Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thursday in Lent IV - Lucy Gardner

Tutor in Christian Doctrine, Lucy Gardner, gave this homily at this morning's Mass.

Most people know that Christian teaching has something to say about life. Fewer realise that the Christian life is also about death. It is about dying to our idols, and about allowing them to die to us. It is also about putting death into perspective.

Viewed from the perspective of Easter, death has been destroyed. Its finality has been rent open and it can no longer define us or hold us to ransom. But we still have to face it.

Viewed from the perspective of Easter, death is something that happens in the middle of life, and not just at the end. At baptism, we die to sin and rise to new life.

Viewed from the perspective of Easter, death is also an everyday experience. Each morning we are called to die with Christ in order to share in his victory and enjoy his gift of life, to the full and for ever. Each evening we pray with Simeon that we might be permitted to depart in peace.

If you think about it, from the moment we are born we are dying. But for Christians this is not a tragedy, because eternal life can begin in the here and now precisely because dying can also happen in the here and now. And personal holiness has something to do with learning to live with this, learning to live with our own dying.

Preparing someone else for their death is, I think, one of the greatest acts of human kindness. Preparing others for death, not only in their last days and hours, but throughout their lives, is one of the greatest services the Church has to offer, and being part of that is one of the greatest privileges of her ministry.

It is also a very necessary service in a culture which distorts death, on the one hand by ignoring it, shutting it away and clinicalising it, and on the other by glamourising it in treacled drama or bloody violence on our screens.

In order to perform this service, however, we need to be prepared for our own deaths. We need to be practised in dying with Christ to our distorted, idolatrous selves. We need to be practised in viewing everything through the death and resurrection of Christ, from the perspective of Easter.

As we wait for Easter, the Spirit prepares us to die and rise with Christ. The Spirit trains us in our own dying, trains us in viewing everything from the perspective of Easter, trains us in personal holiness. In so doing, the Spirit also trains us to prepare others for their deaths.

Saint Patrick - Fr Damian Feeney

The Vice-Principal, Fr Damian Feeney, gave this homily at the Solemn Mass for Saint Patrick, when we welcomed future incumbents for those leaving the House this year.

‘Not I, but Christ in me’ (Galatians 2.20)

To Patrick, Christ was everything. In the life of the Church, it is Christ who acts, Christ who teaches. If the fabulous hymn ascribed to him is not actually by him, it would have been well known to him – and this, alongside the Confession and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, bear out just such an emphasis. The hymn Audita omnes, attributed to S. Secundinus, expresses this well:

Christ’s holy precepts he keeps in all things,
His works shine bright among men,
And they follow his holy and wondrous example,
And thus praise God the Father in heaven.

Famously, the business of separating fact and legend where saints (and especially Celtic ones) are concerned is a bit of a conundrum – but in the case of Patrick, all we really need is that emphasis on Christ. How appropriate it is, therefore, to be considering today how the call to be alter Christus through priestly ordination manifests itself in us. ‘Not I’, said St. Paul to the Galatians, ‘but Christ in me.’ That is part of what the Holy Spirit confers – that sense of the indwelling Christ. And yet without our desire to create within ourselves a place where Christ may dwell, such a gift might never be unwrapped. And the truth is that, whilst in this place we speak of the formation which is part of God’s gift to those who truly seek him, we nevertheless need to realize that this formation is only begun here, continuing through ordination, through our title parishes, through our ministry, through the whole of our lives, shaped again and again by the sublime and saving redemptive mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, available in this Mass and through the ministries which we are called to share.

Today we are able to express both continuity and change – the continuity of that formation in Christ; but also the change, as the response of those to be ordained is taken outside the seminary, (where, true to its name, the seeds have been sown) to begin a yet more public life in the service of Christ and his church, where experience is further enriched by the key relationship between incumbent and curate, as well as through the many relationships formed within the parish. But, as Patrick knew well, the key relationship is that which we have with Christ, a relationship to be daily enriched and renewed through Word, Sacrament and through the holy people who here constitute his body. So, today we will talk of many things, ranging from the spiritual, to the practical – but let Christ be the purpose of our conversations, and the point of all our striving.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wednesday in Lent III - Fr Damian Feeney

Fr Damian Feeney, Vice-Principal, gave this homily at the Mass on Wednesday in the third week of Lent. The readings for the Mass can be found here.

