Wednesday, February 15, 2017

On being "Rubbish at the Bible"

Once upon a time the Dean, God bless him, sagely remarked                                                                   "The Canon Pastor is RUBBISH at the Bible. Great on the Sacraments but rubbish at the Bible!" *      He clearly knows me much too well – and so the task of talking about a Bible passage that has been important in my life played straight into all my personal anxieties about not being the “right sort of Christian”…because, you see, when I look back at my faith journey, God has generally spoken to me far more through music, poetry or other works of literature than through Scripture...though I have the sort of memory that holds on to huge chunks of beautiful words, including Bible passages, and can probably tell you when and where I was first conscious of them . I had an instinctive sense of ritual and can remember creating domestic liturgy (with which my parents generously went along) that involved my 6’+ father lighting the Christmas tree candles while I recited John’s Prologue – which I had somehow learned without trying (I blame "Carols from Kings") well before my 7th birthday.                                                                                                                                                                            "The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not."                                         But I pretty much SANG my way to faith, catching glimpses of God in the beauty of South Coast Anglo Catholicism in my childhood, but becoming certain of God’s reality in singing the Et Resurrexit from Bach’s B Minor Mass in Kings Chapel in my 2nd year at Cambridge. By then, of course, I’d been singing in churches, college chapels and the like for a good 10 years. I loved the business of worship, the feeling that we were always on the edge of something bigger and more beautiful than anyone dared to imagine, that we could be caught up in it at any moment. I’d had a very powerful experience of God through a John Donne poem that was part of my A level revision the day my father died….but it was Bach who sealed the contract. Against that backdrop, though, I was being reeled in subversively through a web of non co-incidences. In my first term, I was set an essay on Lancelot Andrewes. I LOVED his words…the play of light and shade on the page…the sheer cleverness that was always undergirded with a genuine longing to draw us in to the text…oh, and of course, that text was the Bible – for these were sermons. 350 years old, but sermons nonetheless….I loved them so much that I wrote my Part 1 dissertation on Andrewes – who was, of course, Chair of the Committee that compiled the Kings James AV. To write about Andrewes was to spend weeks up to my ears in “his” Bible, and when the dissertation was submitted, it went in with a title that referenced both Andrewes himself, George Herbert (who was to become my lifelong companion in faith) and, inevitably, Scripture too.                                                                                                               “Thy WORD is all, if we could spell”                                                                                                                 So, truly, "In the beginning was the Word" for me…A God who communicated in every possible way…who refused to leave my head or my heart but resided there with such discretion and grace that I took a while to realise that it was God at all. So – my passage remains John’s Prologue….which does the same thing in words as the pillars of Durham Cathedral do in stone…putting roots down into the deepest truths that there are…which offers us the heart-rending sense of God’s vulnerability “He came unto his own, and his own received him not”….which takes us back to the dawn of time but proclaims God’s constant unswerving involvement with humanity  “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.
Later, with my call to priesthood, came the specific instruction to bear witness to the light, to hold the light for others so that they too could be warmed by the certainty that it will never, ever be put out.
*This was both so true and so funny, even at the time, that it has become a family saying, and is in no way a cause for distress

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist on "Green Communion Sunday", 5th February 2017

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
Today, as we celebrate Green Communion Sunday, our gospel takes us back to basics.

Salt and light.

We know what they are.

No thorny theological concepts here for they are both part of nature, both quite ordinary in many ways….we encounter them daily and don’t even think about them….but also quite extraordinary, since in different ways they impact on everything around them.

Salt, of course, works in a way that is hidden. When you add it to a recipe, you don’t SEE the salt at work...and you can’t remove it again no matter how hard you try (we’ve all heard tales of unfortunate souls who substituted salt for sugar with less than tasty results)…

Used well, it enhances other natural flavours, changing everything for the better.

Just think of salt and shake crisps!

When we describe someone as the salt of the earth, we’re saying something particular about them.
Yes, they are people of good principles, people who absolute integrity we can rely on – but they may not always be that easy to spend time with.
You see, they are people who don’t compromise…who carry on holding the line no matter what…Their taste is wholesome but unmissable.
On the other hand, Jesus is very clear about how he feels about those who don’t stay true to themselves – who become like salt that has lost its flavour, through exposure to damp so that it is no longer really salt at all.
That “unsalty salt” was often mixed with gypsum as a drying material in the surface of Roman roads...most emphatically destined to be trampled underfoot, for it had lost its real purpose.

