Easter 6 Homily – MAY 25, 2014

WE BEGIN AGAIN — NEW EVERY MORNING

At Synod this past weekend our theme was “We Begin Again,” a line taken from St Benedict of Nursia, who at the age of 14 withdrew from the world, went into solitude for several years, and eventually founded the Benedictine monastic order in the 6th Century. The Bishop reminded us of how much the Anglican tradition has been shaped by the Benedictine way – the form of spirituality Benedict created shaped the character of European Christianity for many centuries, yet it all started with one small, simple community in central Italy. Using that theme of “We begin again,” the Bishop spoke of the importance of accessing our heritage — not in a static kind of way, but as a way of enabling and encouraging us to respond creatively in the present moment.

We begin again – we start fresh and yet it is always as part of a continuum, as what is cast down is raised up and what is old becomes new again. From the great treasure of our Anglican heritage, the man who wrote the first hymn this morning continues to speak to the Church.

John Keble wrote the hymn New Every Morning in 1822 – he actually wrote it as a poem as part of a collection called The Christian Year, and it was set to music by someone else:

New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.
New mercies, each returning day,
hover around us while we pray;
new perils past, new sins forgiven,
new thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.
If on our daily course our mind
be set to hallow all we find,
new treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.
Old friends, old scenes, will lovelier be,
as more of heaven in each we see;
some softening gleam of love and prayer
shall dawn on every cross and care.
The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask:
room to deny ourselves; a road
to bring us daily nearer God.
Only, O Lord, in thy dear love,
fit us for perfect rest above;
and help us, this and every day,
to live more nearly as we pray.

John Keble was one of the originators of what became known as The Oxford Movement. Like his father, he was a priest of the Church of England. He was an intelligent, kind, sensitive and deeply faithful man, and for me was one of my spiritual heroes and role models as I started out in ministry. As the British scholar Mary I.M. Bell said, “The Oxford Movement “launched out into the ocean of indifference and pessimism which surrounded them, and drew their generation after them on the full tide of faith and revived enthusiasm.”

Keble went Oxford University when he was only 14, and he not only went there — he excelled there! Eventually he served as a professor at Oxford from 1831 to 1841 (Keble College Oxford is named after him), and from 1836 until his death 30 years later he was priest of a small parish in the village of Hursley near Winchester. He was a gentle man in every sense, but he had the fire of the Spirit in him.

In the second reading today, St. Peter suggests an approach characterized by “gentleness and reverence,” and Keble was all of that, but on 14 July 1833, he preached a sermon that was to stand England on its head. The “Assize Sermon” was a sermon that was given each year at the opening of a new term of the English civil and criminal courts – it was addressed to the judges and officers of the courts, urging them to deal justly and fairly with people. Keble’s sermon was called “The National Apostasy,” and he used the occasion to denounce the whole country for turning away from God, and for regarding the Church as a mere institution of society, rather than as the instrument of God, the Body of Christ. I’m sure the judges nearly flipped their wigs. Coming from this gentle man, it must have been a shock. It’s hard to imagine a time when a sermon could become a nationwide sensation, but this one did, and it is considered to be the beginning of the Oxford Movement, also known as the Tractarian Movement.

Centuries before, St Paul had stood before the Areopagus in the great city of Athens and noted the huge number and variety of religious structures and focal points. In a way that was challenging and yet still respectful of their heritage, he said, in effect, “Do have any idea of what all this means? There is a sense of a great potential not being realized. At the time John Keble wrote his Christian Year poems, England had churches everywhere and yet spiritual life was at a low ebb. Communities can be full of religious symbols and still disconnected from the way, the truth and the life that they are meant to symbolize. Indeed, much religion can become an exercise in building monuments to ourselves one way or another.

We think of our own era as a time when church life seems moribund and irrelevant to many. According to Mary Bell, English religion in the early 19th Century was “lifeless and dead.” Not just lifeless, but dead — pretty emphatic! Bell describes what she calls the “tragic picture of indifference and degradation to which the spiritual life of our Church had been reduced before the Oxford Movement breathed new life in her.”

How dead was it? The pettiness, mean-spiritedness and diviseness within the Church were chronic, and the government could muck about at will with the internal workings of the Church. Even 40 years after Keble made his challenge to the system, in 1874, the government passed the Public Worship Act which meant that priests could be (and were) put in jail for: facing the Altar while celebrating the Eucharist; wearing vestments at Holy Communion; having candles on the altar; mixing water with the wine; using unleavened bread instead of ordinary household bread; and using incense as part of worship. Put in prison!

You just have to look around church this morning to realize that the influence of the Oxford Movement was immense – so many of our practices are a direct result (candles, vestments, weekly celebration of the Eucharist, the crucifix and sign of the Cross, etc.) As Bell puts it: “it undoubtedly saved the Church of England at a moment when it came very near to shipwreck.”

