Sunday, 29 April 2012

4th Sunday Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, Shaftesbury

Jn 10:11-18
Back when I was very young, Tina Turner released a song called, “We don’t need another hero”. For many people that song summed up what they felt, even if they wouldn’t have articulated it that clearly –and I think that attitude has become even more common since she sang that back in 1985.
In past ages of history people used to write songs about heroes, books about heroes, used to look for heroes, and believe in heroes –believe that there were actually people better than others, people worthy of looking to for help, worthy of being taken as role models and so forth.
In our age, in contrast, people have become very cynical. People increasingly expect the worst from our politicians, from our institutions like our schools and the police force, from the Church and her priests, and the media continually points out the worst in everything –rarely reporting the best in things.
So, few people now believe in heroes. And the worst way you might dismiss someone is to portray them as someone who thought of himself as a hero, who thought of himself as able to rescue you.

I make this observation because we as Catholics DO believe in a hero, namely the Lord Jesus, who we recall on this Sunday as “The Good Shepherd”. And, He actually had the audacity to portray Himself as a hero –as one WORTHY of rescuing us, as one ABLE to rescue us, and as one worthy of having us LOOK TO Him for help and look to Him as a role model.

As we heard in that gospel text just read, Jesus said of Himself, “I am the Good Shepherd”(Jn 10:11). And He went on to specify WHY we should think of Him as ‘Good’, namely, because He “laid down His life for His sheep”. He further specified that He has the power to be the shepherd we need, proving this by His claim to have “the power to lay down [my life] and take it up again”. He predicted His death and resurrection in advance.
This truth, this person, is the ultimate antidote to the cynicism that grips our modern world –if we recognise Him as the ‘hero’ that He is then we must believe in ‘better’ in many other things too.

However, it is of the very nature of cynicism to refuse to see the good.
And the cynicism in many people is such that they often reject the very notion of there being a ‘good’ God –“I don’t need any Almighty God watching over me!” –I’ve been told more than once!
And, today, there are many people who similarly try to pick holes in the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus in order to make Him less of the ‘hero’ than He is –because they just don’t believe that anyone can really be that good.
Part of what conversion to Christ involves is putting aside our preconceptions and recognising Him for what He really is and thus Who He really is.
For ourselves, living in this midst of this culture, we need to continually seek to re-open our eyes to the true Christ, not some half-version given us by the media critics. And if we do that, if we recognise the ‘hero’ in Him we also recognise the source of grace to believe in goodness in others too, and even in ourselves –and in this sense the cheesy phrase, ‘finding the hero within’, CAN be possible –not by our own heroics or our own goodness or our own power, but by seeking to let Him be active in us.

Tina Turner may have sung that she didn’t “need another hero”, but she did, and she does.
And so do we all. And the hero we need is one to save us from all that is wrong with us: our sins, our weakness, our failings. And the one bold enough to call Himself “The Good Shepherd” also proved He is good enough and strong enough to be just what we need.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

22nd April 2012

There is no sermon text this week as we had a supply priest while Fr Dylan was on his post-Easter holiday

Sunday, 15 April 2012

2nd Sunday of Easter, Shaftesbury

Jn 20:19-31; 1 Jn 5:1-6
As we just heard, when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples, He claimed to give them "peace", He appeared and said “Peace be with you”. And as the second half of that verse continued, "and [He] showed them His hands and His side". He then proceeded to offer the forgiveness of sins. I want to say a word today about why all these things are connected: “peace”, His wounds, and forgiveness.

Peace is one of those things that we recognise most in its absence, when we feel a LACK of peace. I want to the note two particular ways that we can feel a lack of INNER peace: First, there is the type of un-peace we feel when we experience fear, or feeling weak, or feeling barely able to cope -the type of peace that can leave us feeling queasy inside. Second, there is the type of un-peace that comes with the inner conflict of sin, when we feel that tension within us such that we do not have peace. In both of these situations true peace can only be found if there is peace with God, if I myself personally am at peace with God.

Thinking about that first type of un-peace, it's very easy and very common to attempt to deny that I am weak, that I have something to fear, that I'm not really able to cope. But any human's denial of the weakness that is part of our condition is actually a very hollow strength, it’s a strength that is vulnerable to being exposed for the weakness that lies beneath.
If, however, I admit that I am weak, and if I turn to Him who has the power to strengthen me, then I am turning to the one who is able to bring peace.
Returning to that image of the triumphant resurrected Jesus displaying His wounds to His disciples, what He was displaying in that act was His victory. Death had tried to defeat Him and yet had failed. He had shown He was stronger than death, stronger than evil, stronger than anything that we can fear might assail us. In short, He has shown that He is the strength that we in our weakness can turn to, that we can depend on, in whom we can have "peace".

