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The King of paradox

In my school assemblies at Victoria and Thomas Coram schools on Wednesday, a round of questions to the children quickly established what a king should be. He should be born in a palace or castle, to rich parents who were themselves king and queen, and should learn martial skills, such as riding, so that he could eventually lead his armies to glorious victory over enemy nations. 
I then asked what kind of king Jesus was. The children got the point. A very different sort of king, born not in a palace, but in a cave behind a pub, and not of noble parents, but to a poor woman. A king who spent his younger years doing the quite ordinary job of a carpenter. A king who rode into Jerusalem not on a warhorse, but on a donkey. A king who, when His disciple Peter took up arms on His behalf in the garden of Gethsemane, told him to sheathe his sword. 
Jesus is a king of paradox: the paradox first of the Word made flesh, God beyond all being entering into being, the creator walking among his creat…

Imagine: a Sadducee Remembrance Day?

It's just as well the Sadducees didn't win the intellectual argument in ancient Jewish thought. As Luke tells us, they didn't believe in the Resurrection, you see. As far as they were concerned, there was nothing more to "eternal life" than going forth and multiplying: you lived after death in your children, and your children's children, and your children's children's children - you get the message. I suppose, were it not for the more pharisaical strand of Jewish thought, the one that did insist on a resurrection and an afterlife, the Son of God would have had to be born to some other race. But "what ifs" don't get us very far in discerning the economy of salvation. As it happened, there was such a tradition, and it was this tradition that Jesus inherited, expanded and ultimately fulfilled. And for Christians, "as it happened" is more important than "as it might have happened but didn't." Ours is an historically r…

The Ten Lepers

Today's story is partly  about taboos and boundaries broken.  By law, Jewish biblical Law,  the lepers are supposed to be outside the village and stay there,  but they come in to see Jesus.  They are supposed to go about in rags  ringing bells  and shouting unclean,  to announce their presence  so that the clean can get out of their way,  but they come to speak to Jesus. 
But they're too scared to break the taboos completely.  They are still imprisoned by the law,  all but one of them.  They stand "some way off,"  a respectable, lawful distance from the clean folk.  And when they are healed,  they won't come to Jesus,  because lepers had to go to the priests to be proclaimed clean  before they could mix with the rest of us again.  Of course, you know, lepers never actually get clean,  so whatever they had was probably not leprosy as we know it,  but something else,  because it was something that was curable:  when you were cured,  you had to go by law to the priests  to be pronounced heal…

The perfectly practical discipline of angelology

I've got to admit, and perhaps this is the wrong way to start a sermon on St Michael's day, but to be honest, not much place was given in my training at seminary for angelology. In fact, when I see a new picture book of angels in the gift shop window, or hear someone on the radio talk about their daughter as 'my angel,' the truth is I'm probably suppressing a bit of an inward sneer. And I don't think it's just me: angels don't seem to feature much nowadays in 'respectable' Christian discourse. They sound too abstract, too much like a game for theologians discussing how many of them will fit on a pin.

I suppose a fairly typical modern Christian worldview is that there's God in heaven and there's the created universe, but not much, if anything really, in between. But - don't we say in the Creed at Mattins and Evensong, "I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible?&q…

Jesus on the pecking order: equality and human rights

"All people are born equal:" so runs the Gospel according to certain followers of Karl Marx (Groucho's less funny European cousin). To which we might reply with the question: "equal - in what?" We're obviously not born equal in body weight or eye colour, so in what, exactly, are we born equal? In wealth? In social class? In life expectancy? In intellect, in talents, in mental or physical health?
It doesn't take much thinking to work out that in fact, we are not born equal at all. There is simply no sense, in any of these terms, in which a baby born of a drug-addicted single mother with AIDS in the filthy hospital of a south African slum can be called 'equal' to most babies born in this country, for example. It's not just that they are born physically unequal, their prospects are utterly unequal, too, which is what Marx rightly protested: but to say that they are born equal is an idealistic fiction. It is more realistic, surely, to say with W…

A feast of the poor and the lame

Jesus' parable this Sunday (Luke 14.7014) is about seating plans. One could, I suppose, take his command quite literally and throw parties at your house for the very poor, though to do so might seem rather Victorian, in the 'let them have soap' sort of sense, and I doubt whether many would want to come along. But this is, after all, a parable: so perhaps we can find a wider meaning.

First, it obviously says something about the pecking order, and our own perceptions of where we belong in it. Put yourself at the bottom so you won't be embarrassed when someone else puts you where you belong - sound advice, no doubt. But I think we need to go deeper, and question the whole nature of this order. What does it mean, and frankly, what does it matter where I belong in it?

Secondly, it says something about choice. A good host spends time deciding who should sit where: who will get on with whom, who really won't, who shall we land with the notorious bore? Such considerations …

"I came not to bring peace, but a sword"

The peace of God which passeth all understanding. So begins the traditional blessing. But what is this peace of Christ? 

