Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bible Sunday sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away

 

That's a pretty confident assertion – even for Jesus.

We can assume that he weighed his words carefully, that he knew that they would make a life-changing difference to his hearers there and then – and to all that heard them thereafter...but how could he be so sure that those words would survive?

I’m pretty sure that the carpenter from Nazareth did not forsee the printing press…that as he spoke he was not reflecting on the day when the Bible would be the world’s number one best-seller…but for all that, his words point to an important truth.

Jesus was – and is – the great communicator, the one who translates, if you like, the nature of a God beyond our understanding into a God close at hand, telling stories, asking questions…using our language to reveal his truth.

“My words will not pass away...” for they point to the eternal…to a reality beyond all words, all understanding.

 

But - supposing they did...tomorrow.

Supposing some cataclysmic event removed every single Bible, not just from this Cathedral but from every church and school, every home and library, ever single corner of the world.

What would we miss?

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,*

 

God’s truth has been revealed in the person of Christ…so do we really need the stories that preceded him?

 

How would you feel if they went missing?

I wonder if you'd notice – and if so, why…

 

I mean, it's extraordinary.

 

In this year of grace 2014, with all the scientific marvels of the past decades, with all the technological advances that have transformed our world, here we are still reading a book whose earliest texts were put together four or five centuries before Homer wrote the Odyssey...

And we read without a trace of irony – with such high seriousness that everyone falls silent as week by week in this wonderful building, we hear stories of times so utterly different and distant from our own that there seems almost no point of connection.

 

Except, of course, the people.

They are all too familiar.

Rulers who went off the rails and did dreadful things

Nations that fought, conquered or were conquered in their turn

Men and women in the grip of love and hate, fear and jealousy, family feuds and national disasters.

People just like us...

 

So – on one level, that might be sufficient reason for persevering with this ancient library.

We find ourselves in its pages – and learn fresh approaches to the here and now from the perspective of history.  The slogan “All human life is here” was not produced to sell the Bible – and there are all too many ways in which we can recognise recurring patterns of human behaviour to lament or to emulate.

 

But that's not really the point, is it.

 

Because, of course, that library of books that we call the Bible is the history of a very particular relationship, and a particular conversation….for it is an account of  the relationship of God with God's people.

Though Christians are not the only “people of the book” , we do have a particular identity as a faith community gathered around and formed by this collection of writings.

We allow these writings to have a unique place in our worship – and should surely allow them the same importance in our lives.

 

It’s true, of course, that when we say, as we did just a few moments ago “This is the word of the Lord” we may have quite different understandings of what that means...but we surely agree that God can speak to us through the pages of this book of books.

That's not always a comfortable experience – and indeed, nobody could claim that the Bible is always an enjoyable read.

It's tempting to gloss over the awkward parts – both those that tell of unspeakable cruelties and those that give us far more information that we ever needed about the dietary codes of a nomadic race. Part of the role of the lectionary, with its daily portion of Scripture, is to ensure that we engage with the hard stuff, like it or not…for even the worst behaviour of Old Testament kings, the angriest excursions of the psalmist aren’t really so different in essence from the messier contents of our hearts.

It can be tempting, though, to shy away from those bits that hit home just a little too hard...those words  that remind us that the word of God is indeed active as any two- edged sword...and that sometimes the guidance and truth we need to hear is a far cry from the easy consolation we would like.

 

Sometimes we abuse the Bible – using its words as weapons against our brothers and sisters in Christ, distorting the message of Scripture to judge or to condemn...

I’ve witnessed some really disturbing games of Bible tennis, with texts being hit to and fro, each protagonist determined to use them to prove their point, to have the last word.

Can we claim such exercises as “The word of the Lord?” …..

I really don't think so.

 

Because, you see, I'm convinced that God's word to us is love.

 

Love is the fulfilment of everything that God wants to say, the ultimate truth of God’s word.

That word of God, God’s word of love, is found above all in Jesus himself, who lived and taught and died a life of love, so that the love of God could become reality for everyone.

And in Jesus’ rising from death, God showed that love is the greatest power in the world.

That’s the message and the meaning.

