Monday, May 31, 2010

Stealth ministry?

Yesterday afternoon, having no church committments of my own I..........went to church!

I know.
Sad, isn't it?

But the church I went to is served by 2 of my favourite neighbours, and its bell tower is the one where LongSufferingClockmaker is often to be found on the end of a rope (not quite as lethal as it sounds) and this was a very special celebration of 750 years of Rectors*. The service was an impressive celebration, featuring a combined choir singing Parry, FabBishop as preacher, and both gratitude for the past and dreaming and committment for the future. Neighbouring parish was served, 3 Rectors back, by a man who had also been vicar in my training parish - and the feel of the two churches is remarkably similar, as is their constituency - largely prosperous professionals, a high proportion retired, all well groomed and well educated. Being there felt very familiar!

Afterwards there was a splendid tea on the lawns of the school, - and just by dint of standing there wearing a collar and NOT being one of the parish clergy, I found myself engaged in conversations that I suspect the home team don't hear, any more than I do when I'm up the hill or down in the valley.
Topics included -

the role of ritual in worship (this church uses incense at Mass every week): why it works, how it distracts, whether simplicity or multi sensory beauty would be more likely to work as a mission tool...

Why "the young" won't come to their parish church, how impossible it is for lifelong Christians to really grasp the barriers that exist to discourage newcomers and whether it was realistic to expect a thriving traditional church might recognise the need to let go of precious possessions, and go looking for God in the community.

Crematorium versus church funerals.

Church weddings for couples without a regular faith committment - and what the vows made "within the love of God" meant if one half of a couple had no sense of what that love might mean.

Really engaging conversations, with deep feelings revealed and some hard things faced. Of course there were all the usual "Weren't the flowers lovely?" type remarks as well - but people seemed eager to move on from banalities to talk about What Really Matters.
I was only there for a little over half an hour - long enough to make me wonder if there's a role for all of us, as clergy, to practice a ministry of loitering with intent in the corner of other people's congregations...

I'm pretty certain that the degree of openness and vulnerability I was a party to was enabled precisely because I'm not part of their parish team. I don't mean by this that their clergy are unapproachable in any way whatsoever - they are a star team, whom I'd turn to for support without any hesitation -  but I think I was reaping the benefits of the "stranger on a train" syndrome..
My conversation partners felt free to share their thoughts knowing that they wouldn't have to encounter me again.

In contrast, conversation over coffee at valley church this morning was almost 100% practical, concerning keys, rotas, and who might be willing to help out with the washing! It's all necessary stuff, - like any other family, the church needs people who take care of the details, - but it's really sad when it seems that this is all we're about, that practicalities become a substitute for engaging with deep realities.

So - is stealth ministry the way forward? I'd love to know what you think...

*There are just 50 names on the list: the record holder served 51 years, while during the Plague there were 3 Rectors in just 12 months: I love that replacements were appointed even in a time of such disruption, so that the community at Minchinhampton was not deprived of the sacraments when they must have longed for them most.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Another go at the Trinity: sermon for the united service held in valley church on Trinity Sunday.

Yesterday afternoon I was in Bristol Cathedral to see David Hoyle installed as their new Dean. It was a very splendid service, with lots of pomp and circumstance, some fantastic music – and a predictably excellent sermon from David himself. (This rather fuelled my determination to kidnap him and bring him back home where he belongs...I'd much prefer to listen to him preach this morning!)
He used the ceremony of the service itself as a starting place, making us laugh at ourselves as he described the intricacies of the processions, in which everyone from the Bishop to the Lord Lieutenant of Bristol and the smallest probationer in the choir knew their place and stuck to it...That maybe a concept that's hard for you to imagine here at St M's – but believe me, it does happen...and even your errant vicar was cowed into submission by the formality of the occasion.

So what? you may ask.
What has an installation service in Bristol to do with a Trinity Sunday sermon in Cainscross? 
David's point, in describing the hierarchy of processions, was to remind us that we tend to use this sort of structure to clarify our relationships, to make it absolutely clear who belongs where and why. He said, with some accuracy, that we tend to use “polite proximity” as a substitute for real community...and I'm afraid that often this is the case, even in our churches. We like to be sure of exactly where we belong in relation to our neighbours – “She's a ChurchWarden, I'm on the PCC but you're just a holy duster” - and sometimes, if truth be told, we like to be sure that certain kinds of people won't try to belong at all. We talk about our “church community” but what we actually mean is a comfortable religious club that has rather forgotten that its only reason for existence is to serve those who don't yet belong...Community means holding all things in common, offering mutual love and support - but I don't think that's the norm for most church families, try as we might. The model of community that the Trinity offers to us is something very very different.

Every year, preachers across the world tie themselves in knots as they try to explain the Trinity to their congregations. I'm going to try to avoid that today...instead I want us to think about the essence of the Trinity... 
God in relationship. 
We have a God who lives in relationship - total, complete, self-giving relationship. This God is one who knows what it is like to give of oneself completely for the other and who can do that because the other is totally invested in giving its self for the the first. Here there is no hierarchy, no anxiety over precedence.
Instead the love that defines and informs the one reaches out and spills over into the other
Look, says the Father.......look at the Son........
Look, says the Son...........look at the Spirit
And so the Three gaze at one another in mutual love and delight – and invite us to do the same – to participate in their loving relationship and to draw others to do so as well.

That's the message of the gospel passage
All that the Father has is mine.........The Spirit...will take what is mine and declare it to you

I don't discern any anxiety about relationship here.
Instead of protective boundaries, - what's mine I hold - what is mine is not mine, because it belongs freely, completely, joyfully to you

It's such a long long way from the reality of life in the world, or even life in the church.......
But let's dream for a minute...a dream close to the heart of God.
Imagine a world, imagine a church, where I was able to totally and
completely care for and about you and not consider myself because you were totally and completely caring for and about me.
Imagine that degree of safety and security
No need to look out for number one, because you know that you are always and non negotiably “number one” for everyone you can let go, and relax into placing the well being of the other before your own.