By anyone’s estimation, seven hundred years is a long time. If the Psalmist is correct, that’s ten lifetimes, end to end. It’s a hard period of time for us to comprehend. In 1310 (seven hundred years ago), fifty-four members of the Knights Templar were burned at the stake in France for being heretics, shoes were (finally) being made for both right & left feet, and Duccio's Maestà Altarpiece [see above], a seminal artwork of the early Italian Renaissance, was unveiled and installed in Siena Cathedral. Seven hundred years is a ballpark figure for the time which elapsed between the writing of our first reading, from Deuteronomy, and our Gospel reading, from Matthew. In that first reading, Moses exhorts the people of Israel to observation of the laws and customs which he was to teach them, as this would constitute obedience to the will of God, and demonstrate wisdom and understanding to others, who could be sure that here was an enlightened, civilised and God-fearing nation. Such observance and obedience also pointed to the proximity and even availability of God to his people. And thus was the benchmark set, for seven hundred years – and I might venture to suggest that over such a period of time, habits become engrained, especially if the people did as Moses asked, and told and taught the customs of the law to their children, and their children’s children.

Not surprisingly, then, the passage from Matthew comes as a shock. Suddenly, in the face of seven hundred years of habit, there is Jesus. To be fair, not as an abolitionist, but rather, as a fulfilment of the Law – that which completes. We may take a still broader view, that he teaches, reveals and bestows the perfect justice of God: Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, says that ‘…Christ is the end of the law, so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.’ [Romans 10:4] In other words, Jesus is the last word, as well as being the first. It is part of what is meant by his being Alpha and Omega. He, indeed, transcends the Law, and it is his fulfilling, and therefore supplanting of the law, which becomes the norm by which we live. In fact, the word ‘fulfilment’ is here multi-dimensional. Jesus does not merely bring the law to completion, but broadens, deepens and enriches the term ‘righteousness’ so that it refers not merely to legalism but to his very person.

When we ponder the impact of these statements of Jesus, we get a glimpse of just why his words were controversial, how his claim to be the fulfilment of the law threw down a gauntlet to those who listened to him, and what a risk they took in following him. And if, for just a moment, we can measure a sense of that risk, perhaps it enlivens our own faith and response, not merely to our understanding of where Jesus stands in relation to the Mosaic Law, but to the whole of history, the whole of creation itself. We stand on the shoulders not merely of seven hundred years, but of two thousand or so more – two millennia, where faith in Christ has been more or less normative, and when the claims made for him were not only accepted, but often imposed and enforced. We now live in an age where we must decide afresh for Christ, in the presence of any number of alternatives – for he is Alpha, Omega, beginning and end, the fulfilling of the Law – and so much more besides.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Monday Reflection - Simon Sayer

Simon Sayer, a final year ordinand from the Diocese of Manchester, gave this short homily at Evening Prayer on Monday.

Is it just my imagination, or does each morning come round sooner in 9th week than 0th week?

It may well feel to us this evening that the ‘forty days of yearly round’ has already reached its end, and that our souls are more exhausted than healed, to say nothing of our elusive search for ‘joy magnifical’. Maybe we echo the words of the psalmist: some of the days of this Hilary Term were ‘lost labour’ rather than a ‘blessing from the Lord’?

We must, though, take care about our understanding of the language of the psalm. In another translation, ‘vanity’ appears in each of the first three verses, alerting us to what one commentator calls a ‘swearword’ – so strong is its warning. If we attempt to build the house (is that perhaps vocation?) without the Lord, our labour is vain. Vain, too, is the waking of the watchman in the absence of the Lord. Getting up early, going to bed late – more vanity, made worse by our eating the bread of toil – ‘anxious’ toil in another translation. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite an expert at anxious toil, I’m afraid – especially in 9th week.

Can we, then, just stay in bed? After all, the Lord blesses his beloved in their beds, whilst they sleep. Well, no – sorry, I don’t think so. It’s about the attitude we take to our daily round. If the foundation for our life and its work and formation is the Lord, we can relax while we work, or at least approach it with love rather than anxiety. This psalm of ascent reminds us to raise our eyes to a better perspective. It is the Lord who is, as our Office hymn reminds us, ‘our succour and our stay’.