Returning to that second type of un-peace, all sin does not merely make us "enemies of God" (Col 1:21) it also puts us in conflict with our own inner nature, puts us in conflict with ourselves, puts us in conflict with our neighbour. The only resolution to such conflict, the only way to "peace" is forgiveness, the forgiveness that Christ won on the cross, the forgiveness that, as we just heard, Jesus handed on to His Apostles that they might hand on down to the priests today, "for those who sins you forgive, they are forgiven" (Jn 20:23).
This too requires us to admit our weakness, our failure, our sin, because it is only “if we confess our sin [that] He will forgive our sin” (1 Jn 1:9).

In both cases God's activity in our weakness brings us peace. And, there is another added dimension we can expect, namely the relief, the JOY that comes with this sort of peace, with the joy of knowing His strength, and His forgiveness.
When we feel that the weight of the world rests on our own shoulders then we feel crushed.
When we know instead that the weight to the world rests on HIS shoulders, and that He is strong enough to carry it, strong enough “to overcome the world”(1 Jn 5:4), then we have relief, joy, peace.

This is what He has won on the Cross and what He has manifested in displaying His victorious wounds, and is why He alone is able to say to us, “Peace be with you”. “A peace which the world cannot give you, this is my gift to you”(Jn 14:27).

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Easter Vigil, Shaftesbury

Gen 1:1-2; Gen 22; Exodus 14:15-15:1; Ezek 36:16-28
Each year I’ve focussed my Easter Vigil sermon on a different aspect of what the liturgy of the Vigil tells us.
This year I want to comment on the significance of what might be considered the most basic thing of all about the Vigil: the vigil of readings we have at the beginning of this service, and in particular, to note the significance of the context that that liturgy gives for placing the reading of the Old Testament passages.

Let me remind you of the sequence of events that tonight’s liturgy has passed through:
Outside, we had the lighting of the Paschal (or Easter) Candle at the beginning.
The singing of the Exultet proclaimed the symbolism of it, namely, of Christ’s Paschal event, His death and Resurrection, triumphing over darkness and evil.
Then we had the reading of a series of Old Testament passages. These passages were read in the light of the Pascal Candle. (Only after that were ALL the lights lit and the Gloria sung.)

And, that, very simply was the point: We looked back at the Old Testament in the light of Christ.
That, we need to remember, was also how the first Christians, who were all Jews, who until that time held as their ONLY scriptures what we now call “the Old Testament” scriptures, that was how they then came to look at their Jewish Scriptures:
they looked back and re-read them in the light of Christ.

For those Jews who were the first Christians the experience of recognising Christ, recognising Him in all He had shown forth by His wondrous Cross and Resurrection, this recognition caused them to re-evaluate many things they thought they had known, but hadn’t fully known:
They thought they had known Jesus, but they hadn’t realised He was fully God, hadn’t realised He had the power to rise from the dead;
They thought they knew their Jewish Scriptures, but they hadn’t realised what they prophesied about how the Messiah would come to die;
They thought they understood the events of Salvation History in God’s dealings with the Jewish people, but they hadn’t realised the manner in which ALL of the “Old” Testament looked ahead to Christ, the Messiah who was to come.

Let us briefly take 4 examples from our 4 Old Testament readings:
We ended with the promise in Ezekiel, “I will pour clean water over you and I shall give you a new heart”. The first Christians rapidly recognised this as a foreshadowing of Baptism by which the Christian is washed of his sins and receives the Holy Spirit –a new heart.
Before that we had the account of the Exodus, with the Israelites being saved through water, saved through parting of the Red Sea. Again, the first Christians recognised this as something that happened more perfectly in Christ, in Baptism into Christ.
Before that we had the account of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. The first Christians recognised this as a sacrifice that looked ahead to Christ on a great many levels. “The Lord himself will provide the Lamb” –and indeed He did: Christ.
Finally, the vigil of readings started at the very beginning, with the creation account of Genesis. The first Christians saw the work of Christ at the very beginning, as we read in the Prologue of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word...through Him all things were made”.
In short, while we need to Old Testament in order to recognise Christ, it is also true that there is not one thing in the Old Testament that does not acquire a new depth of meaning when it is seen in the light of Christ the Messiah.

For ourselves, this should remind us that all existence relates to the Christ whose victory over death we recall this night. All OUR existence relates to Him too. As the prayer outside blessing the Paschal candle said, “Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha, and the Omega. All time belongs to Him, and all the ages. To Him be glory and power, through every age and for ever. Amen”

Friday, 6 April 2012

Good Friday, Shaftesbury

Jn 18:1-19:42
Among the many things we just heard in that account of the Passion was about how Our Lord’s side was “pierced with a lance”(Jn 19:33), a wound to join the wounds already made by the nails in His hands and feet.
Catholic devotion has often focussed on the wounds of Jesus and I want today to say a word about what it means to ‘hide’ in those wounds –a phrase used in many prayers, and as we’ll sing later in the service when we sing the ever-popular hymn ‘Soul of my Saviour’: “Deep in Thy wounds Lord, hide and shelter me”.

