God is Love: Sermon for Lent One

Someone once said to Fr Benson, ‘I suppose your object in founding the Society of St John the Evangelist was to train clergymen who join you for the work of Mission’, ‘No’ replied Fr. Benson ‘I do not think the object of our association in a Religious community is to equip us to go out as missionaries.  We do not come into our community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves’.

We often forget that conversion is not something in the past or in the future – although it could be both – but most importantly it is now.

In today’s Gospel Jesus goes out into the desert wilderness for forty days – and we too have entered the 40 days of Lent during which we are going to follow together with the Society of St John the Evangelist in their prayer guide ‘Meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John’.  The short daily quotes from John’s Gospel and epistles are wonderful but ideally you need to watch the videos that the brothers have recorded, one a day each lasting about three and a half minutes.  If you don’t have access to a computer, then we will be playing a selection of the videos at our meeting on Tuesday evenings in Lent.  But I want to give you a flavour of the first week of talks now, as well as saying a bit about today’s Gospel.

 

The theme for this first week of Lent from the ‘Meeting Jesus’ course is ‘God is Love’.  But I want to just begin for a moment with this theme of the desert.  It might be helpful to think about what we are doing with Lent by thinking briefly about the desert.  To be in the desert can mean to be in a place where all the superfluous things are stripped away, a place of erosion, of crumbling, a place of vulnerability.  And may be if we are gong to enter the place of prayer we need to begin here.  Mark tells us that Jesus was ‘with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him’ – so Beasts (the frightening, disturbing things are with us in this place) but also angels – the things that care for and nurture us.

 

Two key words might be exposure and enclosure.  In the desert we are exposed to the reality of our vulnerability, our brokenness but we are also enclosed in the knowledge that we are loved – the voice form Heaven says to Jesus ‘you are my son the beloved’.

The desert is a place of truth and honesty, its not a place for pretence – ‘the desert strips you bare’ says Jerome.  Two things we will need with us during out time on the desert: discernment (so we don’t fall into the extremes of rigid obedience or slack carelessness) and singleness of heart, the desire to know purity of heart, to know God.

 

Now even as I say these things I realise how ridiculous they are for me at least – I want to watch ‘Take me out’ rather than say compline, I wouldn’t know obedience if it hit me between the eyes but I am a gold medallist at carelessness.  But as I speak I realise that again, I lack discernment when I fall too easily into judging myself, into saying, prayer, the religious life is not really for me because I’m not good enough.

So lets begin Lent in the wilderness with these twin guides discernment and singleness of heart.   One of the brothers little talks begin with a reflection on  1 John 4.16 – those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.

Apparently, Johns Gospel and Epistles use the word abide 63 times – but what does it mean?  And as we enter Lent do we want to abide, or would we rather run away?

The first talk asks us to recollect a bit about ourselves, our birth, our families, those we love – about how we have been helped or hurt, encouraged or discouraged – about the good and the bad.  This is our story, and it is the story through which we must read the light and life of God’s love.

 

God is love and that love is unconditional.  Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that God loves us. As Brother Curtis comments:

“We cannot imagine that God could or would love us, given the circumstances of our life. We’re not disciplined enough, focused enough, generous enough, forgiving enough, compassionate enough.  We’ve got our list of rejections because we find those rejecting qualities inadmissible and unacceptable. We presume that God is blocked out.  And yet, I think it’s exactly the opposite: that God will reach through to us in the best of times and God will also reach through to us in the worst of times. And the invitation is not to run away but to stay where we are, which is where God is going to come to meet us, where God’s light and life and love for us will be mediated.”

So the invitation on this first Sunday of Lent is not to run away but just to stay where God’s love, life and light will come to meet us.

And that ‘just staying’ is part of the thing.  There is nothing to earn, God’s love is a given reality.  And you don’t even have to feel it – When I went on a course about Spiritual Direction my essays kept coming back saying stop saying ‘We’, say ‘I’ a bit more, and I just wanted to say ‘Back off – I’ll do my own stuff, I don’t need you’.  But this wasn’t so much self-reliance, as fear about what other people might discover about me, about who the real Phil Ritchie was.

And one of the things I hid behind was a kind of English distain for emotional wallowing.  And I still have that – moving too easily from earnestness to careless laughter.  But one of the great lessons of the desert, of the spiritual life is that God isn’t just how you feel at any given moment.  Be in touch with your feelings but remember God’s love is present through all the scales of our emotions from the bottom B flat through to the top C.

In this first week of Lent our only task is to stay and to open ourselves up to the God of Love.  How can we begin to know ourselves as beloved children of God?  Let’s ask God to give us the gift of a knowledge of that love for ourselves.

Let me finish with some words – a kind of prayer – from Brother David from day 5 of this weeks talks:

Lord, grant us memories of those times when our fears have been dispelled by the perfect love that casts out fear, by the remembrance of God which has come to us either in our life of prayer or in our relationships with others and we might also bring our present fears before the Father as Jesus brought his fear so that that perfect love which is God, God’s presence, may be imparted to us that we too may glorify God’s name today in ways great and small in ways particular to us…

 

As we enter the desert of Lent together may our hearts know something of the exposure, the vulnerability of the desert experience but also the enclosure of the kindness of the angels.

