Priesthood

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Agony

Homily by Rambling Rector at Robin Trotter’s first mass, 22 June 2019.

Proper 7: Isaiah 65:1-9. Luke 8:26-39

Isaiah 65:1-9, my précis based on The Message: 

I’ve made myself available to those who haven’t bothered to ask. I kept saying ‘I’m here’, but they ignore me. They get on my nerves. They make up their own religion, a potluck stew. They spend the night in tombs to get messages from the dead, eat forbidden foods and drink potions and charms. They say, ‘don’t touch me. I’m holier than thou.’ These people make me sick. But the Lord says they’ll get their comeuppance—actions have consequences.

All clerks in holy orders can sympathise with the prophet as they deal with people who appear to have ears but hear not. Robin, you will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to minister as priest to the wayward group of individuals that make up a church.

You will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to do as you promised yesterday: to teach and to admonish, to resist evil, support the weak, and defend the poor. Note the word admonish. This is more than warn, or premonish as the Book of Common Prayer has it; you are to rebuke, to challenge bad behaviour—and there is plenty of that in churches.

Did you notice that people in tombs feature in both readings? In Greek, tomb is mnema, which gives us memory, memorial, mnemonic. People living in the past, people who moan constantly that the solution to all the church’s problems is to have things as they were when they were young—it’s piffle, of course, because things never were as they imagine. There is plenty of that in churches.

The priest is to pull people out of the tombs they live in. It is often said that the Lord loves us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us festering there.

Demons

The things I want to explore in the rest of this homily are demons, like those driven into the pigs as we heard in the Gospel—in our world today, addictions, obsessions, fixed false beliefs.

The three demons that afflict us, and that do untold damage to us as priests, are those that we hear of in the Lord’s wilderness temptations:

  • the demon that incites us to seek personal gain;
  • the demon that incites us to want to be worshipped;
  • the demon that incites us to be in control.

Desire for personal gain. This isn’t likely to affect you much, Robin, since, quite frankly, you’re already pretty long in the tooth—OAP soon—and anyway there’s nowhere for you to go. It would have afflicted me had I been ordained younger. I would have hankered after promotion of some sort, for that was part of who I was. But ordination at the age of 56 meant, thanks be to God, it was too late.

Desire to be worshipped, to be known, “look at me”. This afflicts so many clergy. They want to please people, they want to fix people—like you used to do when you were a GP. They don’t challenge bad behaviour. They can’t cope with being wrong. They certainly don’t admonish. As a result, they leave behind them a trail of dissatisfaction and resentment, for they never actually do what they say they will. I know such a bishop, now retired.

Rather than aiming to be worshipped, priests must cultivate an air of detachment. They can’t afford to be too friendly with any group of parishioners, for then they will be seen as being partial. This will be difficult for you, Robin, having being known in these churches for 30 years and more, but you must work at it. You need to have friends who have nothing to do with church or religion. They will ground you in reality rather than in the la-la land that the Church of England has become. My own experience is that it’s easier to be open with non-church people—and vice versa—than with many church people who have expectations of what the Vicar should be, and I don’t meet any of them, thank God.

Desire to be in control. This is a truly evil and pernicious beast. It leads you to think that you should fill your diary, that you are very important, that you should pursue success (see how all the demons merge into one another?). It leads you to underestimate the value of masterly inactivity, the solution to many problems in life as in medicine. After all, if what they say is true, this is God’s church, not yours, not mine, not even the wardens’, and no amount of flapping around like a demented hen will achieve anything of value. If in doubt, do nowt.

Incompetence

Embrace incompetence. Theological training prepared me for critical study of scripture and introduced me to the riches of speculative theology, but it did nothing for me liturgically (being an organist did that); it did nothing to prepare me for wedding legalities, building maintenance, fundraising, financial management, being an entrepreneur … the list is endless. It certainly did nothing to train me, or even interest me, in managing flower arrangers.

I am an incompetent priest. I stand at the altar celebrating the holy mysteries aware of my selfishness, hypocrisy, uselessness, fickleness, laziness, arrogance, and yet there I am, not ashamed but accepting of all this, just me. I may have 26 letters after my name, but not one of them means anything of value. A priest is a doorway between the terrestrial and the Divine. My imperfections gather up those of my people and point them to the Divine—and vice versa: made like him, like him we rise.

In words of, I think, Chesterton, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Indeed, Robin, if you don’t think you are rubbish at priesthood, then you haven’t properly understood it. A former Director of Ministry, now an Archdeacon, said “I used to tell ordinands that if they didn’t find a tension between the job they were asked to do and their personal integrity, they were brain-dead.” You are not brain dead. You will find that tension. It will hurt.

Finally, don’t be tempted to think that things are either right or wrong. Polarisation is hardly ever appropriate, not even in science, not in cosmology or particle physics, and not in pastoral ministry where either/or is actually both/and.

From Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Priesthood is that ruined house in which is a wellspring of Divine grace.

