienced suffering or loss has considered: where is God in this?

Even more difficult are the related questions: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Is suffering somehow linked to behaviour? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Then, there are the most pointed questions of all: does God cause suffering; and is suffering a form of divine punishment?

Suffering and its existence in a world created by a good God is one of the most basic theological dilemmas and cause many to question the faith. We can say a lot of words and give explanations, but we often don’t deal with the very real pain and brokenness of those who dared utter these difficult questions in the first place.

Even so, amidst all of its snares and dangers, to those who have been battered and bruised by the changes and chances of this life, the Gospel today from St Luke offers an important word of nourishment.

The context of the passage is this: news reaches Our Lord that Pilate has made a religious sacrifice to the Emperor, who was often considered a kind of demigod in those days, and as a part of that burnt sacrifice, he slaughtered a gathering of Galilean Jews and placed their remains on the sacrificial pyre.

And as if that is not horrifying enough, at the same time that Our Lord hears of Pilate’s treachery, news arrives that a tower in Siloam has fallen, crushing eighteen people.

The crowd who relayed this horrible news to Our Lord was burning with the same question that has echoed throughout Christendom for 2,000 years: “Why did this tragedy happen to these people?”

We’ve heard this question asked before elsewhere in Scripture: the Gospel according to St John asks the same question in a different way, as Our Lord is asked about a man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”

In other passages, well-intentioned but inadequate answers to the problem of suffering are suggested. Take, for example, the Book of Job, as Job’s so-called friends gather in the wake of Job’s terrible string of suffering and say well-meaning but dumb things like, “You need to seek God,” or “It could be worse,” or “God’s punishment is less than you deserve.”

We only have to think of the unfolding destruction in Ukraine, where over a million people are refugees, and countless homes destroyed. “Why has this terrible thing happened to such innocent people?” we well may ask.

A lot of this comes from one of the most basic and widely-accepted rules of modern science is that every demonstrable effect is derived from a cause. We have transposed this equation onto everything from religion to sports to politics to the economy: you name it, we human beings love trying to explain it!

So, things from as simple as a paint scrape on a new car to suffering as profound and heart-wrenching as a divorce or an ominous diagnosis, or even the death of a loved one, can cause us to ask the question, “What did I do to deserve this?”

In many ways, this search for answers is an indispensable part of our humanness.

From the depths of despair, there are times when any explanation is better than nothing at all.

But as the crowd asks Our Lord the question of who or what is to blame for these tragedies, Our Lord cannot be clearer: Those who died were no better or worse than we are. Rather, Our Lord says, we have all made mistakes and lost sight of God’s will for our lives, and we are all sinners.

What’s more, although Our Lord insists that the relationship between sin and suffering is not causal – that is, God does not cause us to suffer because of our sin, Our Lord also reminds us that sin itself can cause us to suffer. There is no question that Pilate’s murderous deeds – as well as the horrific actions perpetrated by today’s tyrants – are sinful. And sin has consequences.

Destructive behaviours, violence, the lust for power, and the quest for vengeance and retribution lead to much suffering in the world. The Church is called to speak out in opposition to these forms of suffering, and to do all in its power to combat them.

But with all of that said, what sense can be made of the parable of the fig tree? Why does Our Lord tell that particular parable, and why does he do it here?

It becomes easy to read this parable as though it were the angry and vindictive God being placated by Jesus meek and mild.

But what if it’s not quite that straightforward?

Humans, both ancient and modern, hold “fairness” as an important value. Fairness, in a moralistic sense, is often defined as receiving rewards for doing good and receiving punishment for doing evil. When we hit our targets at work, or we help our neighbours, we expect a little gratitude, or maybe even a bonus. In the same way, when we fail to hit the target or receive thanks due, we might expect some sort of ramification or punishment.

This concept of fairness is at play in the parable of the fig tree. The landowner says what most of us have come to believe about fairness: “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

In other words, it hasn’t met its mark or lived up to its potential, and it’s affecting my bottom line, so it has to go.

But the gardener proclaims another possibility: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Perhaps this parable is a reminder that God operates, not on our conventional conceptions of fairness and causes and effects; but rather, God operates on contrarian wisdom: patience, faithful tending, and hopeful expectation.

Rather than certainty; rather than providing a recipe for putting an end to human suffering; rather than offering a panacea that would make the world turn on blissful peace and harmony, the Gospel today offers a word of good hope: God is still tending the garden.

God is still working in and through God’s people to bring light and life, love and peace to a broken and sinful world.

This reading reminds us in Lent that we must take up our Cross of suffering – we cannot avoid it, no matter how unfair it seems. But we can take it up because we know as Christians, that there is an all-powerful loving God, a God who took up the Cross of suffering for each of us here on Earth, and died to bring resurrection hope to all who believe in him.

And in that, there is indeed hope for us all. So, despite all the bad news in the world, or the tragedies of our own lives, God is still there, God has borne all crosses of suffering, and there is always hope.

Based on a sermon by Fr Marshall A. Jolly, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina.

Transfiguration – Lent 2,13 March, 2022

Today we have the story of the transfiguration, and the traditional Lenten liturgies very carefully have this reading on the second Sunday of Lent. It’s for a very important reason that I will come to time and time again in Lent: we take up our cross, and we find the strength to do it, because we know that the Cross of suffering concludes with the resurrection joy. Transfiguration is a moment of hope, a moment to see the glory of Our Lord as we suffer so we too have hope in the future.

But in this story, there are so many references back to the Old Testament. The three sleepy disciples look on as Our Lord’s appearance becomes dazzlingly bright, reminiscent of those times Moses would ascend Mount Sinai to meet with God face-to-face. If you remember, on the way down, the people could not look at Moses, so dazzlingly bright was his face (Exodus 34:29-35). The dazzling Moses appears with Elijah, he of the blazing chariot, to pay Our Lord a visit to discuss his “departure.” Often we say they represent the Law and the prophets.

The Greek word for departure is exodos, which we also use for the Book of the bible that describes the departure of the Israelites from Egypt. At the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were talking about his exodus which would occur in Jerusalem. This is why we call Christ’s sacrifice “our Passover.” His death will be an exodus; his resurrection is another exodus. Think of Moses and Elijah as paying a pastoral visit to assure Our Lord that they have been before, where he is now, and that sure enough, just as it had been in the wilderness, as it was when fleeing Ahab and Jezebel, as it has been throughout the history of our people, God always provides a way out, an escape route, a way out of bondage, a way out of the hard times, a way beyond and passing over death to a life lived with God all the time. Eternal life with God. That’s Resurrection Life. That’s our hope.

Peter does not miss the importance of the occasion and suggests building three booths: shelters resembling the temporary dwellings patterned after ones in the book of Exodus, dwelling in which the people lived during their wilderness sojourn. Shelters able to be picked-up and moved down the road. The kind of shelter in which all of Israel is commanded to live one week each year during the Festival of Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, which, we hear in the gospels, Our Lord and his disciples faithfully observed each year.

Succoth celebrates the reality that, in the wilderness, God provides, and that we must trust this and be grateful. To this day, observant Jewish people build a Succoth booth for an eight-day remembrance once a year. It must be built so that one can see the stars through the roof, and rain must be able to get in. During this eight-day celebration, one gathers together what are called the Four Species: branches of citron, willow, myrtle and palm.

We still use palms, like on Palm Sunday, which were then burned for Ash Wednesday. The willow and myrtle are bound to the palm, making what is called a lulav. With the citron in one hand, the lulav in the other, they are waved in all four directions, north, south, east, and west, then upwards and downwards to indicate that God is everywhere! Indeed, the voice heard at Our Lord’s baptism returns: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” As God’s presence is heard, Moses and Elijah depart.

The Eighth Day of the Succoth festival is known as Shemini Atzeret, the “day of holding back,” to stop or wait. It is the day the weekly Torah readings are completed and the scroll is turned back to the beginning – “In the beginning.”  The significance of Atzeret, or holding back, is quite interesting. The sages say that this parable is the basis of this day: God is like a king who invites all his children to a feast to last for just so many days; when the time has come for them to depart, he says to them: “My children, I have a request to make of you. Stay yet another day; your departure is difficult for me.” Which brings us back to that which Our Lord, Moses, and Elijah were talking about: his departure, his exodus.

It tends to be overlooked that they likely spent the night on the mountain, for they do not come down until the next day. And curiously, no version of this story says Peter did notbuild the booths. So, we might ask, what did they do all night? Celebrate the Day of Holding Back with Jesus and God? Or did Peter, James, and John obey the voice from the cloud, and listen to Our Lord all night long?

Our Lord’s exodus did not end on Good Friday, any more than the great escape from Egypt was not the end of that first Exodus. For Exodus is always a beginning, just as the eight days of Succoth begin a new year of reading God’s Word. Just as waving the branches north, south, east, and west reminds us that wherever we are, God is with us; that our God is the one God who always wants just one more night with us. And another. Until eventually, we all come down off the mountain, end the exuberant celebrations, and get back to the work God calls us to do – to heal a broken world.

Whatever might be said about Jesus of Nazareth, his life demonstrates how to live a life to repair a broken world. We sense his impatience the next morning when his disciples fail to cast out a spirit convulsing a young man. You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” he blurts out. Then he patiently takes care of the young man, and we are told, “All were amazed at the greatness of God!”

We need to hold to that hope and amazement, to give us the strength as we take up our Cross and follow Our Lord. Perhaps if we spend one more day with the God who does not want us to leave, we too will be amazed at the greatness of God and hold that hope. We may find our exodus out of chaos leads us to a new beginning in a world of resurrection, celebration, and radical amazement as those three disciples experienced on a mountaintop with Our Lord, one night long ago.

Based partly on a sermon by Fr Kirk Alan Kubicek of Christ Church, Rock Spring Parish, Forest Hill, Md. USA.

Temptation Time – Lent 1, 6 March, 2022

Well, here is Lent and we start our Lent with the reading of the temptation in the wilderness. It’s a great passage, and you can imagine it, with Our Lord and the devil and all the temptations. There have been some great pictures of it by many of the great painters of the world.

Today, being our third year of our readings from the Gospel, we have Luke’s account. St Luke is always the most visual – he tells us so often where people are, it’s almost as if he were a playwright, visualising where everyone has to be for the maximum impact. His structure for the temptation here is also different. There are the three temptations, but also a common question and answer structure.

But let’s look at what the temptations are.

The first is “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” It’s the temptation to satisfy hunger, the needs of the body, when Jesus had not eaten for forty days. So many of the temptations we have in life are to deal with our physical comfort: things that we often don’t need, a more comfortable car, more luxurious food. We have to be aware in our lives that our taste for comfort does not become an indulgence. We have probably all met people who go on endlessly over the tritest thing that discomforts them, it’s too hot, or too cold, it’s all too easy to do. But one does not live by bread alone. Our physical comfort is not the only thing that is necessary in life: there is self-sacrifice and the need to support others in our community as well.

The next temptation was the temptation of the glory of the world. “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” We are all susceptible to the glory of the world, fame, renown the good opinions of others. But the glory of this world is a fickle creature. We have all seen stories of people who are famous one moment, then reviled the next. What is important in life is not what others think of us, but how we are with God.  The Devil promises the world, but we trade away our peace and our soul at the price. We are made to worship our God and only him: the world is a tempting but broken promise.

So the first is the temptation of the flesh, the second is the temptation of the world: what then is the third? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Our Lord responds to it with: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” This is the test of learning that we are not god. God never saves those who do not want to be saved. If you want to throw yourself over a cliff, it will happen. God has given us free will in our lives, and loves us so that God will not overthrow that independence. We can choose to live with God or live alone. God will not be put to the test – the love of God is that he will allow us to make our own choices. The temptation of the devil here was to offer Our Lord a chance to be outside God, to do whatever he wanted separate from the will of his Father. But God will not be put to the test. Luke puts this temptation last – the temptation to be god, to make oneself the centre of the universe, and live without our real God. This temptation is idolatry, where we make ourselves god.

“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” St Luke finishes the temptations with this line, that is often skipped over. But Luke is too much of a storyteller to let this go by. The clue to this is in the crucifixion, much, much later, when Our Lord is dying on the cross. He is reviled by many, but at one stage we hear that (23:36-37) the soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” It is the same sentence structure again, “If you are, then.” The devil has returned, this time speaking through the soldiers. It’s also interesting that this is linked with the offering of the sour wine, which Jesus has said earlier at the Last Supper, that he will not drink again until the Kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). Some scholars see this as Our Lord completing the Passover Meal at the cross – the last supper does not conclude in the upper room, because Our Lord refuses the last cup, drawing the Passover meal on till his death on the cross, thus uniting the meal with his death, and creating the sacrament of the altar.

Three sorts of temptations: the flesh, the world and idolatry. Dealing with temptation means recognising it for what it is, then we need to deal with it. Many of us know too well how we are tempted. Temptation is rarely overcome by our own self-will: if it is it usually means another temptation has slipped in. Temptation is overcome by recognition and the acknowledgement we need help. Our Lord responds by quoting Scripture, the power of God. Temptation is dealt with best by leaving it with God, praying and working with God with our recognition of its wrongfulness, as in Scripture, and appealing to God to overcome it. Temptation is overcome by not just being idle, but doing the works of God.

Temptation is also a question of what our goals are. The temptations here, food, glory and worship are all about the immediate. But what we learn as Christians is that our goal is always God. We look forward to being with God and that gives us the strength to overcome temptation. It’s how we take up our cross and follow Our Lord – we do so because we know the cross of suffering is not the end, but resurrection and new life is the end. It is that future that gives us the courage and strength to deal with the suffering of the moment, the temptation of the hour, to hope in the glory of the future.

So welcome to Lent and the time to contemplate our temptations.

Starting with Oneself – 27 February, 2022

We have all met people who are very free with their advice. Now admittedly, there are those who have good advice. But I know with myself, even if I know it is good advice, I am not very good at listening to advice I did not ask for.

I have heard of families where this is even more prone. Parents giving advice to newly married members of the family are a famous source of contention. You may remember in your own lives parents in law who have been a little to free with tackless advice.

By the looks of the Gospel today the problem of free advice was current even in Our Lord’s time. Isn’t it amazing, that the times may change but the same problems remain. Our Lord in the Gospel today tackles the problem of advice givers.

Typically, as with moral questions, Our Lord starts with ourselves. Our Lord always starts a moral problem with the need to look at where we are. It is “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you”, not “Don’t do anything to another you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Moral questions start with ourselves and where we are. The reason for this is clear. We are not to judge others; we can only judge ourselves. That’s a hard lesson. We may start our lives wanting to change the world, then we may want only to change those around us, but the best we can hope for in our lives is that we may change ourselves. And, at the end, what Our Lord will be interested in is not what we think of others, but how we have lived our own life.

So today, Our Lord starts with ourselves. He talks today to the disciples, not the crowd, but the disciples who are following him. He tells them that how can they say to those around, let me take that slinter out of your eye, when we have a plank in our own? We are not to go picking on others, trying to set their lives straight, when our own lives are a mess.

So, what are we to do? The starting point has to be a regular examination of oneself. A daily prayer life needs a dose of self-examination and confession. A prayer life is a way of knowing God, of learning our true relationship with God. That is why it demands a reflection on who we are. The ancient Greeks had it right when they started knowledge off with the words, know thyself. It was one of the three maxims inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Delphi, and the other two were interestingly “nothing to excess” and “certainty brings insanity.”

But back to ourselves. If we are ever to progress in understanding God, we must start to see what God has done for us, the sheer quantity of love that God gives us. To see that we have to understand where we are. That is only done by self-examination, of looking over what we have done and seeing the mess we have made at time.

This can be painful. No-one likes to see mistakes, that’s why it is so much easier to criticise others. Yet unless we tackle our own failings, we can never hope to put things right.

