Sunday, September 01, 2019

That's it, to a T

"Make God laugh. Tell him your plans" runs the rather world-weary saying, which always suggests to me a vision of the Almighty that is, if not actively cruel, then at least not entirely compassionate. The implication is, of course, that any silly little hopes, dreams and visions we might have for our own futures are liable to be swept away at a second's notice in accordance with the vision of the God who can see all possible futures and knows which one we'll inhabit.
It's not inaccurate, I guess - but it isn't encouraging either.

However, sometimes God's sense of humour, played out in that same ground between our present experience and God's eternal perspective, is genuinely funny. Hence the story of the tee-shirt.

It all began last December when I realised that the season of staff Christmas parties was almost upon me and that I still did not have even the most tasteless of Christmas jumpers to call my own. This wasn't entirely accidental. I really do loathe them, - but I dislike being a "bad sport" even more, so, when an advert for Christmas sweat-shirts caught my eye, I decided that now was the moment. It helped, of course, that I really liked the design...a violin, viola, cello and bass, each instrument wearing a Santa hat and surrounded by falling snow. It was ALMOST tasteful and certainly appropriate for string-loving me, so I found my credit card and placed an order. Long sleeved. Black. Perfect to go over a clerical top for those unavoidable moments when you need cheese with everything.

Only, when the parcel arrived, what emerged was not black at all, - it was navy - and the sleeves were short.
Yes, the design was right - but otherwise, what I received was a short-sleeved Christmas tee-shirt. And, living in the English Midlands, I could think of few things that would be more useless, really...I mean, December is COLD! Even at the Bishop's Christmas hoolie...
But, December is also a rather busy time for clergy so I never got round to returning the garment, despite all my chunterings
 "What use is a Christmas TEE SHIRT in England? Whoever invented such a thing? Blinking idiots..."

The offending garment found its way into the tee-shirt stash beneath the bed and that, you might imagine, was that....Until, in July, I accepted an invitation to be part of this year's Greenbelt Communion service. And then I got my script, with the stage instructions encouraging us to wear Christmas clothes or whatever else might foster the concept of Christmas in August. And on the day itself, last Sunday, as temperatures soared breaking Bank Holiday records, I was so very very grateful that my only Christmas garment was short-sleeved, light-weight, perfect, in fact, for an August Nativity.

I'm not sure if even the writers had planned the Christmas theme when I'd ordered that tee shirt 8 months ago.
I certainly hadn't.
But someone had an idea that maybe a tee-shirt might come in handy after all.
I thought I heard a gentle chuckle as I set on last Sunday morning...

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Proper 17 1st September 2019


Let mutual love continue

What a text for this week of all weeks, when with every hour, it seems, the fault-lines that we had never noticed, through decades of gentle liberalism, are becoming ever deeper, yawning chasms, threatening to engulf so much that we have taken for granted…
The practices of traditional democracy
Respect for the monarch
A peaceful society in which civil disobedience might occasionally take place, but really should not be encouraged

In just a few short days all of those  givens seem to have been swept away and, if I’m honest, at the moment there are certain of our political leaders, and even more of our journalists, with whom I’d really struggle to sit at table.

I don’t LIKE what is happening one little bit, and it is making me very anxious.
That anxiety is no longer rooted in what may or may not happen on 31st October, but refers, rather, to the way that I no longer feel able to read society...So many things that I would have imagined unthinkable suddenly seem to be practically commonplace  and I’m rather at sea as I try to avoid panic and make sense of it all,
I’d like my former version of reality restored – even if it was, in fact, distressingly myopic, reflecting only the translucent rainbow walls of my protected bubble – but the truth is that I can’t Unsee what I have seen – I cannot forget what I now know about how my neighbours view the world
And so I have to find a way through somehow. And right now I’m not finding it easy.

I’ve considered whether I might simply pull up the drawbridge...Respond to my fears...
Gatherimy family around me in a protective huddle and try to forget about the rest of the world altogether.
After all, if I have misread so many cues, surely I’d do better to stay only with those whom I love best, those whom I  really do know almost as well as I know myself…

Except, of course, that’s not how it works.
Not in our epistle, and not in the gospel either.
We’re not invited to withdraw. Quite the reverse.
We’re to carry on doing what we’re called to do.
LOVING
Loving in this Cathedral community – regardless of the disagreements which will inevitably follow once our relationships that have moved beyond the simply superficial.
Loving in our neighbourhoods, - jettisoning our personal agendas to pursue the common good.
Loving, even when it costs: we may well have to set aside things that we’d imagined to be non-negotiables...whether they are treasured attitudes or treasured possessions, or maybe those extra tins we’ve stashed on the top shelf of the larder just in case there’s a shortage of chick-peas by Christmas.

