Monday, May 04, 2015

God of surprises!

Is it just 10 days ago that I posted, on my return from On Fire, that the greatest joy of being there was being with a community who were eager and expectant for God to act?
That's a rhetorical question actually. I know perfectly well how long ago it was - but I'm asking myself the question because I'm both amused and rather ashamed of myself.

Last night, you see, our Later@CoventryCathedral service included anointing - and the Dean, who has just returned from the Holy Land, prayed rather beautifully that we might not only tread in the footsteps of Jesus, but see with his eyes, touch with his hands, love with his heart.
It was powerful stuff that had me rocking on my feet (very glad he restrained me: the marble floor of Coventry Cathedral is not one to fall on with not a catcher in sight, I can tell you). I went to sit down feeling rather full of joy and delight. I enjoyed the rest of the worship, caught up with some lovely people and giggled quietly to myself at the way in which God has persuaded me that the service which I viewed with most anxiety before I arrived at Coventry could become one of my greatest sources of refreshment here. As I introduced it yesterday, I had commented that Later always has rather the flavour of a family service - in which anything might happen, and frequently does. (It was at this service that someone once arrived wearing an umbrella and nothing else)...Before I came, I'd expected to loathe it - but have happily adopted it, together with the wonderful mix of people (normally fully-clad) who come week by week. 

All of which should, perhaps, have prepared me for God to get up to something - but being rather dim, I left the Cathedral expecting to head quietly home. 
That was before I saw the man lying on the pavement in Bayley Lane...

What unfolded next was both really sad and rather amazing.
Of course we stopped, tried to find out what had happened (trying hard not to draw too many conclusions from the beer can lying beside him), phoned an ambulance, tried to make him comfortable on the pavement...
We were joined by 2 lovely girls, dressed for a night out - but one a trained first-aider, the other a dental nurse...both of whom delighted N., as he swam in and out of consciousness, by their youth, their beauty and their kindness.
Seeing my collar, he grabbed my hand in both his and kept apologising profusely for letting everyone down, as he told me a little of the struggles that made each day bearable only with the help of more alcohol than is ever wise.

Feeling that intense grasp of my hand - the hand that had so recently been anointed in the clean and orderly world of the cathedral, something happened to my heart. The two worlds collided, and I knew that right now the Dean's blessing was coming to life. All rather overwhelming, really - but so absolutely steeped in the presence of God that it was hard to know what to do, except kneel there and keep on loving.

Please pray for N, and for those like him who find life too painful to bear.
And feel free to remind me, as kindly as you can manage, that God ACTS....

If you have ears to hear ... Revelation 3 sermon for Evensong Coventry Cathedral Easter 5 B

If you have ears to hear, LISTEN TO WHAT THE SPIRIT IS SAYING TO THE CHURCHES!

Quite a command!

Here we are, gathered in the Cathedral church of St Michael, Coventry...doing what we do, Sunday by Sunday.
Meeting to worship God, to learn more of his ways, to form community and to practice reconciliation.
But – today is different.
Today we have what sounds just a bit like the spiritual equivalent of OFSTED for churches.

The Spirit – GOD's Spirit – the Spirit who sees into the heart of all things – of each of us and of our community too – is speaking...
And She is speaking about the life and health of seven churches

Time, then, to sit up and take notice.

Of course, this final book of the Bible is hard to negotiate.
Revelation is a book that most people struggle with, one that was for many years only grudgingly included in the canon of Scripture, a source of controversy from the first century to the present.
Strictly it isn’t a book at all. It 's a pastoral letter, written by a Christian leader to the churches for whom he was responsible,- and what’s more, it is a letter that was designed to be heard, to be read aloud during worship,- and much of its apocalyptic imagery is most effective when it is encountered by the ear and the imagination…

We need to remember, too, that like Paul's epistles, this pastoral letter is not actually addressed to us. It comes from a particular person and is intended for a particular audience, belonging firmly in a specific context which we need to understand before we can rush off and apply its words to ourselves with cheerful abandon.

Maybe this isn't our OFSTED after all...
Let's see what common ground we share.

The Christian churches in the Roman province of Asia had been established by Paul and his team in the fifties of the first century Common Era. Scholars suggest that John had his vision towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian, some 40 years later. At this time the Empire was troubled, and Christians were often adopted as scapegoats, blamed for both natural and man-made disasters, since they presented a threat to political stability with their refusal to adhere to the state religion and cult of the Emperor. Though full-scale persecution was not yet in sight, John was clearly expecting life to become harder and harder for the communities he served...Would they go with the flow and declare “Caesar is Lord”, as prudence dictated, or would they take the opportunity to bear witness to the reality and meaning of the Christian faith by standing firm, til death if need be?

John encourages them to hold on to their faith, for it is here that they will find meaning for their sufferings, beyond futile waste as part of God’s plan for the consummation of history.
For John’s original hearers, the meaning of his words was clear…only their own response remained uncertain. What would they do? What would WE do in their shoes?