Self-examination and confession are needed for all Christians. We need it. It can be hurtful to do so, but unless we see our own failings, we are never going to understand what God is doing for us.

The good news is that once we realise our limitations, we start to see that God is always helping us, not testing us too much, and showing us ways to fix up the mess we leave behind.

Another point about self-examination – it is by naming our failures we find we start to control ourselves. That’s one reason why confession to another person is always so powerful – once we name our fault, we define it, and make it manageable. The way that people can became deranged or perverted is in part where they construct a life where truth is missing, that the person never admits the actual sin or evil that is driving them.

Now Lent is just around the corner, so I encourage you all today to look to the plank in your own eye before offering to tackle other people’s splinters. Self-examination makes us realise our own failings and gives us a chance to put things right. It also allows us to deepen our relationship with God, and see how he is helping us. If that splinter of someone else is annoying you, then just think how much you could be annoying the other person by your plank. So, take a piece of tolerance, and maybe God will be more tolerant of you.

terest. Furthermore, we do things in the shadow of our own judgment.

Our Lord is calling us to live a life in the presence of the Father – to be truly his children. Therefore, Christians are called to live a life that shows the love of God, which means a life of forgiveness.

This life is one that Our Lord does not belittle as being easy – his whole life would be an exemplar of that ability to forgive and turn the other check as seen on the cross. So how we live such a life.

The core to a Christian life is the ability to forgive. Each one of us suffers in life in some form from the ingratitude, deceit and hate of those around us: neighbours, friends, work colleagues and family. The closer the person the greater risk we have of suffering from that person. If we do not love and become vulnerable, we are safe – but that course is one of loneliness and impossible. Each one of us is made in the image of a God who loves and we can do nothing else but attempt to love in return. Therefore, we will face the disappointment of dealing with others and our own imperfections in love.

Forgiveness requires an effort to make a decision to let go. At times we may think we are justified in having it out with that person, telling them off, or even going to law. There are times when we are so justified. But there comes a time in any conflict when it is time to let go and move on. That is forgiveness. It is the ability to not let the past ruin the future by bitterness. The greatest trial we often face is the trail of learning to forgive, the greatest gift we can give or receive, is the gift of forgiveness, the gift that gives peace.

So what gives us the strength to take on this burden? One of the great lessons of Christianity is that we look beyond what is now to what we are promised. We are promised that we can be children of the Most High. Our goal is not petty revenge, but everlasting life as a child of God. That is the strength that allows to struggle with our failures and resentments now, to learn to find the power to forgive.

This is different to forgetfulness. The sorry history of Ireland is that they neither forget nor forgive and the past destroys a future hope. The last few years we have seen a hope that forgiveness may yet come and give a future. Forgiveness is learning to live and move on, which is harder than forgetfulness.

It is no co-incident that St Luke notes the crowd of the disciples, and the great multitude are those listening. Yet Our Lord is said to be speaking to the disciples. The challenge is for them to be disciples or just part of the multitude. The challenge for us is to be a disciple and listen or be part of a bigger multitude who will drift away. If we are to a disciple then we must undertake the expensive lesson of loving enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us – doing these things by the practice and strength of forgiveness. If we can do these things, we then have the assurance – the measure we give will be the measure we receive, for we too need forgiveness.

Parts of the Whole – 23 January, 2022

There is nothing as boring as the annual returns that the parish has to do, yet year by year, soon after Christmas, we start to think of things like annual reports and figures for the diocese, and elections for warden, council and nominators for the parish.

But we have to remember that parish is not Church. Also, this building is only a building to hold us, it’s not Church with a capital C either. Rather, this building is a structure in which the Church gathers for solace and pardon and strength and renewal and for inspiration to become more fully what the Church is – the body of Christ.

In today’s Epistle, we received a reminder from St Paul that all together we, the Church, are, in fact, “the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

We remember, too, that the clergy and the vestry are not the Church. No one person, no one group, and no one activity can become the Church for us. The Church IS the body of Christ.

The Church is NOT something to belong to. Nevertheless, sometimes people talk about joining the Church like they do about joining the Rotary Club or some social club. Those who do affiliate with such organisations pay dues to them, attend meetings when they feel like it, and turn in their membership cards when they grow tired of the organisation’s activities or become angry at what it does or the changes it makes. The Church, committed to God, is very different, of course. It is – we are – the body of Christ.

Neither is the Church something to watch on television as interested spectators. For us, the Church is taking part of something. We are necessarily partakers and contributors. We are not like the audience at a concert, but we are like members of the orchestra making the music – God’s music to which we dance in our daily lives, following our Christian values.

We are the body of Christ, and each of us individually is a member of it. But we are not individuals without the body – only within it. We are not Christians alone; we are not separate actors choosing our own views without reference to the faith. Always, we are together – parts of the whole. And our congregations, the Church, are part of the body of Christ.

St Paul drives home this point as he expands his view of the body of Christ by using the image of a human body. He enlightens us with telling examples of its parts – hand, ear, eye, nose, feet, and head. Each has its special function. As we consider what we are as the Church, we do well to remember this. As different parts of a human body make their contributions, each of us finds a particular contribution to the Church, finding a ministry that suits us and complements the others.

Also, we expand these ministries beyond the confines of the congregation as we all apply our ministries in making the work of Christ effective in our daily lives for the sake of all around us.

But, we dare not forget to balance these individual roles following another aspect of St Paul’s analogy. It takes all parts of a human body working together to produce the functioning of a healthy one. We must work together, recognising the equal importance of all ministries and all members and all people. St Paul illustrates this in language we should never forget. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Each, he insists, is equally indispensable. All of us, doing our parts, are indispensable.

So, we must also expand this view beyond the confines of the Church. In the broken and fearful and often desperate world in which we live, conflict and contention and extremism and lack of civility on many sides seem to have become the rule instead of the exception. Far too often, choose sides, ascribe to an “us versus them” mentality, and draw lines in the sand. How can we take St Paul’s wisdom that no one can say “I have no need of you” and extend it to all people and all places to make this sense of Christ-like unity understood and accepted?

As the body of Christ, we are the activity and the continuing presence of Jesus in the world. We become the Resurrection. The Church is the means by which Christ remains involved in the world. So, we, his body, are Christ’s representatives on earth.

We, the Church, are Christ for others – at work, at home, at school, in the community, and in the life of our congregations.

One of the fascinating things about the pandemic is how models of Church have come into play. We have been quite clear here at St George’s – what matters is the mass, our continual focus of strength, renewal, and intercessory prayer. Even when the doors were closed, the mass went on inside this building. I missed you all, but your presence was not the rationale for our existence.

Other places have had a different emphasis. To them what was important was that it should be safe place to gather and worship. Therefore, if people could not come the mass did not happen. Instead, people were encouraged to watch livestreams of services or do their own prayers.

Now, there have been some great ministries there. But when that was the emphasis, the buildings remained closed and unused. Even now I have heard of some parishes where the churches are still closed because of the danger of infection. Nothing happens inside them anymore.

What has happened here is that the idea of church has just become that of a social club, designed for the safety and convenience of those who decide to attend. If they don’t come, it doesn’t matter.

That is not the Church.

St Paul makes the point that we are all part to the body, which is Christ. Unless we find Christ in our midst, we no longer work as that body, doing different tasks, because we no longer have the Spirit renewing and directing us. I do not believe in enlightenment by television. I believe in the gifting of the Spirit through the sacraments. That is why the sacraments are Our Lord’s greatest gift to us. A body has to have a beating heart, and that beating heart is the sacraments, the giving of Our Lord’s blood, infusing all the different members of the body of Christ. The body does not live without the blood from the heart: the Church does not live without the blood of Christ.

We are all given different gifts of the Spirit. But we will not use them is we do not discern them, and we won’t discern them unless we seek the sacraments of grace that we find here. Then we can engage in the great mission of the body of Christ, following the challenges that Our Lord lays before us. They represent how we actively serve as Christ’s continuing presence in the world.

Wedding at Cana- 16 January, 2022

There are several mysteries in the Gospel reading today: there is a wedding but we never meet the married couple; there are the stone jars; and Mary is always referred to as “his mother” and not by name.

Let’s tackle the wedding first. It’s a Cana in Galilee and we are told that the mother of Jesus was there, and, after that, that Jesus and his disciples were there as well. St John in his Gospel is putting the theme of the celebration, but then we never get to mention the happy couple. Presumably, as this was not Nazareth, there must have been a strong connection for them to have travelled to a wedding, this was obviously some big do, not a small village affair. If we are not going to meet the married couple, then the significance is placed on the nature of what is happening: a marriage.

Marriage is the lifelong commitment between two people. In Scripture it is often used as the image of the relationship between God and his people. The people of God are wed to their God: they may be unfaithful to him, but the covenant between God and people cannot be broken. So, any marriage celebration echoes that relationship between God and people, and the absence of the married couple here emphasises this relationship again. St John is reminding his readers that there is a relationship between God and them. The miracle occurs within a relationship.

Then we come to the stone jars. We are told that they are there for the rites of purification, and that they are empty. Presumably, they were emptied before the celebration for the cleansing of the guests, but now they are empty. The rites of purification, like that of temple sacrifice, continue on and on and are repeated, yet always finish with more needed to be done. So it is with the stone jars.

There is also a point of six jars: six is always a pointer to something not complete, it’s not a holy number like seven, the days of creation and rest. Six also indicates that this rite is incomplete.

Finally, we are told that the jars are stone. We often read over that without thinking. But most large jars would have been made in pottery and glazed, that was far cheaper and convenient. Making six large stone jars was a very costly affair. We are deliberately told that they are stone jars, not just jars, so St John is wanting us to think about the stone. Maybe it’s a pointer to the stones of the Temple, as St John has a strong Temple imagery in the Gospel, or to the complaint from the prophets that the people have hearts of stone.

It’s also worth remembering how massive these jars were. They are far out of scale to a normal house. St John is also pointing to the scale of the miracle to happen.

It’s also worth noting that the whole party does not witness the miracles: just the servants. God’s miracles are not always obvious to everyone. It echoes how the birth of the Christchild was announced to the shepherds, people on the fringes, not the whole village of Bethlehem. God often works most clearly with those on the margins, like the servants here.

The next point is why call Mary the mother of Jesus, and not Mary? This emphasises her relationship to Our Lord, and not her. In the great icons of Mary with Jesus, such as our little copy in the Lady Chapel, this relationship is always maintained, Mary points always to her son. She is saying, not me, but him always. Mary is put first at this point, Jesus and his disciples come after her.

Then the wine gives out.

Mary is then the one to solve the problem. She states the obvious and lets Our Lord work it out. Interesting, if you take all the words we have of Mary, the next quote, “Do what ever he tells you” is her last spoken words in the gospels. It’s a fitting conclusion – Mary, once more, always refers back to her son, and says do what ever he tells you. She gives these words of advice to the servants, and to us for all time, and then remains silent.

What the Gospel is emphasising is the nature of Our Lord’s signs; they point to his power as the Messiah. Abundance flows; weddings are prolonged with the new wine.

There are two things I hope you take from these readings today. Firstly, trust Our Lord. We never trust him enough. Our Lord knows who we are, and what we have done and how little we have trusted him. That does not matter. All we have to do is to listen to him again and trust him, and the miracles will happen. This is faith, and it is hard: no wonder our Lord says that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed we could move mountains. It’s such a hard lesson to learn to trust, really trust, and learn that despite all the problems and trails that happen, Jesus is there and looking after us.

Secondly, listen to Mary. Do what ever he tells you. Mary is the one who is constantly pointing us to Jesus. That’s why in many old icons, such as the one in memory of Fr Willoughby, whose year’s mind is later this month, here in our Lady Chapel, Mary points to Jesus. Mary is always saying, “not me, but my son.” Love of Mary does that; it channels our love back to the God, in the person of her Son. That is Mary. The servants seem not to know Jesus, but they trusted Mary, and the miracle happened. Do what ever he tells you. Our problem is that we don’t listen to him enough and then don’t do what he does tell us.

One of the little delights of this passage is the beginning and end. Mary goes to the wedding, and Our Lord and his disciples are invited as well. But Mary is the first one mentioned. Yet at the end, Our Lord leaves, with Mary, his brothers and disciples. His position has changed. He came as one of the family: he leaves as a leader, with his family as followers. Faith changes things: the miracle changed his family. Any encounter with Jesus as our Lord and Messiah does that: we can no longer be first, we are to follow.

So trust and do what ever our Lord tells us.

Grace and Water – 9 January, 2022

Everyone here has presumably been baptised. You may not remember it, but at some stage, someone thought it was important enough to get you done.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord. The Gospels talk about the baptism of Our Lord and the baptism of John the Baptist. The distinction made is that John baptised for the repentance of sins. So, when Our Lord turned up it placed John in a quandary, because he recognised Our Lord as the Messiah, and recognised that he had no sin. So therefore, there was no sense in baptising Our Lord for the repentance of his sins.

But Our Lord insisted. Then in the Gospel according to St Matthew he told his disciples that they were to baptise. Baptism became the defining rite by which Christians were made.

So, what happened when Our Lord was baptised and what happens when we are baptised?

Let’s consider what happens when Our Lord is baptised. Others came for repentance; Our Lord comes with no sins. As God he then takes part in the rite to show his solidarity with all who wish for repentance. But even more, he sanctifies the water by his divinity. The waters are blessed by his baptism, and, as a result, baptism is no longer just for the repentance of sins, but the giving of Christ in a new way. To testify this the Spirit is seen as a dove, and the Father acknowledges the Son from heaven: a new sacrament is formed.

Now we can consider what happens to us when we are baptised.

Remember at this point what the word sacrament means. It came from the oath, the sacred oath, that a Roman soldier gave to serve in the army, way back at the time of christ, the oath to the SPQR. This oath made him a soldier. In the same way the early Christians called baptism a sacrament, as it made each of us a servant and soldier of Christ. Through baptism we will serve the true king for eternity.

But for Christians sacraments are not just words: sacraments are the giving of grace. You may remember from your confirmation days; the definition of sacraments is an outward and visible form of an inner and spiritual grace.

So, what’s the importance of grace. Let’s try an analogy. If a police officer stops you when driving, she usually doesn’t ask you about the make of car you are driving. What is usually asked about is how you were driving. It’s not an offence to drive an expensive car or a bomb, as long as you drive it according to the traffic rules. So, it is with our lives at the end of time. What we will be asked is not if we had a rich home or a poor home, but how we lived out our lives. How we lived our lives depends on whether we were children of God or not, whether we have done God’s will or not. So how are we children of God? Think how we recognise other people’s children – we see the family resemblance. I expect a few of you over Christmas have been looking at grandchildren or nephews or nieces and seeing the resemblance to the parents, or in the case of grandchildren trying to see your own. Or we know the child from long experience: we see the child often with the parent, and we recognise the child as being part of a family unit. So it is with a child of God: children of God are known by the resemblance to God, and that resemblance is the gift of grace in our lives. Grace is the gift to become like God and to grow like God. Grace makes us more Christlike.

This is the great gift of baptism: the gift of grace that makes us a child of God. Sometimes we say it is the wiping of original sin, the removal of that sin that twists us away from God. At baptism we receive the sacramental grace that marks that child as a child of God.

