Sermons for Holy Week and Easter 2002
This sequence of sermons contains the text of the addresses given at St Faith's at the services held, in 2002 as in every year, to mark the central week of the Christian year.
When fishes flew and forests walked,
and figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
then surely I was born;
With monstrous head and sickening cry
and ears like errant wings,
The devil‘s walking parody
on all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
one far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
and palms before my feet.
(G.K.Chesterton: ‘The Donkey’
Yes - today is the donkey‘s opportunity for fame! We begin the most solemn and spectacular week in the Church’s year. A week which is portrayed in music, symbol and sign. A week which involves us and challenges us, a week in which we try to comprehend just how much God loves us.
And yet, no sooner have we walked in triumphant celebration with palms, donkey and bagpipes: one moment expressing our love for Christ in that way: the next we are shouting for him to be crucified. I’m assuming you want him crucified? I heard the shouting. ‘Crucify, crucify.’ We all shouted it - we all did it. We all do it!
So perhaps we need to say sorry. That’s why the sacrament of reconciliation is available as God’s free gift to the church. People who come to confession aren’t any better than those who don’t; in fact we’re quite aware of how much we fail in our lives and that’s why we go. We need God‘s love.
And God’s love invites us, unless we have something more important in our diaries, to share special meals around the altar. He wants us to be there. And during the Eucharist at on Maundy Thursday, when we re-enact the washing of the feet, we are reminded that Jesus came in all humility to serve, not to be served.
We try to be humble, but being important is so much more rewarding. Humility is a great thing. Yet the moment we think we‘ve earned 10 out of 10 on the humility-score we have lost it. That wretched sin of pride!
Well, come on Friday; say sorry, say that you didn’t really mean ‘crucify’. Don’t tell me you shouted CRUCIFY just because the Vicar printed it on the service sheet! People at S. Faith’s aren’t like that: we only say what we mean! Come! come to the foot of the cross if you can bear it. When Jesus carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa 2000 years ago, many people just got on with normal life. They weren’t bothered. Quite frankly, they didn’t give a damn! Can you be bothered to be here on Good Friday at to express sorrow? Or are you too busy - out to lunch or shopping, or putting your feet up? Our Lord‘s feet were put up, nailed up on the cross. Were you there when they crucified? Yes, of course, it was them, not us!
On Saturday at we have the opportunity to experience the most moving and most important of all the services in the church’s year: you miss out if you don’ come. An opportunity to experience the move, from darkness to light, from despair and gloom to celebration and rejoicing. Bring a bell, bring party poppers, bring anything you can: for no amount of noise can adequately portray the excitement of that resurrection moment - even the champagne and the fireworks have their place this week - and rightly so: two of our members are being baptised on Saturday night and it is a celebration for them and for us. We need them and they need us. We’re in this thing together.
Yes, it might feel like you need to bring a sleeping bag today because there is so much going on it’s hardly worth going home. We need to be involved in all of it. If your next appearance in church is next Sunday then you will miss out - a bit like reading page one of a book and skipping to the last page: you miss out what actually happens: the penitence, the prayer, the party: it‘s all bound up together and it’s what binds us together. So: give this week to God, and, I promise you, you will be amazed at what he gives you back in return.
SERVICE OF PENITENCE AND RECONCILIATION:
(Ordinand from S. Faith’s then in her second year of training for the ordained ministry)
This is a very special and emotional occasion for me as I stand here to preach my first sermon at St. Faith’s. It is a very long time ago that my parents and Godparents made promises on my behalf at the font at the back of church and I have to thank them for the firm foundations they must have given to me as I began my spiritual pilgrimage.
It is good to be here with you on Holy Wednesday as we all take another small step on our individual journeys, each journey very different but at the same time united by God’s everlasting love and forgiveness.
I don’t believe that there has ever been a time in history when there has been a need for greater awareness for reconciliation in the world. We only have to think of the atrocities of September 11th , the fighting between Palestine and Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ireland, not so long ago riots even closer to home in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. The list goes on and on. And as well as these conflicts what could be worse than murderers who turn their crimes into a martyr‘s drama?
