Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ride on, ride on

I've always loved Palm Sunday.

At the vertiginously high church of my early childhood, St John the Evangelist, Upper St Leonards, I was enthralled by the idea of the choir and clergy ALLOWED OUTSIDE THE CHURCH in all their amazing "dressing up clothes" and entirely happy to be associated with them in a rather sedate procession down Brittany Road from the hall to the church. I guess it was those processions that meant that I learned the words of the great Palm Sunday hymns very early...I was transfixed by the image of "the Father on his sapphire throne" and those incredulous angels "the winged squadrons of the skies look on with sad and wondr'ing eye" I was caught up both in the drama of the day - the short walk along a quiet road - and the many-layers of imagery in the hymnody, even before I found myself drawn into the gospel story itself.

Later (and still to this day) I found "My song is love unknown" expressed everything I felt and needed to say. I was acutely conscious of my own likely place in the crowd
"Sometimes they (we) strew his way and his sweet praises sing
Resounding all the day, "Hosanna to the King" 
then "Crucify" is all our breath and for his death we thirst and cry"
How could I swing from one extreme to another?
Why was it such a short journey from Palm Sunday to Good Friday?
Would I never be able to trust myself to stay on the right side in this?

I'm sure that dramatized Passion readings took place in many of the churches I've belonged to along the way - but for some reason they didn't really hit home for me til ordination. I'll never forget my first Palm Sunday presiding, when I found myself as "ex officio" Jesus - entering into the narrative in a way that took my breath away...or the echo that we roused in St Matthew's as we shouted "CRUCIFY HIM"...

But today was powerful in new and unexpected ways. 
Today I was hugely aware of endings...and the service itself underlined this from the introduction onwards

"We are all part of the rhythm of life.
We are born. We give birth.
We live in relationships.
We search for meaning.
We make choices.
We face endings.
As we celebrate this day of our journey together - PEACE BE WITH YOU".

We've used this liturgy for several years now - but, oh goodness, it hit home as I contemplated Holy Week spread out before me, my last as vicar of Cainscross. 
It has been such a huge privilege to help this congregation recover their sense of a week full of worship, to try gentle experiments til we worked out what felt best for these people at this time...and though honesty demands that I acknowledge my failure to persuade the whole congregation to walk the way of the cross through the week, the little core who attend everything seem to find the experience every bit as challenging and moving as I do.

And today our Passion Gospel must have been the best yet.
Sitting in the pews with that splendidly mixed group - a female Evangelist, a teenage Christ and a whole crowd of wonderful others - it was brought home to me as never before that this IS our story. 
Not long ago and far away but here and now - in Cainscross, in Coventry and beyond.

Maybe it's not surprising that the little girl next to me had to ask - in a rather pointed stage whisper
"Kathryn - are you CRYING?"
To which the only possible response was "Might be...."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Written for 8.00 at St Matthew's - though it may not actually be preached

Several years ago now, I was working with a group of children to design our own set of Holy Week stations. We tried to sum up the message of each event in a single caption, and for today the caption was
Welcome Jesus!
And of course welcome is very much the flavour of the day, with cheering crowds in holiday mood.

The triumphal entry....” that's what we call it....instantly connecting Jesus with all those set piece returns of Roman generals, led in procession to the Temple after a glorious victory
See the conquering hero comes”
What's actually going on?
It's easy for us to interpret Palm Sunday in the light of Easter proclaim, as we will next week
"Endless is the victory..." but the Jerusalem crowd knows nothing of this – so why are they celebrating?
Perhaps it's just that good-humoured holiday excitement that wants to turn everything into a festival.
Perhaps the crowd is trying to force Jesus' hand, by proclaiming him a conquering hero to turn him into one on the spot...seizing the moment to rush in and overthrow the Roman army then and there.

See the conquering hero comes!

But actually this is an entirely manufactured triumph
The conquering hero comes not in a chariot, nor on a white charger but on a colt the foal of an ass. He is not preceded by prisoners of war but acclaimed by some of those he has freed...through life changing words and miracles.
We shouldn't be surprised. The way of the Kingdom is now, and always has been, to subvert our expectations.
Right from the start the agenda has been quite simply to turn the world upside down til, paradoxically, it finds itself right way up once more, restored to it's true self, as it was in the beginning when God looked at creation and saw it was good.

But...back in Jerusalem that festival day,there is till much to do. Having shouted their welcome, the crowd disperses and Jesus is left alone. But he continues to follow the pattern set for triumphal entries....and goes to the Temple.
What he finds there makes him very very angry.
Here where there should be an all-inclusive the very court of the Gentiles,open to all comers...were people intent on feathering their own nest at the expense of others.
Money changers had their place could not do much in the Temple complex til you had Temple coins in your hand....but was was going on here was extortion, exploitation...and an abuse of hospitality.