Yesterday, a good friend posted a rather beautiful series of line drawings of the seven “Works of mercy” that the Church has been advocating pretty much since the Sermon on the Mount– and it struck me that there is no better guideline for how we should act – and not just if the crisis deepens. May I remind you of them?
We are to :
feed the hungry;
give water to the thirsty;
clothe the naked;
shelter the homeless;
visit the sick;
visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive
and
to bury the dead

If that sounds daunting, I’m sorry. Do remember, though, you’re not on your own.
But yes, if we’re serious about mutual love – it’s going to be tough.
If we’re serious about reconciliation, it’s going to be tougher.
We may have to let go of the things we’ve hung on to, to leave our hands free to carry the things that have been weighing our neighbours down.
The good news is that, if mutual love is the order of the day, then they will find themselves carrying our stuff for us too as we exchange not only burdens but perspectives too….

It takes work – of course it does – but it really is worth doing. Imagine if as we arrived here on a Sunday morning we really truly KNEW that we were coming into a place where we were deeply known and deeply loved not just by God but by our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s one of the most precious gifts we can ever offer.

And then, of course, we’re called to widen our perspective still further.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” - or, as this morning’s parable would have it “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”
The Kingdom of God is all about the OUTsiders…
I’m always wryly amused at the way the word “parochial” has become symbolic of small-town, small-minded attitudes when the original vision was of a place where aliens might gather to feel at home, literally an inside place for the outsider, a community of sojourners in a strange land.
We’ve been welcomed as outsiders ourselves and now we are to be agents of God’s hospitality – and there are no limitts here.
If we expected one order of precedence – a kind of top table based on our own understanding of who is worthwhile, a net contributor to society, people who would pass border controls with little fuss..We’re about to be rather startled.

Because Kingdom loving includes those who were once outsiders, aliens, rejects – and sees us taking a lower place  in humility, rather than holding on to our rights, our analysis of who and what actually matters.
At this kingdom banquet,it’s the non contributors, those who will struggle to secure leave to remain, who are to be our first guests at the table
There’s loads of room. There really is.

Though Jesus didn’t actually say it in as many words, I’m confident that this view would most certainly make him smile
When you have more than you need, build a longer table not a higher fence

In the face of all our fears, that reminder that we DO have more than we need
That we are not only called to be hospitable, but resourced to make it possible
That we shouldn’t expect to exclude ANYONE from our welcome speaks directly into the fears and confusions of this current time.
A longer table, not a higher fence...
Hospitality is  one of our cathedral values because it belongs at the heart of everything.
We have been given so much – grace up on grace – so that we might give in return.

Our hearts may not always lift as we welcome the stranger for sometimes she will seem VERY strange,  a bit smelly, and utterly impossible to understand.
But that doesn’t matter.
We don’t have to FEEL welcoming – any more than we have to FEEL love.
We just have to do it anyway.
That’s part of our identity as God’s people.

And we need to remember too that, in the Kingdom where the first will be last and the last first, we can’t hold onto ideas of relative status or importance. I can’t stress this too much, in a building that teeters on the verge of encouraging all us to feel a bit special, just because we belong here.
Instead, I have to ask, when did you last, metaphorically or even literally, wash someone’s feet?
Jesus did make it pretty clear, really – acting as his own sermon illustration in case we were in danger of missing the point...

Sometimes, the Kingdom of God might look like a sea of toddlers and teddies crowding the floor by the West Screens...or a Muslim family taking shelter from a sudden downpour….or a street homeless guy in search of a cuppa….or….you can fill in the blanks yourself

And remember – it’s not really our table anyway. We’re all here by invitation
We are here by invitation of the One who holds nothing back.
Who offers us boundless, unlimited, unconditional love day by day and delights when we share that love with a hurting world.

There’s a song by the Australian hymnodist, Shirley Erena Murray, which sums up pretty much all I want to say now...You'll find it with Google so do read and reflect.

For everyone born a place at the table
For everyone born, clean water and bread,
A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
For everyone born, a star overhead.
And God will delight
When we are creators orf justice and joy,
Compassion and peace
Yes God will delight
When we are creators of justice,  justice and joy.

Amen. Let it be so.












Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A journey with wit and wisdom

It's Saturday evening. We've hit one of those rare moments of calm when the main path through the festival village seems almost empty. E., 21/2, runs ahead of us, flinging her arms wide and shouts to anyone with ears to hear
"Greenbot....I love you!"

So do I, her granny.

It's been 20 years now since I first fell in love with this place of wonder, hopes and dreams, falling into the arms of the festival with delight, as I discovered that there WAS a tribe to which I belonged, a place which heart and soul could both call home. 

In those first years at Cheltenham, with free range children exploring far and wide, enjoying a freedom and safety that I couldn't always offer them elsewhere, it was all about the talks. I bought tapes by the dozen, discovered new writers, new ways of approaching faith in terms of radical Kingdom living which my gently conventional Cotswold village church somehow never quite articulated, lapped up so much wit and wisdom, found myself stretched, challenged, inspired. I loved it all, - and the belated realisation that my own sense of discontent with the way Church and life seemed to play out was shared by others kept me going through the switch-back journey of discernment and ordination training. 
I made friends - online friends (a concept that was still excitingly novel, and transformative for me) with whom I spent many a happy evening on the Greenbelt forum, and so for a few years the festival was mainly a feverish series of catch ups, of "Greenbelt hugs" (oh, dear, dotty, beloved Anna, you are missed, still missed!) exchanged en route to yet another unmissable talk.
With them I savoured many, many Greenbelt moments. glimpses of God in unexpected corners that filled me with joy.

