Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Preached at the Church of St Columba and All Hallows
9 March AD 2011

Matthew 6.1–6, 16–21

The Gospel we just heard has only one subject. It teaches us only one great principle : the new righteousness, the righteousness of the citizens of the kingdom, looks only towards God. God is its motive, God is its aim, God is its object; God, and nothing lower than God. No man is truly a citizen who is not in all his conduct and life looking directly God-ward. Christian righteousness, in all its departments, looks for divine praise; never for human praise. Jesus speaks first of righteousness in general, then of its different branches.
Our Lord applies the general principle of seeking only God's approval to the three great branches of human conduct. Christian, and indeed human conduct generally, looks in three directions. There is a duty to God, there is a duty to one's neighbour, and there is a duty to one's self. And each of these great departments of human conduct has one typical form of action, one form of action in which it specially expresses itself. Our duty to God expresses itself particularly in prayer. Our duty to man expresses itself in works of mercy, or alms. Our duty towards ourselves expresses itself in self-subdual, self-mastery that is, fasting. And so our Lord applies the general principle to each of these typical duties. In your prayers, in your alms, in your fastings, in each case you are to look to nothing lower than the praise of God.
As to alms, Our Lord is obviously using a metaphor. We don`t really think that the people of his day, when they went to give alms, literally blew their own trumpet; and in the same way, when he speaks of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, it is clearly a vividly descriptive metaphor, for what our Lord is here forbidding is obviously ostentation in doing good. This teaching makes us ask what our motive is. We are not to be troubled because, when we are trying to do good, we are tempted to think that people are looking at us. That will happen but the point is, what is our motive ? We can find that out. Do we stop doing the good action when people are not looking at us? When we cannot be seen, do we omit it? If not, let us not be worried about being tempted with thoughts of pride. An old saint once said to Satan : 'Not for thy sake did I begin this ; and not for thy sake shall I leave it off!' But on the other hand if you give a twenty-dollar bill when it can be seen and a five when it can’t, then you have grave cause to doubt your motive.
Our Lord applies same principle of seeking only divine praise to prayer and to fasting, and we need not go into detail. Two things only need to be noted. One is that our Lord is not public religious actions. He assumes that we are going to give alms, and pray, and fast. Indeed, that we should pray in secret does not mean that there should be no prayer of the community.
The other is that sentence repeated three times in this Gospel : they have their reward. Every kind of conduct gets its reward on the plane of its motive. If you look out for human praise, on the whole you get it. If you aim vigorously at getting on and winning a good position, the chances are you will succeed. On the whole, then, you get the reward that fits your motive. Our Lord recognizes these lower motives and their proper reward. So then if your motive is earthly, your reward is earthly. You 'have out’ your reward to the full, and must not imagine there is anything over and above which still appeals to God.
With this in mind we turn our thoughts to the season of Lent which we are entering into in this service. This is the season par excellence of devotion, of alms-giving, of prayer, of fasting. No matter what we do, if we keep the rule of Lent and strive seriously to use its disciplines to prepare for Easter, people are going to notice. My friends, do not let that worry you; for if you do you will not keep Lent at all. Only keep your mind fixed on God, for these devotions are only tools to help you seek to do his will. Stay fixed on God, and do your duty as quietly as you can.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Last Before Lent