It couldn't go on...

So the conquering hero behaves like an angry teenager...

Storming in, turning the tables upside down, sending the soon to be sacrificial chickens scuttling across the courtyard clucking wildly.
Cleansing the Temple – that's what we call it...but it might have felt more like a violation – a riot – the sort of thing that the tabloids decried so vehemently in 2011....
Cleansing depends on your perspective – and for those whose tables were overturned, it can't have been a positive experience.

But still, as I pondered what God wanted me to say to you – and to myself – this Holy Week, it was to the cleansing of the Temple that I returned again and again.
If the children were right, that the message of today could and should be “Welcome, Jesus” - then I wonder what work he needs to do in each one of us, so that the Temple of our hearts can become a place where he is truly welcomed and at home...
What things have we allowed to grow out of proportion?
What is preventing us from being hospitable to God – and to his people?

We know, don't we, that we belong with those fickle crowds whose hosanna turn so rapidly to Crucify him...
We know that while we long to welcome Jesus, we so often find him a difficult and demanding guest
So – this Holy Week, may I invite you to talk to him about the things that need cleansing within you...
Ask him for the courage to LET him transform you.
It may not be comfortable – but in this week when we walk the way of the cross, perhaps that's as it should be.
There may be things we hate to let go...but if we want to welcome Jesus, then we need to make room for him, and all his demands.

He's not an easy guest – but he's the only One who can save us all.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Things you can't throw away

So the decluttering process continues - as the move gets ever nearer.
In 3 weeks time, we should be in Coventry, however unlikely that seems at the moment.
This means that I have just 2 weeks to get rid of all the surplus stuff we really can't accommodate...things that we had kept "just in case" have to really EARN their right to travel with us, as storage space is scarce, and I have finally tackled the infinite number of files and folders that have jammed the 4 drawer filing cabinet and taken up several feet of bookcase for a good long time now.

Actually, the filing cabinet was pretty easy. So much of the stuff that I used to save carefully is now online...and who needs sermons so old that they predate the use of the PC? There were, inevitably, piles of paper of a vaguely financial nature that scared me so much they have earned a place in a box marked "Probably dead, but may not lie down" in case I might need them one day for the Tax Man...but I filled 3 large recycling boxes with barely a backward glance.
And it was morning and it was evening. The nth day.

But then I came to the numerous files from ordination training. All those pages and pages of notes and handouts, which I have never consulted, as I'd mostly forgotten I had them...Some assignments that were thought-provoking enough to be readable without embarrassment - and which I've allowed to survive...And the feed-back sheets. Oh, those feed-back sheets!
Completed with such care and love by my wonderful village congregations in the Rissingtons...They worked so hard, those small communities, loving, praying and encouraging me through the process - through my first unsuccessful selection conference, helping me brave a re-run by their conviction that I was a priest, whatever the selectors might feel, and finally letting me share my excitement and my struggles as I trained.
Including listening to any number of sermons, and evaluating all kinds of worship that was way beyond their normal experience - or indeed, their normal preference.
Ann, Joan, Donald & Arthur are now safe home with God, though others who took the time to help me train continue to bless those churches with their presence, - but reading their thoughtful, generous comments last night I could HEAR their voices - and gave thanks for the whole army of people who have spurred me on the way.
It may take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a Church - or three - to form a priest.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

8.00 homily for Passion Sunday Yr A Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45

It's probably safe to assume that I'm the only person present today who is sad enough to subscribe to the Church Times....!
Recently that trade rag ran a 4 part series, a Health Check on the C of E.
Though there were many happy things to celebrate, overall the picture was not too bright.
We might not yet be staring the Grim Reaper straight in the eye, but nobody could claim that we are exactly hale and hearty.
Look around at the churches of Stroud.
There are pockets of life – but an awful lot that is struggling, weary, dying...

And today we have 2 readings that speak to this situation, as surely as they have spoken into situations of decline death and decay through millennia.
Let's start with dem bones....dem dry bones
Scattered in the valley, the aftermath of some terrible battle perhaps
A grim reminder of mortality, of the brevity of our time here
Just a heap of bones – with nothing to tell the stories of the people they once were.

Dry bones.

And then...Then Ezekiel prophecies as God directs....and gradually, impossibly, the bones begin to come together. And he speaks again and they put on flesh once more. And finally the Spirit moves and they return to life.
Living and breathing
A vast multitude...the dead restored...