 The written word leading us to the living Word – the One who is love incarnate

This is the beginning and end of the Scriptures: it is on God’s love that everything – EVERYTHING – depends.

 

So “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” because, you see, our God is one who longs to communicate, and uses words, ordinary fragile, changeable words, to make himself known to us.

Remember Terry Waite, sustained through long captivity by the words of Scripture he had learned decades before…words dwelling in him as an antidote to hatred and despair.

Remember Provost Howard, shaping our ministry here as two words slipped from heart to mind on that November morning

God spoke to them through words they had absorbed, perhaps almost without knowing.

God speaks to us, through those same words, which we are free to study, to explore, to ponder whenever we like.

Take those words seriously.

Each holds an infinity of meanings, and even the most familiar of texts has fresh treasures to offer if you spend time immersed in it, opening yourself to new possibilities.

There is so much to discover,  but the overarching meaning is, always, non negotiably, love. 

 

So, let’s approach Scripture expecting to be changed by the encounter, confident that the story of those men and women of long ago will become our story…and that, like them, we can be swept up in God's great love story, through which he woos humanity.

 

For surely every Sunday must be Bible Sunday...every day a Bible day.

 

 The Bible is precious, priceless, inspired.

It deserves our best attention for behind the words on the page is the living reality of the Word made flesh.

Let’s, then, join in with the story.

We will misunderstand and get things wrong – but that’s finefor errors are part of learning.  

The Bible needs us, if it is to have any existence beyond the sterility of the page.

We need the Bible, if we are to gain insights into the ways of God for it is a book that will lead us to God and help us to engage with God in bringing in His kingdom.

It is a gift, to be savoured and celebrated, for it comes laden with the love of God.

 

Thanks be to God! 
 
 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Lord hath been mindful of us….

At Evensong tonight the boys and gents of the Cathedral Choir sang Wesley’s “Ascribe unto the Lord”. You don’t hear it that often, probably because it’s a massive piece, - one of those which can sometimes leave you wondering, by the time it’s done, whether it is in fact still Sunday – and if it IS Sunday, whether we’ve reached next week or are in fact in the week after.
Despite this , I’m very fond of it  - because once, 28 years ago, I had one of those moments with God.

Motherhood, which brings me more joy than almost any other aspect of my life, did not come easily to me. There were many miscarriages on the way to my 3 beloved children – and the 1st of those, the most heart-breaking, marked the end of my first pregnancy. With the kind of painful irony that seems to have real teeth, the following day was Mothering Sunday and I was booked to sing Evensong at St John the Divine, Kennington . This was about a year into my brief voyage across the Tiber, and I was missing Anglican worship, the choral tradition and my friends at SJDK far too much to stay at home, tearful wreck though I was. So I turned up, only to find that we were singing this marathon anthem…which was new to me that day. We made our way through it with determination til we reached the final pages
“You are the blessed of the Lord, you, - you and your children

At the rehearsal this made me wobble rather, not surprisingly...but when it came to the service, there , in that church that I loved so much, I swear that God winked at me…and I knew there WOULD be children if I simply trusted and held on.
Tonight, my youngest was singing with the choral clerks – and as I looked at the Sutherland tapestry of Christ in Glory, I rather think that Jesus winked at me again. “Told you so…” he said.

And yes, I am blessed. HUGELY blessed. Thank you for the reminder.

Greater than our hearts - a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 19th October 2014 1John 3:16- 4:6

Today's 2nd lesson is a landscape dominated by 4 great standing-stones...monolithic concepts that fill the sky-line no matter where you are yourself.
Love – truth – action – condemnation....
Huge concepts to engage with...and taken together they make this part of John's letter a really tough read. After all, God throws down the gauntlet in the 1st verse of our reading..He has given us a powerful practical demonstration of his love, one that it is impossible for us to miss
In this we know what love is – that he laid down his life for us” and as if that wasn't enough, we're told that HIS way must be our way too...
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”
Really? Me? That's truly daunting
On my best days, when there seems to be love overflowing in every corner of the world, I still doubt my ability to love LIKE THAT.
Would I really place myself in the way of a bullet intended for one of my family?
And even if I managed that, what if the bullet was heading for a random stranger?
And if I can't manage that – well, standing here to preach is a colossal presumption.

