Sunday, January 07, 2018

Rise and shine - a sermon for our Volunteers' Evensong at Coventry Cathedral. Epiphany 2018

Arise, shine -for your light is come!

My father spent some of the happiest days of his life as a serving officer in the Royal Navy, and so it was that in childhood my day always began as he put his head round my bedroom door offering a passable imitation of a Bosun's pipe before declaiming 
Wakey wakey. Rise and shine”…
And I knew, somehow, that, whatever the day might bring, the force of his love for me meant that I’d always shine, someho, in his eyes.
His faith in my abilities was absolute. 
Of everyone that I’ve known, he would probably be the least surprised that I’ve ended up here – something that was a far cry from my own imaginings when I finally stopped running away from God’s call to ordination and set out in reluctant obedience. You see, I know that I’m really deeply ordinary...Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that all the lovely things that have happened to me along the road have come as joyful surprises. Daddy, perhaps, might have claimed to see them coming (and sometimes I’m still sad that he died without even knowing I’d be heading to the university of our dreams…)

However, - there’s nothing worse than a preacher who goes on about themselves...though I guess most preachers find ourselves engaging with the words we most need to hear as we prepare...But – that’s not the point.
It’s all about rising and shining today.

Your light has come

Such welcome words in these dark cold days when January bites.
Though the galaxies of fairy lights may have vanished, the decorations have been returned to their boxes, nonetheless we continue to celebrate
The light is come
The light that shines in the darkness – while the darkness cannot even comprehend it...

And – the dawning of that light means that we too are called to shine.
Not simply to bask in its transforming glow but to SHINE...and to recognise that
The glory of the Lord is risen upon you...” and in that light, the whole world is transformed.

That's what an Epiphany does. It helps you see things differently.
Simply put, it's the moment when God is revealed.
It’s that instant of “Aha!” when you can say with confidence that this experience is nothing less than a real live encounter with our real live God – and after that nothing will ever look the same again.
Lift up your eyes and look around”...
This is not the same place that it was before...
These people are more beautiful...
They reflect that light which has dawned...and so do you
You shall see and be radiant. Your heart shall rejoice!”

Epiphanies change everything.
How we see the world – and how we see ourselves.

The Common Worship liturgy for this season invites us into a season of marvels .
Three wonders mark this holy day.
This day, a star leads the wise men to the Christ child.
This day water is made wine at the wedding feast.
This day Jesus is reavealed as the Christ in the waters of baptism.

Wonders that show us, and all humanity, something of the truth of God with us...
A birth story, a baptism and a wedding. What a wedding!

I have to say that, as one who has spent a fair bit of time involved in the fine details of wedding arrangements, I find them very nerve wracking affairs. So much seems to ride on the success of the day, there is such a longing for “perfection”, that the risk of disappointment feels enormous.
It's bad enough if the clouds gather, or the florist fails – but I would really really hate to be too close if the wine ran out.

But, of course, this is exactly what happens at Cana of Galilee.
A wonderful day of celebration is transformed, not by the radiant light of an epiphany but by the looming clouds of family shame and disappointment.
Such disaster!
Despite the best planning, the many attempts to ensure perfection, a roomfull of guests is faced with the exciting choice of water or water.
Human resources have failed.
But luckily that bride and groom whose names we'll never know had the good sense to invite Jesus to be part of their celebration – and in doing so, had, against all their expectations, brought God directly to their marriage feast.
Lift up your eyes and look around you!
So, when all they could offer was water – Jesus intervened and turned it into wine – and not just supermarket plonk but the finest vintage ever tasted.
How did it happen? I can't help with the mechanics of the miracle, and sadly I don't know how to replicate it, but at the most basic level it happened because someone had the sense to ask for help....a useful reminder for all of us. God is waiting, longing to bless us – but too often we try to struggle on, claiming our independence even as we fall flat on our faces again and again.
The God who in Jesus took the ordinary things of life and made them extraordinary is the same God who takes ordinary people – you, me and the lady down the road – and blesses us to be signs of God's kingdom.
Pablo Picasso, who knew a fair bit about being gifted, I’d say, once wrote
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”
And that’s exactly what you do, - each of you  splendid volunteers, who give of your time and energy, talent and skill to God through the work of this Cathedral. Be you singer or ringer, musician, verger or server, reader, welcomer, steward, Blitz museum host, archivist, guide, teacher, caterer, coffee maker, bread maker, polisher, weeder, filer, copier, editor ,Night shelter host or Work Club advisor, intercessor, prayer minister, or planner,  embroiderer, committee member, small group leader, pastoral visitor,f- or a host of other roles…
You give of yourself – and we are deeply and truly grateful – not just today when we voice our thanks, but on each and every day of the year.
You give of yourself, and God uses you as a gift to bless others.

