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LENT and PRAYER

It’s strange that the idea of giving up something has become the major theme of Lent. I’d prefer us to concentrate on our prayer lives. Prayer is never a solitary or personal occupation. We never pray alone. In that sense all prayer is ‘church prayer’ because it takes place in the context of who we have become by baptism. Through baptism we have been made citizens of the Kingdom, and the visible shape of that Kingdom is the Church.
 
 
As the Church is made up of the living and the dead, bound together in communion (read the last paragraph of the Creed) we never pray alone. Prayer then, should never be self-centered. Someone else is praying for you and for me, so I can concentrate of loving God in prayer, and loving others in prayer. I can mention my needs briefly, but my concerns and needs shouldn’t elbow out prayers for those in need, prayers for the parish and praise and glory and love for God and of course personal and corporate repentance. In prayer we seek also the ‘communion of saints’. Their prayers and the prayers of all the departed are an enormous force, an enormous strength into which we need to link ourselves.
 
 
One can almost take the temperature of a parish by the prayer life of its people. The things we do together in church, our ability to embrace new people, to seek out those who are in need are all energized by prayer. 
 
So day by day in Lent, set aside a specific time, and reach out in the silence of your hearts to the glory around you.
 

ASH WEDNESDAY 2012

A DUSTY BUSINESS
I shouldn’t think anyone much likes to hear the words “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”  They immediately remind us of funerals, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes”. Those of us who attend the Ash Wednesday liturgy are far from ready to contemplate mortality. We don’t really mind thinking of immortality, in a general sense, or as talk about the place where deceased loved ones now live. We don’t want to contemplate our own deaths.
One of the great changes which have occurred over the past century is a shift away from facing the reality of death. Our ancestors were surrounded by its evidence. Modern science has made remarkable progress in dealing with all manner of illnesses, some simple, some severe, which were once usually terminal. We’ve even sanitized funerals, replacing black or purple with white, mournful music with Easter hymns. And perhaps much of that is to the good. Jesus has conquered death. It is not the enemy.
So it’s odd that having embraced a belief in joy, we still avoid thinking about our transition. Why remind us of the ‘old enemy’ on Ash Wednesday?
In Lent we follow Jesus as he battles with death in many forms. His enemies represent a deathly form of cynicism and self-righteousness, a dreadful combination. His mission draws Jesus closer and closer to a violent end. Last Sunday we saw Jesus with two prophets white and gleaming at the Transfiguration. On Good Friday we will again gaze at Jesus in the company of two others, nailed to crosses, while a storm rages. He was condemned to be executed by the agents of all that is deathly.
Lent presents us with two choices. We can side with death, with our own treasured or excused sins, or own cloak of self-righteousness, our willingness to enjoy seeing others killed by gossiping tongues or malicious actions. Our virtue will take us nowhere near that green hill far away. Or, and here is the irony, we can drop all pretence to virtue, and fearfully walk with Jesus to what seems to be death, violent and cruel, but through which is real life in all its blazing light and beauty. We make the choice on Ash Wednesday…at least for this year.

SERMON FOR LENT 3 2012 (Semons that Work)

(RCL – Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22)

Security is very important to most of us. There are things in our lives, some which seem very large, some perhaps insignificant, without which we feel totally adrift. It may be our home or family, or something little, like an old pair of slippers. Most of us love our parishes and churches. If our family has worshipped here for generations, that feeling may be intense. There’s a sense of ownership in our attitude to those windows or pews. To others, new to faith, the church building may be special because in it we celebrated a newfound or restored faith.

 

To a first-century Jew, all that sentiment and value was centered on one building, the Temple. Whether they lived close to it or far away in Rome or Babylon, the Temple was the magnet that drew them to its splendor.

 

The Temple Jesus entered was that built by Herod “the Great” in an attempt to curry favor with his subjects. It stood on the site of Solomon’s great building, destroyed centuries before when the Jews were conquered and enslaved. Its restoration symbolized not only religious revival, but the continuity of the nation itself. It was a bit like a combination of the Capitol and the National Cathedral in Washington, but more so.

