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

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Proper 18A A reconciled community?

Where do you go to find community? It’s a question that has been more pressing this year than for a very long time, as many of us have found ourselves locked down alone, isolated from friends and relatives, dependent our varied technologies, from telephone to iPad, to connect us to the others whose easy presence we had taken for granted just a few months ago. Some of us have been living alone for years, whether by choice or by chance – and may have expected to find it not so very different. Others are natural extroverts, who thrive on sharing the details of life with others – I’m one of those, and believe you me, my dogs and cats have had to listen to an awful lot of external processing of life’s trivia as the weeks crept on. But wherever you fall on the scale of introvert/extrovert, whether you live alone of have faced the different challenge of suddenly being confined for an extended period with partners or families whom you usually see only in the evenings or at weekends, “community” has looked and felt very different this year. I guess that was the genius in the Thursday night ritual of clapping for carers. It reminded us that we were living alongside our neighbours, whether we know them well or not...That despite the isolation that was necessary for our safety we were going through this whole experience together, and that, whatever our faith and our politics, when we fall ill we are all alike dependent on the skill and compassion of our health workers. It provided a moment of connection that was badly needed as days became weeks, became months. But what of the Church in all this? That’s a question that has many many different answers. In the early weeks I have to admit that I rather envied my colleagues in parish ministry, able to wave to their parishioners as they did their daily walk, to run errands for the housebound who lived just down the road, to throw open their churches for food banks to operate. It seemed much easier to maintain a community rooted in the local than one drawn together by a particular place, from whose beloved beauty we were all excluded for a while… But as the weeks passed I began to notice something else happening, something that was in no way dependent on the various attempts I had made to keep us all together by hook, crook or telephone tree. Something that filled me with hope, together with a degree of embarrassment that it had not been the first place I had looked to foster community. As we got gradually into the rhythm of online worship, our daily offering of Morning Prayer with Communion plus the Litany, I realised that the group who appeared there, cathedral stalwarts, friends from past parishes and total strangers from the diocese and beyond were really attentive to one another, and were really swift to respond if one of them shared that they were having a bad day, week or month...Strangers, drawn together by God, were experiencing the absolute truth of those words from this morning’s gospel, knowing God’s presence with us as we worshipped, physically apart but united in a greater depth of fellowship perhaps because we were having to do without our cherished landscape, and the aids to prayer that our building offers. Again and again, after grumpy, sleepy mornings or at frazzled midday, I experienced the truth that Jesus WAS with us as we met in his name, and that knowledge inspired us to lower our guards with one another, to try out in cautious stages the steps towards a deeper level of connection, so that we could assert with confidence that the Church was indeed alive and well despite the closure of our buildings. You could, of course, argue that it was easier to form connections in isolation, as it were. Most of us had no past history with one another, no sense that so and so didn’t quite approve of our attitude to such and such, or had disappointed us that time when we’d really needed a good friend...That made it easier to drop our guard but the truth is that if that online community survives, as I hope it might, we are BOUND to upset one another at some point, because, you know, the Church, whether in person or online, consists of fallible human beings who have an inbuilt ability to mess things up despite our best intention. BUT as Church we’re called to deal with those failures and disappointments in a different way. Rather than taking umbrage and walking away, to seek a better, more congenial or more holy community… Rather than clinging to an illusion of niceness by sweeping discord and disagreement under the carpet, we are actively invited to engage with our fractures wherever we meet them. We are to deliberately seek out those with whom relationship is damaged – to own the truth of the situation and to undertake for ourselves and IN ourselves the work of reconciliation that is so central to us here in Coventry. That can feel very risky – but it’s really not optional. Perhaps like me, you’ve been almost relieved that so much of our ministry of reconciliation was, in the past, carried out by experts, heading off to deal with broken relationships at a safe distance, but leaving the rest of us to celebrate the work without having to engage with it. I think that feeling is natural enough – but that doesn’t make it OK. Jesus doesn’t suggest that we appoint experts to resolve differences in other communities. On the contrary, he’s very clear that reconciliation begins at home...and that the tangled relationships of life may remain tangled in eternity if we don’t make