Sunday, June 10, 2018

Trinity 2, Proper 5 : a new kind of family

Among the many different Bible translations that you’ll find in a good Christian bookshhop, there are also some extra special editions for particular groups...Youth Bibles, Devotional Bibles for Mothers, and Fathers,  Revolution Bibles for Teen Guys (I kid you not), and probably Bibles for dog-lovers and cat-lovers too. Of course, there are red-letter Bibles too, with Jesus’s words in stand-out ink, but as far as I can see, there’s one special edition missing.

Nobody has yet published a Bible with the words we wish Jesus hadn’t said picked out in florescent green. I’m sure it would be a best-seller – because there are so MANY of them.
You know the ones.
Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor” “Love your enemy, bless those who persecute you”…
You will probably have your own list of texts that make you wince...Mine include those above, but I really wouldn’t mind if he’d kept quiet instead of giving us this morning’s words too Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”
It sounds so easy, but it feels so hard.
Honestly, couldn’t he be a little less challenging? He’ll lose all his friends.
Picture the scene.
Here’s Jesus surrounded by a crowd so huge that nobody is even THINKING about feeding them...and he's not telling them gentle stories about lost sheep or prodigal sons.
Instead he is, not to put too fine a point on it, having a bit of a rant.
How can Satan cast out Satan? …..Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven...”
It's not comfortable listening, even at the beginning.
Nobody much is enjoying themselves...I’m willing to bet that there’s not a lot of eye contact between Jesus and his hearers. They’re all wishing themselves far far away.
Small wonder that the Scribes, present perhaps to ensure that orthodoxy is attended to, set out to discredit Jesus – to divert his hearers in mid flow...
Don't listen to HIM. He's not well...He's raving...Might even be possessed...Ignore him”.
And, in their task of persuading Jesus to shut up, to stop his incendiary diatribe, they recruit some rather unlikely allies...Mary and her sons and daughters.
Jesus's Mum and his siblings

That’s when I start to get a bit anxious.
I remember reading this passage while my children were small and thinking
“ Oh Jesus! Why? If my children are ever that rude to me in public I'll...maybe cry...maybe hit them...”
Nobody likes to hear family tensions being aired in a public space....and certainly the way in which Jesus seems to reject his own flesh and blood is an affront to those “family values” which were as powerful a force in 1st century Palestine as they are, in a rather different way, in 21st century Britain.
So, what's going on as Jesus asks his outrageous, offensive question, one that must have stung mother Mary like a slap on the cheek?
Who are my mother and my brothers?”
Is it possible that Jesus looks at them without really seeing?
That in the flood tide of his preaching he has actually lost sight of reality, forgotten who he is and where he comes from?
I don't think so for a moment.

As they appear, intent on leading him away, calming him down, winning his silence, Mary and her sons are allied with the voice of law and order, concerned to keep up appearances, anxious that Jesus should stop making waves – lest they should all be washed away and perish.
Jesus must be feeling under pressure...no time to grab a sandwich, people surrounding him on every side – and nothing like enough friendly faces in the crowd...and now his nearest and dearest are missing the point too.
And yet...and yet, he will not be silenced, not even by his mother’s pleas.
He rejects both his family and their agenda of status quo, peace and stability, and casts about instead for a new family, a core community more truly able to offer support and encouragement, to share his vision and the task he has embraced as his own calling.
Searching, he lights on those sitting listening – hungry for his teaching, despite its tendency to baffle and to challenge.
A disparate group, brought together solely because they are drawn there by Jesus.
The kind of group you might assemble if the “Coventry welcome” on our front page was made real in our congregation today.
Nothing in common, except the single calling -to do the will of God.
Here are my mother and brothers...”
And so the Church is born – as surely as it is at the foot of the cross when Jesus gives Mary and John to one another, as surprisingly as when the Spirit came on the disciples at Pentecost.

The Church – the family of Jesus in truth and in deed...drawn by him and existing to do God's will.
It's as simple – and as difficult – as that! Our core purpose in a sentence – which will take us a lifetime to unpack

Bur through the centuries it has proved so very hard for us to keep our grip on that calling.
It's so much easier to be God's family in name than in truth.
But to live it...to do God's will...that hasn't got any easier.
Sometimes, it’s not quite obvious where God’s will lies – and all kinds of family squabbles can break out then, resulting in unimaginable hurt that clouds the gospel for generations... More often, though, God’s will is all too obvious, but a bit too costly as well.
You see, to do God's will is never a recipe for social success.
It forces us to speak out against injustice – even the sort of injustice that is such an habitual part of life that we are barely aware of it.
It means standing on the edge with the excluded, the neglected, the outsiders
It means that instead of being the voice of stability and tranquility, we find ourselves needing to make waves again and again and again.
It involves us in letting go of much that we treasure and long to cling to.
We are here, purely and simply, to do God's will...to live as signs of God's kingdom of love and justice and joy.
That won't often win us friends or allies...for the kingdom is founded on challenge not complacency.
It won't give us an easy ride, at home or abroad – indeed, an easy ride is almost in itself a guarantee that we've lost the plot.
It has been truly said that if we really preached the gospel, we would empty the churches – for the cost of obedience to God is higher than most of us are willing or able to pay.

