Sunday, April 24, 2016

Too much triumph?

Last week I was delighted and blessed to be once again at On Fire - an annual conference for charismatic catholics which has become a hugely important sources of refreshment and renewal for me over the past 5 years. I have written before here  and here about why it matters so much to me and really I don't have anything to add. 
It's a community in which I regularly encounter God, and though this year there was alot of hard stuff of my own to process (much still on-going) the experience of the week was most definitely one of resurrection.
So, feeling myself positively fizzing with life and joy and hope after some rather wonderful intervention by the Holy Spirit, I posted some pictures on Facebook from the procession of the Blessed Sacrament after our final Mass, together with a caption drawn from a worship song that has resounded in my head pretty well non-stop since Morning Prayer on that last morning  (and is still there even in the exhaustion at the end of a long long Sunday)
"Death is dead. Love has won. Christ has conquered".

It was an expression of my own experience at that point.

But...a friend and priest whom I love dearly questioned whether those words were too glib, too much a reflection of the "Death is nothing at all" school of popular theology that seeks to dash straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Day without any engagement with the darkness that is a huge reality for so many people.
That gave me pause - and I've been reflecting since on whether sharing joy in the face of pain is heartless and unhelpful, a refusal to take that pain seriously - or somehow equivalent to throwing a rope-ladder down to enable those who are struggling to reach a place of safety.

I came straight to On Fire from celebrating Communion with a friend who is facing a very discouraging diagnosis and some hugely difficult treatment. Another beloved friend was absent from the conference as his father-in-law was close to death, and during the week I had news of yet another friend's cancer - so the thought that in voicing my own feelings of celebration I might be trampling on, or seeming to over-ride their experience of struggle and darkness was challenging, to say the least. 

At the splendid "Taking Funerals Seriously" conference last year, there was discussion about whether in time to come our unique selling point as Church might be that we were prepared to admit that death is real and painful and parting utterly soul-searing...So much of our culture seems intent on denying that - on asserting again and again, in the face of all the evidence, that "death is nothing at all". But the business of priesthood is so often to stand in the middle of the mess and pain and sadness of life - and yes, to weep with those who weep, but also to suggest, gently but confidently, that despair is not the only possible response. Because, after a long hard winter, I needed a spring-time of the spirit, a reminder that God DOES make all things new, and that actually, resurrection happens...and if that is my experience, I'm pretty sure others need those same reassurances.

No - I won't always feel that with the same overwhelming joy and conviction that currently floods my soul - but that doesn't mean that it's not my responsibility to hold onto the light of faith, and to proclaim the resurrection in ways that comfort and encourage - which may not involve words at all, but maybe simply being there and loving as best I can...

But I would go to the stake rather than hold back the words "Love has won". To say that in as many ways as I humanly can is surely what I'm called to do...Isn't it? 




Saturday, April 23, 2016

Young Women: Your Call

I'm just home, happy and exhausted, from one of the most splendid things I've been part of here.

 

It all started (as far as we knew) a year ago, when to our delight Lis Goddard accepted an invitation to come and speak at the summer study day for the diocesan "Leading Women" course.

God, of course, had the whole thing in hand long before - but from our 
perspective, Ellie and I were just two of the women there who were challenged and disturbed by the statistics Lis shared about the sheer dearth of young women exploring ordained ministry in the Church of England. (For those who like facts and figures - under the age of 40 there are 4 men to every 1 woman! After 40, the gender balance reverses - make of that what you will)
Ellie is in the vocations business - and I (as you probably know if you're reading this) work in a cathedral - so by going home time that day we had hatched a plan for a vocations day for young women, to be held in Coventry Cathedral some time in the coming year.
What's more, several of the women at that study day expressed an interest in getting involved - and so Young Women, Your Call  was born.






 With a limited budget and the thought that we would be content with anything more than a dozen guests, and a hope of around thirty, we began to plan a day that would rely on the goodwill of our friends and families in doing all the "infrastructure" things - moving chairs, serving coffees et al.


Only, God had more than 30 people who needed to come...We watched in amazement as bookings mounted from 40 to 50 to ...shall we set a ceiling at 60?....but still they came.



And so today we welcomed 86 women, mostly aged between 15 and 35...and it was, in every possible sense, AWESOME.
To see the Cathedral so full of youth and energy and colour.
To hear wonderful stories of God's call - gentle, insistent, a whisper, a unmistakeable summons.
To marvel at the extraordinary women who are my colleagues in this diocese and beyond, who gave of their time and talents so generously to make the day happen
To rejoice in the way that God seemed to have called people from various points in my own story to be part of today too.

Our Opening Worship began with words that were printed on my Ember card
"One thing have I asked of the Lord, this is what I seek. That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple"...
Words which took me back to the early days of my own calling - and to the wonderful ways in which I have been enabled to seek God in his temple...Yes, it was kind of emotional! 

And so the day unfurled. 
Wonderful keynote addresses from Bishop Anne Hollinghurst and Lis Goddard, precious conversations over lunch and coffee breaks, pleasure in hearing our guests bowled over by the attention to detail of the planning group, and by the beauty and story of our Cathedral.
There was laughter and some tears too - specially in the beautiful prayer space that Naomi had created.
There was incredulity that men in collars were willing and able to serve coffee for the women (little did they know that one of those men was a real live Archdeacon at that)!