This one didn't get any special comments, but I think it migt be appreciated ...
A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after the Epiphany,
The Sunday called Quinquagesima
Preached at the Church of St Columba and All Hallows
6 March AD 2011
When I was an undergraduate, there was a professor living at Trinity College who was a priest of the Community of the Resurrection; he was a wonderful and moving preacher, one that most of us could hardly hope to be compared to. He was a man of wisdom and a sharp wit. I have heard it told that someone once greeted him after service with the customary complement on his sermon; he replied, What are you going to do about it?
That question underlies that first reading and the Gospel passage we just heard, as well as a whole mass of teaching in Scripture about the need not only to hear but also to so the word and will of God. In the first reading, Moses tells the people of Israel that the Law of God is so important that it must be kept in the mind and in the heart and obeyed. ‘And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise’. Then in the Gospel, our Lord adds the element of doing the words, the commandment. It is not enough just to hear. We find this again in Matthew 12.50: ‘For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother’. The point is hammered home by St Paul: ‘For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified’ [Rom 2.13] and by the second chapter of the Letter of James, and by the first letter of John, ‘he who does the will of God abides for ever’.
So the preacher was correct; it is not enough to marvel at the teaching (as the crowd did when they heard Jesus), the next question is , What are you going to do about it? And if that is true of a fine preacher today, let us not forget that the words we hear in the Gospel are more than that.
How often it is we hear someone say that they can admire Jesus as a great spiritual teacher or a great moral teacher or a philosopher, but cannot accept that he is the Son of God. This might seems like an attractive position; you can admire a teacher without having to do anything about his teaching. But it is not really a tenable position; for there is no way of teasing s supposed historical basis from the miraculous elements in the Gospel, or the moral teachings apart from that claim to authority which makes Jesus different. We have been reading that great epitome of his teaching, the Sermon on the Mount over the last few weeks, and have already seen the claim to divine authority in the words, You have heard that it was said …. But I say to you. There is in the section we just heard, the final section of that sermon, an even more daring and audacious claim. Before we say anything else about today’s Gospel, we need to note this. For we must guard ourselves against any temptation of thinking Jesus less than he is.
Now it is true that nowhere in this passage does our Lord make any explicit claim; rather, what he says is said in a way that implicitly declares that he, Jesus of Nazareth, is the one before whom all will be judged. First, we read, ‘On that day many will say to me. Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in thy name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ ‘That day’ means the day of the Lord, the day of the final assessment. On that day, he says, ‘they will come to Me.’ Without preface, without emphasis, as a matter of course, He implies that He is the final judge of all men, not only as to the outward results they achieve, but also as regards the secret inner motives of their hearts and the character of their lives [Bishop Gore]. Then later we read, ‘Everyone … who hears these words of mine and does them will be like wise man who built his house upon the rock’; Here, again, is the tremendous claim: Jesus and His words are the only solid foundation for life.
So we must hear them, and do them. This is not only the sole ground on which our Lord judges us (and on this—and to find out what to do— we need to read the 25th Chapter of Matthew) it is also the sole ground in which the world may know that we prophecy or preach or do mighty acts in his name. For none of these things are by themselves evidence that we are Christ’s. Only his life-changing power by which we are enabled to do works of Love, Mercy and Righteousness will be evidence. So it is that those who claim to preach the Gospel cannot be trusted when they say ‘Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in thy name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ if what they preached was hatred and their actions were cruel, and they were as demons declaring a God of hate.
If nothing else, what many who call ‘Lord, Lord’ actually do demands that in our age we put more emphasis on calmly and clearly hearing the word and knowing what it is God Commands. Hearing the word is not rifling through the Bible to find something to support your beliefs and biases, it is to set yourself down at the feet of the Lord and hear him teach. And the simplest thing this means might just be to hear the great Summary of the Law, and bind it in your heart, and in your mind; to repeat it on going to bed and on rising from sleep, to think it while sitting in your home or when walking abroad. And with it on your mind to read again our Lord’s words in this great sermon, and find, as all who have made the effort have found, that you fall short of the goal, you will find your need for God’s forgiveness and God’s strength. For there is one fact of God’s will and grace that this sermon does not tell us, a fact that we will begin to ponder seriously in Lent and Easter: the atonement by which our Lord has taken the sins of the world, and brought us back to reconciliation with our Father which is in heaven, and the gift of grace by which we are empowered to live the new life.
Over the next seven weeks we will move from the end of the Sermon on the Mount into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. If we are truly both hearers and doers of the word we will experience that mystery in us, renewing us. I invite you to join with me this Wednesday in the great act of Penance by which we begin the journey to the Cross and to life.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Wednesday Reflection

Note: it has been a long time since I've added a sermon here; far too often I don't think well enough of them; even more often I simple don't have time to get the text into a condition good enough for reading. Some people spoke well of this little piece, and others mentioned that they had not themselves see the point before, so I will send it out into the world.
A Reflection at Choral Evensong,
Trinity College Chapel, Toronto
Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. Mark 12.10.

