Sermon 7 February 2021, Tessa Lang and Sermon 2 May 2021, Tessa Lang

It is an honour to embark on my maiden sermon in front of our St Mark’s community…and what a treasure trove of gospel riches I’ve been given to consider and share with you…briefly, I promise.

When William sent the options for today’s readings, he noted that the Prologue to John’s gospel was included for the third time so far in the 10 weeks of this liturgical year. This struck me as meaningful, resonating with current experience when we are being asked over and over to pay attention to the same messages, for our own good and most vitally, for everyone else’s sake…as is fit in matters of life and death. So…what is John’s message repeating to us this particular Sexagesima Sunday, in the midst of lockdown with its widespread anxiety, loss and separation? Poised at the back end of winter but still far from spring? What could St John’s divine Word …and the compilers of the Church of England Lectionary…intend for us today, the 7th of February 2021?

Let us consider its timing, for last Tuesday we concluded the season of Christmas and Epiphany with the Feast of Candlemas. Already we find ourselves at the midpoint of the 3- week-only ‘Gesima Sunday season’ …then the Lenten journey to Calvary follows on … in preparation for the Feast of Feasts – Easter Day. As Easter occurs roughly 60 days’ time from today, this explains the origin of the racy-sounding prefix to -gesima, the middle sister in a series of 3 that form this short season of preparation… for a longer, more austere preparation in advance of Christianity’s central event. This is subtly underscored by a visual modulation of the service. During the 3 Sundays of this transition period, our magnificent reredoses remain open and the Gloria is sung although ministers now appear in purple vestments, last worn during Advent, also a season of preparation, penance and sacrifice.

Yet here we are, once again treated to John’s Prologue, a grand piece of prosody, soaring and resonant as any symphonic overture, with great themes set out in poetic rhythm, its skilful parallel images and diction crafted to embed a dazzling logic…building a veritable stairway to heaven by which we ascend, from the Beginning to re-birth through belief, solely by the will of God and our openness to its acceptance. We are introduced to the Johannine key terms that make his narrative of Christ so powerful and able to communicate across all faiths and disciplines to anyone who ponders the nature of God: the Word; life;
true light; sons of God (meant more broadly as children of God); belief; grace, and truth. This is another realm from the customary seasonal one of exhortation to examine, atone and improve our Christian life; here is a full-on foretaste of glory, a packing list of life-giving essentials for our Lenten knapsack.

In today’s gospel we also encounter John the Baptist, characterised not as another miracle of birth within the extended family of Jesus as a slightly elder and mortal cousin, but by the role he fulfils in God’s plan. His special purpose is to prepare humankind for receiving the sole presence who can prepare us for the ultimate feast that brings us to God’s table. He is a man [human being – anthropos] who did see and give witness to the true light — that is, the Baptist saw the glorious nature of God manifest in its human form, as Jesus, flesh and blood, upholding creation and all life with his Word. Perhaps John the Baptist’s witness could be seen as the model, an ideal form of -gesima sermon in and of itself, shining a light on the living embodiment of the Word.

This Sunday, we, too can turn to the light found in revisiting St John’s Prologue, experience it as a beacon in the darkness of a global pandemic. Indeed, it has illuminated those who gathered centuries before us, from the first Christians raising their voices together to exult in the good news…to its liturgical role as the Last Gospel, routinely said quietly by the priest after the mass from the fourth century until the end of the 1960s – and still said quietly by the late Father Kent White every time he proceeded out after celebrating the Eucharist, here in St Mark’s, in the 1990s. We can find comfort in the repetition of our Church’s cycle of liturgy and observance, upheld through so many other times of trouble, pestilence and conflict…we can remember that 69 years ago yesterday, the young – then Princess – Elizabeth, acceded to the Throne upon the death of her father, King George VI, and that she wasn’t able to be there for his passing; a personal dimension to a public event, now a tragic circumstance that so many
families in their thousands across this nation have suffered…we can have faith that those we have lost remain children of God and live in perpetual light.
All this is possible because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, a connection forever available to us between the personal and the absolute, the human and the divine, what is above and that which is below. Here indeed is a message worth repeating…and the best possible preparation for what lies before us.

Sermon 2 May 2021, Easter V  – Branches in the Vine

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
+ The beginning of the Holy Gospel according to John.
Glory be to thee, O Lord.
John 15: 1 – 8
This is the word of the Lord
Praise be to thee, O Christ
From the Gospel for today, John, Chapter 15, Verse 1
1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
And Verse 8:
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be
my disciples
+ In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon – Branches in the Vine
We have arrived together to the fifth Sunday of Eastertide, and there is
much to celebrate as we continue to welcome the risen Christ amongst
us. Soon our thoughts will be directed to the duties of the growing
season actual and metaphorical as Christ is taken up and we remain –
to increase his Kingdom and to get on with unlocking society and
rebuilding our lives.

At this hinge moment in the Church year and in 2021, we are given
today’s text, surely one of the New Testament’s richest and most
instructive passages.