That's something to ponder, right enough – even as we try to get our heads around the reality of persecution for our brothers and sisters in Christ today.
But it's not the whole message.

For each church addressed, there is greeting, an reflection that recognises and commends what is good in its life and witness, a challenge to bring that life into closer conformity with God’s will and finally a promise, to “those who overcome”…
A pattern for us too. Reflection on our current identity, challenge on our shortcomings, and a promise of future hope.

So, let’s consider what John actually says to the churches, or specifically the angels of the churches – for we are lifted from the mundane to the transcendent...
In the apocalyptic tradition, earthly realities have their counterpart in the heavenly realm and so each congregation has its own representative and guardian, the angel of the church, the embodiment of the spirit of each church, sharing her DNA, the characteristics of the congregation.

It can be really helpful to consider what the angel of our church might be like...for the angel provides a kind of snap shot of the state of the church, something to pray with and reflect on.
If you're a visitor, forgive me for being rather cathedral-centric for a bit...you might want to reflect on your home church, and your perception of the angel that guides and represents it...

Here with our dedication to St Michael – and our west screen that invites us to see the world through eyes of the ever-present holy ones – it should be easy enough to glimpse our angel...
We might use those represented in the art that surrounds us to get us started on our reflection.
Perhaps our angel is the one from the Gethsemane chapel - the angel of the agony, presenting Christ with a cup that he can only drain through obedience to the Father?
Perhaps he one of the heralds from the west screen – reminding us that we have a gospel to live and proclaim.
Perhaps he is Michael the archangel, stamping down the forces of darkness and despair.
Perhaps he quite different...
How do you see him...
Diffident or bold?
Nostalgic or enthusiastic?
Reflective or frantic?

LISTEN to what the Spirit is saying...for there will be a message for us and our angel, as the Spirit speaks to us of who we are now, our current personality and state of being, but also our future vocation.
For us, as for the churches of Revelation, the source of that vocation is the risen Christ and his action in the world.
But we do need to take a long hard look at ourselves...it's easy to miss something. Saris, after all, seems to be doing quite well
‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death '

All OK on the surface...a flourishing community....thriving congregation, lots going on....Christian service, outreach, youth and children's programmes...but beneathr the surface all is not well. Reall life doesn't match the image...the angel is almost dead, it seems...
Time to wake up, recognise the crisis and strengthen what remains alive before it's too late.

Things are different in Philadelphia – which seems to be struggling, but is hanging on
"You have but little power but have kept my word"
Externally, there is little to celebrate...It would be so easy to despair and walk away, maybe to join a community that seemed more vibrant. Let's all move to Saris. ..or maybe not!
Hold fast to what you have so that noone may seize your crown
So...What of us in Coventry...?
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, for the message is focussed on the particular gifts of these people, your neighbours sitting around you at this time, on the particular needs which exist in our context and above all on the faith that is the source and motivation of everything we do and are.

We have a wonderful story to share here – the Easter gospel expressed in solid form through our cathedral, ruined and recreated – but unless it impacts on our lives then we might as well keep silent.
We have a clear vocation – to reconciliation within our community – but beyond as well as we are called to be an active sign of God's healing and reconciling love in a church and world in desperate need.

That's quite a gift...but a challenge too.

Put simply, if we fail to live our vocation, then we become just another museum of 20th century art...With no justification for existing.
Of course The Revelation of St John was not written for Coventry Cathedral in 2015...but that doesn't let us off the hook.
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Listen and act.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

One flock, one shepherd - Sermon for Easter 4 B at Coventry Cathedral

One flock and one shepherd
What a wonderful vision...



Specially on a morning like this, when the fluffy lambs are gambolling on new-sprung grass...the stuff of rural idylls.
But, you know, sheep aren't always picturesque!

Having lived in the Cotswolds for many years, I have a good few sheep stories.
Have you ever tried to get even one stray sheep to go back where it belongs?
I vividly remember spending the best part of an hour failing to herd a trio of errant Jacobs back through the gap in the hedge through which they had clearly broken out not long before. They somehow seemed intent on scattering in far more than just three directions...refused to follow one another tidily...And I longed for a wise collie to nip them round the ankles and tell them where to go. It was raining, of course – and by the time I had slipped and slithered in mud, got scratched on brambles, and stung by a large crop of nettles, I think I had but one thought in my head:
“MINT SAUCE”.

Tell me honestly, - if Jesus had asked you first, would you have chosen to be classed as a sheep?
They aren't very glamorous, are they?
Nor startlingly intelligent.
They aren't even particularly colourful or graceful.
With the whole of creation to choose from – why, oh why, did Jesus decide to use the metaphor of shepherd and flock to describe his care for humanity?

I'd really much prefer not to be a sheep, if it's all the same to Him.