That grace in baptism gives us a particular skill to live out our own particular mission as Christians – we call that a charism. Not everyone has the same mission, not everyone has the same work to do. Nonetheless, all have something invaluable to contribute to the world. All missions complement each other. Thus, no matter what one’s mission is, what one’s charism is, if they live it out properly, they will find themselves receiving not only grace, but great personal satisfaction, as they will have realized who they are meant to be in Christ. For it is through that realisation they will be able to truly see themselves in Christ, and Christ in themselves, and in this manner, like St Paul, they will know all that they do has Christ working in and through them. Their lives have value because their lives make them one with Christ. Everything in the world will be seen in and through the lens of that unity, in and through their union with Christ. Thus, Christians are to make the most of their lives by taking the charism given to them and living it out, for when they do so, they will find themselves filled with glory, the glory of Christ, which is the glory of God. However, like Christ, they should know that such glory is not meant to be something selfishly guarded and used solely for their own benefit, but rather, it is something to be shared with others. To live out one’s mission, to fulfil it, one must be grounded in love, to realize it is not about rising up and becoming a spectacle in the world for others to love and respect, but rather, it is about loving and respecting others, lifting them up so that they too can be that they are meant to be.

Now, a child may not remain with that grace. Sin twists and darkens the image. That’s why we have confession to ask God’s forgiveness to restore the purity of the image, to receive again grace. We also have free will and can deliberately turn away from the grace that is given us.

To go back to the driving analogy again: grace is like wiping away our demerit points. Baptism is like receiving our licence: we don’t start off with zero points, we start off with a full complement of points, it’s up to us to then loose them. Baptism gives us those full points.

This day we remember our baptism and its giving of grace. We are only baptised once in our lives: once we become a child of God, we are never disowned, no matter what evil we commit. God loves us too much. Holy Mother Church reminds us two times in the year about our baptism: today and during the blessing of baptismal water on Easter Eve. In the Orthodox tradition they also have a lovely ceremony for this feast today when they throw a crucifix into the water and people dive in to retrieve it. When I was a curate at Shepperton in Victoria we used to look after the Orthodox Macedonian Community and we did the ceremony every year, it was a lot of fun. It also helped as it was summer; think of the Orthodox who will be doing this swim in the northern winter. In Russia they often do it instead for the Feast of the Holy Cross, which is in September, so they don’t have to brace the icy waters.

Today is a good moment for us all to think about our own baptism, and also question: where do we now stand before God? Are we a child of God or not? If we stood before God this day, as we all must one day, would God recognise us or not? How can we work to become more Christlike, become more a child of God, and receive that grace that so marks us.

The Journey of the Magi – 2 January 2022

Let me read you a poem:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

This is from from the first section of the great Epiphany poem, “Journey of the Magi” by the 20th C poet T. S. Eliot. Eliot in turn also used material from the Christmas sermon preached in 1622 by the English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes. Now Andrews (although what a great first name of Lancelot!) was in the 17th C, after the Reformation, but was very much in what was the Catholic model. He was James I’s favourite preacher, and his sermons are beautiful prose, but also full of Latin and Greek: not for the lazy at all, as they often took an hour. Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, had a gift for elegantly expressive language. It is said that he was fluent in fifteen languages, and that he strived to master one new language every year. When he said his prayers, he did so in three languages, and none of them was English. If you ever go to what is now Southwark Cathedral, just across London Bridge, you can see his tomb.

Eliot took Andrewes’ sermon and reworked part of it into his poem so:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

Became:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The focus of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is the universal reach of the Light of the World. The three Magi, coming from faraway places to do homage to the Christ Child, signify that whatever was revealed in Bethlehem was not confined to a single culture, language, or tradition. The babe in the manger would ultimately spark recognition in every longing heart. All people can come to the God made flesh in the babe of Bethlehem, from poor Jewish shepherds to wise Gentile Magi from afar.

But Eliot’s particular focus is on the psychology and spirituality of the Magi themselves, or at least the one whose voice speaks the poem. He recites the complaints common to pilgrims: bad roads, bad weather, bad food, unpleasant companions, inhospitable strangers, and the homesick yearning for one’s own bed. He wonders whether the journey might be ‘all folly.’

As for the actual moment of arrival, of seeing the long-sought Epiphany, it is described so briefly, as though words must fail before such a mystery:

…and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

Then what? The Magi go back home, to the world they knew,

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Whatever Bethlehem had shown them, nothing in their lives would ever, could ever, be the same. This holy Birth had also brought a kind of death: the ‘old dispensation,’ whatever the Magi had settled for up to now, could no longer stand. The world of the past – erring, broken, lost, in love with the wrong thing – was being swept away. Behold, I make all things new.

When Eliot wrote this poem, not only was he a fairly new Christian, he was also in the throes of a difficult, disintegrating marriage. Coming to the faith at mid-life, Eliot’s conversion was not a simple matter of belief out of unbelief, but of a long, slow, clearly painful process of letting go of one life and clinging desperately to another. Like the Magi, the new convert travels out of one country into a sometimes dark, dank, unfamiliar place where the natives are not always kind, the sleep often restless, the mission undefined. Is it a birth or a death? “I had seen birth and death,” he writes, “But had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” Eliot found the voice of the Magi in his own experience, and the words of Andrewes.

In our own day, says Andrewes in the sermon, we are apt to hold ourselves back, and resist the journey of transformation:

And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. . . . Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

We are well acquainted with such spiritual procrastination. It is a practice not so easy to shed. We do prefer our comfort zones. Or as Andrewes put it, ‘We love to make no great haste.’

And yet, despite our best evasions, there may come a time when we find ourselves on a strange and arduous journey into that Place where everything is changed. Whether we choose the journey, or the journey chooses us, doesn’t really matter. In either case, once we have encountered the Epiphany, we will be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’

And then what?

St Stephen

Here we are again, good people of St George’s! The day before yesterday, in the evening, and yesterday we celebrated Christmas, the feast of Our Lord’s birth. We contemplated the little child in the crib, we sung “Silent Night,” heard the tidings of peace for the world. And suddenly today, in stark contrast, we are clothed in blood-red vestments, we hear of the bloody death of Stephen, and of Our Lord’s warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name’s sake. So, what’s the connection between Christmas and the martyr Stephen? How are we to understand this? Does it mean we shouldn’t take the beauty and the peace of Christmas too seriously?

The Church’s long tradition of celebrating the memorial of St Stephen after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas, but to continue it, and to manifest more clearly an important meaning of the Christmas celebration. Our Lord Jesus became human, became a child, so that he might also find a place in our hearts. We fully understand Our Lord’s birth only in the light of his being born in the heart, in our heart. So, after Christmas, the birth of the small Christchild, we also contemplate the birth of the Church, the Church as a child.

Now when Our Lord comes to dwell in our hearts, that cannot remain without effect. It really makes a difference whether we let him in or not. When he, who can do all things dwells within us, he transforms our hearts, and thus makes a difference in our attitudes towards one another and toward life. We see that in St Stephen’s life. As one of the first deacons he had a twofold task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, the service of love to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for preaching. But since he also the gift of preaching, he should also perform this ministry of truth. And Stephen, trusting in Our Lord, devoted himself whole-heartedly to these tasks. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Our Lord as the Son of God was considered blasphemy. Now, we might think that if Stephen, more considerate of the understanding and passion of his Jewish brothers for the oneness of God, had spoken more carefully about Our Lord, he would not have been stoned, he could have continued to preach Our Lord, he could have done more good.

But St Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Lord who has revealed himself and whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of violence or hatred, but in love and in self-giving. At the last, he forgives the people who kill him. As Our Lord prayed for those who killed him, so St Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” His witness, his death was fruitful for the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably later helped Saul, who was there at his death, to accept Christ’s message, and thereby to become the great Apostle Paul.

St Stephen is an example to us of faithfulness to Our Lord, an example of holding fast to the truth in love, of the way we all should and want to go. This way is not always easy. It is not always easy to avoid deviating too much in one or the other direction: to give up truth for the sake of love, or to give up love for the sake of truth. Sometimes one hears that faithful Christians, in order to be tolerant, must abandon the claim to truth, must not proclaim or hold the faith as truth or even as true, for that leads to intolerance and to hatred. But the example of St Stephen shows us that the world needs the witness of the truth, and that it is possible to preach this truth in steadfast conviction and yet without violence, but in love and in self-giving.

Let us pray to Our Lord, who came into this world as a child, that we have the courage and the wisdom to profess our faith in our family, in our workplace, wherever we are, in a convinced and convincing and loving manner, as St Stephen did. Amen.

Christmas Day 2021

One of my favourite poets is TS Eliot, and he wrote in Little Gidding, “the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” Today we contemplate the mystery of the Word-made-flesh – of God who now at last in the fullness of time takes on human nature to accomplish his plan of our salvation – I am reminded of these words as we look upon the Christchild in his crib. Is it not striking that Our Lord begins his earthly life in a borrowed cave, because there was no room at the inn, wrapped up in linen swaddling clothes, knowing in advance that 33 years later he would end his earthly life much the same way: in another borrowed cave – the tomb lent by one of his secret disciples – wrapped up this time in a linen funeral shroud? This child born between two beasts, this man crucified between two criminals: he is the same God Almighty whose earthly throne is in the Jerusalem Temple perched between two cherubim.

These thoughts help us, who have perhaps become too accustomed to the sentimental aspect of the Christmas story, to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time: to come on bended knee into the Crib this year and to remember that the new-born Baby in Mary’s arms beneath the star of Bethlehem will one day lie lifeless in her arms beneath the cross. We already know how the story ends: with a death and a resurrection. Yet we come back year after year, the eternal freshness of Christmas making us forget the passing years.

What do you think we would have heard in the stable if we could have been there at that first Christmas 2000 years ago? Shh, ssh, don’t wake the sleeping Redeemer, but come and lean in closely. As God sleeps in his bed of straw, I seem to hear not so much a voice as an echo: even with eyes closed, the tender Babe sees the world around him – the world he made, after all – and from within the depths of his soul he asks the question that one day he asked out loud to Peter: “and he asked his disciples, saying: … But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-15). One question, so many answers!

Mary, who do you say that I am? Dear Mother, more than anyone else you understand the true mystery of Christmas.  With a mother’s love you gaze upon your baby son, but you look deeper, Mary: you see beyond the outward veil of flesh, the eternal Son of God: born eternally of the Father he now is born in time through you. O first and living body that held Our Lord, you invite us today not to the stable but to the tabernacle, that we may adore hidden under the veil of bread him whom you adored in his crib of straw. Scripture tells us: “they found the Child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 2:11). It will be the same for us, O holy Virgin: if we want to find Jesus, we must find him with you.

People of Bethlehem, who do you say that I am? What: an inconvenience, an unwanted child? You could at least have seen a family in need and yet in your inn there is no room. “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11).

Shepherds, who do you say that I am? You are simple men: the Pharisees of Jerusalem think nothing of you because you do not share their learning. But you are men of the promise: you know only that God promised your Fathers a Redeemer and you know that he is faithful; you are not ashamed to live in the backwater of Bethlehem because you remember the prophet’s word: “And you Bethlehem are a little one among the thousands of Juda: out of you shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel: and his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2). The days marked out by the prophet have elapsed: now is the time for promise made to be fulfilled. The angel song is the reward of your humility, and you are the first ones invited to adore in the flesh the one whom even Moses feared to see in the thunders of Mount Sinai.

King Herod, who do you say that I am? O saddest of sinners, the wilfully ignorant. The scribes of Jerusalem open to you the prophetic books: the finger of the centuries points out the Messiah. Not only do you refuse to adore, but you think you can destroy God’s plan! We weep for you, poor Herod, when we see you at the head not of those who adore, but of the long line of dictators who think that they can build a human peace by refusing the Prince of Peace. The Holy Innocents, the victims of Roman persecution, those who fall to the sword, the hordes massacred the wars and regimes of the last century: their blood cries out for you, Herods old and new! Your names, O persecutors, pollute the dustbin of history: but the divine Child remains on his throne and he breaks your rod of iron.

And you, what about you, my friends sitting here today: who do YOU say that he is? Is he just a family tradition, a little statue we cart out once a year just to put him away again in a box when we have opened our gifts and eaten our Christmas lunch? Do we feel threatened like Herod, somehow aware that if he is who he says he is, then we need to give him our whole life? Are we indifferent like the people of Bethlehem: is there no room in our inn, because it is over full with the little pet sins we don’t really want to give up? If we do not pray or if there is someone we still have never forgiven, then this year is the Christmas when we finally can decide to put things right. God did not send his only Son, he did not condescend to the poverty of the stable or the shame of the cross, simply so that he could get his picture on a greeting card. He came to save us: “this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). He came to save us because we need to be saved. Because he has come, salvation is now possible – but salvation is not automatic, and salvation is not for the indifferent. If you want to see him one day in heaven, then we must come to him today on bended knee with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds.

Come into the stable with me – we will wait for the shepherds to pay their humble homage – and let us see it anew as if for the first time. Today, heaven is all wrapped up in swaddling clothes. He is there waiting – waiting for you. Christmas is there to remind us that we also must decide. The world can never be the same once God enters it as one of us. It is your turn now to come to the manger. We won’t wake the sleeping Babe, but this Christchild is the end of all our exploring, and we may know again the place for the first time.

Based on a sermon by Canon Francis Xavier Altiere, ICKSP.

Christmas Eve 2021

Last year I stood in this pulpit thinking that at least next year all the worries of Covid would be over. 2020 had been a difficult year, as borders closed, lockdowns threatened, and there was no vaccine.

Yet here we are again. We have a vaccine, yet new versions of covid. Once more we worry about the problems of travelling interstate and the rising rate of infections. Many of us have had difficult years trying to see friends in other cities, or trying to attend funerals interstate.

Our old complacencies of planning holidays and months ahead have been shattered. We yearn for the days when we can have a quiet future of sure plans again.

Being an historian, I have been curious to see how we coped last time, in the Spanish flu outbreak in 1919. At first glance there is very little. But then the pandemic then followed the Great War of 1914-1918, a time of much higher worry. If you look in the Michael Chapel here for can see a list of the men who went to war and died from this area. 1915 was a particularly bad year when many of the young, and not-so-young men, died. Gallipoli took its toll on people who were very much known to those who sat here, from Stanley Lyons a churchwarden of this parish, on 14 June, to young George Stolz, who signed up to look after his younger brother, who severed regularly here and died there on 3 December – presumably his family knew before Christmas, and his mother died soon after, that window in the back is in her memory. Six other soldiers from the area died that year – there were many a sad home this Christmas. Perhaps after all the worry of the War our ancestors just took the outbreak of the pandemic as just another bad year to follow 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918 and would go onto 1921. The names on the board also tell the sad dates. The pandemic of 1919 to 1921 was just another hard year for the lives of the people here.

But we sit here tonight with a sense of unease and worry, wanting things to be normal.

Perhaps, though, we worry so much because we have lost the gift of trusting in God. Where our hearts are, so will be our peace. Tonight, we celebrate the coming of Christ into our world. Not into our world as a God of glory and power, but as a baby, vulnerable to the worries of the world. Mary and Joseph were not powerful and would soon have to flee from the wrath of Herod, and could barely save the life of their son in the massacre that was to follow. Our Lord Jesus was not born into a palace with guards and the best in life, but born into uncertainty. This was to teach us that what is normal in the world is the abnormal, the uncertainty of life. If we trust in the world we will always be disappointed and uncertain, for our hearts will not find contentment here.

But the birth of the the Christchild invites us to a deeper love of one who is beyond the uncertainty of the world. Yes, we will sit here in this church, worrying about families and friends, like our ancestors in faith in 1915 worrying about the friends dying in the War, from the shells of Gallipoli to the gas of the front, or the myriad other causes of death listed in our memorial in the Michael chapel, to the Spanish flu outbreak after the war. We sit here today, worrying again, and I’m sure as God make little green apples, our successors in faith will be sitting here in the future, worrying again.

But here in this Church a little small flame burns over the altar, showing that Christ is present in the sacraments there, a sign that all our worries can rest on him who come into an uncertain world. For all our worries are taken up in that sacrifice he completed for us all, dying on the Cross with the pain of the world and the weight of our sins, so that by his sacrifice all uncertainty would end before his love for us all.