The Daily Office Lectionary is arranged in such a way that someone who comes to evensong each Wednesday might think the readings skip merrily through the History of Israel and follow the Gospels on quite another plan, but someone who comes occasionally or just once may find it all fortuitous. Sometimes the effect is surreal, as when the late Mordecai Richler attended Evensong some years back: the first reading was from Esther and seemed to have the words ‘Mordecai the Jew’ in every other verse. The fact is that the Offices were not really meant for occasional use, and needs to be followed regularly to be understood, and while the lectionary recognizes that some will attend only on Sundays no one seems to have contemplated the likelihood of a regular Wednesday community. I say all this by way of apology for most of the readings and making one small point.
This evening we heard an episode from the life of Jacob; a lot’s happened since last week, when he stole Esau’s blessing, but I will assume that you can read the whole story yourselves. Preachers usually latch onto the fact that Jacob was a bit of a cad, making some important points about the surprising people God uses in his work of salvation. But Jacob’s complaint to Laban, about his long service reminded me of something which struck me recently about this story, which also shows God working through the unexpected person to an even more important end.
As you may recall, Jacob fled to avoid Esau, who was ticked off over the blessing, and went to his uncle Laban. There he fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, and agreed to work seven years to marry her. At the end Laban tricked Jacob and substituted the older daughter Leah. Genesis tells us that ‘Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful and lovely … Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah’, and after a further seven years married her as well.
So we are clear: the beautiful sister, loved by her husband and worth fourteen years work, was Rachel; Leah was apparently despised. Rachel is the centre of the story, which for the next couple of chapters tells of the children born to them, and a sort of unseemly competition between them. And in the end Rachel is still the important one, because she is the mother of Joseph, the great hero and saviour of the people, and of the beloved youngest son Benjamin. But that’s not the whole story. Though Jacob hated Leah, God did not; she had many children and was the mother of six of Jacob’s twelve sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. But even though this shows divine favour, in the story, Rachel is still ahead as favourite wife and mother of the best-loved sons. But what recently struck me about this story is one little fact in it which governs the rest of salvation history: Leah was the mother of Judah.
From the tribe of Judah came David the king (while Saul, of the tribe of beloved Benjamin, was rejected). And as the Gospels tell us, from the tribe of Judah and the house of David (by human reckoning) came our Lord Jesus Christ. So the main story of salvation hangs on Leah, the unexpected, the unloved. So the words of the Gospel are true of Leah as they are and because they are about Jesus, her descendant: The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. All through Scripture God chooses the one he wants, whether or not we would choose likewise; this is only one example. God’s choice is mysterious, and it knocks any chance anyone has of saying, if I am chosen it must show how good I am. In fact, the chosen instruments usually don’t know they’re chosen any more than Leah did.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Several people expressed a desire to read this one.
A Homily for All Souls’ Day
Trinity College Chapel:
Monday 2 November, 2009
St Matthias, Bellwoods:
Wednesday 4 November, 2009

I have to confess that I get tired of hearing people say “passed on” instead of “died”. To use a synonym or elegant variation of terms from time to time is one thing; but this is a euphemism, and that is quite another. Too often it seems that people are not so much afraid of death as afraid of talking about it. But on All Souls’ Day, when we remember in love all the Faithful Departed, we must think about death. Words are subtle, and as a metaphor to speak of death as “passing away” is respectable. In The Catholic Religion, Vernon Staley’s remarkably sane little manual of instruction for Anglicans, we read, “Death is the separation of the soul from the body. We speak of death as ‘the passing away’, for in death the soul leaves the body as a tenant quitting a house.” That’s fair enough, and it is certainly based on experience. Look on a dead body; something essential thing that made it a person is gone. But change the metaphor just a little, from “passing away” to “passing on”, or even, as I often hear “passing”, and you enter into a whole new world of thought. Perhaps it is because I have spent too much of my life in school, but I can’t help but think that when someone is said to have “passed” they’ve finished a course and moved up to the next grade. That image: going to the next stage in a process of growth and perfection seems to be an attractive metaphor for dying. Attractive it may be, but it is not an image found in Scripture: it is not the hope of the Gospel.
Many of the things we hear said about death are like that. Attractive images that are meant to help us cope. But the mission of the Church is not only, or not precisely, to give people attractive images that will help them cope with life, but to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, who came to defeat sn and death, and raise us to new Life. And so on this All Souls Day we proclaim the words of Jesus,
Jesus said to them, … “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.

How different from this is the idea of a person passing on, perhaps to some disembodied life in paradise. But that is the idea many, if not most people have of the Christian belief and hope. For a good analysis of common beliefs, you would do well to read the opening chapters of Bishop N. T. Wright’s recent book Surprised by Hope; but I have recently had to look at other evidence of it. Not long ago, I was asked by my family to look over a selection of verses that were considered appropriate for a memorial card. The selection is well worth reading, for in it we find the words of Scripture side by side with other writings that express a wide variety of beliefs that suggests a muddle of beliefs. Some are vapid, and even if they can give comfort, there is little of hope in them:

When a loved one becomes a memory,
a memory becomes a treasure.
Treasure the memories.