Absolute, genuine mutuality.

Wouldn't that be wonderful?

But for the moment we tell another tale.
For us, difference too often means competition...anxiety that our best is never good enough,or pride that we are so much better than our neighbour.
We look at the wonder of love and mutuality that is the Trinity and are silenced.
But that's wrong too........because the point about the Trinity is that though Trinity exists entire and whole and perfect in Godself, we are invited to share in God's creative enterprise.

The famous icon of the Trinity by Anton Rublev draws its power from the empty place at the table, the place reserved for US.*
The Trinity waits, eager to engage us in conversation, beckoning us to the vacant space at the table....The Trinity complete, unbroken, lacking nothing, still longs for us, and reaches out to draw us into its endless and creative dance.

As I thought about this sermon I talked, as I often do, to many friends across the world...Some are musicians, and they suggested that music might carry some helpful routes into understanding. One thought about the Trinity as a trio making music together – each instrument, or voice pouring out music perfect in itself but expressing its fullest beauty when the parts are heard together. That helped a little, - but carries within it the recurrent risk of breaking down the Trinity into three job descriptions (creator, redeemer, sustainer? Lover, Beloved, Love?)

Another wanted me to focus on communication...she plays best when she both loves her music and loves her audience, and her performance becomes an expression of that love. That took me further, for surely our experience of God is that of someone hearing the most perfect music, music that echoes ceaselessly through all creation, and gradually, haltingly, finding our own voice with which to sing.

So let's forget processions. 
Let's forget shamrocks and triangles. 
Let's even forget Mars Bars (chocolate, nougat, toffee - but one Mars!)
Let's forget the whole business of trying to understand or to express a beauty beyond words or understanding. 

Instead, let us come to the table, let us join in the conversation, let us add our own voices as we cry “Holy, holy, holy”

* I had a copy of the icon at the back of church, & had printed tiny copies for everyone to take home

Friday, May 28, 2010

Messy Theology

This week, K, M & I were asked to talk to the Local Ministry teams from some neighbouring parishes about what was happening at Messy Church. I'm always willing to talk about things I love (on the whole, the challenge is to stop me) so this seemed a thoroughly good idea...until OFSTED announced their arrival at Valley Church School. Within minutes, time allocated to collect my thoughts and prepare Messy material transformed itself into time to re-read SEFFs, SIPs and all the acronymn-ridden paperwork beloved of government departments. It seemed important that those turning out to listen to us should have time to play, so the wonderful K planned two craft activities, the Dufflepud, God bless him, produced a screensaver slide-show of Messy Church highlights, and we were off.
Having failed to produce even bullet-points, I was encouraged by how much there was to say, as we thought aloud about all we've learned together.
I told the story of the children's church that was never recognised - the "Thursday Club" that met after school for 10 years in the Cotswold village where my children grew up...the frustrations that we felt as we tried to turn it into a bridge to Sunday church...the realisation, just a few months after I'd left that village and moved into my curacy, that for those children Thursday Club was church. It's fascinating how just one publication can change the climate for everyone...and sad that we wasted so much energy lamenting the "failure" of Thursday Club to feed Sunday attendance figures when every week we had up to 30 children hearing the Story, exploring the Story, living the Story. Mission Shaped Church came too late for us! When I moved on from the village the decision was made to take a break from Thursday Club...I wonder if it would have been so easy to abandon ship if it had been seen as a congregation in its own right.

Certainly, when I arrived in my training parish it was Mission Shaped church that gave me the confidence to say firmly that "Little Fishes" was far more than "just a mother & toddler group", to launch "OpenHouse" with no expectation that the families who attended would filter gradually into Sunday church. One report, with such alot of power! Of course, it would be very easy to leap to the conclusion that every church activity beyond traditional worship could now be labelled a "Fresh Expression", - but though that's far from the case, the new climate has given us permission to celebrate refreshed expressions...traditional congregations recognising that they can't be all things to all people, and setting out to find new ways to help their communities to engage with God.

So, when I came to these parishes, I was pretty clear that whatever God wanted us to do to engage with the all-too-absent families, it would from the beginning be seen as church in its own right. Maybe I thought that clarity would make the process of formation easier...but as we thought aloud about the Messy Church journey of the past 18 months, it became clear that we are constantly evolving, changing our nature from month to month, as relationships form and reform, as people come and go. K helped me to see that what we're about is reflected in every aspect of Messy Church. So many of our helpers arrive concerned that they "Aren't good at crafts...Aren't very creative" and at the outset parents rarely joined in with the craft activities, unless they were confident that they could produce something "good enough". But Messy Church is all about the process, not the product...The important things happen as we chat over the activities "What IS Pentecost, anyway?" "Don't you think prayer is a bit of a waste of time?" 
They happen as we deal together with the pleasures and tensions of trying to include toddlers and teenagers, to find ways to help them meet God and build community.
The meal is vital! Often as children work their way round the activities, it seems that this month there really IS nobody here - but when we sit down to eat together, guests and helpers together, I'm never in any doubt that this IS church. 
By any standard index it's incredibly messy. 
We never know whether we'll have 14 or 40...The teaching slot relies too much on my gift of the gab and often falls short on the "awe and wonder" scale...Sometimes a vital helper gets her weeks in a twist, and there's nobody in the kitchen to serve the food.
But set against that the way that parents have moved from collecting together to talk while their children explored the crafts, to sharing the crafts and conversations themselves; the way that those who used to stand at chat at the back of the church as we gathered for worship are now sitting just behind their children, in the front pews together;  the readiness of guests to become helpers, so that we're working to build church together.
Through all the mess and muddle community is emerging, and it's a community where God is tangibly present, time after time after time.

We hold our Messy Church on a Sunday afternoon - so I'll always arrive having presided at 3 Eucharists. I'm often tired, usually stressed, horribly conscious of the things I have left undone, uncertain if this month's theme will work, if I actually have a creative way of sharing the story. Sometimes I think to myself "Oh NO...NOT Messy Church AGAIN"
And always, always, I come home encouraged, befriended, refreshed.