But to enact a sacrifice, there must be an altar, an altar must have a roof over it in case it rains; then to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, we build a little House of Gold with that light flickering its hope into our souls.

Around the church, where we bury the faithful dead, and garden where the magpies sing to God’s glory, the priests and religious whose work is prayer, who keep the Mystery of Faith in its liturgy of music and words in the Office of the Church; and around them, the faithful who gather to worship and do the other work that must be done in order to make the perpetuation of the Sacrifice possible – to raise the food and make the clothes and build and keep the peace so that generations to come may live for him, so that the Sacrifice goes on even until the consummation of the world, when all worries shall cease and peace shall be known, the peace that passes all understanding.

So I invite you all this Christmas, to remember that the worries of the world are passing, but we are invited to put our faith not in the world, but in Our Lord Jesus. Our God came and lived in the worry of the world to show that the worries of the world are passing, but the love of God will never pass.

Mary – Advent 4C, 19 December, 2021

There is something about Our Lady, Mary. You may love her or hate her, but you can’t be a Christian without dealing with her. Who she is and what she does has been one of the sensitive points of Christianity.

We project a lot on Mary. Once we talked about her obedience, how she said let it be to me according to your will, and portrayed her as the woman who was obedient above all else, in contrast to Eve who disobeyed and took the forbidden fruit. Then we had the idea that she was only a teenager, and used her as the model of youth following God. Then she became the hippy, wandering around everywhere, to Egypt and back, in search of her God. There are so many versions of Mary. In this season of Advent, when we look at those who point the way to Jesus: the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary, there are endless ways of seeing how God is pointed out. So, let’s look at one.

St Luke’s is the only gospel in which Mary’s story of the annunciation appears, and in his account, there is nothing submissive nor immature about her. According to St Luke, the angel approached her with words of great honour: Hail Mary, full of grace. Many artists paint the angel kneeling, in recognition of the honour given to her, an angel honouring a woman. The angel is explicit; the honour is for the grace that is distinctly hers. This is a courtship scene: the angel is wooing her, on bended knee, a suitor – not an order from on high.

It is Mary’s grace that has attracted God’s attention. And what is this grace? It is what St Luke shows us in her conversation and her actions – courage, boldness, grit, ringing convictions about justice. It is not submissive meekness: grace is not submission; and the power of God is never meek.

Yes, she is startled by the presence of the angel. So were Gideon, Jacob, Jonah, and the shepherds of Bethlehem, to name a few; they who, like Mary, questioned the angel in wonder, doubt, and even resistance. They are noted for their reluctance. Why not she? What sort of greeting is this? she asked. And the angel obliged her with an explanation. Later, she challenged the angel: how shall this happen to me, when I have no husband? God chose a brave woman.

Many women in biblical stories appear in domestic settings: Sarah is in her tent, baking cakes; Rachel is drawing water at the well; Bathsheba is taking a bath; Martha is fussing around in the kitchen; the woman who lost a coin is sweeping the house. But with Mary, there is no evidence of any domestic work on her part. We never find her cooking, cleaning, washing up. I’m sure she did it, but the Gospels don’t worry about that. It’s not important to whom Mary is. The evidence offered us is her love of adventure. What we find her doing, over and over, is travelling, in journeys that involve risks and an element of danger.

Mary responds to Elizabeth with the beautiful words of “My soul does magnify the Lord,” what we call the Magnificat, from the Latin. Her recitation of this is a political manifesto, delivered fairly publicly, in the home of an official temple priest, who is married to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, with John the Baptist. In Mary’s manifesto there is evidence of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political nous.

Mary is unmarried when the angel comes. The angel’s invitation and her independent decision tell us Mary does not need permission – to become pregnant. God knows Mary owns her own body. And there is no shame in her decision.

Mary, wanted by God, according to the angel, for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, decides to bear a holy child – for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. This is Mary: well-spoken and out-spoken.

Travelling alone, like every prophet before her, she sets out on her first journey, to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, to declare her agenda. There will be more journeys: to Bethlehem; to Egypt and back; to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve; to Jerusalem when he is crucified. But with her cousin Elisabeth we hear how John the Baptist leaps in the womb at the arrival of the unborn Saviour: the word in Greek is the same as when David danced before the Ark on its journey to Jerusalem all those centuries before. John in the womb dances before his Lord as David danced before the Ark. That’s why Mary is known in her litany as the Ark, as she holds the hidden Lord in the same way as the Ark held the hidden presence of God.

Mary gives birth in a barn, lies down with animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive. She beckons women and even men everywhere to speak out for God’s justice, which is waiting to be born into this world.

Meister Eckart, the 13th C German Dominican mystic put it well: “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

Based partly on an address by Nancy Rockwell.

Judgment – Advent 2, 5 December, 2021

Advent is the time when we contemplate the future and prepare ourselves to meet the Lord. We meet him in two ways: firstly, in history at Christmas, when our Lord took on our human flesh to live as one of us. We will meet him again, at the end of time, our time and the world’s time, a place without time, when we face him.

It has been well put (by St Cyril of Jerusalem, some 1600 years ago,) that when our Lord came firstly, he was judged, but when he comes again, he will judge. This is indeed a terrifying prospect, but our Lord know what it is like to be judged, and therefor has mercy. But we must face our sins and his judgment. Yet curiously, and as a paradox, we this moment of greatest scrutiny is promised to be one of greatest intimacy. We shall know him as he is and know ourselves as were truly are, and instead of running for the gates of hell we shall see and understand the love he has for us. Truth shall finally be seen.

So today is rather a bit of a survival training for judgment day. This morning we are faced with St John the Baptist, and his curious baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The New Testament goes to some pains to make this clear that this is difference from the baptism of the Christians, and John is only the forerunner, the one who points the way. Hence, we deal with him in Advent, on the way to Christmas and seeing our Lord.

Christians deal with evil and wrongdoing in a different way to non-believers. Firstly, we acknowledge the existence of evil. Sins are not relative, not the result of background, they are to do with evil, and our temptations to evil. We cannot explain evil away, nor can we ignore the affects of evil in our life. We do sin.

In one sense, it is the hardest part of Christian living, the acknowledging of the problem of sin. We have a culture that makes us victims and wants compensation. If we have failed, there must be a reason, and someone is to blame. However, it is harder to say, that I have sinned, I am responsible, and I must acknowledge it. It’s much easier blaming someone else, and demanding compensation, and being a permanent victim, always blaming your problems on someone else. But that’s not our way. Yes, we are often hurt by other people. In the end we see that it is evil: we can’t explain it, we just have to learn to hate the sin, try and forgive the person, and leave the rest to God.

Now this is where John the Baptist and his baptism comes in. His baptism was a way of acknowledging sin – it was for repentance and forgiveness. It was a public way of saying I have sinned and wanted forgiveness, and as such very, very powerful. One of the great strengths of evil is that it is nameless. By that I mean that the most effective sin is that never discussed, never acknowledged. Sin without form is the most powerful grip on a person. That is why John’s baptism is powerful, and it makes the person say that yes, I am a sinner.

Now here is where Christians part from John and why the New Testament makes a distinction. For we believe that sin can be taken away. That’s the point of Our Lord Jesus – our sins are taken away. We don’t have to suffer the consequences for our evil, we are not caught in a cycle of perpetuation. It all has to do with his death, showing that his love is such that no sin of ours can separate us from that all-giving love. That is why we say the Agnes Dei just before our communion, “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”

All we have to do is let Our Lord take our sins away.

That is why we can approach our judgment with confidence. We will be afraid, because we will see the sin in its true life, clearly spoken so to say, no longer a hidden dark nameless thing. That will be a shock. Don’t have a weak heart on the Day of Judgment. But then we will know, from our Christian lives here, that Jesus loves us, Jesus forgives, and Jesus wants to take us into his bosom. Judgment Day for us is not the horror of sin only, that can drive a person to Hell, but the bravery that we can say, that we are guilty, yet we ask for that forgiveness given to us in the Church, and accept it, and allow us to be overwhelmed in love.

There is another theme I would also like to draw out from the reading today. Both John and Our Lord are put to death by people who don’t want to kill them. John is put to death by Herod to fulfil a foolish promise – he does not want to. Our Lord is condemned to death by Pilate, because of the crowd. Both people sinned because they gave way to other’s wills. Sin is often the giving in to other’s wills. But we are called to follow Our Lord’s will – he gave over his will to God and desired nothing but to follow God. Sin is the removal of our selfish following of other’s wills to give up everything for God.

But for now, we need to look for John, we need to start to see our sins, and find a way of repentance. Nothing beats a life of prayer and the daily examination of conscience – how have I done this day, what have I done and what should I have done better? If we do that, sin is forced out of the shadows and we start to grapple with. That way we can prepare for judgment.

Our Lord is coming – what shall we do?

The Days are Surely Coming – Advent 1, 28 November, 2021

“The days are surely coming,” says the Lord. So starts our first reading today, with the ominous words of Jeremiah to the rebellious people of Israel and Judah, who have left their God to follow the other gods. What has happened? The people of the land have become assimilated into the religious practises of the people around them, and as a result, the wrath of God hangs over them, warning them of the future disaster that will come, when they, with those of the other people around them, those who also worship those petty gods, will be taken away. The days are surely coming.

But we know what has happened in the meantime: in the meantime, the people of Israel and Judah went along with life, enjoying it, and ignoring the prophets who were sent to warn them. It was, and is, always the case. Life, at the moment, seems more interesting: what’s on the television seems more fascinating than the call of the Spirit. But the days are surely coming, says the Lord.

Today we enter the season of Advent, when we contemplate the days that are surely coming. The colour and liturgy changes, and, in the season of Advent, we are encouraged to turn from the now to look to the future.

At first sight the future is not too pleasant. People are going to faint from fear and foreboding, we are told by our Lord, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. But for Christians it is to be different: when these things take place we are to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.

Traditionally we look at the four last things in Advent as we look to the certainties that our faith teaches: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The days are surely coming when we will have to face these certainties, and this season is a time when we prepare ourselves for them. We do this because we believe that our life does not end here: this is just a passing stage for creatures destined for immortality, so we have to prepare ourselves for these things.

But when you think about both the final coming of Christ as well as your own future death, what comes to mind? If you were informed by an angel that tomorrow would be that day, the day that the Son of Man would return in all his splendour and glory to bring about an end to this world and to issue forth his judgment upon it, how would you react? Would you be terrified? Overjoyed? Hopeful? Confused? Perhaps a little of each of these reactions would be present. Of this time, Our Lord said that “nations would be in dismay” and that “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming into the world.” So, what is your reaction to this promised day of our Lord?

Those who “die of fright” are clearly those who will experience this day completely unprepared. Meeting the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Saviour of the World and the Eternal Judge when you are completely unprepared should be frightful. Nothing could be compared to being unprepared for the judgment of Christ when we stand before him at the time of our death and then at the Final Judgment at the end of the world.

The good news is that on that day, for those who are truly prepared through a life of faith and selfless service of God’s will, they are told to “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” If you do all you can to prepare for that day, then it will be a day in which you anticipate with the utmost hope and excitement. You will indeed be able to stand erect, turn your eyes to the coming Judge of All, and receive the eternal reward that he so deeply desires to bestow. But this will be your experience only if you are truly ready for that day through a life lived in complete imitation of Christ.

Judgement is also a moment when justice is finally done. Justice we know is a hard virtue to find, so much of what we face is compromise or just wrong. But justice is the very nature of God, the God who sees and knows everything, the God who has lived our lives to also show mercy. The days are surely coming, when finally, finally, true justice will be seen and understood.

Reflect, today, upon that final day. Imagine every person ever created standing before the Judgment Seat of Christ. Every sin and every virtue will be made manifest on that day. The minds and hearts of all will be seen in the light as they are revealed to all by God. Justice will finally be done. Those who have lived lives of fidelity will rejoice as they see God’s justice and mercy unite as his judgments are issued forth. If this day is one that frightens you, consider the reasons why. If you do not look forward to this definitive moment in time, then perhaps you need to ponder more deeply those things you need to do so as to be fully prepared. Prepare yourself today. Do not wait. Our Lord could return at any time. Do not be caught off guard.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord. The question is: how do we want to meet those days? In this Advent season, we are reminded again to turn and face the coming glory of God. We are called, in the words of our Thanksgiving Prayer of the Mass, to wait with eager longing of the coming of the Lord. Eagerness, because we realise that what we are offered is far, far better. This understanding then changes our now, it makes us live in the world with joy knowing the love and power and glory of God. That’s why our Lord tells us that we are not to live with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life: a life lived in God is far, far more glorious than that.

We are not to be afraid of the future: God will be there. We are not to be afraid of this moment: God is surely here. Advent allows us to glimpse the glory of that future to inspire us for the moment. The days are surely coming says the Lord, and we can have the confidence to live them now.

Kingship – 21 November, 2021

At long last we come to the end of our Church year. Today is the last Sunday in the cycle of readings, this year’s being Mark, next year’s being Luke. The Church year starts with Advent, the period in preparation for Christmas, but we end the year celebrating a reasonably modern feast, that of Christ the King.

This feast originated in the last Century and finally ended up being celebrated on the last Sunday of the Church’s year. It started in the 1920s, that period after the end of World War I, with the collapse of the European empires and the rise of a myriad of nation states. In the 1920s, many of these states were drifting towards authoritarian governments, often with highly nationalistic and racist ideologies.

It was also a time when the grand ideals of the end of the war started to fail. The establishment of the League of Nations as part of the peace treaties was a hope that there would be universal arbitrator, that would impose peace and prevent nations going to war. Instead, it was hamstrung at the start and its impartiality was never established, as it was seen as part of a victors’ peace terms imposed.

There was also a loss of certainty. The old empires, such as the Russian or Austro-Hungarian, had a hierarchical structure of privilege. Emperors were seen as anointed by God and the system was presented as God-given. But the new and fragile democracies had no such certainties. They were not even certain who should be included in their borders at times. Large numbers of Hungarians ended up in the Romania, and Germans ended up in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Let alone considering the carve-up of Africa with its arbitrary borders.

A casualty of this era was a common view of what was the best form of government. What was the best form: monarchy, democracy, communism, or dictatorship? How do you judge this?

Well, you know the rest, and the resulting war. But the underlying problem remained about the nature of truth. How do you know what is true in a plural world?

This is why the feast of Christ the King was instituted. It was Pope Pius XI’a answer in 1925 to the conflicting ideologies of the world. The only true king for Christians is our Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, only the truths that are revealed are the eternal truths.

What the church was saying was no political system was a true system. In the complexities after the war, he was warning that these different systems were all flawed.

Now, over a hundred years have now passed since the end of World War I. But the problem of what is truth remains.

As the last Century closed this became a problem of what was called post-modernism as well. Simply put, it was argued that there was no one truth. Your truth was just as valid as my truth. The idea of truth being something apart and objective was lost for many people. This idea arose from the argument that all people are equal, therefore all truths are equal. Cynically, our civilisation is only that which is imposed by those in control, and not because of underlying truths of justice, because there can be no absolute truth to underpin it.

There was also a huge growth of mechanisms for justice at the same time. With the loss in belief of an impartial truth and therefore a true justice, a whole plethora of mechanisms arose to try and find a justice, often to remedy older systems that were autocratic and bias. I was once a lawyer and over the years I have sadly learnt that so many legal systems are arbitrary, and depend on who can pay for better lawyers. Professional standards tribunals, family law courts, criminal courts all fail too many times because they are flawed institutions that do not deliver true justice. Often they perpetuate injustice instead.

Our gospel today touches on the idea of truth. Our Lord says he came into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate replies, with the cynical, “what is truth?”

There you have it. Our Lord the world-giver testifying to one truth, and Pilate the world-weary finding all truths the same. Pilate does not wait for an answer, but moves on, as for him there is no answer to the search for truth, because he does not see God before him.