Others express what Wright calls “a sort of low-grade, popular nature religion with elements of Buddhism. At death one is absorbed into the wider world, into the wind and the trees.” The example is well-known:
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow;
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain;
I am the gentle autumn rain.
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft star that shines at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry!
I am not there. I did not die.

When you know perfectly well that someone you love and care for is dead, to be fobbed off with such stuff is galling. “Do not stand at my grave and weep.” What arrogance to say this among the people of Christ, who wept when he stood at the grave of his friend! Indeed we find that bit of gnosticism in the verses as well:
Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free,
I am following the path God laid for me.
I took his hand when I heard him call,
I turned my back and left it all.

Is any of this Christian faith and hope?] Where is the goodness of creation, which God declares in the opening of Genesis? What of the promise of the renewal of creation, which is so triumphantly declared in the final chapters of Revelation, as we heard yesterday? Or is all this to wiped away, and replaced by something else? Where is the note of triumph that was once heard at every funeral? One would think that death was not the enemy that destroys God’s human creatures, an enemy defeated and trampled underfoot by Christ, but a friend who releases, even frees us from the body?
As Bishop Wright remarked, “if the promised final future is simply that immortal souls leave behind their mortal bodies, then death still rules—since that is a description not of the defeat of death but simply of death itself, seen from one angle.” And he calls us to look again to the scriptures and faith of the Church to discover once more the surprising hope that is promised: not of passing to another plane of existence, but the hope of the resurrection of the body and renewed life.
Time will not permit us even to start considering all that this implies. But let it remind us that we need to have a clear idea of what they believe about these deep and central questions of human life. And I would suggest that before we run off to look for our beliefs in other places, we look into our own traditions. At the core of traditional teaching we find the promise of the Resurrection, which is nothing less than the promise that it is the whole human person that is to be saved. This speaks volumes about the moral value of our life, of the body, of the actions we take in this life. But all I can do now is to urge you to look more deeply into the matter. Bishop Wright’s book is a good place to start, but you find the same doctrine in older works of theology, including Staley’s Catholic Religion, where we are reminded that the disembodied soul is only a part of the complete human person, and only by the resurrection can the whole person be perfected in eternity

Now I must finish with a word about the final verse of the epistle, which describes the end of faith as “the salvation of your souls”. Does this not teach that salvation is about our souls, with the implication, “not our bodies”? I hope you will forgive me if I quote the Bishop of Durham now, for he made a very helpful comment on the meaning of the word psyche in this verse:
'The word psyche was very common in the ancient world and carried a variety of meanings. Despite its frequency both in later Christianity and (for instance) in Buddhism, the New Testament doesn’t use it to describe, so to speak, the bit of you that will ultimately be saved. The word psyche seems here to refer like the Hebrew nephesh, not to a disembodied inner part of the human being but to what we might call the person or even the personality. And the point in 1 Peter 1 is that this person, the “real you,” is already being saved and will one day receive that salvation in full bodily form. That is why Peter quite rightly plants the hope for salvation firmly in the resurrection of Jesus. God has, he says, “given us new birth to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah from the dead.”'
Indeed, psyche is often to be translated not as soul but as life, as in Mark 9.35, “For those who want to save their life (psychen) will lose it, and those who lode their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”. Elsewhere the dictionaries tell us it means a human individual. It seems then, a bit arbitrary to insist on its meaning immaterial soul in 1 Peter.
There is more to say,* but perhaps I can sum up all with an adaptation of the traditional prayer for the departed which is fortunately becoming more common.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord; and may light perpetual shine upon them.
May they rest in peace and rise in glory.
*After I preached at St Matthias, the thurifer expressed the hope that on another All Souls' Day I might explain that people do not become Angels when they die. I said that I believed most people at St Matthias were aware of this

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thy Will Be Done

Sermon for All Saints’ Day [Year B]
Preached at the Church of St Columba & All Hallows, East York
Sunday, 1 November AD 2009

