Sermon given by The Revd Canon Giles Goddard on 21st December 2014
Year B Fourth Sunday of Advent (Liturgy Theme Sermon 6)
People often ask me what it’s like being Vicar of Waterloo. Is it more like the TV programme Rev, they say, or the Vicar of Dibley? I usually reply, both! And indeed there are lots of similarities – I’m sure you don’t need me to point them out – in fact in many ways this place is just like Rev except that the congregation is 80, not 8!
But it’s like the Vicar of Dibley too, although not in every respect. For example, unlike Geraldine, I have been let down by my congregation. You may remember the 1999 Christmas special – which is on TV practically every year. The one when they do a Christmas nativity show, which culminates in Alice actually producing a baby, in the stable, to the awed delight of everyone present. Well, despite my frequent requests, Roz’s next baby isn’t due until the 3rd of January so won’t be available for the Nativity at the carol service this afternoon. A pretty poor show, I call it.
That episode always makes me cry. Because it snatches joy out of the jaws of disaster, and because it gets something about the Christmas story – the magic, the mystery, the sheer, bloody, unexpectedness of it. The Greatest Story Ever Told.
This morning, though, we are still in Advent. We’ve reached the last Sunday in Advent, and we’ve also reached the last Sunday in our series on the Eucharist. I’ve drawn the short straw, because I have the task of talking about the Communion, and the Sending Out.
The Sending Out is relatively simple. The Communion is a bit more complex. So complex that people have died over its interpretation. In what sense, people ask, is Christ present in the bread and wine? Does the bread and wine becomethe Body and Blood of Christ – the doctrine known as transubstantiation, held by the Roman Catholic Church, or is it simply done in memory of Christ – the more Protestant interpretation? It’s a knotty question, which was landed in my lap by Jeff – thanks very much – and one I’ll come back to later.
I’m very glad that our series on the Eucharist has ended on this Sunday, the last before Christmas. Because the culmination of the Eucharist is the moment of consecration of the bread and wine, and Christmas is the culmination of Advent. At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation – the birth of God, coming among us as a human being – Emmanuel – God with us – and in the Eucharist we are celebrating exactly the same thing. God coming among us. That’s why, sometimes, we talk about the President as Celebrant. Because it is, truly, something to celebrate!
But I want to say that nothing about Christmas is straightforward, and neither is anything about the Eucharist. If either were predictable and easily understood, they wouldn’t be repeated and repeated and repeated, because we would have been bored of them a long time ago. Both are rooted in the richness and wonder of storytelling, and both are telling us something which it’s hard to put into words.
We see that in the first reading, which the reader complained to me last week was incomprehensible. It doesn’t seem to make sense, he said. He had some justification in saying that, because it is in fact the combination of two separate oracles which don’t really fit together – one about building the temple, up to verse 7, and the rest of the passage is another about David’s succession. But we have heard that reading today because Jesus represents the fulfilment ofboth oracles – according to Luke, and Matthew, he replaces the Temple and is the culmination of David’s line.
To put it another way, he is the fulfilment of the mystery Paul writes about in the reading from the letter to the Romans, which in turn is described by the great mystics such as Mother Julian of Norwich. ‘The love of God Most High for our soul,’ she said, ‘ is so wonderful that it passes all knowledge.’
The last reading for Advent is from the Gospel of Luke: the wonderful story of the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel. That reading has been chosen for this Sunday not only because it prepares us for the birth we are about to celebrate, but also because it drenches it in mystery. In all sorts of ways – what, pray, is an angel doing in Mary’s chamber?
The writer of the Gospel is at particular pains to show that Mary is a virgin. Not for historical reasons – this is not a history, it is a story about the birth of the Messiah. It refers back to the prophecy that a ‘young woman shall conceive, and bear a son’ in the book of Isaiah. But the writer of this Gospel, presumably following those who told him the story, has changed the Greek word for ‘young woman’ into ‘virgin’, and stresses that that birth is the result of the Holy Spirit.
Because the writer of Luke wants us to understand the birth of Jesus as paradoxical, as incomprehensible, as indescribable. The baby is an ordinary baby, who cries and laughs and gurgles and is sick; but the baby is also the Son of God, who redeems the world by entering into it. One way of showing that is by making his birth paradoxical, incomprehensible, indescribable.
Is it, then, surprising that the Eucharist, the moment when we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ, is also paradoxical, incomprehensible and indescribable? Is it any wonder that nobody has ever really been able to put into words what it means, or how it happens? I love the way that Article 28 of the Thirty Nine Articles deals with it:
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of bread and wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ, but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions. The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.
So that’s it. Clear as mud. The great Anglican poet, John Donne, who was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, also had a go:
He was the Word that spake it; He took the bread and brake it; And what that Word did make it; I do believe and take it.
The classical Anglican term is the ‘Real Presence’ – the idea that something happens at the Eucharist, which is real and meaningful… but it’s hard to say quite what!
