Sunday, January 17, 2021

Epiphany 2 B 17th January 2021 at Coventry Cathedral John 1 43-51

Epiphany 3 2021 at Coventry Cathedral As we have so often observed, liturgical time is quite extraordinary. Not yet a month since we celebrated Christmas yet we have gone from birth to baptism – or, if you find yourself in John’s Gospel as we do today, from the mighty, majestic prose of the Prologue, confirming Christ’s identity for all eternity, to the very specific encounters that set the scene for his earthly ministry. Epiphany, of course, is the season of recognition – of seeing the truth and of responding to it…and that theme is a constant, but our gospel this morning speaks too of the importance of being seen I’m struck by how often friends online use the phrase “I feel so seen” as a way of conveying that they recognise the truth of a particular statement, and are applying it to themselves. Being seen – being known – is hugely important for us To be unrecognised, passed over, ignored is deeply painful. It can make us doubt our value as a person, undermine our human dignity. If you’re in any doubt, when it is safe to do so, have a talk with one of our homeless friends, the beggars of our city. Ask them what they find hardest about the process of begging and I’m willing to bet that “being ignored” “the way people look away and pretend not to notice me” will feature in the conversation. We look away because it’s too uncomfortable...or we don’t think we should give any money...or we haven’t got time to stop. But to acknowledge our shared humanity – even with th This is what persuades Nathanael to set aside his inherent suspicion of anything coming from Nazareth. He isn’t persuaded by amazing teachie speediest of greetings in passing. I have found that is nearly always received as a gift. We NEED to be seen.ng or world-changing miracles but by the moment when Jesus says “I SAW you” and tells him, there and then, what lies at the core of his being. Jesus sees him, knows him, affirms him. And, to truly thrive, I think we all need to be known. Though the Victorians used the text “Thou God seest me” as something of a threat, worked in cross stitch on the hall of many a home to encourage good behaviour among children and servants and those who might think of stepping out of line, the truth is surely that to be seen by God is grounds for celebration. To be seen with all our abilities and all our flaws is truly one of the greatest of gifts – and it’s a gift that God offers us all the time. It’s this Paul celebrates in the climax of the hymn to love that is 1 Corinthians 13 “then I shall know – EVEN AS I AM FULLY KNOWN” God sees me...Sees you...Sees the truth of who we are, and who we long to be as surely as Jesus recognised Nathanael’s integrity “an Israelite in whom is no deceit” God looks at us with love, with mercy, not with blame “Not what thou art, nor what thou has been, but what thou wouldst be, beholdest God in his mercy” wrote the anonymous mystic who gave us “The Cloud of Unknowing” In other words, God looks at us not through rose-coloured spectacles but with utter clarity, seeing into the depths of our hearts, and recognising our hidden longings, our most cherished hopes and desires – and loving us right to the core. God sees us. God loves us. Perhaps that’s all we need today...We are known and loved by God. If you are struggling, and find that hard to hear, then stay here and rest in that knowledge. At this very moment YOU are known and loved by God. But Jesus is not the only one SEEING in this passage. Philip’s invitation to Nathanael is surely the prototype for all evangelism Come and see What an invitation It reminds me of the way a child might grab you by the hand and drag you off to see something they think is truly exciting..that joyous urgency which should be the hallmark of all our invitations into faith. I wonder who first offered it to you, and began that journey which has brought us all to this morning. I wonder to whom you’ve handed it on – reaching out your hand to draw them in to the wonderful, perplexing adventure that is the Christian life. Come and See – well, what exactly? What do we hope that those who join us here to worship will see, experience through our words and our music, our building and our story, our art and our community? Surely we must hope that they might somehow glimpse the one whom Nathanael, at his own moment of epiphany, recognised as the Son of God. And if they look at us, as his ambassadors, - what might they see then? A group of people trying with all their might and main to model God’s self-giving love A congregation committed to really seeing everyone with the same compassionate gaze which we rejoice in for ourselves...And secondly, that ‘come and see’ are among the most important 3 words in the gospels. A A community modelling through everything that we do and are, just what it means to accept the invitation to life in all its fulness...so that the invitation that we offer is also a demonstration of the all-inclusive, all-consuming, all-powerful love of Christ. If we believe in that, and live into it, then we will surely draw others to come and see for themselves what it means to be known and loved in their turn… An Epiphany, as we know, changes everything.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Sermon for the Epiphany 2021