Our writer makes it very clear indeed that God's focus is on truth and action, not word and speech.
We can SAY loving things as much as we want to, but if we don't supply hard evidence that they are real for us, then there's no chance that God's love has settled in our hearts.
When I struggle to practice what I preach, when I come home from Mass and kick the metaphorical cat, when for all my protestations of love for God and for his people I seem to live a rather different kind of life...Well, that's the point at which my heart sets to and does a very good job indeed of offering quite serious condemnation.
Call yourself a Christian! Who are you trying to kid? It's all about love – and you know that, deep down, you're woefully short of that sometimes...In fact, if you barely seem to know what it is.
Never mind trying to get on and show it, your best course of action would be to curl up in a distressed and distressing pool of guilt and misery, because obviously that's really going to help everybody, right?
Why not just wallow in your role as miserable sinner and leave it at that...
Your heart condemns you well and truly.
Guilty as charged.

But – we're not going to stop there. Our letter writer certainly doesn't. His stress on truth and action isn't designed to paralyse but to encourage. The thing is, you see, to stop worrying about whether either you or I can muster the sort of love that God shows to us – and to get on with DOING the next loving thing in front of our noses, never mind the feelings! To be honest, I'd guess that most of us are pretty unlikely to have to brave the bullets and lay down our lives for our friends – but we may well have to lay down a whole host of other things – personal preferences and prejudices, short cuts and easy ways out of genuine relationship – in order to more truly show authentic, truthful love and generosity of spirit.

Let's think about it in terms of our common life here, in a place where worship, welcome and reconciliation should be our constant touch-stones. It's fair to say that there's a long journey to travel if they are to so much part of us that they characterise every aspect of our dealings...but the message is the same.
It's a question of moving beyond the words to the deeds.
Of course we will need to spend time exploring together, trying to grasp what those words will actually involve, how they will impact each aspect of our common life and our shared identity.
We may need to reflect on things we thought we understood already. Welcome, for example, seems easy and obvious – all about the smiley face at the door, and good quality coffee served alongside friendship...but of course it's not quite as easy when you realise that it extends far beyond the way you smile at strangers, to the way you open your life to them.
And that's just a start.
So we will indeed need to ponder and discuss what these words really mean – but we can't actually own them until words turn to actions, and our values shine through our deeds.

The interesting thing is that, like love, they demand that we focus elsewhere. It's not about US at all!It's not about what Welcome, Worship and Reconciliation will bring to our Cathedral – but what our Cathedral might bring to the world by fully living out its calling as we focus on the God whom we worship, the stranger whom we welcome with such opennes that barriers dissolve and disappear in the perfect mutuality of reconciliation.

Does that seem an impossible ideal, na├»ve and unattainable? It's certainly not where I'm standing today – not yet – but I do think it's where I'm aiming.
And our reading helps me along the way. In fact, it's transformative.
Many years ago, while I was still a child, I read and re-read Rumer Godden's “In this House of Brede”, set in a community of Benedictine nuns. I loved it for many reasons – the Sussex landscape it presented was the countryside I knew and loved, the music that flowed in and out of its pages was the spiritual soundtrack to my own life – but I loved too the story of faith that had drawn the central character from life as a top Civil Servant to become an enclosed nun. I learned a lot, without realising that I was learning anything – but perhaps the most important legacy was some words from the Cloud of Unknowing which lodged in head and heart and have remained there ever since.
Not what thou art – nor what thou hast been- but what thou woulds't be beholdest God in his mercy”

In other words, if your longing is to love in deed and in truth, then let go of your fear of failure and do whatever act of love lies before you. Your heart may well condemn you- both by the evidence of imperfect love and dubious motivation that it presents when you take a closer look and by that disapproving inner voice that so often threatens to drown out the voice of God's loving compassion.
But – don't listen to it.
Our blessed assurance lies beyond ourselves...in God's faithfulness and knowledge of what we wouldst be – of all that we aspire to, no matter how often we fall short
Here is the our calling, expressed in a single verse
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us
But if your love is smaller, feebler, than you long for it to be – nevertheless all shall be well.
Don't focus on yourself. Look to God and find your reassurance there – for, though your heart condemns you God is greater than your heart.