I watched those free-range children find their own roles, their own homes in the Greenbelt community...When I first travelled to India, at the same stage in my daughter's life as I had lost my own parents, it was to Greenbelt friends that I entrusted their emotional and spiritual flourishing if something went wrong and I failed to return. 
Those friendships were intense, sometimes demanding but never less than life-enhancing - and forged in our shared love of this place of hope and transformation year after year after year.

Greenbelt has always been a place where I could try new things...listen to music I'd never have met elsewhere, experience worship that was light years away from the norm I encountered as I travelled through curacy and into the early years of life as a parish priest. 
Sometimes Gloucester diocese, my then home, had clergy training days at the racecourse - and it always felt as if somewhere, just out of sight, the festival was going on in a parallel universe...that Snowy was stewarding a crowd into a John Bell talk, while The Rising brought in crowds to Centaur and DFG were up to something subversively funny in Underground, 
Ten years in to our relationship I had come to realise that there would ALWAYS be more than I could possibly fit in...but that if I missed something wonderful one year, there would be something no less wonderful waiting for me when we returned just twelve months on. I became less frenetic in my passage from Performance Cafe to Centaur, from Wild Goose to Christian Aid. It would all be alright. There were enough of us who were trying to live our faith in a Greenbelt kind of way, such that if I didn't get to everything, there would be others to pick up any one message and take it home with them.

5 years ago, I moved from Gloucester to Coventry - and the festival moved too, recovering from the trauma of 2012 Mudbelt, after which life at Cheltenham was never quite the same. Planted afresh on a greenfield site at Boughton, Greenbelt changed shape a little, but the passion, the beauty, the faith, hope and love were absolutely unaltered and we moved into a new chapter in our family too, as long-term partners became family and then, 3 summers ago, the very special Miss E experienced her first festival. With her dad up to his ears as head of traffic, it wasn't an easy weekend for her mum, but she's a wonderful woman who persevered anyway, so that last year we had the fun of chasing a rampaging toddler through the festival village, passing friends, talks, art work at a gallop. I'm not sure what I actually attended in2018 (I know I was at Communion, with the same group of beloved friends with whom we've shared this holy moment for at least a decade, as children were born to enlarge our circle) but I found that, despite a vague feeling that I hadn't actually experienced that much, when I returned to work I FELT as if I had been to Greenbelt. Renewed, enthused, challenged and changed. The addictive mix I've been lapping up continues to sustain and delight me.

And, this year, as temperatures soared, things were different again.
Different, but exactly the same in terms of what actually matters. Understanding friends coped when our conversations never shifted from the superficial to their former depths, as I had one eye constantly on a blonde, curly head intent on heading off across the Lawn to explore fresh woods and pastures new. In a new season, landscapes adjust their contours, and new delights emerge.

No, i didn't get to all the talks I might have enjoyed - but goodness, I was fed well by those I did attend. Mark Oakley, Padgraig O'Touma, Rachel Mann and the incomparable Nadia Bolz-Weber made everything gloriously alright, restoring my faith in preaching, in the power of story and in the joy of living in my own body...something Miss E had been trying to get across for a while.
I spent more time in the Haven and lying in the shade while Miss E created her own campsite out of a folding seat and organised her toys for "'Munion in the bootiful big tent" than I did soaking up the peace of the Chapel...but there were Greenbelt moments aplenty. 
Too late to gain a space inside Shelter for Saturday night's Taize service, I sat on the grass looking out across the lake towards the house and the festival village. I thought about a dear friend whose mother's life is gently coming to an end as we sang "Wait for the Lord whose day is near, wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart!" and reflected that Greenbelt, more than anything else, enables me to keep faith and stretch out in yearning towards the Kingdom with all that is in me. And God was there, and I was there, and around us Greenbelt buzzed with life and that same longing urging us onwards.
And on Sunday morning I had an almost unbelievable, overwhelming privilege, when, asked to read at the Communion service, I found that my "lines" included my most loved verse in the whole of Scripture.
"For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. And the darkness never will", matched by the wonder of the Magnificat, with its vision of the world turned upside down..rekindling my own treasured memory of being installed at Coventry on the feast of the Visitation, singing "Tell out my soul" as my beloved church family walked me up the aisle of the Cathedral towards a new life and ministry there...
I was even, incredibly, entrusted with the words of Institution, shared with a remarkable 9 year old. 
So many precious, precious words, to speak aloud in the place I love.
And I stood on my little platform, surrounded by 5,000 plus Greenbelters singing "O holy night" with all that was in them, and knew that here, right HERE, heaven was touching earth again. 
And I was part of it, caught up in love and delight and grace upon grace upon grace.