But – and of this I'm certain – though doing God's will will not guarantee peace and prosperity it will fill us with the kind of joy that stems from knowing that all our security, all our identity, is found in God as we seek to do God's will.

We will stumble, fall and fail a thousand times – our human nature pretty much guarantees that.
But still and all, we ARE God's family – drawn by Jesus, called to do God's will.
So let us pause for a moment, reflect, and confess in our hearts our failure as individuals and as community to BE the Church, the family of Christ...our tendency to settle for an easy compromise, our longing for approval from our family and friends...
and having paused, let us turn our faces to the Son and begin our journey again.

If we do so, I know that God's grace will meet us, raise us from death to life and bring us, through Christ our brother, to an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Windows onto God – a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, May 28th 2018

When I was a teenage chorister, passages like those we’ve just heard used to drive me to distraction.
You see, my favourite escape route when the sermon didn’t grab me was to wander off in my imagination, into the depths of the readings. This was fine when they were stories of Jesus and his friends, or parables, or the Old Testament adventures...journeys through the wilderness, escapes from captivity...or the beautifully poetic prophecies of Isaiah about lions and lambs, or deserts bursting into life.
But passages like tonights were another thing altogether.
I would tie myself in knots trying to actually picture the 4 creatures.
4 faces, 4 wings, eyes wherever you looked – how on earth did that work?
Were Ezekiel and John both indulging in substance abuse?
I tended to think that they might be, and would retreat with relief to whatever was going on in the psalm.

Now I find myself preaching on those same passages – and its tempting to take the same escape route.
Except, of course, that there’s no way out!
It seems that all our readings, from Old and New Testament and psalm alike have the same message…
Lord my God, you are very great… You are clothed in splendour and majesty”
Every word of Scripture we’ve heard this afternoon is designed to convey that...to offer a range of different images that might give us, the hearers, a window onto God – or, as John experienced it, a “door standing open in heaven”. Open doors are surely, always, an invitation...It would be simply perverse to turn away...but as we go through, we need to adjust our expectations, to understand that we are entering a different kind of reality.

You see, it’s important to notice what’s actually going on in the passages.
Neither writer is attempting an accurate scientific description of something you might try and draw for yourself (I say this, though behind me you have John Piper’s interpretation, to which we’ll return later, which might also help your imagination to take flight).
Notice how often Ezekiel tries to make this clear
what looked like four living creatures...” “The appearance of the likeness of the glory of God”.
He knows we’re not dealing with exact equivalence. All these images are things glimpsed through a glass darkly…best guesses at a wonder beyond all words and all imaginings.
In the same way that icons, beloved of the Orthodox tradition, don’t presume to offer pictures OF God but rather invite us into a way of contemplating God’s majesty – so these passages are in no way factual descriptions of the glories of heaven, but routes into wondering.

As such they are part of a great tradition, and those living creatures are carefully chosen for their honorable place in Jewish writing as representatives of the whole of animal life.
Midrash declares that each is present because “all have received dominion” – the “king of the beasts”, the lion, symbolises strength and power and rules over all wild animals; birds are commanded by the eagle, far-sighted and visionary, and gifted with eternal youth; domestic animals are led by the ox, patient, strong, obedient; and here, too, is humanity, not in any way the “crown” of creation, but a good, respected part of it.
Four creatures – made into perfected, extraordinary versions of themselves, to emphasise just how charged and heightened these visions really are – because our writers are glimpsing something truly tremendous. We know this – even while we struggle to place ourselves beside them, to share their imaginings, see through their eyes.

But in fact our failures of imagination don’t matter in the least. These living creatures are there not for themselves but because they ARE creatures – part of the natural order, beings made for God’s glory and taking their part, with us, in the eternal song of praise around God’s throne.

One commentator writes of the vision of Revelation 4
This is a throne-room for the universe – and the throne is not vacant. The universe is not a chaos, nor is it ruled by blind fate. Someone is in charge”….and this, of course, takes us back immediately to our great tapestry where that Someone, Christ himself sits, flanked by the four living creatures that our writers have described to us.

Michael Sadgrove, a former Precentor of the Cathedral, describes the tapestry as a ‘magic carpet’, carrying the worshipper on a flight not into fantasy but into reality at three levels – the reality of God, the reality of the world, and the reality of the person themselves.
That’s what lies on the other side of the door, if we have the courage to walk through.
Reality. We’re no longer dealing with “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God” but with a direct encounter with God made human, with God’s whole life and being walking the earth in the person of Jesus Christ...that same Jesus who now sits in glory, ruling over our world, our history and our future.
This “window onto God” is quite unlike any other – because we are invited to come close to, to know for ourselves, to receive into our own beings the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth”.
Where pictures fail, and dreams fade on waking, this Christ meets us where we are, in our everyday lives, and walks beside us here and now.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come...”
In Revelation, the 24 elders join with the living creatures in a chorus of universal praise…and surely our ultimate calling is to find our voices and to join with them..
In the meantime, though, we may feel rather more like that human figure standing between the feet of Christ, simply too close to see what is going on, oblivious to their surroundings.
But though we may not have much grasp of God’s reality, nonetheless we are secure – because the One who holds the universe in love will not let us slip or fall, however poor our vision as we travel onward til the door is fully opened and we are welcomed home to join ourselves in the song of heaven.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ascension day sermon, Coventry Cathedral, 2018

