Saturday, February 25, 2012

homily for Lent 1B "Driven into the Wilderness"

When Jesus was baptized, the heavens were torn open,the Spirit descended like a dove,
and the voice of God cried out,
“You are my son the beloved – with you I am well pleased”
An amazing moment...An affirmation of his calling, in preparation for all that was to come.
A snap shot, too, of the life of the Trinity...Father, Son and Spirit, Love, Beloved and Lover...Jesus dripping from the water, immersed in heavenly Love and overflowing with the Holy Spirit.
A moment to treasure.

But not for long....
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”
That gentle dove transformed into an irresistible force, sending Jesus out beyond the bounds of civilisation, into the most hostile landscape imaginable.
“Sunbeams scorching all the day, chilly dewdrops nightly shed
Not an inviting prospect
Nobody goes into the wilderness unless they have to.
You can die there, or, almost worse, you can lose yourself, your sense of who you are...
So why does the Spirit drive Jesus to spend time there, in that place where everything is stripped away, where the voice of affirmation gives way to the whispers of doubt?

Mark gives us none of the temptation stories we find elsewhere – just that brief summary
He was tempted by Satan...
But in those 5 words we find hope for our own wilderness times....for the place is surely not unfamiliar to us.
We may not know how we arrive there but inevitably at some point in our lives we will find ourselves there, - perhaps repeatedly.
And by God's grace we will not just survive but grow in those experiences.
You see, the wilderness is a place where everything external is stripped away, where we have nothing but ourselves and God rely on, where we have to confront the reality of who we are – and come to terms with it.
That won't be an easy process....but we know that in our wilderness we are not alone...Jesus has been here, as he has been through every other experience of human life.

Our collect today emphasises that it was here that Jesus was tempted, as we are...and of course that matters hugely.
But we need to reflect too on the pattern of moving from spiritual highs, from the joyous security of knowing ourselves beloved of God, to the times of isolation, the times when we feel that we have been DESERT ed...cast into the desert.
Perhaps if we remember that Jesus has been HERE before us too, it may give us strength to survive our own times of isolation, confusion and doubt.
Jesus was in training, whether he knew it or training for the time when, though he was drawing all people to himself he would cry out “Eloi, eloi lama sabacthani”...believing himself to be abandoned by God.
And his time of trial sets a pattern for our own...for wherever we walk in the wilderness, it will not be untrodden ground for us.
Jesus has been here first......has explored the depths of his being....perhaps has even wondered, for an instant, if the Love he experienced at the Jordan was but a transient illusion...
but Jesus has kept faith with himself, and in so doing has kept faith with his heavenly Father.
And so, even as he faced temptation, help was at hand
“Angels ministered to him”
There will always be wilderness experiences...and we will not always be able to embrace them....for it's human to prefer the way of green pastures and still waters.
But during Lent we can model wilderness, can choose to strip away distractions, choose to go deep into ourselves to explore who we are, and who God is in our lives.
And if we dare that inner journey, then we will find that God is the one who makes the desert blossom like the rose, that it is in the wilderness that we find grace, and the heavenly manna that will feed us til we are safely home.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Happy Lent? a sermon for Ash Wednesday at St Matthew's

Welcome, dear feast of Lent
That's what the poet George Herbert wrote...
but when I was a child I hated Lent
I hated the solemn feeling of Ash Wednesday
I hated the dark purple that surrounded me in church
I hated the absence of flowers.
Dear feast? I didn't think so.
Lent was all about going dust and ashes and going without.
Not a feast at all.

Pancake day?
That was quite different
That was a feast right enough.
Something to celebrate and always the hope that one of Daddy's pancakes would go so high it stuck to the kitchen ceiling...It did at least once.

But then I grew up and began to learn the value of a new start, something that is pretty meaningless to children, for whom each moment of life is new....
I learned that having the slate wiped clean is really something to celebrate.
That as we begin to turn over a new leaf, to flip the pancake to show its best side, we really can rejoice.
Listen to Isaiah again

 “I will tell you the kind of day I want—a day to set people free. I want a day that you take the burdens from others. I want a day when you set troubled people free and you take the burdens from their shoulders. 7 I want you to share your food with the hungry. I want you to find the poor who don’t have homes and bring them into your own homes. When you see people who have no clothes, give them your clothes! Don’t hide from your relatives when they need help.”
 8 If you do these things, your light will begin to shine like the light of dawn. Then your wounds will heal. Your “Goodness” will walk in front of you, and the Glory of the LORD will come following behind you. 
That sounds pretty wonderful, doesn't it.
We can choose to show our best side and when we do so
We will shine like the dawn....

