Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost 2012 at both churches

Some years ago, a book was published entitled “Living the Trinity”
Its basic premise was that, though a healthy church should reflect the life of each person of the Trinity, a number of churches tended to emphasise one or another at the expense of the third...

Think about it, for a moment.

There are churches whose main emphasis is on the holiness of God.
They may well be churches where traditional worship is very important, where awe and wonder are central to the experience of encountering God, where decency, order and history are much valued.
Perhaps they are laying their main stress on God the Father – the creator robed in majesty.

Others may seem to reflect more the servant ministry of Christ. They have a focus on the world outside the church doors, and may be active in community work while striving to welcome all comers to worship and to change them from church-goers into disciples, people learning what it means to live like Jesus today.

Then there are those churches whose main emphasis is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.
They may sit light to tradition, being ready to adapt and change in response to the Spirit's leading...
They may not use standard liturgies at all – and they may be very comfortable with the charismatic gifts that the disciples first received on the day of Pentecost, but which are still available to work transformation on the church today.

Of course these sketches are generalisations – never the whole story...and remember, a healthy church needs to reflect the fullness of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – though I'm not sure we always manage this.

I can't help but wonder how well balanced we are at St M's/All Saints.
I wonder, particularly on this feast of the Holy Spirit, how easy we find it to leave room for the Spirit's work...for we are, on the whole, quite comfortable with the way things are...and the Holy Spirit is so often the spirit of challenge and change.

Of course, the feast of Pentecost is very much about communication.
The Spirit descends on the disciples, transforming them in an instant from terrified fugitives huddled together for mutual support, to apostles ready to take on the world for the sake of the Kingdom. And as the Spirit descends, that uneducated riff raff from Galilee is suddenly a college of eloquent, compelling preachers....MULTI LINGUAL preachers at that.
So the Spirit does not just challenge – but empowers and equips as well.
Suddenly the apostles find themselves inspired AND enabled to share good news they had hardly dared to believe for themselves.
They are given the gifts they need in order to share with people quite unlike themselves, people they would not normally understand, or be understood by...and brimming over with the joy of their encounter with God at work, they set out to do just that.

God the Holy Spirit will do anything to get the message across, speak any language...of head, heart or mind, in order to reach us.

It's true enough here in this benefice.
Think of All Saints....the building
People are drawn here from across the world by its reputation for beauty and craftmanship.
It exists to speak of a beauty beyond the skill of the greatest artist, a beauty beyond our most eloquent words.
And for 150 years as God's people have gathered within the walls, they have encountered their Father...and, we pray, gone away changed by that encounter, to serve Him in the world.

It's what the Church is about.

Encounter, transformation and loving service.

The language of our building speaks loud and clear to many...
Perhaps it was the way in which the Holy Spirit first spoke to you....
Or perhaps the Spirit spoke through music, or family, friendship, or the glories of larksong on the Common on a May morning.
Remember, the great Communicator will stop at nothing to get the message of Love across – for this is the most important message than anyone will ever hear...the message that changes lives forever.

However the Spirit spoke, whether you know it or not, you are here because you heard and responded.
Responded – yes, once, when the Spirit first spoke to you...but listen... she is still speaking today.

Her words may not always be welcome for this is the Spirit of challenge and change...
The living Spirit of God, that is as real and present in the world today as ever she was at Pentecost.

I wonder what language she is using to reach you now, and how you might best open yourself to hear.
I suspect that often we forget to factor God's Spirit into our equations, our life plans, our tidy little solutions to the problem of being human.
We say, week on week, that “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life” but behave as if that Spirit has been absent or silent since the first Pentecost...

Or we pay lip service to the Spirit's presence, but continue to arrange our lives in such a way that there is no flexibility, no room to respond to that message of life-giving transformation that once gripped the disciples in the Upper Room. We come to church, sing the hymns and say our prayers, but expect almost nothing – but this is the Spirit of the LIVING GOD, who is always a God of surprises.