Every day, Christians repeat the words, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Since we say this prayer every day, it can easily become so familiar that we pray it without much thought — this is not only true of those who seem to be trying for a new speed record in getting through the Lord’s prayer; it really does take some effort to concentrate on familiar words. So it helps to give some thought to the meaning of the prayer before we pray it, and there are questions that we can ask about these words. We can ask if we have a very clear idea of what God’s will is, and what the world would be like if it were done here as it is in heaven. We can ask ourselves just who we expect to be doing God’s will on earth. Perhaps we are content to imagine that someone, somewhere, will do God’s will, and everything will be all right. But I hope that all of us have at least a suspicion that this prayer means thy will be done, on earth, by me, as it is in heaven, that God’s kingdom comes whenever I , and other Christians, and other folk, do God’s will.
On All Saints’ Day we think of how this prayer has been answered, for it has indeed been answered and is being answered today in the lives of Christian folk, of men and women who respond to the call to follow Christ, men and women who turn away from self to serve those in need, men and women who seek to give themselves to their Lord and in him to their brothers and sisters. For the Saints whom we remember and celebrate this day are not beings of some different species, holier than the rest of us, but those whose witness has been made visible in this world the love of God and his victory over sin and death in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We have all heard many times that when we hear or read references in the New Testament to “the saints”, what is meant is the members of the Church. For example, in the ninth chapter of the Acts we read,
Now as Peter went here and there among them all he came down also to the saints that lived at Lydda
Again, many of St Paul’s letters are addressed to ‘the saints’ of such and such a place, or to ‘those called to be saints’, by which he means simply the members of the church.. Now the word ‘saint’ means ‘holy’; as the Catechism says, the Church is called Holy, “Because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, sanctifying all its members and endowing them with gifts of grace.” Or we could say that Christians, who are made members of the Body of Christ by Baptism, are called to be holy because he is holy. So to speak of Christians as ‘saints’ does not mean that the people God chooses and calls are particularly holy people themselves, but that he calls sinners to forgive them and make of them a holy people. Read what St Paul has to say to the saints at Corinth: they do not seem to have all been super-holy people. Indeed, we may say that the Church has no saints who are not redeemed sinners. The Psalm today [24] tells us that it is those who have clean hands and pure hearts who can ascend the hill of the Lord: but we know that those hands are clean because God has washed them, and those hearts are pure because he has cleansed them with his Spirit.
Now in the history of the Church, the word ‘saint’ came to be used in a special way for particular men and women whose witness to Jesus Christ was known to the world and gave an example to others. In the first place, it was those who would not turn back from Christ Jesus evne though it meant death. These were called the witnesses, which in Greek is “martyrs”. The day of their death on earth was counted as a heavenly birthday. It is of such folk that we read in the Book of Wisdom [3.1-9]: in the sight of men they were punished, their end seemed to be destruction, but they found life in God. When the days of persecution ended, others who gave all for Christ, and whose lives were a constant witness, were honoured as particular saints. Look at the calendar at the beginning of the Book of Alternative Services and you will find the names of some 120 individuals from many countries and all centuries of the Church whom Christians have delighted to honour because they lived lives of faith and commitment to Christ and through them his work has gone on in the world. In other Church calendars there are countless more, too many for each to have a particular commemoration —which is why we have a day to remember All the Saints, and to thank God that the fellowship of the Church is made up not just of those on earth today, but of all who are bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.
I have not said anything of today’s Gospel [John 11.32-33]: there we are shown the model for all the saints, and for all of us who want to follow Christ. And that model is Lazarus. For all who are called to follow Christ are called out of a tomb as Lazarus was, which is the life without God. There is a resurrection at the last day, but Christ is calling us to the new life now, now he wants the stone rolled away,—the stone which shuts the soul in its tomb of anxiety, or worry, or resentment—so that he can call us from death to life.
In the lives of the saints we see those for whom this has happened and in whom the work is perfected, and we learn from them that is may be done and perfected in us Their lives show us that they are like us, not a special breed of super-holy men and women. I do not have time to go through the list, but we all know that St Thomas doubted, that St Peter denied his Lord and had to be forgiven. I can mention St Jerome, a great scholar who was also a man with quite a foul temper, who seems to have fought with just about everyone. We commemorate King Charles I, who was a devout man and a good father, but perhaps not the wisest of rulers, and whose life was tragic. There are trivial details that show how human the saints were: St Thomas Aquinas was a very fat man. In other calendars we find some unlikely saints, such as a British abbot, St Pyr, who died when he fell down a well blind drunk. His monastery was so badly governed that his holy successor had to resign. I can’t go on with this, but I assure you that to read the lives of the saints not only inspires to follow them in following Christ, it assures us that there is very little that can stand in the way of Christ’s love if we care to follow him. There is excusing ourselves by saying “Oh, I’m no saint”.
But do we really care to? Or do we put up the one real barrier to his grace? This barrier to grace is indifference, being content to do what we want, to stay as we are and follow the path we choose. Oh, we believe in God and in Christ all right, but we want them to work for us, so that our will be done. Often our faith means that we want our life on our terms, with God and his blessings as an added extra to make everything better. So here is another reason to learn from the saints: they sought to do God’s will, even when it meant denying their own. But as I said at the outset, it is for this we pray every day when we say: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Gossip Sermon