All praise to Him, now and forever.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I wonder if you know the work of the cartoonist Simon Drew....For some years I had one of his drawings pinned above my desk. It showed a rather perplexed-looking terrier, surrounded by thinks bubbles “Now where did I put the car keys”
Will I be able to pay off my credit card”
Did I leave the gas on?”
Whatever can I do about global warming…”
Beneath was the caption
The tomb of the unknown worrier”

You see, I'm rather good at that kind of worrying myself – and as I listened to the news last night, there was no shortage of global concerns to give me pause. ISIS, Ebola, Cyclone HudHud and the recent success of UKIP...there's plenty to worry about before I even begin to think about finance (which always has the power to paralyse me with anxiety).
That's rather a shame, really, because Paul says that this should not be an option for me as a Christian.
Be careful for nothing” says Paul to the church in Phillippi…or, if you prefer it

Don’t stress”.


Such sensible advice, but so hard to follow, don't you think?
To be fair, Paul doesn’t simply forbid us to worry.
He gives us an alternative programme to follow, as he encourages us
rejoice in the Lord always, and by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving to let your requests be made known to God.”
He's looking for hearts and minds transformed, it seems...and it all begins with joy.
"Rejoice!" Not just once, but again...
look to the things that give you joy – focus on all that is good, and remember that we have the all-time best reason to be cheerful. THE LORD IS AT HAND!
That doesn't mean we all have to turn into Pollyanna's, pretending that everything is just fine when we're surrounded by real and serious problems…Paul isn’t acting as a kind of spiritual cheer-leader, insisting on an upbeat response to any and every grief. He is writing to a church filled with doubt and fear, amidst a crooked generation in an aggressively evil environment. Life is a struggle, with in-fighting and persecution. There is no shortage of things to fret about, and yet Paul insists, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”
I don't know how the Philippians took that – I'm often frustrated that we don't get to hear the response to all those New Testament letters – but I suspect they may have snorted in derision at first, that they might not have been much better at living a joy-filled life than I am myself.

You see, the sad truth is, that often Christianity seems to be a religion for kill-joys...People imagine that we spend most of our time focussing on the things we can't do, and disapproving of those who do them anyway – and it's certainly true that opting to follow Jesus isn't a recipe for an easy life. Everything from our relationships to our shopping habits may need to change...It's hard work...and for those who focus on the external sources of happiness, it just doesn't make sense. But the thing is that joy exists independent of the environment and will persist through any and all circumstances – because it doesn't depend on them.
The secret to joy is not to look at the circumstances of your own life. Focus instead on Christ and his work in you. Now it begins to make sense.
Don’t worry…Be careful for nothing.
This does not mean “Be careLESS of everything” but rather do not be worn down by anxiety…
"Present your requests to God" Let God know specifically what troubles you – what your needs are –No matter what is going on, in all things PRAY!
This reading is often used at Rogation services, when we gather to ask God's blessing on the sowing of seeds...and that's the perfect illustration, really, since planting a seed is always and everywhere an act of faith. How can something so small and fragile carry within it all it needs for fruitful life? How can burying that tiny fragment in the ground lead to the growth of a whole new plant, just like its parent? Clearly with the planting of each and every seed, we find ourselves in the realm of miracle…and it's so as we plant the tiniest seeds of faithful prayer.

Yes, these ARE dark and difficult days. The world is messed up in ways we can only begin to imagine – and worry might seem the most rational response. But we have an alternative...
However ridiculous, however inadequate it may seem, we have the choice to carry on praying even when it seems to be a completely fruitless activity.
Just as planting a seed involves us in a process of patient waiting while nothing much happens, we have to believe that a similar process will see prayers answered, if we wait in hope.
And as we wait – there's good news, news of God's peace which "Transcends all understanding"...of a peace beyond human reason or logic,- the peace of knowing God's presence and protection.
So a seed of prayer sown, leads to the miracle of a mind transformed.
As the peace of God comes to occupy the place anxiety once held!

That's what happens when we pray in joyful hope.
We pray and God plants a seed within us, diverting our attention from those things which cause us pointless anxiety, which drain our energies and rob us of our sleep. Instead we can focus on
whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable...
Doesn't that sound better as a response to the 3 a.m. devils?

