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The parish church of Bollington

Bollington Road, Bollington Cross, SK10 5EG
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Thursday Morning Homily Series

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The Pilgrimage of the Heart - a short walk through the Eucharist

Revd Michael Fox

GatheringPurity ConfessionGloriaCreedIntercessionPeaceOffertoryMemoryPresenceLord's PrayerBlessing

2. Purity

 "To whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden..."

At the time the Collect for Purity was being written, in around 1549, knowledge of human anatomy was thin. It relied on the writings of a Greek doctor named Galen, operating in AD160. His knowledge came from dissecting monkeys... As a result, the heart had to bear the weight of a great deal of metaphor: it was the seat of love, of human desiring, of the whole range range of human emotions. Bearing all that heavy load, no wonder people died young.

Also at that time, the country was host to a great deal of intrigue, of espionage at home and abroad, especially in relation to the goings-on at court in the aftermath of Henry the Eighth's battles to rid himself of his various wives. Much of the intrigue centred on perceived threats to the religious status quo as the new English Church struggled to accommodate the replacement of old Catholic traditions with forms of worship influenced by Martin Luther and the reformers, of whom Thomas Cranmer was one.

In this world of intrigue and espionage one of the most valuable assets of any self-respecting gentleman spy was a wooden chest, a sort of puzzle chest with secret compartments hidden inside other secret compartments hidden inside other secret compartments hidden inside... all controlled by a series of locks and springs and counterweights.

If you were a foreign spy or an agent of the king and you managed to obtain access to someone else's chest, your problem was that you could never be sure you had got to the bottom of all the compartments and discovered all its secrets.

For Cranmer, without any knowledge of modern psychology or physiology, the heart was like this chest, full of compartments and secrets. "The heart is deceitful above all things, "said Jeremiah. Yet there is no hiding secrets from God. He knows where all our secrets are hidden. The compartments, even the most cleverly hidden ones, spring open to His touch.

You might think this is a rather Orwellian image for God - God as Big Brother keeping us all under surveillance. Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden thought they had hidden from God but He knew their secret shame. St. Augustine, who also knew a thing or two about shame, said that he felt God knew him more deeply than he knew himself. Perhaps we could think of this as a starting point for understanding what is meant by purity for if one thing is certain, it is that we cannot produce our own purity, just as we cannot produce our own grace.

Let me remind you that last week we heard about how we are called to be a priestly people, and it is in that collective sense that I want to reflect a little further on purity. God knows us as a people more deeply than we know ourselves. There have been some catastrophic attempts to produce our own purity at the collective level. The Puritans, for example, sought to live as close to Scripture as possible as a way of practising 'godliness' - admirable in so many ways and yet, quite apart from its contribution to the unleashing of the English Civil War, it also produced an atmosphere of 'judgementalism' and anxiety, of who was saved, and who wasn't...

In the twentieth century we saw close at hand the vicious, murderous outcomes of ideas of racial purity. Being the people of God is emphatically not about an insistence on 'our' virtue, the virtues of 'our' way of life, to the exclusion of those we don't recognise as 'our' people. Jesus didn't spend his time ministering to the 'purebloods' of his society. He spent much of his time with the hybrids, the foreigners, the 'impure' and the marginalized.

Instead, purity at the collective level might be to do with the way we recognize the lordship of Christ over our public places and our public processes - the way we stand up for justice, for economic justice as much as personal justice; the way we support and hold to account institutions, our schools, hospitals, police, and town halls; our engagement with new kinds of public spaces, such as the internet. As a people under the Lordship of Christ, we are conformed to Him. We allow the patterns of our collective life to be shaped by Him. This shaping is partly about our patterns of prayer and the service we give to others - the liturgies of our daily lives - but we should be aware there are many other 'liturgies' which are also capable of shaping us: the supermarket, with its soothing message of 'convenience' which shapes our desires, our concepts of 'enough', is just one example. My point is that if at the collective level we remain unaware of the forces which shape us, and don't seek for the way of Christ in them, we become prisoners to these forces.

Therefore purity is not primarily about our morality but about our freedom to enjoy the creation which God has made for us as His people. If we concentrate too much on being 'pure' ourselves, we lose sight of the One who gives us our purity and who cleanses us as a people, who makes us free to depths we cannot easily fathom in ourselves.

Amen.


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