From Jesus' words today, it seems a rather strange sort of peace: the peace that is born of fire and the sword, distress, division of families and communities. Is that what I am wishing on you when I bless you at the end of Mass?If that is indeed the peace of Christ, then no one can say that Jesus did not practice what he preached. Look at his own family. His mother was promised, earlier on in Luke's infancy narrative, that her heart would be pierced by the sword. And so it surely would be, when she stood and watched only son die on the cross. 

This, I think, is part of the rationale of the great Christian feast celebrated last Thursday, of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Very ancient tradition has said that Our Lady did not die, but rather passed without death straight into heaven. The idea is, I think, that as a mother watching her own child's…

Avarice and attachment

Have you heard the one about why don't Buddhists don't hoover under their sofas? It's because they've got rid of all their attachments.

Of course, in Buddhism, 'attachments' doesn't really refer to a vacuum cleaner's nozzles. According to the Buddha, we exist in a state of suffering, and this is because we crave things, because we are always wanting. The remedy he taught is to get rid of those cravings, to sever all attachments. "He who has a thousand loves has a thousand sufferings," as one Buddhist saying goes.

Jesus sounds quite Buddhist today when he warns us about our tendency to get attached to things we shouldn't. Things of the world. In the parable, it's a bigger storeroom, to stock up more and more food the rich man will never eat. I suppose a modern analogue would be a bigger garage or a house with a bigger attic to store up all the stuff we want to keep but never use. But there's far more to it than that, of course. Jes…

Stop the white bits from burning

What is Hell, what are the fires of which Jesus speaks? The Church teaches that it is a created place. But even if so, creation is underpinned by its Creator and expresses, no matter how diffusely, something of His nature. So what of Him, we might ask, does Hell express?

Well: fire and searing light. But this is surely rather ambiguous. We associate just these qualities with God the Holy Spirit, and tend to see them as positive things.

Maybe Hell is a matter of perspective. We have the chance now, in the this world, to look upon the light of God shining in Christ, albeit through a glass darkly, as though we are wearing sunglasses to shield us from the full, searing light of the sun. We have the chance to enjoy His heat, so that it becomes something that warms us and kindles our spiritual energy.

But, there are parts of ourselves that we try to hide from its glare. Shrivelled, white, grub-like parts which we fondly imagine we can keep secret from God. Shameful bits of ourselves which …

How the Devil wants us to pray (Trinity 9)

As with the parable of the Good Samaritan we heard in last week's Gospel, it is all too easy to think that we know this week's passage so well that we don't need to bother with it. The Lord's Prayer, after all, is something most of us have had drilled into us since our earliest years. But we must beware allowing familiarity to lead to contempt.
When I was training for the priesthood, I fondly imagined that parishioners would often come to me asking me how to pray, perhaps because it's not something that just came very naturally to me. In fact, I don't think anyone has asked me even once, which presumably means that everyone is already a master of the art, so I've got nothing to worry about. Hurrah. Anwyay, during these fantasies, I sometimes wondered what book I might recommend to the earnest seeker of ways of prayer. The Spirit of St Francis de Sales, perhaps, with its wonderful discourse on praying even in times of spiritual dryness? Or maybe the Imitation…

You're not the Samaritan, you're the dying man

The good Samaritan: a story drummed into our heads from primary school days, perhaps familiar even to the primary school children of this secular age. So maybe you've heard it all before. And with good reason: there's quite a lot you can do with it.

At its most basic, it makes a good moral tale. If you're around my age, maybe you remember at school singing the song "would you walk by on the other side?" The idea being, of course, if you see someone in need over the road, as it were, maybe someone upset in the playground, or whatever, you shouldn't just walk by, you should cross over that road, you should do the right thing and go to help them. So, at this basic moral level, we all know that story and we all know that we're supposed to identify with the Samaritan, as a guide for how we should behave as good Christians.

And then If you go into it a little bit deeper, you can get a delightfully right-on message out of it about how nice foreigners are, a sor…

6 after Trinity: Lambs among Wolves

"I am sending you out like lambs among wolves," said the Lord to the seventy-two; and we know that the wolves are still prowling all around us, even now. Yet we are called to believe that, through the Cross, Christ's victory over evil has already been won. C.S. Lewis explains this paradox by saying that we Christians are like soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. Even though the war is over, we are still in occupied territory. 
One man who was in such occupied territory not just spiritually, but literally too, is remembered by the Church this week. Born in 1912 in Melanesia, Peter To Rot was part of the second generation of Christian converts in the area. A man of great faith, he became a catechist. During the war, the Japanese occupied his island and enclosed all missionaries in camps, Peter among them. There, he organised services, baptised children, and tended the sick and dying. All this he did in a church he made himself out of branches, since the occupiers had destro…

4th Sunday after Trinity: who do you say that I am?

"Who do you say that I am, asks the Lord?"

Some wonder: could He be a prophet like John the Baptist? But if Jesus was a prophet, then we are just worshipping a dead prophet.

Could He be Elijah? Elijah supposedly ascended bodily into the heavens, so perhaps Jesus is Elijah, returning to the world. But if so, then all we have left is a dead Elijah.