Jesus doesn’t mince his words here.

In the same way, Christians that adapt so completely to the secular word that there’s no way to distinguish them from their neighbours have let go of something essential.

We have a calling, you and I….a calling to make a difference by living in a different kind of way.

That is something we let go of at our peril….and it’s something to remember on this day when we focus on our relationship to and mistreatment of creation.

More of that later.

We can be secret salt – flavouring things for the better.

Light, on the other hand, works quite differently.

You are the light of the world

Interestingly, the Greek word that is used here for world is kosmon (the root of “cosmos”)  – so we are to stand as light not just for humanity but for the whole of created order (this is the same word used in John 3:16 – God so loved the KOSMON..)

Ours is no narrowly human calling but something bigger, brighter, with an impact beyond what we might dare to expect.

If it is dark and you light a lamp – everything changes.

That’s the whole point of a lamp - to make a visible difference….

We need light in order to make sense of our surroundings, to stay safe, to do our work, to recognise our friends.

Again, Jesus is anything but obscure in his teaching – and is not preaching obscurity to his disciples either.

“You must be like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view” - outstanding, unmissable.

Illuminating everything through a confident proclamation that Jesus is Lord – and demonstrating his Lordship by the way we live.

In other words, we have a God-given responsibility to BE different and to MAKE a difference – and on this Green Communion Sunday there’s no doubt that we must use it.

The problem is real and pressing.

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it – but we treat it as if it were a giant super-market full of infinite resources for us to plunder at will.

Instead of regarding the world as a sacramental sign of God’s loving involvement with every single created atom and cell, we behave as if we are the rightful inheritors of all things, but are spending our inheritance as fast as we can as if we’re determined to leave nothing behind for our children.
We believe that progress means more of everything – and we don’t seem to care about the cost.

That’s probably because we are not yet asked to pay it.

Again and again it is the poorest communities that are suffering first and worst from the consequences of climate change, and yet they are least to blame for causing it. They are the ones who are losing their land to the sea, whose low-lying islands are disappearing below the waves, whose crops are failing and who are more vulnerable to diseases such as malaria. In the low-lying islands of the Pacific and in the coastal areas of Bangladesh, rising sea levels are forcing families from their homes and villages as their land is lost to the sea, entire harvests are being destroyed by floods, and the increased salinity of the soil means some traditional staple crops no longer flourish.  In Malawi, changing weather patterns mean farmers cannot produce enough food to support their families, and whole communities are struggling to survive.

And we do nothing.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind…

“Is not THIS the fast that I choose.
To loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?”

And we all know that, while it is clearly imperative to feed the hungry, it would be even better to act to prevent their hunger. This IS Kingdom business, and so it is our business too.

Quite simply, if we stay silent and inactive in the face of this, then we are become exactly those whom God berates, speaking through Isaiah
“Look, you serve your own interest...”
To which I can only respond “Guilty as charged”
And yes, I’m speaking of myself here…
I’ve bought into the “more is better” drive of our consumer society. While I wear FairTrade clothes, - I’m not so worried about shoes. Yes, I now own a “FairPhone” - designed to avoid built in obsolence and made in a factory where the workers receive a fair wage for their labour BUT I enjoy using other electronic devices with less ethical pedigrees too.
I almost ALWAYS leave it too late to walk to work, so I drive,  and I flew cheerfully to India and to Denmark last year – and back again too – and absolutely loved the experience – but have yet to engage with one of the programmes that enables me to off-set the impact of those flights by investing in tree planting.

I’m a mass of good intentions, which I don’t really follow through.
So I’m not pretending it’s easy.
But, you know, to shy away from the issues is not simply irresponsible.
I think it’s sinful too.
“Look, you serve your own interest”

And we are called to stand apart from the spirit of the age, when that spirit is one of greed and selfishness.
It may seem that environmental concern is a luxury we cannot afford in a world whose politics are teetering on the brink of madness – but that could not be further from the case.
The environment IS political – but it is also, undeniably, a matter that impacts on our faith.

From  the creation account in Genesis through to Revelation, there is a thread that binds the world and humanity together in a relationship of respect and protection. The Church is called to shout out for justice, seeking and demanding peace and righteousness where it is lacking, daring to be voice for the voiceless.