We tried to share this on Wednesday. The teams seemed happy to engage. They did some finger painting, made Pentecost pinwheels, explored the wild unpredictability of wobble pens...and talked as they did so. When we regrouped at the end of the evening, there were lots of smiley faces, and most questions had been answered.
That's how it works, really. We may not know where we're going, but the mixture of sharing stories, of doing together, of friendship and lots of laughter creates a space for God to dance. 
I love it. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

A bit of a rethink

If you've spent much time in these parts, you'll know that I am very fond of my FabBishop, - who ordained me both deacon (just after he became a Bishop) and priest, and who has taken trouble to ensure that he has a real and informed pastoral connection with all his clergy. He talks some really good sense, and is famous as a liturgist (which suits me very well, thank you) so though this doubtless sounds dreadfully sycophantic, I've always been extremely glad that he is my bishop.
This doesn't mean that I wasn't shaken and deeply disappointed when, 2 weeks ago, he spoke at the diocesan clergy day on the then imminent ordination of +Mary Glasspool and its implications for the Anglican Communion.
I'm a paid up member of Inclusive Church and to hear FabBishop speaking was both sad and painful. Like ++Rowan he clearly feels that the bishop's role as a focus of unity takes precedence over any personal though his heart might encourage one viewpoint, he is constrained by his episcopacy to act against it.
So in the two weeks since the clergy day, I've struggled a bit with feelings of disappointment...
When FabBishop's statement appeared online and attracted all sorts of negative responses, and not a little vitriol, I was uncomfortable, sad all over again, but on the whole I didn't leap to his defence.
I didn't blog either, because it seemed to me that either I would be criticising someone for whom I have great respect and affection, or I would be compromising my own integrity and commitment to an inclusive church.
All very sad and uncomfortable - a miserable microcosm of the pain and anger that is being expressed on a much larger stage across the Communion.

But on Saturday I was given the opportunity to see things differently.
I was at a truly excellent Fresh Expressions Vision Day, and found myself sharing a cafe table with FabBishop and working with him for much of the day.
We weren't engaged in anything to do with issues in human sexuality or with the ordination of women, of whatever orientation, to the episcopate.
We were, rather, thinking about the urgent need to translate the gospel into a language that makes sense to the huge numbers for whom traditional church will never connect.
As part of this, we were asked to think about the cost of mission...of how it might feel to respond positively to that question
"Will you go where you don't know and never be the same".
We thought about being vulnerable in strange situations, with people whose language, lives and priorities were unlike our own.
But we didn't just think in abstract. We were led to experience it for a few minutes...and I learned alot.

To begin with, we were invited to lay aside an object that we valued, to place it on the table in front of us.
Most of the time I wear a heavy silver bangle I bought in Bangalore...
I think it's beautiful in itself, and for me it carries the added beauty of memories of my wonderful weeks in India, all the learning and growing, the friendships made and prayers offered...It's one of my most precious possessions - so off it came, leaving my right wrist feeling a bit naked.

After just a few seconds to adjust to this, we were next invited to pick up something that our neighbour had placed there.
Then we were told to put it on.
So it was that for several minutes yesterday I found myself wearing FabBishop's episcopal ring.
It was heavy....both literally and figuratively, as I imagined how it might be to wear it all the time, a constant reminder of the responsibilities he bears for us as the Anglican church in this diocese, and as a leader on a wider stage.
It didn't fit me very well - I was uncomfortable with it in every respect.
No surprise there. Being a vicar is quite enough of a leadership role for me, thank you kindly!
But it taught me something too.
You see, around the stone is engraved in tiny letters that you'd not notice if they weren't pointed out to you, 
"ut unum sint" "that they may all be one".

Whenever I preside at the Eucharist I'm reminded of the day when I knelt before FabBishop while he anointed my hands, and made them forever a focus of the priestly ministry of consecration, reconciliation and blessing entrusted to me at my ordination.
I'd imagine that when FabBishop looks at his hands he remembers not only that shared experience of priesthood but the particular focus of episcopacy.
"That they may all be one"
I still wish he hadn't had to speak as he did, I still hate that it seems impossible for the church that I love to be the fully inclusive church I dream of, but perhaps I'll have a little more patience from now on, as I remember how heavy that ring felt on my finger.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What I said this morning....Pentecost sermon

What does Pentecost mean for you?

Would you prefer Whitsun?

Did you know that today is one of the Big Three celebrations of the Christian year?

I guess it might seem rather a Cinderella festival, lacking the obviousl appeal of Christmas (you can't go wrong with baby, star and angels) or even Easter (which at least balances tricky theology with the delights of chocolate over-kill)

But PENTECOST...the celebration of the Spirit...the launching of the church as a missionary body...

what does that mean for us?

If we're honest, we might admit that it's not always easy to claim this feast's potential for ourselves.

After all, we're Anglicans....not generally noted for exuberant outpourings of any kind....We tend to prefer our spirits watered down, or at least tempered by a goodly measure of decency and order!

So there's something about the events we remember today that may almost frighten us. After all, nobody hearing the account from Acts can imagine that decency and order were much to the fore.God's Spirit loose in the world...a prospect almost as alarming as it is joyful.

But what does it mean to us?

What gift would you ask from the Holy Spirit today?

You don't have to be the Archbishop of Canterbury to discern that the church in the west is, overall, in a pretty poor state.
Too often it seems that we lack confidence, that our preferred vision is to be found only in the rear-view mirror as we fix our gaze on rose tinted images of "how things used to be'.

We need some radical transformation if we're to live out our calling to be signposts to, & agents of the kingdom.

We've lost heart...we are both fearful & nostalgic.

We need help.

Much like the disciples, in fact...A group huddled together, waiting without knowing why...A group bereft, unhappy in the present, uncertain of the future.