 

The destruction of the Temple all those years before Jesus’s time had been a major disaster. Most Jews had been taken off to the East in captivity. Their nation expired. They also came to believe that God had left them, for God was said to dwell in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, a belief that God had called and chosen Israel to be unique had devolved into nationalism or what we term nowadays “particularism” or “exceptionalism.” Now the point was that Israel was special, specially called by God. Yet that setting apart – the word ‘holy’ has its root in that concept of being separated – was not intended to justify nationalism, but rather to remind Israel of its calling to be the presence of God for the whole world. Holiness was about what we call mission. Nationalism had caused their destruction, and with it, the destruction of the Temple itself.

 

In the gospel today, John paints a picture of an angry Jesus, entering the symbol of Israel’s security, whip in hand, driving out those who had turned the Temple into the center of a money-making racket. As you know, the Temple was the only place of sacrifice for the Jews. Sacrifice meant the offering to God of that which God created, whether in the form of wheat or grapes, doves or lambs, depending on the purpose of the sacrifice. Sacrifice meant the offering of life on behalf of individuals and families and once a year, on the Day of Atonement, on behalf on the nation itself.

 

The racket Jesus encountered was rather clever. For instance, a family brought its sacrifice to the Temple. It had to be inspected to make sure that it was of high enough quality to be acceptable. If the object was rejected, there were substitutes available at a price. When the head of the family offered payment, his money was rejected because it was the usual Roman coinage. Yet, guess what? These coins could be exchanged for pure Temple currency, at a price.

 

Those of us who have traveled abroad know how annoying it is to find our dollars exchanged for a foreign currency and having to pay the exchange rate. So something meant to be holy, special, unique, had been turned into a crooked commercial transaction. Jesus was furious. There’s no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in the gospel today. Jesus, whip in hand – imagine a well-aimed flick at a prominent bottom – drives out these crooked merchants, many of whom were priests.

 

Jesus then goes on to strike at the heart of Jewish security. He shouts that the Temple will be destroyed. To his listeners, that announcement seemed incredible. It struck at national security and national faith. Was God going to absent himself again? Indeed there were some who believed that God’s Presence had never truly returned.

 

Jesus was speaking about two things at once. His astounding claim to be “God with Us” rivaled that of the Temple. Later Christians would teach that Jesus is truly the new and substitute Temple, the sign of God among us. So John reminds us in this account that Jesus knew he would die and rise again; the Temple of his body would be destroyed and renewed. Yet early Christians hearing these words after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would hear Jesus saying that God’s covenant was now to be with all who believe in Jesus, the true Temple.

 

Now this gospel isn’t an excuse of anti-Semitism. It is rather a calling to us all to examine just how genuine our devotion to Jesus is, at this moment, in this place. Buildings are important symbols of the presence of Jesus-Who-Is-God with his people. They exist not to suggest that we are special people, or better than others; but rather that we are “holy” people, called people, people with a mission, God’s mission, to restore all things into Jesus-Who-Is-Lord-of-All.

 

Perhaps you are annoyed when you hear politicians parading their God in order to win votes. We have to make sure that we are not using our faith as a cover of respectability while ignoring the poor, mistreating those near and dear to us, parading our righteousness, or cheating God and his people by failing to pray, work, and give for the Kingdom. Lent exists for that purpose. We have to make sure that we know which Temple we serve: one which exists for our own selfish benefit, or one which exists for God.

 

And if we don’t repent? Watch out for that whip!

 

REFLECTIONS ON PRIESHOOD

I think a good deal more study has to be done about what it
means to be a priestly community in “the bishop and shepherd of our
souls”. Obviously, I should think, this must include what priesthood
meant to the first Christians. Influenced by the Reformation, we’ve
tended to believe that as Christ is a new type of priest, that the
function of priesthood became something unlike the Jewish Priesthood.