Every form of prejudice nurtures the seeds of violence as they grow into the roots of destruction. Just a couple of weeks ago we heard the Israeli prime minister declare that he would match ‘strike with strike’: surely this can only go on to match grief with grief, followed by despair with despair.
Jesus’ teaching was radical on forgiveness and reconciliation, yet many of us, if we are honest will have questioned our own ability to reconcile ourselves to the horrific acts that we hear and read about daily.
How do we forgive our enemies? Can we forgive our enemies?
I believe the answer has to be yes, the Christian life is born in forgiveness and it must characterize us all the way through our relationships.
However, even being aware of this, forgiving does not always come easily; Peter wanted to know how many times he had to forgive his brother Andrew. The rabbis suggested three times but Jesus said more likely seventy times seven, suggesting constant forgiving. It is not always possible to be one with God until we are ready to be at one with those who have offended us.
While the words of Jesus are very definite we must always be aware of another aspect of faith and that is that God does not ask the impossible. Sometimes we are so full of hurt that we cannot forgive immediately and forgiveness does often take time. We must learn to be determined not to hold grievances, then gradually and only gradually the heart catches up with the head and forgiveness becomes a part of us and enters deep into the wounded feelings. If we begin to clear our hearts and minds of the desire for vengeance and we begin to pray for the perpetrators then the healing process has begun.
However, as well as forgiving we must recognize that we too have our own shortcomings and they may be the cause of someone else’s hurt or grief. Didn‘t we hear earlier that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves?
Seraphim of Sarov, a nineteenth century Russian mystic, once wrote:
‘All condemnation is of the devil. Never condemn each other. Not even those who whom you catch at the evil deed. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a morass of filth that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away and make faults of others.’
Sin as a religious word means offending the living God, God who is with us constantly, God who is love and God who is present in all people and all things. Our sin will not allow God to be the God of love, tenderness and compassion. Reconciling human kind to God was the primary work of Jesus and an essential part of the Gospels. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear that ‘When you are offering your gift at the altar; if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go: first be reconciled to your brother and sister and then come and offer your gift’. Whatever we do to one another we are also doing to Jesus and reconciliation with God is expressed in reconciliation with each other.
If we take the parable of the Prodigal Son we have a clear example of Jesus‘ teaching about reconciliation. The story is being told to the Scribes and Pharisees who complained that Jesus kept company with sinners, he even had meals with them! In the first part of the parable Jesus deals with the sinners by identifying them with the young son. He had spent all his money recklessly, he became extremely miserable and very hungry. He eventually came to his senses and was contrite and realized the error of his ways. He was sorry for his sins: the first important stage in the rite of penance.
Jesus continues the parable by telling his listeners what the young man planned to say to his father when he returned... ‘Father I have sinned against God and you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ He admits personal responsibility for having offended another person; he has therefore also offended against God.
The father’s response is one of immediate forgiveness. He ran to meet his son and called his servants to provide fresh clothes and prepare for a feast. The son was restored to his rightful place within the family showing that his sins had been absolved. This familiar parable illustrates quite clearly the four main stages in the act of repentance and reconciliation-
Contrition - the acknowledgement of our sins,
Confession - we repent of our sins and turn to God,
Absolution - we are assured of God‘s forgiveness and
Penance - acts to declare our intention to lead a new and better life.
We hear in the Gospel that the young man was prepared to work as a hired servant in order to make up in some way for his wrong doings - an act of penance.
Let us also focus for a minute on the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal so. This story is really about two lost sons not one. This part of the story is aimed directly at the Pharisees who were accusing Jesus in just the same way as the elder brother was accusing his father. He did everything right, obeyed all the rules, and really believed that he had earned and deserved his father‘s love. Yet this son was suffering from the deadliest sin of all, pride, which manifests itself in anger, resentment, stubbornness and self-righteousness. Such characteristics close the door on love and peace. Similarly, didn’t the Pharisees who obeyed the law to the letter find the challenges of Jesus too much for them and they had to go on to put Jesus to death.
