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.
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...”
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 Tom Wright puts it “rich and fruitful human living, God's new creation bursting into many coloured flower”

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 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.
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.
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” 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 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 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 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 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 reserved 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 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.

Reflection for Compline - Wednesday of Holy Week

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered loss, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord

So tonight we take another step on our Holy Week journey, and try once more to answer that question
Where are you in the story?” - but tonight I'm guessing that nobody much would happily identify with our protagonist.
Judas the traitor.
Judas, the man responsible for the saddest day of all.

Not a pair of sandals anyone is eager to try on...but I wonder...are we so very different from him?
What made him act as he did?
John suggests that he was motivated purely by greed. His gospel account encourages us to tut at Judas's money-grubbing ways
He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was in charge of the common purse – and liked to help himself.” - and it seems clear that John has dismissed him as a man ruled entirely by his longing for money – for whom those thirty pieces of silver were a sufficient motivation in themselves.
He seems to want to turn him into almost a pantomime villain – someone whom it is easy to deride...someone with whom we would never identify, even for a second.

But – Judas has been among the 12 for months, spending time with Jesus, listening to his teaching, watching his healings...
Could he really have been there and remained untouched by the experience of walking beside God made man?

So – I wonder what really drove Judas to act.
It's surely a bit too easy to simply say “Satan entered into him”. Of course evil is a very real force in the world – and sometimes there seems no credible reason why an individual should choose to act in a particular and needlessly destructive way...but I don't think we can really simply place the blame on Satan. Most often, destructive patterns of behaviour come from within ourselves.

Perhaps the clue lies in his surname – Iscariot means “knife bearer”...Judas the revolutionary, Judas the freedom fighter – intent on freeing Israel from Roman rule...Judas throwing his lot in with the itinerant preacher from Nazareth because he seemed the most credible Messiah in generations...
Only – that Messiah refused to seize power
It had all looked so promising on Sunday, with that triumphal entry into the city as the crowds yelled “Hosanna – Save us now – Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord...Blessed is the son of David...the hope of his people”
Optimism filled the air
Now – NOW at last Jesus would surely prove his credentials – demonstrate to the whole of the known world just who he was and what he had come to accomplish.

But then – he didn't.
Instead of riding the wave of popularity – seizing the moment – he went to ground again.
Frustration – disillusionment- despair for Judas – who decided, perhaps, that it was up to him to force Jesus's hand...
Is that what was going on?
Did Judas hope, by bringing the soldiers to arrest Jesus, to push his Master into decisive action at last?
He wanted Jesus – but a Jesus on HIS terms...sharing HIS passions and concerns....stepping in to make things run according to HIS priorities.

And – oh my Lord – don't I do that too?
Don't I seek to shape you to my agenda, recruit you to my causes – rather than simply following your call?
I mean well – but so did Judas.
The freedom of his people was a cause worthy a champion...but that wasn't why Jesus came.

And Judas was so bound up in his own agenda that he ploughed on regardless – until it was too late – until the moment when he realised what he had done in handing over the true hope of Israel, the hope of the world, to be put to death.

There is so much darkness in his part of the story.
He went out – and it was night.
And, in the end – he hung himself.
Rock bottom despair.

And yet – and yet John has Jesus announce, even as Judas goes to meet the soldiers
Now the Son of man has been glorified” - for as the cross looms over our landscape, overshadowing everything for a time, it is in that moment of being handed over...of total abandonment that glory is revealed.
Though his actions are personally disastrous, they have their place in the drama of this week.
Just a week ago we celebrated the feast of the Annunciation – and I reflected that had Mary said “No” God would have found another way.
In the same way, had Judas not acted – someone else would have taken his place as the representative of human sin, of our inability to understand the way of love that Jesus shows us.
Judas was necessary.

And – there is hope, even for him.
There is an old tradition, part of the Orthodox teaching on the harrowing of hell, which offers comfort even at this moment of darkness
On Holy Saturday, when Jesus descends into the depths of hell, he is asked what brings him there, why the sinless one has trodden the route of fallen humanity
I am looking for my friend Judas” he replies – and finding him, kisses him.
So, as Ruth Etchell's puts it in her thoughtful poem The Judas Tree

It was for this I came” Christ said
and not to do you harm
my Father gave me twelve good men
and all of them I kept
though one betrayed and one denied
some fled and others slept
in three days’ time I must return
to make the others glad
but first I had to come to Hell
and share the death you had
my tree will grow in place of yours
its roots lie here as well
there is no final victory
without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemned him
as of every traitor worst
remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first

Judas failed...
He made the wrong choices...He put his own hopes and aspirations before the way of discipleship – but I am confident that the love, grace and forgiveness of God is enough to encompass even Judas the traitor – even you – even me.


Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind
Riches, sight, healing for the mind,
Yes – all I need in thee to find
O lamb of God, I come.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reflection for Compline - Tuesday of Holy Week

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered loss, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord

This week we attempt to respond to that walk the way of the find ourselves in the story that took place once for all, long ago and far away, but which belongs to us and to people of all times and all places, since it is the story of our salvation.

Yesterday we looked at a story told in all of the gospels, and thought about whether or not we could aspire to the love that Mary showed as she poured out her treasured perfume, declaring her Lord dearer to her than all of the poor of the world.

Today, I'm inviting you to find yourself in a story that is all but untold, at this midpoint between the high triumph of Palm Sunday and the desolation of Good Friday, between Mary and Judas....between the extremes of love and betrayal. In many churches when a dramatized gospel is presented in Holy Week, the whole congregation takes the role of the crowd...and it can be a disturbing experience to find oneself moving from adulation to scorn in such a short space of time...
A crowd is a strange organism...both more and less than the sum of its parts...
notoriously fickle, as individuals cede personal responsibility, and stifle the inner voice of conscience so that it is drowned out by the surrounding hubbub.
You can get lost in a crowd, it's true, – but you can find yourself too, discovering who you really are as you choose to go with the flow, or to go out on a limb, risk standing alone.

So let's join the Holy Week crowd as we reflect on where we are in this greatest of all stories.

Looking back to Sunday,the crowds were there, gathering in the city that was already preparing for the festival to come. Men, women and children going about their business or loitering in the spring sunshine on a day when the whole world seemed full of hopeful possibilities...
We know that they were quick to sense the excitement, to lend their voices to the cries of Hosanna that filled the air as that unlikely, ragamuffin procession made its way into Jerusalem.
Did they really believe that the longed for Messiah was here at last, that they were seeing the ancient prophecies fulfilled before their very eyes?
Were they convinced that here – HERE – was their salvation...
Perhaps they were simply jumping on a bandwagon, - looking for someone, anyone, to help them emerge from under the yoke of Roman occupation?
Or were they just joining in because that's what you do...because here was a welcome diversion, something out of the ordinary to get involved with, something that would make a good story when they got home that night.
Being part of a happy crowd is such's easy to get swept along, suspending your own feelings and becoming part of a larger whole.
Does it really matter what the man on a donkey stands for? His face is kind and it's a lovely day...Who cares really? It's not that important...

But...but...the sky darkens...the hopeful innocence of Palm Sunday morning challenged when that same “kind looking young man” behaves in a way that scares and challenges, upsetting not just the money changers tables in the Temple, but the whole hallowed order of Temple culture, with its rituals for everything, its sliding scale of atonement sacrifice. Now leaders are angry, priests and worshippers outraged...
This is sacrilege.
It doesn't feel like fun to support the man from Nazareth any more...It's dangerous.
Small wonder that he and his friends have vanished from the city – getting out of harm's way, no doubt. 
Now is the time to keep mum, to keep your head firmly beneath the parapet. To befriend Jesus is to lose the friendship of those who really matter, the people whose approval will keep you and your family safe. Now is a good time to keep your opinions to yourself, - or to shift your ground, so that you stand with the vocal majority once more. I'm sure there will be something else to shout by the end of the week.

In choosing faith, or rejecting it, this is one possible agenda.
Each of us has the choice to join in with our peers, or to stand out from the crowd...
To recognise and welcome Jesus as the answer to all our deepest needs and longings...or to jump on a different bandwagon in the hope of a better here and now...

Where are you in the story?


Sometimes they strew his way and his sweet praises sing
Resounding all the day Hosanna to their King.
Then “Crucify” is all their breath

And for his death they thirst and cry.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Reflection for Compline - Monday of Holy Week - Coventry Cathedral

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered loss, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord

That wonderful Collect sets the tone for this most holy of weeks.
Every year we are invited, once again, to immerse ourselves in the story, to join our Lord on the Via Dolorosa, so that by staying close to Jesus and entering into the mystery of God's death,we can be touched afresh with resurrection hope.
That's the point of the week, and so it is a week when the question I love most for preaching and Bible study comes into its own.
I wonder...I wonder where YOU are in the story.