So here is Paul’s prescription – his four part antidote to anxiety.
Change your attitude - Rejoice! all shall be well, for God is in charge!
Do things differently - in everything – absolutely everything – give thanks and pray! Ask for what you need, and it will be given to you
Wait for your answer and instead of worry, you will experience the peace of God!
And while you wait, think of all the gifts and blessings that surround you.

That's so much better than immuring yourself in the tomb of the unknown worrier...so let's pray that through God's transforming power the small nugget of belief we bring to the table may flourish and grow, so that as the body of Christ in this place we may be full of that irrepressible joy of which Paul writes, as we live lives grounded in the peace that is beyond our reason, beyond all understanding.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Travelling Light - more belated thoughts inspired by Greenbelt 2014

I began writing this post during our summer holiday on the narrowboat Polyphony..,somewhere that travelling light is almost irrelevant, as there's so much of home already waiting aboard - though this time round we did travel with a poorly chicken, which put a somewhat comic gloss on the whole thing.
Leaving things behind is always a big deal for me - and I've learned that when you travel, the heaviest things are often those you don't take with you - the people you leave when it's time to move on, the beloved pets who simply wouldn't enjoy sharing a family holiday but whose absence is felt like a small, heavy lump weighing on your heart.

Sometimes those things you leave become so heavy that you can't actually keep going - and then you realise that there's a whole work of letting go still to be done
The wonderful Anne Lamott, whose presence at this year's Greenbelt was a lifetime highlight, says of letting go "Everything I have ever let go of has claw marks on it" - and that's so true for me.
Things and people - the things of home, the people of your community - can be both an anchor, offering stability and certainty
("Your firmnesse draws my circle just, And makes me end where I begunne") and a dead weight which might just drag you down til you sink without trace beneath waves of grief and desolation.

That is so much part of the process of bereavement. If a "good death" is about letting go of unfinished business, trusting that somehow (by God's grace, on a good day) those you love will be OK without you, even though the thought of being without them is a pain so huge that it would rob the sun itself of warmth and light...If that is what a good death means - handing oneself, ones work,ones relationships into untiring, ever-open arms...then a good bereavement must involve a complementary letting go as well...

Because, on this life journey we both carry and are carried by other people..Through the death of my parents, I have been, and will probably be again, the precious burden that others have laid down...I've experienced the way in which our relationship cannot be unchanged by their departure (though I firmly believe that love itself is not changed by death, for the dead or for the living)
I've known the sadness that comes from being left behind, the way that absence seems to be for a time a bigger reality than presence had ever been...and I have learned to gradually build a cairn, turning the dead-weight of grief into a tower of precious memories, a land mark that changes the sky-line of my life, something by which to regain my bearings not once, but again and again.

I don't yet know how the final leave-taking will be...though there are, I guess, faint echoes in the process of leaving a parish, of moving from a space at the centre to one totally outside, seeing the tide come in and wash away any sign of those castles you built so assiduously, with so much energy and hope.
Of course you're not forgotten, but the space that you left is rightly filled by others, and a new normal quickly becomes just the way things are.
That's not altogether comfortable to the ego - we often imagine that it might be good to feel indispensible - but it's certainly the way things should be.
At my best, I want those I love to travel light too...
No claw marks!
What's it all for?: sermon for Evensong on the Feast of S Michael & all Angels


What's it all for?
That's a question that has been trotted out so often it now represents a comic caricature of existential angst...but for all that, it might be one worth asking from time to time.
What's it all for?