There are lessons to be learnt from both the brothers in the parable: think about which one you would identify yourself with?
Do we ever act as Pharisees and relish moral superiority? Are we guilty of turning away from those who do not reach our own standards of respectability and correctness? This is the attitude that turns so many people away from the church today, the vulnerable such as unmarried single parents, gay couples, alcoholics, AIDS sufferers, the lonely, the poor and again the list goes on. Aren’t they the very people whom God, the shepherd, pursues and then rejoices when they are found?
The ministry of reconciliation is one of God‘s gifts to the Church. It is an important step towards spiritual growth and wholeness and helps to develop immense inner freedom. There will be the opportunity for those who wish to make individual confession and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation after this evening‘s Eucharist.
God does not hold our wrongs against us but provides the opportunity for us to turn things around and receive His blessings. With a change of heart God meets us where we are and welcomes us openly and lovingly, irrespective of our wrong doings. Jesus tells us that he did not come to call the virtuous but the sinners to repentance. In a way the sin can almost seem irrelevant but it is the attitude of the sinner that is all-important.
Despite this, reconciliation is one of the most difficult of Jesus‘ commands and invitations and in his mind it is more important than sacrifice and prayer. What we need to remember is that reconciliation is not only the act of re-establishing damaged or broken relationships between two parties but it is our way to God.
Reconciliation means starting afresh and believing in the possibility of change, new beginnings and conversion for individuals, groups of people or whole nations. It means that as wounded we can in fact live and work together again, putting the differences of opinion and past hurts behind us. As we move towards Easter and the promise of new life let us do so with renewed commitment and prayer.
Enlighten our minds and hearts, Lord, so that recognizing you in our own lives and in the life of the world, we may detect, abhor and oppose all attitudes and actions, which are destructive of your love within us and around us.
May we pray with open hearts for the ability and the capacity to forgive in the name of Jesus who forgave others from the cross?
A friend was recently promoted to a more senior job. His wife said ‘At last he’s been given the status he deserves.’ It put me in mind of an elderly priest-friend of mine about whom it was said: ‘He’ll definitely make a bishop.’ I said, ‘Is that what he wants?’ The reply was: ‘No - but it’s what his wife wants!’
It’s amazing to think how much time and effort we put into ‘getting to the top’ when in fact what we are doing is the complete opposite to what the message of the Gospel is. We have a fascination - an obsession - with power, status, wealth. What do you want to be when you grow up? we ask children - as if just being a human being is unimportant. What did your father do? Which school or university did you go to? It makes a difference - so we-re led to believe.
Its always amazing to see how many church socials have to have a top table! Somewhere where the real worthies can sit. Forget the fact that we‘ve made some pretence at being equal around the Lord-s table. Harvest lunch isn-t Harvest lunch without a proper top table. If you have a top-table, then you have a less-than-top table. There’s only one table: God’s. Thank God that such things don’t exist at S. Faith’s! Because the moment you say that one person should be up-graded you are by default degrading everyone else. Why shouldn’t the people who have polished the church faithfully for 40 years sit on the top table? Half the time they are overlooked - we don‘t even know their name.
‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high or lowly, and order’d their estate.’ So goes the hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’ How many thousands of children were taught that, and grew up with that? No wonder the world is - quite literally - in a bloody mess. We fight and compete all the time for ‘oneUPmanship.’. Jesus was the great pioneer of the little-known phenomenon ‘oneDOWNmanship’.
anything good, come from
something good came from
Saint Paul writes ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’ Not the sort of position that we naturally incline towards: yet the very position that God wants us to adopt. Because it’s the only way of truly loving the world.
‘When the mass is over, the service begin.’ If we want to encounter the living Christ then we need to embrace the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, the dispossessed, the alien and the outcast. Or we stick to our own more comfortable view of Christ. We make God in our image rather than accepting that he has made US in HIS.