When I was a small child, I loved Ascension day because there was a half day from school after early Mass, sticky buns and country dancing. Now it’s more a day when I hanker after chestnut candles against blue skies, revel in glorious music and try my hardest to write a sermon that has no mention of the tips of Christ’s toes vanishing into the clouds…but I still love this feast, despite the problems that it might present to those who want to view their faith through a purely rational lens. In a world which, on the whole, doesn’t imagine heaven as a realm above the skies, we do rather struggle with the baggage of past understandings of the Ascension, and perhaps that is in part the reason that a festival that was once so significant that it involved a half day from school is now largely forgotten, even among the faithful. Today does matter though. It is a turning point.
“The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now” we sing, and it is tempting to think in terms of before and after, to see those two states in opposition to one another – and of course it depends on your perspective how you understand each part of the story.
There is one view for the eleven, left craning their necks for a last glimpse of the One who has given their lives hope and purpose through three extraordinary years…and pondering what his promise of “power from on high” might actually mean. For them, as for us, Ascension represents the start of a season of waiting in faith and in hope…and of trying to understand their new calling as apostles, those who are sent, rather than disciples, those gathered to learn.
And for Jesus? Well, when teaching children, I tend to explain today as “Christmas backwards” – but of course that is to oversimplify. While it is true that Ascension marks the end of Jesus’s physical presence in the world, it isn’t simply the moment when he returns home, takes off his humanity with a sigh of relief and everything goes back to “normal”…Things have changed for all time. The One who returns to glory returns wounded – for us and by us.
And the point is – the wounds are part of the glory! “The Messiah will suffer.” That’s essential…though not to assuage some cosmic system of justice. Some years ago, a speaker at a diocesan conference completely changed the way I was feeling about my beloved but rather struggling parish when she pointed out “The glory of God is as fully revealed on Good Friday as it is on Easter Sunday”. That enabled me to celebrate the church as it was there and then, rather than feeling frustrated that it wasn’t yet the gloriously confident, vibrant community of my dreams and longings. Surprisingly, (or maybe not really so very surprisingly at all) as soon as that happened, the church began to change….to see itself as revealing the glory of God in all the muddle and brokenness…and that fresh understanding began a process of healing and transformation. But that’s another story.
Last Sunday morning , Archbishop Justin gave us a similar message as he spoke about the tapestry – about the crucifixion, which is invisible from the nave, obscured by the high altar, but which literally provides the foundation for the image of Christ in glory which dominates our whole space. He pointed out, referring both to the tapestry, woven in a single seamless whole, and to the two moments of revelation  “It’s ALL ONE.”  Crucifixion and ascension are both alike manifestations of Christ’s glory
“And I, when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself”
Christ , risen, ascended, glorified, carries with Him both the marks and the lived experience of agony. They are for all time, - which means that our experiences of pain and suffering are part of what he carries with him for all time too.
This, of course, is also the message that our cathedral, ruined and rebuilt, carries to the world. We resisted the temptation to clear away the ruins, and recreate the lost cathedral – something done with startling effect in Dresden. Equally, we chose not to tidy up and build something new and different where the wreckage of the past had stood. Instead, we left the scars of history visible as a permanent part of our present reality. We do not cling to them with bitterness, but acknowledge that the pain was real, that places and people ARE changed and shaped by such experiences, that although we all carry our own wounds – of  loss, disappointment, failure – yet we dare to move forward in hope of a new kind of future.
Often people describe the relationship of old and new cathedrals in terms of death and resurrection…That makes sense too, but the presence of the scars on hands and feet of Christ in glory reflects the wounds of the ruins on which he gazes out day by day. And it’s ALL ONE. Cross, pain and glory inextricably woven together in the fabric of our salvation.
In Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard, about the great medieval theologian famous for his love affair with Heloise, she describes Peter  walking in the woods with his friend Thibault. They come across a rabbit trapped in a snare, and its suffering triggers a deep conversation about pain and the cross:

I think God is in it too.'.
'In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?' Thibault nodded.
'Then why doesn't he stop it?'
'I don't know,' said Thibault. 'Unless it's like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,' he stroked the limp body, 'is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.'

Abelard looked at him, perplexed. 'Thibault, do you mean Calvary?'

Thibault shook his head. 'That was only a piece of it - the piece that we saw- in time. Like that.' He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. 'That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ's life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because was like that, kind and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped.'

'Then, Thibault,' he said slowly, 'you think that all of this,' he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, 'all the pain of the world, was Christ's cross?'

