Sunday, April 29, 2012

God is greater than our hearts; 8.00 homily for St Matthew's

 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

Do you know Uncle George?
My guess is that even if you've not encountered him under that name, you may at least have heard of him, and he may indeed be a familiar companion. The Jesuit writer Gerard Hughes introduces him in his 1980s best seller on spirituality, God of Surprises....for Uncle George represents one of the false images of God that tends to lurk at the back of our minds. What do you think?
God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we are taken to visit ‘Good Old Uncle George’. He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family. At the end of the visit. Uncle George turns to address us.
‘Now listen, dear,’ he begins, looking very severe, ‘I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.’ He then leads us down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one.
‘Now look there, dear,’ he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved.
‘And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go,’ says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad. As we go home, tightly clutching Dad with one hand and Mum with the other. Mum leans over us and says, ‘And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And we, loathing the monster, say, ‘Yes, I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace.
Is that familiar at all?
However much we may say with great confidence “God is love...” in my experience there is a little voice that adds “But even God doesn't love me that much – because I'm just not good enough.”
It's true, of course, that God knows us through and through....He knows the gifts that we struggle to acknowledge (have you noticed how much harder it is to accept compliments than criticism, that admitting that we are really good at something can tie us in great knots of false modesty and discomfort) and He knows those nasty, niggling, secret failings that we'd prefer not to own even to ourselves.
There's absolutely nothing that we can hide from God...because there is nowhere that God is not present.
And if we were to judge in purely human terms – then failure and condemnation might well be the end result. One of the dangers of the life of faith is that, setting before ourselves the great example of the life of Christ, and of the commandment to love, we are particularly conscious of our brokenness...Somehow it seems holier to think of ourselves as miserable sinners, and to stay in a dusty corner on our knees, than to stand erect as God's forgiven children, rejoicing that He calls us to life in all its fulness.
But to do that is to sidestep the wonder of God's grace...grace poured out for us in reckless abandon,
grace that floods the world, and can permeate even the depths of our being -yours AND mine – if we're willing to allow that.
You'll know, of course, that during baptism we pour water over the head of the candidate....water that represents Christ's action in washing away our sin, water that reminds us that we die with Christ to share His resurrection...but water that represents, too, that boundless tide of grace. A long time ago now I baptised D, a lively three year old who had strong views about the indignities that were being heaped upon him as he stood in smart clothes, and had oil smeared on his head not just by the curate but by parents and godparents to boot. D did not accept this quietly...indeed I pretty much had to pin him against a pillar in order to mark him with the cross...but when we got to the font it was a different matter. D loved water...he loved his bath, he loved to swim, and he wasn't going to waste the opportunity for some joyful as we stood he began to splash...he splashed til I was rather more than damp...he splashed til mum, Dad & godparents were dripping...he splashed til practically everyone there was sharing in his baptism........
And you know, he had the right idea.
We tend to behave as if God's grace is limited to the nice polite little dribbles that trickle over a baby's head from a delicate scallop shell...but in fact it's a tsunami, that can and should sweep us off our feet, transforming the whole landscape of our lives til we're not sure if we are on our head or on our heels...til all we are sure of is that we are profoundly loved and need never be afraid.
That is the message that God wants us to carry with us.
We are profoundly loved and need never be afraid.
That is the message of God's grace that speaks into our hearts, to silence forever the sinister rumblings of “Uncle George” and that still more insidious voice of our own that says,
“You fail...Try harder or God won't love you”
Do you know, we have nothing to prove – for God loves us unconditionally
Yes, we are called to love – in deed and in truth...
Yes, we will fail at this, again and again.
But there is grace enough to cover our every failing, grace enough to bring us home singing
Even though our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts.
Thanks be to God!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Friday Five; Sacraments... all is holy?

I've not played Friday Five for months, but Sally's questions today played so wonderfully into my experience at "On Fire" that I couldn't resist...