And we can do this because we have hope….hope that the way things are is not the way things will always be….hope that change IS possible...hope that in face of death and defeat, God has other, wonderful plans. The evidence of Easter is on our side there!
Hope emerging from despair, again and again and again.

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly;
Your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.”

Transformation and hope – cornerstones of the Christian world-view.
Can we, shall we be part of the new thing God is doing – as disciples, in this Cathedral, and in our world.?
Our task of reconciliation stretches out beyond human conflict to the reconciliation of our whole wounded planet.
We are called to leave behind the old ways, to set aside old habits that hurt other people, and to nurture new habits of life that will make a real difference.
We are called to make our longing for healing and reconciliation visible by the way we live, by the choices we make.

So – what should we do? What can we do, when we feel small and helpless at the enormity of the task.
First, I’d ask you to think and to pray with this really simple question. Ask God!
Then, have a look at some of the ideas on the back page of your service booklet…and, whatever your usual practice, on this of all days PLEASE take that booklet home with you as you consider small lifestyle changes that you might make to reduce your own global footprint, ways to step outside the prevalent culture, to reduce consumption and invest instead in a culture of compassion and community, to live simply that others may simply live.
Then, perhaps, it might be time to write to your MP, to make clear that you aren’t content for taxpayers’ money to be spent on dirty energy,  or to call on the Church Commissioners to disinvest in fossil fuels and focus on renewable energy.
Together, we can take seriously the need to become an “Eco church” - to look at the recommendations and address those areas where we fall short--because we are more visible together than apart.

We need not lose our savour – our distinctive understanding of the world, and of life, as a gift of love from a recklessly generous Creator – and nor must we ever take that gift for granted.
For the sake of God’s glory, for the sake of the poor, for the sake of all humanity, let’s invest in the future of the earth -
“Then your light shall rise in darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…
You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail”.

Amen. Let it be so. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, 2nd Sunday of Epiphany, 15th January 2017

If you look at the front of your service booklet, you’ll see what has become known as the “Coventry Welcome” , words which I was sent in a slightly different form a long time before I came here, and which I rewrote slightly to include in a sermon 2 summers ago. They were well received, the Precentor decided to use them as one of our front covers – and then someone posted a photo on Facebook the world went slightly mad. At one point I was getting up to 100 emails enquiries per week about the text, and it was providing a conversation starter with people who had very little idea of what a cathedral might be for, or why they should even consider that they might WANT to visit. Oddly enough, after a bit of a lull, it has recently generated vast interest once again – so much so that I spent a bit of time yesterday recording an interview for the American radio station npr….It’s all rather exciting for middle-aged cleric on a dull day in January!

The thing is that, while I’m not sure we actually manage to live up to it ALL the time, that welcome statement is surely a reflection of where we ought to be going as a Church community. We are here because we believe that we’re onto something rather wonderful – something too good to keep to ourselves….and that must surely mean that we are committed to sharing that with any and every one, no matter who they are, where they come from, what they look like.

So – let’s take that as a given.
We WANT people to join us for worship.
We WANT them to know there is space for them here, come what may.

But what next?

What do we do for those who’ve made it over the threshold, who’ve coped with the strange but beautiful patterns of word and music that make up our liturgy, who’ve possibly even dared to stay for coffee?
How do we take them on the journey from curious vistor to frequent attender to engaged community member?
If you have, how did you make that journey yourself?
Can you remember?

Perhaps it started with another question – though probably not one you were asked directly.
It’s the question from our gospel reading
What are you looking for?”
If that was the very first thing that was said to you here, it might seem rather abrupt. I suspect that mid-week visitors to the Cathedral are sometimes confronted with a rather similar question, enough to make the uncertain turn and flee.
Nevertheless it’s a question that needs answering.
What are you looking for, that brings you here week by week.
Is it inspiring worship or engaging teaching? Is it a community of like-minded people? Or is maybe, just maybe, a sense of the presence of the Living God.
What are you looking for?

In John's gospel that's the beginning of everything for these, the first of Christ's disciples.

They've been looking for something for a while.
Following John, listening to his words - and when he speaks about Jesus with such confidence, they are fired up by his words
"Here is the Lamb of God !"
What, here? Now?
They set off to find out more.
Lacking the confidence to approach Jesus directly, they walk a few paces behind him, playing follow my leader wherever he goes.
Already it seems that he is not so much lamb as shepherd.
Sooner or later, he spots them, turns, holds their gaze.
They are stopped in their tracks as he asks
What are you looking for?"