But it seems to me in stressing the differences – to counter Medieval
sacerdotalism – the proverbial baby was thrown out. Yes, the Sacrifice
was ‘once offered”, but the recapitulation of that once offered surely
remains what priesthood means, eucharistically and in the resulting
effect of eucharist in community. So primarily the whole Church exists
as the priestly people to ‘apply’ the one Sacrifice in the communities
in which the Church is incarnate. It is for this reason that I don’t
entirely go along with the definition of ‘lay ministry’ as something
outside the Church. It is that, in evangelism and care for for those
in need, but the outside aspect is vivified by the ‘inside’ centered
in the Eucharistic offering.

In this respect we’ve made a great deal of progress in the past four
hundred years in restoring ‘Real Presence’ but we’ve been shy of what
we once termed ‘the Eucharistic Sacrifice” without which Real Presence
becomes a sort of spiritualized reception by the laos, rather than
their participation in the eternal offering. It is that continued
offering, I think, in which the Church discovers its priestly mission
in standing for the world to God and God to the world in the
realization and activation of the Atonement/Resurrection.

Unless we get this right, the true meaning of the Church’s Priesthood,
both lay and ordained becomes obscured, and the Eucharist becomes
merely therapeutic for those who ‘attend church’. Our problems in
getting clergy and laity to embrace their communities stem from this
lacuna in teaching.

SIXTY YEARS

Sixty years ago today we heard the sad new that King George VI had died. I was eleven years old. The King was at Sandringham in Norfolk. Our home didn’t own a television but I’d seen footage of King George standing on the tarmac a few days before, bare headed in a cold wind waving goodbye to his older daughter and son in law as they flew to Africa. He seemed to stay there waving for a long time. In retrospect one wondered whether he had a premonition that he wouldn’t see Elizabeth again in this life. His death, at least to us was unexpected. King George had recently survived an operation for lung cancer, another victim of cigarette smoking. In those days it was still regarded as an acceptable habit, even touted in advertisements as being good for one’s health.

Four women intimately mourned his death. Queen Mary, the king’s mother, was still alive, the matriarch of the family and widow of King George V. The king’s wife, immediately become the Queen Mother. Princess Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret also mourned. A few days later, once our new Queen arrived back from Kenya, photographs were published of the mourning women, clad in black. The prime minister was Winston Churchill. He met the Queen’s flight upon her return.

I was at school, in Norfolk, a few miles from Sandringham. I was in class. The door swung open, and the Headmaster, in his usual cap and MA gown entered. We instinctively stood, as we did whenever a teacher entered the room. He doffed his mortarboard and simply said, “The King is dead. Long live the Queen.”  I remember filing out into a cold East Anglian day. Radio, then a monopoly of the BBC played mournful music. It seemed to go on for days. Crowds flocked to London to file past the coffin in the ancient Westminster Hall, next to Parliament and the Abbey. On the day of the funeral, we listened to the service at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

By 1952, the Empire was beginning to shrink. George was the last King Emperor, a title he relinquished when India and the new nation of Pakistan were created in 1947. Apart from that significant subtraction and that of the Republic or Ireland, our world maps were still colored pink in all those vast Dominions and territories to which Queen Elizabeth now became monarch. England was recovering slowly from the grim after years of world war two. Some things were still rationed. The post war Labour Government had nationalized a large number of industries. We had an ambitious National Health program which gave medical care to all. A remarkable project to build “council houses” had made affordable housing to the thousands bombed out of their homes during the war and to make a dent in eradicating the slums which blighted the larger towns and cities. A Conservative government succeeded the worn out Labour administration a few months before. The Church of England seemed to be regaining its position. It too was rebuilding ancient buildings bombed during those dreadful war years and building new parish churches near the new housing estates. The autocratic former Public School headmaster, Geoffrey Francis Fisher was Archbishop of Canterbury and would preside with great presence and dignity at the coronation in 1953. My grandfather bought my mother and me a television so that we could watch the Coronation.

Despite family woes and the bewildering changes of a modern world, Elizabeth II, Queen now for sixty years, has set a steady example of devotion, faith and duty. In another three years she will equal in length the reign of her great-great grandmother Victoria. Standing above party and politics, the Queen remains a living symbol of continuity and unity in what is now, in Great Britain a multi-ethnic and religious society. Long may she reign.