Having a shelter as place to turn to in difficulty is perhaps something we might not think about too much if we live in secure houses, and even more if we work indoors. But for those of us who work outdoors on the land, and even more so for the Scriptural context of someone like a shepherd spending many hours outdoors at the mercy of the weather, to have a shelter when a storm comes over is very important. So, a cleft in the rocks that you can hide in, a cave you can shelter in, a home where you will be welcome –all these are very important.
And there are many things in life we must shelter from that are not just the weather: Problems at work, with family, of loneliness, of sickness. Is there a shelter we can hide in from these and other ‘storms’?
It is in the wounds of Christ that we can securely ‘hide’ and ‘shelter’.

Now, before I say anything more, let me concede that to some people it might seem a little grotesque or messy to speak of ‘hiding ‘ in the wounds, wounds that bled, so let me note a distinction: between the wounds as reality and the wounds as symbol.
As something to hide in, the wounds are symbolic -I cannot enter them physically.
But those wounds matter as a symbol BECAUSE of the reality they refer to: the real physical wounds on His body. These matter as symbol because of what they so powerfully testify to: His love for me, and, also vitally important, His power to aid me.
They are a sign of His power because of the Resurrection. As you recall, after His Resurrection He displayed His wounds to His disciples and He even had doubting Thomas put his hand into His side and his fingers into the holes in His hands. Those wounds still exist in His Risen body. Yet, in His risen and glorified state those wounds are not like wounds in OUR bodies –those wounds bleed and suffer no more. Those wounds thus testify to His power, to all He has conquered by His Resurrection.
This matters because we need somewhere secure and powerful to shelter in from life’s storms, and His power testifies that His wounds are places of such power and security.

But today, on Good Friday, let me return to the first of those things that His wounds signify, namely, His love for me.
There is little value in having a shelter that is powerful to hide in unless we know that we will be welcome there. What His wounds show is that we ARE welcome. His wounds show that He loves us enough to die for us, for me and for you. His wounds show that He welcomes us not because we are worthy of shelter, but simply because He wishes to shelter us: “He died for us while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8).

One final thought, Who is doing the hiding? Who is sheltering us from the storm? We are not sheltering ourselves, no, He is the one active and strong and caring, He is the one who is sheltering us. As that hymn puts in, “Deep in Thy wounds Lord, hide and shelter me”.
As Scripture puts it, “He will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble”(Ps 27:5). Yes, it may well be that we turn to Him, as indeed we must for Him to aid us, but He is the one who does the sheltering.

So, whatever my problems in life, whatever storms beset me, let me turn to His wounds, that He might “hide and shelter me”.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Maundy Thursday, Shaftesbury

Jn 13:1-15
There are a great many things in the Scriptures that seem obscure to us but would have had a meaning for the people who heard Jesus speak and watched what He did. The washing of feet at the Last Supper is one such action, as are the words that surround it. I want to explain a few things using a commentary from the well respected convert from Judaism and New Testament scholar Alfred Edersheim who notes certain connections between what Jesus did and said and the Temple priesthood of Jews –references that must have been obvious to His hearers. The basic point is that would seem to follow from his commentary (though Edersheim doesn’t make the point himself) is that this ritual would have been yet another indication that Jesus was instituting a new priesthood to replace the old priesthood of the Old Temple, and consecrating His apostles as the new priests of the new covenant, to offer the Eucharist.

In the Old Covenant, at the time of Christ, there were a great many priests who were called upon to take their turn to offer the sacrifices at the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. At one stage of this process of being chosen they would have waited during the night, asleep, but needing to be ready when they received their nighttime summons. The rabbis thus used words very similar to those of our Lord when He said, “Blessed are those servants whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; ... Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third”(Lk 12:37-38).
The priests would already be fully bathed before they lay waiting, bathed in special large bath-rooms for the priests of the Temple, as had previously been constructed by King Solomon for the first temple (2 Chron 4:6). As a consequence, if they were called they did not then need to wash their whole bodies but only their hands and their feet. Alfred Edersheim thus says, “It was, no doubt, to this that our Lord referred in His reply to Peter”: “No one who has taken a bath needs washing, he is clean all over”(Jn 13:10) (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its ministry and services as they were at the time of Jesus Christ, Updated edition (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Pub 1994), p.113, or viewable online at p.78 PDF version
There are also other texts that link the washing of the feet as a distinctive act that the priests and levities had to perform before the offering of sacrifice (c.f. Ex 30:19; 30:21; 40:31)

What this means is that we have another detail pointing to how Christ was establishing a new covenant, with a new sacrifice, and new priesthood, establishing it in Himself, with his Apostles and their successors to act as His ministers of the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant of bull’s blood and goats blood, as the letter to the Hebrews put it, was “useless to take away sin” (Heb 10:4). The New Covenant offers something better by means of a new sacrifice, and the consummation of that sacrifice comes with the consuming of it. It was offered once of Calvary, that sacrifice is re-presented again on the altar, and we ratify our incorporation into it every time we receive the Eucharist.

