Ephesians 2: 11-22
‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are members of God’s household.’ This is the Good News that Paul is proclaiming in his letter to the Ephesians: it’s the good news of the Gospel: that we who were once strangers have now come to live in God’s home. And this has all happened through the gift of Christ’s dying for us on the Cross. The Cross, for Paul, is the most wonderful expression of God’s generous love for us, and the most radical expression of God’s extraordinary hospitality.
A few months ago, I was living in Colombia. And whoever it was I stayed with showed me extraordinary hospitality. The first thing they invariably said to me by way of welcome was that wonderful Spanish phrase, ‘Mi casa es su casa’: ‘my home is your home’. And Paul is telling us in this letter that God’s generosity is so overflowing, that he longs for each one of us, whoever we are, whether we feel like a stranger, or unworthy, God longs for us to ‘come home’, to come and live with God forever. You could say that the whole Gospel is about God inviting and welcoming each one of us with these gracious words, ‘Mi casa es su casa’: ‘my home is your home.’ Jesus came to offer us that very invitation. In John’s Gospel chapter 14, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘In my father’s house there are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come and take you there, so that where I am you may be also.’ ‘Mi casa es su casa!’ God’s extraordinary hospitality. And look who he invites! All sorts; tax collectors, outcasts, sinners, like you and me. ‘Let them all come in. There’s room for everyone in my house’.
John 14: 15-21
As I write this sermon I am looking out of the window and seeing all the runners and cyclists passing by along Memorial Drive, and they are nearly all wearing masks. Gosh, how life has changed for us over these past eight weeks. How are you doing? How are you coping? Social isolation can be very stressful. Just a few days ago I got an email from the Church Pension Fund, who pay clergy pensions, and also care for their welfare. It was inviting me to a forthcoming Webinar on ‘Coping with distress – a psychological first aid kit.’ They have called in two experts to teach some ways to cope with trauma and stress of our changed lives, in these days of pandemic.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is with his disciples in the Upper Room. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, Judas has just gone out into the night, to betray him. And Jesus is talking to them, preparing them for the traumatic events which would soon unfold. Being together in that room, they must have felt so anxious, so bewildered, so filled with distress. Our life is about to change, our Lord is leaving us, we will be left alone. What will we do? How will we cope?
John 10: 22-30
‘It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.’ ‘It was winter.’ I have been to Jerusalem in the winter, and there was snow on the ground, and it was bitterly cold. We think of Jesus in light, flowing robes and sandals, preaching in warm and sunny climes. But not in our Gospel today. John tells us very specifically that ‘it was winter.’ Usually John marks time by referring to the Jewish religious festivals, but here, very pointedly, he tells us that it was winter. As so often for John, seemingly insignificant words carry a profound, symbolic meaning. ‘It was winter, it was night…’
This story at the end of chapter 10 marks the climax of several chapters describing the increasingly hostile controversies between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Here on this winter’s day, in the very temple itself, the words become ever more cold and bitter. Jesus finally seals his fate by declaring unequivocally, “The Father and I are one”, and the Jews pick up stones to stone him to death.
It was winter in Narnia, when those children in C. S. Lewis’ much-loved stories, first entered through the wardrobe into that magical land. Lucy went first. ‘She was standing in the middle of a wood, with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. “Why is it winter here?” “The witch has made it always winter and never Christmas. But Aslan is on the move.”’
Every ten years in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, they hold the world-famous Passion Play. One of the most famous actors who portrayed Christ was Anton Lang. And there’s a story of how one day, after a performance, a tourist and his wife went back stage to meet the actors. After taking Lang’s picture, the man noticed the great cross that the actor had carried during the performance. He said to his wife, “Here, take the camera and I’ll lift the cross on my shoulder, and then snap my picture.” Before Lang could say anything, the tourist had stooped down to lift the prop to his shoulder. He couldn’t budge it. The cross was made with solid oak beams. In amazement the man turned to Lang and said, “I thought it would be hollow and light. Why do you carry a cross which is so terribly heavy?” The actor replied, “Sir, if I did not feel the weight of the cross, I could not play his part.”
To feel the weight of the cross is what we have been doing in different ways during this season of Lent, and what we are about to do in a focused and intentional way as we begin to live this Holy Week. But during this particular Lent, which we have all had to bear, continues to be very, very heavy. In the midst of this pandemic, isolation, anxiety, sickness, bereavement, have already weighed heavily on all of us.