How have things been for you this Christmas time? I know many things have felt very different. For me, who first started singing in church when I was 8, it was quite extraordinary to travel through Advent and Christmas with barely a note passing my lips.It turns out that it is singing, even more than the presence of those I love most, that really makes Christmas happen for me. I wonder what it is for you? Is it attending Midnight Mass, and then coming out into the star-filled night and knowing that Christ is born once again? Is it joining your friends to worship God in a beloved building? Or getting out the boxes of decorations that link us each year with Christmases past? Perhaps its the smells – of pineneedles as the tree is brought in, or hot mincepies or the spicey steaminess of wine mulling on the hob? I wonder what we could leave out, and still have all the Christmas we need? Perhaps Christmas 2020, so radically different from all the years that had preceded it, might have been the year we found out. Music aside, I was startled by just how important it became to me to get presents to all the beloved people I would not be seeing as usual. The day after covid burst our Christmas bubbles I suddenly found it imperative to research ways to get parcels swiftly to London. Of course I knew full well that Christmas is not, and has never been, all about the presents – but somehow all my love and longing and sadness at separation needed somewhere to go and became focussed on the necessity for absent family to open something from me on Christmas day. When my email pinged to let me know that parcels had arrived safely I felt a joy which, I suspect, far outstripped that of the recipients who were, after all, largely getting the books they had asked for. So I’ve been thinking about gifts and giving as we come to this feast that celebrates the Magi and their intrepid journey to deliver the presents that came laden with added significance, but which must have seemed SUCH a disappointment to that beleagured little family in backstreet Bethlehem.. You will know the old joke, that wise women would have arrived prepared to clean up the house, and brought practical gifts including a casserole...but that’s not the point, is it. Those presents are there as pointers for us – to tell us something not about the givers but about the recipient. They are a set of clues pointing to the identity of the child. One of our unsung carols makes this clear as we see the child reflected in the gifts: as royalty, worthy to be crowned with gold; as one to whom prayers could be directed – Let my prayers rise before you as incense; as one whose mortality, as a body to be embalmed one day, was as much part of his nature as is his divinity. Matthew’s account of the coming of the magi is full of prompts for us, who travel so far behind them...but for those first travellers what was the point of their adventure? Were we there for a birth or a death, ask T S Eliot. Certainly the encounter would be life-changing...as it still is for us. When we come face to face with the reality of God as a human baby, our ideas about what matters most must be turned upside down. Those things which had seemed all important are revealed as trivial. The things we thought we knew are swept away as we enter a new reality. And yet, for us as for the Magi, that moment of encounter, of epiphany – of knowing that we are seeing the truth of God’s love present in a tiny child – will often come without fanfare or fireworks or wild excitement. Eliot tells us that “finding the place was, you may say, satisfactory”...It might seem a strange word but this encounter is truly enough, leaving them, leaving us, wanting and needing nothing more. God is here and we are here. The whole world contained in that moment of revelation. All our senses can desire, indeed. And that sense of having enough – or being content to be ourselves before God, exactly where we are may perhaps be a gift we can consciously take from the struggles of 2020. To know God is with us whatever life has thrown at us is to know that we have everything we really need. Certainly, though we cannot safely gather together to worship Christ in our Cathedral today there is no virus on earth that can prevent us from kneeling in love and awe exactly where we are, and exactly as we are, right here and right now. And – we can offer our gifts. But – what would he like? What should we bring? Another unsung carol, Peter Cornelius’s setting of “The Kings”, suggests an answer. “Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring. Offer thy heart to the Infant King” Offer thy heart. What does that mean in practice for you and for me? Sometimes faith seem more of head than heart – which is nonsense, of course, because in some ways faith makes no rational sense at all. Nevertheless, its practice really can feel like a barren, intellectual exercise at times– and during the perplexities of the past year I have encountered many for whom that has been true, who have struggled to reconcile what they believed they knew about a loving God with their experience of grief and suffering. I have tried to reassure them that feelings are a very poor guide to reality, since they can be as changeable as the weather...so that the warmth of certainty can be as apt to vanish as the sun on a cloudy day. But, in the same way that we know that the sun still shines, even if we do not experience its warmth, we can know that those truths in which we believe continue their reality whether they FEEL true or not. But if faith is to make its way from head to heart, if we are serious about offering our heart to Jesus, what does that mean? One thing, I suppose, is that our hearts are places of honesty. If we speak from the heart, then we do so without any pretence or concealment. If our hearts are wounded, even broken, that’s part of what we bring with us to the Christ child. Always, surely, we bring our love – but to express that we may need to turn from the manger to meet Christ in yet more unexpected places. The Magi imagined that their destination would be a royal palace – that they would celebrate Christmas, if you will, amid all the panoply of majesty and power – but found themselves in an obscure back street with a deceptively ordinary family. They discovered what they could miss out and yet have all the Epiphany they needed. As we find ourselves at home once again, may we learn to recognise and to love Christ there...to offer him our hearts through acts of kindness to tiresome neighbours, frustrating delivery teams, exhausted checkout staff. If we can learn to love him in the ordinary and the broken corners of our lives and of our world then each of us will have all that we need to sustain our relationship no matter what the year ahead may bring. And that will be, you may say, satisfactory.