'God's cross,' said Thibault, 'And it goes on.'

Christ in glory continues to hurt for the pain of the world. That gives a particular kind of hope to those who are suffering here and now. To the family of a young mum with a life limiting illness, who will not live to see her children grown. To my friends who watch by their  mother’s bedside, wondering if she will recover after the removal of a lung. To another who has been told that thereis no more treatment left. To others who have flown across the world to be with their dying son. To those forced from their homes by violence. To those longing for a fresh start and new possibilities.
All of those weeping, aching souls can know that their pain is known, understood, shared by the one who is all love. Christ’s triumph does not undo or override the struggles that are part of the here and now…It redeems but does not banish pain. It’s all one….
So Ascension is about so much more than vanishing toes or easy triumphalism. There is glory and pain intermingled, Rich wounds still visible above in beauty glorified. It is indeed a turning point, but not one that signifies Christ’s departure from the world – but rather that same world’s brokenness bourne by him up to heaven, where the hands which bless us in our weakness bear the marks of suffering too.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

If there's an open door, why walk through a closed window? Thoughts from On Fire 2018

It's extraordinary how really important, life-changing things somehow bed themselves down in your world so thoroughly that you can't remember life without them.
I'm just back from On Fire...and have discovered that this was my 7th year at a conference that I only discovered by a miracle of grace, and attended with fear and trepidation back in 2012 - but which is now one of the places that I feel most fully myself, the community where I have the deepest, widest conversations, and where, without fail, I am touched deeply by God.
By a happy God-incidence, my current boss, the Dean of Coventry, was the person who first mentioned On Fire to me. I love that a relatively casual remark of his, in a long ago ministry review, set something in motion that enables me to be whatever it is that I am in the life of his Cathedral 7 years on...
but then, On Fire is full of happy God-incidences, too many to record really.

So instead I want to share a picture that seemed to be a parable for much of my life. This year I was privileged to be conference Chaplain (one of those vocational times when my "deep gladness" did indeed meet the deep need that some brought to conference, so that I was able to listen and pray and discover that this was very much part of who I am in ministry) and this gave me so much joy that I spent much of the time wearing a silly grin and singing Rend Collective before breakfast. Madness!
It also meant that, as friends shard their stories, I did quite a number of circuits of the beautiful grounds of High Leigh, which is where I encountered this visual parable.

I went over, initially, because the gate itself looked very beautiful.
As I drew close, I realised that I would never need to open the beautiful gate, - which was fortunate, as it was chained shut....but beside it on the left was a "kissing gate", perfect for walkers...
No need to struggle with chains, or climb over the top. There was a perfectly negotiable route there. The decorative but difficult route was not one I had to engage with.

Then I noticed something else. On the other side of the gate, there is actually no fence at all. 
You can walk straight from one part of the garden into the other with no barrier.
The gate is an almost imaginary construct....very handsome, to be sure, but utterly unnecessary.

And I thought about how that might be an image of the way I have related to God...first through a rather beautiful challenging approach (the demands of a singer on the Greater London Choral Circuit make it quite hard to lift your eyes from the music to engage with the living God who is the reason we sing at all)....
then through a simpler but still constricted approach, as I worked madly at being a good Christian, a faithful disciple, an effective minister...
But latterly I have realised that there is no barrier at all....that we "make God's love too narrow by false limits of our own"...
That I can simply respond to God's invitation "Come to me..." and that there is nothing whatever to prevent me.

Being at On Fire reminds me that I need to walk in that meadow, to take off my shoes (this is holy ground) and my socks, and feel the grass between my toes and dance barefoot with God under the spring skies.
And because God is all kindness, in those precious four days in Hertfordshire, I get to experience what that is like. 
How, then, can I keep from singing?


Easter 5 Year B

I’m just back from one of the richest, most inspiring weeks of my year – the “On Fire” conference, a time when charismatic catholic Anglicans gather for a programme of talks, workshops, and some truly wonderful prayer and worship. Year after year, I’m blown away by belonging to a community whose expectation is that God will turn up, will be tangibly active in their lives and their worship, and will respond readily and unmistakeably when they pray. Believe you me, it’s extremely exciting.

So, this morning’s gospel feels, right now, very much like lived experience.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you...”
Whatever you ask
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can expect the slot machine experience – prayer in equals result out. You don’t need me to tell you that simply adding “in Jesus’s name, Amen” to a string of requests does not automatically guarantee success, even when the things we ask seem to be wholly good…the sort of thing that surely no loving God could ever deny us.

