Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sermon for Epiphany 2A, 19th January 2020 at Coventry Cathedral

Why are you here?
No, I'm not indulging in a little existential angst on a Sunday morning.
I genuinely wonder why you are HERE.
I wonder, when you first came to church, what brought you through the doors.
Perhaps Sunday worship was part of family life from your earliest years, or perhaps you found yourself walking in almost by accident, one day in adult life.
Perhaps today is your first day.
If it is, do PLEASE come and chat to one of the clergy afterwards.
We’d love the chance to meet you and hear your story.
Whatever your original impetus, of course we’re delighted you hav got here.

I suspect though, that once you’d arrived you might not have kept on returning for long if you hadn’t had your own personal moment of epiphany, a glimpse of truth as everything fell into place, - however briefly – and you could say to  yourself
“Ah hah! Eureka! I’ve got it!”...or, as John the Baptist put it
“HERE is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

John, of course, was on the look-out.
He was alert for signs of God’s kingdom from the word go, and quick to share when they were revealed  “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God”
He’d known all along that he wasn’t the one for whom Israel was waiting and, though he did acquire his own disciples, he wasn’t intent on keeping them.
He understood his own role as a sign-post so when the moment came he didn’t hesitate
“Look, here is the lamb of God”

I’m hoping you have had a moment or two when suddenly everything made sense but if not don’t panic.The search really matters.
John’s two disciples had been looking for a while, following the Baptist, listening to his words, they were fired up by his proclamation
"Here is the Lamb of God !"
Imagine yourself hearing those words for the first time...not in the expected formality of Sunday liturgy but as breaking news.
He’s here.
Yes. HERE.

Wouldn’t you want to find out more?
So those disciples set off...lacking the confidence to approach Jesus directly, walking behind him in a face-saving game of follow-my-leader that turned lamb of God into shepherd…Sooner or later, he spotted them, turned, held their gaze.
They were stopped in their tracks as he asks
“What are you looking for?"
I imagine them shuffling, looking at each other, looking at the ground, embarrassed, til they come up with what could only be an interim answer, presented to fill an awkward silence
“Where are you staying?”

They DID  need to know where they could find him – of course they did – but the question he asked has many many answers
What WERE they looking for? What are you looking for? Are you hungy for healing? for justice? For change? for acceptance? for love?
Some of the many motivations that continue to drive humanity to seek something beyond ourselves.
We may not know which is uppermost at any given moment, but we know that we’re not at peace in the world….
This is the discomfort 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”
But to know that is to be at a different stage of the journey...and sometimes God seems intent on playing hide and seek with us, even as we set out determined to engage.

Where are you staying indeed, Lord?
There are many today who would say that Jesus cannot, must not, be staying in the Church. If you’ve been watching Panorama this week, you may be among those wondering how the institution can claim to be the Body of Christ when so much that is flawed, broken, even toxic, has been allowed to hide at the heart of the institution’s life.

And yet – and yet – Jesus has never kept the best of company. He is gloriously indiscriminate in his choice of friends, finding room in his heart for us all. Tax collectors and sinners, faint-hearted followers and penitent thieves and maybe even rogue bishops. While in the here and now we need a huge work of uncovering, of naming and accepting the harm we have done, and offering heartfelt contrition, I remain thankful that the final judgement does not rest with us, that by the grace of God eternity may offer a different perspective.
The celestial banquet is not, I think, going to be black tie and silver service but a glorious mess of love and laughter, tears and forgiveness, with Jesus always at the centre, the host with open arms.

But in the meantime, where ARE you staying, Lord?
Where can we find you today?

Jesus’ answer is a simple but wonderful invitation.
“Come and see!”
So – let’s go, let’s set out together and expect to find him round and about our city, remembering his bias to the poor, his fondness for the outcast…
Let's expect to discover him amid our brothers and sisters of other denominations as together we dare to dream of a Church united and made whole.
Perhaps he might even surprise us right here and right now, if we invite him to join us.