This Friday Five stems from some questions that have been running around my head and heart recently and are squeezing their way out through my blog here and again here

So I'd like to ask you some simple questions about the sacraments:

1. What does the Lord's supper/ Eucharist mean to you?
Pretty much everything!
To know that God loves us so much that He trusts us with Himself in that fragment of bread and sip of know that as we eat we are transformed by the life of God within us, that this food makes US part of HIM, rather than becoming, like other foods, part of us...
that as we bring our broken, hurting selves to kneel, offering all that we can, we receive in exchange God's own self...
to recognise that as we gather at the altar we do so with the whole Communion of Saints, those "with whom in the Lord Jesus we forever more are one"

2. How important is preparation for this, and what form does it take? 
As a priest in a busy parish, preparation is too often a matter of sorting out crises with the rotas, ensuring that there is someone to act as crucifer, that the intercessor of the day is both present AND aware that Mrs X has died...this means that I come upon the heart of the Sacrament almost dependent on the provision of the liturgy to do my preparation for me. Thankfully it does this well (after all, it's what it's designed for) but nonetheless, the difference in the experience when I was able to spend time this past week specifically and consciously preparing was, to put it mildly, mind-blowing.

3. What does baptism mean to you?
For me, baptism is our very first response to the overwhelming love of God in which we live and move and have our being. Sometimes, we seem not to move beyond that first step...but baptism, if you like, gives us a passport that we can present at any time in our lives. Too often in my current context I know that families have no expectation that baptism will change anything in terms of their way of life, that there's almost no chance of my re-encountering the babies I baptise by the dozen  before they turn up 5 years later in Reception class ...and sometimes that makes me anxious. But since Baptism is above all an out-pouring of God's grace, I continue to ignore that anxiety, knowing that it's His gift to those children...and that one day He will enable them to enjoy it.

4. How important is preparation for baptism and what form does it take?
I've a rather schizophrenic approach here. Given the low expectations of most baptism families, I do try hard to help them recognise what a big step this is...we watch a DVD together, I talk about a two-way "contract" and ask them to tell me how the Church can help them to keep their part of the bargain, as a way of fulfilling ours
(People of God, will you welcome this child and uphold her in her new life in Christ?)...but I think that is really just to salve my conscience...I know I'd not refuse baptism to anyone, regardless of lack of preparation, because it is so much about God's action...God's in the end, preparation becomes irrelevant.

5. A quote/ poem/ song that brings you before God in a sacramental way, and helps you to engage at  a deeper level

Well, surprise,'s George Herbert again :) This is at the heart of my faith, and at the heart of my Sacramental theology, so I make no apology for returning to it.

  Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
 Guilty of dust and sin.
 But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
 From my first entrance in,
 Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
 If I lack'd anything.

 "A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
 Love said, "You shall be he."
 "I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
 I cannot look on thee."
 Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
 "Who made the eyes but I?"

 "Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
 Go where it doth deserve."
 "And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
 "My dear, then I will serve."
 "You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat." 
 So I did sit and eat

Friday, April 27, 2012

God of surprises

If you've been reading here for a while, you'll know that I've always been rather wary of the charismatic movement.
As a teenager, I was, it seemed, the one member of the school's CU who did NOT receive any perceptible gifts of the Spirit at a period when to speak in tongues seemed to be the only acceptable criterion by which faith was judged.
At the time, after a long and anxious conversation with God on the bus home from school I accepted that for me "Blessed are those who have not seen but yet believe" was to be the motto and continued on my journey of faith with only a faint twinge of envy.
It did mean, though, that I tended to avoid experiences of charismatic renewal through the years. As a singer absolutely at home in the Anglican choral tradition, and with strongly catholic leanings in both theology and practice this wasn't too difficult. I heard rumours occasionally of charismatic happenings at places like Walsingham, (but certainly not at All Saints, Margaret Street!) but when I left university and embarked on the "real world" my opportunities for pilgrimage there were increasingly limited, and as I began exploring my own priestly vocation it seemed that the door to the Shrine there was now firmly closed to me.
I decided that while charismatic renewal was obviously a wonderful thing, there must be some good reason why God didn't want me to experience it - and mostly kept well away from situations in which I might have encountered it because, quite honestly, it would have hurt too much if nothing had happened.

That, of course, didn't mean that I didn't have some very powerful experiences of God's presence at various points along the way....but I used different language to describe them. I tended to talk more of my relationship with God, and less about the work of the Holy Spirit - though every year at Pentecost I would find myself praying with all that was in me for something amazing to happen, NOW, this INSTANT, to transform me and my churches.

It didn't seem as if anything much changed - but I've been praying for long enough on so many different topics that I've gradually accepted that prayer really isn't a slot machine.
Nonetheless, it did hurt a bit.
Maybe God didn't love me QUITE as much as he loved some of those others?
In my heart of hearts I knew that was nonsense, but nonetheless....