It was to this frightened gathering that the Spirit came, and in her coming brought fresh hope, fresh vision, and gifts beyond anyone's imaginings.

That sounds like a welcome solution for a fearful church, - and yet......

can we, dare we, really embrace change?

Yesterday I was with a group of Christians from across Gloucestershire and beyond, exploring ways in which we might connect with that majority of our friends and neighbours who will never cross the thresholds of our churches.

At the beginning of the day we heard the story of Pentecost from Acts....and I noticed again how that huge crowd from all round the Mediterranean heard the good news of Jesus In their own languages.....

I remembered that God will go to any and every length to communicate with us....and reflected on the different languages He has used to communicate with me....the language of music, of poetry, of friendship, of childbirth...

I wonder how he first spoke to you.

I guarantee that it will have been in a way that you could understand, even if you didn't instantly recognise its significance.

Perhaps, like me, once God had awoken you to his presence in your life, you found the church a natural and comfortable place to continue the conversation.

Your language and that of the church had just enough over-lap to enable on-going connection.

But look around you today and you'll realise this isn't so for the majority.

Many of you have shared with me your disappointment that your families have apparently turned away from the faith that you taught them in childhood.

Again and again, as I take funerals or talk to couples who are planning their wedding, I hear the same story. These are people who are interested in God, wanting to take their spiritual journey seriously, but finding the customs and structures of the traditional church completely unhelpful, - so remote from their worlds that we might as well be speaking a foreign tongue. There is no official language for God, for God the Word comes down and speaks ours, whatever it may be. Learning another’s language is a real challenge, but the church includes liberals and evangelicals, thinkers and feelers, those passionate about justice, and those passionate about conversion, - and we need to communicate, hear and be heard even within our immediate church family. We’re not called to create a monochrome church, full of people like us but to be as creative in translating our faith as God is in calling us to relationship with him. Beyond the church, there are countless souls who aren't yet aware that the conversation could include them, that God has good news which concerns them too.

So it is that Christians are walking out through the doors of their churches to form new communities, the fresh expressions of church that connect with different aspects of our culture in many and various ways. Be it Messy Church, Cafe church, Surfers church, the Holy Spirit is still impelling Christians to set out from their safe spaces, the rooms where they were huddled comfortably together with those of like mind, and gifting them to engage with those who need to get the message in ways that they can understand.

Of course, such mission is not without cost. Change never is.Those who set out in the power of the Spirit will leave gaps behind them in their home communities and may find themselves in thoroughly unexpected situations, in places where they are out of their comfort zone AND out of their depths.

The American priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor speculates

“"If I had been in that room on the first Pentecost day, would I have prayed, 'Oh God, if you are about to pour out your Spirit and this is what it looks like, would you please skip me?' and I think that many of us, reflecting in the pre Pentecost world, would have shared her anxiety.

But that's the point.

When we look at the Christian task, our calling, from the outside, it all looks much too scary.

When we realise that with the help of the Spirit, we'll find ourselves engaging in ways that we'd never have imagined, we may wish we could run and hide

But when we remember that it is this same Spirit who will not only lead us into all truth, but gift us to communicate the truth of God's love wherever we may find ourselves, we can perhaps begin to relax, to open clenched fists, to allow the words to come from our startled mouths.

So let's spend a few moments in prayer, reflecting on the reality of the church we're part of, thanking God for the ways we have met him in this place and these people.


When this service began we took time to pray “Send us the Spirit”

Soon, as we do every week, we will approach the altar and receive God's self in the precious gifts of bread and wine.
Before we leave here we will see the candles we bear lit from the great Easter fire – a reminder that WE are now apostles, WE are now sent in the power of the Spirit to bear good news to the world.

May it be so


Sharing the Light

Such a lovely morning as we gathered to celebrate Pentecost...Last year, the Spirit had danced with the children who whirled coloured streamers and filled valley church with energy and joy.
This year the calendar was less kind to us: this was a Sunday when All Age worship wasn't on the cards, so I decided to use the Pentecost liturgy as it appears in Times & Seasons 
I panicked slightly as I printed the booklets...There seemed to be so many words, so much symbolism to crush into just over an hour on a Sunday morning - but in the event it was quite wonderful.

Early in the service, my colleague the Herring of Christ led us in a responsory based around the repeated motif "Come Holy Spirit" and from where I was sitting at least, that prayer was thoroughly answered.

The best moment was at the very end of the service, as the congregation, carrying candles lit from the Paschal candle before we finally extinguished it moved from the pews out through the west doors into a world of blue skies, sunshine and birdsong.  Lovely organist played the Charpentier Te Deum Prelude as they came, not a procession at all but a straggle of ordinary, precious individuals, with all their failures, hardships and joys...I stood on the spot where we'd lit the Easter fire 50 days ago and watched them emerge, toddlers and grandmothers, familiar faces and newcomers too, each one bearing a light - and I had a glimpse, as I do sometimes when presiding, of the wonder of the church stretching through space and time...Ordinary people going in the power of the Spirit to love the world for God

For fifty days we have celebrated the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ over the
powers of sin and death.We have proclaimed God’s mighty acts and we have prayed that the power that was at work when God raised Jesus from the dead might be at work in us.
As part of God’s Church here, I call upon you to live out what you proclaim.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, will you dare to walk into God’s future,
trusting him to be your guide?
By the Spirit’s power, we will.
Will you dare to embrace each other and grow together in love?
We will.
Will you dare to share your riches in common and minister to each other in need?
We will.
Will you dare to pray for each other until your hearts beat with the longings of God?
We will.
Will you dare to carry the light of Christ into the world’s dark places?
We will.        (Text from Common Worship Times & Seaons, copyright Archbishops' Council 2006)


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Homily for the Ascension

Rifling hopefully through files on my computer last night I found this lurking under the title "Thoughts towards a sermon for Ascension..."

No date, so I assume it was never preached - but as today is stuffed with meetings and travelling as well as 2 Eucharists and a school service, it's appearance was a real gift, protecting me from and all-nighter that really didn't look like a good idea.