When we receive the ash on our foreheads, we do so with two thoughts.
One is of our mortality...the dark side of the day
You are dust and to dust you shall return
But the other.....the other is the route home for us, the way of life and light that means that none of us need fear the end
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ

Christ who is faithful to us.
Christ who does not condemn us, no matter what the evidence of our guilt,
Christ who shows us the overwhelming love of God who meets us, like a Father, when we've only just begun to make our journey home.
Be faithful to Christ

When I was burning the palms to make our ash it was an irritating and messy business
For ages they just wouldn't catch, wouldn't burn
Then they smoked and smouldered so that my hair and my clothes smelled like a kipper factory
But that's what getting rid of sin can be like
A fresh start isn't always easy
But there's no need to despair.

You see today we are given another opportunity to look at who we are and who we want to be.
To spring-clean hearts, minds and souls so that our light can break forth like the dawn
That can be difficult and painful – for it usually involves giving up things that are part of ourselves, things that we hold much closer than even the most stubborn addiction to it's good that we keep Lent together, as a community.
Together we can encourage and support one another – by word, by example, by prayer.
Together we can, by the grace of God, begin again to form ourselves into a community which proclaims by deeds that are louder than words that Jesus is Lord, that for us the Great Commandment of love is supreme

You see, returning to that messy, tiresome business of burning the palms, finally the warmth of a whole tinful smouldering was enough.
finally they caught fire and the flames broke forth and sprang up and in a few moments those twisted crosses had disappeared and the residue.......well, that's what we use to remind us of both sides of Lent
Of our frailty and are dust
And of our hope in Christ......who is faithful to us
who will lead us through our own wilderness times, through the desert of repentance
who will bring us safely home

Welcome, dear feast of Lent
May it be a blessing to us all

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Homily for the Sunday next before Lent, Yr B: Mark 9:2-9 & 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Remember, Jesus is the star of your show – not you.
That message, posted by a friend on twitter, is a pretty good paraphrase of what Paul is telling us in verse 5 of our epistle.
It might seem to be obvious...
As a slightly cheesy worship song puts it
It's all about you, Jesus...”
What we preach is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord

That must be the central purpose of all that we do as Church – whether, publicly as clergy – or as radical subversives among the laity.
That's what the Christian church IS...a body of people who can say with confidence “Jesus Christ is Lord” and live it was as well – for empty words mean nothing.

But to be honest, I'm not sure that I actually measure up to that most of the time...
I'm not the worst person you're likely to meet, but I'm a long way from proclaiming Jesus as Lord with everything that I do, everything that I am.

In the affluent west, it's quite easy to wander gently through life believing ourselves to be moderately good, decent people.
It's not that difficult to be largely kind when we know that we're secure, to offer moderate generosity when we are certain that our own needs will be met.
But when we think that those essentials might be under threat,it can be disturbing how easily we let go of our aspiration to unselfishness. 
We change into people who believe that “Charity begins at home”, people who clench our hands to hold onto what we believe we need, rather than opening them to share the blessings we have been given.
We forget to live as people transformed and transfigured by our obedience to the Great Commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves.
So, when people look at our lives, they see not a daily proclamation of Jesus as Lord but the same sort of anxious,half hearted generosity that they recognise in themselves.
It's small wonder that they don't flock to join us in following Christ, when we seem to be driven as much by fear as the most secular humanist adopted by the media...
When people look at us, for the most part they can't see past us.
They can't see Jesus.

But today is all about seeing Jesus.
Seeing him, as the disciples did, on the mountain of the Transfiguration.
Recognising him for the first time, hearing his identity and his mission confirmed
This is my son, the beloved..LISTEN TO HIM”
Seeing the humanity of his nature overwhelmed by the divine...the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

It's that light which must shine at the heart of the Church, and in our hearts too...
That light by which we must live
That light whose beauty transforms that when we look around us we can't help but see Jesus in our friends and neighbours, in the stranger at the check-out, in the druggies in the park.