"Make life more like Greenbelt" said my younger son, as we headed home one year, coated in mud but shining with joy.
"Greenbelt is a state of mind, not just a festival" said another...and once again I'm restored to myself, by 4 days unlike any other. 
As so often, my best beloved E said it best, with her joyous exclamation
"Greenbot...I love you".
"Amen", and again  I say "Amen."

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Trinity 8, Proper 14 11th August 2019

Do not be afraid little flock. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

It isn’t supposed to be this way…
That’s a thought that crosses my mind with increasing regularity. I wonder if you feel the same...That things in the world right here and now leave more than a little to be desired.
There’s climate change
There are food banks
There area people mown down in mass shootings, simply because they found themselves in the wrong place when someone deeply unstable decided to exercise the right to bear, and to use, arms…
There are beggars on the streets of our own city – just a few yards away as we gather for worship this morning
There are lonely souls shut up behind closed doors, not knowing if it’s safe to come out, whether they’ll be welcomed or rejected.
There are children – CHILDREN for God’s sake – locked up in detention centres or entrusted to tiny boats crossing a stormy sea (oh yes, THEIR parents desire a better country for sure – they may simply be sadly deluded as to where they will find it)
It’s not an encouraging picture, is it?
Nothing like the world I imagined when growing up, not even the world into which I confidently bore my children.
It’s certainly not the world that we read about in the great kingdom prophecies of Isaiah, in the teaching of Jesus or indeed in any of the aspirational passages of Scripture.
It isn’t supposed to be this way…

So – what are we to do?
Confronted by the pain and disillusion of here and now – how should we respond, as people of faith?
My first reaction, I must admit, owes less to faith than to fear. I want to gather those I love around me and circle the wagons...If the world has all gone wrong, I want to protect them if I can, or at least huddle together as we face the worst. There’s a lot of metaphorical huddling that goes on as we listen to the news day by day – but into this experience of anxiety, fear, even despair, I hear Jesus speaking
Do not be afraid little flock for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”
Do not be afraid!
Really? Why ever not?
Fear seems perfectly rational to me!

But I’m here to preach the gospel and am reminded of some wise advice, that in preaching, the task is always to celebrate what God is doing rather than to struggle with the demands and failures of life here and now.

So – what IS God doing – that might, somehow, be enough to encourage us not to be afraid?

I guess it all depends on where your treasure is. It's far too simple to just focus on material possessions - but nonetheless, if those things that you treasure most are firmly of this world, you may well feel that God’s action is woefully inadequate (and that a bit more human action, based on unconditional love, would not go amiss either). 
But at no point does Jesus promise us a charmed life – quite the reverse, in fact.
In the world you will have troubles, he says….and that’s reassuring, when the troubles come. They may not be welcome – but they don’t indicate that God has somehow lost the plot. Not even for a second.

But, despite the troubles we are not to be afraid because, whether we deserve it or not, it is God’s good pleasure to GIVE US THE KINGDOM.

That’s extraordinary – and transformative, if we can but recognise it.
You see, what we believe about the future absolutely shapes how we live in the present.
We remain conscious of that sense that “it’s not supposed to be this way” - but instead of allowing that to halt us in our tracks, frozen in futility, we affirm that this is not our permanent home, not our eternal destiny.
We desire, with all those Old Testament heroes, a better country...and we press on towards it as best we can...sometimes confident of the terrain, more often stumbling, having no idea where we are heading or how we will get there….simply keeping going in a long obedience to God’s call.
Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly”
Keep moving forward faithfully, step by step.

Sometimes, our faith may not bring us all that we hoped for.
We try to trust God, to place in his hands our needs and those of the people we love – but things don’t pan out as we’d expected.
Don’t be afraid little flock.
God’s got this.
Really.
Have faith.

Do not be afraid little flock – you’re aiming for somewhere better.
Somewhere where your heart can find a home, alongside solid joys and lasting treasure
Somewhere worth more than all the possessions you might cling to in the here and now.

So – like that rich farmer constructing giant barns whom we considered last week, we’re invited to reflect on what we value most – what is closest to our hearts. 
And, deep down, we all know that those things which matter most aren’t things at all...though we seem programmed to grasp them with both hands.
Let me tell you a story, the story of a guy whose unlikely lifelong ambition was to use the flying trapeze. To celebrate a significant birthday some friends organised a circus skills day for him– and suddenly, it seemed that this dream might be within reach. He had a wonderful day, learning about high wires and low wires, about tight ropes, slack ropes and safety nets...And finally the moment came when he could, if he chose, finally live his dream.
He found himself swinging in mid air, - another swing heading towards him. This was the moment.
BUT in order to fly, he had to let go of one trapeze, in order to grasp the other.
He HAD TO LET GO and trust.

That’s faith.