Ascension is tricky, isn't it. All those medieval feet...But fantastic music!

Nobody likes goodbyes…

That’s something I acknowledge whenever I stand with mourners at a funeral.

Goodbyes hurt, even when you understand exactly what is going on.

How much more so for the disciples who have had the roller coaster experience of losing Jesus, in his death on the cross, finding him again as he walked beside them in his resurrection life, and then…..oh no…..losing him once more with no date set for his return to them.

They had his promise, true enough…but whatever they may have hoped, there was no certainty that God’s timing would match their lifetimes

So this feast is a strange celebration.

We celebrate the loss of Jesus from the Earth – the end of his earthly bodily ministry.

BUT – if we read the Gospel for this evening again we don’t actually get the feeling that the disciples were particularly glum! In fact the reading we had from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 24 ends with these verses (V 51-53) “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

That sounds OK, actually.

Light years away from a family returning home to deal with a newly empty place at the table.

They returned to Jerusalem WITH GREAT JOY.

What had happened?

It seems that, as they obeyed the angels and turned their gaze back from the clouds to engage with the world once more, something shifted inside them.

They were now people of purpose.

They had been disciples, - students learning from the Master.

Now they were apostles – people sent by him, people who knew their calling, their God given task in the world and trusted that God would indeed equip them to fulfil it.

Before being taken to be with God (however that was accomplished) Jesus charged the Apostles to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Witnesses – those who had seen and who were to proclaim the good news that Jesus himself had proclaimed, those who were to live and act as Jesus had, those who were to be Christ-like in the world.

Ascension day is, if you like, the moment when the baton passes from Jesus to the twelve.

And because they were in no way up to the task, Jesus made them another promise

the promise of ‘power from on high’ – the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, the comforter, the advocate, the helper. The Spirit was to be poured out in a new way, to give authority and power to their message and equip them for all they were to do.

That is why they weren’t torn by this parting – Jesus was leaving, but he was staying.

The Spirit would bring that sense of Christ into every moment – just as he had said it would.

The last thing that Jesus did before he ascended was to bless that little group huddled on the hillside.

He blessed them, not to remain there but to go and do his work in the world

That was their mission.

That is our mission.

We are to get on with letting the world know who Jesus is, what God has done in Him, in the amazing power of the Holy Spirit.

The baton has passed to us

.If we are open to the life of God, open to his Spirit, then we too can know the fullness of what Jesus promised, and we can have the assurance that one day we will see God face to face.

In the meantime, we have to trust, to rely on faith, to be willing to do what God would have us do.

It means, sometimes, waiting on God, as the Apostles waited for the coming of the Spirit.

It means being open to hear God’s voice.

It means being willing to move, perhaps to change.

Just as the disciples were not allowed to remain gazing up to heaven, or to erect a shrine at the spot where they last saw Jesus, so we must not allow ourselves to be mesmerised by past experiences of God so that we forget to expect God’s presence ahead of us as well..

The apostles had to re-engage with the world, to go onwards, trusting Christ’s promise that they would not travel without help.

They had to take risks of faith, and so do we.

And, as they dared, they found their faith had the surest of foundations.

Jesus was with them. Jesus is with us.

Today it is time for us to take responsibility for the mission of the church.

Today it is time to stop looking backwards, longing for reconnection with the past.

Today we can trust the promise that if we walk in faith we will receive all that we need to enable our mission in God’s name.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

While we are being political

here's the text of the sermon I preached today, as we begin Christian Aid Week.
Easter 6 yr C Christian Aid sermon

I wonder how you're feeling in the wake of the past few days.
You may be disappointed that so little seems to have been settled, appalled at the muddles that prevented some voters from getting to cast their votes at all, exhausted by the emotional highs and lows as seats were declared through the long hours of Thursday night and Friday morning...
It's been quite a week in UK politics – but will there be lasting change?
So many promises, so much hope...but our country and our world needs something far greater, a genuine transformation that is beyond the remit of any party, whatever size their majority.

Our gospel this morning is another part of the great outpouring of the hopes, dreams and prayers that Jesus left with his disciples – the passage known as the “Farewell discourse” that we have been following over recent weeks. Last week we considered Jesus's manifesto for ministry as he rose to speak in the synagogue in Nazareth– today we're looking at the legacy that he longs to see lived out in the lives of those he leaves behind him.
“Those who love me will keep my word...”
This passage comes at a pivot point in John's gospel. Ahead lies the shadow of the cross, but Jesus looks beyond that separation to the fulness of resurrection life to come, and the promise of the Holy Spirit.
That Spirit, says Jesus, will be an Advocate...One who speaks on behalf of those who are voiceless...
Let's just think for a moment about those who ARE voiceless in our world.

Not us...We may have issues with the current electoral system, - we may feel that as individuals we can't really change anything that happens on the larger stage – but in truth, we do have the freedom and the resources to make a difference. We can risk going out on a limb for religious or political beliefs knowing that it's unlikely to cost us more than a bit of embarassment, a few uncomfortable conversations with friends and colleagues.
We are protected in so many ways, ways that perhaps we barely notice.
If we are silent, that is our choice.
We can speak without fear of reprisal on so many issues...and indeed as Christians we have a duty to do so.
More of that in a moment...
But who then are the voiceless?

In a society where communication is celebrated as never before, where we can engage at any moment of the day or night with friends across the globe, there are still too many who have no place in the conversation.
Those without access to education
Those living where democracy seems beyond their wildest dreams
Those struggling to survive amid poverty that we can barely imagine.

Today Christian Aid week begins.There's much I could share with you of specific projects, of groups and individuals whose lives will be changed by people like us, who bother to turn out in the rain to deliver envelopes, who transform church halls into shops for a week, who run fair trade coffee mornings and fish and chips quiz nights. If you ever doubt the value of the yearly push to fill envelopes and encourage reluctant neighbours to contribute, there are hundreds of stories to inspire you...But today I want to explore why this kind of giving, this kind of campaigning is built into our faith – not an optional extra but part of our essential Christian DNA.