Or there’s the simple formulation we heard last week:
Jesus took, Jesus thanked, Jesus broke and Jesus gave.
They’re all different ways of describing the same thing, but none of them quite get it. Perhaps the point of the Eucharist is exactly this. It is a sacrament – in the old formulation, the ‘outward and visible sign of inward, invisible grace.’ As a sacrament it is paradoxical, incomprehensible and indescribable. It means different things to different people. But at its heart is one thing – which gives it life, and truth, and being. The love of God. The outward and visible sign of inward, invisible grace. Grace equals love equals God.
So the eucharist is the symbol of God, here in Waterloo, in the bread and wine which is, in some mysterious sense, through faith, the Body of Christ.
But the Body of Christ is you and me, and without you and me the bread is only bread and the wine is only wine.
With you and me, however, it is everything. Which is why, having consumed it and been brought together in it and through it, we are sent out into the world with the words of the dismissal:
Our service is ended, our service begins. Go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
In the name of Christ, AMEN!
One kind of worship – the worship in church – comes to an end – and another kind of worship – the worship in daily life – begins. We are, I hope, together touched and transformed; as the apostle Paul was. And so, let’s give him the last word in this series of sermons:
To God who is able to strengthen you, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus – to God be the glory for ever!
Sermon given by The Revd Jeffrey Risbridger on 14th December 2014
Year B Third Sunday of Advent (Liturgy Theme Sermon 5)
May I speak in the Name of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Well, here we are already. The Third Sunday of Advent – and soon it will be Christmas. For the young and the young-at-heart alike, the waiting is nearly over! But let’s not rush it: this time of waiting is important. Those Christmas songs we hear on the radio, the Christmas lights we see appearing in the windows of the homes all around us, the school carol services and nativity plays we attend – these are just part of the build up to Christmas; they are not the main event. That comes for some of us late on Christmas Eve when we attend Midnight Mass, and for others early in the morning on Christmas Day itself when we wake up to see what unexpected delights Santa has brought us. All the other stuff beforehand – well, that’s just the taster, the hors d’oeuvre before the main meal, enjoyable in its own right, yes, but not the real deal, not the reason we came. But oh, how difficult the waiting can be, especially for children. And the current trend for getting us to prepare for Christmas earlier and earlier in the year only seems to make it worse.
This time of waiting reminds me of the period in my life when I went to the occasional pop concert at the old Wembley Stadium: Madonna, Genesis, George Michael…… Ah! Those were the days! I remember the long queues for the gates to open, the party atmosphere that some of the crowd generated as we all waited impatiently to get in, and that wonderful moment when we were eventually allowed to shuffle forward in eager anticipation of getting into the venue and the show finally getting underway. But of course, that’s not how these things work. We might well have paid a hundred pounds (or whatever it was in 1987) to see Madonna, but she was the star attraction, so she wasn’t going to come on and perform until later in the evening when we had all waited and waited just slightly too long and weredesperate to see her. Before that….. well, we had the support act!
Now, I do feel sorry for the support act at a pop concert! Often, the band or the singer is perfectly decent: sometimes they are even really quite famous in their own right, and could command very good audiences at their own concerts. But no matter who they are, the fact is no one actually came to see them: the audience really came to see the star performer and nobody else. The support act is – well – just that: an act that helps to entertain the crowd while it waits for the main attraction. While the individual or group concerned no doubt enjoys the exposure and the experience, it must be rather galling to know that no matter who you are or how good you are, nobody is terribly bothered about watching you – you are just a distraction while they are waiting for what they really came to see.
Whilst it is not, of course, a direct parallel, there is no getting away from the fact that our Gospel reading today portrays John the Baptist as something of a support act for Jesus. The Jewish people had been waiting for generations for a Messiah to deliver them from oppression, and here they were now sorely oppressed by the Romans and tired of waiting, so it’s no wonder they sent people to John the Baptist, this strange, itinerant preacher, to ask if he were their Messiah. But John says very clearly that no, he is not the Messiah, but assures them that the Messiah is coming very soon, and that his – John’s – job is to prepare the way for him, to set the scene, to be the warm-up act. The message John the Baptist is proclaiming is certainly worth hearing in its own right, though, and he asks them to listen and to respond to his call to repentance through baptism. But John the Baptist is quite clear: he is certainly not the main event. The main event is still to come.
As you know, as well as keeping this season of Advent as part of our preparations for Christmas, here at St John’s we are also spending time considering the different elements that make up our Eucharist service, and over the past few weeks we have considered the Gathering, then the Liturgy of the Word, and last week, the first part of the Liturgy of the Sacrament. This week, we come to consider the Offertory and opening section of what is called the Eucharistic Prayer, the part of the service just before the bread and the wine are consecrated, and the priest lifts them up – elevates them – before they are distributed. It is important for me to begin by saying that every part of the Eucharist has its own individual significance, and we should see each and every element as making an important contribution to the whole service. But there is no doubt that the service we call the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion or the Mass builds to a climax, and that climax is the moment at which the bread and wine are consecrated and elevated before the congregation. Now this has been a matter of real contention for over a thousand years, and was the cause of great division in the Christian church during the Reformation in the 16th century, so I’m pleased to say that rather than me, the lot falls to Giles to try to untangle all that for us next week, so I’m not going to be focusing on it today! Phew! The point I want to make is that if we look at the journey of this service of the Eucharist as a graph, it is definitely on an upward trajectory towards a definable high point, and so far in our study we have been concentrating on the sections leading up to the main event – the supporting material, if you like. We are now coming to the main event. You can, I hope, see the resonance with our readings today.