That’s always a challenge to faith…for even as I speak I’m sure that many of you are remembering with sadness the times when you prayed urgently, with all that was in you, for something that just didn’t happen…
The cancer didn’t go into remission…
A troubled marriage did not suddenly come right after all…
Warring nations did not experience a sudden unexpected outbreak of peace
Whatever you ask in my name…”??
We do struggle with this, don’t we?
Sometimes hindsight makes sense of a prayer that’s been left apparently unanswered…for sometimes the answer is “Wait”. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that the “No” that was so unwelcome actually led to the best outcome in the end.
Sometimes I think that we’re left in a situation where all we can do is to be honest with God about our disappointment, our rage…
You are supposed to be almighty yet these awful things happen, despite all our prayers and entreaties. What are you doing? Don’t you know that this hurts!”
Thankfully prayer is nothing to do with being polite to God, and everything to do with coming as we are, with our wounds, our angers, our deepest most painful needs.
We set out with our best intentions…we try to believe that God will answer our prayer…and then it seems as if nothing has changed.
Yet we have this promise…ask for whatever you wish
Does that mean nothing?

I think that actually to pray in Jesus’s name is to embark on something rather different.
Just think for a minute. Names are powerful things.
We talk about preserving someone’s good name when we are intent on ensuring that people realise they are people of worth and integrity.
When we march and protest “Not in my name”, what we are doing is saying that whatever is happening is not an expression of our world-view, our way of being.
So…when we are praying “in Jesus name” we are doing more than using it as a sort of formulaic ending, a quality stamp for our own wishes.
Rather, we are asking Jesus to validate our prayer – and if we are to do that with any integrity, that means we must ensure that our prayers are those we know he can be part of. In other words, when we pray in Jesus’ name, we must set out to align our own wills with his, so that the prayers that we pray have the hallmark of his presence running right through them, like the lettering on a stick of rock.
He shows us how it’s done in the Lord’s Prayer, a model that covers all that we could need for the world’s good:
Thy kingdom come…Thy will be done”
Thy will…In Jesus’ name…
That’s the secret. It’s not about what we want, about what we think would be the best way to arrange things. We aren’t setting out to change God’s mind, but rather, by spending time with him, to change our own minds, our own outlooks...to abide with and in Jesus, his words abiding deep within us so that we might discern God’s will, and place that at the heart of our own prayers.
And that process of abiding, of soaking up God’s presence, God’s light, God’s love is, of course, transformational.
When we pray, we become more Christ-like…we enter into a benevolent circle so that as we pray in Jesus name we become more able to see what Jesus would do…and to work with him to achieve this.

We pray, God works and to him be the glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Easter 4 B 22nd April 2018, Coventry Cathedral

I wonder if youve ever noticed that some of the loudest words arent there at all?
I sometimes think that the greatest gift that we at Coventry Cathedral have given to the world is to be found in the word that isn’t there.
You know the one – the word that it isn’t there SEVEN TIMES
Whenever we pray the Litany together.

That’s quite a lot of absence – and the missing word, of course, is “Them”.

While Jesus, from the cross, looked at specific people who had done, in ignorance a particular and cataclysmic thing...and prayed in love and compassion “Father forgive them” - he is in fact the only one ever who could dissociate himself from the pain and brokenness of human life, from those destructive behaviour patterns that are part of the fabric of humanity.
He alone needed no forgiveness – so could ask for it with complete altruism, on behalf of everyone else.

For the rest of us, there’s no such option. We can’t pray “Father forgive them” with any kind of integrity because the truth is that we’re all in the mess together, and we are the ones who made it.
And so, gloriously, the litany points this out and invites us to ally ourselves with our brothers and sisters across the world and across history as we say “Father forgive” – and recognise that there IS no them and us...that we are all alike fallible, hurting one another, hurting the planet, and hurting God.

That’s part of the Cathedral’s DNA – and on our best days I imagine that we can all both recognise and feel the truth of it in our beings and our bones...know ourselves as flawed and broken as the person next to us...and know, too, that this means we are all alike taken up in Jesus’s great forgiveness project, all included in his saving act…
We hold to that missing word, and whisper fervently “Father forgive”

That’s on our best days.
There are other times, of course, when we are distressingly keen to rebuild the barriers that Jesus came to break down.
We LIKE defining the world in terms of “them” and “us”...and are keen to recruit Jesus to our team
Last week, John’s sermon included John Donne’s reflection “no man is an island” - but we often seem rather keen on insularity...both as individuals and as society.
We saw an example of this in our national life, in the way our government had planned to deal with the Windrush generation…and in the continued manoeuvres around Brexit…
It was part of the motivation behind the “Rivers of blood” speech whose anniversary has been marked this week…
And of course, it’s integral to the thinking behind the ongoing “hate that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class” right across the world.
Them and us.

And, to my shame, it’s part of me too...though I really do try to resist it. I know there’s a reserve, a suspicion, in the way that I react in some situations, some people with whom I try too hard, because deep down they make me nervous. They are different, in faith, politics, world view…
If it’s all the same to you, Jesus, I’d rather belong to a flock of people just like me.
It would make my life so much easier if only everyone else would fall into line and do things my way, enjoy Byrd and Bach and the laughter of children during worship…
Strangers are welcome as long as they can be assimilated...turn into people just like me and my tribe…
Does that sort of thinking sound even vaguely familiar ?
I suspect there might  a similar process at work in some of you too...that you’ll have your own internal yard-stick against which you evaluate a newcomer in your street, a stranger who sits next to you on the bus, or comes in to the Cathedral to pray.