I kept finding myself brushing up against my own story.  +Anne and Steve Hollinghurst first brought Taize worship to Greenbelt - where it has been a hugely important resource for me...Lis said something at a diocesan conference 4 years ago which specifically played into my ability to recognise some deep truths about my previous parish, which somehow freed me to move on...There were friends from Greenbelt and from On Fire, a much loved directee from Gloucester who will be deaconed at Petertide came with two young women from her church, an unexpected friend of my lovely DD appeared...One way and another, there was alot of retelling of my own story of calling going on in my head as the day went on - and it seemed that there were things from that story that were exactly what some of our guests needed to hear...

And - I got to be the host...to represent the Cathedral...to be endlessly thankful for the heroic efforts of our amazing vergers...to collect the compliments about the space...to share with unwary visitors who had no idea what they were coming to just what was going on, and to bask in their pleasure that the Cathedral was committed to encouraging the young to explore a lifetime in God's service...

So much loveliness - and best of all, as the day drew to a close it was given to me to preside at the Eucharist.
Always the time when I am most rooted in and thankful for my priesthood - but today with so many extra dimensions as I shared the Sacrament with our guests (thankful for the name badges which meant that I could do so for each of them by name)...listened to the sound of 100 women's voices sing Ally Barrett's wonderful hymn "Hope of our Calling", blessed them in God's name.

My heart is full of the names and stories of the day, of those to whom I ministered, and who ministered to me...
Thanks be to God!

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Easter 2C at Coventry Cathedral 3rd April 2016

Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! 
This time last week, the Cathedral was wonderfully full as we came together to share Easter joy …It was all so obvious...as bright as a candle lit from the Easter fire, clear as a trumpet fanfare echoing round the Cathedral....An empty tomb...a familiar voice calling by name...surely everything is going to be alright now....fear and gloom banished for all time.
As we sang our final hymn Thine be the glory I was pretty sure that I could actually hear angels ,archangels and all the company of heaven lending their voices.
No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of Life
For a little while that sure and certain hope of Resurrection took hold of us, heart, mind and spirit, and there was no doubt left...or, let's be honest, maybe a smidgeon somewhere... But not enough to spoil things.

But it's a week on now,...a day that used to be known as Low Sunday...a day of returning to earth from the heights of heavenly praise. Even though the Common Worship calendar tries to steer us in another direction, firmly labelling this the second Sunday of Easter, there's still a lingering memory of LOW Sunday...a day when we come down to earth and try to make sense of the reality of a world that is somehow not really different ENOUGH
You see, if we're honest things don't actually seem to be much better. The broken church has obstinately refused to be healed...those beloved people who are hurting continue to hurt...war, hunger, fear have not yet departed from the face of the earth..and me? Well, I have to confess that I'm the same frustrating mix of selfishness and occasional kindness, shining confidence and unspoken anxiety that I was before Easter.
And that's a little puzzling.
If the resurrection truly changed the world for ever, then surely things ought to look rather better by now. Shouldn't they?
What's going on....I just don't get it.

I feel as if I've somehow got stuck with the disciples in S Mark's account of the first Easter. The one where there is no tidy conclusion...no tying up of loose ends..,the women find the empty tomb and say nothing. Because they are terrified.
That's not quite where I am this morning. I did think about it for a moment, but no. I'm not in that place where nothing makes sense but I darent admit it.
Not scared to question, in case everything unravels before my eyes and I find myself confronting nothing BUT an empty tomb.
In fact, I think questioning is going to be the order of the day...

After all, there's a bit of a precedent...set by our good friend Thomas.

Doubting Thomas!
Such a familiar nickname but is it really fair?
Across 2000 years Thomas is remembered not for his obedience in following Jesus
Not for his later courage in taking the gospel to India
but for his doubts.
Imagine if you were to be remembered forever for the thing of which you are least proud...
It's sobering, isn't it!

But in truth, he was no worse than the other disciples
Despite his denial of Jesus, we don't refer to “Peter the Turncoat”
Despite their anxiety to claim the best seats in the kingdom, we don't talk of James and John as the Wannabe Twins

But Thomas...he's stuck with that nickname, come what may.
And honestly, it's not surprising he doubted.
Imagine that you are with the twelve in that upper room in Jerusalem in the days after the crucifixion
None of you will be feeling very confident – in anything.
Each of you has let down your dearest friend at the moment of his greatest need.
Each of you has put personal safety before the claims of God's kingdom.
Each of you has cherished dreams that now seem to have withered before your eyes.
Each of you is, frankly, scared stiff, disorientated, lost...and the wild talk of those women who went to the tomb is certainly not helping. Empty tombs and rumours of angels don't make ANYTHING better.

But into that place of anxiety, fear and confusion comes Jesus – as he always does, into our places of anxiety, fear and confusion (even if we try to shut the doors against him)
Jesus with his message of peace – the forgiveness that each person in that battered and beaten group most needs to receive.