The part of the service we are focusing on now begins with the bread and wine which will be used at the Eucharist being brought in procession to the altar, and the table laid ready for what is to follow. This is the offertory, as thebread and the wine we are going to use are what are being offered to God, though sometimes this gets confused with the fact that in most churches, it is also the time when the monetary gifts given by the people are also brought forward and blessed. This understandable confusion is not really a problem, as long as we remember that all of us come to the Eucharist with nothing. We are empty, hungry and needing to be fed, and God responds to that by grace through the bread and the wine, but he doesn’t do so because we have done anything to deserve it – and he certainly doesn’t do it because we have given anything first, especially our money. The offering of the bread and wine is usually followed by some words of thanksgiving, such as the one we will have today beginning, “Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty,” and at this point the priest takes the bread and wine into her or his hands and lifts them up slightly. This is the first of what are called the four “dominical” actions, the four things Jesus did at the Last Supper just before he was arrested, and which we remember during the rest of the service. The four actions I mean are these: Jesus took, Jesus thanked, Jesus broke and Jesus gave. Jesus took, Jesus thanked, Jesus broke and Jesus gave. The offertory is a symbolic repetition of the first one of these – Jesus took – and derives from an ancient Jewish table custom of taking the bread to be eaten and the wine to be drunk and lifting them up slightly before giving thanks to God for them.
Not forgetting what I said earlier about every element of the service having its own individual significance, it is quite clear that at this point the scene is set for the main event. We are all symbolically gathered around the altar table, with bread and wine at the centre as our focus, and so the President begins to pray the Eucharistic Prayer, a sustained outpouring of praise to God, which recalls God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ. The Church of England offers a choice of eucharistic prayers for us to use according to particular local situations, and although they all say the same core things, they do so using different words, different images and have different emphases; they are also of varying lengths, and some contain more responses from the congregation than others. No matter which version is used, though, the first part of the Eucharistic Prayer usually ends with what is called the “Sanctus” – the Latin word for “Holy” – based on words in Isaiah, and repeated three times, followed by the “Benedictus – the Latin word for “Blessed” – based on the Gospel accounts of Jesus entering Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. These words have been used by the Christian church since at least the fourth century, and are the main contribution made by the people in the congregation to the Eucharistic Prayer, which is why they are sung wherever possible to glorious musical settings to help us lift our praise of God to the roof-tops.
So just as Advent is a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas, and just as the ministry of John the Baptist sets the scene for the arrival of Jesus the Messiah, so everything before the Eucharistic Prayer in our communion service is designed to prepare our hearts and minds for the moment when we recall the taking, the thanking, the breaking and the giving, the four actions of Jesus. No matter which Eucharistic Prayer we use, the whole of it focuses entirely on the presence of Christ with us here and now. Yes, there are references to the Jesus of history and what he said and did; yes, there are references to the times to come and what we believe God will do in the future; but the most important thing is to note is this: “The Lord is here.” Jesus is present with us now. How we understand his presence is something Giles may want to talk about next week, but the key point is this: “The Lord is here; his spirit is with us.” We may well use Advent as a time of symbolic preparation for Jesus’s coming; we may well empathise with John the Baptist looking forward to the arrival of the “true light, which enlightens everyone,” but the glorious reality for us today – and at every Eucharist – is that the crucified, risen and ascended Lord is here, and we see him and we know him in the breaking of bread.
In the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Sermon given by The Revd Les Acklam on 7th December 2014
Year B Second Sunday of Advent (Liturgy Theme Sermon 4)
The parish had a new priest. The congregation had stressed that the new incumbent should be a good preacher – someone who would deliver challenging sermons. So, on the priest’s first Sunday, they gathered keen and expectant to hear the first sermon, and they were not disappointed. It was beyond all that they had hoped for. They went home highly satisfied, returning the following week with great anticipation – and there were a goodly number there.
However, they were taken aback somewhat when the sermon was exactly what they’d heard the week before!!! Well, it was certainly worth hearing again, and there were a lot of people there who weren’t there the week before.
The third Sunday came and the congregation were agog: how would the new priest follow on after that first magnificent sermon, but, if they were not mistaken, the sermon they heard was the same as they had already heard !!! ???? – well, yes, there were still quite a few people there who were hearing it for the first time, and , after all, settling into a new parish must be a very busy time, giving little chance for adequate sermon preparation.