Part of accepting our flawed humanity is understanding that we are still not very good at learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity, though voicing the aspiration is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Jesus is very clear about it.

There shall be One flock, one shepherd...who knows each of his sheep... the secrets of their hearts, their struggles, their hopes, their wounds and their dreams…
Knows them as fully as Father and Son know each other.
Knows them– and YET - Loves them.
Knows me – knows you – and yet...keeps on loving.

And lays down his life – to show that ALL are equally loveable...

You see, love is a universal language, that all can understand...
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd”
They will listen because that language of love  transcends faith and culture....Does not depend on good behaviour....cannot be bought or earned…
No matter how big a mess we have made of our pasts
No matter how raw and painful our present the message of love speaks into our situation.
It is, always, a free gift.
God's grace poured out in wild extravagance and made clear to us at that moment when Jesus, on the cross, draws all people to himself.

ALL people.
Not just the good, the trying to be holy,
Not just the people with whom we would enjoy sharing a sheepfold, or a desert island.
ALL people

One flock, one shepherd.

And yes – we do need to learn to hear his voice…
And we may not always enjoy what he has to say, for that voice will be calling us to have larger hearts, to pray blessings on those whom we cannot understand, those whom we fear, those whom we are sure that we cannot be called to like, to follow ways of greater love.
No them and us, remember.
One flock, one shepherd.

But, though we do need to listen to his voice, that’s all that is asked of us.
The salvation that we find in no-one else is not conditional.
We're talking grace and not works here.
We can't earn God's love.
We can't forfeit it.

Think of the person you find it hardest to love...whether someone you know personally or someone you think you know through their words and actions reported in the media day by day.
Think of them and remember, they too are part of the one flock…
In a few days time I will have the privilege of conducting the funeral of a wonderful man, one of a whole set of honorary parents whose wisdom, love and care helped me navigate
tricky years of young adulthood after the death of my own parents.
I loved him then and love him still and it will be a joy to pray
“Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
But I know that I need to be able to pray those words and know their truth no matter who I speak of…
No them and us
but one flock, one shepherd…
Jesus in whom, alone, we find our salvation.
Jesus, whose love and grace amaze us with their wild generosity day by day by day…

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

For Mothering Sunday at Coventry Cathedral

Love can break your heart
That might seem to be the message of today's gospel – and indeed, the message of a week in which I have spent some time with the parents of Corey and Casper, those little boys who were so tragically killed just over a fortnight ago as they headed off for an afternoon in the park. On Wednesday I was privileged to listen for almost an hour as they shared story after story about their precious little boys – about their passion for football, and ice-cream, their go-get-it approach to life, their beautiful manners out and about, and their very ordinary small boy mischief at home. All this plus smiles that lit up the room and won them friends both near and far.
There was so much laughter and delight in their rememberings that day that it was possible for a moment to forget that as they shared their stories of love we stood together very much in the shadow of the cross.
And we stand there in good company – with the mothers from Parkland and Sandy Hook, from Ghoota and a score of other places where children have died before their time, leaving mothers bereft

I can’t bear to imagine how hard today will be for Louise, though she has two more little boys to hug and to hold. I once had a miscarriage on Mothering Sunday – which made me sad or ambivalent for several years – but while I may have a faint inkling of how she might feel, I think it takes Mary to understand the pain.

And there can be so much pain, where love is deep and true. While it may not always be so obvious, we all find ourselves at the foot of the cross from time to time.
So I’m glad that while the shops are full of saccharine invitations to spoil your dear old mum, there's not a whiff of hallmark sentimentality about today’s gospel.
That’s good – because I’m sure I’m not the only mother to feel deeply uncomfortable, even guilty, as the paeon of praise for an utterly unrealistic vision of domestic bliss is presented amid the media hype of the season.
I don’t recognise myself in smiling guardians of a perfect home.
My children are my greatest joy and delight – but because I love them so much, they are also my greatest vulnerability.
And it was so, too, for Our Lady.
A sword shall pierce your soul” predicted Simeon – and as Passiontide approaches we begin to remember once again how hard it was to be the Mother of God...to watch your precious son court disaster by his lifestyle, his choice of friends, his choice of words...even before you find yourself standing at the foot of the cross as he dies in agony.

That kind of desperate anxiety about another is part of the business of loving however and whoever we are , I think – part of investing so much of ourselves IN the other that when they hurt, we hurt too. 
A situation that's so very familiar to mothers – but equally to fathers, brothers, sisters, friends...and to the vulnerable God who loves the world so much that he gave his only Son...

You see, mothering,and all that it entails, has never been exclusive to those women who have given birth.
At its best, motherhood can be a wonderful reflection of God's nurturing love
At its worst it can be neglectful, manipulative and a whole host of other things besides – and I know that many people struggle with today, and some regular worshippers will stay away from church because their own experience as either parent or child has left them bruised and anxious.
Then there are those who have longed to be parents – but it just hasn't happened...another group who feel that today is not for them...
Those whose children have flown the nest and are just too far away.
And of course, there are those who will spend today missing their mothers – or, like Louise, their children.
Holding onto the love but knowing the pain as well.
Love can break your heart and Mothers' day as it is celebrated by secular society can be extraordinarily hard for many many people who fall outside the vision of 2.4 children and a labrador.