“Those who love me will keep my word....”
There is no room for confusion. We are commanded to follow Christ’s word – to love as Christ loves. We see in Christ’s life, ministry and passion his absolute love. And throughout his life on earth he demonstrated compassion for the poor and marginalised people. This gospel passage comes soon after the washing of the feet, and the implication is clear – this is how we are to love; this is how we are to follow.
It isn't always comfortable...but then, real love doesn’t shy away from the unclean, unpleasant, unsanitised things of the world. It drives us to respond to them, by practical love that works for change.

Does that sound too difficult? Too challenging? Too scary?
If you don't think you can manage – you're in good company.
I don't think anyone here realistically believes that they CAN love as Jesus did.
We tend, as fallible human beings, to prefer not to follow the way of the cross.
We prefer to curl up in a safe place, rather than stand against the powers and principalities of this world.
We think that perhaps we can abdicate......but no, that isn't an option.
We are called to love.

But don't panic....though loving as Christ does is not humanly possible in our own strength, we have been given the Holy Spirit.
As the Spirit comes to us, we are offered transforming gifts, love, joy, peace, kindness and patience, coming not from our own limited resources but directly from God's overflowing treasure chest. Christian Aid Week always falls in the liturgical season of Easter – our celebration of the sure and certain hope that Christ has won for us. The God that could raise Christ from the dead has power beyond our imagining to transform the world and invites us to co-operate in that transformation.
Christ’s resurrection tells us that there is not only an alternative vision for the world, but also another end to the story, and that if we can enter into the story of sacrifice, there is abundant life to be found.

In the passage from Revelation we glimpse the completion of the perfect kingdom enabled by Christ’s work of redemption
Always we struggle because that kingdom that is both now and yet to come..secured for us by Christ's saving action on the cross, but apparently out of reach as we look around...It is both a clear and wonderful goal and a sad,  stark contrast to the brokenness of so much of our world today.
So we strive towards the golden hope represented, but wonder if it's truly attainable...

We dream of the heavenly city, a perfect society – vast and open to all, without pain, death or suffering. God and people dwell together because there is nothing to marr their relationship; all exist in perfect communion, perfect community.
This is a place of abundant health, where the tree of life grows -whose leaves are for the healing of nations.
This is a place of transforming light – light streaming from God's own self.
A vision to sustain us and inspire us – the hope which beckons us on...
Just a few verses before the passage we've heard, in Revelation 21 God's promise that those who overcome will be given "the water of life as a gift".
Our passage today shows us ‘the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal’, and the miraculous tree it waters which brings healing and wholeness for all nations....but are we actually thirsty?
We're quite comfortable here and now...

so do we honestly yearn for change, thirst for a new creation, a world transformed and made new in love?

The gospels are clear that there is abundant life to be found through the way of sacrifice. And if we thirst to follow the way of Jesus, God promises to give us his strength –through the Holy Spirit.
The only limit is the limit of our thirst.
Is that vision our vision?

By the grace of God it can be so.

Of course vision without action is only fantasy. We are all called to play our part in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. The vision of a pain and suffering free world given to us in Revelation is not just a beautiful hope for the future. It is something to aim for now.
In a little while we will sing a hymn that will probably be new to you/(at St M's this morning) we sang a hymn that might not be familiar to you...I chose it because it sums up for me the call to love in action
Let me read you the final verse
“Heaven shall not wait for triumphant alleluias
When earth is past and we reach another shore
Jesus is Lord in our present imperfections
His power and love are for now and then for ever more”

The Christian Aid slogan “We believe in life BEFORE death” reflects this.
We are not in the business of offering “pie in the sky when you die” for our resurrection faith leads us to believe that what might seem impossible can and must happen, and invites us to roll up our sleeves and co-operate with God in transforming the world through the power of Love.

Sunday "Friday Five: Faith & Politics"

On Friday, Sally posted this over at RevGals...but I was far too busy drifting around in a state of sleep-deprived emotional exhaustion after a long night watching disappointing results trickling in...Now, however, with my dormant political enthusiasm well and truly awake (whatever the state of the vicar) it feels like a good moment to play...

So what do you think about the mix of faith and politics:

1. Jesus a political figure: discuss...
What is there to discuss? From the moment when Mary celebrated the child in her womb by launching into the Magnificat ("he has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly...He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty"), through the presentation of Jesus's own ministry manifesto
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, - to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the give to those who mourn a garland instead of ashes......" Jesus is not just political, he is revolutionary.
Speaking truth to power has always been part of the gospel imperative - because the brokenness of this world demands change and challenge as we co-operate with God in its transformation.

2. Politics in the pulpit, yes or no and why?
Social politics, - absolutely. Party politics, - pretty much never. There are exceptions to this, of course...If I found myself serving in an area with a tangible BNP presence I would have no hesitation in speaking against that party from the pulpit but generally I think it can be actively unhelpful. When elections are over and done, when a particular issue has been laid to rest, it's really important that priest and people can continue to respect one another, that they can converse without restraint or embarrassment....Party politics tend to disrupt those relationships.
For example, this morning I had a thoroughly amicable conversation with a member of my congregation who, like me, had been up all of Thursday night...He had spent election day working tirelessly for the party of his choice, had attended the vote count and celebrated as the seat was won by his candidate. We both agreed that elections were uniquely exhausting and exhilarating and hoped devoutly that, despite the hung Parliament, we would be glad of more than a few months off before the next one. The thing is, our party political views are diametrically opposed...but though we both knew this, the fact that we had not actually said so enabled us to continue our conversation happily. If I had nailed my party colours to the mast, we would have had to tiptoe round one another cautiously...This felt better.

