Sunday, 17 March 2019

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us. Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent (traditional lectionary)


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"Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Υιέ του Θεού, ελέησον ημάς."
It was the only prayer the monks knew. This was driving the Archdeacon spare. To think he had been sent from the comfort of the city out to this dismal little island in the middle of nowhere out on an inspection just to confirm what everybody already knew: that the monks living out here were not only lax and lazy, but downright ignorant, too. Just a bunch of bumpkins in frocks. Most could barely read enough to pray the round of daily prayers. Their chanting at the Eucharist was dismal. He had asked a novice to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and the wretched boy couldn’t even manage that! One prayer only was all any of the monks really seemed to know, muttering it over and over again:
"Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Υιέ του Θεού, ελέησον ημάς."
The food was atrocious, the beds were hard, the monks were slackers, and the Abbot didn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed - even when the Archdeacon shouted angrily as he blustered back into his boat: “I’m going to tell the Bishop to close this sham of a monastery down!”
The boat was about half way across the lake when the Archdeacon spotted a figure running from the monastery towards him, clutching something in his hand. The Archdeacon assumed that he would stop at the water’s edge, but - was it some trick of the light? - the figure seemed to be getting closer, running right over the water.
Eventually, the young monk caught up with the boat, panting:
“Archdeacon, Archdeacon, you forgot your notebook!” - that is what he had been clutching. The Archdeacon recognised him as the novice who could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. Astounded, the Archdeacon asked how the monk had developed such holiness and extraordinary spiritual power.
The monk looked puzzled.
“All we do,” he said, “is say Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Υιέ του Θεού, ελέησον ημάς: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us.”
I suppose if this were a true story that the Archdeacon would have reconsidered closing the monastery down. But the point of the story is to show how true faith and utter dependence on God is enough, whoever you are: and the words of that ancient prayer of the Christian East, called the Jesus Prayer, are a way of building up that faith. Some people manage to pray it constantly as they go about their daily life, dedicating everything that they do to God.
The words are close to those spoken by the woman of Canaan in this week’s Gospel reading: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David." The point of mentioning that she was a Canaanite is to say that she, unlike Jesus, was not a Jew. Jesus had thought that his mission was only to his fellow Jews, but this gentile woman showed him otherwise, and revealed his true mission: to unite Jews and non-Jews, people of different races and nations, to heal the divisions between humanity and unite all peoples under God.
After the attacks on Saturday on two mosques in New Zealand, this is something to bear in mind. If Christ was willing to minister to the Canaanite woman, and even learned something of God’s will from her, there cannot possibly be any Christian justification for racialism: for placing one race above another. The idea which motivated Brenton Tarrant, that one race is any better than another, can never be a Christian one.

But more than that, in the story of the Canaanite woman, Jesus learns something of value from a believer in a different religion. Christians, then, should not be surprised if we deepen our knowledge of God by engaging with people from different faiths. We must be prepared to look for truth in unexpected places; and all the while, to include them in our prayer, as we say: 
"Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Υιέ του Θεού, ελέησον ημάς."

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Always take the easy option? First Sunday Lent


A teacher gets a class of children to do ten press-ups. After the first two or three, some knees start to touch the ground. Soon, several are doing semi-press-ups. They’ve taken the easy option.
Some of the pupils, however, persevere. Asked why, they answer that it’s to challenge themselves, to get better at press-ups, or to build up their upper body and core strength: "no pain, no gain."
Now imagine a soccer game. Instead of doing a header, the easy option might be to knock the ball through the goal with one hand while the referee’s back is turned. Ask the players, and most wouldn’t say that the easy option is the right one.
In the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent, the Devil offers Jesus three easy options; and, far from being ancient and irrelevant riddles, each of these temptations is a demand which people still make of God to this day.
First, why won’t Jesus turn bread into stones? People are hungry. If he has the power of God, why can’t he just wave his magic wand and give everybody food to eat? That would be the easy option.
But just look at the world. God has already given us everything we need to feed everybody. It’s just that some of us take more than we need while others go hungry. We have the freedom to change this if we choose.
Second, why won’t Jesus throw himself off the temple tower, prove the power of God to everybody? There would be no room for doubt. Everybody would have to believe, then. Nobody would dare to do anything wrong.
But what sort of God would want unquestioning obedience through great demonstrations of power? Certainly not the God who becomes a baby in a stable, emptying himself of glory and might. God does not force us, but leaves us the freedom to choose to follow him.
Third, why won’t Jesus just bend the knee to the ruler of this world, collaborate with the agencies of power, wealth, military might? He could make the world a perfect place - by force.
But we have seen what happens when people try to do that, from the Pax Romana to the Third Reich and the People’s Soviets: a far cry from the one who will ride to war on the back of a donkey and conquer by dying on a cross. The Church goes badly wrong when she becomes the pet of empires and cheerleader for their wars. God’s kingdom of peace cannot be taken by storm.
So, Jesus is left with the hard option: the option of Crucifixion. The option of freely giving himself for us, not enslaving us, because it is only in freedom that we can truly grow.
In Lent, we too are called to the hard option of walking towards the Cross, but be assured - we do not walk alone.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Ash: a virtue signal?