So – why keep on celebrating it at all – when there is so much potential for causing distress for which not all the daffodils in the world will ever begin to compensate?
Why? 
Because, of course, Mothering Sunday – unlike the secular celebrations of “Mothers' Day” has never been all about mothers...
On Mothering Sunday we celebrate all those who have mothered us – women and men and children too...
Yes, of course we give thanks for those who laboured that we might have life, who physically brought us into this world – whatever their impact on us afterwards.
And we give thanks for those who have nurtured us along the way.
We remember, that we are called into community – the family of the church that was created as Jesus gave his mother into the care of his friend, at that moment of terrible pain which looked like the end of all hope,everywhere.
Woman - here is your son. Son, here is your mother.
And we remember that we have inherited that calling to care for one another, to provide loving arms to hold and to hug at the hard times...to show one another the kind of care that might be at least a partial reflection of the amazing love that God offers us all – even when we break HIS heart with our failure to love in return.

So Mothering Sunday is an invitation to us all – to take on that role of loving nurture and support...to be there for one another in sorrow and in joy...to live as a family at its best can live.

And we come to our mother church – the place that has nurtured us in our faith, that feeds us week by week with God's Word and his very life, offered to us in Bread and Wine. This Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry, of course, has a particular role for the whole diocese.
So here we rejoice to say “Welcome home” when brothers and sisters from the parishes join us for worship, or simply to visit.
We try to serve spiritual, intellectual, cultural food so that together we can flourish and grow.
We know that not all members of the family will have the same tastes but we try very hard to make sure that there’s something for everyone – and we offer our best hospitality with a smile, come what may – because generous hospitality is always part of the deal.
But we'll not be perfect at this either. Broken people in a broken Church - trusting in God's grace to provide the golden seam that is used in Japanese pottery to repair damaged work, til it is more beautiful than ever before.

And maybe we remember that though Love can break your heart- beyond the pain and heartbreak that Mary experienced at the foot of the cross, the dawn of Resurrection is already shining – and so we try to live as signs of that new hope, and the world in which God's mothering love is known and shared by all....


Mothering Sunday - not just for mothers

When I was a child, Mothering Sunday was not much of a "thing". If we went to the 10.30, rather than my father's preferred 8.00, there would be tiny bunches of violets blessed, to take home to our mothers - and perhaps we would stop at Mr Day's, the tobacconist, to buy her a bar of the Suchard's chocolate she enjoyed, as a special treat. Beyond that, - no fuss, no hype...if you didn't go to church, you probably wouldn't have registered Mothering Sunday at all.

Mummy died when I was 18...and my next brush with the day came 8 years later, when I had my first miscarriage on the eve of Mothering Sunday. I was only a few weeks pregnant that time, so though I was deeply sad at the loss, there was no question of my not keeping a commitment to return to SJDK, the church that had been so important to me before my marriage, to sing Evensong. Wesley, "Ascribe unto the Lord" - with its reminder "You are the blessed of the Lord, you and your children"
In my emotionally charged state, those words felt like a promise - one I clung to through the series of miscarriages that followed, the times when it felt as if while one child might be possible, children were a dream too far.

Turns out I was blessed...3 children, loved and loving, who've now flown the nest but return bringing joy with them, which has spilled over into a new generation. And yes, as I delight in all that Eleanor Grace has brought to our lives, on the special magnetism of a baby who draws us all together in more love than I'd have believed possible, I do feel sad that I was never able to share my own children with my parents - but that sadness is no more acute today than on any other. It ebbs and flows, just as the wistful wondering about those lost babies of mine also ebbs and flows through the seasons. 

And I think that, actually, I'm OK. 
This is not a sad story. 
And this is because I've always been given love, care, support from so many many different directions...from friends, from children (my own and other peoples), from my church family, - and (waiting quietly in the background til I was ready to recognise her) from God too.

Here's my personal list:
Mummy and Daddy, Eirene, Jilly, Uncle Truffle, Lucy B, JW, Fr Nigel and Fr Neil,  Beth and Alastair, Libby and Anne, Stan, Peggy, Carolyn, Camilla, Ann, John & Marcia, Marilyn, Don and Ellen...
I thank my God on every remembrance of you, and of many many others who've showed me how to pass on the gift of mothering.

I wouldn't buy a "Happy You Day" card, as Waitrose has suggested - because somehow that buys into the world of L'Oreal "Because you're worth it"....but a card that said  
"Today and every day, thank you for your love and care" - now that could be a real best seller in my world.
And I might thrown in some chocolate too.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Lent 2 Take up your cross

When I sat down to read through today’s gospel my first thought was
Oh cripes! I would NEVER have chosen this on a Sunday when I’m hoping to persuade everyone of the joy of engaging in community. Actually, I’d probably never have chosen it at all...”