Yes each one of us is fundamentally quite ordinary...As we wander through Broadgate, there’s nothing to make anyone take a second glance and yet.........and yet, we can and will be transformed by God, if we can only find the courage to ask God to work with us.
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose is to give it away.
Arise. Shine. For God knows that you can...and will..shine for God.

The water that we bring, our everyday lives, our time, our being is blessed and transformed into wine..so that we too can be a sacramental sign of God's presence – for that is what the church is called to be.
But the thing is – those servants who poured out the contents of the water jars as directed had NO idea that a wonder was occurring. They had to act first – and one can well imagine how it felt to approach the MC with a cup of – well, they knew that the jar had held water...they'd filled it themselves...
There's something for us to learn here, isn't there?If we don't actually RISK trusting that God can do amazing things....if we don't attempt the extraordinary for God's sake ….then we will never discover what God's grace can accomplish.
Yes – even in me. 
Even in you.

Arise. Shine.

Truly, this is the season of wonders, as we continue to celebrate God with us, - in the simple things of everyday, - in water, bread and wine and in men and women, giving of their gifts of energy, time and talents.
For all this and so much more, thanks be to God!

The Christmas journey - sermon for Midnight Mass at Holy Trinity, Coventry

This is what I said at Midnight Mass....The following Sunday someone came up to me after the Cathedral Eucharist to say "thank you"...She had suffered a heart attack some years ago, had felt betrayed by her body until someone suggested that the place where her heart had been "broken" was the place where God was lodging to heal and restore. She found my sermon confirming that sense - and in sharing her story, she blessed me hugely. 

Light looked down and beheld darkness

I will go there, said Light
That’s the most important journey, of course…the journey we are preparing to celebrate…the journey that makes all the difference to everything….
But St Luke’s account of the nativity is full of journeys.
Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem,
The angels come from heaven to the shepherds
Just after they’ve heard the angelic chorus, the shepherds hurry to the manger.
Even at the moment of his birth Jesus is intent on stirring us up, on moving us out of our familiar ways, taking us out beyond our comfort zones.
Ironic, then, that we’ve transformed our celebrations of his birth into the epitome of traditions. We dream of Christmasses “just like the ones we used to know” and exclaim in distress if an “essential” carol somehow gets missed from the Midnight Service or too many features of our own ideal festivities are altered without permission.
Ironic because that baby is born to challenge and to change us…
The shepherds went on their journey – they saw the good news story with their own eyes – and then they had to go home and demonstrate that the baby’s birth really was good news for the whole world. Once the angels had stopped singing and gone on their way, the good news depended on them. Who would have believed their wild stories of a sky filled with angels if the events of that night had not changed the shepherds so that they began to live a new kind of life?
They turned from people who had been on the receiving end of good news, - who had heard it and seen it, - to people who were good news themselves.
And now we are invited on the same journey…called to travel even to Bethlehem
We’re not there just to see, marvel and return home to the status quo.
We go, like so many before us, just as we are, because we have no other option.
We go empty handed, because the Christ child needs nothing except our hearts.

Let me make a confession. Please be kind to me!
I spend far too much time that I don’t really have online...and sometimes I even get drawn in to utterly pointless quizes. I’m sure that none of you would ever be so silly...but there we go. That’s me.
And so it was that earlier this week I established, thanks to Classic fm, that if I were a Christmas carol, I’d be Harold Darke’s wonderful setting of “In the bleak midwinter”. That made me very happy, actually, as it’s one of my favourites, with its last verse that encourages us to give our hearts to the infant King.