Spurn success. Embrace incompetence. And may the Lord be with you.

Not just a room with a view

64560001_10157419352417292_2862819861422145536_nTrevor Thurston-Smith’s homily for Corpus Christi at S Paul’s, Burton-on-Trent, on 20 June 2019

It’s a real privilege to be with you this evening and I’d like to thank Fr Stanley for his kind invitation, and all of you for your warm welcome. It’s also good to see a number of familiar faces from Horninglow.

Those of you who know me may remember that I trained for the priesthood at Chichester Theological College. The College closed in 1994 – eight years after I left – when the Bishops did to ordination training what Beeching did to the railways.

The former college building is now a Residential Care Home, and more than one rather unkind wag has been known to say, “No change there then.” When I last visited Chichester, it seemed that the old College Chapel was being used as a dance studio. I suppose there’s some continuity there too, as some students were rather obsessed with liturgical choreography.

Chichester stood very firmly in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, so most of its students came from parishes where Mass with vestments, bells and smells and reciting The Angelus were the norm. Many of them were also familiar with that Catholic devotion known as Benediction.

For anyone who’s not familiar with it, this is a service at which a consecrated host is placed in a receptacle known as a monstrance. Usually the monstrance is highly decorated and the bit in which the sacrament is exposed is often designed to look like the sun. The monstrance is placed on the altar, usually surrounded by a multiplicity of candles, for adoration by the congregation. Prayers and devotions are then said, and finally, the priest makes the sign of the cross over the congregation. The priests’ hands are veiled to show that the people are being blessed not by him or her but rather by Christ himself, present in the blessed sacrament.

The college authorities at Chichester were worried that this practice would be seen by some as too extreme for an Anglican Theological College, so it was banned. As a compromise arrangement, the Bishop of Chichester held a service of Benediction in his private Chapel on the first Monday evening of every month, and students from the College were invited to attend, and did so enthusiastically. On the remaining Monday evenings of the month, in the College Chapel, we had a rather bizarre observance that was known rather inappropriately as ‘Exposition’. This involved the doors of the tabernacle on the high altar being opened, supposedly to reveal the sacrament within. The trouble was that the high altar was miles away up at the east end of the chapel, and there was a space and another altar between it and the nave. In good light, with a strong pair of binoculars, there was a slight chance that students on the front row might just be able to discern the outline of the ciborium – a sort of lidded chalice – that held the reserved sacrament.

It was all a bit of a farce, so it was I suppose inevitable that on one occasion, as the Principal solemnly opened the tabernacle, genuflected devoutly and prepared to walk away, a student felt moved to burst into song:

“A room with a view…..”

Somehow that student did go on to be ordained, but he’s now the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Church of England.

Well that’s enough nostalgia, for now at any rate. We’re here this evening on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, to give thanks for the gift of the Eucharist – this wonderful sacrament in which we receive Christ in a special way.

You may wonder why we need to do this. After all, we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday as we commemorate with particular poignancy our Lord’s last supper with the disciples.

The problem with Maundy Thursday, though, is that there’s really far too much going on. There’s the foot-washing and the giving of the new commandment to love one another; there’s Judas the betrayer slinking off into the darkness to do the dirty deed; there’s Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and, of course, the terrible looming prospect of his impending death.

So the church in her wisdom, decided to have this separate celebration focussing purely on the Eucharist itself.

Some Christians of course – to say nothing of those outside the church –  will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Well the fuss is about the fact that this is the one and only service that Christ himself instructed us to hold. He didn’t say to his disciples, “Hold a family service, a ‘Songs of Praise’ or Choral Matins in memory of me”. Instead he told them to take bread and wine and to do this. Other services have their place, of course, but the Eucharist is central to our worship precisely because it is what Christ has commanded us, his disciples, to do.

But why did he command it?

The clue lies in the language he used.

The word used in the Gospel that is rather inadequately translated into the rather ‘wet’ English word ‘remembrance’ is actually the Greek word ‘anamnesis’, and this means far more than a simple looking back; it’s far more potent that the kind of nostalgia I’ve wallowed in this evening. Rather it describes a form of recollection that can impact powerfully on the present and change someone’s behaviour in the here and now.

From this, of course, comes the Catholic doctrine of ‘Real Presence’ and the idea that the Eucharist is far more than just a symbolic memorial. As someone once eloquently said, “The Eucharist isn’t a funeral tea for a dead prophet”.

Many years ago I was shocked when a very Catholic-minded priest whom I respected greatly said in the course of a retreat, “I’m not stupid enough to worry about what does or doesn’t happen to a piece of bread.”  But as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself thinking exactly the same thing. Don’t get me wrong; I certainly believe that Christ is especially, mysteriously and wonderfully present in the sacrament, but I really can’t be bothered to get wound up about consubstantiation versus transubstantiation, or debating how God actually does it. Let’s face it, it’s a mystery that we’re never going to understand this side of the grave.

In any case, surely what really matters isn’t what God does to a bit of bread, but rather what that bit of bread does to us; and that brings me back to what Jesus was up to at the last supper.