It’s the miracle which is perhaps the most famous of them all: the feeding of the 5,000. It’s found in all four Gospels. But we don’t always notice that in Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, there is another miracle, which is very similar: the miracle of the feeding of the FOUR thousand. And that is our Gospel for today.
There is so much in this story, but as I read it again, slowly, two things in particular spoke to me.
First, I was struck again by Jesus’ wonderful compassion. “My heart is moved with pity,” one translation puts it, “because they are hungry.” We often remember all the spiritual things Jesus says in the Gospels, but we don’t always notice how he is not just interested in our spiritual selves, but our physical needs as well. They’re hungry; help them. Remember how after Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter, he says, “give her something to eat.” When the disciples return from mission, Jesus can see they are exhausted and says, “Come away by yourselves and rest.”
Today is Candlemas and it’s a feast I’m very fond of – but then I like candles! I remember when I was a young child, we lived in the South of England, deep in the Sussex countryside, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed, carrying a candle, and then tuck up in bed, nice and cozy, looking round a once familiar bedroom – now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later as I came to faith, looking at a candle, holding a candle, staring at the flickering light of the candle helped me to pray. The flickering light spoke to me of the light of Christ: of warmth, comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles that we light in this church – all over the church and on the high altar today – help us celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas, when Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents to fulfill the required ceremonies of the law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name, “Jesus.” But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy. In other words, belonging to the Lord, and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary, and he was then presented to the Lord. At the same time, his mother Mary had, according to the law, to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings either of turtle doves and two pigeons.
St. Thomas, the Apostle
“Unless I see I will not believe.” These are words of the Apostle Thomas whom we celebrate today. These words have sadly clung to him in a negative way so that he is often called “Doubting Thomas.”
But calling him “Doubting Thomas” seems not only unfair, but inaccurate. Thomas was no wavering agnostic, sitting on the fence: “Perhaps I believe, I don’t know.” That’s not Thomas at all. He is quite open and downright: “I simply don’t believe it.” “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, and that’s that.”
And I think we have to say that many people do find it very difficult to believe. It’s a great mystery why others who hear the Gospel are touched almost immediately and come to faith. They are blessed, says Jesus, who do not need such evidence as the exploring of wounds with a finger. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Yet Jesus had mercy on Thomas, was glad of his honesty: “Unless I see I will not believe.” See what? Does it mean I want proof? Surely not, because faith does not deal with proof. God longs for us to turn to him in penitence and faith. He is not going to prove anything to make us believe.
St. Margaret of Scotland – the Pearl of Great Price
Pearls are very beautiful. Their beauty has something to do with their unique luster. Light reflects and refracts from the translucent layers – layer upon layer of mother of pearl. The luster becomes finer as the layers become thinner and more numerous. Some people spend their lives collecting and marveling at pearls.
Today we celebrate Margaret, a 12th century queen of Scotland, who was acknowledged by the whole country as a good and deeply holy woman. She was a woman of profound prayer, who also worked tirelessly for the welfare of the poor. Many people wrote about her, and made much of the appropriateness of her name, for in both Greek and Latin, the name Margaret – Margarata – means pearl. There’s the lovely passage written at her death by Turgot, the 12th century bishop of St. Andrews: “In this virtuous woman, the fairness indicated by her name was surpassed by the exceeding beauty of her soul. She was called Margaret, that is a “pearl,” and in the sight of God she was esteemed a lovely pearl by reason of her faith and good works. She was a pearl to her husband and children, to me, to all of us, even to Christ. And because she was Christ’s she is all the more ours, now that she has left us, and is taken to the Lord.”
I recently returned from spending a few weeks in Colombia. I was invited by the bishop, and worked in three Episcopal parishes in Bogota and Medellin. It was an extraordinary experience and I am still thinking and praying about everything I was privileged to see and do, and remembering especially some of the wonderful, generous people I met. The people of Colombia have lived through decades of violence. Terrorized by guerilla groups like the FARC, and suffering through the murderous days of Pablo Escobar and narco-terrorism. What is less well known is that Colombia has the world’s highest number of internally displaced people – more even than Syria. These are Colombian men, women and children who over the past 30 years have been forcibly driven from their homes by armed groups, and who have become refugees in their own land. Eight million of them – many now living in poverty in the outlying barrios, which cling to the mountainsides of the great cities.
I spent much of my time living in one such barrio in Bogota. It was a tough place to be, but the great blessing I received was to meet and talk with men and women, who in the midst of great suffering and hardship, radiated a profound faith and trust in God.