But nonetheless, that image of “one flock, one shepherd” resonates with all that is in me.

Could it ever really happen?
It feels like a distant dream when we look at a broken Church and our poor hurting world, so bitterly divided by faith, and by doubt. 
Small wonder that many decent, compassionate people have turned away from what they see as the strictures of organised religion...claiming that it lies at the root of so much that is truly dreadful.
Every news bulletin seems to carry fresh news of atrocities committed by ISIS...and we must resist the temptation to see this as a one-way process, to assume that Christians are always the good guys, always the victims.
Think Northern Ireland – or if you prefer, just a few centuries earlier, think Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts.

We don't really need much excuse to inflict pain on one another.
Being human and being humane are often very very different things – in the same way that being Christian and being Christ-like are not always identical.

And yet...and yet...the good shepherd declares with everything that he says and everything that he does, that we are, after all, worth bothering with.

And he doesn't draw demarcation lines. He lays down his life for the sheep – whatever fold they claim to belong to. After centuries of believing themselves to be God's chosen people, the impact of this on Israel was deeply shocking.
As shocking, perhaps, as it might be for us to glimpse for a moment the truth that God doesn't love the Christian victims of the persecuted church any more than he loves their aggressors
Isn't that scandalous?
Even wolves in sheep's clothing are included.
One flock, one shepherd.
That good shepherd knows each of his sheep...searches them and knows them, the secrets of their hearts, their struggles, their hopes, their wounds and their dreams...
Knows them – and YET - loves them.
Knows me – knows you – and yet...keeps on loving.
And lays down his life – to show that ALL are equally loveable...

You see, love is a universal language, that all can understand.
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd”
They will listen because that language of love transcends faith and culture. Does not depend on good behaviour.Cannot be bought or earned.It is, always, a free gift. God's grace poured out in wild extravagance and made clear to us at that moment when Jesus, on the cross, draws all people to himself.

ALL people.
Not just the good, those trying to be holy,
Not just the people with whom we would enjoy sharing a sheepfold
ALL people

One flock, one shepherd.

And yes – we do need to learn to hear his voice...And that voice will be calling us to have larger hearts, to pray blessings on those whom we cannot understand, those whom we fear, those whom we are sure that we cannot be called to like. to follow ways of greater love.
But, though we need to hear his voice, the salvation that we find in no-one else is not conditional.
We're talking grace and not works here.
We can't earn God's love.
We can't forfeit it.

If the most brutal terrorist had, by some quirk of creation, turned out to be the only human being born in this world – Christmas and Easter would still have happened just for him.

Salvation found only in Jesus but freely offered to all of us– no matter what flock we think we belong to.

So – perhaps on balance it's not so bad being a sheep.

Though, before I finish, if I may I'll share with you the creature I would really like to be.
If you look up at the Sutherland tapestry in the Cathedral, you will see between the feet of Christ in Glory a tiny, insignificant human figure...
Recently someone told me that it always makes them think of an Emperor penguin, protecting a chick.
So – I want to be a penguin! A penguin for Jesus!
I want to nestle between the feet of the One who loves me and will never let me down.
I want to stand where He stands – and so see the world with His eyes of love, as I listen to His voice and hear him call my name.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What's so special about four days in Hertfordshire?

Home from another extraordinary, wonderful week at On Fire.


How do I explain, to people who weren't there, why I value this so much?
It's really not my sort of thing - or at least, that would be my dispassionate analysis.

Yes, the speakers were excellent...I've listened with delight to pretty much all that Dave Tomlinson has had to say whether at Greenbelt, in print, or anywhere else that I have encountered him for well over a decade now...Nick Baines was the first bishop I was ever on tweeting terms with...and Margaret Sentamu was a wonderfully wise, steady, calming presence at my Selection Conference back in the mists of time...but though they said all sorts of things I needed to hear, it wasn't their presence that made the week so good.

Perhaps it was the worship? It is a delight to be somewhere where catholic liturgical practice is offered without the slightest vestige of ponce...beautifully, joyfully, because it just WORKS! 
Benediction is, quite simply, a process of immersion in total Love that has brought me to my knees since I first encountered it as a chorister at St John the Divine, Kennington, when I and the world were young... 
but despite this, and even though I am (slowly!) growing out of my rather snobby Cambridge-chorister "if it's not Thomas Tallis I don't want to sing it" mentality, I'll never find that style of worship music my first language when it comes to praising God.

Maybe not the worship then?

OK - it must have been the people, surely! Friends with whom I can share things I don't really want to acknowledged in myself...people who get (and share) my confusion when the God who is sometimes more present than I am to myself seems to disappear the moment I turn away...people who rejoice when I am overjoyed and offer hugs that need no words when I am struggling...People with whom I can run the risk of vulnerability, present myself warts and all, and not fear rejection.
But no - they are wonderful, an immeasurable blessing in my life - but it's not really about them.