Fast forward to our gospel reading – and once again the dead live.
Jesus calls his friend Lazarus back to the land of the living – and tells the astounded onlookers to unbind him.
Called in to new life by his Saviour and Lord, he is still confined, constrained by the trappings of death.

That made me stop to think.
Are there things that still bind us, as individuals, or as a church – even when we have heard the voice of Jesus calling us back to our selves, inviting us to enter into the fullness of life and joy he offers...
I'm sure there are for me...I wonder what they might be for you?
The duties laid on you by the expectations of others?
The heavy weight of yesterday – the limitations we impose on ourselves when we allow ourselves to carry on believing an unkind word or hasty judgement from decades past...when we take on another's judgement as our essential truth?
Fear of failure?
Or the equally pernicious fear of success?

There are many things to bind an individual...

And there are as many that bind the church
Nostalgia for a lost utopia – a golden age when churches were full to overflowing and God and politics marched hand in hand
Attachment to beloved buildings that prevent us from re-imagining our worship in ways that make sense to the lost generations
Determination to focus on unity at almost any cost
And more fear....
So much fear.
If a stranger walked into our worship this morning, I wonder what she would see?
Dry bones?
Bodies trapped in grave clothes?
Or people living the new life for to which they are called?

We know, each one of us, that God calls US to fullness of life...that his passion for us is expressed in 100% perfect love.
It is that love that can breathe life into our dry bones...that love, casting out fear, that calls us from the darkness of death to walk free in the sunshine once again.
It is that love, too, that can transform the Church – which is, after all, not ours but God's....

So, on this Passion Sunday, let's pray that God will once again pour his love into our hearts, that we might live transformed by his Spirit and share that love and that life as signs of his kingdom where dry bones live and the dead are raised to newness of life.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The absence of bookcases

Last Friday, my first-born left home.

She has done this before, of course.From the times when she ran away to the bottom of the garden as a child (Mummy - you just don't understand!) through her departure to work at a Thai orphanage in her Gap year, to her undergraduate and post-graduate courses. In fact, though she has spent the last year largely living at the vicarage, she's been more absent than present since she first left home at 19, so that I never ever took her presence for granted, but enjoyed it hugely when she was here. 

Despite this, last week was different.

You see, this time she took not only herself and the contents of her wardrobe - but also her cat, her books AND the bookcases they had lived upon.
So, in the space of a few days a room that was full of her creative presence, a wonderful muddle of fabric and print, almost always with a cat curled up on the bed, was transformed into an abandoned shell...a space that looks a touch grubby, a little sad, and very very EMPTY.

It was the departure of the books that made me realise that this is real. She really has made her home in another place (though she will still have a room that is "hers" in the Canonry, I really don't expect she'll be aiming to spend much time in it) - and that's just as it should be. She has friends, work and a whole network of connections that make the south-west the place for her and I suspect that even had I not been on the move north, she would soon have wanted to avoid a daily commute to Bath/Bristol and struck out on her own.
That's what growing up is all about - and though it's less fun for the parent than for the child, it's part of the fabric of life.

And, as so often, my daughter has helped me to see things in a new way. Her That empty room of hers has helped me to realise that, much though I love the vicarage, and happy though our time living here has been, when you take away the people it IS just a house...
In 4 weeks time, DV, we'll be settling into another environment, cramming the empty spaces there with the trash and the treasures of family life, filling its silence with our noise, the chatter, the squabbles and the music. I have no idea how life will be there, what events will shape our family in the time we spend there - but I'm pretty confident that once my book boxes have been unpacked and the cats are back to purring on my bed, I'll be certain we have come home.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mothering Sunday homily for 8.00. Love can break your heart.

Love can break your heart
That might seem to be the message of today's gospel.
You have both options printed on your sheet – but whichever passage you choose to reflect on, there's not a whiff of hallmark sentimentality about today.
A sword shall pierce your soul” predicted Simeon – and as Passiontide approaches we begin to remember once again how hard it was to be the Mother of watch your precious son court disaster by his lifestyle, his choice of friends, his choice of words...even before you find yourself standing at the foot of the cross as he dies in agony.

That kind of desperate anxiety about another is part of the business of loving too, I think – part of investing so much of ourselves IN the other that when they hurt, we hurt too.
A situation that's so very familiar to mothers – but equally to fathers, brothers, sisters, friends...