So I plugged on, working as hard as I possibly could to be a good priest, loving my people and praying for them as best I could, but recognising that there wasn't going to be a miraculous turn-around in the life of my parishes if it depended on me.

Then last year came my episcopal review - something that happens every three years, and which involves both looking back and exploring visions for the future.Mine was in early February, when the memory of a particularly discouraging Christmas was still fresh in my mind, and I told my reviewer that I suspected nothing I could do would have a real impact on the life of my churches...that we were growing infinitesimally,that though new initiatives were emerging, most of them seemed to be quite dependent on my energy....that actually, only 3 years in, I was pretty weary and I couldn't see how things would change. 
Clutching at straws, it seemed, I wondered if going to one of the Holy Spirit days offered by HTB might be something to consider - but instead my reviewer said firmly
"If I were you, I'd try "On Fire".

On Fire? Never heard of rushed home to google and found this
Not convinced, I asked on twitter, where a friend was able to tell me quite alot more and was warmly encouraging about my attendance, promising that she'd go again if I booked.
When my "objectives" from the review turned up a couple of weeks later, attending "On Fire" seemed to be written in - so I really had no option - and was glad when another dear friend announced that he was willing to give it a try this year.

So there we were on Monday, arriving at High Leigh - which I'd last visited for a diocesan conference some 12 years ago, I'd guess. The personnel were pretty typical of most Christian gatherings. 
Lots of grey hair, lots of kind faces...
Did we REALLY want to be here?
Even to hear Philip Yancey?
I wasn't convinced....though glad to have 3 days to spend "irl" with online friends.
As the music group gathered for the opening worship I was even LESS convinced (remember that bit about English choral tradition? it's still the music that most feeds my soul) but once the Mass started I realised I might have to adjust my ideas a little.

And that, really, is what happened this week.

Amid a most wonderful blend of deeply familiar, utterly essential, sacramental worship I found myself encountering God in new ways...
Despite my huge resistance to the music in particular, but to other elements as well.
Could I really trust this community, run the risk that once again I might not be "chosen" to be blessed?
Despite all this, God acted.
Very gently at first - with a reminder that I HAD indeed received the Holy Spirit before, - most specifically at my ordination. I found that my hands remembered very well the cross that was traced on their palms as I was anointed at my priesting - and that that tangible reminder stayed with me, positively zinging with life for the rest of that day...that suddenly EVERYTHING was more alive...
What are the sacraments, if not charismatic in themselves?
Don't I call down the Holy Spirit whenever I baptise, or preside at the Eucharist?
Perhaps I've always been a "charismatic catholic" without knowing it....
Before I left home, another twitter friend had suggested that I might find On Fire a place to meet an old friend in a new context - and that was so much my experience, as God reassured me that, actually, this wasn't new and foreign ground.

But, you know, as people around me were being prayed for and falling over, I was praying rather urgently something like this:
"You know... I really NEED something to happen...but PLEASE not falling over. I'm scared enough as it is. PLEASE......."
So at that time, in that place, I did indeed remain on my feet - full of warmth and joy, unable for a few minutes to open my eyes, but decisively upright.

Later it was a different matter.

This was after another wonderful Eucharist - and the whole room was chock full of love and I dared to go forward for prayer again.
This time God reminded me of something I need to hear pretty much every minute of every day.
If I did counted cross-stitch, that might be the text of my next sampler as it's a message I'm peculiarly bad at hearing or believing - but the other message, that God really can be trusted, I found myself learning without any effort at all as after some rather beautiful prayer, I woke up to find myself gazing at the ceiling - and more full of love and joy than my being really had room for.

No, I don't understand any of it.
I don't understand why the Spirit moves so powerfully in some contexts when at other times, despite fervent prayer, nothing much seems to happen.
I don't understand WHAT happened, except in terms of realising that I could trust God to catch me however I might happen to fall, and that letting go completely can be gift rather than loss.
I don't know how my experience of joy and blessing may impact on how I minister from now on.
I just know that I've found a new place and a new way in which to be loved by God...a way in which the precious Sacrament that is at the heart of my faith and my priesthood ministers to me in ways of grace and beauty that I hadn't imagined.

But (because, you know, Aslan is not a tame lion) I still don't speak in tongues - but I rather think my conversation with God has changed gear anyway.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

With thanks to friends & colleagues from the PRCL list, particularly Kathy Donley, for the story of the novice preacher.