It’s a straightforward question, perfectly reasonable.
If two complete strangers were dogging your every step,you'd want to know why.
But, of course it is also a question with a host of deeper meanings.
One of the biggest questions of faith

What are they looking for?

There's a song by the rock group U2 that might have been written for today's gospel.It's the story of a quest - climbing the highest mountains, scaling city walls - only to conclude
"But I still haven't found  what I’m looking for”
These men have been with John for long enough to be classified as his disciples.
They have responded to his fiery message of repentance – it has touched something in them.
But it isn’t enough.
They still haven't found what they're looking for.
John himself has pointed them towards Jesus.
They are hungry, like so many others, - but hungry for what?
Hungry for healing?
Hungry for reassurance?
Hungry for change?
Hungry for justice…?
Hungry to belong?
Who knows -they certainly don’t.
All they know is that something is wrong with their world and it needs to be set right, that they still haven’t found what they seek.
What are you looking for?” asks Jesus, and to this crucial question they really have no answer.

So often the questions of our faith are not the obvious tidy ones…the ones that can be addressed by a catechism or an Alpha course.
We find ourselves here - drawn to church, to faith, by an unnameable, inexplicable longing….the restlessness that Augustine noted when he wrote
God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”
We wrestle with doubts.
We will not always like the church, or feel certain of our faith.
We may go through patches when, like T S Eliot’s Magi, we are convinced that “this was all folly”, but somehow we keep coming back, almost despite ourselves.
What are you looking for?”
It’s a question that could open the door onto all sorts of undreamed of worlds…a question that just might force us to confront the needs and longings that we try to stifle…a question worth asking yourself, I'm sure.

As a priest, it’s a question I don't think I ask enough - though I often try to explore it when parents come to discuss their child's baptism.
In my anxiety to welcome all comers, I sometimes miss out on the need to challenge them. I may know in the depths of my heart that in Christ every human need and longing is met, every anxious question answered - but if I don't explore exactly what it is that brings people through our doors, how can I help to serve them?
I’d love to know of your own hopes, fears and spend time exploring together What are you looking for?”

And the way the disciples respond - isn't it classic!
The sort of trivial remark I too tend to blurt out when confronted by a situation that suddenly seems to be rather more intense, more serious that I had bargained for…I need something to fill the gap, to cover my embarrassment, so I witter away…
Ummm….(Thinking wildly) .......Where are you staying?”

Jesus’ answer is a simple but wonderful invitation.
Come and see!”

Some years ago, I was given this passage to pray with on retreat.
I was asked to place myself somewhere in the story, and so in my imagination, I found myself accompanying the disciples along the river bank , never letting Jesus out of my sight.
Like them I blushed and stuttered as he turned and spoke to me directly…and like them I was unable to resist the invitation to “Come and see”

And that day, as I imagined a small dark room in a sugar cube house (based in my mind’s eye entirely on the line drawings that illustrated the Good News Bible), Jesus invited me to spend the day with him…and at lunch time he took bread, broke it and placed some in my hand.

And then I realised that what I was looking for, the place where he was staying was right there…right here…Jesus in you…Jesus in me…Jesus in bread and wine….

Come and see.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Cathedral Eucharist for the Naming & Circumcision of Jesus, 1st January 2017 Numbers 6:22-27, Luke 2:15-21

Happy New Year, my friends...No matter how you approach this strange line in the sand we’ve created for ourselves, it’s always an "interesting" moment in life, I find.
Last night there will have been a bit of stock-taking for many, wound-licking for some, a recognition of blessings to be counted and challenges to engage with, be they large or small...And today, however we spent the evening, we wake to that lovely sense of a clean slate – a whole gift of time to live through, a succession of new moments that will none of them be exactly the same as their predecessors.
There might be resolutions, - or maybe not.
Excitement or apprehension.
We never DO know what’s coming – and that’s probably all for the best.
This year, though, I’m particularly excited, as our middle child and his wife are, please God, expecting a baby in February.