For here is teaching by allegory, a sparkling illustration of how to
understand the spiritual structure of our Christian life:
The true vine is Jesus Christ. The husbandman (meaning farmer and in
this example, a specialist vinedresser) is God the Father.
Who then are the recipients of their support and attention?
The branches. Each one of us, individually, and all of us collectively as
a church, are a branch, one of only two kinds: one that is fruitful so
subject to pruning to increase its abundance, or one that is taken away
to wither and be cast into the fire.

What is the end purpose of this divine horticulture?
To glorify God the Father by bearing an ever-increasing luxuriance of
the fruits of faith, made possible by uninterrupted connection through
Jesus Christ…by abiding in Him and He in us, branches in the true vine.
What sort of crop is this?

It can only be the sort that glorifies God, so anything and everything
that truly matters, has value and endures forever. Varieties of this
celestial fruit can be love, joy, peace … faithfulness, kindness, patience
… truth, beauty, righteousness. …good works … sharing His gospel,
listening to His direction, living in community … answered prayer.
When we make ourselves available to bear this miraculous fruit, we too
abide in a realm beyond daily sustenance – serving to God and each
other a boundless, transcendent feast.

When the disciple set down the words of our text, he invited us into the
intimacy of that last night with Jesus, one that John shared as a
teenager in disrupted and troubled times. The clock is ticking to the
foreseen final act on earth; Judas’ departure reduces the disciples to 11
in number, rising with their Master after the Passover meal as He begins
the long walk to Calvary. The next 3 chapters, starting with Chapter
15, are an outpouring of love, instruction and example to the dear ones
He must first leave behind before He can join them to Him
forever…preparing them for what comes next, and from then on, for all
the Children of God.

Imagine Jesus leading the small, anxious band through the streets of
Jerusalem, approaching the west gate to the Temple Mount. Josephus,
a first century historian, reports that all entries to the sacred area were
adorned with magnificent decorations in the form of golden vines laden
with fruit, with the most impressive wreathing the 60-foot-tall main door.
Every Jew would know that the vine symbolises Israel since (in the
words of Psalm 80) “Thou has brought a vine out of Egypt, though hast
cast out the heathen and planted it.” In this Mediterranean country,
vines equate to prosperity and posterity. Here indeed is a powerful
image to implant within his disciples, to associate Himself and them
with their root tradition but “growing it” to include more than one nation
in one location. With Jesus as the true vine, all of creation is invited to
connect to the divine life source. In the confused and troubling days
immediately after the crucifixion and resurrection, and the turbulence
stretching ahead, every time a disciple lifted their head to the hills,
visited or just thought of the Temple, they would be reminded of their
life in Christ, bearing fruit pleasing to God.

Each Eastertide, I marvel at the faithfulness and courage of the women
at the foot of the cross and at the tomb. Particularly as they were not
present for Jesus’ last master class and tender farewell, so far as we
know. What a bounty of fruitfulness they embody, a perfect example of
how abiding in Jesus, staying close, remaining connected, keeps you in
life-giving contact with all that is true and good. No special treatment
or instructions are required by the Christian and there is nothing we can
do alone to effect anything.

But God the Father’s work is never done. As husbandman, He is the
one who cultivates the branches in the vine. This is an endless and allconsuming
task, as in Biblical times, vines were not set in straight rows
supported as we see them today but grew along the ground. The task
of vine dressing involved lifting and cleaning dust or mud away,
perhaps propping a cluster on a stone to enable sunlight to do its
magic, routinely and decisively pruning branches that had come adrift
of the vine, never hesitating to cut as deeply and as often as necessary
to let in the light and multiply the crop – pruning to enable the fruitful
branches truly to thrive. More profound than ‘tough love’ and
emphatically not random or meaningless, here is a way to understand
our losses, our separations, our troubles and disappointments, and
remain connected to the true vine without falling into isolation and
spiritual death.

As our text teaches us, so shall you be a disciple of Christ when you
expect and accept pruning to the greater glory of God. This removes
what is dead – unfruitful – and makes room for the real thing – real joy,
real purpose, real communion with God, by remaining in Him as He is in
us.

How straightforward as a message…life-changing in
application…wondrous in its source, which is the pure love and power
of God the Father whose plan and pleasure is to experience us as we
bloom and fruit. So much so that He transforms our reality with the gift
of his Son, whose Word cleanses us so that we can abide in Christ and
through our fruitfulness, glorify God.

We need only abide to learn what He intends for us, which often starts
in an unexpected way and ends with a new beginning…as Philip
experiences when God directs every step of his encounter with the
Ethiopian official in today’s reading, then whisks him away to the next
task; no doubt, you have experienced such upheavals and sudden new
directions in your own life. Pruning is evidence of God’s presence in
your life. Pruning reveals God’s purpose for you. Pruning produces
more fruit.

Good news indeed in uncertain times. Good news indeed when the sun
shines. Alleluia. Amen.

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