the effort to address them. You see, as the Church we are called to keep short accounts. To own our past errors and seek to put them right...not to carry that baggage into our current relationships, within and beyond our community, but to seek, with God’s help, to wipe the slate clean, to cancel old debts and old enmities so that we can travel forward together as people renewed and restored. I believe that is what reconciliation could and should mean for us here and now. Coming to terms with our own failures (sometimes the work of reconciliation will be primarily within ourselves: this summer I’ve had to confront the inherent racism that creeps in, undetected, alongside the benefits of white privilege) Confronting the failures of our community. Finding the courage, by God’s grace, to name them and repent of them. Then helping one another to put that load down and re-imagine the future together. . 2020 has forced us to stop for a while, invited us to take stock, to reflect on where we are and who we are as individuals and as the Church. In the flickering light of pandemic uncertainty, we have reflected on what matters most, and what we can safely let go of. We may have been surprised at some of our discoveries, inspired to recognise and live by new priorities so that the things that had seemed so essential in January are of little account in September...or we may have come to a fresh understanding of why we value the things we cherish. Come what may, the one essential, the only debt we are to owe, is the debt of love. If we have learned nothing else this year, we must surely have come to realise that life is finite, time is limited, and that we cannot know how long we have to perfect our relationships, to love more and better day by day. The night is far spent and the day is at hand. Wake up, then. Smell the coffee, recognise that love must be the hallmark of our community...and let us use that love to shape and hold our community, so that, to quote the Collect, we may together proclaim the good news of God’s love and all who hear it may be drawn to him.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Nevertheless, she persisted - a sermon for Trinity 10A at Coventry Cathedral, 16th August 2020

"Preach about what you know, about your own experiences of the life of faith", said one of our tutors an alarming three decades ago when I was training as a Reader. But todays gospel immediately puts me in a situation of which I have absolutely NO experience, and demands that I engage with it. I have never, to my knowledge, been excluded from anything that I sought on the grounds of my raceDoors have opened for me before Ive even noticed they were there. Encouraged by friends and family, Ive been able to pursue dreams almost effortlessly not because I am remarkably able but because I am remarkably privileged. That doesnt mean that Ive led a charmed life, with everything falling easily into place, but rather that as a white woman Ive never had to consider whether race might impede me in any wayAnd Im guessing thats true for many of you listening this morning. To quote one contributor to We need to talk about race, a book some of us have read this summer If youve never considered your colour, thatll be because youre white. Over the weeks since the Black Lives Matter movement took centre stage, I have become daily more conscious of the layers of white privilege that have protected me from so much in life from the risk of a stop and search, through the possibility of being denied a job interview, to the increased likelihood of my falling seriously ill with Covid 19 and much more besides. Whether we recognise it or not, it seems that our society is constructed to silently, imperceptibly benefit those of us of white British descent. We who are white are the unconscious beneficiaries of an far from level playing field and if I have learned nothing else from our reading, it is that attempting colour blindness does nobody any favours. All of which may seem to have little to do with todays gospel, with Jesuss encounter with this Canaanite woman, one of the first nations indigenous people who were supplanted when the Children of Israel reached and claimed their Promised Land. We need,then, to take a closer look at the dialogue between Jesus and that tenacious, outspoken woman who dared to cross cultural divides in search of healing for her child. Today, surely, shed be one who wore a t shirt emblazoned Nevertheless she persisted and her persistence achieved the unthinkable. Through her, Jesus himself received a lesson in the wildly inclusive love of Godthrough, unbelievably, a woman, one on the fringes, one who was pushing her luck in approaching him at allone he really should have avoided, for the sake of his reputation. Of course, we know that reputational risk is rarely a priority for Jesus he delights in spending time with outsiders, but as he begins to live in to the message of radical inclusion that lies at the heart of the gospel, its not easy, even for him. Today, Jesus is on retreat, seeking some down-time after his run-in with the Pharisees Here, in Gentile country, he might expect a break from the demands of ministry, but real people with real needs just cant be put on hold. His space, his silence is disturbed by a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love. She will not hold her peace, demands a hearing, for she is intent on claiming the healing that she believes her daughter deserves. Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus. Kneeling at his feet she entreats his help. And what happens? If I were asking that question in a school assembly I can confidently predict the answer. What happens? “Jesus makes the child better Thats what wed all expect. Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely thats the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado. Except that he doesnt. It's as if he doesn't even see her. He looks away. He did nothing Not at first. First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words that seem frankly racistwords of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs.and I dont think were under any illusion that he meant much- loved and cherished pet spaniels. He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human. Ive encountered that approach too often in the chronicles of black oppression Ive been nervously exploring...Its the mindset that made it possible for the Church to condone slaverythat somehow black lives were of a lesser order, black pain less real, black freedom ours to command. But the one place that I would never look to encounter it is here, HERE, in the gospels Was Jesus a racist? And if so, what do we do with that? “Its not right to take the childrens bread and throw it to the dogs no blacks, no Irish, no dogs Whoohto meet those attitudes in Jesus is almost intolerable! This isnt our Jesus We long to hold on to our soft focus image of him Jesu, thou art all compassion and this abrasive stranger shakes us to the core. Nevertheless, she persisted This Gentile woman is made of sterner stuff than I, and refuses to go away quietly. She isnt bothered who she upsets. Like Jacob two weeks ago, she will not let go til she has received her blessing, and she responds to his put-down in like vein, picking up Jesuss words and turning them back on him in quick-witted repartee.. We may be dogs, but surely youre not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs. She refuses to take No for an answer And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks. Against his own expectations he is forced into really seeing her, not an annoying, impertinent woman of another race but simply a human being, a child of Godand this makes him change his mind in a radical way. Is that idea too startling? Its tempting to believe that as Gods Son, Jesus must be perfect there is no shadow of turning with thee. But he is fully human, and surely learning is part of what that means. Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development day by day like us he grew So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationshipHe learned, he grew, and sometimes he changed his mind. Theres so much more going on here than just an exchange of banter, for surely Jesus is forced to rethink the scope of his mission, to enlarge its scope, sent not simply to the lost sheep of the house of Israel after all. This should, I think, serve to correct our own tendency to arrogance, to hardness of heart. Its so tempting to believe that we dont need to listen to others, because we already know the truth, and our perspective is, of course, the right one..In that respect, perhaps, its hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. In our society, and in our church, we can sadly identify behaviours that match theirs. The wideness of Gods mercy is sometimes just too much for us, so we shrink it to something we can deal with more easily. We enshrine those false limits long after the time has come for them to be deconstructed so we can rebuild on foundations of justice, in kinder, healthier ways, but if we take Scripture seriously, our limited view is inevitably challenged. Here we meet a God who listens and changes their mind, whose unlimited love almost surprises Godself. Here we encounter a God who is changed by relationships, a God who is moved by the prayers of Gods children, and acts in unexpected ways to answer them. Here, above all, we meet a God whose love and grace are inexhaustible. Of course, this particular gospel story lies behind the much-loved Prayer of Humble Access “We do not presume to come to this your table O merciful Lord Trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercy “We do not presume Well, thank God that sometimes we do! Thank God for those who dare to persist, who challeng and draw us into a landscape of larger hearts and wider compassion. Thank God for this woman, the outsider, the second class citizen who refuses to go away but demands that Jesus recognise her right to engage with him. Thank God that she stops him in his tracks, forcing him to see and recognise her humanity and forcing him to own that manifold and great mercy which is always so much greater than our worst inadequacies, our most glaring failings and faults. Here, as everywhere with God, love wins. The mothers love, a passion that drives her to take risks that she would probably never have contemplated for her own benefit. The Fathers love, Gods love, stronger than the divisions that scar society and church, the hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class. Stronger than unconscious privilege and all the institutional structures that support itStronger than our own fear of outsiders and our anxiety that we might find ourselves outsiders in our turn. So today, can we find the courage to look hard at ourselves, and at Gods Church, to ask Gods help to root out the unconscious bias that may sometimes hold part of our hearts and minds hostage and to ask that WE may be healed so that we can love more fully, and work together to enable the flourishing of all.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Risky discipleship in stormy waters Matthew 14:22-33 for Welcome to Sunday, 9th August 2020

