Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Some words you have heard already this morning, from the final words of the Torah:

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.

Well, he certainly had an illustrious and interesting career. He was brought up like a little prince in the palace of the Pharaoh

Who had a daughter with a most bewitching smile

Who found the infant Moses in the rushes by the Nile.

She took him home to dear Papa and he believed the tale

Which some consider as probable as Jonah and the whale.

The years then passed until Moses saw a Hebrew slave being cruelly beaten by a bouncer from the local casino and immediately felt such an affinity for the poor man that he decided to come out and claim a Hebrew heritage and set out on a campaign to have the Hebrews people released from their slavery in Egypt. Using the access he had to the Pharaoh he tried to wear him down by singing again and again him the negro spiritual ‘Let my people go’.

As we all know the Hebrew people did gain their freedom and caught the spirit of Moses whose other song was written for him by another Jewish person, Herbert Kretzner, ‘I dreamed a dream one day’.

And the dream was of a land of promise where there would be freedom, peace, justice and plenty- a vision of God’s kingdom come in earth as it is in heaven.

Not that it was an easy journey- it never is. Remember the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography is No Easy Walk to Freedom. So often people want the reward without the effort, taking without paying the cost save that of knowing that they will have personal gain.

And in the wilderness, hungry, thirsty and exhausted the people grumbled and complained and even turned aside to find another God. Did I say ‘thirsty’? Moses really had to find something amazing. Your may remember at least part of it but not the climactic moment about

Moses who was the leader of the Israelitic flock

Who used to get spa water just by striking on a rock;

Then one day from the multitude there rose a mighty cheer

For instead of getting water he got Foster’s Lager Beer.

And so the journey, the pilgrimage, the trek went on and they reached their destination, more or less; but Moses died with the goal just ahead of him. Well, he was one hundred and twenty- which is Bible talk for ‘very, very old’, although the biologists tell us that forty per cent of babies born this year will live to a hundred and fifty. Old he may have been, but the writer of Deuteronomy says that ‘his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated’.

Being so fit I don’t know why he died- perhaps he swallowed a tablet of rules and regulations.

But did he die a failure- with the journey incomplete? Of course whenever we read of his being in sight of the Promised Land and then dying we surely think of those tragically prophetic words of Martin Luther King in his final address in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Not many hours later he was dead at the hands of assassin- had he failed in not seeing the new day dawn? With Moses leading his people and trying to keep them true to their purpose and then right at the end not arriving at the longed for goal had he failed?

People of religious faith are glimpsers (pardon the horrible word). They are those and we are those who catch the glimpse and that is enough.

How does it happen? You have to answer that for yourself but often it is in the special moment. In a former life I was one of those who set topics for the general essay in the VCE English paper. One topic we set used words of Paul Tournier who wrote that for each of us there are moments of special significance; the topic:  ‘Are there moments in your life which you remember as having special significance?’.

One of the many essays on the topic was a thrill to read and assess and quite unforgettable. The first two sentences the candidate wrote were

‘Are there moments in my life which I remember as having special significance? Too bloody right there are.’

He, and the candidate was male, was pretty well at being 10/10 without writing another word.

And so I ask you- Are there moments in your life which you remember as having special significance; moments of a glimpse of something more?

C.S.Lewis once came out of the wardrobe to say something about this when he wrote:

… in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.

Glimpsing moments, moments of special significance. Moments in which all mortal flesh keeps silence.  But the one who wrote about moments of special significance words went on to say that the remarkable thing is not that these moments don’t happen more often; the remarkable thing is that they happen at all. And one of those moments may happen today in this time with our Lord and each other, and it is the possibility of that which inspires us and will inspire us as we go our several ways (although this dud $5 note is likely to turn up again).

In company with Moses and Martin Luther King, Simon and Jude and all the saints we remember in the coming week, be ready to catch the glimpse and be renewed, strengthened and sustained by it- and don’t obstruct it by swallowing a tablet of rules and regulations.

Sermon for St Stephen’s Day

May our thoughts open our hearts to the divine promptings and the inadequacy of these words be of some good purpose in the name of the Word himself, our focus, our inspirer and our friend, the young man of Nazareth whose Spirit is with us.

**

It was of course a joy and delight to accept Fr Dennis’ invitation to try to say something worthwhile on this special day in this special place on this Feast of Stephen when the snow lays all about deep and crisp and even- that is at Mt Buller, not Wenceslas’ Prague.