We do not earn God’s succour and stay, or indeed ‘our’ vocations: these are his gifts, blessing us even as we sleep. It is vanity to think that we can achieve these by long days and short nights, by the amount of anxiety we generate during the course of the day. My brothers and sisters, we will not become faithful deacons and priests ‘except the Lord build the house’.

In this final week of Hilary term, may we ask the Lord ‘to forgive the course that we have run’, and avoid at all costs what Hilary of Poitiers describes as “...a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him”. Relax, put all into God’s hands...and let us pray.

you teach us to trust in your goodness for all our needs.
Help us so to rest in you that you can work through us.
Grant us humility and openness towards you,
as we respond to your call to us.
May we know the strength of belonging
to the great family of those who love you.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
[prayer adapted from John Eaton]

Tuesday in Lent III - Fr Damian Feeney

The Vice-Principal, Fr Damian Feeney, gave this homily at the Mass on Tuesday in the third week of Lent. The readings for the Mass can be found here.

Our readings point to the quality which we believe, and most naturally hope, that God will display towards us, and towards the whole of creation – that of mercy. Azariah, stood in the heart of the fire, reminds God that he is a God of mercy, and of gentleness, who grants deliverance to his people. Peter is reminded by Jesus that his capacity to forgive must be infinite, and the parable which follows reminds us that as God forgives us much, we should be ready to forgive the relatively small slights that are done to us by others. Every Mass we celebrate uses the words ‘May Almighty God have mercy on us…’ – a form of absolution I prefer because it doesn’t do to assume God’s mercy – as the parable reminds us. It’s only when the debtor – who, by the way, has amassed a debt which would make merchant bankers tremble – more like a national than a personal debt – falls at the king’s feet in abject despair, that the king’s heart softens. But soften it does, and this immense sum of money is cancelled. This makes what follows all the more shocking, as the one who is forgiven, forgetting all that has gone before, cannot find it in his heart to forgive the most trivial of debts. In that moment of harsh pomposity and abuse of power, the first debtor blows it. Word reaches the king, and his anger is complete, and absolutely justifiable.

‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’ – words we utter at least three times a day. Our understanding of the mercy we show derives from our sense of what God in Christ has done for us – taken on, and disposed, of, the massive weight of sin which is part of the consequence of our humanity – and which, compared to the day to day injuries we may suffer, would otherwise paralyse us. All of this would be enough, but as Bishop Edward King reminds us, ‘God will not only check the consequences of our sins, but even turn them into blessings.’ This is an astonishing and radical claim – but in God’s economy it is possible, and true. And we play our part, by being merciful, by cancelling wrongdoings, by not insisting on the last ounce of what we might consider justice. Our mercy needs to be generous, even in the smallest of things - if we would change the world – because it needs to hold to the same reckless, generous, wasteful mercy of our Lord.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lent IV - Fr Damian Feeney

This homily was given by Fr Damian Feeney, the Vice-Principal, at the Solemn Mass for Lent IV. More photos from the Mass can be seen here.

Famously, Phineas Fogg travelled around the world in eighty days, thanks to the vivid imagination of Jules Verne. His journey was brought up to date a few years ago by Michael Palin, as the ex-Python began a new career which would see him become one of the great travelogue writers. Fogg undertook a wager that he could travel, by land and sea, from the Reform Club in Pall Mall, traveling east, until he arrived back at the Reform Club, having circumnavigated the globe. Michael Palin achieved the same – or rather, he failed by a few yards. When he returned to the Reform Club on Day 80, he arrived to find that the Club was closed for refurbishment, and that no-one was there to let him in, thereby causing an embarrassing end to the series, and no doubt something of a logistical enquiry at the BBC as to why no-one had checked this basic information in the first place.

That small glitch apart, the thing which in my mind unites Fogg and Palin is that fact that they chose to undertake a journey which began and ended in the same place, but encompassed the world in its scope. They were both to return to the Reform Club – but surely it cannot have been the same place to them, possibly ever again. Their minds had changed, perceptions broadened, assumptions challenged, experiences enhanced. Each had journeyed to the far side of the world, and back – and between the beginning and the end there were stories, cultures, personal encounters, setbacks, frustrations, even trials. They could not return to base unaltered. They were changed people.