Perhaps it's specially important for those of us who work in a place like this, where the ways of the institution, the demands of the building and the expectations of our common life can provide enough impetus to keep us active without undue reflection pretty much seven days a week. But to press on like that is unwise, even dangerous...
Cathedrals, - even when they are as beautiful and beloved as this one – are never ends in themselves. Everything we say and everything we do must, in some way, proclaim and further the work of God's Kingdom, and so here in Coventry we have three specific purposes against which to measure all our activity, whether amid the high celebrations of our patronal festival today, or in the down to earth business of a Monday morning.
Those purpose are Welcome, Worship and Reconciliation – which is reassuring since the Catechism would suggest that of those, worship is, in fact, the whole purpose of human existence. “Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”. In other words, Worship is the only proper response of creation to Creator, the final answer to that question “What's it all for?”,

And as we celebrate with St Michael and all the angels today, we are given an imaginative glimpse of how worship may be when we sing to God in heaven, something to look forward to while we travel on.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’
The writer of Revelation has quite a strict sense of hierarchy - there are angels, living creatures and elders not to mention, in another chapter, those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb – but the focus of all their energy is worship...the business of putting things in THEIR proper order...that is to say, re-ordering them so that God comes first. That's what worship is – giving God his worth...Neither more nor less.

And if God is given God's worth – then God will come first.

That's easy to write and you might think it was a given for all of us who profess the Christian faith – but my own experience is that it is overwhelmingly difficult to do. Though I long, with St Patrick, to ensure that God and God only is first in my heart, so many other things threaten to supersede Him...and I'm not alone. Through the centuries people repeatedly lapsed into idolatry, placing something else, something less at the centre of life.. Sometimes these idols are neutral – money perhaps – sometimes they really are good in themselves – things like family, Church, or social justice – but they are no substitute for God...so we need to keep on practising this business of putting things in the proper order...We need to keep on practising worship. That's what we do when we gather here – we practice worship so that we may more fully engage with it in the world outside...we play at heaven, if you like, aided by angels, archangels and the whole communion of saints.

So when we worship, our routes in are pretty much incidental. Whether you prefer Chris Tomlin or Thomas Tallis, Mozart or Matt Redmond doesn't matter a hoot...because, you see, worship isn't about you. . It’s about God. If God is glorified, and the place where earth touches heaven is recognised and revealed – THAT is worship.
Sometimes it seems that we come together with a rather different agenda,that has more to do with satisfying our own tastes, or meeting our own needs....but true worship is not about how we feel, though we will find it fulfilling beyond all our expectations if our intention is to immerse ourselves in that constant stream of praise and thanksgiving that is the whole business of heaven.

I've never had close dealings with anyone from Tibet, but I've always been fascinated by the idea behind their beautiful prayer wheels...that prayer is a constant thread running through creation, in which we join from time to time. Some prayer wheels are placed in streams, or beneath waterfalls, so that they really do turn constantly, so that it is obvious to all that the prayer never stops. The worship of heaven is like that...continual, under-girding everything, - something into which we step whenever we fix our mind on God and God's glory alone.


That may sound such a high ideal that we don't know how to approach it...if that's so, the psalmist gives us a clue.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
    before the gods I sing your praise;
2 I bow down towards your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

In other words, we need to be whole hearted, as we celebrate both who God is, and what God has done. Stop for moment and think...Even on an ordinary Sunday in Coventry, that list is quite overwhelming, touching every aspect of our selves and our life together. We live and breathe...We hear and are touched by gifts of music, of art, of friendship. We glimpse for a second the wonder of God's self-giving love.
How can we do other than give thanks?
We may be in a hard place – for life is often less than gentle with us.
When we, or those we love, are hurting, all those gifts may seem empty...but God carries on giving.
There is no-one else who should stand in God's place...the lesser gods fade into obscurity before the steadfast love that holds the universe in being and will never, even for a moment, let us go.

So – if you don't feel like worshipping – worship anyway. Take lessons from the angels, who understand that worship is a way of being, not simply one activity to be chosen from among many . To engage your whole being in worship is to open yourself fully to its transforming power. Worship is, above all, an encounter with God, from which not one of us can expect to emerge unchanged...and that's wonderful because we too are being changed from glory into glory, til at least we can find our place in that crowd who worship round the throne.

Because, you see, that IS what it's all for.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist on Holy Cross Day

Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world! Come let us worship...

Part of the proclamation of the cross that is included in the liturgy of Good Friday for thousands of churches across the world – but this is September, and in an on-line conversation last week some friends were completely baffled that Holy Cross day remains in our calendar at all. After all, since we know that the strife is o'er, the battle won and the cross, like the tomb, is empty – what need of a further observance?