A Sermon preached at the Church of St Columba and All Hallows
Sunday, 28 June AD 2009
The Third Sunday after Pentecost

The Epistle General of St James, Chapter 3, verse 5
So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

Every now and then it is useful to turn aside from the course of readings and think about sme aspect of faith or the Christian life which, while it might not easily fit into the regular pattern is nonetheless something we would do well to ponder in our hearts, to examine how we have behaved. Now the week, the readings are not difficult to understand and we may safely take a moment to think about an aspect of community life. The text from James with which I began might give some hint what this aspect is, but the whole thing will become clear from a good old story that has been told for centuries.
In the sixteenth century there was a priest at Rome who was known for the holiness of his life and the wisdom and shrewd with with which he taught the ways of faith and morals to the people. His name was Philip Neri. He is known to history as the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory This is perhaps the best-known story told of this holy man.
In those days there was a woman in the neighbourhood whose besetting sin was gossip. She loved to pick up bits of information about her neighbours and pass them on, likely as not a bit embroidered. More than one reputation was tarnished because of her quick tongue. Now much as most people like to gossip little, a bit of gossip can go a long way and a touch of scandal gets tiresome quickly. The neighbours were too well aware that at the rate this woman talked, no one was safe, be they never so virtuous, but no one could do anything to make her stop.
It happened one morning that St Philip Neri, who was well aware of the problem, met this woman on the street, and after wishing her a good morning, asked her if she could do him a favour.
“Why, certainly!” said the woman “I would like you to go to the market and buy a chicken for me. Here is the money.” As she took the money he added, “To save time, pluck the chicken on the way back, so that it will be all ready to prepare.” She agreed, and toddled off the market. Perhaps she was storing up this slightly odd request to add to her repertoire! A little later she came back, and handed the priest a freshly-plucked chicken.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” said the priest , and added, “Now go back and gather up all the feathers and bring them to me.” “But Father,” she cried, by now they will have blown down all the streets and alleys and across the piazzas. I could never get them back!”
“Indeed,” he replied. “And that is how it is with the things you say about your neighbours. Once spoken your words are like the feathers you plucked; as the ind carried the feathers, people repeat your words, and they go down all the streets and alleys, and across the piazzas. Whether good or ill, you can never get them back.
No one has recorded whether this woman changed her ways, but all of us can remember this little story and be carefull of what we say about others.
Now like all moral questions, it is hard to make a hard and fast rule about gossip. Often we tell good stories about those we know; sometimes we pass on information out of concern for someone’s well-being. However, it is also hard to find where to draw a clear line different kinds of gossip: between gosssip that is helpful and that which is at least harmless and then the gossip that is harmful (even though you were only trying to help) and gossip that is really malicious. Even for a person who would never want to do harm, it is easy to walk down the path to harmful gossip without notice. There is no sign warning you to turn back, unless you post one in your own conscience.
Now this goes far beyond the simple question of gossip. The damage the tongue can do is put clearly in the 3rd Chapter of James, and I hope you wil read it. But we know the many ways we can do wrong by speaking,a dn we al know that it goes beyong what we would call gossip. We often say things we regret in the heat of argument, or through thoughtlessness: we don’t need to wait for them to blow around like chicken feathers before they do harm. We often say things that we have no right to say, or tell of things that are not ours to tell, and spoil plans. Time does not permit us to go into much detail, but we all know of people who have misunderstand some action they have seen or heard, and even though it is none of their business, take it on themselves to go and tattle, and when some plan fails or some spouse is accused of unfaithfulness (the classic case), or whatever it might be goes wrong, they cry out: I was only trying to help! This is fne in a soap opera, where the plot needs to be moved along; it is not good in real life. Helpful Harry is always a better help when he keeps his mouth shut.
How should we govern ourselves. We can begin by remembering our duty as taught in the Catechism
To hurt nobody by word nor deed: To be true and just in all my dealing: To bear no malice no hatred in my heart: to keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering.
Or we could remember what we all learned as children: If you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all. I will to return to this matter another time, for there is much more to be said about governing the tongue (which might seem like a contradiction!). I’ll just finish for today with some helpful rules to follow. These are in no particular order.
First, before you say anything, ask yourself whether you have the right to say it. If it is about someone else always ask permission to repeat it.
Second, in every case, make sure you have your facts right. If you’re not sure, check with someone, and if there is any doubt, don’t say anything at all. Most rumours could be stopped if we all did this.
Third, if there is the slightest chance that it might do harm, or embarrass someone, or even put them in a bad light, then don’t say it. If you’re not sure, it is better to keep quiet.
Fourth, he who hath a secret to keep must keep it a secret that he hath a secret to keep. We are all weak, and probably shouldn’t be trusted with secrets. If you have a secret, don’t say, “I know a secret”, for that is a challenge to get it out of you..If you don’t want something repeated about you, don’t tell anyone.
Fifth, it is sometimes better to lie than to speak and do harm. Telling the truth is highly overrated. This is a difficult point, and the main reason we will have to pick this subject up again at a later date.
Well, we have to stop there: but I hope you will remember the story about St Philip Neri and the Chicken and the reason we need to keep guard on our tongues. I will give the last word to the late Fr Egan, a man of wisdom who was a professor at Regis College. Once in class he said something that we would all do well to remember: “I thank God for the gift of my stutter: it keeps me from saying the first thing that pops into my head and getting into trouble.” May God grant us all such custody of the tongue that we may always speak kindness and blessing, and never utter harm.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B
Preached at the Church of St Columba and All Hallows, East York
1 March AD 2009