You are witnesses of these things
That's what Jesus says to his disciples, as he meets them in their fear and confusion in those extraordinary days after the Resurrection.
You are witnesses
so let's think about that whole calling to witness, handed down from that little group in 1st century Jerusalem to us in St M's this morning.
A witness, according to wikipedia is
someone who has, or claims to have, knowledge relevant to an event or other matter of interest”
And more
Witness are usually only permitted to testify to what they have experienced first hand.”

So to just what are the disciples witnesses...?

First, and most dramatically, to the presence of the risen Christ among them.
He appears suddenly unlooked for, unannounced,THERE in their place of doubt and uncertainty, there with his message “Peace be with you”
When the last they'd seen of him was a pale, lifeless body laid to rest in Joseph of Arimathea's garden tomb, to be invited to touch the still-raw wounds of the living dead does not seem like a recipe for peace to me...
I'm with the disciples who assumed, quite rationally, that Jesus MUST be a ghost, and it seems somewhat unfair that he should ask them why they are frightened.
They've dealt with the terrifying events of Holy Week, have no idea whether or when the soldiers may come for them – and now they are expected to rejoice at an apparition that seems entirely contrary to anything that makes sense in their world.

But this is Jesus – and even as they panic, they are filled with joy – maybe not quite enough to quell all doubts but nonetheless joy...Something wonderful is happening here, even if they do not yet understand it.
And then Jesus proves his physical reality by eating a piece of fish...his is a real body, with real needs...ghosts do not, cannot eat.
This is JESUS – with them in all the wonder of his resurrected body

Once this has been confirmed, he begins to teach them, just as he has all along.
Once more he unpacks for them the meaning of Scripture, shows them the path of salvation history leading to that time, that place, these people...
He “opens their minds to understand the Scriptures” and at last everything falls into place.
All that has happened had always been meant to happen
Good Friday was not a day of unmitigated disaster but the ultimate revelation of God's boundless love – and now they see with their own eyes the wonder of the resurrection.
You are witnesses of these things”

More, they are witnesses to the sheer joy of knowing themselves forgiven...
I'm sure that each of them in that upper room was all too conscious of his failures, of courage, loyalty and love...each of them must have repented 1000 times as they watched Jesus die on the cross...and now they receive forgiveness and the peace that he promised.

And then Jesus starts that amazing relay that carries on from that day to this...”to be proclaimed to all nations beginning from Jerusalem”
That chain stretches across the centuries...til someone tells someone who tells someone who tells YOU
YOU are witnesses of these things

But remember, you cannot be a witness to something you have not yet experienced...
We witness not on the basis of hearsay but from heartfelt, living faith.
Living faith comes from a direct experience of God's transforming love..that same experience that enabled a small group of frightened labourers to spread the gospel across the known world...
Living faith comes from repenting and knowing ourselves forgiven.
Living faith cannot keep silent – but reaches out to touch the lives of others.

YOU are witnesses of these things.

Just before the passage we've heard today, Luke records that wonderful encounter on the road to Emmaus...We don't get to hear it this year, but I want you to recall it for a moment because I think it's helpful to remember that the disciples on the road did not recognise Jesus at first.
They weren't in a super holy, super spiritual state of enlightenment...they were bumbling along, bewildered and anxious as most of us generally are...
But there, amid their confusion, was Jesus...walking beside them, helping them understand God's purposes, present with them in the breaking of bread.
And their experience is so often ours.
For many of us, our most frequent, most meaningful, most transformative experiences of God happen when we are with other people:when we talk about real life, the issues that thrill or perplex us, when we break bread and share a meal together, when we welcome the newcomer in our midst,when we explore scripture together.
It happens when we share what we can, and when we receive what others have to offer.
YOU are witnesses of these things.

Let me finish with a story.

In a small theological college, a first year student was asked to preach.
This novice worked all night on a sermon, but no words came. At the appropriate time, he stood in the pulpit, looked out at his fellow students and said “Do you know what I’m going to say?” They all shook their heads “no” and he said “neither do I, the service has ended, go in peace.”

Well, the Principle was not pleased. He told the student, “You will preach again tomorrow, and you had better have a real sermon.” Again, he stayed up all night, but still no sermon. When he stood in the pulpit, he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” All the students nodded “yes” so the preacher said “Then there is no need for me to tell you. The service has ended, to in peace.”