Because, you see, mothering,and all that it entails, has never been exclusive to those women who have given birth.
At its best, motherhood can be a wonderful reflection of God's nurturing love
At its worst it can be neglectful, manipulative, possessive and a whole host of other things besides – and I know that many people struggle with today, and some regulars will stay away from church because their own experience as either parent or child has left them bruised and broken.
Then there are those who have longed to be parents – but it just hasn't happened, whose empty arms make today almost intolerable..another group who feel that this Sunday is not for them...
Having had a miscarriage on the eve of Mothering Sunday myself I can empathise with their feelings.
And of course, there are those who will spend today missing their mothers – or their children. Holding onto the love but knowing the pain of absence as well.
Love can break your heart and Mothers' day as it is celebrated by secular society can be extraordinarily hard for many many people...

So – why keep on celebrating it at all – when there is so much potential for causing distress for which not all the daffodils in the world will ever begin to compensate?
Why not just write it off as a secular celebration and focus on the readings set for Lent 4, without even thinking of Mothering Sunday.
Because, of course, Mothering Sunday – unlike the secular celebration of “Mothers' Day” has never been all about mothers...
On Mothering Sunday we celebrate all those who have mothered us, those loving souls whose care and encouragement have made all the difference to us – women and men and children too...
Yes, of course we give thanks for those who laboured that we might have life, who physically brought us into this world – whatever their impact on us afterwards.
But we remember, too, that we are called into community – the family of the church that was created as Jesus gave his mother into the care of his friend, at that moment of terrible pain which looked like the end of all hope,everywhere.
And we remember that we have inherited that calling to mother, to nurture one another, to provide loving arms to hold and to hug at the hard show others the kind of care that might, at its best, be at least a partial reflection of the amazing love that God offers us all – even when we break HIS heart with our failure to love in return.

And we come to our mother church – the place that has nurtured us in our faith, that feeds us week by week with God's Word and his very life, offered to us in Bread and Wine.

And maybe we remember that though Love can break your heart- beyond the pain and heartbreak that Mary experienced at the foot of the cross, the dawn of Resurrection is already shining – and so we try to live as signs of that new hope, and the world in which God's mothering love is known and shared by all....

Monday, March 24, 2014

Goodbye and thanks for all the fish!

was pretty much all I could think of when asked this morning to write the letter for the team magazine. I'm not finding this business of leaving easy in any way - and having chuntered, agonised and procrastinated all day, it seems like a good idea to post the final product here to remind myself of some things I might need to remember

Dear Friends,
4 weeks to go!
However did that happen? One moment my depature was far in the future - “not til after Easter” - but now Lent is shooting past at the gallop and I'm confronting a series of “lasts”. Already I've had my last Eucharist at St Lawrence, my last Assembly at Cashes Green School, my last regular Messy Church – and goodness, it hurts! Many of you have kindly asked if I'm looking forward to my new post – and the answer, right now, is that it's very hard indeed to see past the sadness of farewell, though I know that once I'm actually THERE it will all look quite different and more than a little exciting.

But I think it's OK to grieve, all the same. The past 6 years have included so much that is really wonderful, too many highlights to name. I've shared friendships and fun, holy moments in worship and at bedsides, important anniversaries (100th birthdays for parishioners, 175th birthday for a church) and episcopal (and archi-episcopal) visits. I've experienced the delight of helping to train curates, and watching them grow into their vocations as ministers of word and sacrament. I've welcomed children to receive Communion for the first time and found myself invited into people's lives at times of immense joy and real tragedy. It has been, and remains, a tremendous blessing and I have learned so much from all of you – so saying “Goodbye” is bound to be painful.

I'd imagined that with 4 months to plan, I would be able to tie up loose ends, visit everyone I wanted to and hand on everything in tip-top condition – but of course I had reckoned without the way that real life continues relentlessly, - and there always quite enough to fill the days, without even thinking of preparations for departure. Perhaps one reason that Jesus told us from the cross “It is finished” was because he alone was able to achieve all that he set out to. Certainly my hopeful plans unravel even as I look at them and though I'll do my best, I know I won't be able to “end off tidily”, as Sr Theresa always encouraged us in junior school sewing class.

Perhaps it's just as well, then, that I'm actually leaving in the Easter season, with its eternal promise of hope restored beyond even the messiest, saddest partings. While for me Lent seems to be passing all too quickly, I know that for many the resurrection hope seems a long time coming. Our world currently seems colder, sadder, more cynical than at any point in my lifetime – and it breaks my heart that in some ways the church seems to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. BUT we have a gospel to proclaim – genuine good news of eternal significance which our communities will only come to recognise if they see it reflected in our lives. The God of Easter shows us that there is nothing so broken or painful that it can't be transformed – but he calls us to be part of the process of transformation as the Body of Christ here today.

So – look after one another, knowing that God will look after you – and remember that wherever we travel, He goes with us.

With my love, thanks and many blessings