The rise of post-modernism at the end of the last century has left us with a world that does not have a concept of a truth, but just a multiuse of so-called truths. This feeds into conspiracy theories that undermine so much of the struggle to find a common purpose, a common purpose that cannot be found because there is not a common truth.

But if we are believers in God, we have to hold to the belief that there a truth that is above who we are and what we perceive. That there is a God who has justice and that our justice must conform to that to have truth. That God is truth beyond all the distortions with which we corrupt the world.

This is why we keep the feast of Christ the King. We believe that there is a Lord, Jesus Christ, who is a true ruler of life. We believe that as our ruler we have a duty and loyalty to him above any system of the world. Furthermore, because he is God, there is a truth that can be found.

This then ties in nicely with what we will talk about in Advent next week, when we talk about Our Lord being the judge at the end of time, and the four last things, as we call them, the four certainties we face. The four last things that Advent covers are death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Judgment is important, because that is when we shall finally find true justice, something we yearn for in this confusing world.

On this feast of Christ the King I would like us to remember that all of this world’s systems only have validity if they touch the divine truth beyond. The only way we can live within this world and its structures is by our life with God, by prayer and sacraments, so we can fulfil God’s will for us and this world. This world will to get better by itself. But it will get better by the courage of each of us to listen to God, to find the truth and apply it in our lives and those for whom we have a responsibility. Or, as Our Lord said, “your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Sacrifice – 14 November

Sacrifice is a word that is over used and misunderstood in our world. We talk about sacrifice in many ways – she sacrificed her career for him, for example, when someone gives us something for another. We perhaps hear it in the more formal words from Remembrance Day last Thursday or Anzac Day, about those who made the supreme sacrifice in war.

But for the ancients, sacrifice was one of the actions of life, usually a bit bloody but also a celebration. Pagans and Jews in the ancient world routinely sacrificed. Usually it was animals of some sorts, although the grain offering of the Temple was also a sacrifice. But for most people, sacrifice was the giving up of expensive animals to be slaughtered before your eyes. Often the meat would then be shared with you, some would be kept by the Temple and some returned. Every pagan town would have a temple altar of some sort, where animals would be slaughtered. It is suspected that it was a major source of protein in the ancient diet. You could not escape the smell of blood that would be so strong. Some anthropologists have even suggested that the foundation of human society was not in the so-called social contract suggested by Rousseau and Hobbes, but in a sacrificial compact instead. But that’s another story. Also, what was important was the altar, outside, where the animal was slaughtered, not the building behind, which was used often as a sort of treasury.

For Jews sacrifice was a little different – only in the Temple of Jerusalem would sacrifice be made. But at peak times, like Passover, massive amounts of animals would be slaughtered, tens of thousands of lambs for example. That’s a lot of blood. They used to wash down the Temple, and blood and water literally used to flow from the side of the Temple. That’s the significance of the blood and water flowing from Our Lord’s side on the cross.

So, when the writer to the Hebrews, whoever that was, wrote his letter to those Jews, they would have been very familiar with the concept of sacrifice, and visualised easily the Temple or the local pagan temple altar, with all the smell of animals being slaughtered. Sacrifice was important – it dealt with the notion of appeasing the gods or God and making an offering for a person’s sin. Only sacrifice could do this with its mysterious opening of the doors of death through the shedding of blood.

But the sacrificed needed to be repeated. This was because our own sin continued and the gods remained displeased. There was no end to sacrifice and the shedding of blood and life.

It’s the insight of the unknown writer of Hebrews who thinks about what does it mean, for Christians, that we no longer have a sacrifice of animals? The writer realises the ultimate defect of sacrifice, in that it cannot stop. No matter how many animals you kill, your will need another one. But Christians don’t – why?

The main reason is that animal sacrifice is not required, we have the sacrifice of Christ which we share in the bread and wine, which Our Lord identifies using sacrificial language as his body and his blood. His shedding of himself completes the sacrifice.

This is where the writer takes a new idea. In the past, sacrifices were done for Jews by the line of Aaron, and continued forever, but Jesus takes his priesthood from another line in the Old Testament, that of Melchizedek. Our Lord becomes the new high priest, the sacrificer, and at the same time, the victim, therefore completing the impossible, and being a completion of the demand of sacrifice.

Now, Christian theologians have been divided on why Our Lord had to complete the sacrifice by being the victim. Some writers from the middle ages and then and then the great Protestant Calvin, saw Christ’s death as satisfying the legal need of God – we had broken the law and deserved to be punished, so Our Lord out of his love for us dies in our place and takes away our sin. This is what is called satisfaction atonement, that is Our Lord gives full satisfaction for our sins by dying. But other theologians disagree. For that theory means that Our Lord has to die to appease a God who wants death and sacrifice, an angry God who needs his Son to die. That doesn’t sound like our sort of god.

The alternative theory, from the 20 C Rene Girard and James Alison, is that Our Lord dies to stop us victimising. The needs of sacrifice are not divine, for God always loves us. We sacrifice because we see our evil and we put a sacrifice in place of ourselves. We channel our violence and evil into a sacrifice to show our shame and remorse. This idea is one of transference – we make God into an image of our own evil anger and appease it with the precious blood of life to console ourselves. Sacrifices continue because we never really change and give up vengeance.

Then Our Lord dies as the victim. His identification with the victim means that when ever we try and channel our anger into a victim we find Christ is there. As we love God, we find we can’t sacrifice anymore – Christ is the perpetual victim, so whenever we victimise, we find ourselves opposed by Our Lord. God is not an angry God demanding legal satisfaction but a loving God stopping our evil need of victimisation by turning into the victim.

Once you accept that you start to see the reason why we use sacrificial language with our communion. For we come here to take part in a sacrifice as well. This is not a social club, that’s a fringe benefit, but what we do here is to take part in the eternal sacrifice once on the cross. We take Our Lord’s body and blood, we become part of the victim. This means that we too join with whoever is victimised in the world, the marginalised and the oppressed and the objects of our own sins. Whenever we victimise someone, who ever the current bogeyman is, we see Christ in that person. Whenever we find someone victimised, we join with that victim through the love of God. The self giving of Jesus changes our world and how we oppress and hurt those around us. But most importantly the great sacrifice of Our Lord and Saviour takes all our own sacrifices and hurst and redeems them in the love of God for each one of us.

Sacrifice is different for us because of what we believe as Christians. We no longer think in terms of sacrifice of animals – we think in terms of self sacrifice, how we can give ourselves, and the sacrifice of Christ himself at the altar here. Through our belief in Christ, and our actions, we no longer can pick on animals or refugees, or Moslems or others – we must learn to give ourselves.

All Saints – 7 November, 2021

The good news of the week has been the finding of little Cleo Smith. Everyone on that day was talking about it: we had all been worrying about the fate of the child and thinking dark thoughts, and feeling so deeply for the family whose child was missing. Then the sudden and unexpected news that the child was safe and alive was such a blessing.

I also think that it was such good news because we have had such difficult times. We have all felt the effects of border closures and restrictions. I personally know the worry of not being able to visit an elderly mother. But that’s small fry compared to those who have been separated from close family members. Then there is the whole mask thing, putting it on, taking it off, trying to speak or sing with the thing, it’s frustrating and makes us short-tempered. Yes, we all understand the reason, but that doesn’t make it comfortable. And let’s not start about holidays. We are testy and stressed. So, the news of little Cleo’s safe recovery is wonderful.

It a light in the darkness moment.

I would like us to reflect a bit about the contrast of this today. For today we celebrate one of the ancient feasts of the Church, the feast of All Saints. The origin of this goes back maybe to the 7th or 8th Century, and seems to have evolved particularly in England. That’s why we still get places like All Hallows, which is the older Anglo-Saxon name for All Saints, which is the same word as in “hallowed be your name” in the Lord’s Prayer.

This festival originated because Holy Mother Church wanted us to reflect on the importance of what death and heaven were all about. We have records of saint’s days being commemorated going back to the early church, such with the death of Polycarp in the 2ndC. The idea of what life, death and resurrection was an important one to teach in the pagan world.

The vast majority of people in the ancient world led tough, hard and short lives. From dawn to dusk it was a struggle to get shelter and food. Water was drawn every day and woodfire collected. Then there were plagues and famines that decimated populations. As well as barbarians and later Vikings that could destroy everything. If you ever read the history written by the chroniclers, such as Bede in England of the Early Middle Age, you understand. Bede talks about the swallow flying through the open side of the great hall through the light then out into the darkness again as an analogy of God’s light. I always think how drafty those mead halls must have been with opening to allow the smoke to escape and everyone huddled around trying to keep warm.

What the Faith offered was a hope in the hardness and darkness of life. It taught that there was light in the difficulties of the world. That there were saints, and that the saints knew us and prayed for us, and that we had the chance to join their company as well. That the love of God seen in Our Lord who became one of us, and shared our darkness in pain and death; yet rose from the dead to new life in eternity. Furthermore, this was done out of love for who we were and and the love that knows us all. Our Lord does not want us to be serfs or slaves, not even warriors, but children in his heavenly kingdom instead.

That’s why this feast is so important. We all fall into the darkness of life at times. Now, we don’t have to worry about the Vikings marching and plundering through Goodwood tomorrow. But there are things just as bad: the lack of faith; the pursuit of money that destroys the ability to rejoice in life; the viciousness of modern media; the obsession of our own needs to the exclusion of everything else. Or there are the other extremes, the worries of the world, what does climate change mean for us and our children? Or why are people having conversations about things such as transgender rights in children or the me-too or woke or a whole range of ideas that makes us search Wikipedia to try to understand.

Now, don’t get me wrong; these ideas are all important. Inequality and oppression are always wrong and need to be understood. But one thing the pandemic has taught us is that the best laid plans that we make will go astray. The Vikings are not going to plunder Goodwood tomorrow but I don’t know when I will feel safe to take a holiday anywhere. We are faced with a clear uncertainty in our lives now that we didn’t seem to have before.

But we pray each day, “hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” The saints tell us that the burdens of this world do end. That there is a hope for each of us, to be part of that heavenly kingdom. That hope has inspired the saints throughout the ages. The Roman authorities could not believe how the Christian martyrs were willing to leave this life on this hope, like the teenage Agnes or Lucy, whose shrines are in this church. That faith in God who would make all things new in heaven gave them the courage to face martyrdom. That was the good news that inspired them to die to find life again.

So, this feast of All Saints is one to remind us that there is always good news when we deal with God. Faith offers us so much more than this grey life ever can. Every time we take the sacrament of the living body of Christ  at the altar we affirm again that hope in our lives. Jesus lives. The saints pray for us. And we have a everlasting home in heaven, when all tears will be wiped away and no one ever wears a mask.

Reformation Sunday – 31 October, 2021

Today is a day when many churches are celebrating what is called Reformation Sunday. That’s because Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany, on this day, 31 October, 1517.  in It’s not usually part of our calendar here but please indulge me this morning, as this is an important part of our history.

We should start by avoiding simplistic views of what the Church was like in the mediaeval period. It’s too simple to say it was corrupt with things like indulgences and bad living popes. The Church militant, that is the Church here, is always filled with saints and sinners. Yes, there were indulgences, where people paid for time off purgatory, but many were trying to reform and outlaw this practice at the time as a bad thing. Yes, there were popes who lived bad lives. But there were good and holy people as well. Our history since that time is not spotless either: every age has its own besetting sin. Part of the nature of divisions is that they ‘other’ the other side: by that I mean that ascribe all the faults to the opposition.

Let’s get back to Luther. His protest, thanks to the new medium of printing, spread rapidly, and reached most of the major cities within a few months. In an earlier age of handwritten documents, it would have taken years. The Pope and Emperor condemned the teaching, and in England Henry VIII wrote against it, and was given, as a reward, the title of Defender of the Faith, a title he kept and is still used by the British sovereign.

But of course, Henry soon had troubles of his own with wives that eventually led him to repudiate the primacy of the pope. He decided that the best way to establish control was to declare England outside the jurisdiction of the Pope and he became Supreme Head. This allowed him to confiscate the wealth of the monastic communities scattered throughout the realm and reward his supporters. But little changed otherwise: the mass continued in Latin and almost unchanged from earlier times.

It was under his son, Edward VI, that the Latin mass mas changed to the English service, with the publication of the first and then second book of Common Prayer in 1549 and 1552. Then his sister Mary I brought back the Latin mass, and then his sister Elizabeth I brought back the BCP.

All this left a church very confused. It had bishops, priests and deacons as the traditional church always had, yet it didn’t have the Latin mass. It was headed by a monarch claiming the title of Supreme Governor (Elizabeth was more cautious than her father) but no pope.

When Mary ascended the throne there was an exodus of Protestants to Europe who returned when Elizabeth became Queen. Many had lived in more radical Protestant cities and expected that Elizabeth would continue the reforms of her brother and establish a totally reformed church, with ministers being elected from congregations. However, Elizabeth was having none of that, and had no intention of giving up her control over the church. She kept the church on the same basis as when her brother died.

This left the English church in a strange situation. It was protestant yet not protestant. It was the genius of theologians at the end of Elisabeth’s reign like Richard Hooker that moved the argument to seeing the English Church as being not a deformed Catholic or incomplete Protestant church, but as something different – a middle way, a via media in Latin, that was both Catholic and Reformed.

Now, this was a very important position. It allowed the Anglican Church, as it would become to be known, as a church that was Catholic and Reformed, a bridge, so to speak, between that of Rome and that of the Protestants.

Now another important part in this was the English civil War that happened after Elizabeth’s death, in the reign of Charles I, between 1642 and 1651, and the succeeding republic and then the restoration of the King Charles II in 1660. England, Scotland, and Ireland were involved in war that was political and religious. The end of it was a realisation that England would exist with a diversity of religious belief: that the State would not impose one form of the church. The English church would try and be encompassing, and that Roman Catholics and other Protestants had a right to hold their religious beliefs.

This led to a a decision to hold the church to the model established under Elizabeth. There would be bishops, but also the Book of Common Prayer that would not be changed greatly from her brother’s time, that would define what it meant to be Anglican.

Now, I could go through the see-saw of how the political ramifications of this played out, with bishops and synods and parliaments all playing different roles. But it evolved a Church that had not only bishops with their authority, but a strong lay authority as well, such as with elected wardens in parishes and eventually synods with the bishop.

Most importantly it has given us a Church that works on balances. Traditionally, we see authority working as Scripture, reason, and tradition. Roman Catholics have what is called the magisterium, the teaching of the church, that can be infallible. We hold that to be tradition, and it need not always be infallible. Yes, we hold to some things as bound, as by the first seven councils, such as the nature of the Trinity, or the definition of what makes the Bible. Protestants often have what they call confessing documents, that is defining statements of some time that are true and cannot be changed. We do not hold our 39 Articles to this standard. We hold that Scripture is a source, but is not complete: it is not like a Koran for Muslims. Then we hold that reason is a way we interpret and understand the teaching of Scripture and tradition.

Now, this is by no means fool proof. The debates about women’s ordination and same sex marriages run against tradition and use Scripture and reason to explore these questions. All we can say is that just because Scripture is silent, and tradition opposes, does not mean the question is ended. This is where theologians like the great John Henry Newman, that Anglican and Roman Catholic, come in, with their idea of the development of tradition and how new ideas are tested and then received, or not received, by the body of the church, that is you here in the pews over time.

What hold this together in the end is a healthy balance and respect. Our church is the best when there is difference, and we respect the breath of views. It is best when those views are made clear and not glossed over as unimportant: that is not intellectually honest nor theologically challenging. When we try to make all parish churches the same, we destroy the genius of being Anglicans. That is why we pray here not only for our wider church, such as Francis of Rome and Bartholomew of Constantinople, but also the protestant leaders. That is why we need places like Holy Trinity in the city. And finally, that is why we, St George’s, complete with incense and birettas and everyone of you, are also needed by everyone else.