When he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it; when he poured the wine, blessed it and shared it, he was giving the disciples a means of anamnesis – a means of recollecting him, of recalling his death and his giving of himself – a means of remembering that was so potent that it would impact powerfully on their present and change them.

Tonight, we are giving thanks for this means of remembering that is so potent, that it changes and transforms us in the here and now.

If you’ll allow me just one last reference to Chichester, our Principal used to get a real bee in his bonnet about people who received communion and then immediately genuflected before going back to their seat. His argument was very logical. He pointed out that a priest carrying the sacrament wouldn’t genuflect to the sacrament elsewhere because his focus would be entirely on the sacrament in his hands. So, he went on, when we have just received the sacrament into ourselves, we shouldn’t be reverencing it externally elsewhere, we should instead be honouring and rejoicing in the Christ who is now within us. He went on, “If you really can’t help yourself and you must genuflect, for goodness’ sake genuflect to the person next to you at the altar rail and honour the Christ in them”. I quite like that idea, because it certainly resonates with Jesus’ teachings about serving and honouring others and his suggestion that what we do for the least of our brethren we do for him.

There is a danger for all of us that making our communion becomes an act of individual piety and nothing more; that it becomes about ‘me and my Jesus’ so that we forget about the neighbour in whom we are asked to see Christ and whom we are called to love and serve.

The Anglican Priest and theologian Dan Hardy wrote this:

The individual pilgrim shares in the Church’s eucharistic communion, and eucharistic communion extends beyond the sanctuary into all the daily actions of its members……We are to imitate Jesus by walking round, embodying a presence on the actual land.

Those of us who like to call the Eucharist ‘Mass’ need to remember that that word comes from the Latin Missa which means ‘to be sent’. The name comes from the words at the very end of Mass – known as the Dismissal – go in peace to love and serve the Lord. In other words, you’ve reconnected with Christ, you’ve been fed now it’s time to get out there into the world and be Corpus Christi – the body of Christ in our very needy world.

Tonight, as we give thanks for this wonderful sacrament, let us also recall what we are called to be and let us resolve afresh to always approach the Eucharist believing that through it we will recollect Christ in such a powerful way – that we will reflect anew upon the meaning of his death and resurrection – and  that his Truth and his Love will transform us here and now.

So as you make your Communion week after week or even day after day there’s one question I would ask:

Do you, in your life, clearly display Christ mysteriously and wonderfully present in you like the monstrance placed high and visible on the altar.

Or are you just ‘a room with a view’?

We’re all in this together

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Homily for the Mayor’s Civic Service at St Modwen’s Church, Burton upon Trent, on 19 May 2019.

Colin, thank you for inviting me to be your Chaplain. You got in just in time, for I’m 69 in a couple of weeks, and I retire in October. I was surprised to be invited because I’m told I’ve gained a reputation for rattling cages and pricking pomposity. But you, Colin, intimated to me that was why you asked me. So fasten your seatbelts and off we go.

This is not a good time to be a Church of England clergyman. It’s not a good time to be a public representative of a deeply flawed institution that comes across as arrogant, hypocritical and inhuman: an organisation perceived to have provided a safe haven for child molesters, and one that cares more about its own reputation than its victims. Reprehensible behaviour by a few clergy tarnishes us all. If it’s the case that to err is human and to forgive divine, then to deny and cover-up and ignore belong to the Church of England. This is far removed from the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, and indeed from the wisdom of all cultures and religions worth bothering about.

Similarly, I don’t suppose this is a good time to be a politician. Worse, in fact, because unlike the church—which is pretty irrelevant to most people—politicians affect everybody. Over recent years in this country we have had politicians feathering their own nests, favouring friends and members of their families, fiddling expenses, spending public money for private gain. And now brexit: the stupidity and pride of buffoons in Westminster at their pernicious playground politics fiddling while the UK burns. Reprehensible behaviour by a few public representatives tarnishes you all.

So, council members, you have my sympathy and support in trying to do all that is good, all that is noble, all that is delightful and admirable. If I can do anything to help, even if only by listening, then here I am.

All this raises the question why we humans behave like this. What goes on in the human psyche?

Those of you brought up with some residual knowledge of Christianity might recall that Jesus’s three temptations in the desert can be whittled down to one: the urge to show off: “look at me, look at me” we are tempted to shout. Resist it! About 2000 years ago, Evagrios in what is now northern Iraq, set down some profound observations concerning these temptations. He wrote that our human frailty arises from three so-called demons.

  • The first is the demon that incites us to take more than we need. Greed. And not just greed for food or drink, but greed for emotions, for pleasure, for possessions. For power.
  • The second is the demon that incites us to take what we want simply because somebody else has it. Envy. Begrudgery,
  • And the third, the worst of all, is the demon that incites to seek the approval of others—to please other people into whose good books we wish to slither, into whose beds we wish to crawl. By the way, don’t be put off by the word demon.  These days we think of demons in terms of addictions or obsessions.