Friday, January 01, 2021

That was the year, that was

This time a year ago, the house was full to bursting with creativity as my gorgeous daughter hosted the annual party for her group of friends who met first in their teens at Kilve Court...Their bond is so strong that it has survived assorted marriages, a separation or two, some time living on different continents...these are very much the founder members of my Weasley clan, the extra kids who have become such an important part of my life in the past decade - and it was delightful to spend New Year's Eve together. We talked, among much else, of my exciting plans for 2020. A sabbatical. A big birthday (which was to feature an enormous party for everyone I loved but had never dared to mix together). A once in a lifetime safari, and we decided that even though it wouldn't really be our turn to host again so soon, it might be worth spending New Year in Coventry in 2020 as we plunged into the excitement of our year as City of Culture. Oh goodness. We couldn't have known but our plans, our ideas were so wildly out. As someone who really HATES making plans, it had been a challenge to orchestrate the sabbatical, but by January this year the main blocks of time were in place, the writing goals established and I started counting down the days. I was tired. VERY tired. 16 years in ministry and some major life changes will do that to you. It was definitely time for the break of some kind. But first - there were three months to emjoy...Theatre - "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" - a wonderful night of springtime hope after the endless days of "always winter, never Christmas" Music - a perfect evening of flawless singing from The Sixteen, performing Acis and Galatea at St Mary's Warwick The Blake Exhibition - bringing so much joy as February brought the first signs of spring... By now there were anxious rumblings about the new virus that was spreading across China...but China is a long way from Coventry. I defiantly ordered a takeaway for Chinese New Year, realising that some of my neighbours were choosing to stay away from our local restaurant in case the new virus might be transmitted via a prawn chow mein... So, our next exhibition was rather less relaxed - but I'm oh so glad I got to it. When I was a child, most of my friends went to see the big Tutankhamun exhibition which took England by storm - but it arrived in the same year that my mother had major heart surgery, so that kind of outing waa just not possible...We had tickets for 6th March and took more care than usual not to spend too much time in close proximity to others. By now the news from Italy was frankly terrifying and it felt as if we were standing at the top of a very high mountain, knowing that there was only one way down, and it was step and very very dangerous... I cried as I said goodbye to my son and his partner at the end of that day. "We'll be up for Easter" they said, cheerfully - but by then it really didn't seem likely. The unthinkable happened: Public worship was suspended. On that last Sunday as I communidated the elderly cathedral congregation it was so hard not to listen to the voice that said "You'll not see them again this side of glory"... An extraordinary week, with the cathedral open for private prayer and used as almost never before...so many visitors dropping in to be quiet, to cry, to light candles and to join with fervour in the hourly prayers I led, which felt, somehow, as if they might just be the most significant thing I had done in ministry. A last drive along the A14, carrying part of my recent delivery of "Who Gives a Crap" loo-rolls and a 5k bag of pasta from my Brexit cupboard, a walk across an almost deserted Cambridge and a final picnic in the Botanic Gardens, trying to stockpile hugs and smiles to last for a good 12 weeks (in my innocence, I guessed that would surely be long enough...) Then came the day when I left the office to take a funeral, feeling pretty certain that I wouldn't be back. I took some of the essential books from my desk, grabbed a cassock alb as it didn't seem wise to wear a cassock when we were told to wash everything we'd worn in public on a hot wash the moment we got home...and that was it. That night the Prime Minister made his announcement "You MUST stay at home". Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives" and I, who had always believed myself an off-the-scale extrovert, found myself suddenly home alone. And, do you know what, that part was absolutely fine! Of COURSE I missed friends and family...The inability to hug those I love most was a regular physical ache and I would wake up with my cheeks wet with tears as another round of good-byes had filled my dreams...but that spring was so beautiful, and the stillness such a gift. The daily walk, shaped by what Libby the elderly retriever could manage, was nonetheless a positive joy. War Memorial Park took on the feeling of real countryside as the hawthornes bloomed and the birds sang and sang and sang. And, after the utter dread that had gripped me when I assumed that I would not be allowed to celebrate the Eucharist as a single person alone...the special permission given by the bishops was such a glorious gift and my house was transformed by "Dining Room Church", where I found myself connecting with people I'd never met, who became the most faithful of daily congregations...and Christ was present in them, and in Scripture and in bread and wine as surely in the aweinspiring grandeur of the Cathedral. Holy Week and Easter cemented this and the days passed gently, as I learned new ways of being a priest to a dispersed community, while at the same time trying not to pick up all the collective fear that was flooding into every corner of life online, to compound our own anxiety. It was, mostly, pretty much OK. I didn't transform the garden or learn Russian. I didn't even read The Brothers Karamazov as I'd hoped. I did read more poetry than I had for years, sustained by words chosen sparingly but with such care. I found myself praying the rosary with a dogged determination, reflecting that Our Lady had to live through those mysteries from a purely human perspective, that her "pondering" may well have included a measure of anxious bafflement along the way. And I cuddled my dogs and zoomed with colleagues, friends and family and no, it wasn't the same, it wasn't as good as actually being together - but you know, it was SOMETHING! My 60th birthday, like my sabbatical, was subject to some drastic rearrangement - but so many people were concerned that it might be a hard day to spend alone that I felt overwhelmed with love through the whole day, and beyond, as I mourned the death of two cats just 12 weeks apart. With horizons shrunk to the domestic, it seemed unthinkable that I might survive more than a week or two in a catless house - and so the two Babes from the Wood, Sorrel and Bramble, feral kittens rescued with their mother from Walsall Woods were passed on to me, just a couple of days after their rescue. The early weeks with them were hard. I had tripped at work and torn a ligament, making movement really painful and almost impossible - so I couldnt sit on the floor and engage with them at a safe height. For weeks I barely saw them except at meal times, though they were soon ready to eat from my hand...but gradually, gradually they became braver. They became my project, and I was able to give them the time and patience that I would never have managed in a normal year. As lockdown eased there came the possiblity of hugs and snuggles with my Cambridge family, a support bubble that remains the most glorious gift - a tiny glimpse of normality and of actual human contact to sustain through the depressing news that lockdown had not got the virus under control, that there had been too many people ready to return to normal too fast. There were precious days with my London children - exploring the Cathedral of Trees near St Albans, consoling ourselves for the lost safari with a day at Woburn Safari Park, walking and talking along the Thames near Richmond. There was even a mini Greenbelt, when for the first time all year there was laughter and conversation and even singing in the house, and a bottle of wine we had been saving for something special was opened and enjoyed. Again, reserves were built up, sufficient for the autumn and winter when as infection rates soared, restrictions were tightened anda fresh lock-down was announced, just as I fell victim to the virus myself. I barely noticed this second lock-down, to be honest. Though I was by no means seriously ill, November passed in a kind of sleepy half-life, in which days blurred as I snoozed on the sofa with a kitten or two curled up in my lap and the dogs close by. I emerged in time for Advent - but an Advent without singing turned out to be unimaginably hard. The words we proclaimed were still true - but it was so much more difficult to feel their reality without the music Ithat gave them life and beauty. And Christmas was even harder A lifetime of singing, decades of candle-lit carols at home as much as church, and now - silence. Of course it was wonderful to awake on Christmas morning when Miss E arrived in my bed for a snuggle even before she went downstairs to retrieve her stocking. It was joyous to have the house filled with excited giggles and triumphant squeals, to enjoy M's teetering first steps and the snuggly delight of sharing The Mousehole Cat and Christmas at Exeter Street with Miss E. It was all very lovely and happy - but really not quite Christmas with only 2 services, no Midnight Mass, and no moment of starlit wonder on the way home. Now, with some relief, we change our calendars and embrace a new year. It's arbitrary, of course. Neither the virus nor the weather is aware that we've passed a man-made boundary, and are looking for a new narrative with hope that is close to desperation. But 2020 was not all loss, though I am horribly aware of those families for whom things fell out very differently. 2020 reminded me more than I would ever have chosen that we are not in control, not the brave, self-reliant species we might wish to be. I was confronted in a new way with my own vulnerability and the vulernability of humanity. But it taught me, too, that I have so much that I need here in myself and in my life at home, that home is a place of contentment, even when it doesnt contain the people I love most, whom I would have always beside me. It prompted me to considerthe fact of mortality without fear, as I exulted in the wonders of that long and perfect spring, knowing that spring would continue, its wonders be cherished and celebrated long after I have ceased to be. That realisation was, and remains,oddly consoling. I am very weary, like almost everyone I know, particularly clergy who feel themselves responsible for the well-being of their communities as much in emotional and even physical as spiritual terms. I'm wrung out by the ups and downs of a coronacoaster that has turned us all upside down again and again and I will be heartily glad when the vaccine has changed our status so much that we can go about without fear, can hug and be hugged, decide to do something without wading through the labyrinths of risk-assessment. I have high hopes of 2021 - but no plans. I was always plan-resistant - and thanks to 2020 I think I'll stay that way.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