They were with us for Christmas, and we’ve spent quite a bit of time considering not only names for their daughter but also what names she might call her grandparents. I have a bit of a problem here, as the only Grandmother I knew was well into her 80s when I arrived,  a very difficult lady whom I found it hard to love. As a result both “Grandma” and “Granny” feel like names I can’t own – and somehow “Nanny” isn’t quite right either. In the end we’ve decided to see what the wee one herself comes up with when she’s old enough to say anything. My own approximation to “Kathryn” as a toddler was “Catkin” - so who knows, the wheel may yet go full circle. I was surprised, though, at how much it seemed to matter. There was something about being given the same name as a lady who made my mother cry that was HUGELY uncomfortable. As if her name somehow carried her essence, -an idea with deep and ancient roots.
Again and again in Scripture names are a significant gift...marking a new identity for Abram/Abraham, Simon/Peter, Saul/Paul...or offering an insight into true calling. Mary and Joseph avoided all the discussions about whether or not their first-born should be given a family name...because he was named even before conception, when the angel visited Mary.
“you shall name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins”.
It wasn’t a unique name – Jesus, Jeshua, Joshua are all common variants of a name that means “Jehovah brings salvation” - but it was uniquely true for the son of Mary….his destiny bound up in his name….a glimpse, from the very beginning, of who this child IS. It’s an immensely audacious name to give to a baby – and as she held her tiny son while he received circumcision, a sign of his people’s covenant with God, I wonder if Mary’s pondering included “How on EARTH can this little one truly be or become all that is promised”.
So much suggested by a name. Of course, we who know the rest of the story may be less surprised, less unsettled – but we mustn’t overlook what an extraordinary thing this naming is. Before his teaching and preaching, before his healings and miracles, before his death and resurrection, Jesus is already identified by God as the one through whom He will save his people. An eight-day-old baby named Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High.” In the naming of a tiny child, we already catch a glimpse God’s gloriously mad plan to save the world through the gift of a vulnerable human being.
And there are many other names that help us to understand more of that same child’s nature….names that we draw from the Old Testament ,- “Wonderful counsellor, Prince of Peace, Messiah” and from the New , - “Lamb of God, Light of the World”….and my favourite of all, found first in Isaiah 7 and then reiterated in Matthew’s Gospel, “Emmanuel. God with us”.
That’s the name I shall cling to as I go into the year ahead.
No matter what happens – both good and bad – I won’t experience it alone, and nor will you.
That most wonderful name means that whenever we are most afraid – or most joyful – the one who knows all the secrets of our hearts is there beside us. Emmanuel. God with us.
Of course, our own names too will have their individual significance, be they the names chosen for us with love and with care by our parents, or that collective name that many of us here today share – the name of Christian.A Christian, after all, is a little Christ...or, according to some, more accurately a slave of Christ, one living in total obedience to his call on their life. I wish I found that a more comfortable reflection, but I have to ask - If the names of Jesus offer an insight into his nature – is the same true for you or me?
To be a “true Christian” has very little to do with where or how we worship, far more about where we place our loyalty, our confidence and trust. If we are Little Christs then each one of us should be visibly living in obedience to the law of vulnerable Love that Jesus proclaimed at every moment of his life and ministry…living lives of visible difference.
Circumcision reminded the Jews of God’s external covenant with them and reminds us of the new covenant in Jesus bought with his blood. This cut on an eight day old Jesus points to those wounds inflicted on the cross for our salvation. When we became Christians at our baptisms, we too received a sign of the new covenant – the cross traced on our foreheads as indelible reminder of the self-sacrificial shape of the life to which we should conform.
In the old Catechism, after the famous question
“What is your name? N or M
The next question was “Who gave you this Name? And its answer “My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.
That is to say, each one of us is part of God’s salvation story...members of Christ, beloved children, inheritors of the kingdom.
It’s fair to say that names really can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story (think Gradgrind or Malfoy)...They can also tell us about their aspirations….and if we aspire to be Christians, that will surely set our agenda for the year ahead and for all our years to come.
In his Holy Name, let us claim and live our true identities as children of God and heirs of the kingdom...and when we fail, let us call out to Emmanuel, God with us, who will never leave or forsake us...whose very name reminds us of his ultimate purpose, to save his people from their selves and from their sins.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Digging out a duster...

Once upon a time, this blog was alive and well.
In my curacy I visited it daily, - sometimes even twice a day.
It helped me to reflect on the new, surprising world of ministry in which I found myself, forced me to try and spot God at work in the unexpected corners of that parish, provided a space to learn on the job - and gave me confidence in my voice as a writer too.

The move into incumbency inevitably brought changes. While  I had FELT busy as a curate, it turned out to be nothing in comparison with life as a parish priest, and somehow it seemed that the stories of my days were less often mine to tell.
I kept going, though less regularly...finding other places for reflection, though sometimes, if I'm honest, doing less of that than is healthy for anyone.