And the invitation is to join us on this Lenten Journey with the SSJE Brothers, to be brave enough to write your thoughts in the booklet, to pray and to be honest.  That, as Father Benson suggested, we might feel the desire to be converted ourselves, discovering that we have not achieved spiritual heights but rather fallen into a love which was always there, waiting for us to arrive.  Amen.

Sermon for January 14th 2018: Fr. Benson Commemoration.

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Relying heavily on M.L.Smith’s essay “The theological vision of Father Benson” in “Benson of Cowley” OUP 1980

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”

One of the joys of getting older is that you forget things far more often, but I had forgotten just how miserable January can be.  Days where it never quite gets light properly, where one struggles with some new variant of flu, where the problems and anxieties you left in the last year wake you in the night to remind you just what a mess you’ve made of things.  Positive thinking, like the cold fog, seems next to impossible.

 

So maybe it wouldn’t be your first choice to come to church today to celebrate the memory of the founder of the Cowley Fathers and first Vicar of this Church, who was once described as being made of ‘cat gut and iron’, a man who inherited much of the sober austerity of his hero Edward Pusey, a man who in one version of the story made the Cowley Fathers so gloomy and life denying that they sent him off to America so others could inject a bit of joy.

 

If that’s how you feel then its worth remembering that we don’t come here to meet people we like, we come here to meet people we are called to love – and we might end up liking them in the process – maybe.

Benson, our first vicar, is worth spending time with because he shares so many of our hopes and fears.  He once said, a very January thought I think, “Christian Dogma is often spoken of as dead and dry and indeed as men are apt to fight for it, it is dead and dry…It remains a dogma of the faith but no more like the original dogma of the faith than an empty husk that lies on the ground identical with the fruit once found upon the tree”.  Benson shares our January grumpiness.  He is also critical of the conventional concept of faith as an assent to propositions.  The divine Mystery is not mere knowledge says Benson but ‘the continuous apprehension of a continuous realty, a living receptivity’.  He goes on to say the Beatific vision will not be a stationary contemplation of a fixed form… we are called to rejoice in God’s truth as a continually progressive acquisition’.

 

And I hope by now you are warming to Benson, to his desire not to be static but to an elastic, and energised faith.  It turns out that Benson is quite Tiggerish, and invites us to some theological tiggerishness in this dark time of the year.

And as we all know The wonderful thing about tiggers / Is tiggers are wonderful things / Their tops are made out of rubber / Their bottoms are made out of springs / They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun / But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I’m the only one / IIIII’m the only one!

Benson, like Tigger, is a man on the move, he has an ecstatic and dynamic understanding of human beings and this feeds all his writings.  He bemoans those whose antagonism to faith lacks ‘the clothing, the atmosphere, the elasticity, the emotions of the divine life’.  Benson is forever ‘stepping forth’, rising up or breaking bonds.

In our most gloomy January moments God seems so static, so brittle but Benson speaks of ‘the relative energy of God within himself’ – the word energy keeps coming up in his attempts to give utterance to the Divine life.  In talking about God’s creative act, God’s outpouring of himself into creation he speaks of God “Having burst the bonds of his own Divine existence”.  What an amazing thing to say – God bursting the bonds of his own divine existence, as if even God can’t keep God in – the creative energy bursts forth, it must be proclaimed, like a kind of undiluted joy.

At the heart of Benson’s thinking about God was a great devotion to the mysteries of the Ascension.  I love reading about this because I am deeply fearful of a Christian community that has so lost its elasticity, its bounce, that it has fragmented the birth of Jesus from his death and from his resurrection and ascension.  This is Benson at his most beautiful, talking about the Ascension, about Jesus’ joy in his exaltation: “His humanity rejoices to be welcomed and rewarded as the Father’s son with the infinity of eternal love flowing forth in the perfected consciousness of his human nature”.

In Baptism, in the Eucharist, in our life together in the Church we are caught up in Christ, we inhabit the space of the risen and ascended Christ.  Benson writes: “We do not, I think, dwell as we ought on the present glorification of our natures, in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ”.

It is January, it is gloomy but we are here, we are members of the glorified body of Christ.  As its my birthday indulge me by listening to this much over used quote from Thomas Merton when he, it seems, had a revelation of our common calling:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Benson was fascinated by the 10 days between Pentecost and the Ascension – days when Benson imagined Christ moving through the nine angelic orders in an intensifying process of glorification.  Even here Benson cannot let Christ stand still, his glory is intensifying.  We are singing two of Benson’s hymns today – they don’t write them like that anymore – wow, that last verse:

“Oh the depths of Joy divine

Thrilling through those orders nine

When the lost are found again

When the banished come to reign.”

On this day when we honour Fr Benson’s memory, may we too be filled with the energy, the bounce, the elasticity, the light and the Joy of the ascended Lord, with a Spirit filled faith that recognises our salvation as rooted not in personal good works but in the grace we find in the community of the Church.  Angelic Light, illumination not of our own making but, in Fr Benson’s words, ‘an inherent participation in Divine self knowledge’.  Amen.