You see, in this week of all weeks, the boundaries that separate past and present, that divide 1st century Jerusalem from 21st century Coventry, seem so thin that they are this week, our ordinary lives can be put on hold for a while as we explore again what it means to accept the invitation to walk the way of the cross. The people whom we meet along the way belong in an alien world, so far away from us – yet they seem very very close. Of course they are familiar from their annual appearance in the Passion-tide drama...but they are familiar too because their personalities echo aspects of ourselves. “All human life is here” is a slogan that could apply as much to the Holy Week gospels as to any tabloid paper, for truly these people of the Passion hold up mirrors, so that we may learn more about ourselves, and come to understand both how and why this great story is our story, this song ours.

Monday...after the high excitement of his entry into Jerusalem, the cheering crowds, the puzzled faces, after the hopes and dreams and prophecies fulfilled, after the angry whispers in dark corners, after all this Jesus leaves the city. He seeks an oasis of calm, somewhere he feels safe, among friends. He sits relaxed in the moment, looking neither to past nor to future.
And then suddenly she is there.
Around the table the convivial buzz falters and dies into silence.
Perhaps you're with them, aghast at the sudden unwelcome interruption.
How could she?
Mary who has sat at Jesus feet and heard his teaching. Mary who has dared to rebuke him for responding too slowly when her family needed help. Mary, emotional, embarrassing Mary, turns the evening upside down with a gesture of pure theatre – or is it pure love?
What is going on as she pours out that costly perfume, the dearest thing she owns?

It seems to me that so many of the events of Holy Week stand as parables for us.
Mary is demonstrating wild, extravagant love – but the love that she feels is as nothing compared to the love that will be revealed for all the world to see on Friday.
She has adopted the reckless generosity that is the currency of the Kingdom, - understanding that nothing – NOTHING – is worth more than loving Jesus and being loved by him.
It's a lesson that I still struggle with...longing to give up those things that are precious to me, but holding onto them despite myself, - aspiring to the total abandonment that would see me throwing myself into Jesus's arms, but holding back, “guilty of dust and sin”.
Oh to be Mary – knowing how much she has been forgiven, and loving in proportion...
Mary, who made the choice to stay close to Jesus no matter what.
Mary, who will, in time, be the first witness of the resurrection.

But for now there's another struggle playing out – presented in microcosm in the gospel reading, as Judas challenges her lavish gift, with an argument that seems only sensible. 
What a wicked waste! 
Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?
He can see nothing but the immediately practical, knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing, but Mary has but one focus – the amazing man who has given her back her brother, and given her too a sense of her own worth, her right to hear, receive and, in due course, share the gospel for herself.

And, as she pours out that ointment Jesus recognises it as a gesture of unconditional love and perhaps he files it away, as a parable that he could use himself, maybe quite soon...

Love poured out...filling the space with its fragrance... embracing the beloved, transforming the lover, and all those with eyes to see.


Were the whole realm of nature mine that were a present far too small
Love, so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Sermon preached at Pembroke College Cambridge, Lent 2, 1st March 2015 Mark 8:31-38

One of the many strange things that happens to you when you are ordained is that people tend to hold you responsible for all sorts of things that are clearly the responsibility of God alone. They expect, for example, that you'll be able to fix good weather for which my stock reply is “Actually, I'm in Sales – not management”.
It's fair to say that some parts of the job can, on a bad day, feel rather like working in sales or PR for a brand that has almost nothing to recommend it – particularly when you find yourself confronted with readings like those we've heard this evening.
They certainly aren't the stuff of an easy win. In fact, I think I'll change the subject without more ado!

2 weeks into Lent now. How's it going for you?
Are you resolute in your disdain for chocolate, biscuits and alcohol or are you exhausted by the sheer weight of virtuous projects you've taken on.
It's odd, the way the idea of “giving things up for Lent” seems to have survived in our emphatically post Christian society. I guess for many it's really just another chance to have a go at those self improvement resolutions that foundered in the dull days after Christmas...another chance to prove ourselves by triumphing over self-created obstacles but if that's so, then I think we've gone a bit off course.


If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Deny yourself
Take up your cross
That's sounds, somehow, a whole lot more serious than stepping away from the chocolate. Let's look more closely and try to discover what this Scripture might mean for us.

First of all, a bit of context. Today's passage occurs just after the account of an amazing experience. Jesus took his 3 closest friends on a mountain walk – and as they reached the top the disciples saw, for a few moments, the truth of the man they were following. Before their eyes, Jesus was transfigured – not changed but revealed in all the shining light of his divine nature. It was wonderful – something to treasure (so much so that Peter wanted to build a memorial on the spot), a confirmation that they were on the right track after all, that everything was going to be alright – and BETTER than alright.
To Peter this looked like the start of something big – a PR breakthrough... small wonder he was more than disappointed when instead of building on the triumph Jesus immediately began to talk about suffering, rejection and worse. What?!