Some of you will have heard me share the experience of praying with this passage many years ago, on my very first retreat,
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 I had found what I was looking for, that 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 05, 2020

Epiphany sermon for Coventry Cathedral, 5th January 2020

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.

Familiar words, I’m sure,- enshrined in our national consciousness after George VI used them in his Christmas broadcast in 1939, just a year before Provost Howard spoke into a world where the unknown had become real and very frightening…
Words that my high school headteacher loved to share in the 1st assembly of the Lent term.
For the moment, let’s not rush ahead and remember how the verse continues but rather reflect on the journey that each new year represents. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that things are more precarious, more challenging in our national life than they’ve been, pretty much in my lifetime. And though you may feel your own circumstances are pretty stable, there are bound to be some surprises ahead, both welcome and more problematic. The fifty two weeks that it takes our planet to complete its orbit around the sun offer time enough for all sorts of things to happen.

So that plea “Give me a light” is real, and immediate, specially if you know there are decisions to make this year.
I’m not great at that. I often wish that God would decide for me, say, only half jokingly, that I long for a sign, “some sky writing would be good, Lord, telling me exactly where I should go and what I should be doing.”

Give me a light.

Of course, Matthew’s wise men seem to have had exactly that privilege, light and to spare for their journey.
An Epiphany.
A moment of clarity when God is revealed, when we can say with no doubt that God is here
So- for the wise men, perhaps their epiphany came with the rising of the star…their very own sky-writing, telling them where to go, what to seek.
Arise, shine for your light is come”
Certainly, they seem to start out on their journey confident that they know where they are heading…all they have to do is to follow their star. Though I'd guess that the Christmas card scenes that present it as obviously the one and only REAL star in the heavens might be distorting the truth slightly…Step outside on a clear night and the sky tells a different story, even here in Coventry.
Look up.
See for yourself.
Of course, looking up might be quite a challenge if you’re feeling overwhelmed personally or politically as the year begins. Looking down and feeling sad may seem more natural – but you’ll miss so much if you stay that way.
Look up and yes, the sky will be dark but in the darkness are countless stars...stars that are always there, of course, but only visible when night falls.
So, our wise travellers looked up -and saw something that others missed.
More, they chose to focus on that light, rather than the surrounding darkness and so they set the tone for their journey.
To focus on light rather than darkness is always, in every circumstance, an act of faith.
It’s not blind optimism but hope rooted in experience.

But – that doesnt guarantee plain sailing.
This journey of faith was not, is not, for the fainthearted. The wise men needed took courage and conviction to stay the distance and wisdom to discern when the journey was really over. It seemed only common sense that the royal palace should be their first port of call...A star presaging the birth of a king must surely point to a kingly place – except that this new king confounds expectations at every turn. Our travellers have drifted off course, followed their own assumptions and so come face to face with someone for whom the gospel is anything but good news. Herod responds with the anger born of frightened self interest when the wise men ask to see the one born “King of the Jews”.
You might remember that the next time Jesus is hailed as “King of the Jews” is as he confronts worldly authority once again, in the events leading up to the crucifixion, and the shedding of innocent blood. It’s the same here, of course. God's arrival in our world is quite unlike the sweet and gentle scenes of our Christmas cards and carols. It ushers in mass murder and a young family forced to flee for their lives. But for all the violence and fear,nothing in all creation will be able to escape the touch of God's mighty act of salvation. Not Herod, not Rome. Nothing.

Meanwhile, though, our travellers have still not had their real epiphany. They have seen a king but not THE king. Perhaps they'd made a mistake in setting out? Wasted time, energy…
The voices ringing in their ears that this was all folly”
Should they admit defeat? Head for home?
But they were determined to go the distance and followed the directions provided, directions that sent them away from the seat of power, from splendid palaces to an obscure village – yet still not least among the princes of Judah, perhaps.

As the wise men left Herod’s presence, they saw the star ahead of them once again.
Your light has come...”
Yet this was still not their true epiphany. The star-light led them on to a very ordinary house – where all their expectations were subverted.
Your light has come
God a toddler, cuddled up in his mother’s arms…
Emmanuel. God with us.
It might have seemed an anticlimax.
No angel choirs or fiery messengers, no earthquakes or thundering voice but an everyday scene repeated in countless homes across the world.