In T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, we are reminded that

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The parable of The Prodigal Son is another such narrative. It is the story of a journey which begins and ends in the same place, but a place which experience is to change. It is a highly sophisticated story, which means that it can be read in any number of ways. The son, only penitent because he is hungry, seeks to manipulate his Father but is overwhelmed by love. We are told nothing, but can assume, the sorrow and worry of the Father during the son’s absence. The Father, forgetful of his son’s lifestyle and wastefulness, is simply glad that he is safe, and has returned to the fold. The brother, patient and industrious, methodical and loyal, and deeply resentful of the mercy being shown to his idle waster of a brother. We can sit with all these characters, and identify with them just a little bit, and we can learn. Perhaps my favourite reading of the parable is that the Prodigal Son is actually Jesus himself, leaving the Father with his share of the Kingdoms grace and healing, going to a far country, and shedding those gifts upon humanity with reckless generosity before returning, broken and naked, to the embrace of the Father. It is a compelling, and beautiful reading.

Like Fogg and Palin, the Son returns to the place he started. But nothing is the same. He has been to the far country, has been changed by his experiences, and now sees his starting point not as a place of frustration but as a place of refuge. He cannot have been prepared for just how different a place it would be, however. He had envisaged a place of censure, of conditional love, of servanthood; what he gets is a place of joy, of celebration, of love. He sees the place for the first time, and it is beyond all his planning and his imaginings. He discovers a place where his assumptions have been turned upside down. He thought that his prepared speech would win a measure of forgiveness; he discovers rather that the forgiveness which was in place long before he uttered a word is the key to his own genuine repentance and reconciliation – a world away from the negotiation and transactional role playing he had thought would be necessary. For the first time, he discovers a place which is authentic – where he understands something of the true nature of his Father – a nature present all along, but to which he had previously been blind. The old ‘transactional’ order is to some extent still present in the words and anger of the older brother, who withdraws his good will when he realizes that the true love which the Father displays is, to our way of thinking and his, so manifestly unfair. He has remained in the same place. We are never told whether he eventually showed his face at the party. What we do know is that he has an equal place in the Father’s heart and the Father’s love.

How difficult it is to understand God’s love on this basis. We expect a love which imposes conditions – a love on our terms, which can be withdrawn when we are hurt, or when that love is thrown back in our face. But the Father will have none of it. His love is present, and especially for the loveless, that they might be come lovely. That love is one of the characteristics of the place that we thought we knew, but in Christ discover fro the first time – a place where love expressed in total mercy, is the balance of rights and wrongs, where forgiveness is both lightening fast and total, in a way that disarms and shames us.

We will be regarded in our parishes as (as Paul told Corinth) ‘ambassadors for Christ’, who is, of course, the ‘image of the unseen God.’ Through Jesus, we perceive the Father, and the Fathers actions, and the Father’s love. Perhaps the hardest and most alarming though of all about ordination is that we will have to model this love – a love which sweeps all before it, a love forgetful of who did or said what, who was irresponsible or prudent, but which will enable people to ask why we are so ready to forgive. I would love it to be said of me at my funeral that I was too ready to forgive. That reckless generosity of the Father is alarming and prophetic, and digs at the roots of transactional way of living which we erect as a defence mechanism so that we are less vulnerable, less prone to suffering. Today Jesus challenges that, by showing us not only the Father, but the place which seems familiar, and which we thought we knew, but with the eyes of faith we recognize to be the Kingdom which that Father has prepared for us, and which we discover, after all our striving and journeying, has been ours all along.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Edward King Day 2010 - Bishop Geoffrey Rowell

There are many characteristics of Bishop Edward King, the principle founder of this house, the hundredth anniversary of whose death we commemorate today. He is rightly honoured as a saint of God, one whose life was for many a living diagram of God’s glory. If saints are, as John Keble memorably put it, 'the Saviour in His people crowned' then Edward King was one of whom that is true, one in whom the light and transforming love of Jesus Christ was seen and known. He knew and lived the truth that nothing anonymous will ever convert: it is transformed lives, incarnation, that speaks the language of love, and touches, changes and transforms hearts and lives.