What has all this to do with councillors? The answer is everything. It’s these demons that, despite our best intentions, drag us down. It’s these demons that we need to be on guard against if we are to replace selfishness with selflessness for the sake of the common good. And I don’t imagine that, as public representatives, you are in the game for selfish reasons.

When making decisions, and weighing up options, I encourage us all to think about what motivates us. Is it personal gain? Is it revenge? Is it the common good? Which of the options before us is likely to bring delight? Which is likely to lead to misery?

All of us, public representatives and private citizens, would do well to set aside the needs of the clubs or parties we belong to, and instead concentrate on the needs of individuals. It’s the effects on individuals that make the headlines. It’s the effects on individuals that lead to misery or delight. If we get the little stuff right, the big stuff will look after itself.

The second reading today was the story of the Good Samaritan. In those days, Samaritans and Jews hated each other, I suppose a bit like the tribes that support rival football clubs. Nevertheless, it’s the enemy that stops to help—he puts compassion for another human being before tribal loyalty. Help can come from the most unlikely source. We’d do well to accept help from anybody. We’re all in this together.

The priest and Levite who went out of their way to avoid the injured man were not bad people. They were on their way to Jerusalem in order to do their jobs in the Temple. For them to come in contact with a bleeding man would render them ritually unclean and unfit to do their jobs. In refusing to help they put duty before compassion. I guess we’ve all fallen into that trap, some of us many times over. I urge you as public representatives to keep compassion at the forefront of your minds in all that you say and do. Compassion for the underdog.

We’re all in this together. All humanity. I don’t know what image of the thing called God you have—if indeed you have one. I try not to have one, because it limits me, but I can live with the idea that God, the Divine, is beauty in all its manifestations: beauty of character, of action, of intent, of the senses, of craftsmanship—whatever is delightful. Delight. Furthermore, I have no doubt that there is God in every single one of us on the planet. We are all made in the image of God. We are all bits of God, even though we often do our best to hide it.

Some of you may have heard of particles in the blood called platelets. When we cut ourselves, platelets are attracted to the site of injury where they plug the hole to help stop the bleeding. Platelets are broken off bits of huge cells called megakaryocytes, which is Greek for, surprise, surprise, very large cells. Just as platelets are broken off bits of a megakaryocyte, so we are broken off bits of God. Just as platelets plug gaps and aid healing, so we must plug gaps and aid healing. We’re all in this together.

Finally, I ask you to look at the text of hymn we shall soon sing: And did those feet …

It’s easy to read the words of Blake’s poem as the worst sort of jingoistic piffle. And that is indeed how many people read it. But I doubt it’s what was in Blake’s mind. He was a deeply subversive writer, revolutionary, political, angry. The poem’s first verse is in fact a list of ironic questions:

  • Did those feet walk upon England’s mountain green? No, they did not, but oh that they might.
  • Was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? No, he was not, but oh that he were.
  • Did the countenance divine shine upon our clouded hills? No, it did not but oh that it would.
  • Was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills (Oxbridge degree mills by the way)? No, it was not, but oh that it might be.

The second verse inspires us to work for the answers to be yes.  Inspire me to act, to work for justice without which there will never be peace. I will not cease till we have built the holy city here.

And that, sisters and brothers, is what I invite us all to do. We’re all in this together.

Resurrections

Dolly-PartonChurch magazine May 2019

Pastoral encounter 1. Slowly, slowly, the grief becomes evident. Not in any dramatic way—rather a kind of glazed-over face with voice sinking to a monotone. Gentle probing reveals miscarriages decades ago followed by the realization of barrenness. This grief is not just a mother’s experience, for fathers suffer too. It calls into question our expectations of partnership and indeed biological role. No wonder relationships break down after miscarriages.

Pastoral encounter 2. What about women who have elected to have abortions? How does that decision prey on their minds? One hears it said that a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body in such circumstances. The trouble is that in a sense it is no longer just her body. Even before she knows she’s pregnant, embryonic cells invade her tissues and migrate throughout her. We don’t know what happens to them but she is in some way changed as a result of a pregnancy she doesn’t yet know anything about. This has implications for our attitude to induced abortion. As a matter of interest, I don’t like the phrase “termination of pregnancy”. Normal birth is a termination of pregnancy. If people mean induced abortion, they should say so.  .

Pastoral encounter 3. Someone who’s edgy, aggressive, always has to have the last word,. Again, gentle exploration reveals grief from decades ago, shame even, at the way they behaved with or suffered from their then partner.

Everybody is grieving about something. Everybody is tender somewhere. Be easy on others—and yourself.

Easter messages

One of the Easter messages is forgiveness. As Jesus himself might have said when he confronted the terrified disciples after his death, “never mind the denials, the betrayal, the abandonment: we have work to do so let’s get on with it. Peace to you all”. If only we could do that for ourselves.