Already, in this epiphany, if they were truly wise, our travellers could discern the signs of the times, could recognise the nature of the kingdom. It was, and it is, a kingdom that included the little and the least, the poor and the weak. A kingdom that welcomes those who were searching, those who have wandered in the wrong direction for a little while. A kingdom for insiders and people from beyond the edges of society, Jews and Gentiles, those already at home and sojournors in a strange land

The magi had come far to worship a new king, yet found themselves somehow at home and welcome in his kingdom.

The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says this
An epiphany is an experience that transforms everything, and before you can do anything with it, it does something to you... it always seems to demand a change in people‘s lives. To live with a faith that makes room for Epiphany leaves us on our heels, ready to step out to wherever it is that God may be revealed

The paradox, of course, is that we may not have to travel far at all.
We don’t really need to go looking for God in rare and particular places. Instead, in the child born in Bethlehem, God has sought us out and come to dwell with us in the midst of all of our humanity.
God with us as we begin our journey into the year ahead.
Your light has come
We can seek that light in other places that carry the promise of epiphany - in the company of those who are hungry and thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned, the lonely and those stripped of their dignity; - among people who turn from the destructive powers in their life and in this world, to discover new strength from God; among those called to leave the familiar behind and step out in new directions; - wherever people experiences healing and new life or moments of forgiveness and new love.
Truth is, as Richard Rohr continues “if God can be manifest in a baby [born] in a poor stable for the unwanted, then we better be ready for God just about anywhere and in anybody.”
Anywhere and in anybody”…..

Arise, shine, for your light has come.
The arrival of the Light of the World in our midst enables us to shine with reflected glory. As the moon has no light of its own, but reflects so beautifully the flaming radiance of the sun, so we, in all our mundane humanity, can and should shine…
The light that drew the magi to the house in Bethlehem, that showed them God in the ordinary, should shine through us as well and we should expect to see it in other places and other people too.…

That’s why I’m an enthusiast for the old European tradition of chalking the doors – a visual prayer on the lintel that Christ will bless the home with his presence – a reminder to me and a sign to others that I WANT mine to be the sort of home where his presence can be felt, his love shared. I’ve a pocket full of chalk if you want to mark your home too…to remember as you come and go that the Lord is here. There really is no need to travel far to seek him.

So, as you go forward into this new year, be alert to celebrate epiphany wherever you encounter God. It won't be just in this building, that's for sure...nor simply at the the high moments of life In all times and places and people, even the most pedestrian and apparently uninspiring...because, after all, what good is it if we only see God on high days an holidays…
Most of life is quite difficult, even can seem dreary, dark – but remember – the magi looked UP and saw the beauty of the night sky...revealed only because of the darkness.
So, even in our own lives, and even in our own times of gathering gloom, we may come to experience the glory of God through Jesus Christ

Your light has come – so, as Minnie Haskins wrote long ago

Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

For Midnight Mass at Alderminster 2019

I wonder which you prefer – travelling or arriving? Hope or fulfillment?Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?
I’m very much a Christmas Eve person. I love this blend of candles and stars, of gentle music sounding across the years, connecting me with the long-gone celebrations of my childhood (when, it seemed to me, Christmas really only began on Christmas Eve so that all that fervour of expectant longing was crammed into one day, and one holy night)..The thrill of being old enough to stay up for Midnight Mass...Of going out into the darkness knowing it was finally Christmas Day
Alright. That suggests that maybe I just love both.
I’m a Christmas junkie – and there is nowhere I’d rather be tonight than right here at this moment.

But I wonder if there’s anything to learn from how we feel about those two states of being.
IS travelling hopefully always better than arriving?
I’m sure it didn’t feel that way for Mary, on that dark night in a crowded city.
She will have longed to arrive – and for her baby to arrive too.
And I wonder, too, how it felt to God then.
The moment of Christ’s birth, the climax of history... the fulfillment of the plan which St John unfolds for us
In the beginning was the Word
God waiting for the right moment to become flesh and step into human history to transform it by his presence forever.