One summer, a couple of years ago, I was standing on the white cliffs of Dover, in southern England, staring out over the expanse of the English Channel, towards France.
In that same spot, 1400 years ago, a Benedictine monk called Augustine, with 40 other monks, landed their boats. They were on a mission to bring the light of the Gospel to the English people. They were scared to death. They had already tried to turn back once, because the people they had met in France had told them horror stories: those Britons are violent and barbaric. With Brexit, I think the French may well have the same opinion today!
But the man who had sent them on the mission told them no– don’t turn back. And he encouraged them and gave them new courage. That remarkable man, who had the vision and drive to send Augustine to evangelize England, was Gregory. And we remember him today.
As Anglicans, we have I think a special closeness to Gregory. The Venerable Bede affectionately called him “our own apostle.” Gregory was a man of many gifts, but essentially he was a monk, a Benedictine monk, like Augustine, living peacefully in a monastery perched high on the Coelian hill in Rome. But Rome was anything but peaceful. He was experiencing the horrors of war – barbarian invasions, plague, and famine. Although Gregory wanted to live the monastic life, he was one of the most gifted men of his time, and he was almost dragged out of the monastery. And both the secular and religious authorities pleaded with him to help. His energy and abilities and holiness were so great that after a few years, he was elected Pope – the first ever monk to become Pope.
As Pope, his three greatest gifts came to the fore. First, he was a remarkable administrator. He personally organized the defense of Rome against the barbarian attacks, and he fed its people from the papal granaries in Sicily.
Secondly, he was a man of profound prayer and spirituality. Much of the worship life of the churches was in a terrible state, so drawing on his own monastic experience, he re-ordered the church’s liturgy, including the introduction of a beautiful chant, later named after him: “Gregorian chant.” In many ways his genius for worship and liturgy has molded the spirituality of the western Church till the present day.
But thirdly, he was a wonderful pastor. The Gospel reading today includes words which get to the heart of the kind of pastor Gregory was. From Mark’s Gospel, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be a servant.”That was Gregory’s mandate. So, of all the titles which were conferred upon him, the one he chose for himself was “Servus, servorum Dei”: servant of the servants of God. For him to be a leader was to be a servant, like his Lord. And this colored all his pastoral theology. He expressed his theology in beautiful writing. His most famous work is the Regula Pastoralis, or “the Pastoral Office.” It’s a wonderful work, written for new priests and especially new bishops. It’s still very popular, and it’s still probably the best held ever written about the inner life and work of a bishop.
It was written 1400 years ago, but still packs a punch. His harshest words were against bishops who did not preach God’s saving word. Listen to him: “There is a feature, dear brothers, in the life of pastors, which causes me great affliction. We have descended to secular business. We abandon the duty of preaching, and to our disgrace, we are bishops in name, and have the title but not the virtue that befits that dignity. For those committed to our care abandon God and we are silent. They commit sin, and we do not stretch out a hand to correct them.”
Gregory was ferocious about bishops who were guilty of the sin of silence. They allowed grave disorders to go on in their jurisdictions and they were silent. They were silent because they wanted to avoid trouble. They worked to maintain the status quo. They wanted to remain comfortable and secure, and highly thought of.
Over these past months, details of sexual abuse which had taken place over many decades in the Church of England have been brought to light. And it is clear that bishops had kept quiet. Over the past year, the extent of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has been revealed, and it is clear that bishops have kept quiet. “They have the title, but not the virtue that befits their dignity,” says Gregory. Guilty of the sin of silence. Those powerful, courageous words of Gregory, uttered 1400 years ago, still have the power to convict us today. But not only the bishops, but each one of us who follow Jesus.
Through the centuries Gregory’s words ring out with the same conviction and point to each one of us, and ask us, “Where were you silent when you saw injustice being done? When were you silent when you heard others saying things which you knew were untrue – gossip or cruel words? When were you silent because, well, I just don’t want to get involved? And so you said nothing.”
Today we celebrate a man who was a true servant of God. And man of huge courage, who spoke out the truth without fear or favor. A man who spoke out whenever he saw evil or injustice both within and outside the church. A truly great man, holy and courageous.
Shortly after his death the church unanimously gave him the title of great honor: Gregorius Magnus – Gregory the Great. But for Gregory himself, Gregory, the humble follower of Jesus the Benedictine mon, the only title he ever aspired to was the one modeled on his Lord: “Servus, servorum Dei:” the servant of the servants of God.