Possibly my favourite image for resurrection is imagination. Graham Greene said in “The power and the glory” that hatred was failure of imagination. Hatred is the opposite of resurrection whether it be hatred of one’s self or of others. Use your imagination to think how things could be otherwise. Then do it. Life is short. Do it now. Don’t take care, take risks. You’re going to die anyway.

Summer events

Easter coming so late this year means that there are three big events close together.

You probably know that Ascension Day (30 May this year) is my favourite festival—made like him, like him we rise. We can only scale the heights if we chuck out the lumber that tethers us to the earth. We can only ascend to the Divine if we recognize the gravity that pulls us down. 7.45 am at St Modwen’s provides a Book of Common Prayer mass; 7.30 pm at St Paul’s mass with bells and whistles and smoke. The preacher in the evening is Canon David Truby, Rector of Wirksworth and once my training incumbent. Anything I get right is his doing. Anything I get wrong is mine of course. He was, and is, a good training incumbent, not least because he knew when to let me make my own mistakes and learn from them. I am glad that he’s able to come.

Corpus Christi (20 June this year) brings another special event. As some of you may know I’m the accompanist for Rolleston Choral Society and I invited them to provide music. We will hear Byrd’s Four part Mass, Byrd’s Ave verum and Bairstow‘s Let all mortal flesh keep silence. Bairstow was my teacher’s teacher’s teacher and so rightly or wrongly I consider myself part of the Bairstow tradition. He wrote some wonderful music still widely performed in Anglican musical establishments. He was a Yorkshireman through and through, and therefore not known for diplomacy. He said of himself that he had been invited to adjudicate all the major music festivals … but only once. He was never invited back. He viewed this as a badge of honour. So do I. The preacher at Corpus Christi will be Trevor Thurston-Smith, Rector of Wigston and sometime Phillip Jefferies’ curate at Horninglow. Booze and eats will follow the Corpus Christi event. I’ve invited people from the choral society and St John’s to help with serving and I hope that people from “my” parishes will join them. You don’t need XX chromosomes to serve tea and coffee.

Finally this summer comes Robin’s ordination as priest on Saturday 22 June at 4 pm in Stoke Parish Church (I refuse to call it a Minster: it just isn’t one). In one sense it’s the end of a journey for Robin, but in another it’s a beginning. If he does it properly he will find it challenging for all sorts of reasons that he and I have discussed. Please do your best to support him unobtrusively. Do not complain to him about the new Vicar. Do not abuse his good nature and his desire to please. That is one of the quickest ways to breakdown. Instead try and do as much as you can to have as good a time as possible and enable him, and others, to do likewise.

In the words of St Matthew “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven”. In words which might have come from the lips of Dolly Parton—a truly great American—“if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” I prefer the latter.

Even my own familiar friend

NicolasMynheerTwo bishops have inspired this reflection: Michael Burrows (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) and Michael Ipgrave (Lichfield) – the latter directing me to Mynheer. Thank you, Michaels. I hope you’re not embarrassed to have your names associated with this.

Do you know this picture by Nicholas Mynheer? (used with his permission).

Two women embracing. Look at the background. The artist names the women as the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas. Such sadness at the death of their sons.

I have a soft spot for Judas, bravado and posturing imploding to catastrophe. I’ve been there. Telling fibs to wiggle out of trouble. I’ve been there too. What was in his mind?

Was Judas disappointed with Jesus? Did they hatch a plot to have Jesus arrested deliberately in order to increase the profile of the “Jesus movement”? If so, it went horribly wrong.

Was Judas angry with Jesus? Perhaps Jesus did not live up to Judas’s expectations of being enough of a political revolutionary? The truth is that we never live up to the expectations of others because they’re not ours.

Was Judas Jesus’ special friend – a second disciple whom Jesus loved? There is no doubt about it, they were friends. And when Judas realised the enormity of his actions he couldn’t live with the shame and guilt. Just think how much hatred came into the world as a result of the way in which the Judas story was written up in the Gospels. I don’t know how the church can live with that shame.

Whatever was in Judas’s mind, his actions liberated Jesus. He started the process that allowed the Christ-imago to break free from the earthed cocoon.

I’d like to give Judas a cuddle. There’s a lot of him in me. Thinking about the distraught and desolate mothers makes me wonder about the fathers. Men grieve too.

You may know this story: the Vicar visiting the school asked, after some discussion of Easter story, “why did Jesus descend into hell?” After a silence, a small voice piped up “to rescue his friend Judas”.

Sanctuary of my soul

The-Holy-Eucharist4Monday in Holy Week

I suspect all of us have heard people say ‘I’m not coming to church: you’re all a bunch of hypocrites.’ There’s always room for one more, so they’d be in good company if they came. We hear a lot about Judas in Holy Week, and Judas is painted as, amongst other things, a hypocrite. Today we hear him say that money used to buy oil should be given to the poor, whereas in fact he wanted to filch it for himself. And tomorrow there’s an element of ‘it wasn’t me, guv, honest’ in the Judas story. It puts me in mind of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart:

I want to share something with you: the three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here.