The faith we profess is not a collection of doctrines, or a code of canon law, though such things have their right and proper place. As Newman said in his great sermon on The Development of Doctrine, 'when we pray, we pray, not to an assemblage of notions, or to a creed, but to One Individual Being', the living reality of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The life we share is his life, the grace which saves us and sanctifies us, is his life which came down – and continually comes down – to the lowest part of our need, so that, as the psalmist says, 'if I go down to hell, thou art there also.' In the Incarnation, as Hans Urs von Balthasar says, God comes over to our side, the divine gracious freedom coinciding with human obedient freedom, ‘dying freely and obediently, he turns death, the sign of our guilt into a monument of love.’ In that total self-giving the love of God is stretched between the heights of heaven and the isolated apartness from that same God which is the depths of hell. In that the glory of God, his very being and reality is shown, and seen, and known.

In the hymn to Christ in the second chapter of Philippians, from which I took my text, Paul (or the Christian hymn is quoting) speaks of Christ who was in the form of God, ‘emptying himself’ not snatching at or holding on to status and dignity, even though likeness to God was his true identity. Yet that true identity is shown, because it is the identity of love, in this reaching out, in this making himself nothing, coming down, in that wonderful phrase of the Lady Julian of Norwich, 'to the lowest part of our need,' 'He emptied himself' into our human likeness. As a Christmas hymn puts it: Behold the great Creator makes, Himself a house of clay: A robe of Virgin flesh He takes, which He will wear for aye. So 'The wise Eternal Word, like a weak infant cries'.

So bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient…. How amazing is this grace; how overwhelming this love of the God who is the framer of the vastness of the universe, who is known in his humility. Humility, in the Latin humilitas so closely linked with humus the soil, the ground, means among much else, an acceptance of humiliation, and the turning of that humiliation into transforming love. God’s humble identification with us, being where we are, knowing our frailty, our sinful condition, from the inside, is the living out of the obedience of love. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ, learning obedience by the things that he suffered. As Gerald O’Collins points out in his recent book, Jesus Our Priest, for the writer of Hebrews, ‘extreme vulnerability belongs to the ‘job description’ of the priesthood of Christ. By becoming a human priest, the incarnate Son of God made himself vulnerable to suffering and violent death. Becoming a priest involved becoming a victim.’ Priesthood and sacrifice for Christ, and therefore for Christians, belong inseparably together, and both for Christians are the outworking of the Divine Love, seen in the movement of redemption that enters into our need and into our dying to sweep us into the highest heaven. When in this Eucharist we take bread and break it, and wine and pour it, in obedience to the Lord’s command, we celebrate, plead, and proclaim that sacrifice made once for all on the cross and are drawn into the movement of His self-offering. ‘Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling’. Or, as William Bright, another founder of this house and a friend of Edward King, put it, in this sacrament, ‘what he never can repeat, He shows forth day by day.’ ‘We here present, we here show forth to Thee, That only offering perfect in Thine eyes, the one, true, pure, immortal Sacrifice.’

Edward King lived this mystery, lived out this patterning grace of the love of Christ. From his humility, which was a quality so many noted, came the pastoral care of the priest, who like his Lord, sympathised with human weakness. He knew the cost of human loving; he knew the obedience which sets human love in order as patterned on the imitation of Christ. As St John Chrysostom powerfully puts it: ‘The exceeding greatness of Christ’s love’ is that it is a love that invites imitation.

Let us imitate him, let us look on him so as to love and to be loved. For from Love good works proceed….out of love all good things arise. For nothing is good which is not done through love.‘Our eyes’, we read in Hebrews, ‘are to be fixed on Jesus.’ Or, as Paul puts it, ‘we all see as in a mirror the glory of the Lord’ – the glory of the Lord, not our own glory – and it is only so that ‘we are transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another, through the power of the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ Imitatio Christi – the imitation of Christ, the way of humility, is what dashes the accursed looking-glass from our hands. As Teresa of Avila insistently said, ‘humility is endless.’ And another Teresa, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, once famously responded to an aggressive and bullying interviewer: ‘Oh, Mr So and So, why are you so angry?, in humility undermining the aggressive assertiveness of our age. ‘Humility is endless.’