I grew up by the sea, and miss it dreadfully – both on the hazy days of high summer, when the entire world seems to be heading to the nearest shoreline, regardless of the need for safety and social distance, and if possible even more when the storms hit and the waves are high, breaking onto the promenade, flinging shingle onto parked cars, changing the whole shape of the beach overnight… My father loved the sea too – but, having served 6 years in the Navy, with the experience of Atlantic convoys for ever branded on his mind, his love was balanced by a sense oplayf great respect which he tried to pass on to me. I might treat the sea as a beloved friend – rushing down to talk to it if we had been away for a couple of weeks, leaping around in the shallows as if the sea were a kind of oversized family pet…but he had seen the full fury of Atlantic storms, had helped rescue men from the water after their vessel had been torpedoed…The sea, for all its wonder, was a place of risk…not to be trifled with. I never got to talk theology with my father…He died when I was 18, a long time before the God story began to be the most compelling story of all for me – so I don’t know how he felt about the gospel we’ve just heard. I’m certain that, as an introvert, he’d have been absolutely with Jesus on the need to take time out to regroup after over populated days…but what would he have made of the storm on Lake Galilee, and Peter’s foolhardy challenge to his Lord – “If it you, command me to come to you on the water”. I mean – what was that even about? Was it a desperate need to be sure that he really was an insider, able to do the very thing that he had just trembled to see Jesus doing? Was he trying to prove to himself that his decision to abandon his own work as a fisherman was not going to leave him high and dry? It all feels a bit bonkers, really – and I’m sure Jesus was tempted to respond “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. But he doesn’t. He lets him take the risk – that step of faith that gets Peter out of the boat, and walking, incredibly, on those very waters that just a few minutes before had battered the boat so fiercely…And of course all is well, as long as he keeps his gaze on Jesus. When he’s distracted, when he notices the wind and the waves again, then it all goes horribly wrong again. And one perfectly valid reading of this passage would simply be to remind you to hold on, to focus on the things of faith, to hear for yourself Jesus’s words “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid”. That might be what you need today…if the week has been tough, if corona worries have kept you awake at night and economic anxiety perplexed you by day…then do just hold on to that assurance that Jesus IS there in the storms…that he won’t let you drown, but will reach out a hand to help you, and will walk you back to safety in the boat… But it feels impossible this week to consider those in danger in small boats on big seas without reflecting on the families who have taken a different kind of risk – in stepping INTO a boat, an inadequate rubber dinghy perhaps – and launching out on to treacherous waters. We know their motivation at least: they truly believe that what they are leaving behind is so bad that it’s worth risking their lives – and the lives of their children – in a desperate attempt to reach somewhere they believe will be better. That isn’t a decision anyone would take lightly. It’s a tremendous risk and we know that most of those travelling will have paid everything they have, staked their all on that journey. For them this small island, with its rising unemployment, denuded Health Service and increasingly inhospitable approach to immigration, still looks like the promised land. I cannot imagine anything that would currently make me take that kind of risk…so perhaps God is inviting me to notice that, however leaky my boat might seem, it’s still afloat and actually, I’m not really even slightly damp. In other words, as I pray for those braving the Channel day by day, I need to take time to count my blessings, to notice and be thankful that amid all the fear and frustration, life is beautiful and full of love. Perhaps, too, there is an invitation. If, as God’s Church, we are Christ’s Body here on earth, are there things that we should do – ways in which we should move forward to take those desperate travellers by the hand and walk with them to a place of safety? That’s a real question, not a rhetorical one – because I recognise that open borders look uniquely threatening at the moment, that on the whole there is no general will to offer hospitality no matter what it costs. But though it’s a real question, I think I’ve found the answer for myself at least. You see, the trouble is that I think we’re SUPPOSED to be counter-cultural…That if we’re serious about following Jesus, we need to remember where the road took him… It’s going to be costly – true hospitality means sharing til it hurts, and then continuing anyway… More, its going to be risky after all…though not in the way I’d imagined. It turns out, you see, that we are going to be taking exactly the same risk as Peter…in leaving our place of safety to get closer to Jesus. That’s what discipleship looks like. Taking the risk to stay close to our Lord. Scary, as the waves rise around us…but actually the only choice worth making. It may take a while to commit to it…And there may well be times when we fear that we’ll drown, but you know, it’s going to be OK. Truly, he IS the Son of God – and he will walk with us til we too reach safety