And Mary said....Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist Advent 4 2020

Mary was perplexed… I’m sure she was. In fact, my guess is that her internal reaction might well have been expressed by a pithy "You WHAT?!" Or even WTF? The angel might have been sent by God – but that didn’t mean his arrival was going to make things easy for Mary. Not one little bit. Beyond the immediate dilemma of how to tell Joseph – and her parents too, this perplexity must have been the hall mark of her life from there on in. The Authorised Version talks about the way she “pondered things in her heart” - and that sounds lovely and reflective and very very holy….but I’m not sure it was always like that. I’m sure that on a good day she could and did treasure all the moments of joy…the time when John the Baptist, in utero, recognised Jesus and leapt for joy and Mary’s praise flowered into the prophetic wonder of the Magnificat ever noticed that the first person to recognise Jesus was a baby! What might that suggest to us about how we value the contribution of babies, toddlers, children in our life and theology?) That amazing night when angels sang and shepherds knelt…the day when strange visitors brought stranger gifts… Those were moments to remember and pour over on dark days… But my goodness – the dark days were many… Did she know about the massacre of the innocents? I’m sure she did – and maybe felt that mixture of relief and guilt that we know when someone dear to us has just escaped disaster by missing the train that crashed or staying at home from work because they had a bit of a migraine… Then there was the time when her first born son refused to see her because somehow the woman who had given birth to him was less important than the crowd who’d gathered to hear him teach. “my mother and brothers are those who hear and obey God’s word”… Particularly tough on Mary, whose obedience to God is celebrated… “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me as you have said...” But apparently that’s not good enough. WHAT?!?! At that point, I think I might have been tempted to storm in and give Jesus a lesson in basic manners. Oh yes, there were many many moments of perplexity – of that I am convinced. Think, if you would, about the statue of Mary in our Lady Chapel. If you’re a visitor and don’t know it, I’m afraid it’s a bit inaccessible right now – but let me tell you, it’s a statue that is placed facing away from those who come into the chapel. Mary’s eyes are only on her son – but this is not the baby in the manger whom she could cradle and keep safe but her adult son, and she is gazing at him as he hangs dying on the cross. If you follow her eyes – and indeed, if you stand beside her in the space, that is what you see. Just the agony and desolation. “Stabat Mater dolorosa” And you see, here’s the thing. Mary experiences the life of her son Jesus from a completely human perspective. She can do nothing else. She is inextricably involved in God’s plan to reconcile the world to himself – but she can’t see the big picture at all. Just as from the viewpoint of the statue, as it were, you are oblivious to the towering figure of Christ in glory that dominates the cathedral from another perspective, so she, highly favoured though she may be, is no more able to glimpse the overarching sweep of God’s story than any of us are as we travel through this year of storm and challenge. But her ignorance, her perplexity doesn’t matter at all. Her part in the story is to be the God bearer...it is through the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary that Christ comes into the world ...and the fact that she cannot see the way ahead in no way alters her significance in God’s work of love. There’s a song popular in some parts of the church “Mary did you know..” which takes Mary on a guided tour of the life of Christ, asking if she grasped the significance of all that was going on around her stage by stage. It is a bit too redolent of mansplaining for my taste...but it does clarify an important point. Despite the message of the angel, Mary DIDN’T know. Not for sure. She pondered things in her heart...but she dealt in faith, not knowledge. We’re in a different place as far as her story goes. WE know, from the perspective of 2 millennia, what emerged, against any human hope or expectation, from the foreshortened life of Mary’s son. WE are the ones sitting in the nave who can see Christ in glory on the tapestry and know that even the pain of crucifixion is swept up in the triumph of God’s love over sin and death forever. But Mary didn’t know. Mary just had to ponder – and weep and agonise...just as, in this year of challenge and loss and change we have watched and wept and felt utterly utterly helpless and sometimes hopeless It is not a coincidence that I’ve found myself praying the rosary more this year than ever before. It has helped me hugely, as I’ve tried to pray into all the pain and mess around us, to feel that another woman who had experienced times far harder, grief far greater, would pray beside me, with me, for me. As I prayed, each bead became part of a lifebelt, and on a good day I knew that the other end was held secure by God. On bad days, my prayers had more in common with a certain cartoon currently circulating online which shows a figure kneeling in prayer at bedtime. Above their head is a bubble “God. WTF” If that’s where you are today – you’re not alone From the perspective of the here and now, it’s almost impossible to see anything but anxiety, sadness and confusion. We just want the pandemic over and to stagger back to some of the things that seemed so normal only a year ago. But there’s something from Mary’s story for us here too. Regardless of how blinded we may be by tears, how wearied we are by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, there IS another perspective. Mary DOES know now. She sees the glory that was there from the beginning...the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth...and understands that her role as God bearer was essential, even when it seemed to be all folly. And, of course, each of us is to be a God bearer too – in a world that needs us to make God’s love real more than ever before. As to the big picture - We wont see that or understand our part in it very often. We may see very little at all. But we can nonetheless continue, whether in faith and hope, or in doubt and perplexity, rmembering that even in 2020, there IS a bigger picture and that the God who came into the mess and muddle of our world 2000 years ago, incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, will not rest til all is reconciled, all made new. If that’s too much to believe right now – let’s return to the message of the angel. With God, nothing is impossible.