Jesus promised to his followers access to “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” He told his followers “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” The Tractarians inspired a renewed sensitivity to the presence and glory of God in Christian worship. Also significant was the way the Tractarians generated sacrificial and compassionate ministries to the poor and marginalized.

In addition to a renewal of the meaning and conduct of Christian worship, the Oxford Movement caused people to think much more deeply about what they were doing in their Christian life and what the Church was truly all about. They emphasized the fact that going to church and being the Church in the world meant something — not just fulfilling a social obligation or generating a false sense of respectability, but acting on behalf of God and privileged to become instrumental in the salvation of the world.

Coincidentally, the efforts of the Oxford Movement paved the way for the Benedictines to return to England in the 19th Century – they had been banished since the Reformation.

Despite his immense talent and popularity, Keble was not a grandiose, ambitious sort of person – he was quite happy to carry on his ministry in a small, obscure rural parish. When I was serving in Saskatchewan, assigned to various small towns and churches, Keble’s wisdom and unassuming approach inspired me to see each and every place as sanctified by God and to realize that no parish is really any more or less important than any other. I saw colleagues who were eager to move on to bigger and better things, and frustrated by the isolation and lack of attention. Keble helped me to stay in the moment, to be centered where I was, and present to the people I was serving at the moment, not looking past them or eager to leapfrog over them.

Keble’s sacramental vision taught me that “sacrament” is more than what happens at the altar – that it points to a way of perceiving all of life, a way of entering into life and encountering God through the most ordinary things. Keble taught me to take an incarnational approach and to realize that all things are infused with the hidden life of the Creator. Keble’s sacramental vision taught me to look into things not just at them – to realize there is always more to people and situations than meets the eye.

In our time we have seen a shift away from formalized religion and a desire for something more experiential, less structured, etc. People typically say they are spiritual but not religious. The reading from Acts today indicates this is not a new issue. Paul notes all the signs of religious devotion in their city, and said “I see how extremely religious you are, BUT …” As in the early Christian era, we must realize, as St Paul did, that people don’t need the institution or the structures but the inner substance and meaning of these things – that without the inner reality being made accessible and clear, the outer structures become pointless and even ridiculous to people.

This is exactly what Keble did. As expressed in his simple but profound hymn, the spiritual person is not necessarily learned or sophisticated, but merely awake, aware, conscious, alert, grateful, whereas the unspiritual person is asleep, oblivious, indifferent and even callous to what is going on around her/him.

Keble enabled the ordinary Church person to become an everyday mystic. Without ever resorting to technical language or turning it into a form of elitism, he pointed the way for people to stop bouncing around on the surface of things and to move into the depths of their faith. He pointed the way for ordinary people to become saints.

“New every morning . . .” The metaphor of awakening in the morning speaks to us of awakening in the Spirit, and perhaps of the dawning of a new age of spiritual awareness.

St Paul had suggested to the Athenians that God designed things so that human beings “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” and would eventually come to realize that God “is not far from each one of us; for ‘in God we live and move and have our being.’”

The simplicity and humble sense of gratitude and hope that run through this hymn are for me characteristically Anglican. You don’t need esoteric locations or surroundings or circumstances in order to live a faithful life – every morning you awaken to more than enough opportunities to serve God meaningfully, if only you put your mind to it and open your heart.

Keble conveyed a sense of the glory of God, the reality of God, the love of God, combined with a powerful sense of the presence of God. God may be found in what might seem to be the most trivial thing – the things you might dismiss or ignore entirely – sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, changing a baby or greeting a neighbour. For Keble, each new morning is a reminder of the Resurrection, a summons to live the new life, a challenge to seek and serve Christ in daily life.

In a subtle way, this hymn informs people that their vocation – the vocation of the most ordinary person — is no less important than that of their priest, their archbishop or even a saint.

“We begin again.” We start each day fresh and new and yet as part of an ongoing personal history, but we are no more trapped by our past than the Church itself is. Believe it and it sets you free.

The Oxford Movement encouraged a sacramental vision of life. In a time when religious practice had become empty and meaningless, a handful of faithful people, by choosing to really embrace the Christian life, lit a fire in the Church which continues to burn like the candles on our altars.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus said. So I wonder, as we too observe the fact that we have all these beautiful monuments dedicated to God: When are we going to realize the life that they point to? When are we going to engage with the power that inspired them in the first place? When are we going to believe that it only takes a few people to change the course of things? In fact, it only takes one – that is, YOU. So let us seek to live a truly Christian life – rooted and grounded in the love and life of God. And may I use the words of Keble as a prayer, as an appeal to God: “Help us, O God, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.”

The Ven. Grant Rodgers+

RCL-appointed readings:

Acts 17:22-31 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

1 Peter 3:13-22 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

John 14:15-21 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”