It was a messy place to be, that world God loved.
It still is.
A place of violence, poverty and oppression.
A place where cold rejection is part of the deal, both for exiles in an unfriendly world and still, each day, for God’s Son
He came to his own and his own people would not receive him”
A hostile landscape
A place where despite all our best intentions, we won’t manage the “perfect” Christmas…

I’m struck by how many clergy are battling with huge issues in the lives of their families, or facing serious illness in this week of all weeks when they were planning to share in joyous Christmas worship...and I know too many families where an empty chair at the Christmas table will leave this season overshadowed by grief.
Perfection just doesn’t happen because we live in a real world that is light years away from that offered by the media – or even by our Christmas carols.
Away in a manger” we sing – and in four words consign the Christ-child to a place of stained-glass unreality, safely at arms’ length from our own everyday experience. This baby is not even allowed to cry! Nothing must spoil the photo-shopped illusion of the moment.
Small wonder, if that’s what we offer, that people struggle to make a connection between that baby and their own mundane, often messy, lives.
Truthfully, if all we have to offer as a faith is those moments, it is unsurprising that many people feel they can do quite nicely without it, thank you.

So, let me direct you to another carol (one we’ve sung tonight?) which sees things a bit differently.
Oh holy child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in BE BORN IN US TODAY”
In the first century of the church, a theologian named Irenaeas put the same message very well
He became what we are, to make us what he is”
God became one of us, the Word made flesh in our broken grieving word, so that we can see what God’s life of perfect love is like, and seeing it, join in.
HERE is the destination to which tonight’s hopeful travelling must bring us . Here and nowhere else..
We have seen his glory” - and, glimpsing that, are transformed into a new humanity.
children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Imagine that made good in our lives.
The light of God’s love shining in even the saddest, darkest places.
Imagine Jesus born in us, and living among us daily.
Imagine a community transformed...and little by little, reaching out to change the world.

In a few minutes he will come to us in the Sacrament of bread and wine,- a gift that is part of the process of transformation as we pray
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel”

May the light of his presence shine in and through us, this Christmas and always.

Advent 4 A at Coventry Cathedral, 22nd December 2019

Are you a rule-keeper or a rule breaker?
I find myself irritatingly set on being a rule keeper on the whole. I will walk dutifully around 3 sides of a lawn if there’s a “keep off” notice, and get dreadfully anxious if I think that I might have accidentally infringed a rule I somehow didn’t know about…
I really don’t want to be a nuisance in any way, stepping over the line is a definite “No”, so – it’s just as well that I wasn’t involved in those early weeks of Mary’s pregnancy. I would probably have wanted to hide because, you see, anyone could tell things weren’t as they should be.

Matthew starts the story in such a calm, matter-of-fact way
Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way...” Engagement preceding marriage. Utterly respectable until – WHAM -
Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”
Let me read that again.
It sounds so undramatic, even ordinary – and because we’ve probably heard these words a thousand times, they may not have much impact.
But for Joseph – they rocked his world.
How on earth could he, how could anyone muster up enough faith to trust Mary’s outrageous claim?
A child from the Holy Spirit?
It beggars belief.

And it’s definitely not the right way to do things, is it…Not in accordance with the laws of Israel, which would have Mary AND her lover stoned to death without further ado.
Joseph is righteous. He wants to do things properly – but with compassion too.
Clearly, his hopes and dreams for the future are in tatters, but he isn’t one to be vindictive.
You can imagine the turmoil.
It’s scarcely surprising that he has difficulty sleeping, or that his sleep is troubled by extraordinary dreams.
Dreams that rekindle hope – if only he can have faith and courage.
This beginning of the Jesus story is not being played by the rules…
it’s an almighty mess, frankly (and of course, we know that worse is to come)
What should Joseph do?
He doesn’t have to be a part of this mess. He could save himself a lot of trouble by steering well clear – but somehow, faith triumphs, giving him strength to accept the scandal, the gossip, the risk that he too will be seen as a troublemaker, refusing to play by the rules.

