Third Sunday before Lent

Sermon preached by Rev’d Karen Charman on the Third Sunday before Lent, 10th February 2020.

I last stood in this pulpit, to preach a sermon, on the 24th of January, 2016.  I never imagined I’d be doing so again, 4 years later, as your Vicar!  God is good, isn’t he? It’s good to be here with you, in this special place, as we seek to discover what exciting plans God has in store for us now.

This morning, I’d like us to reflect on the verses from today’s Gospel:

“‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden …  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

I’m sure you’ve all read Mark’s book, “God’s Holy Hill,” and will know that God’s Holy Hill is, of course, Cuddesdon.

We, here, today, are the city built on a hill, which cannot be hidden.  We are the light of the world.

Stored on my phone, I have a couple of photos from my induction service, taken from near the lych gate, showing the church building with the tower lit up, and light shining brightly out of the door and windows.  A city built on a hill – a church built on a hill – cannot be hidden – especially at night, when the lights are lit.

Churches – both the buildings themselves and, more importantly – the people who make up the church – are called to be at the heart of the communities we serve.  We are called to be the beating heart, in the parish of Cuddesdon.  We’re called to be the light of the world – a light which illuminates our good works and thus leads others to give glory to God.

Although the church, as an institution, doesn’t have the same status in society as it had in former years, the church still matters enough in our nation to make the news headlines occasionally.

And, unfortunately, recently, the church has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.  You may have watched the two-part documentary recently shown on BBC Two about Bishop Peter Ball, and the young men he abused – and the ‘cover-up’ culture, within the church, which helped Ball and others to escape justice for so long.

And then, only a couple of weeks later, the church was again in the news for its so-called pastoral statement on civil partnerships.

This statement, in case you aren’t aware, re-iterated the church’s stance or teaching that, “For Christians, marriage … between a man and a woman … remains the proper context for sexual activity.”

It then went on to describe civil partnerships as “committed, sexually abstinent friendships.”

This statement effectively insulted and upset many Christian people – both ordained and lay – who are in civil partnerships, or other committed relationships, which are so very much more than mere friendships.  A civil partnership is rarely entered into because the two parties are ‘friends’; but is more usually entered into by two people who are bound together by their great love for one another, and by their desire to proclaim and to celebrate that love.

As Christians, we believe that God is love; and our scriptures teach us that “those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”[1]

Wherever love is, there is God.

As a church, we’re called to proclaim the unconditional love of God for all his people … the love of a God who loves the world so much that he sent his Son.

Instead, regrettably, the church, has recently been guilty of inflicting great pain and suffering on God’s beloved children.  I’m so sorry if you are one of those many people who have been hurt, or wounded, by the church.

In this Diocese, as you know, we’re attempting to become a more Christ-like church for the sake of God’s world: contemplative, compassionate and courageous.

In order to become more Christ-like, we need first to turn to our Gospels, to learn about what it means to be Christ-like.

  • Our Gospels portray Jesus as non-judgemental, refusing to condemn the woman caught in adultery[2]
  • They portray him chatting happily – and with pastoral sensitivity – to the Samaritan woman at the well who had had five husbands, and was now in a relationship with another man
  • as someone who wasn’t afraid to challenge the pharisees, scribes and religious authorities when he detected hypocrisy or hardness of heart
  • someone who loved and welcomed little children … women … tax-collectors … sinners
  • as having a special concern for the poor and oppressed[3]
  • as someone who re-interpreted the Sabbath laws, so that they became life-enhancing
  • someone who stilled storms … who fed the hungry … who cast out demons
  • who commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations
  • someone who was contemplative – rising early and going on his own into the mountains to spend time alone with his Father
  • who was compassionate in his response to those who were hungry, sick or tormented
  • who was courageous in challenging the religious authorities, and in walking the way of the cross

Jesus is the light of the world – and he commissioned us to be a light too.

I wonder, how can we ensure that our churches – All Saints, St Mary’s and St Giles’ – become beacons of light, that are known for their Christ-likeness – for being contemplative, compassionate and courageous – rather than places that are associated with the bad news stories that have dominated the news of late?

How can we ensure that we – the people of God gathered here, on this Holy Hill – how can we ensure that we let our light shine so that others will see, and give glory to God in heaven?

I think contemplation might be the key.

I think that – if we are to shine as a light in the world – we need to be so full of Christ’s light that we couldn’t prevent it bursting out from us, even if we tried.

We need to be like that photo I described of this church at night, with the light bursting out of the door and windows, like a city built upon a hill.

We need to absorb and soak up the light and love of Christ, so that we can bear that light and love to others.

If a sponge is immersed in water, it soaks up the water.

If we are immersed in the love of God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – we soak up that love and light.

I’d like us to be a people … a church … a benefice … that is steeped in the light and love of Christ.  I’d like us to be a people who have the consuming fire of the Holy Spirit burning brightly within our hearts and souls.  I’d like us to be a people whose hearts are set on fire with our love for God.  I’d like us to be spirit-filled … God-filled.

And, I believe, contemplation might be the key which helps us to open the door.

On Friday, at the Hub in Horspath, I had a conversation with a gentleman about the famous Holman Hunt painting we have here in Oxford, in the side chapel at Keble college; The Light of the World.  As I’m sure you’ll know, the painting shows Jesus, holding a light, standing outside an old door, overgrown with ivy and weeds.  There’s no handle on the outside of the door, so Jesus stands at the door and knocks … waiting to see if he’ll be invited in.  The ivy and weeds suggest the door must have been closed for some time … perhaps Jesus has been waiting for some time, too.

When we’re busy, it’s difficult to hear Christ knocking.

Often, it’s only when we stop … when we’re still … when we go on retreat … or on pilgrimage … or, like Jesus, arise early and go off into the hills and mountains to pray … it’s only when we slow down or stop that we hear that gentle tap, tap, tap on the door … that we hear God calling, Christ – the light of the world – knocking, and waiting to be let in.

Today’s the third Sunday before Lent.  It’ll soon be time to start thinking about what to give up … or about what to take on, for Lent.

I invite you, to join with me, and to give up busyness … to spend time each day in prayer and contemplation … to take a Quiet Day … to attend a quieter, more contemplative service, perhaps … to go on a mini-pilgrimage, or a day retreat.

I’ll try to make sure there are some opportunities, around the Benefice, for stillness, prayer and contemplation during Lent.  Maybe you’d like to help me plan some?

But perhaps we can start, before Lent, by attending the Julian Contemplative Prayer Group in the Edward King Chapel, this Thursday at 2pm.

Or perhaps you can commit to light a tea-light, or a candle, every day, and watch and pray as the flame flickers before you.

In fact, let’s try that now… let’s light the tea-lights you were given when you came in, and just spend a few minutes in stillness and silence … watching the flames and waiting for God’s spirit to speak.  Let’s see if we can soak up the light and love of Christ, so that we can bring that light to others.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen

[1] 1 John 4.16

[2] John 8:11

[3] Luke 4:18 and Isaiah 58:6-7