3.What are your thoughts on the place of prayer in public life...
Hmn. There's a bit drama running here at the moment as the tradition of including prayer at the start of local council meetings has been challenged by the National Secular Society. I'm inclined to feel that "token" prayers, included for the sake of tradition, are probably best discarded...and that the chances of collecting a body of people who want to pray with sincerity, truth and focus in public life are probably I'd be prepared to let the formulaic prayers slide, I think - but I also think we have a duty to pray for the government. Does that cancel things out?

4.Is there a political figure, Christian or otherwise that you admire for their integrity?
Mahatma Gandhi...always.
"What is your view of western civilisation, Mahatma?" "I think it would be a really good thing".

5.What are your thoughts on tactical voting, e.g. would you vote for one individual/party just to keep another individual/ party form gaining power?
This caused me no end of angst this past week. We had an excellent sitting M.P., for whom I have nothing but admiration...We also had a very distasteful candidate from another party, who seemed certain to win this seat. And we had the party I have long supported, the party whose policies I wholeheartedly approve, but who had precisely no chance of winning here.
After much agonising, considering, researching, I decided against tactical voting, just to keep out the distasteful party....But as a result the excellent sitting MP was ejected, my favoured party having eaten into his support without meaningful gain for themselves.
I don't regret voting according to policy - but, had I known the outcome, I think a spot of tactical voting might have been the answer.
Given the current state of UK government, I may have another opportunity to agonise soon.

Monday, May 03, 2010

I interrupt my unwelcome tidying to bring you this week's Unconscious Mutterings
with thanks, as usual, to Luna nina
  1. Creepy ::crawly
  2. Links :: unravelling
  3. Sane :: Alex (are you reading this, Hugger Steward - the indoctrination is working)
  4. Bun ::Chelsea
  5. Visual ::Aid
  6. Remote ::Control
  7. Freaking ::Out
  8. Curly ::tail
  9. Saga ::Norse
  10. Different ::Country
Now, in the absence of an alternative diversion, I guess I have to get on with the study floor...We are currently on seriously bad terms.

    At the Nursing Home

    Ministry at the nursing home that occupies the former vicarage just next to Church in the Valley is a comparatively new development.
    When I first arrived here, two years ago, I included it in my rounds of "Hello, I'm the new vicar - just called in to introduce myself and see if there was anything I could do"
    and received a response marginally less polite than
    "Don't call us, we'll call you".
    Shortly afterwards, the niece of one of the residents contacted me to arrange Home Communion for her aunt, and M., our wonderful Reader, adopted this ministry and has been visiting monthly ever since....but despite her best efforts, it seemed impossible to build further relationships with that community.

    Then, early this year, came a change of management. Suddenly the church was not just tolerated - we were positively welcome. A monthly Communion for residents and families was requested, and launched, and I've found myself called on a few occasions to pray with someone close to death. Today, when I arrived for Communion, I was invited to join the welfare committee.

    Yes, I agreed.

    You saw that coming, didn't you?
    Before anyone explodes with protective horror - this is a community of some 40 housebound souls, living on my doorstep.
    Because they can no longer engage with the outside world, the outside world pretty much fails to engage with them.
    Isn't it a good thing that the church should be the exception to that rule?

    I know that it doesn't have to be the vicar who does the engaging, though I'm recognising the value of the collar as I try to communicate who I am to those wandering in the confusion of extreme age and infirmity. My thought is that I serve on this committee (4 meetings a year, lasting about an hour) for a year or two then pass it on to one of the lovely pastoral group that has emerged from our visiting course...but that at this early stage it's quite good to be as officially visible as I can.
    So there!


    But none of this is actually what I wanted to think about.
    After the service I was asked to go to visit a lady in her room, as she was too weak to move from her bed.
    Indeed, she is so very weak that she can barely muster the strength to speak.This makes for uncomfortable visits. I'm unsure on what basis the staff decided that she would like to see the vicar...I've not encountered any of her family, though when I signed in this afternoon her visitors had just left, so I have no idea whether she is a person of lifelong faith or someone seeking reassurance in a world where everything seems to be falling away.
    This afternoon when I arrived, she was being given tea...
    A nursing auxiliary spooned soup with infinite care and tenderness, teaspoon by patient teaspoon into a mouth that opened reflexively until C decided that she had had enough. As I watched them, - the carer, perhaps 18, possessed of a tranquil, unconscious beauty, the cared-for in her 90s, her features collapsing into themselves as can happen with the very aged, - the whole world seemed to shrink. Here life, potential, hope, confronted age, weariness, diminution...C seemed almost oblivious of the girl's presence. Only the opening mouth suggested that she was in any way involved in the process...but she seemed to draw strength as much from the attentive gentleness as from the food. The whole transaction was life-giving, to those involved and to me, the observor.

    But then tea was over. "She's all yours" said the carer, departing.
    C was silent. She usually is, though her mouth works constantly. Mistaking the situation, I offered her a drink and, laboriously, she whispered "No thank you" - but it cost her so much effort.
    I was at a loss.
    The staff had been sure that a visit from the vicar would be welcome, but now I was here I was unsure what I could offer.
    I murmured a few soothing inanities, suggested that we might pray, then launched with some desperation into the Lord's Prayer, then a few words of intercession and blessing. Through it all, C appeared eye contact, no change in her demeanour, either positive or negative.
    Would anointing be welcome?
    Should I try to find a hand to hold, somewhere beneath the bedclothes? Should I touch her head in blessing?
    Harmless gestures, - expressions of love and care in the right context, but as she lay there helpless, impassive, it seemed to me that they carried the potential for violation.
    Amid the joy of broken relationships restored, and the wonder of a resurrection breakfast on the shore, John 21 carries this bleak little verse, the shape of things to come 

    "I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."

    With the best intentions, longing only to companion someone as they draw close to the end of their journey, I was mindful of becoming part of that process.
    C., if I trespassed in your life, in your space, I'm so sorry.
    Thank you for helping me to reflect a little on age, dependence, and the shadow of death. 