It is, overwhelmingly, about the experience of worshipping with a community that EXPECTS GOD TO ACT.
So often we allow God so many get-out clauses, pray in such extraordinarily vague or bland ways that we will never know if our prayers have been answered, if I am honest, behave as if we have no faith at all, rather than risk disappointment.

I'm rarely comfortable with the assumption that God will act in particular ways...I know from personal experience how it feels to be the ONLY child in the school SU not to find herself speaking in tongues on a windy Tuesday almost a life-time ago...but I am even less comfortable with those behaviours which seem to preclude any possibility of God's action at all.

And at On Fire I know that the vast majority are open to being surprised by God in whatever way God chooses...
When, during the more than wonderful final Eucharist today, I was allowed the enormous privilege of anointing some of my fellow pilgrims, I was TERRIFIED. All my anxieties about whether or not I was really experiencing the Holy Spirit in those moments of wonder that leave me unexpectedly horizontal...coupled with those which attach inevitably to an important preach...and then the extra twitches accruing to "Can I remember where I ought to be when, if we're celebrating Mass properly"..all of those had collaborated to create a very insecure and nervous Kathryn.

Until the moment when I found myself, oil pot in hand, praying for the first person ...and realised that actually I was being given the opportunity to speak God's love and ask for God's blessing on each one of them, trusting God to tell me whatever it was that they most needed to hear.

And - oh my goodness - it was EXTRAORDINARY.

Another reminder that once I can get my own silly self out the way, God really IS up for anything.
Isn't that reason enough to love On Fire?
It's somewhere that God teaches me things I am lamentably slow to learn - but always the process of learning is one of joy and delight.

Bless the Lord, O my soul - indeed.



Crossing Boundaries: sermon for the final Eucharist - On Fire 2015




For various complicated reasons which now escape me, my cohort of Gloucester deacons spent our ordination retreat in a collective exercise in crossing boundaries at Holland House, Cropthorne, in the diocese of Worcester.
It was a memorable retreat and a time of blessing for many many reasons – but though I know that the words our conductor spoke were wonderful and helpful ( I often turn to them at times of panic – such as this morning), they didn’t stay lodged in my heart in quite the same way that a postcard in the bookshop did. I still have the postcard in my Office Book It featured some words of Dr Kosuke Koyama of the World Council of Churches
We should be followers of the running God, who causes a commotion by going to the periphery to make it a centre of light”

Followers of the running God…

In this week when we’ve reflected on crossing boundaries, on finding God on the edge – and on ministering on the edge ourselves, it’s a wonderful picture.
Of course, a running God could be heading anywhere…The question is, WHICH WAY? And, a supplementary, - how on earth do we keep up??
If we’re trying to follow that could be quite a useful thing to know (though I’m personally more than capable of setting out on an expedition with absolutely NO idea of where I’m going, it’s not something I’d normally encourage)

When you start thinking about it God does quite a bit of running. When we are still far off…God the Father hitches up his robes and comes haring down the road to sweep each one of us up into a welcoming embrace. He doesn’t wait for us to come to him – neither in the parable nor in his world. Instead he repeatedly comes to where we are…That's what the the Incarnation is all about – and it's made real for us again and again, whenever God comes to us in the Sacrament of Communion.

God comes to us so we may come to God.

God running to find us – wherever we are.

I hope that this has felt true for you often this week...that God has surprised you with a sudden hug just when you most needed it...but even if he still feels a bit far off, don't despair. He's coming to you, of that I am certain, and will delight in surprising you with the joy of his presence. After all, it was just an ordinary day – not a once a year conference, not even a special celebration - when that Samaritan woman went to get water, as she had done so many many times before.
Just an ordinary day – and yet, she found the entire world turned upside down. 

Remember, the running God DOES cause commotion – the earthquake that accompanied the Resurrection of Christ is matched by other earthquakes in our own lives, as we encounter God in our own mini Easters. That's exciting, of course – but it can be alarming too. I very much doubt if any of us would really choose to place ourselves at the centre of an earthquake zone...but sometimes that's just how it has to be as our landscapes are transformed.
In other words - forget the comfort zone!

And if you find you're still left struggling with questions, have spent this week nervously wobbling on the edge of your experience and understanding – that's fine too. When my older son returned from his first term of university theology, he brought with him a catchphrase that has been endlessly helpful to me ever since: “Jesus gets it”... 
He gets what has been going on for you , just as he got what was going on for that thirsty woman 2 millennia ago. He sees into your heart, understanding all that has happened to you, all that other have done to you, all your longings, hopes, fears and dreams. He sees it all, and accepts it all...

Jesus gets it.