It sounds so beautiful, a precious gift on this night of wonders...– but sometimes, you know, our hearts aren’t all they might be.
If we’re honest, - and there’s no point in being anything else - we’ll know that the gift of our hearts isn’t really that amazing.
There are probably some patches of selfishness, of un-forgiveness…of intolerance or prejudice…of anger or pride...and all of those parts of ourselves of which we are least proud are nonetheless wrapped up in our offering of ourselves to that baby.
Still, we travel as we are, because that‘s the only way that we can go.
No possibility of white-wash or self-deception here, since the One we go to visit is our God, our creator, a helpless baby swaddled against the night air.
But though we are all of us welcome just as we are…we are invited there to be transformed.

There’s another journey that we must make…from self interest to love, from anger to peace, from despair to hope…
As we stoop to enter the stable, that cramped space that contains Someone greater than the world and all that is in it, we are invited to change….to offer our poverty, our inadequacy, our disappointment, our fear and to receive back riches, strength, comfort beyond all expectation.
We come as we are and are changed till we are as He is….
That’s the point of it all, as Ireneaus recognised so many centuries ago, when he proclaimed:
God became what we are, so that we might become what God is.”
And God, of course, is love.

Imagine if everyone in this packed church went out into the world to live every day by the light of God’s love.
Imagine how our city might look then.
A sudden outbreak of love, joy, peace and reconciliation transforming everything.
And that’s our invitation, as we come face to face with Jesus, the one who can transform us tonight…
Jesus born in a stable, but present for us in one another, in God’s word and in the Sacrament of bread and wine.

LIGHT looked down and beheld darkness.
I will go there,’ said Light.
Peace looked down and beheld war.
I will go there,’ said Peace.
Love looked down and beheld hate.
I will go there’ said Love.
So light came, and shone.
So peace came, and gave rest.
So love came, and gave light.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.


Advent 4 Ana-Mary-Gram

Though they say that a picture is worth a thousand words, I would contend that poetry can often get into places in our hearts and souls where other words cannot reach…That poets and prophets alike have the gift of standing at a distance and seeing things in a new way – and as I pondered this morning’s readings I realised that beloved George Herbert had done it again. In common with most writers of his day, he loved a bit of word-play and among all the treasures of his “Temple” collection is a two-line anagrammatic poem which sums up pretty much all that today’s readings represent. He is playing with the name of Mary – an anagram of army as he writes -
HOw well her name an Army doth present,
In whom the Lord of hosts did pitch his tent!
And there we have it.
After so many dreams and longings to secure God’s presence by building God a house…after David’s aspirations and Solomon’s international construction project (which always puts me in mind of the way that treasures were gathered from all over the world as this Cathedral rose from the rubble)….after Israel’s years of exile and return…after the Roman occupation…after all this our God on the move finally settles, for a while at least.
The one who walked with Adam in the cool of the evening, who spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush and talked to him face to face as a man speaks to his friend, the God whose still small voice was heard by Elijah…the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob comes among God’s people once again and pitches his tent …
As one translation of that well-loved phrase in John’s prologue runs, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us…moved into the neighbourhood…dwelt among us
Heaven taking root on earth –
“For in that rose contained was heaven and earth in little space”
In Mary.
A teenager in a small town in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.
One among many, you’d imagine. Nothing to mark her out in the crowd. What was so special about her?
I suspect that for David, right the way through, there was a hope that to build a Temple might be his great legacy project. You see, though he knew God well, David was so often the centre of his own universe...so much of his life was All About Him. Hard for him to let go of the idea that it would be DAVID’S Temple that would stand for centuries...though there is the promise for him, too
“I will make for you a great name...Your throne shall be established forever”.
That’s not bad, really, for a shepherd boy turned king, with some very dubious moments along the way. David matters. His story counts...the David chapter remains important in the grand sweep of God’s story of love for God’s people.
But with Mary, things are quite different.
She may seem to be just an ordinary girl and yet – and yet, even before God bursts into her life turning everything upside down, she’s already described as “favoured one” – “full of grace” in some translations…
David was a man after God’s own heart, but here is someone so open to God that grace already fills her heart and soul.
God knows he will feel at home with Mary…IN her…
God comes close to her “The Lord is with you” – and because God comes close to Mary, Mary comes close to God…so close that, incredibly, she becomes the God-bearer herself.
Here is God’s stopping place – the site where God is pitching his tent for now. Forget the splendours of the Temple, - all that God is, the whole fullness of divinity, will be contained within her womb.
As the carol puts it “res Miranda” – a wonderful thing indeed...Mary, blessed among women indeed –though it is a costly blessing…
Small wonder that the angelic messenger opens the next part of the conversation with that familiar angelic greeting
“Do not be afraid…”.
If ever those words were appropriate, this is the time. And though what he says is terrifying enough, what actually happens is far more so. Though Mary responds with obedience, it doesn’t honestly feel as if she has much choice
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you…” – and at that point, really, resistance is futile…
From then on Mary’s life is transformed forever – and so is the life of the world.
Yes, David gets his mention. We know that it matters that Joseph is “of his house”, - that, very soon now, Mary’s child will be born in Bethlehem, Royal David’s city…
“He will be great...and the Lord will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end”
The parallels are unmistakable. Luke’s hearers are meant to recognise that here an ancient promise is being fulfilled. Mary may not know where the road ahead is leading but here and now God has come home, pitching his tent …
While George Herbert enjoys the word play that turns Mary to Army, the God whom she sings of in her Magnificat turns things the other way up. David’s calling was to be mighty in battle, to defeat the enemies of God’s people and assert the power of his name over all earthly rulers…
Mary’s calling, higher by far, was and is to provide hospitality for the One whose power is made perfect in weakness, who puts down the mighty from their seat, and exalts the humble and meek.
As Gabriel speaks to her, this new world order is already coming in to being.
And – we are part of it.
The promise of mercy...made to Abraham and his children is made to us too…
but we have to make room, as Mary did.
We HAVE to offer God hospitality, knowing that to do so as fully, whole-heartedly, as she did will probably turn our worlds upside down too.
Tonight, many of us will find ourself singing the familiar words
“Be born in us today”.
While Mary was God-bearer when Christ came into the world, we are all called to be God-bearers here and now. The world needs God so much – and with God, nothing is impossible.