Actually, he may be engaging deeply with the rules, the truth, of how things actually ARE, rather than the perfect pictures of how they ought to be.

Yes, there is mess...There is disappointment...but that’s the world into which God will soon be born to an unwed teenage mother.
Born into scandal and shame.
Born into risk and fear.
Just the way that God has always planned it.

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel. God with us”

Too often we seek to deny the messiness of our very human lives.
The shiny Christmas decorations, the myriad lights that seek to drive back or distract us from the darkness of poverty and distress here in our city and beyond can be part of that denial, like all those ads encouraging a perfect family Christmas, a world away from tetchy, exhausted parents, and over-excited children greedy for the next present.
But, you know, Immanuel, God with us, is there in the reality.
In the frantic preparations that never quite seem to be enough
In the anxiety over family gatherings where not all the family is really that thrilled to find themselves together.
In the disappointment and the loneliness of those who had never imagined it would turn out like this.

God with us -

I’m going to date myself now by admitting a fondness for the 90s track by Joan Osborne, “What if God was one of us”.
In case you don’t know it, let me share the chorus
What if God was one of us. Just a slob like one of us. Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home.”
I have never dared to investiigate whether the song was written in faith or in irony – and if you know, please don’t tell me.
Because, of course, this is the heart of everything.
God IS one of us...whatever that might look like.


God with us in the endless business of the Cathedral at this time of the hard-won beauty of the choir singing away the dark on Advent the weary scraping of candlewax from the the stickiness of a thousand Christingle oranges…and the starling-chatter of school-children filling the nave for their end of term celebration.
God with us in the patient preparations and proof reading for service after service after service...
God with us no less in the barely suppressed grumpiness of overtired staff and of volunteers who’ve agreed to do just one more event, because “we know you’re stretched at this season”

God with you, Paul and Sheila, in what must surely be an emotional roller-coaster as you prepare to bring so many years of loving service here to an end.
God with you in the next adventure as surely as God has been with you shining through all that you have brought to the life of this place.

God with us in our hopes and our fears, for ourselves and for our country.

God who has NEVER played by our rules, but turns them upside down in every way….living his manifesto, Mary’s Magnificat..
God the rule-breaker stepping down from the throne of glory that we would surely cling to...setting aside everything but love to be with us in our triumphs and disasters, our moments of faith and our days of doubt…

When Joseph broke the rules and joined Mary on the side of God’s wild subversion, he can’t have known what the future might hold.
I wonder how often he comforted his wife, comforted himself, by repeating Isaiah’s words
Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and they shall name him Immanuel” often he fell asleep, using that name as a prayer as he tumbled into darkness
Immanuel”...God with us…
Here, now and always.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Jesus, remember me - a sermon for Christ the King Year C at Coventry Cathedral

Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom
Words from this morning’s gospel.
When we sing them to a Taize chant it seems to go straight to the heart of things, to carry all unspoken longings and silent prayers…
Remember ME.
The cry of the small child, concerned that they might be overlooked and left vulnerable, particularly if there’s a new baby to divert adult attention.
The cry of the soul that fear that it is somehow too unimportant, not one of the great or the good, not even a particularly memorable sinner.
 Sometimes I wonder if all the relentless activity of the Church, all our beautiful acts of worship, could be summed up as a corporate cry of “Jesus, remember me”.
Actually you might say that this sentence is perfectly balanced between selfcentred humanity – with the ego loudly at work – and the Kingdom of God, based on self-giving love.
And it is a prayer that somehow the two may be brought together “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom”

They are, of course, the words of the penitent thief, hanging beside Jesus and recognising both the truth of his own situation and the abiding goodness of God. He too is looking forward with longing – to the end of the pain and ignominy of crucifixion, to the moment when he will look upon the face of Christ and find himself judged with infinite compassion and mercy, and when his sense of self will become lost in wonder, love and praise. Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.