Week 4 came along – and – well, it was the same sermon as before, word-for-word! – but it was a cracking sermon after all ! – no one had yet had the chance to get to know the new priest very well, so they felt they couldn’t say anything.
Week 5, and, yes, it was the same sermon again!!! – does settling into new parish take so long?
Week 6, and, once again, the same sermon. Surely everyone had heard the sermon at least once by now. What could be the explanation? Is the new priest forgetful? –does he suffer from bouts of amnesia? – is he confused? -is something wrong?
After the same sermon was heard again for the seventh time, two brave souls summoned up the courage to broach the subject with the new priest. ‘Vicar, we really admire the sermon you have preached these past seven Sundays. It is really very challenging: all that we’d hope for – but it’s been the same one for seven weeks; when are we going to hear a new one?’
The priest replied ‘When I see that you have responded to the first sermon, I’ll know that you ready for the next one!’
John the Baptist is the formidable preacher we hear in Advent calling us urgently to prepare, to be awake, to repent. John demands a response – a change. The word ‘repent’ has shrunk to mean ‘sin and forgiveness’, but in the original language, it was calling for a change of heart, a change of outlook, a change of direction, a transformation.
We gather week by week not for a concert, not for a religious music and poetry festival, but something much more. We were thinking last week about the place of scripture in the Eucharist, and, particularly, the Gospel reading which we emphasise with the extra ritual of processing into the midst of the congregation, and our remaining standing. It’s one of the high points of the service. Christ comes to us in Word – and sacrament. Christ is to be more profoundly experienced as we hear the Gospel proclaimed and as the bread and wine is broken and shared. Just as the bread is broken, so the Word ‘is broken’, to be shared in the sermon which follows.
The underlying structure of the Eucharist is all about ‘gathering’, ‘transformation’, and ‘mission’.
We gather – as a community – to hear the Word, and to share bread and wine which will transform us – to be sent out – ‘to live and work to God’s praise and glory’, ‘to be a living sacrifice’, ‘to preach the Gospel by our lives, using words if necessary’.
A liturgical scholar puts it this way: ‘we shouldn’t expect to leave the place of worship as the same people who entered it.’ Our closer encounter with God made present in the Word affects us, transforms us.
We come week-by-week to be nourished, strengthened – to grow – our faith deepened. Is that what we think is happening ? Is this what we are about ? Do we ever take responsibility for our faith development by following up what we’ve heard in church by supplementary reading ? We readily do so when we are captivated by other things.
Having heard the Word broken – unpacked, explained, developed – the service moves on to the Creed.
When I was growing up in the church, I always thought that this must be THE most important part of the service, because we had to be very serious, stand to attention, all face in one direction – It was rather like reciting the Scout or Brownie promise. You didn’t have to understand ‘very God’, or ‘begotten not made’, or ‘being of one substance’ : you just had to say it because it was good for you – and especially if you were very, very solemn. Again, church practice suggests that the Christian faith is all about being able to recite a whole list of doctrinal propositions, and yet, Jesus never called people to recite a creed, but to follow ‘the Way’. Would those first disciples, and the Christians who faced martyrdom in the early centuries have been able to explain the creeds which the Church developed much later ? Is our faith something that has to be drilled into us – or is it something that should thrill us . – drill or thrill ? – as someone said ‘doctrine in worship always needs to be turned into doxology’ . Christ has come near to us, our hearts have been warmed, our faith has been stirred, so, as the Advent hymns say, we ‘Rejoice,rejoice. Emmanuel has come to us’ ……..The Creed is really a hymn of rejoicing – poetry which attempts to express the inexpressible. God is always much, much larger than any long-winded creed. This morning we shall be using one of the alternative creeds/affirmations of faith approved by the General Synod written by Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith. It used to be the norm for the Creed to be sung at the main Sunday Eucharist, but for some reason that seems to have fallen out of use.
Having been lifted up in praising an ineffable God, we are led naturally into prayer, something to be carried on a great wave of thanksgiving. The word ‘Eucharist’ is one of the many names we give to our service. It means ‘thanksgiving’ – so all that we do is to be saturated with thanksgiving and praise. We offer to God our profound gratitude for the whole world which is his, and of which we are part. We pray for the world in which the Kingdom of God is to be built – ‘your Kingdom come on earth, as is heaven’ – We pray that the Church may be a special agent of Kingdom-building in all that it is and says; but we recognise that the Kingdom is much, much bigger than the Church, and so we pray that our vision may be enlarged to recognise partner Kingdom-builders outside formal membership of the Church. We pray for our local community, and belonging to the Church of England recognise that we are entrusted with a particular territorial area, a parish and everything in it. We pray, for example, for those who live and work in Stamford Street, because if we don’t who will ? The task of the Church is to pray. As we come to church we bring our bit of the world with us, to be prayed for. We commend to God anyone in particular need; we remember those who have died, because God’s love transcends all our cares.