Virtue-signalling. Heard this phrase? It’s where people show how virtuous, how good, how charitable, how tolerant, how “woke,” how whatever they are, by the posts they put up on social media, by the magazines or newspapers they very are seen to read, by the slogans on their t-shirts, or by their professed horror at causes or movements or politicians that society expects us to hate. It could be a MeToo hashtag, a Brexit badge, a European Union flag, a Make America Great Again baseball cap, an “I hate Trump” tattoo on your bottom - whatever: these ‘virtue signals’ are meant to show off by association how good the person is who is making them. 
I was not always a Christian. I certainly wasn’t brought up one. My only experience of church as a child and teenager was through school, and to be honest with you, I didn’t think much of it. At its worst, it looked to me very much like a club for the old and the bold, the great and the good, or even the self-righteous saved, to show everyone how wonderful they were. Church, and with it God, seemed to me - at the very best - an irrelevance.
So what was it in my mid-twenties that finally made me decide to be baptised into the Christian Church? 
It’s hard to put a finger on it. 
Partly it was the church that I found, which was offering something called ‘Vespers and meditation:’ I didn’t know what Vespers was, but with my Buddhist leanings, the ‘meditation’ bit sounded appealing. Vespers turned out to be a beautiful, candlelit service of evening prayer, chanted with no organ, with clouds of incense and a long silence half way through - and I loved it. 
Partly, it had something to do with meeting the young priest - my own age, with his own hair and teeth and everything! - and all the other, quite naughty and fun-loving Christians of mixed ages who went to the pub together every Sunday after mass for lunch. 
But in large part, it was because that church seemed to stand so strongly against so much of the distractions that modern life has to offer. It wasn’t entertaining. It didn’t have TV screens or a live band or trendy vicars, it didn’t really have much heating: it had old prayer books, a committed choir full of university students, lots of incense and caring priests who gave sharp, witty, short sermons. 
With all its exotic ritual, this was not a “respectable” church, and certainly not a rich one. Other people thought we were a bit suspect, spiky Anglo-Catholics, not proper C of E Protestants. But we didn’t care. We didn’t go there to be seen, we went there to kneel; to pray with utter seriousness; to worship in the full beauty of holiness, without the traditional English embarrassment. 
Years later, my church in Camden Town, London, was of the same tradition (daily mass, plainsong, incense, solemnity, beauty) combined with an intense mission to serve the very poor and vulnerable. The teaching of the Church was put into practice, by a very diverse congregation, and without boasting about it. If you saw Glenn, a high-flying lawyer, you would never know he gave his spare time to be Church Warden. You wouldn’t know that Jeannie, who cleaned the church, gave up her time to spend with cancer-sufferers; that Jane ran a free legal drop-in service in the Church; that homeless Keith with no shoes kept watch over the church and looked after youngsters new to the streets; that Charity went out to visit the sick; that Cathy ran the church’s drop-in mornings for the homeless; that Marion organised a team of mentally ill gardeners. You wouldn’t know, and they wouldn’t tell you unless you asked. They weren’t there to “virtue signal.” 
I think Church life at its best has something of a Lenten feel to it. As Jesus said, Lent is not about fasting to show off, for posting your little sacrifices up on Instagram to show off how good you are. Those who fast so that people see how good they are at fasting, who give so that people see how much they are giving, who pray so everyone knows how pious and holy they are - they have had their reward already. 
 So what is the reward for quiet, unannounced acts of prayer and charity and fasting? 
First, let’s not be misled: God does not award Brownie points for good behaviour. Lent, and the Christian life as a whole, are not about ‘earning’ a place in heaven: that is a free gift offered by Jesus on the Cross, not something that we can work for. 
Rather, prayer, fasting and charity - like the mass itself - are a way of joining in with, participating in, God’s self-giving love for his creation, especially for the poor. The ashes we may receive on our heads today, with millions of Christians and non-Christians all around the world, are a not a virtue signal. Rather, they are a sign of just what divine love means. 
First, the ashes go on our heads in the sign of a Cross. Only through giving himself on the Cross did Jesus manifest the glory of the Resurrection: so, the Cross is a sign that it is only through the gift of ourselves to others that we find our true selves and life’s true meaning. 
And second, the ashes themselves are a sign: that even though we are made of dust, literally as carbon-based lifeforms, even though we return to dust when we are dead and buried, even so - through losing ourselves, turning away from the self-obsession which we in the trade call ‘sin,’ through living our lives for others instead of ourselves, we discover life in all its fullness, and even life eternal. 
So we wear these ashes today not a signal of our virtue but of Jesus’, and of our willingness to walk in his way of self-giving love. 