But our time here is almost over. Soon the running God is off again. If we take off our shoes (and surely, surely this IS holy ground) we might just catch up with the One who has already gone before us – into Galilee, and a myriad other places too – Abingdon and Northolt, Mansfield, and Southampton, Taunton,Tettenhall, High Wyckham, Cuddesdon - maybe even Coventry!
That is both a reassurance and a challenge. A reassurance, of course, because we need to know that we won't lose touch with God as we return from our time together...That though we may sometimes almost lose sight of Him amid all the STUFF that clutters daily life and somehow seems so hopelessly important at the time, He's there...
He's there, of course, when we gather in worship – in our local churches, in our homes, our schools...                                                                                           He's there in our friendships and in our loneliness.                                               He's there whenever we think to call...pausing , face turned lovingly towards us as we turn towards him...

But – and here's the challenge - he's there too in all the unlikely places, the ones which, on St George's map would surely say “Here be dragons”- those about which you feel anxious even as you think of them.
I'm sure you'll know the ones I mean. Situations that make your stomach clench, and whole flocks of butterflies settle ...places where you feel yourself an outsider, perhaps because you've put someone else into that category: a kind of Peter, Cornelius situation...or maybe places where you expect a hostile reception rather than a drink of water. For me, now that gatherings of cuddly charismatic Christians no longer hold any terror, it's the city centre as the clubs are getting busy on a Saturday night.                                                                                   Predictable, but true. So far the hostility has been entirely in my head – but it's still a barrier for me – though never for God.

For our inclusive God no one - NO ONE is unacceptable, no one is a stranger. no-one an outsider...                                                                                               Each is loved by God as an irreplaceable and incomparable person....
God shows no partiality. None whatsoever.
Remember – Jesus gets it!

So – he's off again. Our running God heads for the periphery – and we, who long to follow, must join him there.
That's what this week has been all about.
After “On Fire” a couple of years ago I wrote on my blog that I felt full to the brim with love and joy – but expected I would leak soon. Bishop Nick's limestone again (but I got there first!).                                                                                                 A wise friend responded promptly that this was the WHOLE POINT - that we are absolutely supposed to leak! This gift of extravagant grace is to be shared...           It overflows, however hard we may sometimes try to confine it, to limit God's work to those places, those people who fit in with our expectations – so really, our attempts to restrict and channel are so much wasted effort.                               Instead, lets go with the flow, follow the Spirit in her joyous redemptive dance, which gradually, I'm certain, will draw everyone in.

Koyama talks of the Church not just as the Body of Christ – but as the Body of Christ that runs to welcome a broken world.                                                             Christ-centred ministry on the edge, indeed.

But perhaps if we get it right there need not be any edges...                           Boundaries, demarcation lines which determine who is out and who is in, have nothing to do with the One who opened his arms wide on the cross, and offers his embrace to all the world. He runs to the periphery to make it a centre of light...and in that light everything looks quite different.

That postcard that I cherish shows circles of colour...dark blue at the centre, gold fading to yellow at the edge. The contrasts are clear but the picture is of one whole...not a series of boundaries that must never be crossed. The centre looks very solid and sure of itself – because that's what centres are like...but as you move outwards it is very hard to tell where the painting ends...the outer boundaries are so blurred that you can't detect them. It reminds me, somehow, of a verse by the American Edwin Markham. It's called “Outwitted” - but for me it has less to do with wit than with reckless mercy, wild, extravagant grace

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

We know that the running God will not stop until the whole of creation is included. Drawn in ourselves, we are now sent to drawn in others, and share that boundless love.

Encounter God here.                                                                                   Encounter God on the edges.                                                                           There is nowhere that his love does not reach.                                                   The boundaries are only in our imagination.

So now let's pray that our running God will continue to work in us...and                 Let the whole world see and know                                                                       That things which were cast down are being raised up                                       And things which had grown old are being made new                                        And that all things are being brought to their perfection                                       By him through whom all things were made


To Him be glory now and forever. Amen

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Keep Moving Forward!

....
Words constantly broadcast to users of the automatic revolving doors at the local hospital. Whenever I hear them, I hear a rather cheesy motivational message – something that might appear over the threshold of a successful multi-national – and wonder how it sounds to those who are arriving anxiously to see a consultant, visit a loved one, face head-on some news they had hoped never to receive.
KEEP MOVING FORWARD!
Of course, it's really just an instruction designed to help pedestrian traffic flow smoothly...but all the same – in this Easter season it has given me a lot to think about.

You see, though it's not yet a full calendar year since I left my beloved St Matthew's, in liturgical terms this is anniversary week. My final services were on Low Sunday – and as a recently rather semi-detached Canon (having spent much of Lent on sick leave following surgery, I never quite got into the feeling of the season here in Coventry) I seem to have spent quite a while reflecting on the changes of the past year.