That’s the faith that sent Abram away from his roots, wandering in obedience to a promise that was not fulfilled in his lifetime.
That’s the faith that sends us into exile, moving us on beyond a place of comfortable certainties, showing us that, in fact, we never really belonged there...that we are wayfarers heading home
That’s the faith that enables the serious disciple to do as Jesus says – to sell possessions and give alms, trusting that in letting go of one thing, we will be given something else, still more valuable…
Yes. Letting go IS hard.
I know that. You know that.
But – it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom – and his promises won’t fail.

So, don’t fret about the state of the world, but do long for something better...
Do all you can to live into God’s future, making a difference here and now, but don’t despair if your efforts seem hopeless.
Trust that God will bring to pass.

The Welsh priest-poet R S Thomas wrote about God’s kingom – coupling a huge sense of yearning with the certainty that as we desire a better country, that country’s borders are open to all
Listen.

It's a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It's a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf

Sunday, August 04, 2019

An 8.00 reflection on Proper 13C, 4th August 2019 at Coventry

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, 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 Sunday mornings 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 buried treasure,hidden with Christ, then sometimes it feels as if it's rather better hidden than I’d like...I find myself asking “Where’s the evidence, Fleming?”

I know myself quite well, by this stage...and I know that often my actions are shaped by anxiety rather than trust...I can all too easily imagine myself delighting in having stored up supplies for a rainy day (in fact, I might as well admit that yes, I do have a Brexit cupboard – though I take some comfort in the fact that my initial motivation was to be sure that I have something in reserve if life gets so bumpy in London that my family need to return home).
I want to feel safe – and to be able to ensure the safety of those whom I love.
But I’m working on it.
I know that while I might not always have enough for all my WANTS I have infinitely more than my basic needs...And that in any case, all those THINGS aren’t actually what matters.

The parable of the rich man with all those barns might well be a parable for 21st century life. For decades we’ve worked on the assumption that more is better – and that there will always BE more...that we can carry on expecting growth in every area...that somehow a money tree WILL grow, that our poor beleagured planet will shake itself and continue to meet all our demands, even as we strip it bare of so many precious resources. Now we are, perhaps, reaching the crunch point – the point when our souls are required of us. Too many of us have done very nicely thank you, at the expense of others…- those in the global south whose lives are being decimated by climate change – those in our city who find themselves turning again and again to the Food Bank as our society seems intent on cutting costs by making life ever harder for those who are already vulnerable…
I may not be alone in recognising a tendency to think “Somebody should DO something to make things better...” without accepting the responsibility to do something myself – right here and right now.
There’s something grotesque about the rich man talking to himself “Soul...relax, eat, drink, be merry” - for the soul is not sustained by anything you might find stored in a barn. Instead the life and health of our souls is found in Christ alone – and the choice is ours...to live into this as the central truth that shapes our lives, or to turn aside, and pin our hopes on the things of here and now.

Let’s pray for the grace to make Kingdom choices and so live that it’s clear for all to see what we really value – Christ, our life.




I

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Evensong sermon Trinity 6 28th July 2019

The story of Joseph and the deeply pessimistic psalm of lament set for this evening might not seem to have much to say to one another.
After all – we all know the story of Joseph AND his amazing technicolour dreamcoat
We are absolutely familiar with the grand finale “Any dream will do” and certain that families will be reunited, past wrongs forgiven and everyone will live happily ever after.
Simple,
This is a feel-good story – one that we enjoy sharing with children

REALLY?

If that’s your thinking may I suggest that you take off your 20/20 hindsight specs and throw yourself deep in the heart of the story...a tale of unexpected and extraordinary gifts (Joseph’s ability both to dream and to interpret the dreams of others)...of family jealousy played out in attempted murder and of the consequences of this shaping the future for a nation. Also the tale of God's covenant with Israel, but we'll come to that later
While it’s nothing like as long nor, actually, as convoluted, this is more Game of Thrones than Rice & Lloyd Webber

So – is this simply another one of those Old Testament stories that make us shuffle uncomfortably when they come round in the lectionary? One of those of which we are tempted to ask “IS this the word of the Lord”
Well – clearly I don’t believe so, or I wouldn’t have chosen to preach on it – but I’m willing to guess that while they were living through it Jacob and his sons did not see their experience as likely to have anything constructive to offer to future generations.

Later in the story, in Genesis 50,  we will hear Joseph tying up all the many many loose ends of the experience as he says to his brothers
“20 As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today”
But that’s a long long way in the future
At the moment we’re deep in the mess.
Yes, Joseph is no longer in prison or facing death – indeed his fortunes have taken a dramatic upward course – but family relationships have been stretched to breaking point and beyond.
It has been a long time already since his days of carelessly interpreting dreams to make his brothers feel small...and they have carried the guilt of their hatred towards him through the intervening months and years
Through most of that period it has been Joseph who has bourne the cost

That’s where psalm 88 comes in.
His experience has been very much like those who go down to the pit – and for his griefstricken father, he has indeed been counted among the dead.
This whole journey has been one that has taken him deeper and deeper into the land of lament – and, unlike other psalms of lament,  that take a sudden turn towards optimism half way through,  psalm 88 is one of those that leaves us in the darkness… This is the “Close every door to me” moment that “Joseph” afficionados may remember – but for Joseph, light is on the way.
Though the psalmist remains trapped in darkness and despair, and though Joseph still bears the heavy burden of exile and estrangement, his fortunes have improved.