But what is this Kingdom? Is our deep longing justifiable and justified. If you stand in Holy Trinity up the road and look at the amazing doom painting over the chancel arch, you might doubt that it is, might almost hope that you’d be forgotten rather than remembered, long to be overlooked somehow when Judgement Day comes. Even our own tapestry of Christ in Glory can sometimes make God seem more majestic than inviting…As someone who not infrequently wants to throw herself into the arms of Jesus, weeping and wailing over my own stupidity or the intransigence of the universe, it’s not always easy to be confident that those arms will wrap themselves around me.
Is there room for us – in all our broken humanity?


That’s the point of it all – the good news of this morning.

Christ's Kingdom is founded on the sort of love that gives without reserve, that befriends with ceaseless generosity, that values everyone, regardless of gender or opionion, as someone made in God's image, someone for whom Christ was pleased to die…
Of course we tend to live and to love within far narrower, more self-interested boundaries…While we may give lip service to a commitment to justice and righteousness, we can seem to be more intent on self-interest.
Bishop Paul Bayes of Liverpool tweeted this advice last week, as we look towards the general election
“If you’re a Christian then, after praying, reading and learning, cast your vote in the way that you believe will help the poorest”
It’s instructive to notice which leaders deliberately engage with the needs of those on the edges. – and the passage from Jeremiah makes it clear what God thinks of those who don’t.
It’s also instructive to ask ourselves if there’s a tendency to vote in ways that we believe might make lives a bit easier, even if we’re not convinced they’re altogether upright. We are too prone sometimes follow the rules of our own kingdoms, to safeguard the interests of those whom we find it easy to love, too often leave injustice unchallenged…
We pray “Thy Kingdom come…” but maybe at times we have our fingers crossed – because we want God's kingdom to fall in with our own plans.

But – here's the Good News!
God is ALWAYS greater – greater than any human endeavour, greater even than the institution of the Church (though in her true essence, of course, the Church is herself part of the outworking of the Kingdom) God's Kingdom WILL come, regardless of our faltering efforts, our feeble witness, our failures of love and compassion. The BEST news!
More, the King who will come in judgement is the one who loves us so much that he dies for us…each one of us, even for me. We have nothing to fear, everything to look forward to as we look towards the Advent themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell.
The writer Adrian Plass tells the story of a preacher who was anxious that his congregation should fully engage with that theme of judgement so he placed a chair at the head of the nave and invited them to imagine that it was occupied by Jesus, enthroned in great glory He told them to imagine that, each in turn, they were coming to stand before him, to receive his verdict on their lives. He asked them “Now, tell me, are you not full of dread as you stand at the judgement seat?” And Plass responded “No...because if Jesus is there, then he will, really and truly make everything, - EVERYTHING ALL RIGHT”

So we don’t need to despair of ourselves, our church or  our world as we consider this feast of Christ the King. Instead, we need to strive to embrace the challenges of the kingdom, and to embrace those who see the Church in very different ways. We need, too, to admit our own fearfulness, our reluctance to engage, to really live as citizens of heaven…We need to recognise that God’s kingdom does not wait out of reach for the end of life as we know it, but is close at hand, ready for us to grasp it and be transformed.

Jesus, remember me – and help me to live in your Kingdom here and now as you prepare me to be in Paradise with you forever.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Sometimes it seems that the spiritual life is not unlike an extended game of hide and seek.
Last week at the Eucharist we heard the familiar parables of lost sheep and caring shepherd, lost coin and determined housewife.
We were reminded that God will not rest til he has found each one of us and bought us safely home.

Our New Testament reading this evening, however, presents the search in a new light.
Now it is Jesus who promises to be elusive, and the Pharisees are after him.
I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me.
You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.’

Do those words sound at all familiar. They come again, in a passage we hear rather more often, at the end of chapter 13:
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me;
and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.

Jesus even helpfully quotes himself.
The same words, but very different contexts indeed.
In chapter 7, tonight’s reading, Jesus is teaching in the Temple, so powerfully that his listeners are astonished. When they question how he learnt what he is sharing, Jesus tells them his teaching is from God. He then challenges them, asking why they are out for his blood...More dialogue, then the temple police are summoned to arrest him.
And then he says to the very people who he has accused of planning to kill him
‘I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me.
You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.’