Peace – says Jesus...
It's OK. I understand what you did, and why you did it.
I still love you. Exactly as you are.
You are forgiven.
PEACE BE WITH YOU
Peace to make good your failures
Peace to calm your fears
Peace to restore your broken dreams

The Peace of Christ – given to be shared with others
Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 
 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Peace that transforms them all.
This is the stuff of resurrection right enough

But not for Thomas
Poor Thomas is somewhere else that day, so he misses out not only on seeing Jesus but on receiving that blessed assurance that all is now well.
He listens to his friends, with all their new-found certainty – but while they seem to be seeing the world by the new light of Easter hope, he remains stuck in the darkness of Good Friday.
No Peace for him – indeed, their very confidence increases his isolation.
He must have been tempted to pretend that he too was now secure in his faith once again, or at least to keep out of their way, in an attempt to gloss over his uncertainty. It's so much easier to go with the crowd, isn't it...
....but somehow Thomas has the courage and the honesty to stick to his guns, – and to name his doubts
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

Thank God for Thomas.
We need him – just as we continue to need those who, in any group, ask the questions we are afraid to voice ourselves...
We need him because he shows us that it is absolutely OK to have doubts, OK
to ask questions – and that God honours those questions....
When Jesus returns to the group the following week there is no lecture on the essentials of faith, no reproach for Thomas's uncertainty.
Instead he is invited to come close to Jesus (what could be better) and to touch with his own hands Christ's body in all its resurrection life.
It's hard to imagine a more wonderful confirmation that questioning is welcome, that we are to come to Christ as we are, - not resting on the faith of others but discovering it for ourselves as the complicated individuals that we are....complicated individuals with our own unique relationship with God in Christ.

Faith is PERSONAL
Not something you can receive off the peg from another person
Your faith is shaped by your life experiences, by the people you encounter, the books that you read
It's rather like a jigsaw puzzle. As you go through life, you slowly assembly the puzzle, until perhaps you get a lovely picture, with no gaps.
At that point, life intervenes, and doubt takes the puzzle and throws it up in the air, so that you have to start reassembling the pieces once again.
Every time that happens, the puzzle comes out with a slightly different picture...YOUR picture, created through your own encounters with God and his people.


Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, writes
"To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of lack of depth." And he encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, says Sacks, "not because we doubt, but because we believe."

So – that's my invitation to you today as well
ASK questions.
Nothing is off limits
Ask your clergy, - we would really love that.
Ask one another.
Join a group, read a book, - ask God, who gave us minds as well as hearts and souls...

And if you feel that there's still not enough evidence – then look around you.
Yes, the world – and the Church – is still wounded....as wounded as the risen Christ...whose hands and side Thomas touched that day.
You see, the resurrection is much MUCH more than painting over the griefs and failures of the past...It does not obliterate them but transforms them – and we are invited to take that process of transformation forward, starting today.
Whether you are feeling confident or uncertain, excited or despondent, here and now WE are the best evidence for the Resurrection that Coventry Cathedral can muster...– the best case that can be presented to those who come with questions and uncertainties, feeling that an empty tomb is not enough on which to build a life. Writing in the Guardian, Giles Fraser sums it up nicely

The resurrection is more an identity than an argument. That’s why we turn it into participatory theatre, with incense and candles. It is who we are – our word for how we go on in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s the Christian term for defiance. In Newington, we have no money, a heating system that doesn’t work, a church hall that was recently burned out by bored teenagers and, most challenging of all, a community that is not really a community, but often a place people simply pass through. Even the old flats of the notorious Heygate estate have now been demolished and their long-term residents pushed further out of town to make way for the younger and the wealthier. Change and decay in all around I see. All this sounds pretty miserable. But the resurrection is the name we give to the multiple ways we push back against the darkness.For too long, our little garden of remembrance has been a place thick with the deathly thorns of heroin needles and the excrement of rough-sleepers. But now all that’s been cleared away by a few determined parish gardeners and a little strip of cared-for land has emerged, resplendent with daffodils 

An identity...The resurrection shown to the world in the life of the Church.
People who have had an encounter with Jesus and set out to make a difference for his sake.
People like you. And me.
People who help at the Night Shelter, visit the housebound, volunteer for Work Clubs and toddler groups, go the extra mile, welcome strangers as they would welcome Christ...People who carry his life and his hope within them, so that they seek daily to serve the world for the sake of His Kingdom...
THE CHURCH.

Earlier this year I wrote in Cathedral Matters that I wanted an Easter Garden here to provide evidence for our visitors that this was Easter...the great 50 days of rejoicing...and I'm delighted that the garden is here for all to see. But for evidence in the face of doubt, I'd rather look somewhere else entirely....at each one of us...If you like, we need to BE the garden...showing new life and beauty in every aspect of our being, pushing back the darkness for all we're worth
No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life...because we are working beside you to show that love wins and that Jesus is loose in the world, turning things upside down and making everything new.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday Evensong at Coventry Cathedral Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 20:9-19

I've just returned from a long overdue retreat, spending 3 nights doing my best to be attentive to God in the hermitage at Launde. In case you thought of asking, on the whole I didn't do too badly thank you. It always takes me at least half a day to disengage from all the stuff that fills my head, to silence the well nigh ceaseless chatter and to listen...but almost always, I do reach that place when the egocentric fog clears and I return to my primary identity as a child of God. That's such a good place to be.