Now, the Principle was angry. “You, you have one more chance. Preach the gospel tomorrow or you will be expelled from the college.” Again he worked all night, and the next morning stood before his classmates and asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of them nodded “yes” while the other half shook their heads “no.” So the young preacher said “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended, go in peace.”

This time, the Principle just smiled. He walked up to the student, put his arm around his shoulders and said “Hmmm…those who know, tell those who don’t know? Today, the gospel has been proclaimed. The service has ended, go in peace.”

Those who know tell those who don't
YOU are witnesses of these things, entrusted in your turn with that precious task of telling, or better still showing, friends, neighbours, family the wonders of love, forgiveness and transformation that you have all nations, beginning in Cainscross and Selsley.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Thank God for Thomas - words for Easter 2B 2012

I wonder if you've ever had a nickname...and if so whether you liked it.
(Invite responses....)
Some nicknames are funny and endearing – I still like being called “Catkin” by those who knew me when I was too little to pronounce my own name
Others are plain silly – all those short guys known as “Lofty” and hulking 6 footers called “Titch”
And some are a bit hurtful....nicknames that reflect an aspect of a person and use that one aspect as shorthand for all that they are
Four- eyes”
Doubting Thomas”

Ah yes...Doubting Thomas!
Such a familiar nickname that we even apply it to others...
He's a bit of a doubting Thomas”
But is it really fair?
Across 2000 years Thomas is remembered not for his obedience in following Jesus
Not for his later courage in taking the gospel to India
but for his doubts.

But honestly, he wasn't much worse than the other disciples
Despite his denial of Jesus, we don't refer to “Peter the Turncoat”
Despite their anxiety to claim the best seats in the kingdom, we don't talk of James and John as the Wannabe Twins

But Thomas...he's stuck with that nickname, come what may.
And honestly, it's not surprising he doubted.
Imagine that you are with the 12 in that upper room in Jerusalem in the days after the crucifixion
None of you will be feeling very confident – in anything.
Each of you has let down your dearest friend
Each of you has put personal safety before the claims of God's kingdom
Each of you has cherished dreams that now seem to have withered before your eyes.
Each of you is, frankly, scared stiff.

But into that place of anxiety, fear and confusion comes Jesus – as he always does, into our places of anxiety, fear and confusion (even if we try to shut the doors against him)
Jesus with his message of peace – the forgiveness that each of that battered and beaten group most needs to receive
Peace – says Jesus...It's OK. I understand what you did. I still love you. You are forgiven.
Peace to make good your failures
Peace to calm your fears
Peace to restore your broken dreams

The Peace of Christ – which he then tells them to share with others
“‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 
 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Peace that transforms them all

But not Thomas
Poor Thomas is somewhere else that day, so he misses out not only on seeing Jesus but on receiving that blessed assurance that all is now well.
He listens to his friends, with all their new-found certainty – but while they seem to be seeing the world by the new light of Easter hope, he remains stuck in the darkness of Good Friday.
No Peace for him – indeed, their very confidence increases his isolation.
He must have been tempted to pretend that he too was now secure in his faith once again, or at least to keep out of their way, in an attempt to gloss over his uncertainty
....but he had the honesty to stick to his guns – and to his doubts
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

Thank God for Thomas.
We need him – just as we continue to need those who, in any group, ask the questions we are afraid to voice ourselves...
We need him because he shows us that it is absolutely OK to have doubts, OK
to ask questions – and that God honours those questions....
There is no lecture on the essentials of faith, no reproach for his uncertainty.
Instead Thomas is invited to come close to Jesus (what could be better) and to touch with his own hands Christ's body in all its resurrection life.
It's hard to imagine a more wonderful confirmation that questioning is welcome, that we are to come to Christ as we are, - not resting on the faith of others but discovering it for ourselves as the complicated individuals that we are....complicated individuals with our own unique relationship with God in Christ.

Not something you can receive off the peg from another person
Your faith is shaped by your life experiences, by the people you encounter, the books that you read
It's rather like a jigsaw puzzle. As you go through life, you slowly assembly the puzzle, until perhaps you get a lovely picture, with no gaps.
At that point, life intervenes, and doubt takes the puzzle and throws it up in the air, so that you have to start reassembling the pieces once again.
Every time that happens, the puzzle comes out with a slightly different picture...YOUR picture, created through your own encounters with God and his people.

Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, writes
"To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of lack of depth." And he encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, says Sacks, "not because we doubt, but because we believe."

So – that's my invitation to you today as well
ASK questions.
Write them down if you like and post them in the “Vicar's box”
I can't promise to answer them all, but if you add your name as well I'd love to explore them with you – or perhaps we'll use them to launch a study group...
Nothing is off limits...for what we're about is helping one another to make a really beautiful faith picture...and for that to be real, we need every experience of questioning and doubt.

Thank God for Thomas indeed.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Holy Week & pictures

The high altar on Palm Sunday

The table set for Iona Eucharist

The altar of Repose at the Maundy Watch

The altar of Repose 

Nails in the cross on Good Friday

Walking the way of the cross...before foot washing at Good Friday family workshop

Preparing to take the cross to the Common

Easter Garden - made by Messy Church

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter people?

Lent 2012 has been a Lent like no other for this family.

On the 1st Saturday of Lent my best beloved second mother, E, went home to God - so my personal journey through the 40 days took a very different direction from the one I'd planned, with less emphasis on personal holiness and considerably more on survival amid a deep ocean of grief.

A week after her funeral, on the first day when that grief was no longer the first thing of which I was conscious of on waking, my mother-in-law also took her leave of my children lost two grandmothers in just three weeks. At the same time 14 parishioners also departed - so that this Lent was above all a season of farewells, some expected, some at the "proper" time, though no less sad for that....and some sudden, untimely, hard to negotiate.

Truly, a Lent unlike any other:so, fittingly, today's Easter celebrations were also unlike any other.

Though Holy Week I'd been very conscious of the burdens that some of my extended church family were carrying.Family struggles, harmful addictions, apparently irretrievably broken relationships.
They weighed heavier than usual this year and there were moments along the way when I caught myself grumbling that all these PEOPLE needed me when I ought to be worrying about the Liturgy - til God reminded me with great gentleness that there was no point in trying to worship his Son in the Eucharist if I had no time for Him among those people for whom I have a care.

After that things were fine - and the to-do list somehow got done at least sufficiently to pass muster...and the Triduum came and we were carried along on a river of worship as we shared in the events of the first Holy Week...and finally came to Easter morning.

And, of course, it was good - truly, more than good - but not a bit straightforward!

It was good that some of those with whom I'd walked the Way of the Cross over the past week were there to share in the joy of the Resurrection.
It was good that we welcomed baby H into the household of faith through baptism  - and I., baptised on Easter Sunday a year ago, came with his parents too.
There were friends from my title parish, a couple I will marry later this month, family from abroad, all sorts of wonderful people to love and rejoice with.
The whole of valley church was delightfully full and happy - when S., our no-longer-resident alcoholic, arrived.

He had already graced the 8.00 Communion with his presence, intermittently lucid and frantic, alarming us a little when he placed a sharp serrated potato peeler on the altar as part of his protest against the Church's failure to act to feed the starving during (I think!) the Irish potato famine, but quietening down as together we blessed the tree he has brought in memory of his friend J, whose funeral I'd conducted in January.
He spent quite a while demanding baptism rather loudly, - S does not have an "indoor voice" - before agreeing that I could baptise baby H. first, and departing for a while...

However as the 9.30 congregation erupted with joy into one more "HE IS RISEN INDEED! ALLELUIA!" before the final hymn, he was back - intent on conducting a conversation at full volume from one end of the church to the other.
No of course he didn't want baptism.
Everything was fine!
Life had never been better!
F****g great!
For a while we engaged in a slightly demented conversation by hand signals, me at the altar, S at the font - in which thumbs-ups figured largely...but he wanted everyone to know that he, Jesus, was alive...and that we ought to get out there and do some living ourselves.
Not a bad Easter message, I felt - though S did spoil things rather by throwing the liturgical dustbin lid (used for the loud noise at the end of Tenebrae, you know) about a bit...and striding down the aisle waving a glass of cider.
I began to suspect I was actually living in an episode of Rev once again - but was thrilled by how well the valley congregation absorbed him, with barely a raised eyebrow, and certainly no sense that he didn't belong there in the church.