Note: the response this morning was most gratifying, so much so that it seems that posting this sermon might be welcome. As always, the written text is a shadow of the sermon as it was spoken, in which many other ideas came to mind. There are also many other things in the readings for Lent I which deserve attention. Some of them, such as the fact that God's bow now hangs in the sky aimed upwards, towards God, are mentioned in the Lectionary Notes for today in "William Craig's Magazine". There are many others, such as the mention in the Epistle of the "eight persons" saved in the Ark which suggests consideration of the mystical meaning of the number eight. Have you ever wondered why baptismal fonts usually have eight sides? But one cannot mention everything in a sermon.

The Sundays in Lent are not fast days, but are nonetheless marked by a devotional tone fitting this season of penitence: the Gloria in Excelsis is not sung, nor is Alleluia; the Eucharistic Prayer has its proper Lenten prefaces; indeed the BAS provides a Penitential Order appropriate for beginning the eucharist on Sundays in Lent (you may find it on page 216).

Since ancient times the Gospel account of our Lord’s temptation has been read on the first Sunday in Lent, to give us the example we follow in our Lenten abstinence. However, We are now in Year B of the new revised lectionary, which centres each of its three years on one of the synoptic Gospels, and so the account of the Temptation we hear is that of St Mark, which gives somewhat less detail than do the accounts in Matthew and Luke: where they tell us of three attempts of the Adversary against our Lord, Mark simply says that after his baptism by John, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
And he was in the desert forty days and was tempted by Satan and he was with the beasts and angels ministered to him.
We have only the barest of bare bones of a story here, certainly not the rich treasure that allowed Lancelot Andrewes to preach seven sermons on the temptation. But there is something else missing, and I wonder if you noticed it. Mark does not mention that our Lord fasted these forty days in the desert. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that if Jesus was in the desert forty days he was fasting; scarcity of food and water is a notable feature of deserts; but the fact that the fasting is not mentioned suggests that we should be attending to some other detail of the Gospel account. So what do we have in these twenty-four words? We have four statements
He was in the desert forty days and
He was tempted by Satan
He was with the wild beasts
Angels ministered to him
Terms like forty days and forty years are used in the Bible in a vague kind of way to mean a significant period of time; the period of forty days for Lent was modelled on Jesus’ time in the desert.
There are many things the desert calls to mind. The first one is probably the Exodus of Israel from Egypt: after the miraculous escape through the Red Sea, God’s people journeyed forty years in the desert of Sinai, and in that time they were both beset by temptation themselves and tempted the Lord. Without stretching the image too much, the desert can also remind us that when Adam and Eve were tempted and disobeyed God they were cast out of the garden into a harsh world; the ground was cursed, for it would only provide food in return for great labour. So the desert is the world, where the descendants of Adam eat bread in the sweat of their faces.
In the desert Jesus was tempted by Satan, whose name means “the Adversary” or the Accuser.* By the time of Jesus, the serpent who tempted Eve and Adam had been identified as Satan, or Satan’s instrument. Now he comes to tempt the Son of God; but where he had succeeded in tempting our first parents, he fails with Christ, the new Adam. But nothing is said of the details of this temptation, and we shall leave that to another year, when one of the other Gospel accounts is read.
Next we come to the one part of Mark’s account which is not found in the other two. This must be important, for, as the experts tell us, the evidence suggests that Mark was the first to be written, and both Matthew and Luke made use of it, and incorporated almost every bit of it in theirs. Here we read that he was with the wild beasts. Wild beasts can be interpreted in a number of ways. One commentary says
The Judean wilderness was the habitat of various wild animals. The link between these animals and ministering “angels” suggests an echo of Psalm 91:11-13: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot”. [RCL, citing NJBC]
Thus, In the wilderness wild beasts may attack him, but angels protect him. But to say that he was with the beasts is not the same as to say they attacked him. Another possible interpretation is that the beasts are mentioned “to emphasize the loneliness and awfulness of the desert”. This is supported by such passages as Isaiah’s prediction of the fall of Babylon:
… wild beasts will lie down there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will dwell, and there satyrs will dance. Hyenas will cry in its towers, and jackals in the pleasant palaces … Isa 13.21-22
But a more probable explanation is that the wild beasts are thought of as subject and friendly to our Lord. In his commentary on Mark, D. E. Nineham suggests that this passage