I want to talk tonight about demons—the kind of demons that assailed Judas, and because there’s something of Judas in us all, about our human nature. Biology will play its part.

We left Jesus on Sunday standing at the gates of the city, facing death in the city of wrong. Jesus faces his demons in Gethsemane. We must face our demons, our fears. These demons are the enemies within, enemies of spiritual growth, enemies of resurrection. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we can’t love these demons until we see them, and we can’t see them until we look them full in the face.

What are our demons? Let’s look at the demons in the Passion narratives. There are three obvious headings: failure to confront reality, that is to say, denials; mob justice; and evasion of responsibility.

Let’s look at them.

  • Denials. Peter’s denials saved his skin—but only for that moment. Later, he wept, overcome with remorse. It’s hard to hear today’s news without being confronted by denials. How can a head of state deny his part in a situation that sees his people starve and killed while he lives in luxury? How can a politician say what is self-evidently not the case? Is anyone guilt-free? Who has not tried to get something for nothing, or used work time for personal business?
  • Mob justice. There are so many stories that illustrate this. Children attacking other children. One news item from 2007 sticks in my mind. In March of that year, The Times reported, a young man was surrounded by a gang with wooden sticks. Witnesses say that teenage girls egged on the attack with shouts of “Kill him, kill him.”
  • Evasion of responsibility. Judas said “it wasn’t me”. Pilate wriggled out of responsibility and washed his hands. Pilate needed to please his superiors. How often have I felt like that? And look at our politicians. It’s easy to pick on them because they set themselves up for it. Look at bankers evading responsibility. Now, we all make mistakes. We all are greedy. We all want the advantages of investment dividends if we are lucky enough to have money invested, and our pensions depend on them. We are all complicit in the sin of the world, and our children and grandchildren will have to bear the burden. I accept all that, and I can’t and don’t condemn anyone for faults that also afflict me. However, the arrogance and lack of remorse that we see in public life is something beyond all this. According to the Gospels, Jesus was censorious about very little, but always, always, always about hypocrisy and complacency.

So three headings, but in truth they can be compressed into one: the sin of Adam—trying to be what we are not. The fig leaf has nothing to do with covering up our genitals, but is about covering up our naked selves by putting on a mask, a persona, to hide our true faces. We deny the truth because of our need to save face, but it’s not the face that suffers. It is the inner self that I harm when I deny what is evident to others. This inner self that is the Christ within, the Divine within. When we harm others, we wound the Christ within as surely as any nail on the cross.

I want to give you some biological basis for the Christ within. I begin with a prayer from the Liturgy of S Basil, addressed to Our Lady.

Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices, the ranks of angels and the human race; hallowed temple and spiritual paradise, pride of virgins; From you God was incarnate and he, who is our God before the ages, became a little child. For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens. Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices; glory to you.

“He made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens”. What a wonderful image.

Mary is the means by which logos, word, wisdom becomes human. She is God-bearer, theotokos. Now, just listen to this reproductive biology.

  • When an embryo is growing in the uterus, some of its cells invade maternal tissue. Some of these destroy maternal tissue and allow the embryo to exchange things with the mother.
  • Some of these embryonic cells also find their way into mother’s blood vessels and are carried throughout the mother’s body.
  • The invading embryonic cells are very unusual, in that they lose their individual boundaries and become a community without boundaries – individuals give way to a cooperative.
  • Embryonic cells remain within the mother up to and after she gives birth, so the woman is changed by the embryo growing in her uterus. The woman is no longer the same: embryonic cells have been incorporated into her. The mother is changed by this, and it happens within a week of fertilization – before she knows she’s pregnant.

All this is biology.

Now put this in theological terms. During pregnancy, Jesus’ cells invade Mary. Mary does not reject Jesus. Jesus and Mary exchange material. Some of Jesus’ cells are left behind in Mary after Jesus has been born, and by this means Mary has been changed, transformed by the 9-month Christ-pregnancy.

But Mary is the representative of humanity; she’s one of us. She is the type. So by spiritual extension, the Christ-event that began with Mary’s pregnancy and transforms her, also transforms you and me.

Jesus’ divine cells invade Mary. Jesus invades us – the divine spark within, like a divine radioactive core, ready to saturate all our cells, all our being, if only we will let it. As embryonic cells devour maternal tissue to enable exchange, so the divine core within can, if we allow it, devour our less salubrious parts, to enable exchange with God. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in 1614 wrote: ‘He was not idle all the time He was an embryo — all the nine months He was in the womb; but then and there He even eat out the core of corruption that cleft to our nature and us …. [We] were by this means made beloved in Him … this the good by Christ an embryo.’ This is astonishing.

Exchange. The embryonic Christ and Mary exchange things through Jesus’ placenta.  So we exchange with God: God sustains us, and we offer the sacrificial gifts of worship and compassion. I call this the doctrine of mystical intermingling, and I shall patent it!