Friday, December 01, 2017

Coventry - a place I love.

Dear DCMS,
I know that today you're being inundated with pictures and tags about this remarkable city. Here are some thoughts that have been brewing gently over 4 years now. Enjoy reading them - and reflecting on our city. We love it - and it is making an extraordinary journey from despondency to joy. You have the power to help us on the way to transformation...that's really special. I hope you'll fall in love with Coventry too 

Coventry. 
Home for now. 
A phoenix city that has reinvented itself repeatedly through history - from weaving and dyeing, to ribbons, sewing machines, bicycles, cars...and latterly, students.
A city that, not long ago, seemed to have run out of energy and resources, losing its self-belief and with it, the ability to dream.
A city that people don't visit.
A city that defines itself over and against its neighbours
"Well, of course, we're not Birmingham!"

Four years ago, my experience of Advent was unlike other years. It was, more than ever, a time of preparation, but this year as well as all the busyness of parish life, the comings and goings of schools and community groups, the 24/7 carolling, I was also preparing, beneath the surface, to be interviewed for the post I now hold. At that point, I knew little of Coventry, though in common with many thousands of others I had visited with my parents in the 1960s, had reportedly sat myself firmly on the floor by the West Screens and said, with some indignation, "You never told me that God was so BIG".
As part of the interview I was asked to give a presentation about creating a reconciled and reconciling people - and instinct suggested to me, even then, that the Cathedral itself might need to seek reconciliation with its city. This is what i wrote then...

The Cathedral stands as living symbol of resurrection and healing through brokenness....and can offer a safe space to gather and hold individual and community stories, tales of a city destroyed, reborn, and travelling onward. Sometimes those stories will seem to point to differences that cannot be resolved, divisions almost beyond healing.
For all the joy and pride in the new Cathedral, the loss of its predecessor was a real blow for the city. The night of the blitz left scars even as the whole shape of the city was redrawn. Writing of the post-war redevelopment of Ladywood, not so very far away, the parish priest of St John's pointed out ““The heart of our community was destroyed. A living, corporate personality was crushed by the bulldozers” - and the impact was significant and lasting, for all the obvious local improvements. 
Similarly here the building that had evolved over generations to be a theatre of memory where the story of Jesus and the story of the city came together was replaced by an award-winning project not welcomed by all.
If stories were lost, or voices stifled, perhaps now is the time to hear them.

Perhaps too the remarkable ministry of international reconciliation you now represent, created a distance between the Cathedral and the city?  Do we need reconciliation at home as well as further afield?