But why I wanted to share my recent experience was not so much to encourage you to take a retreat, though I certainly do, but to share with you what happened when I went through a green painted door in a long brick wall. It was a beautiful afternoon, filled with birdsong, and I had been wandering the grounds, enjoying the last snowdrops and the first bluebells and listening to that silence that we never really find in the city, where the low growl of traffic is a ceaseless ostinato, so familiar that we no longer notice it until it stops. And in that silence I came to the door...There was a sign, but it read not, as I'd expected "Staff only" but simply, "Please close the door". So I opened it, and went through. Through into a huge expanse of walled kitchen garden, with beds for herbs and vegetables, a deep well,a greenhouse filled with enormous improbable cacti, alien visitors from another place, who were clearly thriving where they'd landed. It was the sort of garden Mr McGregor could only have dreamed of, its beds laid out in orderly ranks, ready for the summer crops that would feed guests in the house. And that protective wall stood to contain it, giving shelter, keeping out rabbits and deer...making sure that whatever was planted had the BEST chance to flourish, fruit and grow. Everything was just as it should be. All we needed was a crop.

That was Isaiah's problem too.

My beloved had a vineyard, prepared the ground, tended the soil, planted the choicest Vine, the Vine he had brought specially from Egypt...a people to be God's own, and to model God's way of living for all the world to see. Yet this hand - picked people had let God down. For all the care lavished on them, they could not, would not be fruitful. Instead of an abundant harvest of fine grapes to share, they were producing only the tiny, bitter inedible wild grapes..fruit to pucker your mouth and set your teeth on edge.
What more was there to do?..an question taken up across the centuries by the prophet Micah , before finding its place in the agonising grief of the Good Friday reproaches. How could God love us more? Give us more of God's self?
"O my people. What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me..."
For Isaiah, here and now is the moment of truth. Looking at the vineyard, God finds no fruit, no justice, no righteousness on this Vine that is God's people, Israel. To be this Vine means to receive God's special care, God's loving nurture...but it means, too, to come under God's judgement.
And there is nothing to show him. No harvest at all.
"He expected justice but saw bloodshed, righteousness but heard a cry."
A well tended vineyard, with not a single grape. It was a theme that was to become heartbreakingly familiar.
So God spoke through the prophets again and again..the story of God's care and our neglect, God's cherishing and our indifference. As Jesus spoke to that mixed crowd in the Temple, where priests,scribes and elders mingled with disciples and the curious bystanders, everyone present knew that the vineyard parable was about them, about God's people, the Jewish nation. They knew too that the rejected messengers were those prophets who had tried, again and again, to call God's people back to themselves...and to their core relationship with God. Had tried to no avail.
But what next? A Son and heir. Now we are onto unfamiliar ground...we enter a new chapter. A Son???.
Who knows if the tenants in the parable actually had anything worth offering their landlord. Maybe, rather than cheating him of his profits, they were simply trying to hide their own fruitlessness. They knew his hopes and expectations, but knew too their own complete failure.They had nothing to offer, no matter how many messengers, prophets, sons were sent. Israel, called to be a light to the nations, a people shaped each moment by God's law of love, had become instead a people bound and defined by other laws, a people intent on protecting themselves not for the sake of the fruit they might give to the world but for their own security, hanging on for dear life to an identity that had lost its purpose.
This is not just bad discipleship but bad viniculture too. An American nun, Sr Judith Sutera OSB, who is also a master Vine dresser, writes thus
"Good vines require cutting and more cutting. A mile of runners won't give you one more grape, so get rid of the branches that don't bear fruit. Do you want to keep everything? Then expect nothing. Cut and then cut some more."
It seems that this is the point we have reached, that even God has run out of patience, that the guardians of fruitless tradition have signed their own death warrant. We have reached the end of the story of Israel the Vine, but now God begins a new project, replacing the Temple whose core purpose has been lost with one where the rejected Jesus becomes the missing piece, the corner stone to comlete the whole building. Now he becomes the template, against which we will all be measured...

Does that sound terrifying...something beyond our highest dearest aspiration? Are you, like me, left scrabbling for good news in the dirt of a vineyard that seems to be so much less fruitful than you'd hoped?

Then remember that Jesus also said I AM the Vine...not simply the one in whom God's fullest intention for Israel is made good, but the one whose runners stretch even into those places of least fruitfulness, the one who is inextricably involved with our barren hopes, our wasted efforts, our inertia, greed and fear. Jesus the Vine is connected with us in those places where we are furthest from God's will and God's pleasure...Indeed he is here scrabbling with us in the dirt as we look desperately for some harvest worthy of the name.


Today Holy Week begins and as we walk again the way of the Cross, it is to discover for ourselves that the whole story of humanity, of God's love and our intransigence is focussed on the person of Christ as he moves towards Calvary. If we follow closely, the sorrow and love that drops from the crucified one will transform our barren vineyards, softening our hard ground and harder hearts til we are fully human once more. A shoot shall spring up from the stump of Jesse...the Vine shall be renewed, its branches reaching everywhere, to bear fruits of righteousness for there is nowhere beyond the reach of that self giving love.