We must pray for healing tonight as we participate in the washing of the feet. Healing for our minds - our outlook - our attitude. Yes, we might be able to ‘talk the talk’ but are our hearts and minds truly geared for service? I suspect that we want it to be, which is why we are here tonight. We have failed in many ways - I know I have even if you haven’t. I am not worthy, you are not worthy, we are not worthy. We are not here because of some jumped-up notion of self-worth but because the best God can give the world is a fragile human being. It takes one to know one. It takes one to love one. Perfect people don’t understand!
‘Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in!’ (Leonard Cohen)
Come to the Cross tomorrow. Give God the cracks in your life, and maybe on Holy Saturday, the Light of Christ will be able to break through.
A MEDITATION FOR GOOD FRIDAY
Fred Nye (Reader)
It’s too late now. I expect you’re sorry you ever came here for the Festival. Me - I wish I’d never ventured out this morning, that I’d stayed at home and minded my own business. But like the rest of you I followed the crowd, drawn by the horrible fascination of a public execution. And so here we are on the hill of Calvary, caught up in the death of this young prophet who has been our leader these several years now. But not just as spectators. By what we have said or not said this day, by what we have done or not done, we are all for better or worse involved in this drama, playing a part in what is going on.
And it’s hard to understand what is happening. There is so much hurt here. To witness the agonising death of Jesus-bar-Joseph, the carpenter’s son, is more than we can bear. And yet there is more. He fainted after the nails were driven home, but when he came to he breathed a prayer of forgiveness for his tormentors. How typical of the man, how true to what his heavenly Father taught him! There is so much pain here, so much love forgiveness and acceptance here, that I just want to escape. And yet something stops me, something holds me...
They say that as you die the whole of your life passes in front of you. I wonder what Jesus can see now. Does he perhaps remember his many journeys, remember his days as a travelling healer? And what a healer! It wasn’t just that he was good at it; it was the sort of people he cured. He seemed to go out of his way to reach the untouchables, the sort of people no ordinary healer would go near. I mean who wants to bother with mad people, and the possessed, and people with leprosy and all sorts of other dirty illnesses? But Jesus did. He said it was what his Father wanted. He wanted everyone to be set free, whoever they were and whatever they were. But people said that his patients didn’t deserve what he did for them. Small thanks he got for it.
Or perhaps he remembers his time as a teacher. And what he said wasn’t popular either. He told us that it was the humble and meek, ordinary folk, who were the heirs of God’s creation. He told us that God had come to save the vulnerable and the neglected; that the lost sheep was worth more than the rest of the flock put together. Well that went down like a lead balloon. And he kept on insisting that his Father’s reign of peace and justice had begun already, that life wasn’t a rehearsal. Worse still, he claimed that he had the authority to proclaim this Kingdom, never mind Moses and the prophets. Well you can imagine what the rabbis thought of that.
Or maybe he’s thinking about
have been. After all, he could certainly pull the crowds: remember the
excitement when he arrived in
Perhaps he had some regrets, but I doubt it. He must have felt rejected though, especially by the Jews. He just had no time at all for prejudice, especially religious prejudice. He told us a story once, about the importance of being caring and compassionate. But he chose a Samaritan, a heretic Samaritan - I ask you, as an example of how we should behave. He always seemed to see the best and find the best in people: heretics, pagans, sinners, adulterers, all sorts of riff-raff religious people didn’t want to know. He saw religion as so often dividing people, not uniting them. He always put people first; before religion or race or respectability. Said that the Sabbath was made for us and not the other way round. That’s how he put it.
He put people first, he put us first. And yet, when you think about it, we all tried to stop him. We tried to stop him being the Christ, tried to stop God from being God.
Take Simon Peter for instance,
of Jesus if ever there was one. But Peter was too proud to cope with
acceptance, his forgiveness, especially when Jesus tried to wash his
the supper table. Peter didn‘t like the risks Jesus took: even tried to
him going up to
Then of course there was Judas Iscariot, the revolutionary. A good man in many ways; he certainly wanted the meek to inherit the earth. But he was so angry, so impatient, so full of revenge. And so he tried to provoke his master into taking the initiative by force. Judas wanted to hurt his enemies, to hurl everything he had got at them, and then some more. But that wasn’t Jesus’ way; that wasn’t God’s way. And so Judas tried to turn God into something or someone else.