It became a little more alarming when he announced his intention of joining us up the hill as well, - a much smaller building, with an older congregation and a generally more formal taste in worship. I tried to warn him that if he were noisy up there, it seemed inevitable that he would be asked to leave...but he was undeterred.
His first entrance, during the opening hymn, was full of poetic grace as he marched up the aisle bearing a branch of cherry blossom from the tree in the churchyard, which he placed on the altar - before leaving, blessing the congregation as he went with more thumbs-ups...though this time no response was forthcoming and he was asked to leave.
This happened several times in the course of the service.
I hated it...but could see, too, that in a smaller space his presence loomed large and somewhat threatening...and nobody should be frightened in church on Easter Sunday (or any other day).
How can I offer an embrace wide enough to encompass both the awkward and disturbed like S., with whom Jesus would spend much of his time, and the gentler souls who are part of the regular congregation?
If Resurrection means anything in the here and now, then it must have something to say to those who cling on to the edge of life and the edge of society...but it takes courage to open our hearts and our lives enough to include them.

I'm reasonably comfortable with S., but I know that if my children were small I might feel completely different about his presence in our churches...
and so many of the hill congregation, while clearly concerned about his situation and sad that life had clearly not treated him well, were anxious that I should learn from the tragic death of Fr. John Suddards, only a few miles away.
I'm keen to learn from it too - but I'm not sure that I want to learn the same lesson that my congregation wants for me..

So, amid the undoubted joy of today I'm asking myself how we live as Easter people, in a way that enables the flourishing of all?
What I might do differently to help my congregations fear less, when I'm sometimes fearful mysel?.
And I'm perversely proud of the signed inscription scrawled in OHP pen on my rear windscreen when I emerged from hill church at the end of the morning


Homily for Easter Sunday at 8.00 at St Matthew's

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
However weary we are after a long and demanding Holy Week, it’s easy for us to wake with enthusiasm on Easter morning. We know, after all, that the Son has risen, even if the day itself dawns damp and grey.
We’re blessed with that wonderful gift, hindsight…
We know the end of the story.
We’re eager to get up, so that we can begin our celebrations.
But for Mary it was very different

She came to the tomb while it was still dark and with her heart too, surely in darkness
weighed down with the grief of Good Friday, the pain of farewell, the fear of what might befall her now He was gone.

It was still dark...and she went to the place of death knowing full well that there was no longer anything to look forward to, but drawn against all reason by the love that still makes graveyards holy ground...

And it is still dark in our world
Still dark for the couple struggling with difficult relationships that threaten to tear them apart.
Still dark for the family mourning a recent loss, their feelings of bereavement as raw as those that Mary took with her to the tomb.
Still dark for those trapped in a spiral of violence and addiction, seeing no way through.
Still dark for those whose family lives are in pieces, who cannot manage a conversation without anger, recrimination, despair.

All of these have been my companions during this most Holy Week...
All have walked the way of the cross, have staggered under its almost overwhelming weight, have doubted their ability to keep moving forward.

It was still dark

But then, while it was still dark, everything changed.

Of course, it took a while to come to terms with this, to grasp the new reality that had broken in to our world.

Mary, when she arrived at the tomb, did not linger.
Open graves make uncomfortable picnic spots and her task of mourning ritual was thwarted by the absence of the crucial body.
Of course, she made sense of the evidence of her own eyes in the only way that she could
They have taken the Lord out of the tomb”, she told the disciples.

But the grey light of dawn was growing stronger.
When the disciples reached the tomb it was not yet clear day, but they could see a little more – though still not enough to make sense of anything.
They glimpsed hints of the amazing truth – an empty tomb, folded grave clothes - but not enough to be certain.

Still dark
but the light is coming.
Mary lingers to see the sun rise, her action mirroring the words Peter once spoke to the Master, before all the heartache and suffering began
To whom shall we go....”
Mary HAS nowhere else to go now...nobody she want to be future to run towards.
So she waits, seeking peace, perhaps, but troubled by unwelcome companions, who disrupt her private mourning, and ask such cruelly stupid questions
Why are you weeping?”….
well, why do you think? What else would I be doing….they’ve killed him, and they can’t even leave the body alone….
her vision clears, and she can see Truth standing before her in all his risen glory,and overjoyed she longs to throw herself into the arms she’d last seen open on the cross.

It is dark no longer

She knows and is fully known.

For my Holy Week companions, and for many another, it remains still dark.
Hope seems extinguished, purpose lost.