Could He be the Christ, as Peter finally says? "Christ" is Greek for Messiah, meaning the "anointed one," the person for whom the Jews had been waiting to liberate them from their oppressors. And of course, Jesus is the Christ. But He does not indicate in this passage of Luke that this is the right answer. He simply stops the questioning at that point, perhaps because Peter's is the best answer so far, and it begins a dialogue which Jesus will complete next week on St Peter's day.

But it is still not enough - because if Jesus were just a messiah, then all we would have left is a dead messiah.

3rd Sunday after Trinity: what is worth your tears?

Pharisees and prostitutes: perhaps the 1st century Palestinian equivalent of a vicars and tarts party? Or perhaps not. Nonetheless, that is how the anonymous woman in Luke 7 has traditionally been portrayed, despite the Greek of the Bible calling her no more than a "sinful woman." Though, I suppose, the rather spiteful exaggeration does spice up the story: a woman who is a renowned sinner offers Jesus her kissing and weeping, in hotblooded contrast to the cold moral legalism of Simon and friends.
We English get a bit embarrassed by kissing, don't we? It's only recently that we've adopted the continental custom of pecking each other on the cheeks in greeting. And I wonder whether that is linked in some way to our unpleasant national tendency to anti-Catholicism, our distaste for its exuberant pomp, or its "detestable enormities," as our Reformers unfortunately put it. Perhaps there are even one or two of us who find some of what we do in this church a bit…

The Ascension and Our Lady of Walsingham

The parish pilgrimage was only a fortnight ago, but it already seems so distant. Dear Walsingham is one of my favourite places in England, and very much my spiritual home. One of the things I exult in is its sheer outlandishness. It is an odd place, and not just because of the crowds gathering to dance and drink around my rector's pianola as he pedals out tracks from Abba and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Nor just because of the clergy and religious who flock the place in their exotic apparel. No, even the Shrine itself is exotic and more than a little eccentric. Strange images and statues lurk around every shadowy corner, inviting you to contemplate some more or less obscure figure or element of the Christian faith a little more carefully. There is no room there for spiritual boredom.

 One of the more curious side-chapels in the Shrine of Our Lady is that of the Ascension. At first sight, you wonder why it is so called, given that the painting over the altar is of the Virgin a…

There is no such thing as - Church? Jn 21.1-14 (Easter 3)

"There is no such thing as Church." What would we make of a statement like that? You don't need a degree in political science to realise that I am referring to the controversial words of the late Baroness Thatcher, which she never herself denied saying, that "there is no such thing as society." Perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase, but to be fair, she did say it in the attempt to urge us to recognise that society is made up of real, individual people, so that we cannot use it as a scapegoat for human failure. I suppose there are times when it might be a helpful corrective to apply the idea to the Church: for example, if I got home and realised that I'd left the church heating on for the night, but didn't bother to go back and turn it off again because 'the Church' would pay - forgetting that it's you, the indivuals in the pews, who put your money into the collection plate to keep the place going. Or, maybe, if the wider Church did or taugh…

Pope kisses the feet of prisoners

To distract us from present bitterness, something that everyone can agree is a good thing!

Mothering Sunday 2013

Obesity. Alcoholism. Depression. Just some of the symptoms of sick Britain, identified last week as the unhealthiest country in Europe. And so, the government wants to hike taxes to change our behaviour.

We love to think that we are free. Perhaps you get angry when the government sets its mind on curtailing our freedoms. I know I do, when they raise the price of beer to stop us from drinking as much of it. But I always know that actually, however expensive they make it, I'm still going to drink just as much. I'm not saying I'm addicted or anything, but it does raise the question: actually, how free am I, really, when it comes to drinking beer? My freedom is limited, I suppose, by how much money I have in my wallet to spend on the stuff, but if I get as far as four pints, that never seems to matter so much. I'm probably going to carry on, anyway. So in a way, maybe the limits that the government tries to set on my freedom, the external limits to my freedom, are a bit o…

Faith-Experience as Spiritual Encounter: Shin Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

Response to Professor Kemmyo Taira Sato, Delivered at Three Wheels Temple, Monday 4 March 2013

First, may I thank Professor Sato for inviting us to the Three Wheels Temple and offering such a concise exposition of True Pure Land teaching. Thanks, too, to Dr Wharton, for making today's conversation possible. I pray that we all, Christians and Buddhists together, may approach the day in a spirit of openness and eagerness to learn from one another, vigilant for rays of truth wherever they might shine.

Professor Sato has very helpfully outlined the key events of Shinran's 親鸞 life and his tutelage under Hōnen 法然, their exile together, and the fundamental basis of their Buddhism: the need for absolute entrusting in the Primal Vow 本願 of Amida Buddha 阿弥陀仏 for the Birth 往生 in the Pure Land 浄土 of all sentient beings, expressed as 'faith' or shinjin 信心. If you have studied other schools of Buddhism, this probably sounds quite different from what you are used to, and I think it m…