‘He humbled himself and became obedient unto death. Even death on a cross’ – a criminal, outcast, tortured death. And our response, our identity as the royal priesthood of Christ which is the calling of every Christians, and in a special and particular way for those called to the ministerial priesthood, perhaps Paul in Colossians sums it up, in words that could be said to characterise Edward King, whose favourite text from the Psalms was ‘Thy gentleness hath made me great.’

Put on, then, garments that suit God’s chosen and beloved people: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgiving, if any of you has cause for complain, you must forgive as the Lord forgave you. Finally, to bind everything together and complete the whole, there must be love….. Always be thankful. (Colossians 3.12-15) Always be eucharistic.

And so we ask today for that transforming patience and humility in the words of the collect for Palm Sunday.

Almighty God,
who in your tender love towards mankind sent you Son,
Our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon Him our flesh,
and to suffer death upon the cross,
that all mankind should follow the example of His great humility;
mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection,
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lent III - The Dean of Worcester

The Dean of Worcester, the Very Revd Peter Atkinson, a former Principal of Chichester Theological College, preached at the Solemn Mass on the third Sunday of Lent.

There is a tailor in Singapore, or possibly Hong Kong, who once a year sends me an advertisement to say that for a few days in the following month, he will be available at a prestigious hotel in central London, and that if I care to present myself he will take my measurements for a suit at a price which I will not be able to resist. I have, for the past twenty years, resisted; but nonetheless I applaud Mr Chang’s tactics. There is just that much extra incentive to offer myself to his tape-measure, knowing that the opportunity will only be there for a few days; and that, who knows, next year Mr Chang may have retired, or will be dead, or will not write to me, and I shall have irretrievably missed the chance of appearing in his pin-stripe worsted. Mr Chang, his letter subtly implies, does not really need my custom; he’s doing me a favour by being in London at all; but I on the other hand (so his letter quietly suggests) badly need Mr Chang with his tape-measure and scissors.We might think that there’s something of Mr Chang about God in the reading from Isaiah this morning. ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near’. There is some pressure in those words. And there is more pressure in what comes next: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways”, says the Lord’. The Lord has other matters on his mind; we are not his sole concern; and if we seek him some other time, it may not be convenient; he may not be available.But that of course would be absurd; God does not fly in from elsewhere, and fly out again; if he is accessible to us at all, then that is not limited by time or circumstance, let alone by divine whim; he is the God of love and compassion, and therefore must be available ... whenever we want him.

But that’s not quite right either. If God is not a bespoke tailor with a precious timetable, neither is he a shop assistant, humbly at our disposal whenever we choose to stop by. ‘Can I help you?’ says the shop assistant. ‘No thank you, I’m just browsing’, we instinctively reply; summoning him only when we’ve decided what we want. Is that the nature of our relationship with God: browsing, and only calling him over when we are ready to make use of him?

The truth of the matter lies, I think, in the reading from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. ‘God is faithful’, we read, ‘and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it’. ‘God is faithful’: that is the point. We must not read that whole sentence in such a way that we hurry over those first three words. His not allowing us to be tested beyond our strength, his providing a way of escape so that may be able to endure it: those are vital and saving truths, but they stem from what comes first: ‘God is faithful’. It is because God is faithful that he is neither like a Hong Kong tailor with his hint of take-it-or-leave-it; nor like an obsequious shop assistant, only too happy to oblige whenever it suits us; no, he is faithful, he is constant, and in that faithfulness, that constancy, there is the call to us to be faithful, to be constant, in return.

Inscribed on the bell of another theological college, which must not be mentioned here, are words from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians: πιστòς ό καλων ύμας, ‘he who calls you is faithful’. It is, you see, a theme of St Paul. ‘God is faithful’. ‘He who calls you is faithful’. There is a faithfulness in his calling, and a calling in his faithfulness; he calls us, he summons us, to reflect his faithfulness back to him.