Poised to jump...

The strangest thing about Cathedral ministry is, pace my friends in parishes, how completely un-frantic even the highest and most holy seasons are...
I know m'colleague, the Canon Precentor, has been extraordinarily busy creating orders of service...but even he is spared the hours of nocturnal copying and anxious prayer over a reluctant machine which were for so many years an inextricable part of all major celebrations in the parish. 
With so few children and no schools to call our own, there's no cutting out and prepping for family crafts at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, and Experience Easter was left in the capable hands of the schools team. 
Music? That's down to the choirs, of course. Rota for the Maundy Watch? Not part of life here...any more than the Holy Saturday spring clean. And so it goes on. The many wonderful teams that make up cathedral life simply do their jobs..the tasks of preaching and leading worship are shared without fuss...and such paddling under the surface as does go on is shared out too.

So one thing to say as Holy Week begins is a huge THANK YOU to everyone whose work makes it happen. When I came home from the Cathedral after worship this morning, the vergers were just settling down to prepare the oils for blessing at Thursday's Chrism Mass. I sometimes wonder if the verging team could usefully have the subtitle "The team that never sleeps...".

But I'm also wondering whether there is something about the intense busyness of a parish observance that actually helps with the spiritual journey too. Right now this feels as if it could be a week like any other, give or take that point each evening when we come together for Compline as the shadows lengthen, in the Cathedral as in Jerusalem. 
I hope that, despite the fact that all that is required of me is that I step at the right moment into the places alotted to me, I find ways to immerse myself, heart, mind and soul, in the week that changed the world. It's the most important journey of all.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Passion Sunday at Coventry Cathedral


There's something about this place...Coventry Cathedral. From outside it may look rather like a concrete barn, and the inside isn't exactly warm and cosy but still and all, there's a certain something...Something that seems to inspire extraordinary devotion from people who are left cold by other church buildings, - and even by the faith behind them.

Something that draws in volunteers from well beyond the city boundaries, as singers and bakers, needlewomen, archivists and guides - and many many more. Something that  inspires staff to work with a dedication that far exceeds the call of duty...just ask our soon to be commissioned Dean's Verger Jon about that...Or ask his wife about those times when he pops in to the Cathedral though officially off duty, to sort out some verging crisis or another. Devotion over and above...
Not that I can talk.
A few months ago I heard myself talking about a commitment to love and to cherish the place – and it was pointed out that I was using the language of marriage.

Yes, there's something about our Cathedral, right enough.

You could say that, after a while, it becomes a passion..though not, I hope, a consuming one. There's always a danger that special places, particularly those that are designed to act as sign posts become instead destinations, an end in themselves...

But mostly we, who gather this morning, know that this cathedal has a greater purpose...as a theatre of memory, in which God's story is retold day by day, week by week, as we come to worship and find ways to hold, even make sense of our own stories within God's overarching narrative of  love.

We tell the story of God made man, recall the events that shape and define our faith as we travel through the year, from Christmas, through Lent and now, now we reach Passion Sunday.
Passion Sunday.
What are we to make of that? It's not, after all, the Sunday when we HEAR one of the Passion gospels read aloud – that comes next week, as a solemn post-script to the triumph of Palm Sunday.

So today our focus is on something else...

Not  THE Passion – Christ's suffering on the cross, though that has come very close......but, rather, the passion behind the Passion.

This is what inspires us and draws us to worship.

We're here because of God's passion for us – that overwhelming love that brought the universe into being and is endlessly poured out on each and every one of God's children.

We are here because that passion seeks us out relentlessly (the ceaseless pursuit of the Hound of Heaven) and is not content until it has brought about our ultimate salvation...

One dictionary defines of passion as “intense desire” - and indeed it is God's intense desire for us to come into relationship with Him that lies at the root of everything. That desire, that passion, is so great that had you or I been the only person ever born into our world, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter would still have happened – just for us.
 

But we tend to think of passion as a two way process – the glue that holds a relationship together... so what of our part in the process? Those who come here week by week will know we have been exploring how we score in evaluating the 8 Essential Qualities of healthy, growing churches...one of which, - which achieved neither our top nor bottom score – is Passionate Spirituality. In other words, our passion for God. In other words, we seem to think that we're rather lukewarm about our faith.I'm kind of sad about that, though by no means surprised. We don't tend to get overexcited about things in these parts really...We are a community that values dignity, decency, order...and the beauty of holiness, but I wonder how it would be if we were as wildly enthusiastic about God as God is about us. Can you imagine if we were people whose relationship with God was obviously and incontravertibly the most important thing in life.
Would that delight or alarm you?
We don't want to be seen as a load of nutty Christians after all....but still I wonder how it would be if we were a community whose love for God was a flame that burned so brightly that it drew others to its warmth and light?

But the reality is that like most other churches, our passion for God can sometimes be hard to spot at all.