That seems only sensible, doesn’t it.
You really wouldn’t expect those who wanted to kill Jesus to be part of his resurrected, ascended life. They’ve made their choice. Of course they can’t, and won’t, come with Jesus...

But, can I ask you to think about the parallel verses, that we find later on.
Now Jesus is with a very different audience, at the Last Supper.
Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet as a sign of his love for them, and of his servanthood.
Jesus has predicted his betrayal and Judas has gone out into the night, as we later discover,
to fetch the soldiers and temple police to arrest Jesus.
And once it is just Jesus and the faithful 11 disciples, he speaks to them,
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me;
and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”

What are we to make of this? It feels harsh. Jesus telling his beloved friends that THEY cannot come with him either.
How can he say this same thing to two such pposite groups of people?

And what might it mean for us, you and me, as we strive to be disciples?

Where I am going, you cannot come.
The thing is, the story doesn’t stop there. And that’s where we find hope.

Because, as Jesus explains, just because they can’t come where he is going, doesn’t mean they can’t
be there.
Listen: “
if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself,so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going...’ 

It’s not by our own efforts that we can make our way to heaven.
I will come again and will take you to myself…
The initiative is all on HIS side and he is tireless in seeking us out.

It doesn’t matter if we’re among those who love Jesus and long to follow him all the way through death and beyond, or whether we have more in commone with those who find his message so troubling they wish to silence him forever.
The message is the I said to the Jews so now I say to you,
Where I am going, you cannot come.”
You can’t come...but I will come and take you.

It doesn’t depend on our efforts or our attitudes. The work is his, and his alone.
This is not a message of exclusion- there’s room and to spare for all...but we need to know that we can’t get there on our own.

You can’t come to me, I have to come and get you.

I’ll come and get you even from the depths of hell...I will come and find you...friend or enemy...because, I have loved you with an everlasting love and nothing in life or death, nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sermon for Proper 24 Luke 18 at Cathedral Eucharist