And on one level, this could be right. Certainly the origins of the feast might well give you pause, rooted in St Helena's pilgrimage to the holy places of Jerusalem, and her conviction that she had found the site of the crucifixion and of Christ's burial – and close by, 3 crosses buried. Though an early chronicler insisted

All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him.

I'd guess most of us would be inclined to approach the discovery with a little more scepticism...However, in no time Helena had overseen the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and as the years passed, the longing of the faithful to have access to even a splinter of the true cross snowballed until it was drastically out of hand. Hardly a church or monastery was without its relic so that at the Reformation Calvin complained

if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it."

So if we see today as but an excursion into cultic extravagance and superstition, then it is only right and proper to be cautious. But, touch wood the cross seems to have survived this. It remains a popular symbol, chosen as jewellery, as tattoos, as memorials by many who would never claim to follow the crucified one. Strange indeed.
It is hard to imagine anyone choosing to wear a little golden gibbet or a beautifully crafted electric chair pendant round their neck – but it is not this that creates a scandal.
The shock, the scandal comes when the Saviour of the world hangs here - HERE upon that instrument of death...
How can this be...?
Can we grasp, even for a moment, what Paul is celebrating as he quotes that early hymn?
This is God GOD – the creator of all, the one who holds the universe in being,
deliberately choosing to throw in his lot with his creation, to identify with us in an act of such deep and utter commitment that he not only lives a human life but dies a human death, entering into the darkness and experiencing for himself that moment when he can do nothing but surrender.

Total abandonment – to the human condition and to the ultimate purpose of love.
How can this be?

It is, in one way, nothing new. God has always been utterly committed to and connected with his people, their rescue and renewal prefigured by Moses but perfected by Christ. Those who looked at the bronze serpent erected by Moses, trusting in God, escaped death...They looked at an emblem of their trouble, and were healed.
Jesus, lifted high and suffering death himself, offers the route for all of us to escape death forever.
But we have to look with the eyes of faith – to really see the true light that has come into the world, to recognise that God's glory is present as fully as Christ hangs on the cross as it is when he bursts from the tomb in the joy of Easter morning.
We have to look – BEHOLD the wood of the cross...

One of my earliest memories is of looking out of the window on the bus ride home from town, and finding myself eye to eye with the Christ figure on the crucifix that still hangs outside Christ Church, St Leonards...
having looked at Jesus I asked my mother what was written underneath.
The words came from the Reproaches
Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by” - and I felt overwhelming sadness for it seemed that nobody else on the bus was looking, that maybe none of them cared.
Even then it seemed obvious that the cross demands a decision, a response...
You cannot truly SEE the One who is hanging there and do nothing...
He hangs there to draw the all people to himself but He will never constrain, never demand.
Instead, he opens his arms in an embrace wide enough for all the world and says

SEE how much I love you”

but it is your decision whether or not to accept that invitation to be loved.

To accept carries with it the responsibility to pass on the love we have been given, to do all that we can to communicate its overwhelming reality, to live so that others can see for themselves the truth of what Love can do.
We are to lift high the cross, and with it the Son of Man, so that all may see the route to eternal life. I once asked a class of 9 year olds to count the crosses they could find in our church, reminding themselves whenever they saw one “THAT'S how much God loves me”....Before their visit left I asked how many they'd found, expecting a couple of dozen, perhaps a few more. 
But one small boy announced proudly
 “Hundreds and hundreds Kathryn”...
because he had counted every intersection of the tiles on the floor, seen crosses wherever right angles met. And of course he was right. The evidence of God's love cannot really be calculated or recorded.

THAT'S how much he loves us.

Whereas in Holy Week we are often caught up in the liturgical drama, already emotionally exhausted by the highs and lows of the journey from triumphal entry to empty tomb, but straining ahead to Easter joy, today is something quite different.
Today we can simply pause and ponder.

As so often, the poet-priest Malcolm Guite says it best: this is part of his series of sonnets for Holy Week

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.

So – beyond excess and superstition, beyond apathy and over-familiarity, let us glory in the cross of Christ once more...and let us ask, too, for the grace to empty ourselves so that we may be filled with and transformed by the Love that is hanging on the tree.

Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world.
Come, let us worship.