should be understood against the background of he common Jewish idea that the beasts are subject to the righteous man and do him no harm … and also that when Messiah comes, all animals will again be tame and live in harmony.

Nineham also applies the verses from Psalm 91, but as saying that “dominion over the wild beasts is coupled with the promise of service by angels,” and concludes that

St Mark probably means that by his victory over Satan Jesus has reversed Adam’s defeat and begun the process of restoring paradise. Thus the whole passage is illuminated by this remarkable quotation from the Testament of Naphtali, [a non-Biblical Jewish text]: “If you do good, my children, both men and angels shall bless you, and the Devil shall flee from you, and the wild beasts shall fear you and the Lord shall love you.”
The wild beasts, then, signify a return to that happy state when God brought all the birds and beasts to Adam to see what he would call them.; he brought them as companions.
Restoring paradise: just as human beings submitted to the temptation and as a result lost paradise and were sent into the desert, so our new champion, Jesus, enters into the desert to face our old tempter, and after his victory is seen in the state of paradise, with the wild beasts and served by angels. Marks account does not call us to ponder temptation in the same way that the others do but simply shows us the result. Like the others, this gives us confidence that the tempter has no power over us, but that one who trusts in Jesus can defeat it, but more importantly, it presents in stark simplicity the goal of Christ’s mission, which was the defeat of sin and the restoration of human beings to unity with God. This does not call us to think about the process of Lent, its disciplines, as much as it calls us to think about the goal of Lent. The purpose of all discipline is to seek this goal.
In closing, we may see that this question of the goal of Lent will be more clear to us if we think of all our discipline as leading not just to festivity, but to a concrete, particular action which will mark the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter. This action is one which demands careful preparation. It is the celebration of Baptism or the renewal of Baptismal vows.
Now here we need to consider the notion of covenant, which is the name the Bible uses for the relationship God establishes with his people. We hear the first mention of a covenant in the first reading for today, the covenant that God established with all humanity and all living creatures through Noah, when God promised never again to destroy all life in a flood. Over the next four weeks, the first readings tell us of the covenants God made with Abraham and Sarah and with Israel through Moses, and we will hear Jeremiah proclaim the promise of a new Covenant. Over the weeks of Lent, we are listening to a history that was constantly pointing to and which were fulfilled in the the Passover of Christ Jesus from death to new life, a covenant which is offered to all people, in which God will bring to fulfillment the restoration of paradise that we see in te temptation story. Through Baptism we have been made people of that covenant, and at Easter when we chiefly celebrate the Mighty Acts by which it was achieved, we are asked to renew the promised we made in Baptism (see BAS, pp. 330-332); it is no accident that in the liturgy of Baptism these vows are entitled: The Baptismal Covenant (p.158). If you read through these promises, it should become clear how our Lenten discipline leads us to renew them more carefully and thoughtfully, by calling us to consider whether we have kept them well or badly. I cannot take the time to go into this now. But I recommend as the heart of lenten discipline that we read through these promises carefully, and ask ourselves what we need to do to make sure that we keep these promises more faithfully.
*When the Hebrew Satan was translated into Greek it came out as Diabolos, from which our English Devil is derived.