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Wrestling with God - a sermon on Genesis 32 for "Welcome to Sunday" and the Cathedral Eucharist, Coventry Cathedral, 2nd August 2020

Poor Jacob. He really does struggle to get a good night’s sleep! Two weeks ago we thought about his amazing dream – the stairway to heaven – and his unexpected realisation that God was there, even amid his wilderness experience. Now he is on his travels once again – heading homewards, with understandable caution, since at journey’s end he will meet the brother whom he last saw the day he cheated hi of his birthright. Knowing that HE is responsible for the broken relationship...knowing that it is up to him to seek forgiveness and reconciliation...it is not perhaps surprising that he is suffering from insomnia. He has sent his family over the ford but stayed alone on the near side. The text is quite clear about that. Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him til day break You would think, wouldn’t you, that that one half or other of that sentence must be wrong. If Jacob is alone – there is nobody else there. If there is a wrestling partner – then Jacob is not alone. What are we to make of that? We can’t just imagine a virtual wrestling match...fightings and fears within, without… This is more than just the product of a guilty conscience and a healthy anxiety about confronting his own past. This is a real, physical struggle – one that marks Jacob for life. It turns out, indeed, that this is another point in his journey when, against all expectations, God shows up. Of course, Jacob shouldn’t have been surprised...and perhaps he wasn’t. God had said he would be with him right through until he had accomplished all God’s plans for him. This journey towards reconciliation is surely part of God’s plan – but they’re not there yet. Jacob still has work to do… And he starts with honesty. The last time he sought a blessing it was from his father Isaac – a blessing based on a lie, as he claims his brother’s name, and his brother’s place in the family. Now he admits to being himself, Jacob...and asserts his continued need for a blessing. The process of reconciliation is going to cost him – and not simply in the flocks and herds he already plans to send on ahead to deflect the wrath of his estranged brother. He knows the truth of this – the truth of who he really is...and now, beyond this – unlooked for – comes this experience of wrestling all night. Wrestling with God. His experience comes to define the nation of his descendants. Israel means one who wrestles with God – and so this is a description of all the People of God throughout the ages. They, we (the “new Israel”), are those who hang on to God no matter what...who will not let go until we receive a blessing. I don’t know how you’re feeling, but my experience of 2020 has most definitely been one of wrestling, both for myself and for the Church I love. Wrestling with fear – that I’ll die too soon to see my beloved grandchildren grow, that my children’s jobs will disappear in the inevitable recession and that I’ll be powerless to help and support them... With grief – that cherished plans have been obliterated, joyful celebrations cancelled, with no certainty that they’ll be recoverable at all With anxiety that the Church as institution will be so badly damaged by the impact of the pandemic that it won’t actually be around for me to retire from. With doubt, - that the whole faith thing might be a wild delusion, leaving me a child crying in the night with but the language of the cry... Much of that wrestling was not deeply rational – but it certainly led to a good few disturbed nights and weary mornings, when I may not have been limping visibly – but there was a definite lack of spring in my step spiritually and emotionally, if not physically. I wonder what you have been wrestling with through the past weeks and months? I wonder if you’ve found that God was part of the struggle after all? Perhaps, like Jacob, you are haunted by the past. By a failure or a sin, real or imagined, that we cannot forget...Reconciliation means acknowledging that; calling ourselves by our true name, with all the baggage of our history, and then offering that baggage to God for healing and transformation. That’s a good night’s wrestling – but if you get stuck, remember that the Church has a Sacrament to help you... Perhaps you’re wrestling with theology, with your understanding of God or of Scripture. Perhaps the faith you have relied on now feels like a boat that has sprung a leak...is not quite equal to your longing to make sense of our current predicament. Perhaps your struggle is with a threat of some kind: a real or imagined enemy, -the virus? Grief? Aging? Or a lost or broken relationship, an Esau in your life. In all of these wrestlings, the point is to hang on until the day dawns and the blessing comes. Do not let go. God IS there, your companion in the darkness...even if God’s presence feels not like a comforting arm round your shoulders but a relentless stranger whose legacy leaves you limping in pain. We know in Coventry, better than most, that to be reconciled – to ourselves, one another, to the reality of life on this beautiful, broken, transient planet – is a journey that involves pain and loss as well as hope and transformation. The wounds of history, collective and personal, are real and deep. Perhaps we cannot heal them ourselves – but we can limp on. We are here as the people who struggle with God. We may be limping, you and I...but we remain committed to the struggle. We will not let go, but wait in hope for the new name that God has for each one of us as we receive the promised blessing.