Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

“My words shall not pass away.”

Here are words “written for our learning” but only through our sitting and listening. Here are words “written for our learning” about hope and comfort in times of darkness, danger, and despair. Here are words audible and written, yes, but also words made visible. “He hath instituted and ordained holy mysteries, as pledges of his love, and for a continual remembrance of his death, to our great and endless comfort,” as the Exhortation so rarely heard so wonderfully puts it (BCP, pp. 88-89). Words written for our learning.

The Exhortation speaks to the character of this Sunday which is sometimes known as Bible Sunday because of the Collect composed by Cranmer. It calls attention to the reason and purpose of the Scriptures. The Sacraments, too, belong to that understanding of the purposes of God for our humanity. If you read the Proper Preface used for Passiontide, for Passion Sunday right through to Maundy Thursday (BCP, p. 80), you will find that the Exhortation draws directly upon it. We give thanks “for the redemption of the world by the death and passion of our Saviour Christ, both God and Man; who did humble himself, even to the death upon the Cross, for us sinners, who lay in darkness and the shadow of death; that he might make us the children of God, and exalt us to everlasting life.” The Exhortation adds only one word, miserable, “miserable sinners.” Sinners in misery because sin is misery.

Yet here is our comfort: “the patience and comfort of thy holy Word,” and the “great and endless comfort” of “the holy mysteries,” the Sacraments which “he hath instituted and ordained as pledges of his love, and for a continual remembrance of his death, to our great and endless comfort.” Word and Sacrament conveying hope and comfort.

The two Exhortations appended to the Communion service underscore an important reformation ideal. Both Cranmer and Calvin sought to increase the frequency of Communion and especially the reception of the Sacrament over and against the practice of Mass in the late Medieval world largely as a spectator event: seeing the host elevated, even through a squint (literally a hole in the wall!), but receiving the Sacrament very infrequently. The insight of the reformers was essentially a Scriptural insight into the purpose of the Sacraments as revealed in the witness of the Scriptures: “Take eat … Drink ye all, of this … in remembrance of me.”  Such is “the memorial which he hath commanded,” (BCP, p. 83). It is about taking seriously the things which have been written. It is about words “hear[d], read, mark[ed], learn[ed], and inwardly digest[ed]” as Cranmer so famously and memorably puts it. Such words are the clarion call and challenge to the recovery of deep reading over and against the superficiality of our digital compulsions, the ephemerality of flickering images.

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Advent Meditation: Christ, Light of the World, Part 1

“In Thy light shall we see light”
(Psalm 36.9)

Part One:

Advent is about the coming of God as light to a dark and despairing world. The imagery of light is an important and classical feature of the religions of the world and so too for Christianity. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” He doesn’t just say it once either but twice. It is, I think, an extraordinary statement. What can it possibly mean?

To be sure, Jesus is identified as light by others, too, by prophet and priest, by poet and evangelist. “In him was life and the life was the light of men”… “That was the true light, which lighteth every one that cometh into the world”. And as aged Simeon proclaims, echoing Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus is “a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel”.

But when Jesus identifies himself as “the light of the world,” it is something more and something different:  It would seem to be something which he wants us to know. It suggests something which he wants us to know about himself and about the world, and, indeed, about ourselves.

There are things which Jesus wants us to know. The Gospels are at pains to bring those things to our attention. But what Jesus wants us to know does not mean collecting a bouquet of holy facts and figures. It is not about compiling bits and pieces of pious information nor about lining up a series of propositional hoops through which to jump “merrily on high”. Instead, what Jesus wants us to know are the things which belong to our being with him. Such things are relational rather than informational, dynamic rather than static, humbling rather than presumptuous.  And they are inexhaustible. They are the things which we must be constantly learning, constantly engaged with, constantly “being renewed in the transformation of our minds”.

They are the things which are identified and known so as to be proclaimed and celebrated. They are matters of witness. These are connected.  If Christian life is about our witness to Christ, then it is also about our being with him. Both our being with him and our witness to him turn on the substantial matter of who he is and what he means for us and for our world. They turn upon the powerful image of Christ as light.

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Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent

“Love is the fulfilling of the law”

Today’s Collect draws explicitly upon the rich imagery of the Epistle reading from Romans, the images of “cast[ing] off the works of darkness” and “put[ting] on the armour of light.” The Gospel reading from Matthew complements and illustrates this teaching. We are awakened to the necessity of an ethical principle and to its presence in our lives. That is the meaning of the Advent of Christ, the coming of Christ.