Sunday, September 07, 2014

In praise of volunteers

so this is shamefully late in the day, but I wrote it on our narrowboat immediately after Greenbelt then had no mobile signal til reaching home this weekend. However late, it is, I promise, 100% wholehearted....a huge thank you to the countless wonderful people who together make one of the highlights of my year.

Greenbelt:  a site steward invites us to wave our wristbands in the sunshine as we join the long march from camp-site to Communion
Greenbelt: with rain pounding on the Big Top, where Martyn Joseph has just sung the last notes of the festival, and BHP Pip Wilson reads a Serious Announcement in a Serious Voice about dangers in trying to leave the site til morning
Greenbelt: as a smiling welcomer asks you if your journey was OK - so you suddenly decide that it was, even though it really really wasn't
Greenbelt: a member of the listening team sits patiently under an umbrella on an inflatable sofa doing her festival job of LISTENING - no matter what the weather
From the moment you turn off the road onto the farm tracks of the Boughton Estate, everything you experience depends on volunteers.
Of course there are those whose hard work and kindness you can't help but notice...those lovely site stewards who keep us safe as we womble about (I often find that I've failed to pack all of my faculties when heading for the festival);
the Venue Managers who have made their various spaces beautiful and tend them with loving care, making wave after wave of Greenbelters welcome in their temporary home; 
those who reunite parents and children, or (less alarmingly) cameras and other lost property and owners;
those who answer incessant, and sometimes impossible, questions at the info booth;
medics, nurses, fire crews and hospitality teams;
bar staff and G store sales teams;
those who record talks and process them for the rest of us;
those whose photographs delight and inspire us through the long Greenbelt-less winters;
site vibers, who turn fields and parkland into a wonderful playground (there's a whole team whose energy is devoted to flags and bunting! would you have guessed?)
Front tesk, where S and her team answer well-nigh any question you could possibly dream up;
children's workers, youth team, accessibility team  - and more and more AND MORE!
The public face of the Festival - which surely no-one can miss...though you might not think about how your speakers get to the site, about the driver teams that collect and deliver them from stations and air-ports all over the country, and often get up in the middle of the night to ensure that nobody misses an early flight, or the Night Stewards, who are are around as dependably as the 24 hour Cafe, but with much less attention.

And - beyond all this - have you ever thought about the countless volunteer hours that make Greenbelt a full-time job on top of the day-job for  that list of amazing people whose names appear on the back pages of the festival guide?
The festival actually employs just 8 - that's right EIGHT- paid staff - so everything else that happens depends on volunteers.
They do jobs that I can't even begin to get my head round.
They are people like my friend L...a senior engineer who combines all her engineering know-how with more wit and common-sense than most of the people I know put together, which makes her a genuinely indispensable head of operations. She spends weeks of her life (if you add up the endless hours spent after work) making sure the Greenbelt site is safe, functional and everything else that we take for granted.
Routes...onto and across the site...Walkways...Access...Site capacity...and all sorts of stuff I haven't grasped at all - simply wouldn't work without the Ops team, however much optimistic and impractical souls like me might imagine that several thousand people could just converge on a field and make a festival! She and S travel regularly from Manchester to London (while others travel as far but in other directions), give up weekends beyond number to site visits and ops team weekends, field dozens of Greenbelt related emails pretty much every evening...and they do this FOR LOVE!

And there are many many others like them...
For every single thing that happens - checking the Fair Trade credentials of the traders; ensuring there's somewhere to charge electric wheelchairs; recognising that a greenfield site will need a shop (let's ask our church - I'm sure they'll oblige - drawing yet more volunteers into the mix); drawing maps; managing electric safety checks; arranging for loos, and the emptying thereof; booking someone to clear away and recycle the rubbish...NOTHING happens without volunteers.
There is no distinction between "Greenbelt" and "the volunteers". The volunteers ARE the festival...

I'm very proud that all my children have chosen to make volunteering at Greenbelt part of their summer, even now that this involves sacrifice of actual annual leave...because it seems to me that the wonderful, wonderful army of Greenbelt volunteers is what makes the festival not simply 4 happy days at the end of the summer but a time when, no matter how short-sighted I may be, I cannot help but glimpse heaven.