In the great drama of the Eucharist, we are lifted up in praise and thanksgiving, we come close to Christ as we hear the Word, and now we share the Peace, a demonstration that we really are a community of reconciliation before we go on to share bread and wine. We greet not only the people we know, but especially any stranger, any ‘outsider’. We express not only our love and charity amongst those present, but symbolically the reconciliation of the whole of humankind in Christ – a foretaste of the Kingdom. We are all in it together. What is being affirmed is an awesome thing – that WE are the Body of Christ.
So, we’ve heard the Word, we’ve been moved, caught up in the drama of the Eucharist in which we participate. Have we in some way been transformed? Are we in some way responding? Are we ready to move on into the next instalment?
Sermon given by The Revd Canon Giles Goddard on 30th November 2014
Year B Advent Sunday (Liturgy Theme Sermon 3)
Who can tell me who the shortest person in the Bible is?
Bildad the Shu-hite (Shoeheight)
And who is the largest?
The Woman of Samaria (Some area)
And who can remember me when the earliest parts of the Bible were written? Around 1000 BC. The J-tradition. The creation stories are not the earliest part of the bible. They’re based on the Epic of Gilgamesh in Babylon, c. 550 BC. And the latest? John, Revelation, some of the later letters? Estimated to be between 80 and 100 AD.
This Advent Sunday we continue our journey through the liturgy, as well as starting a new journey – the journey through the Christian year. Over the past few weeks we’ve reflected on the first part of the Eucharist – the “Gathering” and on the Confession and the Collect. So now we come to the next section, which is known as the Liturgy of the Word.
As the name implies, the Liturgy of the Word is the part of the service when we focus on the scriptures; we have three, or sometimes two readings, often a Psalm, and the sermon.
It’s good that we’re thinking about that today, Advent Sunday. Because, as I’m sure you know, the Christian year is constructed around the story of Jesus’ life and ministry – his birth, his teaching, his death and resurrection, and the founding of the church at Pentecost. Advent is the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth; it focuses on the people who were near Jesus as he began his ministry, or those who were his forerunners – the prophets, John the Baptist, Mary.
Our liturgy is absolutely rooted in the scriptures. We will remember, in the weeks to come, the story of John the Baptist, of the Annunciation to Mary, and the journey to Bethlehem. Today we have a section from Mark’s gospel, which purports to be some of Jesus’ words to the disciples about the end times.
There’s a particular action we do when the Gospel is read. What is it? The Gospel procession. We carry the book into the centre of the church. Why do we do it? Because the Gospels are the account of Jesus’ life and death – and the carrying of the book into the centre of the church symbolises God coming among us – the Incarnation. Emmanuel, God with us.
After the Gospel, we have the sermon – which is supposed to be based on the readings, and to offer an opportunity for you to reflect on what you’ve heard, perhaps with some teaching, or the opening up of an idea which has occurred to the preacher… or perhaps it’s a chance for you to think about what you’re going to have for lunch.
That all seems quite straightforward, doesn’t it. On the surface, it is. We have readings from the Bible, we think about them, we move on.
But this is one of the liturgical summits of the service. If you were to draw a graph of the high points in the liturgy, the ‘hearts’ of the liturgy, there would be one here at the reading of the Gospel and the sermon, and another at the prayer of consecration. The Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Sacrament. Reflecting on scripture, collectively, as a congregation, is absolutely fundamental to our faith, as is the sharing of the bread and wine.
Does anyone know how the readings are chosen?
It’s all in a little red book. I have one here. The little red book contains the readings for the whole year, every day. They are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) which is a lectionary followed by most of the Protestant churches in the Anglican Communion and the USA, and is closely related to the Catholic lectionary. So right across the world, people have just heard the Gospel which we have just heard.
The RCL works in a three year cycle – year A, B and C. It focuses on one Gospel each year – either Matthew, Mark or Luke – and John is read across all three years. Today we have moved into year B: so, for the coming year, we’ll be focusing on Mark’s Gospel.
Alongside the gospel readings we have a reading from the Old Testament and an Epistle – both of which have been chosen to complement or supplement the Gospel reading.
It is a rich feast of readings, and I love the fact that we have the Bible at the heart of our liturgy. It’s a tremendous coming together of poetry, history, story, law, reflection, philosophy, humour, prophecy, biography…. The earliest parts were written over 3,000 years ago and the latest a little less than 2,000 years ago. Thousands of people have had a hand in the writing, and the editing, and the adapting. We don’t know who wrote any of it- not even the four Gospels, which are given the titles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by convention.
We do know that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark – which was written about 40 years after the death of Jesus, in about 70 CE, and that both of them adapted the core work to make different points. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, people have edited and reflected and changed and adapted the original writing as their understanding of the work of God in the world has changed. We move from hearing mainly about a vengeful and angry God to hearing about a God of love – although even in the earliest sections you can find the God of love, and in the latest parts we still hear sometimes about the God of anger.