Then there is community. Embryonic cells that invade the mother lose self-identity and become a community. This is an example of the mystical body of Christ where we lose our self-hood in community. We can be so much more effective when cooperating than when acting alone. The light in a glow-worm comes from millions of luminescent bacteria – one alone is invisible, but when they act together it’s a different story.

Given that we have this divine core within, why do we do rotten things like Peter, like Judas, like Pilate? Why, as Paul said, do we do what we know we shouldn’t, and don’t do what we know we should? Where do the demons come from? I don’t know. I look at newborn babies and see no evidence of them. The development of ego perhaos? But there are spiritual battles going on in us all the time, and these are with the demons that we need to guard against.

Using the image of God within, how do we allow this divine core to transform us?

  • Mary listened. We need to listen to the still small voice, the implanted word.
  • Mary did not resist. It’s not that we have to do something actively, it’s that we have to stop doing something, and the thing we need to stop doing is resisting.
  • Thus we let the divine core within expand to fill our skins and suffuse all our tissues and thoughts. This is salvation, redemption, deification, theosis.

Honest self-examination is a key to this. It can melt away the demons, allowing the divine spark within to fill our skins. It is painful when the Divine light shines in our souls and we see our demons, addictions, starkly illuminated. But as Isaac the Syrian said, it is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. Only then can we repent. Isaac talks of three stages in the way of union: penitence, purification and perfection – that is to say, conversion of the will, liberation from the passions (detachment), and the acquisition of that perfect love which is the fullness of grace.

Mary is suffused with divine cells, she is divinized. She is a co-redemptrix. But remember, Mary is one of us, so we all share in this redemptive power if we choose to: we can all light the way for others. At our baptisms, each one of us becomes a Christ. As the Divine within suffuses all our tissues, so we have the new creation happening in and around our cells. We are transformed from one degree of glory to another.

Finish then thy new creation, wrote Charles Wesley, when we shall be changed from glory into Glory.

Mary enables this mystical intermingling of human and divine. It is based on sound theology and, amazingly, on sound biology. In the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, the Saviour ‘began his work very humbly and very gently in the Virgin’s womb.’

The battle for salvation is not about doing stuff and ticking boxes, but rather about relaxing so that the Divine core can expand to fill our skins, pushing out the demons. Imagine these demons as imps. When you recognise one, send it on its way. There’s nothing like the light of day to make these creatures dissolve. But there is a never-ending supply of them, and they keep us in exile from that inner sanctuary.

Here is a poem that talks of this inner kingdom, the holy of holies within. It was written by 20-year old Charles H Sorley who died weeks later in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.

From morn to midnight, all day through,
I laugh and play as others do,
I sin and chatter, just the same
As others with a different name.

And all year long upon the stage,
I dance and tumble and do rage
So vehemently, I scarcely see
The inner and eternal me.

I have a temple I do not
Visit, a heart I have forgot,
A self that I have never met,
A secret shrine—and yet, and yet

This sanctuary of my soul
Unwitting I keep white and whole,
Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care
To enter or to tarry there.

With parted lips and outstretched hands
And listening ears Thy servant stands,
Call Thou early, call Thou late,
To Thy great service dedicate.

New values

250px-VladimirskayaThe young lad went home from the first day at school. His mother asked how he’d got on. “What have you learnt today?” she said. “Not enough” he replied. ”I’ve got to go back tomorrow”.

That’s a bit like our experience with new starts as pupils in the school of the Gospel. With our propensity to cock up, we always have to keep picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down, and starting all over again, eventually reaching what an elderly friend once called “cramming for finals”. (I was never any good at that, but that’s another story.)

So what are we trying to achieve as we progress to finals? According to red-top weekend supplements, the chief aim of mankind is good food, a state-of-the-art kitchen, exotic holidays, a good football team, and stupendous sex,. Other supplements are more economically and socially ambitious: we are urged to aim for a good job, a good salary, a good pension and worthy hobbies. The more high-minded papers point us towards the ideal of making the world a better place; we are urged, according to taste and temperament, to become either activists, protesters, optimists, or doom merchants despairing at the state of the world.

But, said Jesus, “after all these things do the Gentiles seek” and then advised “strive first for the kingdom of God”. What are the values of the kingdom of God? What are the values that lead to newness of life?

The answer is in the Magnificat. It is the most revolutionary document in the world, and it comes from a pregnant teenager. My organ teacher writes here that when he approached his former professor of music at Cambridge, Patrick Hadley, to write a setting of the Magnificat, Hadley replied that he couldn’t possibly oblige, saying: “that Magnificat – it’s very RED, isn’t it?”

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts

A better phrase for “imagination” would be “devices and desires” since the Greek translated as imagination implies deliberate self-seeking intentions. It means “I did it my way”—the me, me, me cry of the super-confident who believe they have the ear of God, of the mock humble who plead “all I want is …” and follow up with a Harrod’s shopping list to the sky pixie, of all those who have got above themselves and forgotten that pride is followed by fall. For pride is the greatest of the sins; it arises from the serpent’s claim for Adam and Eve “Ye shall be as Gods”; it is the perverted selfishness and self-regard that spawns the other sins, the other perversions of loving God and neighbour.