I think I was onto something then - but I believe that  things are different now. 
Yes, for many our Cathedral is still defined above all by a moment in history and the challenging decision of Provost Howard, the morning after the night before, to write just two words on the wall of his ruined Cathedral's sanctuary. "Father forgive", he said, and in that moment plotted our course from then on, as a place where we don't talk of "them" and "us"....where we recognise that both destructive and creative habits lie within all of us...where we understand that whatever is happening in the world, the responsibility is shared. in choosing reconciliation over retribution, he established our DNA - but that has led us to places and encounters that I imagine he could not have dreamed of.

Our reconciliation story is as powerful now as it ever was, and we continue to lean on the power of the past to build peace for the future....but there is more afoot. 
With a culture of openness and welcome that tries to reflect God's unconditional welcome of each one of us, with a programme of worship and events that is wide-ranging and sometimes challenging, with strong friendships with our neighbours at the University next door and the leaders of the city across faith, cultural and political divides, we are doing all that we can to be a space for all. I love the city and the Cathedral's place in it and look forward to working with our neighbours and partners to nurture the seeds of hope til they flourish and grow to make our city beautiful again.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Bible Sunday: an extraordinary gift

Today is Bible Sunday…when we are invited to focus afresh on the gift that is Scripture. And there’s a particular power in celebrating that gift today, Reformation Sunday, when we look back 500 years at the moment when an obscure German monk and academic began something that was to shake the world, as he nailed a document to the door of a small German church.
At the time, nobody could have foreseen what would follow, but the reverberations of Martin Luther’s hammer were to be felt across the Church, and across the world. The Protestant Reformation altered nations, shaped politics, provoked wars, and led to innovations in science, industry, economics, and medicine. It gave us Bach chorales and the Protestant work ethic, but so much more, the Reformation provided a much-needed corrective to a Church that had lost its way amid its own excesses, and, by placing the Bible in the hands of anyone who wanted to read it, gave ordinary baptized Christians the responsibility for their own faith.
Sola Scriptura was the cry then– Scripture alone. This was to be the single authority from which Christians were to work out their own salvation, in fear and trembling. They were no longer to outsource their theology to priestly experts, but to read God’s word for themselves...and to allow it to change them.
Of course, this gift was not the only outcome of the Reformation...As in most revolutions, people got hurt. Feelings ran so high that hundreds died, acclaimed as martyrs by one faction or the other, and the enmity between Protestants and Catholics endured for centuries. Today, though, there is repentence on both sides. “We have to say that breaking up the western church was not a gift to the church," says the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America  while one American RC bishop announced "Catholics should do penance for setting the stage for the [division],"
And what about us, as members of the church of England, both Catholic and Reformed. We remain rooted in the traditions of the Fathers, our ordained ministry linking us in a chain that leads back to the moment when Jesus said to Cephas “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” - and yet celebrate the priesthood of all believers and welcome all comers to explore Scripture for themselves, to hear God speaking to them in words that are both ancient and absolutely contemporary. At its best, Anglicanism might seem to be one of the most positive fruits of the Reformation, founded on tradition AND Scripture, on reason AND experience.
Which brings us to M, who will be baptized into God’s Church in just a little while. This is her heritage...not just the blood of the martyrs and the passionate lifelong search for God’s truth but the gift of Scripture itself, to guide her on life’s journey...
But hold on. What kind of gift is this? On a bad day, some might see the Bible as rather a white elephant, an outmoded piece of cultural and social history that shackles Christians so that they are unable to move forward to encounter God in the world today. Of course, that’s not my view, though I do worry that too often well-meaning Christians fall into the trap of asking the Bible to be something it really is not...and that can be decidedly unhelpful. The Bible is a GUIDE but not a detailed instruction manual. There’s work for us to do as we relate to it, and we must never, in reading it, suspend our common sense, leave our brains packed neatly in tissue paper and expect the Bible to make all our decisions for us. That way lies the sad tale of the apocryphal Christian who, seeking guidance,closed his eyes,opened his Bible, and let his finger land at random on the page…only to read
Judas went and hanged himself”, followed closely by “Go and do likewise” and “What you do, do quickly”
It’s a good story….and a good illustration of the sort of abuse that the Bible can be subject to. The Bible was never intended as a fail-safe rule book, or a kind of detailed route-planner to lead us safely through life if we only pay obedient attention to every word within its covers. We were never expected to follow its words mindlessly – but to enter into a relationship with the text, allowing what we read and hear to act on us as we mark, learn and inwardly digest.