Scripture is like a symphony, and the liturgy is designed to help us read it. Which leads me on to the last thing I want to say, before thinking about today’s readings. As I’ve said many times, worship is a collective act. It’s a gathering. The word ‘congregation’ comes from two Latin words – cum, meaning with, and grado, I step. It’s a coming together. So when we reflect on scripture we reflect on it, in worship, collectively. With the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; of the love of God.
The Bible came together as a narrative, a record of human understandings of God in the world, and when we reflect on it in church I believe that we are inspired by the Spirit to come to a deeper understanding of what the Word of God – the Logos, a Greek word meaning word but also used to refer to Jesus in John’s Gospel – is saying to us.
Take today’s readings, for example. The first, from the letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, is a good opener to the year ahead and to the Advent season. It was written by a struggling man – Paul – exhorting his struggling little congregation in Corinth to have courage, as they face the challenges ahead. Something we all need, as we try to work out what it means to be a Christian in today’s world.
Today’s Gospel is part of a type of literature in the Bible known as ‘apocalyptic.’ It’s about the ‘end times’ when the will of God will be fulfilled, and all will be reconciled, and the love of God will be fully manifested. Apocalyptic literature is hard to read – the downside of the fulfilment of the promise of love seems to be the exclusion of those who have turned away, in violence and destruction – graphically described in the book of Revelation. And it seems, from this passage, that Jesus and the early disciples expected the end times to come almost at once.
But it is good to have this passage at the beginning of the year, to remind us that we are not living in isolation from the past and the future. There is a purpose to our life.
Love is real. God is real. The love of God is real. The challenge for us is to work out what that means, and how we can live, as if the love of God is real.
Inspirational literature doesn’t stop with the Bible. There is a vast tradition of reflection and commentary which has built up over the centuries, even down to the this sermon, here, today. But at the heart of it all is the witness to the love of God described in the scriptures and lived out in the life of Jesus Christ. The life and death of Jesus is the heart of our faith. The Spirit inspires us to continue to reflect on it, as we try to understand how to live our lives – and I give thanks that we have the opportunity to think about it all, Sunday by Sunday, as we work through the Christian year.
To end with St Paul’s words;
I give thanks to my God always for you, because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I wish you a very happy New Year, and a very happy Advent.
Sermon given by The Revd Ruth Lampard on 16th November 2014
Year A Second Sunday Before Advent (Liturgy Theme Sermon 2)
When I was 17, back in the 1980s, young and naïve, I said possibly the most foolish thing you could ever say to a Church of England clergyperson. I’d just moved to this Church, and found a warm welcome. In response I said “What can I do to help?”
Peter, the Vicar, to give him credit, took me seriously and suggested two things, both do-able.
The first was this: it would be lovely, he said, if you would really actively enter into, participate in the service: pray the words of the liturgy, join wholeheartedly in the congregations responses. It will make a real difference to me, to the whole service, if you’re really here.
Those words stuck with me – and I did enter into the service, not just say the words, but pray them, enter into them, allow them to enter into me and pray through me. The nearest analogy I can get is that it’s like surfing – catching the waves of the words and prayers on a Sunday morning, touching, being touched by them, being taken on a journey of heart, mind and spirit. The wind and tide of the Spirit.
In case you’re wondering, the other thing Peter asked me to do was to print off the parish magazine – in those days grappling every month with a banda machine and getting covered with purple ink.
This sermon is the second in a series about the different parts of the Eucharist, and today the lot falls to me to reflect on the Prayer of Preparation and the Confession. These prayers both fall into the first major section of the Eucharist, The Gathering. As Jeff said in the first of this series two weeks ago, in this part we are transformed from individuals into a congregation – the gathered body of Christ.
The prayer of preparation used to be called the Collect for Purity, and is one of those prayers that is deeply loved by generations, as it was the first prayer prayed by the congregation in the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service. Its roots are much older, however, and go back to St Gregory, Abbot of Canterbury in about 780.
This prayer is beloved, I feel, because it simply asks us to make the key step of faith: to open up ourselves, just as we are, to the God who knows us at our best and at our worst – and who still loves us, and whose wish for us is to flourish to the full stature of humanity.
Perhaps some people feel that worship is about bringing our “Sunday best” selves, just as once people wore their Sunday best clothes. Not so. For me this prayer says, God knows you, the deepest desires of your heart – hidden maybe even to you. God knows you, loves you and bids you welcome. Simply come. So for me, this prayer allows me to bring the concerns of the week – how it has really been, how I am feeling about the world, work colleagues, family, myself – and to offer it all to God for healing and renewal.
And the prayer points ahead to the rest of the service: we’re here to worship God, and in centering our lives around God, gathered around the presence of Christ in word and sacrament, we’ll be cleansed and inspired by the Holy Spirit. We’ll be given new life for the week ahead so that we can leave renewed, and so be sent out to live and work to God’s praise and glory.
This prayer orientates us for the transformational journey ahead. We may not feel like it, when we arrive and sit, in church: we may be flurried, late, pre-occupied with thoughts of last week or of lunch. But this simple prayer centres us, and roots us in ourselves and is both an individual, and corporate prayer of preparation in which we become drawn more deeply together into being as the body Christ.