When I moved to the cathedral, without any deliberate decision, I found that the blog seemed to have turned simply into a repository for sermons. How very very dull! though  I confess that as an extravert, I find it hugely helpful if people respond to my words somewhere - so that posting those sermons here, with a link to Facebook, meant that I knew that people had heard and engaged with my thoughts...

But - there was NO decision to stop writing, no resolve that enough was enough - and so I was positively shocked when I logged in here today, 31st December, and realised that there was nothing more recent than August.

August?!?! How on EARTH had that happened?

Since then there has been Greenbelt and Copenhagen, a third visit to India and a whole busy season of Cathedral life...and many of the details have been lost as I've whirled on through. 
That's not how I want to live my life...I want to notice what is happening in and around me, and, noticing, to share where I can.
I can't promise a return to the "glory days", when my blog felt like something quite lovely, something to be proud of, that created a community of online friends whom I still treasure...but I do want it to be something alive, not a museum piece.

I've long since learned that resolutions are dangerous things - but I'm voicing a hope and an aspiration, to be more present here, as, perversely, I think that will also help me to be more present to myself.

Time to dust off this corner of the internet, then, and see what happens next.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

The assurance of things not seen Hebrews 11 sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist 7th August 2016 Proper 14C

When we look back at August 2016, I wonder if, amid all the news of trials and tragedies around the world, some people at least will remember it as the summer of Pokemon Go. Wherever you travel around the city and beyond, you’re likely to encounter young adults apparently mesmerised by the screen on their smartphones, as they try to capture these cartoon creatures who appear for a limited time in specific real locations. My otherwise intelligent son will admit to running the length of the Leamington Road in hopes of catching a Charazar which was apparently located somewhere close to the Finham roundabout…but of course REALLY there’s nothing there at all. These are virtual creations, invisible without the help of a smart phone…and in collecting them, my son and his peers are collecting nothing of any real value whatsoever. But of course, to those in the know, they are engaged in something that’s absorbing and entertaining. You just have to understand how it works.
And of course, many of those who grasp the appeal of Pokemon will find themselves completely baffled by the number of people who get up on Sunday morning and come some distance, negotiating the complications of Sky Ride et al, to engage with what they might describe as our own particular “imaginary friend”. For them Christianity is simply an exercise in mass delusion – and if you’ve ever tried to explain why you’re here on strictly rational grounds, you’ll know that it really isn’t easy.

The problem is that we can’t offer any objective proof that we’re not completely barking. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen said Paul…and even for us, who have got here by hook or by crook this morning, faith is not a steady state. In fact, faith and feelings seem all too inextricably entangled, so that the times in life when external challenges make us particularly focussed on our NEED for something beyond the immediate struggles may also be the times when we feel least certain of God’s love for us.
The point, then, is to remember that while faith is not the same as knowledge, neither is it the same as feeling. Emotions ebb and flow and are a pretty bad guide to reality. If we only believed in God when our feelings enabled us to do so, - on those golden days when all's right with the world, then I’m guessing that there would be many many Sundays when we stayed at home. What’s interesting is that in his celebration of the faith of his fathers, Paul relies above all on story…Abraham acted on his own experience of a God who spoke and made promises – and then Abraham’s obedient action became in itself compelling evidence to encourage the faith of others (right down to the present day). Sarah, who didn’t have that initial encounter with God, found the whole thing much more problematic – but clearly she had faith in her husband. Her experience of him was that he was probably neither mad nor bad, and so she allowed herself to be uprooted repeatedly,to be swept up in his great adventure – only really grasping why when her son was in her arms. She trusted him – and their story became evidence to inspire the trust of others.

And I’m guessing that for most of us, it has been the experience of knowing other Christians, people whom WE trust, that has inspired our own faith journey. Perhaps we have seen them tackle life differently, opt for slightly different priorities, perhaps we’ve noticed an indefinable something – maybe love, maybe joy, maybe peace? – and wished that we could share it.