You can’t get away from St Stephen here. Few churches have so many depictions of their patron saint in their windows.

There is the window at the east end with the rather effete young man seemingly saying ‘If you want to throw stones at me, then have a nice day and go for it’,  all the while with his head demurely and piously held to one side. I’ve known some clergy like that — no names no pack drill — but what you see is not what you get, believe me.

Then there is the one to gaze at during morning tea. You’ve got to admire the man.  When he knew what was about to happen he obviously dashed out and put on his dalmatic so he would look at least be properly dressed.

Then there is Stephen the servant in the true role of a deacon which remains for ever part of all ordained and baptised.

Take your pick- plenty of choice, all say something: a young man giving of himself in discipleship. However I want to take a slightly different tack this morning by telling three stories.

The first is from the autobiography of the writer, Richard Church, and his experience as a seven-year old boy. He had never thought he had a problem with his vision but his mother did (an irritating characteristic of mothers, they always know better than we do), so he was taken to the local optician and ended up with his first pair of glasses. Here are his words describing what happened when he left to walk home (with mother, of course):

I looked upward, and saw the sky… I saw the stars, and I saw them for the first time… clear pin-points of light, diamond-hard, standing not upon a velvet surfaced but floating in space some near some far in an awe-striking perspective that came as a revelation to my newly-         educated eyes. I felt myself swept up into that traffic of the night sky.    [Over the Bridge, 1956, page 85]

Just leave that in your mind for a moment for there is another story to tell. In the beautiful city of Winchester you will find St Lawrence Church- if you are lucky. It is a tiny and ancient place, reached by stairs, and surrounded and dwarfed by other buildings.  At its entrance there is a printed message:

Enter this door

As if the floor within were gold

And every wall of jewels, all of wealth untold

As if a choir

In robes of fire were singing here

Nor shout — Nor rush

But hush

For God is here.

This story has another part. Sixty years or so ago quite on a whim I caught a different tram home from university and was walking along an unfamiliar street when I saw a most unprepossessing building,  partly brick, partly wooden and obviously incomplete. The door was open. In the porch those very same words were there beginning with ‘Enter this door As if the floor within were gold’. So I entered and there in St James’ East St Kilda was a sacred space and like Richard Church ‘I felt myself swept up’. It was to become a transforming moment for me as I worshipped and served there with its Parish Priest, Walter Green for some years.

Story number three. The story of a young man who had grasped a sense of meaning and purpose in faith and spoke what he believed and not what was acceptable to the powerful of the time, so

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.* But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.  [Acts 7; 54-56]

What dramatic words at the end of the story, ‘ and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. All the more dramatic for those who were among the first read Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and for us today when we know that the young man named Saul travelling later in Syria,  in a crisis of conscience perhaps, also glimpsed the sacred- and his life was changed for ever.

Whether we think of catching the vision in a time of great trial, in a special place or an unexpected moment these are all ways in which lives are fulfilled with a sense of the sacred which, using Rowan Williams’ words, ‘awareness of depth in the observable world’. [Grace and security...  The Tablet, 16 July 2005, p. 22]

The sense of the sacred is the very heart of the belief of any faith community and institutional religions have often let us down.  When they measure their life by adherence to rules, see ‘success’- whatever that means- in terms of the measurable, and regard times of worship as little more than club meetings with attitude then they are blocking the arteries to the heart of faith.

Those who are ready to judge others more by what they do than by seeing who they are, those whose eyes are fixed on the mirror and their own reflection and not on the heart of love have really lost the purpose of their being.

One of the great heroes of the Anglican Church, Bishop Westcott, said to his fellow-Christians that ‘we look through the temporal to the eternal’ and cautioned them and all people that those ‘who leave the unseen our of account live in a soul-less world’. [Christus Consummator, 1890, pages 67 and63]

That this needs to be reasserted there is little doubt, that catholic Anglicans especially are in a position to do this as we look at all experiences of the observable world and

Enter each and every door

As if the floor within were gold

And every wall of jewels all of wealth untold

As if a choir

In robes of fire were singing here

Nor shout — Nor rush

But hush

For God is here.

New Guinea Martyrs and Other Splendid People

It is good, no even goodier, to be with you again and I thank Fr Dennis for his invitation.

In the four years since I was part of the parish, I had a time listening to the Lord’s song being sung in a strange land. No wonder I felt homesick for the Hill!

