Sunday, January 01, 2017

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

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

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


Saturday, December 31, 2016

Digging out a duster...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 06, 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what do we count?

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast, another snapshot.

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

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


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


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Freedom in Christ - my attempt to preach after the EU Referdum

An urban myth records that when asked what he thought of western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi replied that he thought it might be rather a good idea...and several times during the weeks of the referendum campaign I’ve sadly reflected that he was right. As feelings ran high and claim and counter claim were delivered, generating more heat than light, it seemd that our nation had lost the plot. When the news broke of Jo Cox’s murder it was almost impossible to believe...but I guess it was, in fact, simply the most extreme of many recent examples of a people biting and devouring one another in a destructive cycle, to our collective shame and diminution.

 It seems that the campaign brought to the surface a whole tangle of feelings and opinions that had been buried for a while...but which are now, distressingly, in plain view.  The temptation would be, I guess, to hurry to bury them forthwith. To pretend that we hadn’t noticed those things that seem to make it so very hard to love our neighbour  and choose false peace over painful integrity. I have one godson whose views, as expressed on his Facebook page, frankly appalled me. Perhaps I should have the courage to ask him how he came to those conclusions, to explore with him the big issues, to see what common ground we might discover as we re-imagine the country to which we would like to belong.  I'm fearful, you see, that I just don't understand too many of my neighbours. I've lived in a lovely liberal bubble, shared by people whose outlook mirrored my own – and so I just didn't grasp how divided our country has become. Now I have to think again. What should I do? I could opt for running down those who voted another way, those whose world view makes little sense to me...those whom it's tempting to dismiss as ill-informed, uneducated, just plain WRONG.

I could do that – but I'm sure it's a bad idea. Perhaps I should just tell my godson that we were on opposing sides and hug him anyway (though at 26 he would probably infinitely prefer me to keep my hugs to myself). More importantly, perhaps I should try to seriously love my neighbour by working to understand what it is that shapes his world view where it differs from my own...to understand, not to patronise or tut but to understand.

I do have that choice,…So do you..

Regardless  of how we voted, regardless of our feelings of relief or distress, delight or despair, we are collectively responsible for shaping the real, every day life of our country. That has nothing to do with political rhetoric…it doesn’t even depend on economic conditions….It’s a question of the way we live day by day…for its our behaviour that will make this small island somewhere to flee from or somewhere we can still rejoice to call “home”.

Carriers of Hope tweeted yesterday that someone had heard school children telling their migrant class-mates “You're going home”...This city, which has stood for diversity and inclusion, for peace and reconciliation, could so easily become as painfully divided as the national media....

It could. But it doesn't have to.
It's our choice.

Now that we know where we’re heading,  we have an opportunity to return to our senses – and to practice a different way of being – the way that was chosen for us by Provost Howard almost 76 years ago…that lies at the heart of all that we do and all that we are here...the way of reconciliation.
We know it’s counter cultural. We know it’s hard to practice – and I have to say that  my own feelings during the final days of the campaign proved to me just how much I remain a work in progress. In all honesty if I could have called down fire from heaven on Friday I probably would have. But I know that I can do better. I know that WE can do better....and this is the moment to demonstrate that.

Almost always, at the end of a political campaign, there comes a moment of truth, when those who have secured power have the chance to live up to their promises – or not...a moment when their true colours are revealed. Today, as God's people here in Coventry we have our moment of truth, our opportunity to show our true colours...to live what we proclaim.

We meet in this place surrounded by the gifts of friends from around the world, and remember that those friends shared the ideal of international co-operation and peace-making that rose from the ashes of bombed cities in the aftermath of war. We see the refugee boat, and renew our commitment to welcome refugees, to offer hospitality to the stranger in need. On Thursday, as the voting continued, I found myself chatting to one of the uni staff attending a celebration dinner, a woman who had fled her own home in 1979 as one of the Vietnamese boat people, and rejoiced in our visible symbol of understanding and concern.  Honestly, in this building, it's hard not to make good choices. We look out through the west screens to see our beloved ruins...and cannot evade the consequences of listening to those voices that demonise the other, that dedicate themselves to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions...and things like these.  But we stand in a place of resurrection. Truly, our Cathedral speaks of hope – but is honest, too, about the harm that humanity can cause when we are left to ourselves,

But -here's the gospel - we aren't left to ourselves.

Freedom in Christ has set us free – free to choose another way, the way of hope not hate...free to attempt the challenging work of love that reaches across the gulf caused by the hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.
So – let us use our freedom. Having put our hand to the plough, let us not look back. The road to Jerusalem was hard for Jesus – the destination not of his own choosing – but he set his face towards it and lived out his vocation on each and every step of the way.
That's our opportunity, in these days of confusion and distress. We may not like the route ahead. We might never have chosen to head in this direction, yet still we have to keep on moving forward.

We can live out our vocation as a reconciled and reconciling people and transform the life of our city so that nobody feels marginalised, nobody feels excluded, nobody sees themselves as second class citizens.
We can build bridges – as the post war generation did, here and across Europe. We can hold onto the dream of co-operation  - and make that dream a better reality. Alone – our chances of success are slim. But – remember, we aren't left to ourselves. Let us be guided by the Spirit, who will lead us into all truth and enable us to bear fruit for God – fruit that will, by God's grace,change the world.