So here it is....address for Carols by Candlelight at Coventry Cathedral, 19th December 2020

So many things are different this year. For one thing,it's tough to have a carol service without singing, and I'm guessing that for some of us even a song in the heart may be very hard to find. A just last when I looked out at the packed congregation for this service, it was like lookung at a colony of glow-worms – I couldn’t see any faces, but each person present was represented by the light of the candles they were holding. I reflected then that Christmas can make the ordinary beautiful – and I think thats no less true today. Even this evening, we are not left in the silent dark. But I cant deny that one way and another it has been a bitch of a year. As we closed the Cathedral and went into Lockdown in March, it felt like the end of so much that was beloved and precious. Would people even remember to come back, when we were allowed to? Would we be able to carry on worshipping together though apart? How would we manage to share and make real the message of God’s love? It all looked overwhelmingly dark and difficult – and yet, we found a way. We discovered the unexpected pleasure of online worship, where we connected not just with our regulars but with many who would not have found their way to the Cathedral in normal times. We made new connections with those living closest to us and took care of one another as best we could through difficult times, learning to share love in new ways, by phone, by zoom, from the bottom of the drive or through the window We adjusted to a simpler life and a slower pace and found ourselves able to hear birdsong in our gardens as the noise of traffic ceased. Of course, all these moments of blessing were set against a backdrop of hard news, of the reality of fear and loneliness, grief and death – but they were blessings all the same… And now we find ourselves confronted with a need to do Christmas in very different ways ...with different people, or altogether alone, in different places, without many treasured aspects of our own personal traditions, the things we always do It's not simply that the mistletoe market has crashed as a quick kiss in passing is strictly taboo Christmas IS going, to be different this year, and for most of us, that's not great news. I guess much was different about the first Christmas too. Though God’s people had been waiting for centuries for a Saviour, a Messiah, his coming was not at all as they’d expected. I’m sure Mary pictured herself giving birth at home, with mum and aunties there to support her – but found herself far away, without much of a roof over her head. Not what she would have chosen. The shepherds, rough, uncouth, were the LAST people to hear most things: they were among the marginalised and overlooked. You wouldn't dream of making them your confidantes – yet the angel brought the world-changing news to them. It was only common sense that those wise men from the east went first to the palace – where else would you expect to find a king…but he wasn’t there. Nothing looked quite right for the arrival of a Saviour – and yet nonetheless, there he was. God as a baby, born miles from home in a grubby corner of an occupied country. There he was – and here he is – Here among us, bringing light and hope into the darkest corners of our world...to the fear-laden loneliness of the covid wards, where exhausted medics do all that they can to fight against disease and death to the families kept apart, and those weeping as they see an empty space at their Christmas table, to those collecting the basics of their Christmas meal from the Foodbank and those facing the cold reality of unemployment when furlough ends. God with us. Emmanuel. With us now as we come together in this holy place – but with us too as we go on our way, no matter what disappointment, what sadness we are going out to Whatever is different, unexpected, unwelcome this year – God’s love is unchanging...and though you may not carry a candle in your hand tonight , you can, and you should shine with the light of his love . That love is here as surely as it has ever been. Here to strengthen and support you Here to be shared so that each of us can make the ordinary beautiful – in our homes and on our streets, online and in person…. Because God is with us And that changes everything for the light shines ieven in our deepest darkness and the darkness has never put it out And it never ever will. Thanks be to God

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Some thoughts on healing in community. Isaiah 35:3-6 for "Welcome to Sunday" on St Lukes Day 2020