Seeing – 24 October 2021

Most books that deal with successful lives or businesses like to explain how they got things right. They often even have rather complacent titles, like, “How to Succeed in Business without Trying” or “How to be Millionaire” or ”How to Lose Weight without Trying” or some other rather smug title.

The Gospels are completely the reverse. They continually show failure and lack of understanding by the disciples of Our Lord. St Mark shows time and time again that the disciples just don’t get it. One only has to think about Peter’s great confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, immediately followed by trying to shut Jesus up with his story of suffering and death, causing Our Lord to rebuke him with “get behind me Satan.” Many scholars believe that Mark originally finished his Gospel (for there are several possible endings to Mark, if you look in a good translation of the Bible) with the command of the young man to the women to go and tell of the resurrection, but they flee and tell no-one, because, we learn, they are afraid. Yet, the Gospel was written for a community who was very much there, and growing, and Mark is teaching that despite our human failings the Church will continue and overcome our failures to teach the Good News.

The passage today, about Bartimaeus, is a passage that continues the illustration how the disciples fail to understand. It concludes a central passage in Mark, where the miracles of healing and interspersed with Our Lord teaching that he must suffer and die. In contrast, the disciples fail continually, such as failing to use the power in exorcising demons and arguing who is the greatest.

Now, one of the most interesting things in this passage today, is that we have a name. Now, names are rare in the Gospel, we are only given a name if they have a continuing importance. In contrast, the blind man healed at Bethsaida is nameless, and we only learn of the healing of Jairus’s daughter, never her name. Perhaps the reason is because the story of Bartimaeus is a story of coming to faith.

It starts with the story set at Jericho. This brings a resonance with the Old Testament, besides the famous story of the falling walls of Jericho, we also have the story of Rahab the Prostitute, who sheltered the spies of the Israelites, and who is a symbol of belief in God. Bartimaeus is a blind beggar. He hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth, and starts to shout out for mercy, calling Jesus the Son of David, a kingly title. Despite the orders of those who do see, and do not acclaim Jesus, he continues his cries for mercy. He is heard, and Our Lord calls him forward. Note that he throws off his cloak to reach Jesus – discarding of old clothes is always an important image in Mark, that is seen most dramatically in the young man who is seized after the arrest of Jesus and runs away naked, an image of leaving a life behind.

Then we have an example of perfect discipleship: Our Lord asks what can he do for him and Bartimaeus asks for sight, and Our Lord grants it to and he sees immediately. Our Lord tells him that his faith has made him well.

Then Our Lord tells Bartimaeus to go, but instead we learn that he follows him on the way. This rather surprising contradiction makes sense only when you remember that the early Christians called their faith “the way,” and this is an image then of following the faith. Bartimaeus becomes a model of a true disciple, not arguing about status, but calling for mercy, asking for healing in true faith, and therefore receiving it, and then following the way. It is for this reason that he has a name, as a follower and believer.

And in perhaps the most remarkable turn in this remarkable story, Bartimaeus is not the only one healed and called in this story. Did you catch who else had a radical conversion? The crowd. They begin with cruelty and exclusion in their hearts, doing everything they can to keep Bartimaeus away from Our Lord: “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” And this is the pivotal moment. Our Lord does not call Bartimaeus directly. He calls the crowd to call Bartimaeus. “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’”

And then the redemption, so easy to skip over if you’re not paying close attention. “And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’” This is the moment of the crowd’s conversion, the crowd’s healing, and the crowd’s call. Our Lord’s love is so sneaky and so powerful that it broke open their hardened hearts and they probably didn’t even notice it. They go from trying to keep people away from Jesus to urging them forward. They go from seeing Bartimaeus as an embarrassment and trying to shut him up and keep him hidden, to telling him to take heart and go forward into Our Lord’s embrace.

What we learn here is that call is never individual. We hear call in community. Bartimaeus calls for Jesus, Jesus calls the crowd, the crowd calls Bartimaeus, then Jesus calls Bartimaeus to follow him on the way. This entire process of call and response is deeply healing to everyone involved.

The English writer and clergyman Jonathon Swift, who in between being Dean of St Patrick’s Dublin, a great wit, and writng Gulliver’s Travels, once said that vision is the art of seeing things invisible. It’s a good point. Bartimaeus saw the invisible in Jesus. Bartimaeus is contrasted with the disciples in the gospel today, who see Our Lord healing and doing mighty acts of power, but don’t get the vision: they are lost in their rivalries and dreams of power rather than asking for the vision to understand. It’s also the same with Christians at times; we lose the vision of what it means to follow the Way, to be a Christian. Bartimaeus recognises Our Lord as a royal king, he asks for mercy and healing, and gets it. It’s the same for us; we continually need to see Jesus as our King and Lord, and ask for his mercy, then follow his way. But then remember Mark’s backup message, the message of the whole Gospel: people fail, but the Church goes on. The sum of our failures is not oblivion, but continual offers of repentance and renewal so that the Church, full of imperfect people, still is a place of grace and renewal.

So we are invited today to regain our sight, to see the vision once more, of a God who asks for us to recognise him as our teacher and God, who offers us sight and then asks us to follow the way. God never, never gives up on us, his mercy never fails. So let us hold to that hope, the hope of God and follow the way.

Names – 10 October

There are three famous stories in the Gospel about wealthy people. There is the one today, about the rich young man, there is the parable of Lazarus and Dives (where both die, and Lazarus, who was poor in life goes to Abraham’s bosom), and Zacchaeus, the little wealthy man who climbed the tree to see Jesus.

What is interesting in thinking about these three stories is the use of names. The rich young man in today’s story is given no name. Zacchaeus obviously has one. In the story of Lazarus and Dives, when you read it, the two are contrasted but only poor Lazarus is named – we just call the other one Dives for convenience.

So in the three stories, only once does the wealthy man get a name, in the story of Zaccheaus, who takes Our Lord to his house, entertains him, and then promises restitution for any extortion. So, what makes him special?

Zaccheaus is the one who changes from meeting our Lord. He is the one who promises to give up half his wealth to the poor and restore fourfold any one he has defrauded. He is changed by his encounter with the Lord. In contrast, the other two stories are about the wealthy who fail to change: Dives never changes in life and repents only after death, and the rich young man in today’s gospel also goes away, turning down our Lord’s invitation to give away his wealth and follow our Lord instead.

So, the one who is named, is the one who is changed. Zacchaeus is changed – the others are not. They disappear into history, as examples of those who turn down the offer from God to change, successful in life and failures in eternity, disappearing into oblivion as nameless.

Consider now the wealthy young man who needed to let go of his wealth to inherit eternal life. Our Lord knew that it was his true greatest burden and the young man did not have the strength to let go. It’s also interesting that he asks Our Lord what must he do to inherit eternal life, not obtain, but inherit, like the gift of unearned money from family. He may have made a name for himself in life, but as a result he is nameless to us who follow our Lord. Dives is also nameless to us from his failure to care for Lazarus in life. To follow our Lord is to become a name in God’s eyes, someone who has undertaken the challenge of letting go of what ever we hold most tightly and follow our Lord instead.

Now it is easy to make the Gospel story today about the perils of riches. But temptation is not only about money, it can be about a lot of things. Don’t simplify it. The hold of part of life in some way attracts each of us and binds us. It may be money, it may be status, it may be control: the permutations of temptation are endless. What each has in common is that we are held in some way.

Where you heart is, so is your soul. We can all be tempted. The call from our Lord in each is the same: that we need to renounce that which we hold most closely to find the freedom of following our Lord. We may still be good people even in thrall to our personal temptation – after all the rich young man only lacked one thing, he was not a bad man at all – but eternal life is more than just being good enough, it is about overcoming those temptations. It is about becoming detached from the what holds us away from God. Detachment from the goods and poverty are the indispensable condition for discipleship for three reasons:

1       We have faith in God who provides to us as a Father. If God cares for the birds and the lilies of the field, then God has even more care for each of us.

2       We have a need for companionship, fraternity, of being with other people: how can we continue to own all that we have, when we realize that all around us there are those who lack the necessary?

3       We have a need for freedom: if we are tied to too many things (and it is not just money) that absorb all of our time and our attention, how can we find the space and the taste for the things of God?

After detachment, we can then start to think what is our true wealth in the world? In the end wealth and worth comes from love, love that we share. It’s fitting today that we are also blessing animals at 10 am, for we often find great consolation from the love that animals give to us, that dependant, centred love that reminds me always of the purity of God’s love. Love is the greatest gift that Our Lord shared and the greatest wealth in any life.

So today I want to encourage you all to fight with your own temptations. The way to start is always with little things, if you can succeed in little things, big things start to shrink. Remember that we can have faith in a God who knowns us, we have the need for fraternity with those in need, and we need a freedom from the burdens of the world. Then when you finally can renounce that which binds you most tightly, then you find you have followed our Lord, and eternal life is yours, and you have a name – the name in the Book of Life.

Michaelmas – 26 September

I shouldn’t really be surprised, but it really is amazing how people have forgotten their Christian roots, their Christian heritage, their Christian language, their Christian beliefs. Today we live in a post-Christian world where possibly most people have very little idea about the fundamentals of Christian belief. Which is why clergy often run into a problem when someone suffers a bereavement. It’s not unusual nowadays to hear, when someone has died, loved ones talk about how the dead person is now one of the angels in heaven. As a priest you hear this quite a lot. And it’s tricky, because, on the one hand, you want to be pastorally sensitive to someone who is grieving. But at the same time there is gnawing temptation to correct people who are saying something about the Christian faith which is just simply, well, just wrong.

When human beings die, they don’t become angels. Why? Well, because angels are angels, and humans are humans. Dogs are dogs, cats are cats, and humans are humans and angels are angels. They are just different. Angels are pure spirit: part of the invisible creation we proclaim our belief in when we recite the Creed, that we believe in all things visible and invisible. Spirit is what they are: angels, as the great St Augustine of Hippo pointed out, is what they do: the word angel means messenger or servant of God. Humans are not pure spirit: we have material bodies. Angels don’t: different specie.

So, we are not angels. So, when someone tells you that so and so is no angel, you can agree without any hesitation. No heresy there! There are, though, similarities. Angels and humans have free will. It’s long been a part of the Church’s teaching that Satan was once a good angel but one who used his free will to reject God and his love. The devil has “sinned from the beginning,” he is “a liar and the father of lies,” as St John reminds us in his first letter. But the main point I wish to make is that for centuries, belief in angels stemmed from belief in the supernatural. And one of the things that has characterised Christianity in the last half a century – and this might sound a bit odd – is our rejection of the supernatural.

Like many people of a certain generation, I grew up in an age of faith and my natural life was saturated with the supernatural. I lived in a world of saints, and angels, and miracles. We talked about the miracle of Dunkirk or other events. For many people, 21st-century Christianity has become an earthbound religion. We are to feed the poor and comfort the afflicted. We are to fight for social justice, locally and globally. We may even see the health of this planet and its creatures as a prime responsibility of care. And this is all right and good. But for decades now, many theologians have downplayed the importance of the supernatural and the devotional life that springs from that. Sometimes, they have even ruled out the possibility of divine intervention in people’s lives. And that’s where I have an issue. After all, ours is a religion that was founded by a man who cast out demons, miraculously healed the sick, rose from the dead, and appeared to his followers after his death and then ascended into another realm of being beyond the visible and natural: it was super-natural.

Our Lord believed in the world of angels – as we heard in today’s Gospel – and prayed to his heavenly father. He believed in an existence after death. This is the core of our Christian faith: we believe in one God who exists above and beyond the created world. There is a gulf between God’s perfection and our imperfection, God’s infinity and our finitude. And this God created us to share in this earthly existence – with all its joys and sorrows – with the promise of a share in God’s existence for eternity: sharing in the divine life, as St Peter puts it. And this divine God intervenes in human life. The supernatural bursts through into the natural. It’s what the scriptures tell us over and over again. It’s what the story of Exodus tells us and, of course, finds its ultimate expression in the coming of Our Lord: that the supernatural world breaks into the natural and changes it. Or, rather, restores it to what God originally intended.

So, this is today’s big question on the Feast of St Michael and All the Angels: do we believe in the supernatural? Or are our eyes firmly fixed on the earthly? Do we believe that there is an existence after death? That there are creatures of pure spirit called angels? That the supernatural can change the natural? That we can be changed?

People tell me about the presence of God. They feel it here, they find it in their lives. There are moments when God is finally seen and experienced, a breakthrough into out limited blinkered lives. People are changed by angels, visions of Mary, the presence of God and a myriad of other ways. Some may call it delusion, some know otherwise.

The Christian church is filled with people whose lives were changed forever by the supernatural breaking into the natural. Last week, we celebrated St Matthew: the tax collector who encountered Our Lord and whose life was changed forever. Then on Friday we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham: the story of a Saxon noblewoman who was given a vision of the house in Nazareth where Our Lord grew up and was moved to build a shrine that became one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in England. The church is filled with saints – ordinary men and women just like me and you – who are testament to God’s supernatural intervention changing lives in ways that I think are inexplicable without a belief in the divine. Without a belief in the supernatural. Amen.

Based on a sermon by Fr Tim Handley SSC

Protecting the Powerless – 19 September, 2021

The story of the child today is a lovely part of Mark’s gospel. Our Lord and the disciples reach Capernaum, where they have a house. Our Lord asks what they’ve been arguing about among themselves on the walk there and they don’t answer him. They probably felt sheepish and might have looked at their feet or food or off into the distance (still inside the house), pretending not to hear him. So, he sits the twelve down. This is not a crowd or a medium-sized group. This is the twelve, the twelve who have committed to following him — literally following him around the countryside — to whom he is giving the next two teachings.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Now, the disciples have been fighting over who will be first, and Our Lord tells them who will be the first: the person who doesn’t want to be, the person looked at as not having ambition, the person who shows vulnerability and servanthood rather than seeking their own glory.

Then he takes a child, puts that child in the midst of them, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Now children weren’t welcomed in the first century. They were tolerated. Children were an economic asset, able and expected to work. They were property until they were either old enough to own property themselves — boys — or sold in marriage to another male — girls. They couldn’t speak for themselves and had no power.

Yet, a child — powerless against the world around about, vulnerable to the powers that existed, and unable to defend oneself — is who Our Lord tells the disciples to welcome: the powerless, the vulnerable, the ones whose voices are ignored in the world. Our Lord says that by welcoming people like that, the ones who can’t influence society and don’t strive to be in charge, they welcome Our Lord. Not only do they welcome him, they welcome God who sent him. Welcoming the powerless is a far cry from arguing over who is the greatest!

The powerless has always been one of the particular concerns of Christians, and we fail that task at our greatest peril. Today I would also like to talk about one particular response we had to the powerless one hundred and fifty years ago this week. For this week commemorates the 150th year of the death of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson.

One hundred and fifty years ago the growing expanse of international trade created opportunities in Australia and the Pacific for the development of new resources, particularly cane sugar. Europeans had developed a craving for sugar from the 17 C and exploited slavery in the Est Indies and then the opening of new colonies in the Pacific led to the exploitation of blackbirding in the 19 C, which was a legal fiction to overcome what was slavery, the forcible removal of indigenous men to work in the canefields. Slavery was banned within the Empire, but a ships forcibly removed men from the islands claiming they had signed contracts for labour, thus avoiding the slavery definition.

The growth of the Anglo Catholic movement has always been linked to issues of social concern, caring for the powerless, and the establishment of new bishoprics around Australasia led to these bishops trying to protect the Maoris and Melanesians from exploitation and this salvery. The first bishop of New Zealand, George Selwyn, took on Patteson in 1855 to be a priest with the Melanesian Mission, and was so impressed with him he consecrated him a bishop for Melanesia in 1861.