That’s the key. The Bible is not simply the story of people who lived long ago and far away. It is OUR story too. This library of ancient texts tells us the story of a people’s relationship with God…. And like any good story, this one evolved with the telling, gaining meaning as it impacted the lives of those who spoke and those who listened, til those meanings became part of the story themselves. That’s still how it works for us. We read of the struggles, disasters and misbehaviours of others and their story becomes a lens through which we can interpret our own lives and see, again and again, how God’s love remains constant. The bible is history – HIS story, the story of God’s love and justice and mercy, God’s ways, purposes, promises and victory. Everything, whether narrative or poetry, fable or rules, reflects this, a ollection of writings made both before and after Christ, which point us to God. A set of writings which considers God’s dealings with humanity in the past and his revelation of himself in Jesus.

Those who’ve listened to my preaching over the past 3 years will know that one of my very favourite questions is
Where are YOU in the story?”
That, for me, is the key to a relationship with the Bible.
To remember that those women and men, prophets, shepherds, slaves, fishermen and kings, were living in a very different context, but with the same struggles, hopes and fears that we all carry day by day...so that in their stories and their experiences of God we can find wisdom, comfort and strength ourselves.

The Bible is God’s word – but God did not just tell us of God’s ways..God SHOWS us always and above all, through God’s LIVING WORD made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.
God’s words, written and lived are a love-letter from God to God’s people...to you and me, and today especially to M as she joins the household of faith.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” said Paul to the Colossians...and that’s my hope and prayer for each of us today. that we should love the Bible and make it our own, giving it our best attention, wrestling with it for a blessing time and again.
Let’s not be afraid to get things wrong, for 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.

The great theologian, Karl Barth, was once asked to sum up all he had learned in a lifetime of study. His response was to sing, very gently, a song that I, like him, learned in early childhood
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Holy wisdom, Holy word,
A gift, to be savoured and celebrated, laden with the love of God.

For the Word of the Lord, Thanks be to God!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Fish out of Water a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 1st October 2017

This week, I spent 3 days in the great city of Liverpool with 156 clergy colleagues, enjoying the first Coventry Clergy conference since 1967. I’m glad that I didn’t know that in advance. I was part of the organising group and the pressure to provide something that would be valuable to all, regardless of their theology or stage of ministry was quite sufficient as it was….I can’t bear to think how the group would have felt if we’d known that the last time the college of clergy got together like that was 50 years ago.
With that kind of lead time, how on earth could we have hoped to avoid disappointing almost everyone?

Fortunately, though, we were only told that it was 15 years since the last diocesan conference (which had included a wider group of people) and then left to prepare a programme that reflected the unlikely theme “Fish out of Water”.
Usually, of course, that phrase produces pictures of a gasping fish, close to death as it is taken from its natural element...and on a bad day, I guess clergy can sometimes feel a bit like that...After all, many of us were trained and equipped to serve a Church and a world that no longer seems to exist…we might have felt called to one style of ministry, only to find ourselves stepping up to do something quite different, without knowing for sure how that might fit into the over-arching call to serve God’s Church for the sake of the Kingdom.
Spending time away with others who share that same experience can be incredibly valuable – specially for those working on their own in a parish, where it can sometimes feel as if nobody understands what your priesthood is really all about.

That, though, was not the thinking behind the conference title. Instead it reflected a proverb, new to me when we began planning 2 years ago “If you want to understand water, don’t ask a fish”. In other words, don’t expect to really see things which are very close to you...you’ll take them for granted, brush up against them so regularly that you make allowance for their presence unthinkingly, stop noticing them altogether. If you want to actually examine something carefully, you’ll probably need to step back to get a better perspective – and our conference aimed to provide that opportunity. Liverpool is not Coventry. It’s similar – a multicultural city which saw considerable war-time damage...A city with not one but two new cathedrals...A city that has seen great changes, with one industry vanishing and a new reality invented as the home of 2 universities. We saw all this, registered the similarities and spent time wondering what we could learn from them...whether the Liverpool approach gave us confidence in our own responses to the challenges and opportunities of our context. Taken out of the water of our daily lives we were able to learn more about them.