Lent in a cathedral is, I think, generally diluted somewhat. Because our Sunday congregation come from all over the city and beyond, there is less of a sense of a gathered community through the week even in Lent...My assumptions that Lent groups would “just work”, and attract a good proportion of our regulars, and that EVERYONE ALWAYS has soup suppers in Lent proved, as assumptions generally do, to have no foundation in reality. The same constraints that prevent many parish churches from drawing large numbers to evening services apply even more in a place where the elderly really don't want to come into the city centre at night, so there was much less sense of a community travelling through Holy Week together than I had anticipated – and I really missed that, though there was, in contrast, a wonderful feeling that we were offering worship on behalf of many – and enabling visitors to dip in to a continuing tide of liturgy that they might not easily find elsewhere.
Coupled with the fact that I was dealing with so many memories of last year it made for a rather strange season that has left me thinking hard about the nature of community and priesthood. In one way, it's easy when you live in the place that you serve, when every trip to the letter box, every walk in the park involves meeting parishioners...when the neighbour opposite tells you about an ambulance calling ...when the children who pour out of school at home time are the same ones who pour into Messy Church on a Sunday afternoon. It's all there, around you, 24/7 – and you are part of it, whether you like it or not.

Here, I guess, you have to earn your place in the Cathedral community – or at least in that community which exists beyond the boundaries of Sunday worship. There are communities forged among those of us who work there Monday to Friday, or who give time as volunteers, but to earn your place with the congregation is not quite as straightforward. Sick visiting, funerals, life crises – those are the places where trust and relationship can be forged – but there are fewer opportunities to just spend time with people – and thus it is harder to truly belong. Before I even arrived, the Sunday congregation sent me a lovely card to welcome me...but I was struck by one greeting which ready “Enjoy your time with us”. Even as I unpacked, people were already preparing for the time when I, like all my predecessors, would move on...whereas in the parish, there was, I think, always the silent hope that “this time it might be for good”.

While I know that I spent my first year of incumbency wondering if I would ever stop missing my title parish, I knew too that this community needed me in functional as much as spiritual and emotional ways...
That made leaving hideous – but also gave rise to some very mixed feelings when I read, at bedtime on Low Sunday, that at last a priest has been appointed to St Matthew's. Of course it's wonderful that they have someone else to work with them at being a sign of God's loving welcome in that place, splendid that the over-stretched Herring of Christ and the other team colleagues should no longer need to cope with an extraordinary number of Occasional Offices, great that another priest should have the joy of making his home in that lovely vicarage – and with those dear dear people.
But all the same – I can't pretend that “home” is still there if I wanted to run away. I don't, I promise – but it still feels odd.

Time, then, for another cheesy motivational message – this time from the ticket machine in the Car Park down the road.
“Change is possible” it said.
Amen to that.
And - Keep Moving Forward.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sermon for Easter 2 at Coventry Cathedral Acts 4:32-35 & John 20:19-31

Hopes and fears
We sing about them in our Christmas carols – but they are very much part of the stuff of life in the Easter season too...both for the apostles, as they struggled to make sense of the wild rumours that abounded on that first Easter day, and for we who come after.
Both, of course, are present in our readings this morning – but they are also present in the life of our nation as we look towards the coming election, and perhaps they are there in the life of this Cathedral community too, with the AGM ahead.

Reflecting on the gospel, it seems at first as if hope has been utterly banished.
The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews...
Things are pretty bad if you are so afraid of your own people that you are hiding behind closed doors – but the events of that extraordinary Passover festival have certainly left the disciples with a sense that nobody could be counted on.
They have seen one of their own number betray Jesus, and are painfully aware that none of them, not one, has really measured up to the ideals of loyal friendship they might have aspired to. This feels like a community that has failed to be true to itself – and one that has also failed in its relationship with those outside.
Not a lot of room for hope, then, as the disciples look inwards caught up in and overwhelmed by their own sense of despair and defeat, united only in their misery.
A fellowship of failure.

And then, suddenly, Jesus shows up – and as so often happens, his arrival changes everything.
Where there was fear and distress, he brings his peace and a joy that the disciples had thought never to experience again.
Peace be with you...”
Extraordinary.
Put yourself there for a moment.
Imagine that you carry that burden of guilt and failure that so weighed down the beleaguered group huddled in the upper room.
You ran away in Gethesemane.
You were too fearful to stand at the foot of the cross.
And imagine that Jesus comes to you – to YOU – knowing how you've let him down – with not one word of reproach or disappointment.
Instead, he speaks peace – so convincingly that you lose all urge to apologise or justify yourself.
You simply bask in the joy of his presence – and find new strength and new hope in that moment.