God pours out his love without any inhibition, in wild and glorious abandon...giving of God's self as unreservedly as Mary gave of her precious ointment in today's gospel. Here is love vast as the ocean. How do I respond to that? With cautious good manners or a comparable reckless generosity?

“It is most wonderful to see his love for me so free and sure
but tis more wonderful to see my love for him so faint and poor”

runs a hymn I sang in childhood – and the sad truth is that most often, even when I focus as best I can on the wonder of God's love, I hold back, shrink from throwing myself into his arms.

I'm don't really understand why – though I guess it has something to do with a core of selfish, rebellious independence. Passion, you see, is apt to sweep you off your feet...and that doesn't sound so good if you want to choose your own path. Who knows where you might end up - even Coventry Cathedral. So, that foolishly self-reliant core, that part of me that fears to be lost in wonder love and praise, continues to hold out on God...even while I know that I will be most fully myself when I am lost in Him.

My better, best self, reading the gospel we've shared this morning identifies completely with Mary, ready to pour out her costliest treasure – that fragrant, wickedly expensive perfume – worth a whole year's wage for a labourer..I long to show Jesus that I can and will give him everything, worldly goods, heart, mind and soul, every moment of every day– just as he, in his passion, has given me everything.

I want to show my love in ways that will fill the whole house - even a space as big as this cathedral- with a beautiful perfume, so that nobody can miss my extravagant devotion.

That's my best self.

But I know in my heart of hearts that, had I been one of the crowd in that house in Bethany, I would probably have grumbled with Judas about the terrible waste, tutted in disapproval at such public displays of emotion, looked away, embarrassed at such naked feeling. Who does she think she is, making an exhibition of herself like that?  It's not very British after all.

I wonder, had I stood at the foot of the cross, if my reaction might not have been equally luke warm – for surely there has never been such a public display of longing love since the world began. Arms of love open wide to embrace the whole of creation – even me.

And yet, in the face of all that love, I still struggle to enter into God's Passion for me, risk remaining forever a spectator as I try to hold onto an independence that is, in the end, worth nothing.

“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things...”, or, to put it another way,
“whoever tries to keep their life will lose it”.

That's the kind of passion we might aspire to as we contemplate God's passion for us. The kind of passion that will lend purpose to everything we attempt - be it caring for this building or its artistic treasures, welcoming visitors to explore or to worship, worrying about fabric, money, resources...
That passion has the power to transform everything.
If, like me, you fear that you fall far short, might we at least dare to ask God for the courage and faith to let go, to risk the fall into those everlasting arms –for only then we will really discover their strength and their gentleness as they hold us secure.
 
And might we, this Passiontide and beyond, aspire to make these words true in our lives 

“Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small.Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”

Saturday, February 27, 2016

No such thing as a free lunch - a sermon for Lent 3C at All Saints High Wycombe

There's no such thing as a free lunch!
That's the sort of popular wisdom that can make the job of a Christian priest kind of challenging.
How do you persuade people that actually everything that really matters is gift when their learned experience has been that the good things in life are only available to those with enough wealth to procure them or enough cheek to blag them?

How do you speak into a culture of scarcity, a prevailing sense that there is never enough to go round...that a gain for you is a loss for me...with news of overwhelming abundance there for the asking?
There's no such thing as a free lunch – except when there is!

Sometimes it seems that what ought to be one of the easiest bits of the gospel to share– God's amazing grace – becomes instead one of the hardest challenges for the world today.
Rather than responding to God's great invitation with eager hearts and open hands, we hang back, deliberate, finally turn away because, perhaps, we're just not thirsty today, thank you.
You see on the whole we like to feel we have earned whatever reward we receive
We relish the illusion of control...the idea that we can pick and choose which invitations to accept, weigh up for ourselves whose hospitality is good enough.

And of course the snag with Gods hospitality is that it is so extremely indiscriminate.

Last month at Coventry Cathedral we launched a new service within our regular informal series that we call OPEN. OPEN Table does exactly what it says on the jar...It offers hospitality – food and friendship, to anyone who happens to turn up. The significant thing about it is that the service is held at the back of the cathedral nave, beside the great glass screens and miles away from the Graham Sutherland tapestry that dominates the space behind the altar. THIS table is spread where everyone can see....And hopefully they can see that those who are gathering aren't the usual beautifully scrubbed retired academics who form the bulk of our Sunday morning congregation...
At our first OPEN table we had recovering alcoholics, and Mother's Union stalwarts... guys struggling with overwhelming mental illness and professional couples with children at uni... ..middle-aged, middle class clergy and atheists turned reluctant believers, post-graduate students and people who left school at 14 without passing a single exam, people with a troubled and troubling past and West Indian ladies whose whole lives have been shaped by their trust in God.
We sat round the table together and we ate and we talked about life and maybe, a little, about faith...
And we laughed and sang and God was present.
Oh goodness, God WAS present...but so was everyone else.

And maybe that's just too much for some of us to deal with, specially if we're not really sure that we're either hungry or thirsty. We have places we'd prefer to be, rather than shoulder to shoulder with this motley crew of hungry, thirsty souls.
We seem, on the whole, to be getting on quite nicely spending money on fake bread, expending labour on short-term satisfaction
We think we're doing alright – stars and directors of our own shows.
We're not really hungry, not really in need of anything much at all...