And yet, here it is – and, thanks to the lectionary, that makes us engage with the whole of scripture, and not just our favourite bits, here I am preaching on it anyway. Perhaps it’s one of those passages with which I must, like Jacob, wrestle for a blessing...so that I can share that blessing with you this morning. Let’s just take a deep breath and see how we get on.
It’s not going to be easy.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospelwill save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 
Take up their cross?
Lose their life?
That's supposed to be GOOD news? here we have it, straight from the Master himself
Far from precluding suffering, faith seems to guarantee it, but I'm not really sure that I signed up to that. Following Jesus is all very well – but does that have to mean walking the way of the cross? Couldn’t we skip the hard parts and major on the hope of resurrection?

As so often in the gospel, Peter is my ally, saying all the things that would have been uppermost in my thoughts too. Here’s Jesus preaching like doom and despair...quite openly! And Peter, desperately anxious about bad PR, taking his Master aside to suggest that he might offer something more palatable. After all, who wants to follow someone whose future includes suffering, rejection and death?
I’d have been anxious to hush that up too…In fact, that’s pretty much the root of my reluctance to actually get on and preach on this gospel, isn’t it! I want good news to be straightforward, unmistakeable, because after all – that’s the way life is.

Except, of course, that it isn’t.
Not one little bit.
Life is complex...sometimes joyful, sometimes sad and hard beyond all expectation. We don’t have to raise our eyes very far this morning to find evidence of that -with the deaths of Casper and Corey just down the road from us here. or those 17 who died in Parkland, Florida, or the hundreds killed in and around Damascus…
And for each of those deaths, others whose lives have been changed in a moment. Who bear the weight of grief and bewilderment, anger and despair. Who are carrying a cross, right enough – and finding its weight overwhelming.

We need, then, a gospel that enables us to cope with that, since it seems that we
won’t be able to fast forward to the Resurrection, without anyone having to go through the tough stuff?

It’s true that Jesus can and will carry all of that for us…
your sadness, my disappointment, our anger and doubt, denial and despair..
That's what makes the weight of the cross that he carries.
But we are invited, encouraged to carry it too...to learn to be Christlike by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory.

Crosses are forged from many things, each unique to the bearer. The experiences of brokenness in our own lives, the awareness of the times we've failed God and failed each other, our lack of love, our lack of trust.
And things that just seem to be part of life – a difficult marriage, a sick partner an unplanned loneliness...things we might prefer to jettison, but find ourselves having to carry day by day by day.
Bespoke crosses, yours quite unlike mine, maybe lighter, maybe not...but part of the point of being a community is that we can, and we must, strive to bear one another’s burdens.

[That’s such an important aspect of being human and being Church, you know.
Weeping with those that weep is not an optional extra, - and nor is rejoicing with those who rejoice. As we continue to learn, through Lent and beyond, what it means to be God’s people once again, we will be one another’s best teachers. Though many will assert that you can be a Christian in isolation, the journey is both easier and immeasurably richer when we follow Christ TOGETHER…

That, of course, is why we care about small groups, and are focussing on them today. We need places where a deeper relationship can be forged than is possible simply over Sunday coffee or a quick exchange at the door. Whether those groups exist explicitly to encourage discipleship, or whether they are all about exploring a shared interest – in music, walking, the history of the blitz – they are the places where we can begin to trust each other a little more day by day, with joys and sorrows, worries and delights. While I may not feel brave enough to bare my soul on a large stage, I’m very thankful for a safe space to be honest about my particular crosses, a place where I can feel confident that someone will set to and carry me in prayer, even as I try to carry them in return.
It is not good for man to be alone”, observed God at the very beginning – and Church should be the place where we can most surely trust one another with the hard stuff, can recognise when someone is floundering under their burdens, and reach out to help them with their load.]

Sometimes, of course, we carry things quite needlessly.
We insist on holding onto something that SEEMS precious, something for which we've struggled and fought, something apparently more alluring than Christ's call to deny ourselves, take up those wretched crosses once again and follow him.…
We prefer to load ourselves with other things...as individuals and as communities too
We can become confused about what really matters, clinging on to something for the sake of tradition, or pursuing something that seems good but which is really of secondary importance. Perhaps this Lent might be a time to reflect on how we might let go of things like that – and a good few other things too. They are NOT part of our crosses, those prizes that seem so shiny and alluring now – health, wealth, success, even family stability. In fact they turn out to be so much dead-weight, things we can't take with us into the Kingdom.
What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Jesus knows, I promise, how hard it can be to put those deceptive weights down…
Jesus knows, too,the weight of each cross that we have to bear.
And he knows, and wants us to discover, how the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter.
It's into this that we are baptised...sharing Christ's death so that we might also share his resurrection.

So, there's our good news.  We, God's people, travelling togethet in faith, hope and love, will find the way of the cross most truly the way of life and peace.
Thanks be to God!