Suddenly that group, on the verge of imploding, with each individual going his separate way, back to the old order that had once seemed enough, -
Suddenly that heartbroken, disintegrating community is reborn.
PEACE be with you...
The peace of God's presence...Shalom – more than peace of heart and mind, more even than an end to conflict in a warring world...as Tom Wright puts it “rich and fruitful human living, God's new creation bursting into many coloured flower”
PEACE

And with that word everything is transformed – and a new fellowship is created and commissioned
As the Father has sent me, so I send you....Receive the Holy Spirit”

While Luke will thrill us in a few short weeks with his account of rushing mighty winds and extraordinary life-changing preaching on the feast of Pentecost, this quieter moment is no less one of radical transformation.
As God breathed life into clay at creation, so Jesus breathes resurrection life into the disciples – and they are changed from a group gathered to learn, to one commissioned and sent out – no longer disciples but apostles. They learn for themselves the essential message that God's love is always greater, always stronger than our failure...

And isn't it wonderful that the first gift of the Spirit that Jesus mentions to them is that of forgiveness – for it is, undoubtedly, the one that they are at that moment most conscious of both needing and receiving....Now they too can forgive in God's name, can themselves become both reconciled and reconciling people in this new world order.
A fellowship on the verge of dissolution is reformed and re-invigorated...once again, love changes everything
This is what it means to be the Church – the people who know themselves reconciled with God through the transforming love of Jesus – and who go on to live in a new way that speaks of reconciliation beyond any imaginings.

And, of course, at the moment we have freedom to imagine on a grand scale. We have the privilege of helping to shape the society we live in, - and aspects of Cathedral life as well..To dream dreams, but also to help to make them reality.
Last week a friend sent me a Facebook link to a site that enabled me to compare the main elements of each party's manifesto on the topics closest to my heart without knowing which party's policies I was viewing – and at the end told me how I should vote. I'm not going to tell you the results nor suggest where you should plant your X – though I will say that I'm absolutely sure that it is the duty of anyone who HAS a vote to use it, prayerfully, thoughtfully, wisely...
I was, though, struck by just how utopian some of the policies were – and how very hopeful they made me feel.

Almost as hopeful, in fact, as the picture of community presented in Acts 4.
Wouldn't you like to be part of a group that was “of one heart and soul”, to live somewhere where
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold...and it was distributed to each as any had need”? Wouldn't that be truly wonderful...?

Of course, it was deeply shocking at the time, for it flies in the face of the Jewish custom and of the Torah itself...to sell your inheritance and share the proceeds was not an early version of Communism but a change of direction away from a culture that was forged by strong emphasis on the inheritance, in lore and custom as in property, of the Jews as God's people. This radical departure was one more sign of a new world order, more evidence that in this time of transformation undreamed of possibilities would come to pass.

And we – we are the inheritors of that new way of being.
Though experience shows that even the most high minded and well-intentioned politicians are likely to let us down on some things – and that our own faltering attempts to be a community here in this place are a far far cry from the heady days of Acts 4...nonetheless– we are an Easter people and alleluia is our song.

So let us sing it today – but let us live it as well. Let us dare to dream that “Cathedral Community” might become something more than a label...That we might so live our faith that others long to travel with us...might glimpse in this corner of the kingdom the unmistakeable evidence of God's kingdom in our midst.
That we might be transformed and transforming...reconciled and reconciling...

We will fail. Of course we will. But we know that even here, even now, God's love is stronger is stronger than our failure...
so – let us not hide behind closed doors but pray afresh for the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we may reach out to share the Love in which we live and move and have our being.


The Spirit is with us...and the world is waiting.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2015 at Coventry Cathedral

Do you know what I have done to you
A question posed over supper almost 2000 years ago.
Let's imagine some of the responses among the twelve.

It's such a strange question.
Why on earth ask that?
Of course we know.
Jesus has washed our feet.
Obviously.
Got down from the table before we'd even said the blessings...and washed our feet.
As if he were our servant, not our teacher.
Washed our feet.
Extraordinary!
We don't know WHY...but we do know what.
We're his disciples, here to learn but we're not at all sure what today's lesson is.

Fast forward to 2015 and things look a bit different.
Today, Maundy Thursday, is the day of new commandments – for Maundy, of course, comes from the Latin “Mandatum”...the origin of our word “mandate”...so what Jesus has done to us is simply to issue another commandment...founded on love and obedience, obedience and love.

Love and obedience...played out for all time in a living parable through everything that Jesus does in these great holy days.

Tomorrow we will stand speechless as God's love for the world is revealed in Christ's shocking, scandalous obedience to the death of the cross...an obedience that proves to broken humanity, men and women ground down by the pain of living that, despite the evidence of the world, they – WE – are both loveable and beloved. On Good Friday Christ crucified opens his arms of love for us
How much do I love you?......THIS much........”
But the night before, the night in which this story belongs, he shows us this love in simpler ways – ways that even we can aspire to...and invites our obedience.
You also ought to wash one another's feet”
Love one another – as I have loved you”

This is our mandate – to do as Christ has done.