Of course, the moment we open up our hearts to inspection we become aware of the deep and profound ways we fall short of our calling to live in the light of God’s love. We become aware of how divided our lives are, how distant we are from loving God and loving our neighbour. This is fine in theory, tough in practice when our time, money and patience are in short supply. That’s why the confession follows quite naturally in the service. Psalm 51 – the sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
We confess that we fall far short of our calling to live as followers of Christ through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. Forgiveness of sins is at the heart of the incarnation, of Jesus’ healing ministry – is medicine for the soul.
Perhaps we find it hard to acknowledge that we too have sinned against God and neighbour? It can be only too easy to simply say the words, to pray them without truly engaging, grappling, wrestling with our consciences. That’s why the practice of making a personal, individual confession to a priest can be helpful, particularly for those things that lie heavy on our hearts, our consciences.
I find it really important to take the words of the general confession and make them specific, to name particular things before God that I have done wrong. So I try to have in mind, as I’m coming to church, before the service, or during the prayer – something or things that I have said or done, or not said or done that I am naming before God as my sins. In the confession I am asking for, and by God’s grace, receiving forgiveness through the words of the absolution. Confession isn’t about wallowing in guilt. It’s about realistically facing and acknowledging our faults and then being set free for newness of life – to make different decisions next time, today, this week.
It is a dangerous thing to do, pray. Even, especially, to pray the very familiar words printed Sunday by Sunday on the service sheets.
The American writer Annie Dillard says “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper and Row, 1982)
No sleeping god to wake up this Sunday morning – one very much alive and with us. Our Sunday worship, is nothing less than being caught up in, swept up into the very relationship of the Father and the Son and the Spirit into the very heart of the Godhead: and being sent out to share that love. This is what the Christian life is all about. Opening one’s heart to God is the nothing less than an adventure into changed and changing lives. We do well to prepare wholeheartedly.
Sermon given by The Revd Jeffrey Risbridger on 2nd November 2014
Year A All Saints Day (Liturgy Theme Sermon 1)
May I speak in the Name of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
I wonder what it was like in your home first thing this morning? Was it all a bit hectic? Maybe there was a squabble over who should use the bathroom first; or maybe someone who desperately needed to use the loo had to stand outside hopping up and down because someone else had got in first! Perhaps there had been a bit of a skirmish over breakfast – someone had used the last serving of someone else’s favourite breakfast cereal, or someone had pinched the last bit of hot toast or used up the last of your favourite jam. Was someone refusing to get out of bed, or complaining about not wanting to come to church, or claiming to be feeling ill, placing the whole family in danger of simply not leaving on time? Was someone making a fuss about not having anything to wear, or just before the family was about to leave suddenly appeared in clothes that were totally unsuitable for church? And what about the journey here? Did the phone ring just as you were trying to get out of the door? Was there an argument about who should sit in which seat in the car? Or was the train cancelled, or the bus late, or did your bike get a puncture? Did you finally get here only to remember that there was a job you were supposed to be doing in church this morning, or was there something you were meant to bring for someone else that you have simply forgotten? Dear oh dear! We all know that life can be so stressful at times, and just getting here this morning might well have involved the most incredible amount of effort for you. Yet suddenly here you are in church and expected to focus on your spiritual life, putting aside everything else so that you can worship God! It’s a bit of a tall order, isn’t it – if not sometimes an impossibility!
The truth is that few of us arrive at church on a Sunday morning ready and prepared for the Eucharist we are about to celebrate. We don’t always walk through the door hungry with anticipation for worship and bursting with the expectation of encountering the Holy Spirit. Our heads are full of all the thousands of other things that occupy our daily lives, and it is quite natural for us to be focused on these things rather than on our worship of God. It is also true to say that when we arrive at church, we come very much as a collection of individuals rather than as a “congregation” or a “gathered community.” We might or might not know the other people sitting in the same row as us, but either way we try to leave at least one seat between us, just to emphasise that we are all individuals, and not only do we want to respect other people’s personal space, we want them to respect ours! We might be called a “congregation” but at this point we are still essentially feeling like a collection of individuals sitting in the same place!
Well, all of this is why the service we follow in church, the Church of England Common Worship for the Eucharist Order One, begins with what is called quite simply and straightforwardly “The Gathering.” It is a recognition that we all need somehow to be bound together with our neighbours if we are to be genuinely a “congregation” and members together of the body of Christ. It is also a recognition that we all need gathering time to prepare for what is to follow during the rest of the service. It’s an acknowledgement that we need help to be made ready to communicate with God, and not just to listen to God but to hear God as well, and that we need to get ourselves into an appropriate frame of mind to put aside everything else that’s in our heads and to focus on what we have actually come to church to do.