Where is the Faithful God in this morning’s Gospel reading? ‘At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”’ Two apparently recent disasters: an atrocity carried out by Pontius Pilate, and the accidental collapse of a building; in both of which innocent people died. Were they innocent? - that was the question. The theology which the Book of Job had criticized centuries before was still alive and well: these people died, therefore they must have deserved it. It is a theology still alive and well; witness the callous remarks of certain American evangelists following the earthquake in Haiti. It is a theology alive and well, and it gives Professor Dawkins and his friends plenty of ammunition; but Jesus disowns it. Were they worse than the people who did not die? No. That is his emphatic answer. But he has something to say in addition; and this tells us something about the faithfulness of God. ‘Unless you repent’, says Jesus, ‘you will all perish just as they did’. His words, of course, were spoken into a specific situation: the situation of first-century Jerusalem, bubbling with rumours of insurrection, and rabble-rousers claiming that a rebellion against the might of Rome was bound to succeed. Why? Because, they would say, ‘God is faithful’. God had promised a throne to David, and that meant that Caesar must be toppled from his, and that meant that an armed revolt was guaranteed success – guaranteed by the faithfulness of God. ‘No’, says Jesus, ‘there is no divine guarantee, God will not sign you blank revolutionary cheques; and unless you think again – unless you repent of this folly – you will come to grief. You will die on the edge of the sword, or under the collapsing walls of Jerusalem, and that will be something you have entirely brought upon yourselves; for the faithfulness of God is not of that nature’.

God does not benignly underwrite all our projects; and that is something we have to learn, quite as much as the people of Jerusalem. Here again we need to hear the words of the Lord in Isaiah: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways’. God’s thoughts were very different from those of the people of Jerusalem, with their thoughts of armed rebellion. God was faithful to Jerusalem, but faithful with a faithfulness that was also a calling: a calling to repent, a calling to think again, a calling to submit their thoughts to his thoughts, and their ways to his ways.

There is, I believe, a particular temptation to those called to serve God in the Sacred Ministry of his Church, to believe that his thoughts are always our thoughts, and his ways our ways. It is often rooted in a defective idea of vocation, which puts too much emphasis upon the inward personal sense of being called, and not enough on the external confirmation of that call by the mind of the Church. So God’s vocation becomes ‘my vocation’, my precious gift from God, which he has, so it would seem from the way some people talk, entirely handed over. It is very surprising to me learn what some deacons and priests (and bishops too, for all I know) count as part of their calling: a calling to this or that large and prosperous parish, a calling to this or that Oxbridge chaplaincy, callings to canonries or appointments by the Archbishops’ Council. Whenever I assist in the appointment of a priest to a living, I long to hear of how they feel called to the dull, day-in-day-out repetitive routine of pastoral ministry, the doing of the same things again and again (but always trying to do them well), the calling to spend and be spent in the service of God without much regard to career-planning or professional development. Sometimes priests do speak in that way; but not always. I once interviewed a priest for a post, and he told me that God had called him to be a leader. When I asked him, as I always do, what books he read, he had to think for a bit and then he said he had read an interesting book comparing the leadership styles of Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. I never did find out which of the two styles he thought was going to be of more use to him, but I doubt that it was God’s thought that he should be like either of them. The fact is that God does not hand over his vocation; his vocation never becomes ‘my vocation’ as if it belonged to me; it remains his vocation, his calling, and his thoughts are not always our thoughts; the ways in which he leads you and me are his ways, not ours. But he who calls us is faithful.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lent II - Ian Boxall

The Senior Tutor, Ian Boxall, preached at the Mass on the Second Sunday of Lent. The gospel was Luke 13:31-35:

Foxes and chickens are not a good combination. So when the two come together in today’s gospel, we know that things don’t bode well. ‘Go and tell that fox,” Jesus says of Herod Antipas, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” But then, almost in the next breath, as if deliberately to provoke the fox, Jesus calls himself a mother-hen, longing to gather the children of Jerusalem like chicks under her wings. Herod the fox has an eye on this particular hen. Yet Jesus knows that it will not be the fox that gets the mother-hen in the end. His destiny is not to stay in Galilee, where Herod rules, but to head for Jerusalem, where the prophet must suffer. And Jerusalem will be the goal of our Lenten journey in a few weeks’ time.

But already, at this early stage in the journey, Jerusalem is uppermost in Jesus’ thoughts. Even today, it is difficult to stand on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city, and not find Jesus’ words springing spontaneously to your lips: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.’ One is overwhelmed by the fact that so holy a city is as unholy as they come. Over the centuries, it has been built up and razed to the ground by the shedding of blood; again and again, the prophets have pleaded with its people to return to the Lord; it has seen conquest and humiliation – at the hands of Israelites and pagans, Muslims and Christians alike. Jesus himself was moved to tears when he finally arrived in sight of the city.