But amid the language of invitation and abundance, speaking through Isaiah God makes it clear what is really on offer:
 
Incline your ear and come to me.
Listen , so that you may live.

If that doesn't bring us up short, - well, really, it should.
This, it turns out, is a matter of life and death.
Isaiah is speaking to a nation in exile, tempted to blend in to life in Babylon, to risk losing their core identity as God's people...but invited to something infinitely greater.
You shall call nations that you do not know..”
They are offered the chance to tell the world that God's unconditional embrace extends towards those who were not at first part of his chosen people – and we, and they, discover that HE chooses everyone.

But – here's the rub – we have a choice too.
We might argue that God was unwise in allowing this – but there it is.
God wanted people capable of relationship, not robots constrained by pre-determined programs.
We have a choice.
We can seek the Lord – there is opportunity right here in this place, today – and any day that we pause to turn our hearts and minds God's way.
He is always to be found...always, always closer that our closest thoughts...
It's not that hard, I promise.
We can change direction, abandon our attempts at pointless independence and return to the Lord who will have mercy...
But we do have to choose.

Much of my personal theology was shaped by a childhood spent repeatedly re-reading
C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Through the stories feasts happen again and again, to celebrate a new order, a restoration of how things should be...but the feast that I remember most clearly is the one in the Last Battle – the one that the dwarves refused to recognise at all.
If the book is unfamiliar, do read it...but for now, the situation is this:
A group of dwarves who, in the midst of the last battle of Narnia, sided only with themselves, fought against both sides, and in the end, were captured and thrown into the stable by the Calormenes. Despite the fact that Aslan, the great lion who represents Christ, had enchanted the stable door so it would bring the people safely home into the true Narnia, the dwarves could not grasp this. They believed they were in a stable, without light, and anyone who tried to suggest anything else was tricking them...
And here in the new, true Narnia, a feast was set...

"pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a Stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said, ‘Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.’ "

Amid all the delight of finally reaching the new Jerusalem, of celebrating home-coming in all its joy
( “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...")

it was this picture that stayed with me through 5 decades.

That little group whose determination to hold on to their own independence meant that, in the end, they excluded themselves from all the joy that surrounded them used to break my heart.
 
MY heart!!!

Just think what our own intransigence does for God...

For this is the God of the second chance, the God who is a patient gardener, whose will is that nothing shall be lost, but all in the end harvest....the God who sets his table for all, and bids us come to the feast.
All we have to do to qualify is to be hungry and thirsty, to long for Him and his ways and thoughts that are so much greater and higher than ours.

Perhaps that's were we falter.
Can we believe there is a place laid even for us, that our longing for God is far far outstripped by God's longing for us?

30 years ago I reluctantly accepted that, without further funding, my PhD on George Herbert would never be completed...Nonetheless, it is to Herbert that I turn again and again as I try to disentangle my own inconsistencies, my longing for and flight from the God whose table we will set in just a few minutes.
 
You'll know these words, but listen and hear the drama played out in your own life and your own soul. May you choose life, and come to the place made ready at God's great feast.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But 
quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
Truth Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my 
meat:’
So I did sit and eat.
 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lent 1 C sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist

I wonder if you've noticed how often the life of faith seems to be lived aboard a roller-coaster. You attend a service where God's presence is so evident that you feel sure that the whole world will look different forever – then go outside to discover that you have a flat tyre...
You go on retreat and encounter God in a new way, then return home and pick up the threads of a long-standing family disagreement as if nothing had happened.
A Warden in my curacy parish used to describe the process like this
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit...” is ALWAYS followed by “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be”.
In other words, - those mountaintop experiences that we thought about last week are often followed by something that brings us down to earth with a bump, reminding us that we are, each and every one of us, very much works in progress...that we may manage two steps forward, but there will often be one step back.

I wonder if that's how it seemed for Jesus. In the previous chapter, Luke tells us of his baptism, of the Spirit descending upon him and that wonderful voice, speaking directly to him
You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.
Now, he leaves the Jordan behind him and goes into the wilderness.

It's interesting that whereas Matthew tells us that the Spirit led Jesus inTO the wilderness, providing the motivation for this journey, Luke sees it rather differently.

Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness he says.

In other words...the Spirit was there throughout the whole experience, not just at the start.

That's something we need to remember. The wilderness – a landscape of disorientation,loneliness,and deprivation – is nonetheless a place where God's Spirit is present and active.

That may not be the way it felt to Jesus for those 40 days as he fasted and struggled...but though he was famished, empty – he was FULL of the Holy Spirit...the Spirit who never left him, even for a moment.

Standing, as we do, outside the gospel story we might assume that Jesus always knew what would happen – but surely as he emptied himself of his divinity to become fully human, Jesus also emptied himself of divine foreknowledge. His wilderness experience was REAL for him – not something manufactured as a teaching point for us...
But against all expectation, that place of deprivation and loneliness became a place of self-discovery and of blessing – for Jesus and for us too.