Then it was fifteen months in Jika Jika- a time with not a little hard labour a few challenges and wardens to deal with. That time concluded on Wednesday evening. No, I’m not on parole, apart from possibly being checked out to see if an excessive number of marbles has been lost in the intervening period thus demanding a degree of tolerance when I am lucky enough to reappear later this month.

Just in case you are drawing different conclusions, the Jika Jika I refer to is the Anglican Parish of Jika Jika now comprising All Saints’ Preston, St George’s Reservoir.

Jika Jika has been a time where I felt at home, not because we had both smokey and non-smokey services and noisy gongs (no clanging cymbals,), but because of the people. The strength of the church is the people- always!

Unfortunately there are a lot of people around who make us wonder if we belong to a different species- and I mean that seriously. The violence we hear about and of which we see the consequences in vivid television footage beggars description, defies understanding and makes us ashamed; the neglect of those in special needs is reprehensible.

There are times, too, we wonder when we hear about people even in the church with a lust for power, cruelty of tongue and loathsome actions towards the innocent young. More wounds in the Body of Christ, sadly providing comprehensible reasons why perceived religion is rejected.

Then, frequently outside the church, we see something, we hear of something which epitomises everything we are supposed to be reflecting and that is the centrality of love and its embodiment in Jesus and we know that the Spirit of God cannot be limited by human cruelty or the blasphemously unworthy actions of those who claim to be guided by that mighty, disturbing and creative power.

Fifty years ago, when, like many of you here, I was in Year 1 at school, the writer Albert Camus died. He was a voice of his time and for his time and with an insight into human nature. His novel The Outsider with its depiction of exclusivism at which many churchfolk are so adept, and that mighty, soul-thumping book, The Plague in which he uses the outbreak of the bubonic plague in his native Algeria as an allegory of the occupation of countries by the Nazi forces in the Second World War.

The novelist is interested in the reactions of people to the evil. There are those who seem to pretend it just isn’t there and go on their lives with their eyes blind to the suffering of others. There are those who retreat and with the going getting tough, they get going- away! There are those who follow the old dictum ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. And then there are those who see that there is something seriously amiss affecting the lives of other people and not only resolve to do something about it but do something- giving and not counting the cost for such calculative thinking is anathema to them.

Camus draws his observations together with two unforgettable statements. The first is, forgive the gender impropriety, ’there are more things in men to admire than to despise’.

Surely when we look at the New Guinea Martyrs we can’t help thinking about the atrocities which go with war, but even then we have to say with a sense of satisfaction that there are more things in human action to admire than despise. Those who believe and trust in the power of crucified and risen love can say nothing else apart from saying that the admirable will win over the despicable- it may take time, but it will happen and does happen.

And the admirable is all around us. Those who care for special people are unconditional lovers who find in giving love that more is received. Too inadequatrely recognised and supported as they are, they would do no less. For that is the humanity of humanity- more to admire than despise.

Comfy and smiley as that may sound, it is a folly to think that care and love will usher in a golden age when they will be needed no more- like smallpox vaccinations.

In The Plague as well as informing his readers that ‘there are more things in human beings to admire than despise’ he also says ‘the plague is always with us’. Those less than desirable things which happen to people through the actions of others, what they have done to themselves or through the [physical, emotional and psychological fragility of our species will always be there.

At the beginning of the service of Compline for the end of the day there used to be this passage from Peter’s first letter:

Brethren [and that includes you too, ladies], be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in the faith.

Well, that set the hearers in a good mind for a calm night’s rest! But isn’t it saying, ‘the plague is always with us’? If you doubt this brush up your Shakespeare, visit the great tragedies of ancient Greece, wander through the pages of history, and look at Syria, share, as I have recently with my assistant priest, the personal and far-reaching effect of the continuing violence in South Sudan. Spend a day in the children’s hospitals of our land , look at some of the residences for the dependent elderly- the need to be alert to the need to care, and to show that the way to love at the heart of all things is through embodied love, and the embodiment of love in Jesus shows what it is all about, and the embodiment of love in the lives of those who give of themselves in times of conflict and in the homes of Australia every day that we truly see Jesus which is enough for us to believe totally or even in part that:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In fellowship with the New Guinea Martyrs and the mirrors of Christ in this and `every age we are here and once again or even for the first time can take with us the words of Zephaniah:

Do not fear… do not let your hands grown weak. The Lord your God is in your midst.

 The Very Reverend Dr Stuart Blackler
Sunday 1 September 2013