Sometimes, of course, God intervenes directly and very powerfully – as he did with Abram. One of the great delights of ordained ministry is that people feel able to talk about that kind of encounter, without worrying that we will automatically assume they are deluded – so I’ve been privileged to hear some amazing and wonderful stories. God is constantly in the business of building a relationship with each one of God’s children. If the church as we know it vanished tomorrow, that process would continue….BUT ….If we are here because of the faith of others, then we need to recognise that our own faith, however faltering, our own longing to lead a life shaped by our relationship with God, will have an impact in its turn.
So – be conscious of the value of your own story…On a bad day, you may feel that all you can offer is a dogged determination to keep on behaving AS IF you believe, because at least that gives you a sense of purpose and of hope, however faint and unreasonable. On a better day, count your blessings but be prepared, also, to share the results of your counting. Be expectant, alert, hopeful. Gossip the gospel. Write about your God moments in a journal, so that they can resource you at the empty times. Most people don’t have news of extraordinary miracles, but everyday graces that confirm the presence of loving God who is working for our transformation can speak just as loudly. And please, PLEASE don’t be afraid to share your own personal good news…the gospel according to YOU.

When we did the NCD survey together in the spring, it was notable how few people felt able to share their glimpses of God, even with friends from this, their own faith community. That's really sad – because I'm confident that if you pause to think, you'll find examples of God's presence in the ordinary and also, maybe particularly, when things are tough. Of COURSE nobody wants to hear a bunch of platitudes that owe more to the Hallmark Card school of theology than to any lived experience – but there's plenty to say without resorting to a suggestion that life is an experience of roses all the way once you begin to follow Christ.
The path of my own faith is definitely erratic…lots of troughs, days, even weeks, when the whole thing seems to be no more than smoke and mirrors,a mad delusion designed to offer comfort in a sometimes lonely and hostile world...but also times when I have been completely overwhelmed by God’s presence, his transformative action, the knowledge of his love - or brought onto holy ground as someone else spoke of how they’d experienced God at work in their life, their world. And, most of the time, it seems that my story and my experience is enough.

 Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen... And always, for me, there is that sense of aspiration that pulls me onward…that sense of longing that fills the pages of the Old Testament prophets…that straining forward to something beautiful that is just beyond the horizon.

They desire a better country…Yes, oh YES. And I will live by faith in the meantime…even when that faith feels smaller than a mustard seed, until, by God’s grace, I see for myself that place where we all belong. Let's travel there together.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist 31st July 2016 Proper 13C

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above...Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth
That sounds like pretty clear advice – and indeed, Paul is a past-master at viewing the world in black and white binary terms...As he addresses the Colossians, he is asking them to draw a firm line between their former selves and their true selves, those selves that are hidden for now, only to be revealed when the Kingdom breaks in in all its fullness.

The only trouble is that, when I look at my own life, that opening “IF” feels like quite a significant word.

Yes – I was baptized as a baby, went through that symbolic drowning of all the old order, the original sin, if you like...and what's more my parents went on to honour the baptism promises, doing everything in their power to help me realise that to be a Christian was to live a different kind of life. And yes, of course I long to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, strength and to love and serve my neighbour selflessly...And I take the call of God on my life, and the joyful obligations of priesthood very seriously indeed but (oh, goodness, why is there ALWAYS a but?) that IF brings me up short every single time.

IF I have been raised with Christ – then surely my life should look very very different.
If the only evidence there is for a Christ-like transformation is the way that I spend my Sundays and the institution that employs me, then I rather think I'm doing it wrong. Please don't think that I'm fishing for compliments if I say that I don't honestly think there is very much that distinguishes me from my atheist friends, whose lives are every bit as moral, every bit as free from Paul's catalogue of evils as, on a good day, I aspire to be.

So – if my transformed life is hidden like buried treasure, then sometimes it feels as if it's buried rather too far down. And that can feel discouraging, to put it mildly.

However, Paul uses another picture too – something that sounds rather like a kind of spiritual equivalent of a Trinny and Susannah style makeover.

Strip off the old self – that's stage one. Let go of the past and its failures if you can...
Let go of those thoughts, words and deeds that point to an uncompromisingly earth-bound way of being.

Give yourself a long hard look and ask – is this what you'd expect to see in someone who has been raised with Christ, who is striving to live as a sign of the kingdom here and now? While you might not choose, any more than he did, to join Pere Hamel in the ranks of the martyrs, it's fair to say that being ready to lay down our lives is, in all honesty, part of the deal.Are you up for that? If you feel small and scared, as I do, then acknowledge itbut nonetheless, aspire to choose a different way, “clothe yourself with the new self”. It's unlikely to be easy or pain free but it really is the only way.