He cannot yet fully reclaim his name and his identity within the family – but power has unexpectedly arrived in his hands. Not only the power of Pharoah’s minister for food but also the power of one who has knowledge – who recognises his brothers but is not recognised by them...Who ought to be dead but is, incredibly, alive.
God is working his purpose out – but goodness, it does take a long long time.

In this morning’s gospel for the Eucharist we heard Jesus telling his disciples to keep on praying – keep on petitioning – keep on keeping on in their relationship with God no matter how discouraging the silence. After all, though we are creatures negotiating the long slow journey through time, God works from the perspective of eternity – where “all time is eternally present”. So when it seems that God has walked out on us...when we fear that our prayers are just words flung into the darkening silence...we need to remember to take a long view.

The story of Joseph gives us hope.
His struggle for survival is also a struggle for faith. He needs to be able to believe that God has not given up on him – nor, indeed, on his whole complex dysfunctional family.
There’s the Covenant promise made to his great grandfather Abraham – that his descendents should be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore. If they are all going to starve to death, that promise would be null and void – the whole history of God’s chosen people obliterated just like that.
Surely, in sending his sons down to Egypt, Jacob is doing all that he can to honour his part of the bargain…
In the manipulation of the situation to help his brothers learn that actions have consequences, Joseph too is honouring the Covenant…
Perhaps he is already imagining the whole family settled in Egypt, safe from famine – and with relationships restored in a way that also honours his dreams of long ago, realised as his brothers bow before the unknown Egyptian, their victim delivered, their brother made good.

Faith and survival are both achieved by the end of the story – but here, as we wait in the long now, let’s pause to reflect on all those who are immersed in the lament stage of their own journey.

Yes God is at work in even the least promising situation – but knowing this is often absolutely NO help at all – and certainly well meaning Christian claims that everything happens for a reason may be enough to provoke fury when the “everything” is unmanageable and our resources are exhausted.
If that’s where you are now, then can I recommend the psalms.
Their searing honesty from a place of desolation makes them the best prayers for those times when prayer feels impossible and darkness inescapable…
Don’t be afraid to name that darkness
But take comfort, if you will, from the presence of God right where you are – even if that presence is completely intangible in the here and now.

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is our God too – and though his ways are beyond our understanding his purposes are always, ALWAYS loving and always faithful to his children...

Trinity 6 sermon for St Peters, Hillfields

Lord, teach us to pray

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that after almost 3 years of following Jesus round Galilee that the disciples might have begun to grasp the fundamentals of prayer. It’s not as if it wasn’t part of Jewish practice.
Prayers and blessings are built into the fabric of Judaism – and those same prayers find their place in our worship to this day – but clearly the twelve have noticed that something rather different is going on when Jesus prays.
He hasn’t encouraged them to join him in any particular pattern of words
indeed Jesus doesn’t actually invite others to be with him when he prays at all. He goes off by himself...so perhaps his friends are simply feeling a touch excluded when they ask their leading question. Teach us to pray

They have a model in mind. Why isn’t Jesus more like John in this?
Rabbis of that era were apt to sum up their own particular teachings in a pithy prayer and maybe a law or two – giving their followers a common discipline to unite them, creating a group identity. We don’t know exactly what John taught – though we can assume that it was probably quite ascetic and with a strong emphasis on repentence…
So now the Jesus followers want a prayer programme of their own...

So they asked him to teach them to pray, as John taught his disciples And he said to them, "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation."

This version is shorter, more concentrated than the form of words we use week by week, based on the gospel of Matthew...but that’s fine. What we have here is the heart of prayer for Jesus – and thus the heart of prayer for us…It’s a pattern for praying, far more than a set of words...and that pattern is rooted in relationship. it’s not what you say, it’s who you know.

No grandiloquent introductions “Creator supreme and judge of the earth”
Rather there is  intimacy with God right from the start.
Yahweh – the one whose name is too holy to be pronounced at all – becomes suddenly, extraordinarily, approachable.
Jesus calls him Dad – and tells us to do the same.
Go straight to the heart…
“Abba”
Isn’t that amazing!
We’re invited into the relationship that Jesus has with God...a relationship of surpassing intimacy “(I and the Father are one)
Dad

Of course, we know that relationships with our human fathers are sometimes flawed and broken – and if that’s the case for you, then please don’t let it limit your relationship with God.
Let go of unhelpful language – and replace it with love.

Here is the relationship as it should be…and it’s a relationship that exists before we ever turn to God or open our mouths to speak to him...We love because God first loved us - so that we’re qualified, by God’s grace, to speak the unspeakable.