I love that reading so very much.Usually I read it hearing Handel in the background, every sentence pointing towards the coming of Jesus and the moment when "he shall feed his flock like a shepherd", but today, as we celebrate St Luke and the ministry of healing, I’m wondering how we might make it our mission statement too, what it would mean if we tried to live into it day by day. Because, you see, there are many different kinds of healing. We are far too apt to equate healing with cure...and then to feel defeated when we pray for healing for those whom we love, but see no physical evidence that anything has changed. It’s a mystery why sometimes, against all expectations, prayers are answered immediately and obviously – but at others, those same prayers, offered with the same fervent intensity, seem to fall on deaf ears. We beg God to intervene, - but our sick friend gets sicker...and it makes no sense. Sometimes, though, we can recognise healing even when we find ourselves disappointed in the specifics of our hopes and prayers. I think of Tony, the first person whom I was privileged to accompany through their final illness and on towards death. He was so very scared in the first weeks after his cancer diagnosis, that even the most general enquiry as to how the week had been would see him shrink in to silent despair...He couldn’t bring himself to talk to his two sons, or to anyone else for that matter, so the weight of unspoken sadness burdened everyone. He was a much loved member of the church family in my curacy parish, and so we all prayed...and prayed...and Tony grew weaker and weaker...but somehow along the way, his faith and his courage returned. He and his boys found ways to say what they needed to one another and on Christmas day they shared a bottle of champagne and laughed as much as they cried. He went into the hospice that evening, and died two days later – restored to himself, whole in heart and mind, his fear gone, and replaced by love and peace. That was not a cure but I’m sure, so very very sure, that it WAS healing. And right now, of course, there is sickness in the very air that we breathe...both the virus itself and the way that it has robbed us of so much joy and hope, set communities against one another as we are asked to make agonising choices between life and liveliehood, separated families, left loved ones to die alone… And yes, we can and we should use today to pray for our health service – to give thanks for all those who tend the wounds of body and spirit, to ask that God will send wisdom and insight for those seeking prevention and cure for the virus...but while that very specific work of physical healing may be the preserve of those duly qualified, we ALL have a vocation to heal as God’s people, inspired by God’s spirit. We may be sad and have fearful hearts – but if we can look beyond ourselves, we can be part of God’s work of healing even now. We are called to be a community of hope...people who can see beyond the even the apparently insurmountable challenges of life in a pandemic, the signs of God’s kingdom breaking in. Another story, of going with my supervisor to see a wonderful elderly lady while I was on placement during training. She was utterly crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, and her house was a perfect timecapsule from the 1920s when her parents had moved in,. She had always been an invalid, never been able to get about, , had only rarely been able to attend the parish church which my supervisor and I represented, and yet she had an incredibly strong sense of commitment to that community, as it did to her. Judy, my supervisor, asked her to choose a Bible passage to hear, and passed it to me to read...the words we heard just now,. As I read I could feel the sense of hope getting ever stronger. It felt as if God was using my voice, Isaiahs worda, to speak directly to her. We all recognised that we were standing on holy ground, and after Communiin Iris said You see, that's what the church does for me, It strengthens my knees so I can pray, opens my eyes and my ears so I can understand the truth, and the speaks it, God IS coming. We WILL be saved. I dream of being part of that kind of church...where we can support one another to find healing in community, recognising that truly we are journeying together, dependent on each other, that only in community can we become agents of Gods healing today. So, how might we live to set the world free from whatever binds and restricts , tying neighbours down to be less than their true, God-given selves?... How might we open one another's eyes,, to recover sight and regain perspective, as we try to regain perspective ourselves.? One day I will need you to speak those words of hopee to me , perhaps the next I can speak them for you We all need God's healing, for body, mind and spirit, and together we carry the hope that this healing will come. So as in community we celebrate the good news that God is still at work, we can join with that work of the Spirit, so we too become physicians of the soul through the wholesome medicine of the gospel. Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees There is good news which can refresh our world, so that desolate places, desolate people can flourish again as water springs up in the wilderness. Healing is so much greater than cure, and it's is healing that our God offers to us and to all creation.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Reasons to be cheerful? A sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, 11th October 2020, Proper 23A