I'm reminded of a passage in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. Eustace, who has been living a far-from transformed life,becomes so fixated upon the beauties of a dragon's horde that he becomes a dragon himself. After some time he comes before Aslan, the great lion who represents Christ, and discovers that he can be restored to himself only if he trusts Aslan to strip away layer after layer of dragon's skin

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. ...he peeled the beastly stuff right off – And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .”

It's a process, becoming your new, true self. You won't manage it all in one go, and you certainly won't manage it alone...but help is available, if you're sincere in your commitment to a new way of being..

So, strip away the old self and then clothe yourself with the new, which is BEING RENEWED according to the image of its creator.

In other words, keep on trying on new outfits, new habits of mind and patterns of life until you actually look and feel RIGHT...until what you see in the mirror matches God's vision for you...your best self...And know that this process of renewal and restoration will take a life-time – but you really shouldn't settle for anything less.

It is a choice, though. IF you have been raised with into your new identity and adjust your priorities accordingly. Think, for a moment. What are yours? There's a principle at work in business and society that dictates that we count what is important, and then what we count becomes important.

In our gospel, Jesus makes it quite clear what it should mean to have our minds set on things above. The rich farmer of his story isn't altogether BAD. He hasn't accrued wealth by dubious means – but he has failed to consider anyone but himself. There's no thought of a staff bonus, or a community feast, still less any plan to share with those who are struggling ..and there is something grotesque and chilling in that little conversation “I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years”. This is the voice of a miser. There's simply nobody else to ripple the surface of his unblemished self interest...

What he counts is supremely important to him - and it's all completely pointless.
All his wealth cannot, will not, save him from the common fate of all humanity.
THIS VERY NIGHT he will die – and discover that while his material wealth was vast, when it comes to the things of God, he's poor indeed.
Rather a contrast, there, with Pere Hamel, I think....

So, what do we count?

Do we count how much we earn? Or how much we save by way of bargains, or put away for a rainy day? Do we count how many hours we enjoy with family? How much we give away? Those moments of joy and blessing which are pure gift?.

We count what is important and then what we count becomes important.

I've shared before that I'm prone to worrying that there won't be enough, somehow...not enough money, not enough time, not enough security for myself or those whom I love. It’s understandable when you think about it, because every day we're assaulted with that message. TV commercials, billboards, Facebook – everywhere we turn we get the message that we are insufficient, incomplete, not quite good enough. It's so easy to be believe that money will give us control of our lives, enable happiness and security...even when experience and common sense tell us a very different story. If only we had the money, we could buy more of the things that count and that would make us happy.

But you know, that doesn't sound much like a transformed life, does it?

IF you've been raised with Christ, try another way...and don't be a fool.
Perhaps a couple of stories will help. One concerns the Wendel family, whose wealth grew during the 19th century so that by 1900 it was estimated at $50,000,000. To keep it intact, John G Wendel II, kept five of his six sisters from marrying and the whole family dedicated themselves to spending as little as possible of their huge fortune. When the last sister died in 1931, her estate was valued at more than $100 million. Her only dress was one she had made herself, and she had worn it for 25 years. They were so attached to their riches that they lived like paupers, imprisoned and possessed by the abundance of their possessions.

In contrast, another snapshot.

One fall day I visited the Sheldons in the ramshackle rented house they lived in at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear which strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.
Mr. Sheldon offered me a jar of bear meat. I hesitated to accept it, but the giver met my unspoken resistance firmly. "Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don't have much, that's a fact; but we ain't poor!"
I couldn't resist asking, "What's the difference?"
His answer proved unforgettable.
"When you can give something away, even when you don't have much, then you ain't poor. When you don't feel easy giving something away even if you got more'n you need, then you're poor, whether you know it or not.”

We count what is important and then what we count becomes important. If being able to give is what makes you rich, then you are already living by the upside down values of the kingdom, where the last is first and the meek inherit the earth. A life rich towards God is a life that focuses on the things that are above, that trusts and hopes and lives in the resurrection power and faithfulness of God’s love here and now. “It is a kind of Christian defiance [of culture] which sometimes sings, sometimes weeps, sometimes knows anguish, sometimes does not have all the answers, but keeps believing....It may be a life that doesn’t have much material wealth, but it won’t be poor in what matters.

If you have been raised with Christ – this is the life you can live, beginning here and now with your own transformation, as a sign of that day when everything – EVERYTHING – will be transformed.