For the past 10 years or so I've spent much of Passiontide sharing a programme “Experience Easter” with several hundred school children. They come into churches across the country to explore the events of the 1st Holy Week through a series of interactive stations that help them both to learn about what happened then, and to consider what that might mean here and now. As you'd expect, the events of the Last Supper figure largely in their experience and they are hugely intrigued and often puzzled by the moment when Jesus gets down from the table and washes the feet of his friends.
Their response to his question
Do you know what I have done to you?” would, I think, be an unequivocal “No” - and you can't obey if you don't know, don't understand the commandment.

So – we unpack the ideas...talk about setting an example...decide in the end that Jesus does not actually expect us all to rush up to our friends and pull off their socks...Together we reach a conclusion...that what Jesus is really showing us is that Nobody is too big, too important to do simple things to care for others...

You also ought to wash one another's feet”

Christ's mandate for us – a model of unselfconscious love – which seems straightforward until you actually try to live it out

Many read of washing the disciples feet who think themselves above cleaning another's boots wrote Herbert Kelly, who founded the Society of the Sacred Mission – and sometimes I'm afraid he's right. We do our acts of service self consciously, - perhaps thinking privately “Aren't I doing well” when of course as long as we're focussed on ourselves, there's no point to the action at all.

What Jesus asks us to do is to forget ourselves entirely, as we offer loving service to one another -...for to love as he loves us means emptying ourselves completely, just as he emptied himself in loving obedience. Stripping off his robe as he got down from the table, Jesus was showing his friends a microcosmic close-up of what he had done in setting aside his majesty.

Do you know what I have done...?”
Here's Jesus's own answer.
I've set aside everything to enable you to become part of me...and you can practice here and now by following my example.

How we struggle with this...
We may not much want to wash someone else's feet – but even that is easier, it seems, than allowing someone to wash OUR feet. That's just too much.
Such vulnerability is altogether beyond us – even when it is Jesus who invites us to receive loving service FROM HIM.
I wonder why.
Of course it's risky...allowing someone else to come so very close...another human being...or God.
Intimacy can be dangerous. Better hold back.
Perhaps we're too proud, too self sufficient...
After even the briefest spell as an invalid, I know how hard it was to accept care from my family, to allow them to do the things that I would normally do for myself. I found that I prized my independence more than I would have dreamed possible.

I wanted to wash my own feet, thank you very much....to hang on to my dignity as tightly as possible.
Does that sound at all familiar?
Perhaps we feel too grubby, - unworthy to receive this service from anyone – least of all Jesus.
Perhaps we worry that taking off our shoes and revealing the corns, callouses and peeling nail varnish we may accidentally reveal other equally unsavoury aspects of ourselves....that the God we find unexpectedly kneeling at our feet may see us in all our vulnerability and muddle.
MAY see us?
Of course he does...He sees us, as he knows us, through and through...and as he sees us, he loves us.
As I took groups of children round the Experience Easter stations last year, the children reflected on the title "Servant King", which belongs with the footwashing station, pondering how such contradictions might be joined in the person of Jesus. One small boy changed my understanding forever as he said
Jesus understands exactly how it is to be anyone...it doesn't matter how different they  are,  what  they look like to other people...Jesus knows how it is because he has been there - from servant to king. He understands children and teachers and even bullies too".
There is no point in trying to hide.We have to risk intimacy, for we are created for relationship.
We need one another, we need to be vulnerable, removing both the protection of our shoes and the protective distance that separates us from our brothers and sisters – and from God
In God's family, gathered around his table, there are no senior ranks...no reserved occupations....no reserve at all.
We are all called to give and to receive loving service – and as we do só we find ourselves grafted into the body of Christ (unless I wash you, you have no part of me)

If we find this challenging, we're not alone. Since the dawn of time, human beings have always striven for independence, wanted to go their own way, though we're called to accept the healing touch of God.
Think of Peter – unable to get his head around it at all...resisting at first...but suddenly realising what is being offered and wanting to immerse himself completely in the love that kneels before him.
Not just my feet but my hands and my head”
More.
More connection.
More love given and received
Truly, this risk of vulnerability is one worth taking.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if foot washing, rather than the breaking of bread, had become the defining sacrament of the Church. I wonder if we would have found it easier to model authentic community if we were expected, week by week, to experience afresh this process of self-forgetful, radical love. Because we only practice it visibly once a year, we are embarrassed, uncomfortable, still searching for our own answer to Christ's question
Do you know what I have done to you?”

What HAS he done, and how should we respond?

Here is the core of the parable. Jesus, in one action,  gives us not just a model for Christian life, but a glimpse of the heart of the God who knows us all inside out and loves us just the same....

Let's not be afraid to let Jesus come close.

See, he is holding nothing back, kneeling at our feet, inviting us to share in his radical, extravagant love.

Love one another as I have loved you”

Do you know what I have done to you?
Of course not, really.
To grasp the reality of a love so boundless is beyond us -
but we do know that this is an example given to us so that each one of us can learn the lesson of love and live our lives according to the model of Christ, the servant king.