The morning after

Nobody expected this.
To wake to a world that has changed so dramatically.
To realise that we had been living in a bubble with likeminded people, and so utterly failed to understand the depths of frustration and desperation that led people of good will to side with what looks, from my grieving perspective, like the force of pride and prejudice (I refuse to engage with the possibility that in some cases the good will may exist simply in my determinedly optimistic imagination).
To learn that in this wonderful, diverse city which I'm privileged to serve, so many had apparently turned away from that very diversity towards the presumed security of closed borders.
To watch as the national structures that had seemed solid and secure reeled in the face of a day when people turned out in greater numbers than for many a year to make a small cross on a ballot paper.
I'm guessing that the level of shock was last matched when Churchill was ousted in the first post-War election...
Nobody expected this.

And it would be so easy to simply vent my own feelings, to give up on this small island, to explore the possibilities that might be open through my Scots grandmother or my Irish grandfather.
But- that's would be to invalidate my calling to THIS place at THIS time.

So, at noon, we gathered as happens every Friday in the ruins of our old Cathedral - destroyed by the tide of anger and hatred that was the 2nd World War.
We stood where Provost Howard had stood on the morning after HIS night of storm and terror - and committed ourselves once again to the way of reconciliation that he chose.
We will need to build bridges within our country as well as with our friends in other places.
We will need to try and understand one another as never before, to leave our places of safety and risk being vulnerable with those who felt they had little to lose.
We will need to carry on loving - even the leaders whose rhetoric seems to have resulted in a country polarised as never before in my lifetime.

Coventry Cathedral stands today, as it did before the Referendum, for reconciliation and for hope.
By God's grace, I will try and stand with it.
 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lord, let me know my end: a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 1st Sunday after Trinity, 29th May 2016. Psalm 39

For I am a stranger and a sojourner here

Sojourner isn't a word much used today. It has its roots in the idea of a day tripper, "sojours", someone passing through, without putting down any roots – and some versions of the psalter translate the word as “Passing guest”.

We know all about passing guests here, of course.
Passing guests from all over the world, drawn by our story of Reconciliation.
Passing guests from the city, come with a particular need – to give thanks, to mourn, to commemorate together.
Guests coming to be resourced, guests coming with no agenda at all – walking purposefully through the building to leave without a backward glance.
Guests bringing gifts, – as you have brought your gift of music.
Guests whose stories interweave with ours for a little while, so that  we impact upon one another  and are enriched by the encounter.
Guests who sometimes decide to settle down and stay, so that sojourners are transformed into friends and family, strangers into community.

But our psalmist has another idea in mind with his use of the word here, as he reflects on the transience of life, the idea that though we are here on earth for the moment, our real home is in heaven.
We are, you see, God's passing guests...only here by his gracious invitation.

I find it difficult to hear this psalm without the portentous music that accompanies it in Brahm's German Requiem.
Lord - let me know my end and the number of my days.

How long have I got?
Should I start to pay particular attention to the items on my bucket list?
It's a question that continues to surface for us.
Here and now feels very permanent, the only reality we've directly experienced – but we know in our heart of hearts that nobody gets out of here alive.

The strange thing is that for the most part we refuse to accept mortality. While our 19th century forbears seemed intent on reminding themselves on a daily basis that death is inevitable, surrounding themselves with so many momenti mori that from a distance it can sometimes look as if they made death a way of life, now we have hit the other extreme. "Death is nothing at all..." proclaims a whole industry intent on persuading us that the failure of our bodies is nothing more than a minor inconvenience.                                              "Those whom we love can still be part of our lives – as jewellry, works of art, or whatever you will, really...Let us distract you..." they say. "Don't worry about endings. Focus on the here and now. Seize the day!" 

But the trouble is that death is real...and that actually, we need it to add impetus to our lives. As my colleagues and children would tell you, I'm a professional procrastinator.
Without some sort of deadline sermons, articles, birthday cakes would simply never happen.
Thankfully, there's a time limit built into our lives too – so that even such should be encouraged to get on with things.

“Thou hast made my days as a span long” - human lives just as long as the breadth of God's hand – a measurable period in which all is gift. Not one second can be taken for granted – and so it matters that we spend those seconds, minutes, hours well and wisely.

That's the point.
Not a morbid preoccupation with the moment when we pass from time into eternity but a determination to use our time for things that really matter. Seize the day, indeed - but seize it to good purpose!

“Blessed are they who live with integrity, who walk in the way of the Lord” said our anthem...or if you prefer it, Augustine proclaimed
“Life is for love. Time is only that we might find God”.

That's what it's all about.
Yes, we are small sparks of life, here on a temporary basis – but this does not, as the psalmist suggested, mean that we simply walk “in a vain shadow”...that nothing has meaning or purpose.
We are here to love, and to encounter the God who created us, redeemed and loves us.