This, for me, has been a week of waiting. Waiting for the report from our Safeguarding Audit. Waiting for news of a friend’s job interview. Waiting for a grandbaby due at the start of the week, but still conspicuous by his absence. And my own personal impatience has been playing out against the background of our collective waiting – for the results of the Brexit negotations, for some sense of what the future may hold for us, and for our friends and neighbours across Europe and beyond, for a reassurance that the most vulnerable really WILL be taken care of in the weeks and months ahead. I’m not good at waiting at times like this. I’ve never yet been able to pray with any conviction that litany from the Iona community that includes the refrain “Thank you for the waiting time”. I want things fixed – preferably in line with my own personal agenda- as soon as is humanly possible, or better yet, according to a divine timescale that is actually QUICKER than my own. I have at least tried to pray...but, as the Rolling Stones once put it “I can’t get no satisfaction”. While I feel as if I’ve been emulating the persistent widow, thus far nothing much seems to have changed – and that makes me consider what is going on when I pray. A friend’s father used to ask her “Are you actually praying, or just worrying on your knees” - and I guess I have probably been doing a bit of that, - particularly where the grandbaby is concerned. And in fact, there’s nothing much wrong with that. Taking worrying situations into God’s presence is frequently the best possible approach. Pouring out hopes and fears, griefs and frustrations – and knowing that all our confused jumble of feelings and experiences is heard and understood by the One who loves us and knows us through and through. Worrying on our knees can sometimes be just fine. It really is important to do our waiting and worrying in God’s presence...but the one thing I’ve learned about prayer through the years is that the answers God supples are very seldom those I expected. Indeed, I don’t often recognise them at all, until long long afterwards. When I left Cambridge after 3 wonderful years singing the services in my college chapel, spending every available second immersed in the Anglican choral tradition, I was VERY angry with God. I knew what I wanted to do next and it just wasn’t possible. I didn’t so much pray as storm at him… “If I were a man, I might be able to join the back row of a cathedral somewhere...but as it is, there’s nothing for women, nothing for me at all. I’ll just have to try and find a job in an arts centre” No such job was forthcoming. I did a lot of other things through the years, - some wonderful, some less so...and had actually completely forgotten that conversation (was it a prayer?) til I found myself sitting around a table earlier this year with various reps from the local arts scene...and I suddenly heard my own words played back to me, and realised that God was chuckling gently as he pointed out that my long-ago prayer had come to pass by a very circuitous route. And yet, I’m still really bad at taking the long holding on to my faith that God is at work when I don’t see the answers I hoped for What about you? Spend a moment considering those times when you’ve asked God directly for something. Not simply a general “Bless all your children” kind of prayer but something quite specific. Perhaps you’re still asking... How were your prayers answered? Did you get what you asked for? Or did you come to realise, in retrospect, that what you DID get was something better? If you can’t think of a time when you’ve asked directly for something – just possibly that’s because you aren’t quite sure that it’s a worthwhile exercise. Not long ago I heard the story of an inn that was being built in a part of the States where the spirit of prohibition lingers still. Many in the churches there were distraught at the prospect of anyone selling alcohol over the counter in their home they held an all-night prayer meeting, begging God to intervene. A storm broke, lightning struck the inn, and it went up in flames. The owner then brought a lawsuit against the church holding them responsible. The Christians hired a lawyer and denied responsibility. On the day of the hearing the judge said, in his opening remarks“No matter what verdict is reached today, one thing is clear. The landlord believes in prayer and the Christians do not!” Ouch. I wonder if that charge could be levelled at us here. What are your expectations when you pray. Generally I think we have to let go of the idea of a quick fix solution. Luke makes this clear as he introduces the parable, unusually unpacking its meaning before he tells the story. This is about the “need to pray always and to to lose heart”. It may be just as well that we’re told that at the beginning, because it’s not the most accessible story in Scripture, is it. Jesus clearly intends the judge to stand for God, but this judge is about as unlike God as possible. He cares neither for God nor man, but is all about the quiet life..” And yet, this widow, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, keeps on coming to him. Is this because she’s desperate, stupid or simply naive? Surely she must know his reputation...Perhaps she is simply a person of faith, hanging on to the belief that justice would prevail despite all the evidence. And she’s right. The point of the parable is, of course, that if even a rotten judge can be persuaded to do the right thing by someone who pesters him day and night then of course God, who is Justice in person, and who cares passionately about people, will vindicate them, will see that justice is done. And that concept of justice is key. We can’t expect God to fall in with our plans, just because we’re persistent. We’re invited to seek God’s kingdom and God’s know God’s mind, if you like, and tune our hearts and our wills to that. And that’s when prayer takes off. When we let go of our own agendas and seek God’s, trusting that God’s will really IS the best possible outcome for us, for our loved ones, for the whole hurting, broken world. Sometimes we’re not quite able to believe that is true. We have an idea of who God is, we’ve read the books, but have not really come to know God for ourselves. That, too, may take a while. It’s the vision behind Jeremiah’s words, as God own dream for Israel. No longer shall they teach one another or say to one another “Know the Lord” for they shal all know me from the least of them to the greatest. Know God directly...God’s messageswritten on our hearts, our hopes and dreams swept up in God’s great purpose of reconciling the world to himself. If in doubt about that, may I refer you to last week’s epistle. Remember Jesus Christ. God within reach. God sharing stories, bread and wine with us day by day. We can and we DO know God when we turn to Jesus. The days are surely coming when that will be true for the world ….but sometimes they seem to drag out rather. We live in the gap, the “now but not yet”, believing in God’s better future but finding ourselves in a frequently painfully imperfect present. So in the meantime – remember that you may be the answer to your own prayers...that if you are entreating God to do something about climate change, about injustice and oppression far away or close to home, about children crying and parents in despair...God may have work for you to do. And when you pray with persistence, don’t lose heart. You may be tired and disconsolate. You may feel there’s no point carrying on any longer, if nothing seems to change. But that’s the moment to redouble your prayers and ask God to show you how to live into his future, to write his name and his truth in your heart and not to be satisfied with anything less than God’s righteousness.