But the context of ministry, and that of faith, is always more than the external surroundings, or even the way that our inner lives are shaped by them. For each one of us, our core element is our life in Christ – the one “in whom we live and move and have our being”….That is the substance of our 2nd reading tonight, - the categorical assurance that Christ and the Father are one, that to have seen Jesus is to have seen God…

I wonder...I wonder what that means for you...Here in this Cathedral where our view of Jesus is so shaped and conditioned by the great tapestry behind me of Christ in glory...
Does that speak to you...? There are other images too...of the crucified one hanging on the cross, in the lower part of that same tapestry, which you can only see from the Lady Chapel...or the vulnerable baby clasped in his mother's arms in the Stalingrad Madonna found in the Millennium Chapel....or the head crowned with thorns, the "Car Crash Christ" on the way into the Chapel of Unity.
Which speaks to you?
You don't have to choose, actually. It's not either/or. All aspects are always and eternally part of who Christ is - and thus of who GOD is. Suffering and glorified....vulnerable, helpless but saving the world...
Jesus....showing us God.
everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also.
That’s it, pure and simple.
An antidote to dodgy theology and confusing interpretation.
A test of orthodoxy and a reassurance in the face of life’s storms.

In the latter years of the twentieth century, David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, attacted much controversy and condemnation for some honest exploration of the details of faith – but once the media hype had settled what was left was his own personal creed
God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope”
He added, sometimes “You can’t keep a good God down. Even the CHURCH can’t keep a good God down”….and God – well, God is as he is in Jesus.
To me, that sounds like the ultimate in orthodox teaching. God shown to us in the life and teaching, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God both promising and demonstrating to us that nothing can stand in the way of self-giving love, that always, non-negotiably, love wins...that at the heart of everything, before everything and after everything has ceased to be, we can depend on God’s love

If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

Abide in him….for HE is our natural element...the only place to stay if we are to really flourish…
A fish out of water needs to be returned to water pretty swiftly, really...but if time outside helps us to see what our environment is really all about, then it has to be worthwhile.

One night last week we were offered the almost inevitable after-dinner quiz - which featured a round of acronyms. Sadly, it did not include one of my favourites...KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Keep it simple...God is as he is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon for Proper 18A, Trinity 13, 10th September 2017 at Coventry Cathedral


What is the Church?

 

That’s the kind of question that you find yourself answering a lot during theological training – but not often afterwards. Fom then on you’re usually far too busy working at being a public face for the Church, contending with her oddities, screaming (whether publicly or internally) at some of the institutional baggage she has collected through the centuries, worrying about her future, or quite simply living with her. For her clergy, the Church is simply the non-negotiable reality that shapes every single day...but that can make it hard to remember what she is really called to do and to be.

 

Today’s readings might help us reflect a little though...with their emphasis on relationship -for one thing is certain – you can’t be “the Church” on your own. So let’s start with the gospel – which makes it very clear that the Church is a community gathered around Jesus. That community might be large and impressive – a Cathedral crammed to the gunwhales for an ordination perhaps – or small and intimate – a handful offriends meeting in a former shop – but the fundamental point is that what brings these people together is their longing to get close to Jesus.  And Jesus honours that longing with his promise

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.

Such very familiar words – I wonder if you really heard them as Sarah read them just now.

 

Jesus promises that when we gather in his name – he is among us.

Right here and right now.

THAT’S what makes us Church.

Not our building (though it is, confusingly, what makes us a Cathedral)…

Not our entrance requirements – whether you see those in terms of baptismal status or of adherence to each and every clause of the Nicene Creed.

Not our success or failure in obeying his commandments

What makes us Church is that we meet around Jesus – and it his presence with us, - in his Word, in one another, and in the beaking of bread, that enables us to do and to be whatever else worthwhile we might attain.

It really IS all about him – so whatever your view of the tapestry, its presence in this building calls us back again and again to the reason we are here.

 

Though the NRSV translation which we heard this morning begins “If another member of the church sins...” the original Greek phrase is “If your brother...”. So, when we speak of the Church as family – we’re not saying anything new. The members of this community will share a family resemblance with one another. Leaving aside the optimistic use of the hypothetical “IF” (for we know full well that as the fallible people we are, we surely WILL hurt and distress one another along the way) Jesus encourages us to be honest about those hurts...Familes do not agree 24/7 – but if there is a healthy, trust-based relationship, its members can admit when they’ve hurt or been hurt by one another and seek healing together.