I’m talking about this now because today is the first in our short series of sermons looking at the different components of the Sunday morning Eucharists we have week by week, focusing each time on a different element of it to help us try to understand a little more clearly what that element is all about it itself, and also what part it plays in the overall shape and flow of the service. So rather obviously, this week we are beginning at the beginning of the service, which is why I am talking about The Gathering.
If you have ever been to the recording of a TV show, you will know that before the show actually starts, and before all the famous people starring in it actually make an appearance, a “warm up” act comes on to do exactly what its name suggests: to warm the audience up, to get them into the right frame of mind for what is to come, to get them smiling and laughing and feeling in the right mood to be entertained, to make them feel that even though they have all come as individuals, they can be transformed into an “audience,” a group bound together by a common purpose: to enjoy themselves. Well, to put it bluntly, in our Sunday morning service, everything that happens between the moment the processional cross appears at the vestry door here and the first hymn begins, everything between that and the time when we say the special prayer for the day – known as “The Collect,” – all of that time is essentially the warm-up material, designed to get us in the right mood for our worship and to help us leave behind everything else that is in our heads and on our hearts when we arrive. It’s an acknowledgement that we need time to warm-up to God, to each other, and to what it is we have come here to celebrate.
You will have noticed that when the procession of servers and the participating clergy leaves the vestry here, it travels all the way to the back of the Church down the side aisle, and then all the way back up the middle to the front. This is not to give us exercise! It is not to show off all the lovely robes we are wearing! It is not to make those of you sitting in the congregation feel that we are very important and so we will take as long as possible coming in so that you notice us. No! It is all an important part of our preparation for the Eucharist we are about to celebrate. As we move up through the congregation, the idea is that we symbolically gather you all up together and take you with us to the Sanctuary – this area here – where the central act of the service will take place later on. It is also a symbolic recognition that those of us taking part in the service are actually nothing special – all of us, both clergy and lay people, are simply people who have been drawn out of you, the congregation. Some of us may have had some special training, yes, but essentially, we are all people who have simply been drawn out of the congregation. It reminds us that we are all members together of the same community, we are all members of the same body of Christ.
The first words that are then spoken by the person leading the service – called The President – are usually what is known as the Trinitarian Formula. This comes from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 28 verse 18: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Starting the service with these words does two things: firstly, it takes us to the heart of why we are here – to meet with God; and secondly, it distinguishes our worship as specifically Christian, as only the Christian faith has a Trinitarian understanding of God – One God in three Persons. What then follows is known as “The Greeting.” The President says either: “The Lord be with you” or “Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” In both cases we all respond: “And also with you.” This practice was introduced into the Eucharist at least as early as the Fourth Century, so it is a very ancient practice. But you might be forgiven for thinking that it is rather insignificant and wondering why I’m even mentioning it – it’s just a few words, after all. However, the greeting performs an important function. In this exchange between the President and the people, all of us as individuals are brought into relationship with the President, and through the President, we are all then brought into relationship with each other. And so all of us, men, women and children alike, through these words become the “congregation,” the gathering, the corporate body of Christ. It is at this point that we stop being just individuals and become constituted as a legitimate Christian assembly. And from here on, we can start to begin the preparation for our worship as we move into the Prayers of Penitence, where we think about our wrongdoing. But all of that is for the next sermon on liturgy coming up in two weeks’ time.
Today, along with thinking about our liturgy – the way in which we worship – we are also remembering all the saints, those special people who have gone before us in the faith and whom we believe have found happiness in the eternal kingdom promised to us by God. We are also remembering, by name if we can (the way Christians have done for a thousand years) the souls of all those whom we love but can see no longer. The Bible readings we had today all point to the fact that God’s kingdom is both in heaven and here on earth at the same time. The reading from Revelationreminds us that a great multitude from every nation, including all the martyrs of Christ, gather together with the hosts of heaven to worship God. Our Gospel reading reminds us that when Jesus speaks about “the kingdom of heaven” he is not just talking about a spiritual place we go to when we die – that is not what his hearers would have understood by the word “heaven” – but Jesus was talking about a state of creation that happens when God’s rule is enjoyed. We cannot see this fully now, but can glimpse it if we follow the example of Christ and consider carefully what it means to live in the present world as if we were living in God’s eternal kingdom. It is complicated stuff, so perhaps the most helpful image with which I can leave you today is this.
As we come to church Sunday by Sunday, as we begin to leave behind all the things that are on our mind and prepare ourselves to worship God in the part of the service called the “Gathering,” as the words of the “Greeting” help us to become that community, that Christian congregation, that body of Christ…… In all of this, we are not alone but are also joined by all those who have gone before us in the faith, those for whom we have a firm assurance we will be seeing again, those from whom we are separated now only by a different time and plane. As the writer to the Hebrewsputs it, we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” because both the living and the dead share in common the continuous presence of God.
So both in a few moments time and when we next gather together to celebrate the Eucharist, along with all those whom we can see, let us also remember those whom we cannot see but who are with us nonetheless. We are all a gathered community, we are all the body of Christ. The Lord be with you: and also with you.
In the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.