When we pray like Jesus,  we are not simply firing off set formulae in expectation of speedy results that exactly match our desires…
We are not feeding our petitions into some sort of mysterious slot machine…
We are not dialing 999 so that God can send the rescue we require
We are responding to an invitation to friendship with one who loves us beyond all our imaginings

OUR Father – says St Matthew – and the Church too. Because we need the reminder that this is not an individualist’s prayer, but rather a prayer for the whole body of Christ.
It’s a prayer to be spoken in and for community…
I know that sometimes corporate prayer can fall short of the ideal. To pray in community does not mean that it’s OK to gallop through familiar words by rote...side by side with our neighbours…
I confess I do that sometimes...conscious at the start of the prayer and at its end, but wandering off in my thoughts to plan the week’s shopping or day dream about an much longed for holiday so that it’s a shock when I hear the concluding “Amen”.
PLEASE try not to do that with these precious, weighty yet intimate words
Write them on your hearts, by all means
Absorb them into the very depths of your being, absolutely – so that they can resource you daily – and at the hour of your death.
But pray them consciously.
NOTICE what you are saying…

This is not a prayer about me and my needs, me and MY Kingdom.

OUR Father.

And we aren’t invited to decide who is included or not in that description…this prayer is for everyone…whatever their wants, whatever their needs. It is a prayer that seeks for the whole of creation to be restored as God is honoured in everything...Thy Kingdom come – with justice and truth, peace and righteousness

This prayer means business! It’s vast in its scope...but nonetheless private and intimate, inviting each one of us to trust God for our daily needs.
Bread for today, please lord. Just as you provided manna in the wilderness. Enough for one day only but not to be stored.

Do you find that as hard as I do? I’d love to ask for the certainty that would be represented by a freezer full of all that I might imagine my family could ever need...but that would be to miss the point.
This is about trust – but trust in a God of abundance.
Enough for today.

God’s forgiveness of us spilling over into our forgiveness of others…
God safeguarding us through times of trial

And so it goes on – this wonderful foray into relationship with God -
and Jesus invites US to go on as well – to keep praying – to keep stepping into that place of intimacy  no matter what seems to be happening.
Keep calm and carry on praying -  whether we feel that our words are hitting the spot or bouncing off to land ineffectively at our feet.
Keep on asking.
Keep on knocking
Persistence will be rewarded, I promise.
Even if it feels as if you’re being offered snakes and scorpions (and the news this past week might make many people feel that this is exactly what is on the menu)
Nonetheless - stick with it.


Because – you see – what God is offering you is more than anything you could actually expect or deserve
God is offering you GOD’s OWN SPIRIT.
The Spirit that enables us to cry “Abba, Father”...the Spirit who fills every breath of Jesus’s prayer….the Spirit that will give life to the people of God
If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children – how much more will God give the Holy Spirit...

The disciples were asking the wrong question of Jesus.
They wanted to be traught to pray as John’s disciples prayed
Instead they found themselves introduced to the amazing reality of their identity as co-heirs with Christ
So Lord – teach US to pray
Teach US to want that relationship above all else
Give US the Holy Spirit that we might live our days transformed by your love and power at work in us for the world.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

An extra Special week: thought for the day, BBC Cov & Warwickshire, 14/ 7/19

What do you get when you bring two Coventry icons together?
A week of hope and joy it seems – as every evening from Tuesday to Friday our “outdoor Cathedral”, was packed to its missing rafters with happy people enjoying The Specials, back on their home turf after too many years away.

I have to admit that I was the sort of girl who only enjoyed classical music bacl in the day, so I missed out on the band first time around, and was curious to discover what it was that made friends of all ages and backgrounds quite so excited about their return to Cov. 

When I saw photos from the first night, it all made sense.

Behind the band on stage were the kind of placards I’d be proud to carry in any march against injustice
“Think! Vote! Right wrong! Help Someone!” they proclaimed – and then, intriguingly,
"Non Judgement Day is coming…"
I loved that, because of course immediately BEHIND those placards in the ruins are two words present 24/7 for anyone to see.
“Father forgive” they say.
an invitation to resist judging or “othering” anyone…
A declaration that we all mess up, but can all make a difference for good in the world too…
A reminder that sometimes it’s harder for us to do that on our own – which is where God comes in, offering inclusive love no matter what.

I’m not sure what Provost Howard, who had those words written on the wall in 1940, would have made of the actual music The Specials perform….but I’m certain he’d have been absolutely in favour of their ethos.
Listen:

Just because you're a black boy
Just because you're a white
It doesn't mean you've got to hate him
It doesn't mean you've got to fight

There we have the essence of reconciliation work in just 4 lines...as we celebrate difference and learn to live with diversity.
And, what’s more, the band walk the talk.
A lovely twitter exchange saw Horace Panter encouraging fans to treat any protesters with kindness and respect, agreeing with my tweet that we wanted everyone to feel heard – and then quoting my own favourite maxim right back at me  “I’d rather be kind than right”.