There is a cartoon doing the rounds on social media which really resonates with me. It shows a slightly anxious-looking couple walking together, one of whom announces "My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane". It's a point of view with which I have tremendous sympathy. I am once again making sure that I head up to bed before the 10.00 news, as experience has taught me that hearing the latest Covid statistics at the end of the day is a sure recipe for a sleepless night. If you add in the grim findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, published this week, which brings much that is broken in the Church of England into painfully clear view, the many cries for help articulated on World Mental Healthy Day and the lingering sadness of Baby Loss Awareness Week, it might be tempting to close the curtains and retreat under the duvet, waiting for better days. But for the most part, that seems a little impractical - and in any case we are supposed to be people of hope...so let's go in search of it. Our Epistle seems to have plenty on offer. First, though, I want to say loud and clear that there are seasons when, whatever Paul proclaims, we may find ourselves living our life and expressing our faith in the minor key of lament. There is nothing, anywhere, that says that it is somehow more Christian to pretend that everything is wonderful when the reality is very different. We are in no way failing God, or selling our faith short if we admit to vulnerability or sadness - quite the reverse. Being real matters. If we are followers of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, then clearly personal integrity - being honest about the challenges as well as the blessings of life - is of foundational importance...as is having the courage to ask for help if life's struggles threaten to overwhelm you completely. PLEASE hear that! And yet - and yet - Paul exhorts the church in Philippi to see things in a rather different way...though he engages with messy reality too. I love that this passage starts with a quiet reference to a disagreement in the Christian community. Some things don't change, do they. The funny thing is, we have no idea what divided Euodia and Syntyche - simply that they are at odds with one another, and need the help of the wider congregation to sort things out. Whatever it was that seemed so important to them has long since been forgotten but they are remembered because Paul wanted the church to engineer their reconciliation. I suspect their issue wasn't so very important really...and it's always worth trying to take the long view. Some things may be worth falling out over, - but the majority probably aren't. I very much doubt if many of the causes of distress or faction in the local church are going to be on God's check list of hot topics when we stand before God on the last day. How we have DEALT with them just might be - if we have sought to silence or exclude others, or have turned them into commodities to suit our own needs, perhaps. But that's not for us to decide. It's all a question of perspective...and God's is always wider, more generous, than ours. And that's where this exhortation to rejoice comes in. Rejoice in the Lord always I mean it. I'll say it again REJOICE ‘Don’t you realise, Paul, how tired we are now? How much we’ve faced over the last few months? Has no-one told you about the closure of our churches, about the fear gripping the world, about the recession and the mental health crisis, about the risks of infection? Has no-one told you that we are not even able to sing? This is your message for us in the midst of a pandemic?…’ Nonetheless, says Paul, REJOICE. I'm not talking about superficial happiness, emerging from the pleasures of the moment. I’m not exhorting relentless cheerfulness in the face of all the evidence. I'm pointing you towards something richer by far. No, We are not being invited to thank God FOR our trials and tribulations, for the hardship, the grief, the death. We are allowed to name those as the struggle that they are, to be honest with God and with one another. But we are challenged to look deeper...to see our lives founded on God and so to change our focus that we can see joy amid all the mess and pain and fear. In all of that we are not alone. THE LORD IS NEAR. We are never abandoned in a hostile universe. God is here - and that presence should be enough to help us shift our perspective, to keep us both from cynicism and from fear. The Lord is at hand, as the Authorised Version puts it...even now we just have to reach out and we can touch God...and though there may seem to be no rational grounds for peace or for joy, God's presence brings with it that peace that is beyond understanding, beyond logic... The invitation is to learn to take the long view - and as we shift perspective, to use our joy to power our rebellion against all the darkness and pain, to make it our own act of subversion against the powers and principalities that threaten our peace day by day. We aren't supposed to be relentlessly cheerful...God forbid! But we ARE to focus not on the darkness but on the pinpricks of light...and Paul gives us a strategy to enable this. Focus on the good things. "Whatever is is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable" Do try to avoid the trap I just fell into of thinking, grumpily, "Well, that won't take long today." I'm not denying the darkness - but, with Paul, I'm inviting you to choose to focus on the stars, even if you do so lying on your back in the gutter. Because that turning towards joy IS always a choice, and sometimes it isn't an easy one Telling God if that's the case for you right now is more than fine. Don't worry - but let your requests be made known. Honesty, remember. Say it as it is. God can cope! I'm struggling with joy...and I really could use some of your peace...and to be honest, I don't mind if I understand it or not. I just want to feel it. But be alert for the signposts, those glimpses of joy that direct your gaze to God even now, even if it's very hard So, let's be practical. Where might you look? I'm confident that you can, without too much difficulty, come up with some ideas. Take moment to notice any prompts to joy around you now. Reflect on those things that are good and true for you. Turn them over in your heart as a miser might turn over his treasure by night. Let yourself luxuriate in their beauty and the hope that they represent. For us in the Cathedral this morning, a prime focus must surely be the gift of music that Kerry has enabled throughout his time with us - and which expresses the truth and beauty of God in ways beyond words again and again. I often talk about its power to open windows onto heaven - because that has been my own experience. The beauty of choral Evensong in a college chapel communicating so clearly the beauty of the God that inspired it that I could do nothing but submit to love and joy then and there... Something to remember with gratitude as the music of other places and other times performed that same work of blessing. So we can thank God for Kerry - and for the way that he has used his own gift to enable the gifts of others, to ihspire, encourage and transform, And we can look forward in hope to all the gifts that Rachel brings with her. As we think of our musicians - there is so much that is worthy of praise. And the music of joy that awakens in our hearts resounds long after the air is silent again...a treasure that cannot be taken from you. And if music isn't your first language, there are many many others. God wants us to know God is close...wants us to experience that peace beyond understanding. As we close, let me share the experience of a friend, who was driving back to a place she doesn't much want to be, having said goodbye to someone whom she struggled to leave behind. She was in no way filled with joy...but as she drove, she saw the most stunning sunset in her rear view mirror - and ahead, amid the gathering dark of storm clouds, a double rainbow of great beauty. That gave her the joy she needed to drive onwards - trusting that God was there ahead of her. Where might you glimpse him today? IN such things are are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing....think on those things and the God of peace will be with you.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

"Hark, hark my soul, angelic strains are swelling..." - a reflection for Michaelmas