Patteson visited Sydney several times to raise awareness of, and funds for, the mission. He attended our sister church Christ Church St Laurence several times on each visit.

But the blackbirding for the canefields was continuing and Patteson was killed, in the Solomon Islands, on 20 September 1871. The killing was thought to be in retaliation for the abduction, a few days earlier, of five local men and the killing of one other by blackbirders.

His death galvanised mission work in Australia. ABM had been set up in 1850 to raise money for a boat for work in the islands, and had continued to raise money. But the martyrdom of Patterson, as a result of blackbirding, led to a huge rise in interest in raising money for mission work. His death transformed ABM and made it the major mission agency for the Anglican church, with its emphasis on our near neighbours such as PNG and the Solomons.

On the Sunday after news of the murder reached Sydney, 12 November 1871, the bells of Christ Church rang a muffled peal for Patteson. Funds were collected in Sydney for a memorial at the Cathedral, including a very generous personal donation for a “figure” of the martyred bishop. That was considered very popish in those days, and the rules of Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral, even then a bastion of the low church, would permit only mural monuments, so the sculpture was located instead at Christ Church St Laurence, where you can see it to this day.

The resulting missionary work led to the establishment of St Barnabas’s College in Norfolk Island for the training of local missionaries for the Solomons. However, that island was too far south and too cold, and eventually the mission was relocated back to the Islands. Anglicans are one of the biggest churches now in the Solomons. You may remember the islanders we had in our congregation here a few years ago, including one Coleridge, named after bishop John Coleridge Patteson. His grandfather or great grandfather trained on Norfolk Island at that College. Patteson’s death also led to a concerted campaign by the Imperial and Colonial authorities to stamp out this slavery.

How we look after the powerless, in this case the islanders, is how we welcome our Lord. Our Lord’s example of taking a child has been a call to us to look always to the powerless in our midst. After this pandemic is over we will have many nations around us, including our old friends PNG and the Solomons, in need of help again as their tourism industries have been devasted by our closure. We will need to be generous again. But we must remember Our Lord’s example and look away from our own delusions of power to the needs of those in our midst.

 Material on Patteson from an article by Joseph Waugh.

Fear and Hope – 12 September, 2021

I’ve been pondering the Gospel during a week when we have been remembering many anniversaries. The most important one this week was, of course, the terrorist attacks in the USA, the 9/11 moment as it is called. But that has happened just after we have seen the end of the war in Afghanistan, after twenty years of conflict deriving from the attack of 9/11. Then we have had the anniversary recently of the Tampa boat incident, which fundamentally changed our refugee policy in Australia. All of these are important events that call upon us to think about what has happened and why.

So, when I started reading about the Gospel today my slant was different. The story of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is a fundamental declaration of who Our Lord really is, a confession of faith that is central to the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John, dear John, of course has a different take and perhaps the equivalent for him is Martha’s confession of Jesus as the Christ in the story of the raising of the dead of Lazarus. But that’s another story.

When Our Lord is the Gospel asks the disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” it is Peter who makes the leap of faith and confesses him as the Messiah. Now, all the stories about the Messiah were not the same. Some Messiahs were angelic, some were human, some were born of God. Sometimes there was one Messiah and sometimes there were multiple Messiahs. But one oft-repeated theme among these many stories was that the Messiah would overthrow whatever empire was in power and deliver the Jews from oppression. This Messiah was sometimes painted as a military champion, someone who came with power and force. They were the hope of a downtrodden nation. You can see why this story would be so hopeful, so needed for a people who had lost so much of what seemed to have been promised to them by God. We are all looking for a way out of our messes.

So, when Our Lord asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responds, “You are the Messiah,” might it be the case that Peter had heard some stories of who the Messiah was supposed to be as he grew up a Jew in a Jewish world? Might it be the case that he had a particular image and vision of this Messiah?

When Our Lord continues the conversation, and he predicts his own personal overthrow, betrayal, suffering, and death, maybe we can understand why Peter rebukes him. It’s not the Messiah story he has signed up for. It’s one thing to imagine yourself as the right-hand man of a powerful figure, not as the right hand man of a dead man. 

Now the core of this seems to be a problem of fear, which I find fascinating at this time. Peter was perhaps afraid for what would happen to his friend, Our Lord, and himself. Death and suffering makes one afraid.

One of the best reflections I find about the nature of fear is that of the great mediaeval saint and theologian, Thomas Aquinas. He asked, why do we fear? – and he saw fear as the response to a future evil. We fear a future pain or hurt. If someone dies now, we do not fear: we have sorrow, but not fear. Fear is when we see some evil result in the future, that brings us hurt in some form.

So, Peter feared a future of the death and suffering Our Lord told him. That is why he started to rebuke Our Lord. This was not the future he wanted.

Then Our Lord then turns around and tells him that he is concentrating on human things, not divine. Get behind me Satan!

Instead, Our Lord holds out for his followers, us, the need for us to take up our cross and follow his way of suffering instead. 

Now, reflecting on the incidents of 9/11 and Afghanistan we can remember our fears at the start of this century. Fears that we would be attacked continual by terrorists. That every plane trip became one of anxiety. That Afghanistan was going to be a source of endless extremists attacking us. Or that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The end of the 20th C had seemed so hopeful – Communism had fallen in Europe, and it seemed as if our pluralistic capitalistic world had a golden future ahead of us. Instead, we entered a new century with fear. Fear of terror. Also fear of being swamped with migrants, which was the Tampa Boat incident that ended Australia being a hope of refugees. It was fear that then drove the response of the start of the wars of this century that are still being played out now.

Let’s get back to Peter. Our Lord’s rebuke of Peter was an act of true love. It was a way of shaking him free from the paralysis of fear. Our Lord wanted Peter to think clearly and to face this future suffering with courage, acceptance, and faith. Courage provides strength. Acceptance cures anxiety. And faith is the remedy for all fear. These and other similar virtues were necessary if Peter and the other disciples were going to be able to endure the suffering and passion of Our Lord Jesus. They needed to know that this perceived evil was going to be transformed by the Father in Heaven and used for the greatest good the world had ever known. They needed to know that Our Lord “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…” It was the Father’s will. Because it was the Father’s will, the greatest good would come from the greatest evil because of God’s almighty power.

You see, the opposite of fear is hope. Hope is the expectation of future good. Hope produces joy. If the death of Our Lord would bring about the freedom from sin and the knowledge of the love of God and life eternal, then that future expectation is far, far greater than pain and death. That’s the joy that drives out the short-term pain. That’s why the angels time and time again say, “Do not fear!” – for they bring messages of great joy.

I think so much of the response of the last twenty years has been driven by fear, fear of those who are different, fear of those who do not share our faith as Christians, fear of those who do not share our Western complacency, fear of those who might question our hoarding of wealth and resources. We tried to give hope to places such as in Iraq and Afghanistan by creating a society that mimicked our own and we failed. They did not share our hopes but instead shared our fears of those who were different.

But we should not forget that in many places we have helped and given hope. Our help in Timor for example. Or less well known, the Ramsi mission in the Solomons that stabilised a country heading into civil war. The Solomon Islanders we have had in our congregation could tell you what a blessing that was for their country. These smaller stories of hope should not be forgotten in the larger stories of fear.

So as I end this sermon today I would like us all to consider our fears. We all have them in some way. But whatever we fear we are a people of faith. We know we have sufferings, like the minor sufferings of the covid restrictions, but in the order of things that is hardly noticeable. Some of our fears, such as illness or poverty or age may seem overwhelming. We may identify with Peter and think Heaven forbid that this should happen. But we have, as Christians, hope, the antidote to all fear, hope that wherever we stumble carrying our cross, Our Lord has worked before us and walks besides us still. Hope gives us the courage and endurance we need as we walk our paths.

The Church: Past, Present, and Future – Dedication, 5 September, 2021

Often when I enter a church, I think of all those clergy who have been here before me. Our parish, has been blessed with many great priests, the most notable being a Fr Wise, who for forty years taught the faith, fighting with the bishop and making his mark, followed by a line of illustrious priests with whom I try to keep myself up to their standard.

Besides those whose ministry was to be your priest, there were countless others who came, served, or visited. Some preached and touched people. Others may have made you snooze. The ghosts of preachers past populate any church.

Then consider all those who have sat in the pews over the years. You may see there ghosts around, some of you may still think of that particular seat over there being Mrs So-and-sos, or dear What-ever, who prayed there for many years. Yet there are many more timid ghosts, those who snuck in over the years, maybe hiding away at the back, who came and went and never could make a full commitment yet still yearned and sought God in this house.

For this Church is a house of God. It is a witness to the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a holy place that has called to the world around it to find God and follow that call. It is the place where so many have come into and prayed over the last century.

Churches are built on the foundations of hope with their spires touching heaven. The hopes of people that there is more than the world, that they can find God in the confusion of life around. This hope touches us through life, with the incessant calling that cannot be ignored. Some may ignore it. Some may pervert it into ways that attempt to satisfy cravings. Others may follow that hope and find in faith the love that does fulfil all. When faith is found to fill that hope we find that we do touch heaven. That is the Church.

For Churches mean two things, as you know. A church is a building and a people who are the body of Christ. They are reflective meanings – the building reflects the faith of the people and the people create the building to show their faith. Buildings that so often are filled with beauty to show our love of God in the mystery of worship. Our hope is that through this teaching of the love of holiness faith would be shown to others who would find the fulfilment of their yearning in this way. That people could come here, regularly hopefully, or even flitting in now and then, find God here and touch heaven. All the ghosts who have come into the Church, who we pray, that they may be now in the courts of heaven.

Yet we are not a place that lives only with ghosts – we are a Church that stands and marches into the future. We have tried to teach and show a faith that would provide a future and not bound into the past.

Now that may sound surprising in a Church like ours that is so bound into Catholic tradition. Tradition at its best is the inheritance of the past, the living voice of how others have reached God. It advises us and provides and an example of how God has shown love to our ancestors in faith. We worship God in this particular way because the ghosts of the past have found that this is a way that God speaks.

So, what is it that makes us Anglicans in the Catholic tradition today? We can say it is a love of tradition, a love of worship and a hundred other ways of saying how we have lived the faith in Christ. The one I like best is that is a realisation that there are holy things in the world. That God lives and sanctifies the things around us if we open our spiritual eyes. Being Catholic is the calling to look beyond what we are to the incredible richness of God working around us and asking to work in us. It is the appreciation that holiness exists and can be recognised.

That is why we find this church such an important place. It is not a place that can be a throne of God one moment and a cup of tea dispensary the next. This is where we find holy things. This is where me meet God. This is where past, present and future meet in the sacrament of the altar. This is where the ghosts still whisper in the pews of devotion past as we await the end of time. It is a place where we search for our completeness, our fulfilment with Christ. It is a place that we use to convert others, by showing them the holiness and love of God.

Buildings and people reflect each other: each is church. What we do here should be our way of evangelising for the future, showing others the love of God, and the glimpse of holiness. Our buildings and people should be a sign to the community of the presence of God.

Here in this place we say prayers for those ghosts of the past, those faithful and not so faithful, who have sought here a place of love and forgiveness. Here in this place priests have tried to teach the face and live the life that is a mirror of Christ. Here in this place we continue to seek the holy in a world that rushes by with no time for the present and no hope for the future. The place has many years of the past, but we look with eager longing to our eternity together.

Boundaries – 29 August

Let me talk to you today about boundaries. Boundaries exist around us all the time. Sometimes they are important, sometimes not. We have state boundaries – and at the moment they are very important as we can’t cross them at all. Two years ago, they were almost irrelevant. We have boundaries in our lives, how we deal with others in our lives, how much you can go in an argument or fight before a friendship is destroyed for example. Boundaries exist all the time.

Religion is one area where boundaries also exist. Think back to the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve were warned they could not touch the fruit of the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge. They were out of bounds, and when the fruit was eaten, consequences resulted. The giving of the Law to Moses that is referenced in the first reading today clearly states the boundaries that the Chosen People were to keep. We think that it was this clarification of the Law, this working out what this means, happened particularly in the time of the exile to Babylon. When the Jews were living among other alien races, it was very easy for them to assimilate and be lost, to forget how they were Jews. But the keeping of dietary laws and other customs defined them as a people that allowed them to keep their identity and then return to the Promised Land. But remember, many Jews stayed in Babylon and continued to be good Jews by keeping the Law. Boundaries helped define the people and preserve who they were.

The Law came to be seen as a boundary on how to behave. As long as you kept the commands, you could live inside a safe space that pleased God. In one sense many of the boundaries made no sense, such as some of the eating requirements, but by keeping them you would know that God was not offended.

It’s a bit like our state boundaries – we all know that the lines are arbitrary, often done by decisions in London in Colonial days, and bear no relationship to what the geography means. I quite sympathise with those who argue that Far north Queensland has much more in common with the Northern Territory than southern Queensland. But I quiet agree that Tasmania has nothing in common with the rest of the states.

So, in the Gospel today what the Pharisees and Scribes were concerned about was a boundary issue. If Our Lord and the disciples were eating without washing their hands ritually clean, then they were living outside the safe place of religion. God would be displeased. Not because they may have had dirty hands, but because they were breaching the boundary on how to live a Jewish life. They were displeasing God, and would bring trouble on themselves and the community in which they lived.

But Our Lord moves the argument completely away. He does not justify what he is, or is not, doing. He attacks the very premise that religion is all about boundaries. He says that religion is all about intent, what we think, rather than what we do. Furthermore, he takes it away from a community perspective of a safe community keeping God’s boundaries, to the intent of an individual.

Now St Paul is going to develop this a lot in the next generation as he talks about Law and Spirit. We are a Spirit based religion, where each person has to make a relationship with God and decide what is right and wrong. That does not mean we are without the Law. In St Matthew Our Lord is quite clear that the Law continues. Our Lord said: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:19) So, if “fulfilment of the law” does not mean lawlessness, then what does it mean?

But our faith affirms that we have been freed from the condemnation of the law, not by remaining wilfully ignorant of it, but through faith in Jesus Christ, the sole righteous one. By this faith we are not condemned. By this Spirit we receive the grace to live lives of faith. Faith that keeps us true to a relationship with God that allows us to live.

Ridding ourselves of condemnation by ignoring God’s law, or pretending as though it doesn’t exist anymore, amounts to little more than a Pelagian attempt at declaring ourselves innocent. Such self-willed innocence ends in a kind of benevolent unbelief whereby Our Lord is viewed as a great man or a nice man, like Moses or Buddha, but just a man nonetheless – and quite unnecessary most days.

Now we are saved by faith in Our Lord Jesus, who “ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” (Gal 3:13) Our Lord Jesus, the Word incarnate, was condemned under the law; the Jewish leaders declared: “we have a law, and according to that law he ought to die.” (John 19:7) And he did die. The way to freedom from condemnation, therefore, is not pretending that the law doesn’t exist, but faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ “who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Gal 2:20)

In Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of God and our entrance into God’s family is through Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. In these sacraments we are like Paul who said: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Gal 2:19-20)

By these means, which were given to us by Christ while he walked on Earth, we are initiated into communion with the Trinity through full communion with the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Through this we receive the Spirit to guide us in right living.

But it all comes down to us, each one of us. There is no way we can live good lives by just living within boundaries. What we are challenged to do instead, is to live are lives where we judge the intents of our hearts, and see our failings and seek forgiveness. Christian life is not about boundaries, it is about living and understanding our failures, and finding instead God’s grace and power to stand up again and go forward. We die in Christ through our sins, but rise through faith in his resurrection, the breaking of all boundaries.

Mary MacKillop – 8 August, 2021

Today I am going to talk about an Australian Saint, Mary Mackillop. It’s her feast day today, the 8 August, and we don’t have many recognised Australian saints, and she deserves to be better known.