"Amen to that", say I.
As The Specials performed, a door opened on to hope and peace – right here at the heart of the city.
“We need to stop the hatred and division and talk to one another with respect, even if we don’t agree” said Lynval Golding...I still don’t really get the music, but in terms of our philosophy we’re definitely singing from the same hymn sheet.
What a great week!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday Evensong: John 3:16

If you had to sum up the Christian faith in a single verse of Scripture I wonder what that verse might be. Have a think, and do tell me afterwards. I’d really like to know.     I guess that many of us would want to plump for something that gave us a reminder of God's  love...for that, surely, is at the root of pretty much everything that the Church proclaims, struggle though we may, in our human frailty, to make that love clearly known. When I was a teenager, I had a phase of frankly alarming evangelical zeal, which manifested itself in a desire to place stickers with cheery Bible texts all over my home town, reflecting this basic message. I don’t recommend this as a way of achieving anything much, except possibly a police reprimand for defacing public property – but for a while that summer most of the lamp-posts between my home and the school bus stop were decorated with smiley faces and the reminder “Smile, Jesus loves you”. Other stickers assumed a degree of familiarity with the Bible that in retrospect seems very optimistic – for they proclaimed quite simply John 3:16 – without any further explanation at all.
Nonetheless, there IS something about that verse. Gathering my thoughts as I prepared for this sermon, I remembered a moment early in my ministry as a deacon, when this passage came up in the morning lectionary Still new to the context, and rather weighed down by the formality that characterized the Parish Mass, I was well into the story of Nicodemus from John 3 when I realised that the reading continued over the page from the words I could see in front of me. In fact, they continued all the way to verse 16. To stand there in the midst of God's people and speak those words aloud was, suddenly, the most mind-blowing privilege..The words were so real that they almost burned on the page and I was allowed, even expected, to share them with others. It seemed to me then that perhaps sharing those words was the most important task of ministry, that everything we do and everything we say as ministers of word and sacrament is in some way or other a translation of this text – into other words, into symbolic action, into a whole way of life…
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not die but have everlasting life."
Today is Trinity Sunday. WE’ve just heard a wonderful Collect intoned, which may well have given you a deep sense of mystery but not much of a clue as to how that mystery might be solved. Listen to it again
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.
WE are asking God to keep us steadfast, anchored deeply in this faith – but I suspect that if any one of us was backed into a corner and asked to explain exactly what this faith was, we wouldn’t choose to express it in terms of trinity OR unity. The doctrine of the Trinity, however many knots it may tie us into, is fundamentally an attempt to describe our human experience of God’s love. One theologian, Catherine Mowry La Cugna, puts it like this:
 "The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately therefore a teaching not about the
abstract nature of God but a teaching about God's life with us and our life with each other. Trinitarian theology could be described as ...a theology of
relationship, which explores the mysteries of love, relationship, personhood and communion within the framework of God's self-revelation in the person of Christ and the activity of the Spirit."

In other words – God is love…Jesus reveals this…The Spirit enables us to share it…
or if you prefer “God so loved the world...”
We do get ourselves entangled when we try to sum all this up in an intellectual proposition – and that’s really not surprising. After all, we are exploring nothing less than the ground of our being, the one in whom all things hold together
This is not a mystery to be solved, in the grand tradition of Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple...but one to inhabit.
It’s all there in John 3:16
God so loves..not the good, not the chosen, not the Church – but the WORLD
The world which God made and saw was very good – the world whose beauty and potential still shines through for all our best efforts to obscure it. Sometimes its as simple and as impossible as asking God to lend us God’s eyes – so that we can really SEE and learn to love God’s creation.
God so loved the world...
But God does not love passively...that love finds its expression in action, in the sending of God’s Son...God’s self-revelation, - God showing us what God’s love looks like when translated into a human life completely and utterly shaped and informed by the presiding action of the Spirit.
Jesus is the complete and flawless expression of God’s love in human form…
We glimpse this perfection and are drawn into relationship by a love that we cannot resist
“He sent his only Son so that everyone who believes in him should not perish...”
We are made for this. This is our place of safety...the place where we will not, cannot be touched by the tangle of our faults and fears, the loud voice of our own insecurity and its equal opponent, our pride…

You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless til they find their rest in you…

Believing in Jesus is absolutely nothing to do with head-knowledge...with intellectual assent to the fact of his existence (in the way that we might believe historical or scientific truths that we don’t know from first hand experience). It is, rather, to do with where we put our trust...where our hearts find rest and lodging. In practice it means believing that self-giving love is at the heart of everything...and that this love is the strongest power there is, bringing joy out of grief and life out of death.

It means, too, LIVING this out as our core belief.
Not settling for anything less, - no matter how eloquently it may be expressed
What might that mean for you? How might it translate into your daily life?

Hold these words and ponder them in your heart…
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life…
Amen.
Let it be so.