But the good news that was declared to Mary, the good news that she was instructed to share, is good news for them too.
But let's learn from Mary's experience in the dark of Easter day – which may say 3 things to us this morning.
Mary didn’t recognise Jesus at first, partly because she had no expectation of seeing him. And we often miss him, too, because we simply aren’t looking for him...but he is there, our light and our hope, though perhaps he doesn’t look right, doesn’t behave as expected, just isn’t where he ought to be and so passes unnoticed.
But he is here, nonetheless, alive in his world, in children’s laughter, in majestic sunsets but also in the places of dereliction and despair where we least expect to find him.
There, where it is still dark he is risen.

When she sees him, Mary longs to embrace him, and hold onto him forever, but he prevents her, for she has to do one last hard thing, to let him go free, to ascend to the Father so that he may be received in love by the whole world.
The costly love of Jesus always involves us in letting go, in sacrificing ourselves for others even as Jesus, supremely, sacrificed himself for us...and knowing that here too, he is risen.

What’s more, Mary cannot stay in the garden, a place transformed into somewhere beautiful for her because it is here that she has encountered the One she sought.
She can cling to the place no more than she can cling to the Risen One.
Instead, she is given a task.
She is the first apostle, sent to bring good news to the twelve,- an apostle to the apostles, if you like…In a world where women had little power, where their voices were generally unheard, she has the most important message of all
I have seen the Lord.
What better news could there be for us to share with a world that so badly needs resurrection life?
What better news for those who feel, this Easter morning, that it is still dark.
We have seen the Lord, and we are now called, like Mary, to tell others, and to so live that the resurrection is real for them also.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Homily for Maundy Thursday 2012 at St Matthew's

Maundy Thursday...
Not as the autocorrect facility on my phone would have you believe, MAUNGY Thursday...though listening to some of my colleagues at the Chrism Mass this morning, you might be forgiven for thinking that was a better word to describe the clergy at the start of the great three days of Easter, the climax of our year.
But actually the word is Maundy – from the Latin Mandatum – the root of our “mandate”...for on this night we recall two commandments that Jesus gave us – two instructions to DO THIS.

In both cases, always the Master teacher, he did not simply tell us what to do...he showed us.

First we have the new commandment illustrated in living parable as he knelt at the feet of his friends
“Love one another as I have loved you”

We so struggle with this...
Even the illustration is beyond us.
Many read of washing the disciples feet who think themselves above cleaning another's boots wrote Herbert Kelly, who founded the Society of the Sacred Mission...and I suspect that this is often the case.
We do our acts of service self consciously, - perhaps thinking privately “Aren't I doing well” when of course as long as we're focussed on ourselves, there's no point to the action at all.
What Jesus asks us to do is to forget ourselves entirely, as we offer loving service to one another -...for to love as he loves us means emptying ourselves completely, just as he emptied himself in loving obedience.

An act of submission that is nonetheless a challenge – a call to something that is as hard to give as it is to receive.
You'll notice that tonight we have just 2 chairs ready for foot washing – not the 12 that would take us more obviously to the upper room on the night of Christ's Last Supper.
There's a reason for this – I've NEVER yet managed to persuade a full dozen people to have their feet washed.
There are all sorts of reasons for this...self consciousness, for feet aren't often our prettiest feature
A desire to avoid the intimacy of that touch
Perhaps even a measure of pride in our self sufficiency...
I can wash my own feet, thank you very much....and I want to hang on to my dignity as tightly as I can.

But Jesus does this to teach us something important..
That we need one another, that we need to take the risk of vulnerability with one another, to remove the protection of our shoes and the protection that lets us keep our distance from our brothers and sisters – and from him.
In God's family, gathered around his table, there are no senior reserved occupations....we are all called to give and to receive loving service.

Does that feel too fearful to contemplate?
Think of Peter – unable to get his head around it at all...resisting at first...but suddenly realising what is being offered and wanting to immerse himself completely in the love that kneels before him.
Truly, this risk of vulnerability is one worth taking.

“A new commandment I give to you.......”

And, once we're clean, why then we can move to the table...
To the place where again and again we obey tonight's second commandment,
the other “Do this” of this most holy night.
We can take the bread and drink the wine here where Jesus is the host, offering himself to us
“Do this in remembrance of me”
Somehow, we find it easier to accept that gift of himself...
Perhaps we do so passively, imagining that it demands little of us
But as we receive the life of God, offered to us in bread and wine, we are transformed...transformed for loving service.

So the 2 commandments of tonight belong together...
Let us pray that as we gather in obedience to them both, we may understand more of the great love that invites us to draw near.