But note how God scatters the proud. He appears in Christ who did not lord it over others with displays of power, but was one of us. And this, even at his death when much as he would have liked to have been spared, he put his human ego aside. We have a great capacity to deceive ourselves, to imagine that we’re doing things for the sake of others when in fact we’re just pleasing ourselves. Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation of Luke’s beatitudes is spot-on: “it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.What you have is all you’ll ever get. It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.Your self will not satisfy you for long.”

For Christians it is not a case of saying “I did it my way”, but rather, “I try to do it his,” being vulnerable and seeing the Divine in others. Selflessness trumps selfishness.

He has cast down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek

Some interpret this as a call to revolutionary political activity. That certainly has its place, especially in the United Kingdom at this time. But Hebrew Scripture metaphor and language should not be taken literally. This is not power to the people, nor man the barricades. For it is not God but man who is described as a political animal, that is to say man is naturally community minded. Apes like us live in community.

But Jesus deals with individuals, fearlessly facing challenges from the rich, the powerful and the hostile, ignoring social, moral and ethnic standing. He has no favourites. How could he have if the divine spark is in each of us?

He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away

Two extremes are set against each other, again typical of Hebrew Scripture. Again we should not take it literally. This is about equality: each according to his needs, not his wants. This is a vain hope, given the acquisitive nature of the psyche. Warlords want guns, not irrigation schemes, and the people starve. And just look at our thirst for oil. What of the more vital thirst for water? There will be wars over water before long.

Magnificat values are the new values. We aspire to see the Divine in everyone, to have a share in the healing work of making rough places plain, to create a level playing field, to seek the common good. To relinquish “all the vain things that charm me most”.

Prophet Micah has it in six words: do justly love mercy, walk humbly.

For this reflection I’m privileged to acknowledge my friend, the late Primrose Wolstenholme.

Christianity – is it worth it?

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

Quite by chance I came across the homily that I gave at a Rotary club carol service in 2017. Here it is.

Most people don’t expect a sermon at a carol service. But since a good many of you find yourselves in church only once a year, I shan’t resist the urge to provoke you.

I hear it said that English society is losing the plot, that it’s obsessed with individualism. People think their rights as individuals trump their duties as members of society. I hear it said that the church has contributed by having failed to proclaim its message clearly, that it has colluded with the forces of secularism.

If you think this, and deplore the way in which the Church has retreated from society to become an inward-looking sect, then I say this to you: stop moaning and start going to church. Change the church from the inside.

“Ah but”, I hear you say. You say “church is only for old women and children”. “Church these days is sentimental claptrap of flowers and pet services and vicars obsessed with chocolate and coffee”. “Church is about middle class complacency” you say. “Church patronizes me with doggerel hymns, playschool prayers and infantile sermons”. “Church doesn’t connect with the joys and sorrows of ordinary people” (I suppose members of Rotary Clubs can be regarded as ordinary people. Perhaps.)

Certainly, when I look at celebrity vicars today, I can understand why people think like that.

So let me correct you about Christianity.

It’s not about chocolate. It’s not about vomit-inducing Jesus-is-my-best-friend talks. It’s not about worshipping texts written by people who thought the earth was flat. It’s not about believing fairy stories. It’s not about asking a sky pixie to sort out your problems because you’re too lazy to take responsibility for yourself.

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

  • Every one of us has the divine light within, a bit of the Divine, like a pilot light on a gas stove. The inner Christ.
  • All we need to do is let that inner pilot light grow to fill us from the inside. That’s what Christmas is about. As Mary let the infant grow in her belly, so can we let him grow in ours, for we are all Mary. We don’t need to do anything—the Christ-child within is already there; we just need to let it happen—or rather, we just stop resisting. As we have already sung: O holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us today.
  • As the Christ-flame grows within us it brings to light our egotistical desires and all the vain things that charm us most, then consumes them, often very painfully. That’s the crucifixion.
  • With all the inner rubbish now burnt up, we are resurrected; we ascend to the heights like a hot air balloon now unburdened by ballast. Our inner flame lights the way for others and consumes their burdens. Light as illumination, light as wisdom, light as less heavy.

And this with Jesus as the prototype, the model, the example, divine humanity, the Word. Never mind the theology—a fair bit of it in the western church is pernicious hogwash.

Christianity is about putting other people on the same pedestal that you’re on yourself. Christianity is about recognizing that we’re all in this together—every living creature, not just humans. Christianity is about giving away your self, because only then will you find yourself. And at this time of year it’s about remembering the importance of being child-like. Not childish: selfish, egotistical, me-me-me, but child-like: trusting, exploring, fun-loving, risk-taking.

I leave you with this question: would the child you once were be proud of the adult you have become? If not, use this Christmas, this festival of childlikeness, to do something about it.