Sunday, 3 March 2019

Quinquagesima: Who will see how the journey ends?


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The Gospel for Quinquagesima is in two parts: Jesus and his disciples begin their journey to Jerusalem and he predicts his death, but they do not understand; then, on the way, they meet a blind man called Bartimaeus whose sight Jesus miraculously restores:

Then Jesus took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished.  For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him, and put him to death; and the third day he shall rise again.  And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken. 
And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way-side begging: and hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant.  And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.  And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.  And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace: but he cried so much the more, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me.  And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him: and when he was come near, he asked him, saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee?  And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight.  And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight; thy faith hath saved thee.  And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God.

“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.” Lent approaches, and so with Jesus we begin our journey. But who can see how it will end? 
Not the disciples, but the beggar, Bartimaeus, at the side of the road, cursed (as the ancients understood it) with blindness. Not the expected, the respected, the chosen, but the afflicted one who cries out in faith. The one who desires, more than anything else, to see. 
Perhaps you think you cannot see. Perhaps you do not want to. And yet the Church has given us three ways in Lent to help us open our eyes: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And they can open our eyes to realities of the world which you don’t have to be a Christian to respond to. 
Fasting is the obvious one. Perhaps you’ve thought about giving something up to lose weight, to overcome an addiction, or just to test your discipline. OK, but fasting is about more than that. There’s much talk now of “sustainable living,” reducing the carbon footprint of our consumption. But back in the old days, there was not as much meat, people could only eat locally-produced food, and every was Friday a ‘mini-Lent’ of fasting. So it’s not just about giving up chocolate and thinking of Jesus: fasting is part of a lifestyle which actively restores balance to the ecology of the world. Part of living, as Christ did, not just for yourself, but for others. 
And there’s more: almsgiving, or what we more usually call ‘charity.’ What you save on what you’ve given up in Lent is meant to be given to the needy. Every year the Bishop announces a Lent Appeal, and this year it’s Combat Stress, which helps former servicemen and women deal with trauma-related mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I am recruiting pupils to collect for the charity, to take what we have saved by fasting and so help to restore the economic balance of the world, giving money to those who need it: again, part of a life lived for others. 
And, last but not least, there is prayer. Lent is a time for renewed discipline in our spiritual lives. So make a decision about this before Lent starts. If you’re the praying type: perhaps one midweek mass each week? Perhaps a commitment to saying the Ash Wednesday collect from the Prayer Book every night before bed? Perhaps pray for Combat Stress each day? Perhaps read a passage of the Bible and think of how it is speaking to you once a week? Like Bartimaeus, only you can make that call: nobody can force you to pray. If you are looking for tips, you could try my new Daily Prayer Planner from Amazon
So, if you do make this journey through Lent, if your eyes are opened, what might you expect to see at the end? A man handed over to the Romans, mocked and beaten, spat on, executed by the most degrading means the State knew, the way reserved only for non-citizens, non-persons. Yet this day we call Good Friday, and Christians believe that in the darkness and horror of that day, we can find God. Those of us with the ardent desire to see, even in the midst of our own suffering, our own Crucifixion, our own Good Fridays, are never completely blinded to the hope of new life and Resurrection: the fulness of love in a life lived for others, even to the end.  
So it’s time to decide: are you going to give up on something ecologically harmful, are you going to give the money you save to the needy, are you going seek to open the eyes of your spirit? 

Maybe you do not particularly want to open your eyes to the possibility of God – so be it. But are you going to shut them to the suffering of the world?