For Jesus knows, while he is still on the journey, that, although the mother-hen has escaped the clutches of the fox, she will be rejected by her chicks in Jerusalem. If ever there was a city that should have heeded the prophets and recognised the time of the Lord’s coming, it was Jerusalem. If not even the holy city of Jerusalem could see the things that make for peace, then what hope is there for the rest of the world?

And yet, paradoxically, our gospel tells us that rejection of the Messiah in Jerusalem is part of the divine plan: ‘I must be on my way, today, tomorrow and on the third day,’ says Jesus; ‘it is necessary’. Not because a sadistic God has, with some masterstroke of fox-like cunning, duped the people of Jerusalem into rejecting his Son; but because the mission of the Son is the kind of mission that the world cannot understand, and will only provoke hostility, rejection and death.

But lest we are tempted to feel self-satisfied, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we hear this gospel in Lent. Does our own city fare any better than the city of Jerusalem? More importantly, let’s not forget that the chicks who refused the wing of the mother hen were God’s own people. So perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we chickens gathered in this place pass the test any better? After all, the Gospel goes against the grain of all that common sense and human intuition teaches us. The notion that the Christ fulfils his destiny by dying, that the mother-hen protects her chicks by allowing herself to be killed, is hard even for us. And this season of Lent, which teaches us that the following of Jesus means denying ourselves and losing our life, is a difficult one. Wouldn’t we really prefer the tried and tested security of the hen-house to sheltering in the wings of a hen who is about to be slaughtered?

One of the most moving views of Jerusalem today is seen through a window, from the inside of the Church of Dominus Flevit, the church commemorating Jesus weeping over the city. Framed within that panoramic view, you can see the golden Dome of the Rock, the site of the Temple, but also, in the background, the grey dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus died and rose again. But in the centre of the window, the lens as it were through which one sees the whole city, is a chalice. And looking through the chalice containing Christ’s blood, at that tragic, blood-stained city of Jerusalem, and through Jerusalem into the blood-stained world, the vision of peace, however fleetingly, becomes a possibility. Words of scripture come to mind, words speaking about the breaking down of the dividing wall of hostility, of Christ making peace by the blood of his cross; offering the possibility that the mother hen may eventually gather her scattered children under her wings.

Monday Reflection - Michael Bailey

This reflection was given by final-year student, Michael Bailey, on Monday evening at Evening Prayer:

‘I am the bread that has come down from heaven.’ This is a massive statement we hear read to us tonight. Jesus is revealing himself to his followers through the use of everyday things, specifically bread. There is murmuring among the crowd and they are not happy with this statement. The crowd we can read as the ‘Jews.’ This entire chapter of John’s Gospel is heavily laden with bread imagery. However, it is not mere bread that Jesus is referring to. He did not mean I am the Hovis, or, Warburton’s that came down from heaven. He is ‘the Bread of Life,’ ‘the Living Bread that has come down from heaven’ He is the one who sustains us, in this life, and only through Him, can we come to the next, that is, to be found with our loving Father in heaven.

This is hard to contemplate... to know.....or, to act upon.... At the time his hearers said that he was an earthly man and this ‘came from heaven’ talk was nonsense, he was ‘Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother they knew.’ But did they? They think they knew and the fact that the Son of God was before their eyes, they did not know. To them he was an earthly man not heavenly. Therefore, the bread talk was earthly not heavenly. This was not the point that Jesus was making. This passage blows apart all that had gone before. It shatters what his followers had believed. Through Moses and their liberation from captivity they were fed with manna in the dessert. This did not stop them from dying and having eternal life. Jesus reveals himself directly, dramatically and says ‘No one can come to me to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.’ This restores what had been lost and we see a New Moses where we are being fed with ‘Bread from heaven’ which not only grants eternal life but the promise of being raised up by Jesus himself on the last day.

This is not the first time that Jesus has promised a gift in the Gospel – but what a gift! He is the Gift who is here in our midst tonight! (here, in the tabernacle, on the altar). Here, in his Blessed Sacrament, is Jesus, the Bread from heaven, who first came to Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and who now comes daily to the altar, to feed us with his love and sustain us for our pilgrimage through life.