Each of the temptations offered him were temptations to be LESS than his true self and so we are shown Jesus wrestling with what shape his ministry will take. The tempter is crafty. This isn't about chocolate or single malt or an expensive sports car but something far more important...howJesus will inspire people to follow, and engage with building the Kingdom.
Will he go for the quick fix and the easy win?...And will it really matter if he does?

It sounds so innocent, really.
IF you are the Son of God – command this stone to become a loaf”
Well, why not indeed?
What harm could it do.
He was famished, after all. 40 days is a long time to fast.
After all, God once provided manna for his people in the wilderness...and Jesus could surely do the same – but to do so now would be to cheat...to step outside the limitations of his humanity, just for his own benefit.
And so he will have none of it.

You see, I think that's the nub of it all.
To do something just for his own benefit would be to compromise the heart of his ministry and of his identity.
To value oneself above anything else is the root and ground of all genuine temptation – and surely one of the strongest voices in society today.
We're encouraged to see ourselves as privileged consumers, to focus on our own rights, to delight in having free choice in most things, even where and how we worship God.
It's disturbingly easy, as you look at 21st century western culture, to believe that life really IS all about ME, that I am indeed the centre of the universe -...so I'm thankful that Jesus met this head on.
Not for him “Because I'm worth it...”
Rather in his steadfast insistence that
We do not live by bread alone” Jesus reminds us that getting what you want may not be the best thing for you...even if what you want is in no way bad in itself. There are other things that matter more.
Readers are expected to hear the rest of the words that Jesus leaves unspoken, recalling that gift of manna described in Deuteronomy 8
He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[a]
This experience, then, is about humilty and about dependence on God....We are creatures made to exist in relationship – above all in relationship to God, whose word shapes our lives.

So far, so good.

Jesus stays true to himself but next comes the temptation of power, an easy route to victory – all gain with no pain. To yield would mean Jesus ruling the world – but enthralled to Satan and thus so much less than himself.

Later Jesus would show all times and all people that God's power is made perfect in weakness, - for the greatest moment of his glory was when he was lifted on the cross, in powerless vulnerability. I don't think Satan understands that kind of power – not then, not ever.
For now Jesus simply asserts that all worship belongs to God...worship offered elsewhere is meaningless and empty – for worship is all about putting things in their proper order..
God first.

Finally he's encouraged to make God PROVE that he cares.
Go on.....jump....He'll save you if you're THAT special”
I know I fall into this one again and again....for despite all the evidence I find it hard to really believe that I am loved and worthy of salvation...while my head knows better, my heart continues to struggle from time to time with the outrageous grace of a God who cares enough to share our human life AND our human death...triumphantly demonstrating that there's nothing He won't do for us
Because you're worth it”
Jesus is the proof of God's love – not a needy recipient of it....and in this 3rd exchange we hear him coming into his own identiy. He is secure in the knowledge and love of God..and so the Scripture he speaks becomes in itself a declaration
Do not put the Lord your God to the test”
Yes, Jesus is quoting once again...but as he rejects the idea of tempting God he is also sending the tempter packing...routing him from his work of tempting God made man in Christ.
So through these temptations Jesus discovers his true identity and the course he is to take.He reveals something of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, which is founded on unconditional, unwaveriing love. The Spirit leads Jesus in the wilderness, because the Spirit leads him everywhere.

Great. As one friend put it in her sermon on this passage “Bully for Jesus. He's filled with the Spirit, never alone...but what about us?”

What help is it for us that he was tempted? What difference will it make when we enter the desert places of our own lives, when we feel ourselves deserted...

Actually, you know, the same holds good.
We are never alone....and those wilderness experiences, those times of desolation, are also the times when we have room to grow, and to discover both the truth of who we are and the wonder that God knows that and loves us all the same.

Our temptations are important in helping us to recognise the flaws and weaknesses, the engrained distortions of reality that we barely notice any more. In the wilderness, there is less going on around us – more chance to notice what is going on inside. Our temptations may, like those we've heard about today, attract us at first because they seem to be routes to a greater good...but in fact they are byways, leading nowhere.

During Lent, we are each of us invited to spend time considering both who we are and who God calls us to be. That's the point of it all.
We go into our own wilderness to seek God in the silence of a less cluttered landscape.
For in these forty days you lead us into the desert of repentance, that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again”











To learn to be God's people.
That's our core purpose...the reason we are here...not just here in the Wilderness, but here on this earth at all...and so the wilderness experience is something to be welcomed and cherished. You see, we can be confident that even in those apparently unfriendly surroundings the Spirit is present, leading us, helping us to strip away the small props and luxuries that we've come to rely on, enabling us to increase our conscious dependence on Him.

The wilderness is the place where we recognise who we are, our own particular temptations, and face them head on, so that we might come to a deeper understanding of our own nature.
It's also a perfect place to meet with God.
It's quiet out there – a good place to listen...so spend this time listening.
Listen to the voice of your ego, the one that insists
Go on.......because your worth it” and in listening come to a greater understanding of your own struggles and difficulties.
But having listened to yourself, listen even harder to the still small voice of God.
Expect to hear Him – and pay attention to his transforming words of love.