    Sunday, May 02, 2010

    Pause for thought

    Recently, as you'll have noticed, I've been rather an absent blogger.
    There are lots of reasons for this.
    One, of course, is general busyness and lack of reflective time.
    Another is a growing sense that, while a curate could legitimately think aloud, an incumbent ought to know what she thinks before committing it to the internet.
    Yet another a recognition that the more interesting bits of my life and ministry are pretty much unbloggable.
    Add to that a sense, commented on far and wide, that the blogging phenomenon seems to have peaked.
    I tweet alot (a perfect and speedy diversion from almost any given task), and have made new connections there, as well as keeping in touch with many blog friends there
    So one way and another, I wondered if this blog's days were numbered.
    I was pretty sure that I knew exactly who was reading me, - a small number of old friends, who dropped in out of loyalty when I actually got round to posting something.
    I've never had one of those clever gizmos that tells me who is visiting, or from where.....)But just recently, that view has been challenged - and my world enlarged once more.

    You see, one of the comments on this morning's homily for church on the hill came from Gabriele...
    She wrote
    In my country the ballot might be secret but the intimidation that precedes any election is terrible and destructive. Elections here are fraught with fraud and violence and very much them and us. And we are due another one sometime soon .... maybe.
    Gabriele lives in Harare,  where she writes a rather lovely blog herself, "Floating in God's Sea"
    Her perspective not only reminded me of the huge privilege of safe, free and fair elections that we enjoy unthinkingly in the UK, but also reawakened me to the excitement of a blogging community stretching across the world, to offer encouragement, challenge, fresh outlooks.

    Parish ministry so easily becomes, unsurprisingly,all too parochial. But in the past week I've "met" not just Gabriele in Harare but other voices from other places, voices that make me think, remind me that my small world is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw.
    I need these wider horizons and I'm rejoicing in them - so I guess that mean I need to keep on blogging.

    Saturday, May 01, 2010

    Homily for Easter 5

    There's a popular view, usually espoused by those who aren't Christians, that the church should keep well out of politics.
    It's a view that is understandable if you understand faith and practice as a bolt-on extra, a refuge from the problems of life, but if you see your faith as something that shapes your whole world view, seven days a week,then clearly it's another matter.
    I would never presume to tell anyone how to vote, and I'm thankful for the secret ballot that means we all have the space to vote according to our conscience without any fear, favour or peer pressure. It is a genuine blessing – and not something to be taken lightly.
    But I do think that there are some underlying principles that might well guide our thoughts as we enter the polling station on Thursday....Though some of the Christian press might suggest otherwise, trying to guess how Jesus would vote is really a bit silly. We could find verses from all over the gospels to support eachl of the main parties, and a heap of others besides, but that wouldn't really help us much. Now, though, might be a good time to reread some of Christ's teachings for ourselves, if we want clear though challenging ethical guidelines. If we seriously want to see the world become a better place we could do worse than start with the sermon on the Mount, though we might not enjoy its conclusions....
    The problem is that our electoral system is based fairly and squarly on adversarial politics. Through the past weeks we have heard as much about why X is wrong as we have about why Y is right. We have been encouraged to draw up battle lines, to define ourselves in partisan terms...
    It's a natual human instinct, but not one that the gospel encourages.
    Think of our reading from Acts...with its great message of inclusion.
    Jesus was born into a culture that drew clear lines between those who were in and those who were out. His followers, not unreasonably, assumed that they were called to continue in the same way. Their risen Lord was a Saviour for the Jews...Why should they have to mix with Gentiles?

    But then God showed Peter, and through him the whole church, the breadth of his love......
    If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
    That's not something that is easy for us to grasp – any more than it was easy for the disciples. We cannot help but define the world in terms of them and us – and there's nothing wrong with that in itself. It's simply an expression of truth. However great our gifts of empathy, each of us always and only sees through her own eyes
    BUT there is a danger when we use that perspective as a way of claiming our rights over and against those of other people, of asserting our superiority at the expense of others...Too much of the election campaign, across the parties, has played directly into our innate human greed...
    We are encouraged to vote for the party most likely to benefit ourselves and people like us...I suspect, though, that this course of action isn't really open to us if we take our faith seriously.
    Listen to Jesus – that's surely what we, who try to follow, must always seek to do.
    I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
    That's it, really.
    It goes against the grain, - of course it does. “Just as I have loved you” means unconditional, selfless love that holds nothing in reserve. We know where loving like that got Jesus – and it's hard to think of voting for that for ourselves...but then again, he never said it would be easy!
    Love one another Just as I have loved you
    That might mean that we find ourselves voting in ways we had never expected.

    Think of the manifesto that Jesus delivered in the synagogue in Nazareth
    “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
      because the Lord has anointed me;
    he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
       to bind up the broken-hearted,
    to proclaim liberty to the captives,
       and release to the prisoners;
    It's the same agenda that Mary celebrated in the Magnificat...Challenging the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away
    Not so much election as revolution.
    I'm not sure I've heard any of our candidates trying to sell themselves that way...though I hope if I had I would have the courage to vote for them.
    On the whole, though,that's not the sort of policy that wins votes.

    Nonetheless, as we ask God's blessing on our country and pray for wisdom at the ballot box, perhaps it's the yardstick against which we should measure all those who seek to lead and govern in the years ahead.


    I had just come out of the Co-op...stopping off for a bottle of milk and a bag of salad after a funeral.
    It had been raining, but the sky was clearing, and across the roofs of the parked cars I saw a trail of bubbles, catching the evening sun, gleaming in rainbow colours.
    I stopped to enjoy them while weary shoppers trudged past me (it's interesting how rarely they seem to stride, rush, march in these in the valley, there are too many who are defeated by life, unsure that they have anything much worth hurrying towards)
    I'm not sure if they even noticed this sudden gift of unexpected beauty on a Thursday evening.

    Then, from behind the parked cars the source of the bubbles came in sight...Two girls, bright in summer cotton, heading with their mother towards the shop.
    I thanked them for transforming my evening. Their mother smiled. I think she understood...