And now, Lord, what is my hope? My hope is even in thee
It is in our relationship with God, and in living each day in the light of that relationship that we find our peace and security. In this world of time and chance, here is solid ground....

Love God. Love neighbour. Live to make a difference – and you will do well.

On Friday this cathedral was packed as the Barbadian community from across the Midlands and beyond gathered to give thanks and say goodbye to a remarkable lady.                         You won't know her name. 
She didn't amass a fortune, large or small.
She didn't have a glittering career, working instead in the kitchen of a local care home..But she lived her life with a warmth and generosity that meant that everyone who knew her was inspired, encouraged, persuaded into being their better selves – and the loving family that she left behind have clearly learned from their mother. She used her time well, right enough...and she knew, too, where her hope and security lay.

If she was a passing guest, she was the kind of guest that gets stuck in, helps you deal with a long-avoided household task, brings love and laughter with her as part of the luggage, even if her stay is short.

That's who I want to be in this world.

Someone with such security in God that I can live knowing that time is limited.
Someone who can accept mortality without fear or dread, seeing it as simply an encouragement to get on with being my best self here and now.

Someone who knows that, even when she fails and falls,again and again and again, there is a solid hope in God, who holds all our time in his hands.

 

Monday, May 16, 2016

What IS a Cathedral for?

That's a question which, on a bad day, can seem to haunt the dreams of those whose ministry takes place in one...
Of course there are many many answers - from the strictly functional (the place where the bishop has his cathedra seat), through the aspirational (the mother church for the diocese, a place of resource and nurture for the whole diocesan family), the poetic (flag-ships of the spirit) with many another definition along the way. 
My longing for ours is that it should be known as a place of unconditional welcome, where all who come, no matter what their tastes in music or worship styles, should feel at home and able to connect with the God whose beauty is the reason for all of it...
Sometimes we manage this better than others - but I rather think that in the past 24 hours we've not done badly.

It began, as Sundays often do, with the Cathedral Eucharist - at which I had the privilege of presiding.
Even before we started, as we waited in the north aisle, with incense clouding the air ahead, there was a sense of eager hope. The congregation was in good heart, and had turned out in some force, many even remembering to wear something red. The Baptism family were gathered (no mean feat when you're juggling twin toddlers as well as a 6 month old baby), the new Wardens all in place waiting to be commissioned, and even the 1st Communicants (whose view of time is somewhat elastic) were present and visible. 
And - it felt as if we really were expecting something of God...who, of course, did not disappoint. 
I may have felt a little guilty as we loaded our poor Wardens with badges and staffs - baggage representative of other burdens that the institution places upon them - but they are such splendid people that I mostly felt thankful and relieved. 
In contrast, it was sheer joy to baptise little A. (though she would not say the same thing - and expressed her own views with passion), and to welcome the group of children who had been longing to take their place at the family table for so long. We moved from font to High Altar and when the organist began to play music from the Royal Fireworks, to match the clouds of smoke as I censed the altar (he's good that way - one day I really will be unable to stop the giggles), it was very hard not to grin like a maniac and sqeee loudly as I went on my way... God was SO present. 
Presiding is, for me, the heart of my priesthood - and yesterday everything conspired to make it particularly wonderful. Tallis "Loquebantur", the delighted smiles of the children opening their hands for me to give them the Sacrament, the wonderful diversity of congregation which is part of Cathedral life.
God was in playful mood with others too. Over coffee I had several conversations reflecting the unsettling and inspiring work of the Spirit and was myself still purring when I headed home.

Later, of course, the Cathedral was filled with a new and different congregation - from all over the diocese and beyond, as we hosted the Beacon event for the Midlands. The worship could not have been a greater contrast to the morning's, but was equally effective in enabling encounters with God.
I had one confirmation candidate - and it was most definitely holy ground as I stood with him before the bishop (one of four confirming...which changed the dynamic entirely, and somehow made it feel MORE intimate and not less, as each candidate came up in turn to their confirming bishop, rather than the bishop moving along a line). While in the nave all was exuberant celebration, in the Chapel of Unity children worked with huge concentration, creating crowns of flames and paper plate doves - and covering as many surfaces as possible with glitter too. One small girl, retreating to a prayer pod, said that she was glad that there was somewhere quiet to think while "THEY" (gesturing to the nave) got on with being noisy :)....She also reminded me that the Holy Spirit could be as quiet as breath on a feather....I wonder if I will be around when she is old enough to be confirmed - her faith and friendship with God simply shone - a highlight of the day.

And then came Monday - the morning after the day before. 
Ordinary Time, green and growing. 
And I found myself presiding again - for a congregation of three, in the Lady Chapel.
And there God was again. 
And I found myself reflecting on the way the disciples "spoke in different languages, as the Spirit gave them voice" - and on the different languages of worship we had spoken over one 24 hour period - and I hope and believe that in all that variety there was a space for everyone to find a home and a welcome.

Me, I'm being challenged and reminded that God WILL be there - bidden or not - expected or not...for this is, of course, HIS Cathedral, existing as a sign-post, a visual reminder of that transforming presence, that brings joy out of sadness and life out of death.