 

So – we need to be a community that reflects this. A community where we will not always agree with one another, but where damage and difference is acknowledged and reconciliation sought. The Church must never be a place where integrity is sacrificed to a superficial niceness: Jesus is very clear indeed about this – but it should, always, non-negotiably, be a place where love is practised. Again, and again and again.

 

And that’s where Paul comes in...distilling all the complexities of human relationships, all the duties and joys, into that fundamental

“Owe no one anything except to love one another…” “Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law”

Put like that it sounds so simple, - deceptively so, of course, because this thing called love is the work of both a moment and a lifetime, both a feeling and a decision...And that is as true for a church as it is for any other family.

 

But there’s a fair amount of confusion about that little word, love. We use it flippantly to describe a feeling of admiration and desire “I love those shoes”. “I love the carrot cake in Rising Cafe”..We use it to describe things that make us feel better “I love Bach...And poetry...and sunsets”...We use it  romantically, when what we really mean is “I’m hoping that in connecting with you, my own needs may be met”…

Love, then, might seem to be all about warm and fuzzy feelings.

 

But I’m reasonably confident that this is NOT what either Paul, or Jesus, is getting at.

The kind of love that we’re called to is of a different order.

It doesn’t even mean giving others what we ourselves would value, even though we’re told to love our neighbours as ourselves...just this week, I watched a really well-meaning attempt at love lead to near disaster in another community of which I’m part, thanks to an assumption that what would make one person feel better would have the same effect on another. Let me tell you, there were some very wobbly moments, with hurt experienced on both sides before that was resolved. Good intentions just aren’t enough, and we are so bad at setting aside self-interest, even when we try.

I suspect Desmond Tutu may have a better grasp of this than many.

Listen

Perfect love is not an emotion; it is not how we feel. It is what we do. Perfect love is action that is not wrapped up in self-regard, and it has no concern with deserving. Instead, perfect love is love poured out. It is self-offering made out of the joy of giving. It requires no prompting. It seeks no response and no reward...”

 

Action not wrapped up in self regard...Love poured out….That self-less drive to serve the other person, to care for them, to seek their best...sounds impossibly, immeasurably costly...the kind of love that leads to the cross, indeed.

 

And that’s what we owe one another.

I’m beginning to wish we could find another way to define and to be Church. This feels way too demanding – but Paul says that this must be the only transaction between us as disciples of Christ

“Owe no one anything except to love one another”

Owe?

That language brought me up short, for debts are rarely something to celebrate...and even if you consult a thesaurus and substitute “obligation” there’s a sense of being weighed down by duty. Is that what Paul is about? Are we asked to pay our debt to Christ by our love for one another? That surely cannot be.

God’s love is unconditional, asking nothing in return...though God’s love for me stirs up my love for God, and inspires me to WANT to love other people…

But which other people?

Those sitting around us this morning?

Those whose company we cherish day by day?

That might be manageable….but I’m afraid it’s not enough.

If love is a way of paying our neighbours their dues, of offering what they are owed – then, actually, ALL are due love. Jesus is very clear about that, casting the net wide, reminding us to love our enemies, to bless and pray for those who persecute us. Those with whom we have nothing in common. Those whom we struggle to like.. Those whom we are afraid of.

Yes, even those world leaders whose actions terrify us...those groups and individuals whom we suspect are bent on our own destruction…

 

We owe a debt of love even to them.

 

Goodness, this business of living as Church is hard. I’m not sure if I’d have joined if I had really understood it. I’m absolutely certain that I can’t actually manage it, because I’m small and human and fallible and badly, oh so badly, in need of God’s grace.

I can’t pay my debt of love – and so I will never fulfill the law.

 

Which takes me, thankfully, back to where I started.

The Church is a group of people gathered around the person of Jesus Christ.

He is here, in the midst of us. In the midst of our longings to love and our failure to do so.

Jesus Christ, Love alive in human form...love calling us onward to be more than we had ever imagined possible...love giving of love’s self again and again and again, and helping us to learn to do the same.

 

Can we, dare we, try and be Church together?