That sacrifice, being more than that of bulls or goats but the very “Lamb of God”, Christ Jesus, was something else too: it was an act of service from the Lord to us. For “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”(Mt 20:28). This service was also reflected in the act of foot-washing, to be inherently connected with His new priesthood. The Old Covenant priests washed both hands and feet, but Jesus specifically chose to focus on the feet –making the act of service more clear.

So, in summary, what do we recall tonight in the washing of feet?
The rubrics of the liturgy of this night tells us that it focuses on three things: the gift of the Eucharist, the gift of the priesthood to the Church, and the symbolism of the washing of the feet.
If Edersheim’s interpretation of the allusions to the Old Temple priesthood and footwashing is correct, then it would seem to follow that all of these 3 did not merely happen at the same event but happened together because the Lord had a meaning connecting them all:
He used a ritual of the old priesthood to make a connection to the new priesthood He was establishing. He did this while establishing the Eucharist that was to be the commemoration and sharing in the sacrifice that takes our sins away. And He did this in an act of service because He came to serve.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Palm Sunday, Year B, Shaftesbury 2012

Mk 14:1-15:47; Isa 50:4-7
We just heard in that account about how there was darkness “over the whole land” (Mk 15:33). I wish today to say a few words about the experience of darkness, reflecting particularly on the words we just heard uttered by our Lord, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And to say this with the aid of some reflections from Pope Benedict.

All of us, of course, know moments when we experience a sense of ‘darkness’ in our lives. It is, I think, a peculiar characteristic of such times that we can almost simultaneously feel abandoned by God and alone, and yet close to Him as we experience our distance from everything and everyone else.

Pope Benedict, in a recent General Audience (8 Feb 2012), noted similarly that there is an ambivalent experience of darkness in the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, God came to Moses in a “thick darkness”(Ex 20:21 c.f.19:9) and yet in was precisely “out of the midst of the darkness” (Deut 5:23; c.f. 4:11) that the voice of God spoke to Moses.

The darkness we just heard of in the Gospel was a much greater darkness, a darkness that came “over the whole land” (Mk 15:33), a darkness whereby the cosmos itself seemed to reflect the horror of mankind’s rejection of its God.
It was in that moment of darkness that Mark specifies that Jesus cried out. Unusually, the Evangelists are not content to give us a Greek translation of what Jesus said (Greek being the language it seems the Evangelists wrote the Gospels in), rather, they give us words in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic that give us the very sound uttered by God from the Cross: “Eloi, EIoi, lama sabachthani?”(Mk 15:34). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Gospel writers took this care to transmit these exact words to us because they thought they were important, because they recognised a meaning in them that was important for understanding the whole event. What was that meaning?
Pope Benedict articulates the classical interpretation of this text in noting, as the liturgy itself does in using Psalm 21 as our responsorial psalm today, noting that the words uttered by Christ would have been familiar to His hearers, familiar as the first line of that psalm, familiar as a prayer that while it seems to start in situation of despair nonetheless confidently anticipates that God will rescue him. As Pope Benedict put it in his book, “The cry of extreme anguish is at the same time the certainty of an answer from God, the certainty of salvation — not only for Jesus Himself, but for ‘many” (Pope Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2 (San Francisco: lgnatius Press, 2011), pp.213-4).
What then is the meaning of that cry from the Cross? That Christ knew God to be active n the midst of darkness, even in the midst of that darkest of all dark moments in human history.

It would seem, judging from the reaction of those who thought He was calling on Elijah, that at least some of those who heard Him failed to understand.
If WE would hear Him and understand, then we need to understand the truth that God is active in the darkness, as He was for Moses, and as the Son of God knew Him to be even in His crucifixion.

For Christ, His certainty was rooted in His relationship with the Father, in His knowledge of His divinity.
For us, our certainty that God is with us in OUR darkness must be rooted in seeing that God has suffered for us, with us, such that darkness is not the last word. Our moments of darkness remain places of silence, not places of ease. Yet, if they are places where we are silent WITH HIM then they can be a place of trust, and we can make the prayer of the prophet Isaiah that we heard in our first reading our prayer too: “I know I shall not be shamed”(lsa 50:7).