It's a light that should shine through us that when people see us, they see quite clearly the One who is our Lord.

I know that most of the time that light is shaded in my life, all but obscured by, distorted by my own sins and failings, my own cowardice and shame.
Even as I try (and as I long) to be your slave for Jesus' sake - I mostly end up serving myself.
It just keeps that my words and my life fail to match up with depressing regularity.

But there's no need to despair.
Lent begins on Wednesday.
Another opportunity to look at who we are and who we want to be
To spring-clean hearts, minds and souls so that the Christ light can shine from us.
That can be difficult and painful – for it usually involves giving up things that are part of ourselves, things that we hold much closer than even the most stubborn addiction to it's good that we keep Lent together, as a community.
Together we can encourage and support one another – by word, by example, by prayer.
Together we can, by the grace of God, begin again to form ourselves into a community which proclaims by deeds that are louder than words that Jesus is Lord, that for us the Great Commandment of love is supreme.

Remember, Jesus is the star of your show – not you - and trust Him to complete the good work He has begun in you.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

What if nobody is there?

No - not a crisis of faith, but rather one of practicalities.
As a catholic Anglican, I believe absolutely in the importance of using all the sacraments available to us, at the drop of a biretta...I KNOW that they are an outward sign of the grace of God in all sorts of situations, and that they are of infinite value in reassuring those present that this grace is indeed at work.
This means that I'm (usually) very relaxed about baptising all comers, that I want, always, to welcome and feed EVERYONE at the Eucharist, and a whole host of other things too...
but a couple of weeks ago I found myself wondering what I was really doing.

I was at the bedside of a dear soul from my congregation, who was at the very final stage of her journey.
She was deeply unconscious....her hospital bed was curtained off from her neighbours and her family, who do not share her faith, were taking a breather after a long vigil.
Her son had phoned me to say, pretty much, "if there's anything that you think you ought to be doing, now is the time to do it" of course, I went, and of course, I gave her the Last Rites.
It was what she would have wanted and expected...and it gave me, at least, a physical reminder of the process of homecoming which was going on as I waited, anointed and prayed.
But, when all had been done decently and in order, when I had said my own good bye and God speed and left P to her family once more, I did wonder really what all the outwards signs had been about.
I knew, without any physical reminder, what God was doing in and for P, while she was in no state to register and there was nobody else there.
My actions were changing nothing, but simply offering an outward expression of what was going on within... so......
What do you think?
It mattered to me to be there to commend her to God, to speak those words of direction and release that always, for me, come with the music of "Gerontius" close by...but if a sacrament is a sign, then did I really need it that day?
What is there IS nobody else there?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

A prayer for an "Open the Book" team.

A long time ago (well, I think it was in 2001 to be precise) a small group of women involved in children's work in this diocese met for coffee and conversation with the then Children's Officer. We didn't have any specific agenda, beyond getting to know one another better, and mutual support. 
I was about to go to my selection conference, so didn't pay that much attention to a conversation that was happening on the other side of the room in the ancient gatehouse that is the Cathedral's Education Centre....but 2 of my colleagues were sharing a dream they had had.....and getting very excited.
From that conversation and the dreaming of dreams, Open the Book was rolled out in this diocese and those two women found a new vocation and ministry -which has touched hundreds of adults and children.

Fast forward to 2012, and I've been asked to commission the new team that is taking "Open the Book" into one of our community schools here in the valley. Over the past 3 months as the team has developed, they have grown in so many ways - in faith, in confidence, in friendship - it would have been worth launching the team for the benefits to its members alone, without the impact that their ministry will have on the children of our schools. 
It is a real delight to be commissioning them - I'm thankful for Open the Book as a project, and for the way it has inspired so many to connect with local schools, to enable them to experience the Bible, not as something sterile or irrelevant, but as something dynamic, exciting and immediate...
So tomorrow I will anoint the team, and pray for them by name......then wait and see what happens next through their gift of time and talents.

Lord God,
you invite each of us to be part of your great story
and weave our lives into your perfect happy ending.
Bless your servants N & M as they share the story of your love
and open the book in which we learn more of you.
Give them gentle patience,
Creativity and insight
and all those gifts that they most need
as they share good news with the children of Cashes Green.
May the children, drawn by these stories
Begin to find their place in your kingdom
and so claim your story as their own
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.