And what about Caiaphas the high priest? He couldn’t bear to be wrong could he? His religion, his belief, was more important to him than mercy, or pity, or hope or justice. His form of fundamentalism could find no place for Jesus in the scheme of things. And so he couldn‘t tolerate Jesus being Jesus, he couldn‘t stand God being God.
And finally came Pilate, Pilate the politician, Pilate the wheeler-dealer. All that mattered to him was to stay in power and to avoid trouble. Pilate didn’t believe in anything, except himself and his need to feel important and secure. He couldn’t allow Jesus, whoever he was and however true his claims, to threaten the status quo. He couldn’t allow Jesus to be Jesus, he couldn’t allow God to be God.
And so Peter and Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate, and you and I; we have all played our part in bringing Jesus-bar-Joseph, the carpenter’s son, to this dreadful place, the place of the skull. And he can’t have very long now. The shadows are beginning to lengthen. A few minutes ago he gave a sudden cry, frighteningly powerful from someone so close to death: ‘It is completed!’ And I began to wonder who had won. No denial, no rejection, no cruelty could turn him away from the path of his Father’s love and his Father’s will. Not once in his past life, not once during this terrible death, has he betrayed his heavenly Father. In Jesus we have seen the face of God himself. In this death, in this victory, none of us could stop Jesus from being Jesus; none of us could stop God from being God. He’s won. He’s won.
I think he’s gone now. What a look of his dear mother he had about him. Yes, he was one of us, one of the human family; a child of earth and a child of heaven. He came to put humanity first and to put God first, and to teach us that the two things were the same. He told us that we were his sisters and brothers, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bones, grafted on to the same vine. We have been fed by the same bread, warmed by the same wine.
As the world turns towards the night and to what lies beyond, the hill of Calvary and its precious burden turns with it. In our humanity we are drawn to him and with him, and in the calm and the stillness there is an invitation to share his victory. As his sisters and brothers, unwittingly and unwillingly, we can dare to whisper a faint echo of his last words. For us too, it is completed.
‘GOD PUTS THE BUBBLES IN OUR LIFE!’ Fr. Neil
Is it all worth it? So much to do! Donkeys to be transported. Flowers to be arranged. Cleaning, cleaning the brasses, champagne, Easter eggs and fireworks to be bought. The hall to be decorated, food to be prepared for an Easter Party, anthems and songs to be learned, and so it goes on...
Stop and give yourself time to take in what the liturgy has tried to express this week and the answer can only be most certainly, it is worth it. Everything we do in the liturgy of this week is to help us to try and take it in and live it in our lives.
Mervyn Stockwood (one time Bishop of Southwark) said once (so the story goes), ‘I love High church. I can appreciate Low church. What I can’t stand is dull church!’ That certainly can’t be said of S. Faith’s!
‘nd when I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die: I scarce can take it in, That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin.’ We can so easily take for granted the great gift we celebrate. In a way, yes, it is too much to take in. God’s love for us can be so powerful and overwhelming that running away from it is a much safer option.
But we come tonight to the source of light and all life. And tonight’s celebration is all the more special for having two baptisms. Shortly will be welcoming Elaine Jones and Georgina Haywood into the fellowship of the Church in the Sacrament of Baptism. We are reminded that water gives life, refreshes, cleanses, heals and renews. We were born from a bag of water. Baptism is a sign of God’s love and care for us.
Water was used as Christ’s mission statement: he turned water into something special - into wine. From the ordinary to the special. When we are baptised God puts the bubbles in our life. And tonight we are drawn closer into the mystery of the Risen Christ; Risen here and now. Not just 2000 + years ago. Here. Now. Here. In water - in wine - in bread - in each other. Food and energy for life. The now is important. We spend so much time being weighed down with guilt - and I’m not saying we shouldn‘t be sorry for our sins: but it is the past. We spend so much time worrying about the future; often for very good reasons. But it is to some degree unknown. The Quakers, who are not known for too many words, have a saying: The past is history, the future, mystery; what lies between is God;s gift to us, which is why it's called the Present.‘ We encounter Christ NOW. He is here. He is real and he loves us.