The Epistle opens with a commentary on the law as fulfilled in the love of neighbour. “Love,” Paul argues, “is the fulfilling of the law.” Law is love? That must seem rather strange yet it goes to the heart of the matter of God as the ethical principle for our lives. The law proclaims God’s will for our humanity and as such illumines the darkness of our lives. Left to ourselves, to “the devices and desires of our own hearts,” we are deadly and destructive, harmful to ourselves and to one another. The biblical story of Cain and Abel, the first murder, inaugurates the long bloody tale of man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man. Thus it serves to highlight the need for an ethical principle which by definition cannot come from us; it is not a human construct, but something divine through which we learn the true worth and dignity of our humanity.

The story of Cain and Abel is followed by the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, and, then, the Mosaic covenant in an ascending order of completeness and universality, the meaning of which is summarized in Paul’s statement that “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable.

We often misunderstand the Ten Commandments and confuse the ethical teaching they present with our more ordinary assumptions about laws and legislation, about rules and customs as something constraining and limiting. To the contrary, we are presented with something much more radical and much more freeing. We forget that the Ten Commandments are about our freedom, our liberation, and that they are grounded in the revelation of God to Moses as “I am Who I am,” as the universal principle upon which the being and knowing of all reality depends. “I am has sent you,” God says to Moses. The Ten Commandments begin with God as “I am”: “I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The law is the charter of our freedom, our freedom to God. That freedom is love in its truest sense

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Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Advent

“Jesus turned”

It is all about the turning but what kind of turning? Head over heels? Like a rolling stone? Or a November snowball? No. It is about God’s turning to us and our being turned to God. That is the especial wonder of this Sunday. I love the collocation of prepositions: “next” and “before” that signal an ending and a beginning. This Sunday speaks so profoundly to the double movement of the spirit: God coming to us and our coming to God, to the principle of justification in the first and the principle of sanctification in the second, and to the way in which those necessarily intersect.

We have in today’s lesson from Jeremiah a kind of summa of the pageant of sanctification. It is really all about “the Lord our Righteousness” living in us and we in him. In the textus receptus of the New Testament, this is one of the few but important passages that are re-printed in majuscules, in capital letters. It is a kind of shout-out, a way of calling attention to the whole pageant of sanctifying grace as being about the realisation, bit by bit, of justifying grace dwelling in us. It recalls us to a new beginning, a beginning again in the pageant of that justifying grace towards us and its dwelling in us. It is all about the forms of our incorporation into the life of God in Christ. That belongs and marks the apocalyptic nature of Advent and of all that follows right through to Trinity Sunday. Something has to be made known to us even as we recognise our need for an ethical and spiritual principle. Left to ourselves we are dead and deadly. Such is the darkness of Advent into which comes the light of Christ.

To speak this way about the pattern of the church year may seem linear, a step-by-step kind of thinking but really this Sunday shows us that is not so. It is more about a kind of circular reasoning (understood positively and essentially), a way of returning and turning back again upon the very principle of life and thought and being. A way of being of gathered into what is eternal. “Never that which is shall die,” a fragment from the ancient Greek Tragic poet, Euripides, states. What truly is truly remains. What is that? It is about Christ and about Christ in us, about how our lives participate in the life of God.

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Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Trinity

He searches out the abyss, and the hearts of men,
and considers their crafty devices.
For the Most High knows all that may be known.

The rubric or direction on the bottom of page 258 (BCP, Cdn.) explains today’s readings. Sometimes the Trinity Season runs beyond twenty-four Sundays, sometimes less, so what happens when it runs over? It is a question about the distribution of the Sundays and about the appointment of the readings. There is a wonderful logic to the way in which the Trinity Season and the Epiphany Season complement one another, the one longer or shorter as the case may be. This year the Trinity Season runs to twenty-five Sundays. In the New Year, Epiphany Season will run to five Sundays. Note that from the rubric, what is read today are the readings appointed for The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. Thus there will be no duplication just a marvellous liturgical and scriptural sensitivity through which time is continually gathered into eternity.

These provisions are a post-Cranmerian development. They belong to the work of John Cosin, the Bishop of Durham, who in the middle of the 17th century undertook to make provisions for what was missing for certain Sundays in some years in the lectio divina, the divine reading of Scripture at Mass on Sundays. He appointed readings for the 5th and the 6th Sundays after Epiphany, a season which like the Trinity Season is variable in length owing to the movable date of Easter, which would also serve as the readings for the 25th and 26th Sundays after Trinity when needed. In other words, they do double duty. And, taking his cue from Cranmer, he composed the Collects as based on the Scriptural texts chosen for those Sundays. You can see how this morning’s Collect draws explicitly upon the Epistle and the Gospel. All this offers a wonderful theological insight into the reason for our reading the passages appointed for The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany on The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity. They bring us to next Sunday, The Sunday Next Before Advent.

How appropriate because we hear in the Gospel reading that “they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.” That signals an Advent theme captured in the Advent Hymn, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” (Hymn # 60).

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