It’s Michaelmas…the festival that celebrates angels, archangels and all the company of heaven - and for this part of my journey I'm based in cathedral dedicated to St Michael - but, sadly, not to "All angels"...though our building is awash with them, from the mad, dancing cohorts of the West Screen to the majestic Angel of the Agony, whose wings overshadow me when I preside in the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane. I wish it were the other way round. Michael is hard to get a grip on. Did he really eject Satan from heaven for all time, or is there (as another Michael, Michael Sadgrove, who knows our building better than most suggests in a wonderful reflection on the Sutherland tapestry) a hope that he is not pushing him out but trying to grasp his hand and enable him to stay? And, of course, he is absolutely the right patron for us, with our calling to the ministry of Reconciliation "Send thine archangel Michael from thy presence, Peacemaker blessed, may he hover o'er us, hallow our dwellings". I love that when the medieval parish church of St Michael was built, the vocation of the cathedral that would replace it centuries later was already enshrined...and the angels, well, they are beings of poetry and wonder, pointing to something far beyond our comprehension, reminding us of the overwhelming beauty and mystery at the heart of God - though we often try to domesticate them, just as we try to domesticate Godself.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Bless the bed that I lie on Four corners to my bed Four angels there be spread One to watch and one to pray And two to bear my soul away In the bedtime prayers of my childhood there seemed little difference between the evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and the shining guardian angels whom I was certain were my overnight companions.... I loved those angels, believed in them implicitly – and still, as this feast day of St Michael and All Angels approaches, I find myself dreaming happily of wondrous golden beings, trying to glimpse them amid the golden light of late September as the leaves turn. ""Angels of Jesus, angels of LIGHT...this feast, just after the Autumn equinox, asserts that light will endure though the evenings are drawing in - and in this year of loss, anxiety, fear, we need it, need them, more than ever. Of course, even before the pandemic, angels have been hugely popular - angels divorced from any particular belief system. Gift shops can rely on selling any number of angel trinkets, books of angel stories walk off the shelves at a time when public interest in more mainstream expressions of faith seems at a very low ebb. People LIKE the idea of heavenly beings charged with taking care of us....a reassurance that we are not on our own in a hostile universe. But, you know, the Biblical experience of angels is really rather different. Often their arrival seems to be anything but reassuring – and perhaps that's why every angelic appearance in the New Testament opens with the words “Don't be afraid” Annunciation, Resurrection, Ascension... Heaven in all its dazzling splendour breaks into our world. Time is interrupted by eternity. Angel appearances are never remotely mundane - and their messages tend to stop us in our tracks as thoroughly as the angel stopped Balaam's ass. Just think of the most famous angelic appearance of all.....Gabriel's mission to Mary. Imagine yourself as that teenage girl, minding her own business in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. Hear those words spoken to you. “Do not be afraid Mary – for you have found favour with God. You will bear a son” BEAR A SON! Me?!?! No wonder Gabriel feels the need to begin the conversation by speaking reassurance. “Do not be afraid...” Words that suggest that he knows he has already lost that particular battle! And so often that's how it seems. Angels break into our world as messengers of heaven – and their tidings turn the world upside down. Like a stone dropped into a pond, their messages ripple outwards, touching and changing many lives in ways we could never imagine. Well, at least that’s what they did in Bible times. But what of that persistent belief that God STILL sends messengers into this world, to remind us of God’s continuing commitment to humanity? Despite my eager searches, I’ve never seen a shining being clothed in white, with maybe the hint of wings in the brightness around them – but I have had to experiences of angels, I think. One was on Low Sunday in a little Cotswold church, part of the benefice where we lived when my children were small, the place that fostered my vocation to ordained ministry. It was a happy church, a church that understood community – but it was also a very elderly church. I and my children were generally the only ones present who were not well into retirement – and the last thing that would EVER happen there was dance… Except, on this one day, the recessional hymn was, wonderfully, Lord of the dance…and still more wonderfully as we reached the chorus at the end of the first verse, 2 strangers stepped out of the pew behind us, took my older children by the hand and pulled them into a wonderful, joyous grand chain that stretched the length of the aisle, and in which, somehow, we were all caught up without knowing how or why…so that when we reached the final verse “they cut me down but I leapt up high, I am the life that will never never die I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me, I am the Lord of the dance said he”…there was not a vestige of doubt anywhere in that church. It was, as I say, the Cotswolds. We were used to people appearing at the parish Eucharist while they were staying in the village – except that afterwards, these people seemed to have disappeared. Did they just slip out before the final Blessing? Probably…but…I’ll always wonder, because they rekindled the resurrection hope so very powerfully that day. Ten years later I was in my second year of curacy, loving so much of parish ministry but sometimes frustrated at the way the Church seemed to get in the way of simply introducing people to God’s love. My title parish was at the "friendly catholic" end of the spectrum – liturgy mattered, the Eucharist was absolutely central, and if was very important that we prayed the Daily Office no matter what. But Morning Prayer was always an insiders' service – not something to which I could ever imagine inviting one of the young mums from Toddler Church…I enjoyed praying the Office with my training incumbent but really struggled with it when I had to pray alone# That morning my TI was away so I went up to church somewhat reluctantly, and wandered into the Lady Chapel for the Office. To my surprise there was a young man there already, someone I definitely didn't recognise. We chatted for a bit, and he asked if it would be alright if he stayed for Morning Prayer. Alright? I was thrilled. We prayed together, and I offered many and repeated apologies for the need to dart back and forth, to follow the leadings of the multi coloured ribbons in a distracting maypole dance, to engage with a lectionary that seemed set, that day, to offer absolutely NOTHING to inspire or comfort at all. Despite this, to my delight, he stayed to the end, and afterwards he told me that just a few months before he, an atheist with no grounding in faith at all, had had such a powerful experience of God that he had been checking out churches ever since. He told me of his various visits around the diocese…and my heart sank as I imagined how we might compare with some of the more dynamic congregations he had encountered. "They are all SO DIFFERENT he marvelled …isn’t it wonderful….and I have met God in every single one of them. EVERY SINGLE ONE" If ever a message, a dose of unexpected good news was needed, it was that morning… And the angel departed from me – having sowed seeds of encouragement that I have returned to time and again in the years that followed. Once again, the angel (a very ordinary, if unexpected young man) brought good news… Perhaps my childhood self wasn't that far out in confusing the saints and the angels of that poem-prayer! Beings whom the light shines through...sent to encourage, to remind us to look up, to set our sights on God's wider landscape when we are in danger of getting bogged down in our own struggles with life and faith. Onward we go for still we hear them singing "Come, weary souls, for Jesus bids you come!" And through the dark their echoes sweetly ringing The music of the gospel leads us home. Angels of Jesus, angels of light, singing to welcome the children of the night