25th Sep, 2005

The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass
Sermon preached by the Rector, Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Lections:
Exodus 17:1-7 Moses and the Hebrews at the Rock
Philippians 2:1-13 the Carmen Christi
St Matthew 21: 23-32 parable of the two sons

Firstly, GK Chesterton:

Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness. — G.K. Chesterton

Secondly, Douglas Adams: (and this is a bit longer)

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much most of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
Many [people] were increasingly of the opinion that [their ancestors] had all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change,
a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.

Thus begins the disarmingly humorous yet incisive and witty novel by the late and much-lamented Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” or the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything in one, easily read volume.
Now, humour and mirth are not always the first things that comes to mind when people contemplate the Christian faith and indeed in a world in which there have been the most terrible catastrophe, murder and suffering it would be a blasphemy and immoral to make light of wickedness, turmoil or hatred. But the Christian Church has always proclaimed that tragedy will never have the last word. At the very centre of all Christian faith is the conviction that this world is God’s and that God, in the person of Christ, is radically human and divine and thus, in the words of an Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm, “God became man without ceasing to be God that men might be godly without ceasing to be men,” and women and children as well, of course, but St Anselm hadn’t heard of those terms in the tenth century.
That is the mystery with which each generation of the Christian community struggles and grapples. Now, fortunately we do not have to re-invent the theological wheel each time we pray or worship or think through faith, we always stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants who have looked into the mysteries of life, the universe and everything long before us.
The Epistle reading that we have heard today from Philippians chapter two is one of the most ancient and revered summaries of that mystery in our two-thousand year history. It is quite possible that St Paul is quoting a well-known baptismal creedal formula that was used among the very first Christian communities in the ancient world. So these are words that are incredibly important if we want to understand what the nature of God is:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of humankind:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

People ask me sometimes who or what God is like and we often struggle with faith and want to know, well does God make sense, is there meaning to what we do, how we pray, is there a pattern or is it just a vain repetition and meaningless, what is the meaning of life, the Universe and everything? At St Thomas the Apostle we stand in the long line of Anglo-Catholic liturgy, tradition, devotion and practice that traces its roots back through century after century of men and women and children who have participated in the Church’s rhythm of prayers and liturgies that do articulate the mystery in faltering, lisping words: that is what the Nicene Creed is all about- for four hundred years Christians had tried to understand how Christ could be God and human, they had listened to St Paul’s words in Philippians and then eventually the Church formulated in one concise statement the nature of God as the Most Holy Trinity. And what had been seen from a human point of view as failure, as weakness and foolishness- the Cross, was in fact the turning point of all world history and time and space, and God’s vindication of Christ in the Resurrection changes the entire fabric of the universe. In classical Greek religion the Cross would have been seen as weakness, as tragedy, despair and a cynical end to a brief, meaningless life, but the Church says that the Cross and the Resurrection are so powerful that they are not only events of the past, but they influence the whole course and direction of history forever. That understanding, that re-orientation of our direction means that the Church is not just a collection of nice people, but now becomes a living, breathing, growing sacramental body of people, of saints and martyrs, of men and women and children, of prophets and teachers, of the future living in this present world. The Resurrection for us remains a future hope, though it casts its “shadow” backwards to us. And the tax-collectors and harlots going into the Kingdom of Heaven before us?- that’s meant to make us smile…. Smile at our own self-importance, smile at our small-mindedness, smile at our own self-righteousness. Yes, God’s grace and love are bigger by far than our imaginations, than our prejudices… [and if we DON'T smile..... ? well, we'll be in serious jeopardy]

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