Clearly that couldn't be right. Everyone knew that God's Messiah would be a triumphant leader, setting all to rights in a blaze of glory.Indeed, his very triumph would be confirmation that he was indeed God's chosen.
Suffering and death were signs of failure.
A crucified Messiah was simply a contradiction in terms.

But even as Peter tries to silence Jesus, to curb his depressing pronouncements, Jesus tells him that he's got it wrong.
Death IS actually what it's all about...
Death of the self
I can't think of a message less calculated to win friends and influence people but Jesus just doesn't seem to care.
In fact it looks very much as if he's set on putting most of us off before we even start.

Certainly he's determined that we should understand what we are getting into. If you've been baptised, you will have had the cross traced on your forehead – an invisible reminder of the shape your life should take from then on.
You bear a cross.
So do I.
A constant reminder that Discipleship is absolutely Not for the faint-hearted.

Let them deny themselves”
Words that are anathema in our age of self fulfillment and individualism – but you know, I really don't think it's all about chocolate – and I think we cheat if we use that kind of choice to divert attention from the huge demand of the gospel.

Jesus is saying, quite simply, that we need to learn that we cannot exist as the centre of our own universe...that a world that runs on the principle of self fulfilment for all is very quickly going to become a place of conflict and unhappiness...that a little ego goes a very long way.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

Last week I saw “Oppenheimer” - a very powerful drama about the man responsible for developing the atomic bomb. As the plot developed we saw him repeatedly making choices that seemed to stem from his own pride, choices that divorced him step by step from his own humanity. The success of the project became all important. While at first there was talk of the deterrent power of the bomb, of the way that it would cut war short and so save countless lives, soon it became clear that it was now an end in itself. It was a chilling experience, watching scientific brilliance dedicated ever more deeply to a cataclysmic cause – and as we emerged, the big question in our group was “How do you live with yourself afterwards”.
It seemed to me that we had been watching the experience of someone losing their own soul right enough – and losing it as a result of a determination to hold on to the ego and all that went with it.

That's really what's going on at the centre of everything...and where we should focus if we're serious about engaging with Lent.
It's a struggle of life and death as our human tendency to “me first” contends with the incredible power of self-giving love that is God's very essence.
Really not just chocolate.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 

Thankfully, Jesus doesn't simply talk enigmatically. - he models in his own person this upside down way of being, and invites us to live it too.
In fact, this whole passage is deeply prophetic – looking ahead to the way in which Jesus, losing his own life on the cross, gains it and in so doing transforms our life, our death and our future.

There are no guarantees of a pain free life. Indeed if we are serious about setting aside our egos then we can surely expect to find ourselves feeling and carrying some of the grief of the world ourselves...

But we are offered the help that we need in order to bear it.

Jesus steps in and carries it all....the sadness, disappointment, anger, doubt, and denial....all the weight of broken humanity.

But we can choose to carry it learn to be Christ-like by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory.
We will all have our own unique burdens – made out of the stuff of our own lives and experience...
Of failure and loneliness, a difficult relationship, a sick relative, things we might well prefer to jettison, but find ourselves carrying day by day. Your cross will be quite unlike mine, - it might look more manageable – or less...That doesn't matter, because your cross belongs to you. No exchange programme possible.

I can't carry your cross...but Jesus can and does bear it with you.
His invites us on this arduous road of discipleship because he knows that the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter.
It's into this that we are baptised...sharing Christ's death so that we might also share his resurrection.

Peter could not believe that the route to the Kingdom lay through the death of his Master ...but we can look at the cross with the perfect, 20/20 vision of hindsight...
We KNOW that, however painful, however difficult the here and now – Easter is coming.

For now we are still in the midst of Lent, still havering over chocolate, still not sure what will happen in our own unfinished stories, unsure if it will all come out right one day,
But, despite the PR disasters, there is good news for us here this evening.

You see,
whether our lives end
in outward success or failure, acclaim or ignominy, whether we achieve our
goals or feel that we have never really amounted to anything in the world's
eyes, we are just as precious to God, Today, in mid-Lent, in mid-term, let’s not hurry on to the happy ending of Easter. Let’s take the time to realise that just where we are – even struggle and uncertainty, God is with us and God loves us, and he will bring Easter when the time is ripe. .