First, the background details. She was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne in 1842, nine years before Victoria became a separate state from NSW. Her family was poor, and her father not a good manager of family finances. She became a governess with her aunt and uncle at Penola at 18. There she became friends with the local priest, Fr Julian Tenison-Woods, who encouraged her to expand her teaching duties to establishing a school at Penola for poor children when 24. It was then she started wearing a habit and the order started under the supervision of Fr Tenison Woods. The school was soon teaching move than 50 children. She was joined by other women and they began to call themselves the sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and opened a school at Grote Street in Adelaide by the invitation of the bishop, Lawrence Shiel.

Now, if you want to found a community, you need a rule, and this was worked out by Fr Tennison-Woods and herself. It emphasized poverty, a dependence on divine providence, no ownership of personal belongings, faith that God would provide and willingness to go where needed. By the end of 1867, ten other women had joined the Josephites, who adopted a plain brown religious habit. Due to the colour of their attire and their name, the Josephite sisters became known as the Brown Joeys.

By the end of 1869, more than 70 members of the Sisters of St Joseph were educating children at 21 schools in Adelaide and the country. MacKillop and her Josephites were also involved with an orphanage; neglected children; girls in danger; the aged poor; a reformatory (in Johnstown near Kapunda); and a home for the aged and incurably ill. Generally, the Josephite sisters were prepared to follow farmers, railway workers and miners into the isolated outback and live as they lived. By 1871, 130 sisters were working in more than 40 schools and charitable institutions across South Australia and Queensland.

However, rapid success always causes problems. The main problem was that the Joeys was not an independent order. Now, we all know from our own bishops that they like to control and Roman bishops are just the same. They didn’t trust what they often thought were uneducated women who were not part of an approved order, especially for teaching. So, the bishops wanted to control what was taught and whom was taught. In Brisbane the Sisters had to withdraw owing to the opposition of the bishop there, and most famously she then fell out with the bishop of Adelaide, a man called Shiel.

Part of the problem lay with Fr Tenison-Wood, who had become director of education for the diocese and fell out with the other clergy. Bishop Shiel demanded changes to the Order and MacKillop refused, so Shiel excommunicated her in 1871. This meant she was also homeless. Forbidden to have contact with anyone in the church, MacKillop was given the rent-free use of two houses in Flinders Street, Adelaide by prominent Jewish merchant Emanuel Solomon and was also sheltered by Jesuit priests. But Shiel did not live much longer and the excommunication was soon lifted.

But Mary MacKillop had also become wiser, and she realised she needed better support. So she travelled to Rome to get approval as an Order – this enabled her to resist the pressures of local bishops. The Rule was also changed to make it more practical by removing the requirement that they own nothing. To run schools and control them they needed to own them, and Rome saw that the Order had to change.

This change of Rule led to problems with Fr Tenison-Wood who had written the original rule. In part Mary had outgrown him, and saw more clearly the needs of her sisters. She had moved on to a much more practical way of living and running the one of the biggest teaching orders in Australia. She also had moved from the strict control with which he had initially run the Order.

Let me give you an example. Her order established an orphanage at Kincumber on the Central Coast, not far from where I grew up. She took the boat there for a visit and a boy who had been found stealing bread was brought to her. She asked him why he had been stealing and he said he was hungry. So instead of some pious statement about the evils of stealing, Mary told him to go to the kitchen and tell the kitchen that she said he needed more food. She knew what it was like to be poor and was practical.

In 1883 Mary moved to Sydney to run the Order, and although she did remain always in charge, she was the guiding light until her death on this day in 1909.

Her order was unusual at a time when women were still controlled tightly by church authorities. Firstly, the sisters lived in the community rather than in convents. Secondly the Order’s constitutions required administration by a superior-general chosen from within the congregation rather than by the bishop, which was uncommon in its day. However, the issues which caused friction were that the Josephites refused to accept government funding, and were unwilling to educate girls from more affluent families. Not all bishops accepted this.

In South Australia they were a great Order, with schools in many country towns including, Willunga, Willochra, Yarcowie, Mintaro, Auburn, Jamestown, Laura, Sevenhill, Quorn, Spalding, Georgetown, Robe, Pekina, Appila and several others.

I wanted to talk about Mary MacKillop for several reasons today. Her emphasise on education for the poor is very similar to what Fr Wise tried to achieve here later with our own parish school which was also free. Also, we know her. Many of you would know the schools or remember the Joeys. If not you knows the locations.

So often when we consider the saints, we think of them as not part of our world. Part of this comes from their locations in distant lands or distant times. But Mary MacKillop walked these streets that we walked. She had fights with bishops and tried to organise her sisters in a way she knew would work. She is very much one of us, not some distant figure.

For sainthood is not an unreachable state, but one that we are all called to be. We will have fights with authorities and friends, but we are all called to live lives that are filled with the presence of God.

I should also mention today another remarkable woman, who feast day is tomorrow, Mary Sumner, who founded the Mothers’ Union. She was the wife of an Archbishop of Canterbury and certainly outshone her husband. She died 100 years ago tomorrow.

The process to have MacKillop declared a saint began in the 1920s, and she was beatified in January 1995 by Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI prayed at her tomb during his visit to Sydney for World Youth Day 2008. She was canonised on 17 October 2010, during a public ceremony in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. She is the first Australian to be recognised by the Catholic Church as a saint.

Filling the Void – 1 August 2021

Bread: it’s such a simple thing. Made usually from wheat it has formed part of our diets for millennia. We have evidence for the bread making going back 14,500 years, and the first wheat and barley started being cultivated 10,000 years ago. That’s a long association for us. We even have loaves of bread left over from Pompeii. They are not very edible now, but they still exist.

Bread is also what Jesus took and said was his body.

The gospel today is from John. We have just had Our Lord taking the five loaves and two fish to feed the five thousand, and now we move onto a discussion on how he is the true bread.

In John’s Gospel there is a long search by people for signs. They seek signs of the coming of the Messiah. There was a belief that the Messiah would come; and his coming would be seen by a variety of signs. Now not everyone was agreed about what the signs would be – some though the Messiah would be a military leader, but not all. The signs that were particularly looked for were the signs that had accompanied Moses, the Great Prophet, when he brought the people into the Promised Land. Now, during the forty years in the wilderness the people had ben fed by a heavenly bread called manna. Manna had been found each morning, and continued until they reached the Promised Land. So, the re-occurrence of manna would be a sign that pointed to Jesus being the Messiah.

This is the significance of the people being fed with bread: it pointed to the manna, in that it came from heaven and was not made.

There was also another bread that was important: what we often call the shrewbread, which was the bread that was put out in the Temple every day. It was the holy bread that the priests would eat, and twelve loaves were made each day, to represent the twelve tribes. Even more important at Passover the altar, that the bread was placed on, was lifted up and shown to the people as the face of God as part of the celebrations. So, there was a link between the presence of God and the Shrewbread of the Temple.

So, when Our Lord creates the bread for the feeding of the five thousand, he gives a sign that he is the Messiah.

But what happens next is that the crowd don’t understand the sign. They see the sign as one of abundance, of free food, and want to make him king to supply them forever. So Our Lord slips away with the disciples and crosses the lake.

Then comes the discussion about the nature of the bread. The giving of manna by Moses is raised, and Our Lord says the manna came not from Moses but from the Father, from God, Our Lord then says that he is the bread of life, the great “I am” showing the divine name, identifying himself with God in that statement.

In the statement that Jesus is the bread of life Our Lord sets up the basis of what will happen when he says at the Last Supper, that this bread is his body. Drawing on the image of manna and shrewbread he identifies himself with God and makes the bread his flesh.

Now, eating flesh is abhorrent. In fact, Our Lord’s insistence that people will need to eat his flesh and drink his blood would put people off – and Our Lord does this deliberately. There are several ways of saying eat in the Greek, but the word that Jesus uses to is the word that is used for animals eating – he is asking people to guzzle and munch his flesh and drink. It is deliberately affronting.

This is where we come to the heart of ancient worship – sacrifice, the killing of animals or even humans to appease the gods. Even the sacrifices of the Jewish Temple were to appease God. The meat was then eaten – in the Temple by the priests and Levites; in the pagan temples the meat often was then sold on in the market. In the ancient world most of the meat that people consumed was associated with sacrifices. But of course, sacrifice had to be done over and over again to continue to appease the gods.

Now think about the crowd: they see the sign of the feeding of the five thousand, but search Our Lord out for another sign. They see the signs but are not satisfied, they keep coming back for more signs. They have a craving that cannot be satisfied.

Now, if you are still with me, here we have two things that are never satisfied – sacrifices to appease the gods and the cravings of the crowd. Both cannot be satisfied.

Then Our Lord offers them fulfilment – they will come to him and not be hungry and they will believe and not thirst.

What Our Lord is offering is the end of the sacrificial system – God will be satisfied, and people can end their cravings. How – by belief in Our Lord Jesus who becomes the sacrifice himself and fulfils the needs.

Furthermore, this bread is special: usually what we eat becomes us. Eating this bread makes us part of the bread, Our Lord, the Bread of Life.

That’s the technical part. What it means for us as believers is that we have found a way to escape our endless need for something to fulfil our emptiness. This emptiness may manifest by trying to have more and more money, or possessions, or addictions in some way – for part of the weakness of being human is want more and more. But if we believe in Jesus as our God, he offers a way to escape this craving – believe in him. It is in the love of God we find more than enough, and we can end our mindless pursuit of fame, money, power, drugs or whatever. The deep need for sacrifice is to fulfil our cravings and emptiness. Our Lord gives himself – if we believe, we can be filled. The hole of emptiness is waiting, not for darkness, but the love of God. Our taking of the bread and wine here, at this altar, is part of the closing of the circle of sacrifice. The guzzling of flesh of sacrifice is over, it never filled the need. The emptiness remains – and only by taking God can we fill it. Our Lord is bread, but he wants to fill the hunger of our hearts and not just our stomachs. He wants to fill the gnawing, aching emptiness that we try to fill with lesser things, to satisfy the longing or the boredom that we use substances of all sorts to quiet, to put an end to the grasping, fretting, worrying about having enough of anything that will in the end possess us, rather than allowing ourselves to fall into the hands of the one for whom we were made.

The Gift of Benedict – 11 July

In the year of Our Lord 476 the last Roman emperor, the boy Romulus Augustulus, abdicated following his capture by the Vandal general and king, Odovacar, and was allowed to retire to a villa near Naples, and there disappeared to history. Thus ended the long reign of Rome of nearly a thousand years, and the imperial rule disappeared in Western Europe.

However, there was still an emperor in Byzantium, the great city that the first Christian emperor Constantine has built as a new capital, that still survives under the name of Istanbul. Even though the empire was divided, those of the Eastern part, in the Byzantine palaces of the Bosphoros, remembered their ancient heritage as Romans and yearned for a untied empire once more.

Odovacar was not to rule long, for Italy was then invaded by a new tribe, the Goths, who established a new kingdom. Rome the city continued, poorer than the great days of the Emperors, but substantially intact, with its great walls, monuments, the great aqueducts bringing fresh water from the hills to fill the baths built by long dead Ceasars. Within these walls were newer Churches, some founded by Constantine, others built in the ruins of closed temples. Yet in this city continued the semblance of the ancient Romans, speaking a Latin of sorts, maintaining a link to the time when Rome ruled the world.

It was to this city of Roma that a little boy Benedict was sent for schooling. He was born around 480 in a little town called Nursia, now called Norsia, an ancient town mentioned in the Aeneid as frigida Nursia, a place long known for its cold. He was probably in Rome when the statues to Odovacar were overthrown and the Goth Theodoric was proclaimed ruler of Italy.

He soon left there to pursue a holy life, away from the evil he saw. This was not uncommon, many saw only decay in the disintegration of the old rule of law under the barbarians. The Roman life was fading under the barbarian rulers and many saw only decay around them and sought for a purer life. Some tried to live as hermits, others tried to live together in communities. Benedict would live first as a hermit, settling at Subiaco, some little distance from Rome, where the Emperor Nero had once a stately villa, and whose waters were channelled into those great aqueducts that supplied Rome. However, his early efforts were difficult – he lived as a hermit and then was asked to lead a community, who found him too strict and tired to poison him. He left them and soon had twelve communities, so great was his fame, but soon found himself caught up again in the fights within the very people he tired to live with.

Yet his fame spread and soon the nobles of nearby Rome were bringing him their sons for education. Yet Benedict disliked the quarrels of the monks there and left (one story is that the monks tried to poison him), going south to a place halfway to Naples, where on a hill overlooking the great ancient highway, the Via Latina, he founded his new monastery at the place which would henceforth be known as Monte Cassino.

It was for this community that he wrote a rule to guide the monks on how to live a life together. It is a rule noted for its moderation. It is not proscriptive, it is merely an outline that helps any community wanting to follow a monastic life. Its core values are stability of residence, obedience to the abbot, and monastic zeal. Its very moderation makes it easy to live by, yet calls for a devotion and commitment to the way. The abbot would be elected by the monks for life, preserving the rule of democracy within its tradition while the rest of Europe made do with kings and conquerors. It would be endlessly adapted and adopted by other communities, and would provide the stability for those seeking a monastic life in Europe for centuries.

I’m a middle-aged man now, and St Benedict when he wrote his rule was middle aged. He had tried fervour and strong will and it hadn’t worked. It’s a rule of balance and adaption. It’s the wisdom of middle age. Yet there is a strength in it as well. He knew that living in community and working together was the way to help bring the Kingdom of God closer. So many of the middle-aged people I talk to hate their jobs. They are tired of office politics, endless reports, political correctness, and sheer boredom of so much work. Jobs that often demand long hours and no security. In part that is because the corporations of the world offer the false gods of wealth and power that are never going to satisfy human beings who yearn for God. Benedict gave a Rule that allowed flexibility so that people could realise their desire (what is your desire is what we are asked as we join the community, and we respond that we desire to offer ourselves to God).

Meanwhile the emperor Justinian sent the great general Belisarius to reconquer the lost territories of the West. He re-conquered north Africa and then a few years later in 534 marched up the Via Latina past Monte Cassino to take Rome. He would then be surrounded by the armies of the Goths for several years, during which time the aqueducts would be destroyed and much damage done. One attack on the citadel of Hadrian’s Tomb would only be repulsed by the stratagem of throwing all its statues down on the attacking Goths. The city would eventually fall and be retaken, but by the time of Benedict’s death in around 550, it would be a ghost city, largely deserted, its monuments ruined, its walls pulled down and rebuilt, with space enough inside to grow crops in the forum which had once teemed with life. The great baths that the aqueducts had supplied would remain empty and useless, to crumble into the past. Italy would be ruined, impoverished by the passing armies, its institutions destroyed. Rome the city had passed into history.

Yet Benedict and his rule would continue and provide the stability that the old empire lacked. His rule would become the foundation of all monastic institutions in Western Europe, so much though that within the start of a new Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne would make inquiry if there was any other rule known throughout his empire. The monastic schools would flourish with the growth of the monasteries and preserve the institution of learning in the West. From these monasteries would grow again the schools and universities that we know.

For us Anglicans the influence has been profound. It was the Benedictine monks who came with St Augustine that helped to restore the faith to England. This was done by the special monastic missions, based around Churches called minsters, that were established in the pagan areas to bring the faith to the new tribes that would one day become the English nation. One of the inherited characteristics of that system would be a strong sense of parish, a reflection of the vow of stability that St Benedict marked in his Rule. That special devotion to the local parish is still a characteristic of Anglicans, and of our parish here with its great loyalty to our little church.

Our civilisation has a lot to thank Benedict and his rule for its moderation and wisdom that gave a way for the monastic way of life to flourish admidst the uncertainties and turmoil of the early middle ages.