Jesus commanded his disciples to go out and to baptise. Tonight he commands us, his disciples, to do the same to go out and spread the Good News. Baptism is our commission for ministry. Go out and make disciples of all nations... and know that I am with you always, even to the end of time.
Let us be sent out tonight to gossip: not in a harmful or scandalous way, but gossip to others about the Gospel of the Risen Christ. That’ an order from God.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
S. John’s Gospel Chapter 20: Jesus said to Mary, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ This is an Important and significant text for us to take to heart today which we would have heard had the Gospel continued further into the 20thh Chapter of S. John. Jesus said to Mary ‘ Do not hold on to me’ or: DO NOT CLING!
Jesus really is an awkward so-and-so. It’s almost as if he doesn’t understand human nature. We may feel it slightly odd that the Risen Christ tells us not to do the thing that comes most naturally to us: we need security, we need to feel safe, there are things, events and people we treasure from our past, the future is always uncertain…DO NOT CLING... that’s difficult!
I don’t believe that for one moment Christ is telling us to forget anything that has happened up to the present moment: that would of course be impossible. But the message is challenging: our past experiences, our faults and failings, the joys and sorrows, the hurt and the pain our successes and otherwise, all these life experiences go to make us into the person who can look to the future with confidence. DO NOT CLING does not mean abandon the past but it does mean do not be afraid to look forward. Let the past be transformed into a glorious future: for that surely is the message of the Risen Christ who triumphed over death, abandoned the tomb and appeared in his risen body to the disciples. The Centurion at the Crucifixion said after his death; Surely this man was the Son of God. Today we can say with complete trust and Confidence: This man IS the Son of God.
DO NOT CLING … have confidence to embrace the possibilities of the future. The Church that we are proud to be part of today only came into being because those first disciples, despite the uncertainties of the future, had a faith which enabled them to move forward with the power of the Spirit. They risked persecution, they stood firm, and their openness to God‘s will helped to build the church which we are part of today. But they too had squabbles! Read the Acts of the Apostles‘ debates over who was most important, and what they were about; who was going to sit where; despite those human failings which have been present in every Christian Community for 2000 years and will be till the end of time; God‘s will and his work have triumphed.
I remember a man
who came to church when I was a curate in
Last week a friend of mine was standing at the cross-roads by Threshers. The green man seemed to be taking his time appearing and she overheard a conversation; as the conversation went along she realised she was listening to someone who used to come to S. Faith’s and someone who still does. ‘Neither of them had anything positive to say,’ she said. ‘I’m glad I don‘t come.’ Well, we are only human - we are no better than the people who don‘t come to church… so these things will happen. Yet it’s awful to think that someone can be put off the Christian Faith by the petty squabbling, the people who do nothing but sit and moan during the Sunday Service. It’s not good enough just to say, ‘we’re only human’. It might explain our actions, but it doesn’t excuse them. What will you say, in any conversation you might have this week, that will make people want to come to church? The growth of the church is just as much in your hands as it is in mine. When did someone last come to church as a result of your enthusiasm for the Gospel?
If our Easter Celebration means anything to us, then we will leave this building today wanting to make a determined effort for our church to grow. We will want to see new people not as a threat to our power and status, but as a refreshing addition to the family. True growth will be the sign of a living Church - clinging on to the old ways, the same people, doing the same jobs: time is running out for that church - wherever it is in the world. Mature, spiritual growth comes at a cost. The joy which we celebrate today came at a cost. There is no true growth without real pain: which is why being a growing church is difficult.
BUT. We need to build for the future, to encourage others in the faith, to seek new ways and possibilities of service. Today the Risen Christ reminds us of the power of God’s love, the triumph of Good over evil, the endless possibilities and opportunities. Do not cling .. there’s new stuff to do. Throw the old agendas away: those meetings have finished. The minutes say so. Some of us will prefer to cling; more of us, I hope, will want to grow: Let us rejoice today that we are an Easter people: sent out as Mary Magdalene was to proclaim not Bad News, but the Good News.