Let me tell you a story – a personal one, from only a few weeks ago, though its roots lie way back in my teens.
Back in those days 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 meant that through the next 3 decades I tended to avoid churches where “that sort of thing went on”, because, quite honestly, it would have hurt too much if nothing noticeable had happened to me
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, as part of my professional development programme, I found myself at a conference for charismatic catholic Anglicans.
Not somewhere I would ever have expected to be..but still and all, I was there, and the talk was all of the work of the Holy Spirit – with was plenty of evidence to suggest that this was more than just talk.
So, almost despite myself, I took a deep breath and decided to
run the risk that once again I might not be "chosen" to be blessed?
And very gently, God acted.
I, the non charismatic, who had been too fearful to lose myself in God, found myself experiencing not the gift of tongues but, still more startling, the amazing reality of trusting God completely, of letting go of everything – and finding myself literally bowled over...and awash with wonder, love and praise.

So listen, PLEASE listen...for the Spirit is still the churches and to you.

Listen, and remember, this IS the Spirit who gives life, the Spirit who is the agent of God's transformation, the Spirit who can help us to negotiate change and to grow in ways that we would never have imagined.
All we have to do is to open ourselves to Her let go of our fears and our prejudices and join in the creative loving dance of the Trinity, a dance that will continue til everything that has breath is drawn in to share that Love in which we live and move and have our being.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The REAL Lord's Prayer? homily for 8.00 Easter 7B

The Lord's Prayer
That's how we describe the prayer that Jesus taught us...the one he offered when his disciples asked him how they ought to pray.
But in our gospel today we are allowed to eavesdrop on the Lord's prayer that he offers himself – the REAL Lord's prayer, if you like...the words that pass between Father and Son as Jesus prepares to leave the world, as, indeed, he prepares to die.

Time and again I find myself thinking, as I visit someone close to the end of their life-journey
"There's no room for pretence now...This is a time of relentless honesty, a time when we get to see what really matters, who are the real priorities"

And at this time in Jesus' earthly life who does he choose to pray for?

He prays for US

His disciples and all who would believe in him through their words.
The Church with all her aspirations and all her brokenness.

Here, as we listen to this outpouring from Son to Father, we glimpse ourselves as his Love sees us.

Although gospel writers, commentators, and preachers like to present the disciples as clueless and bumbling, we hear Jesus affirm them ("they know in truth that I came from you").
We hear him lift them up ("they do not belong to the world"), and tell us they were worthy companions on his journey ("they have kept your word").

More...they and we are his GLORY...
I have been glorified in them”

We may offer but the poorest reflection of Christ's righteousness and holiness, we may be dull, disobedient, slow to love but for all that, we are his glory.
This prayer of Jesus is very much about his followers today - it is not just limited to his first century disciples. We still need protection from the evil one, and sanctification for the work we do in the world. In our struggle to preach Christ crucified in a society blinded by material wealth at any cost and enamoured with creature comforts, it is this kind of prayer on our behalf that invokes the Holy Spirit. When we hear Jesus pray this prayer for us, it is a foretaste of the feast of Pentecost, a sampling of the clothing of power from on high...and goodness, we need that power.

While on retreat before my priesting, I was invited to read this prayer and imagine Jesus replacing every reference to the disciples with my own name.
It turned out to be one of the most powerful exercises I've ever undertaken.
“I am coming to you and I speak these things to you so that Kathryn...Mary...Eira...may have my joy made complete in her....”
When Jesus is alone with his Father – he talks about US...and longs for us to be filled with joy. 
How good is that"
To know that Christ prayed for "me" gives us strength when we thought we were exhausted, success when we believed ourselves failures, and vision to see transformation where it seemed that none was possible

On Thursday as we celebrated Ascension we remembered that for all our inadequacies, WE are the ones to whom Jesus entrusted his mission in the world. There is no “Plan B”...

Today we see that though he prays for our protection from the world, he does not want to remove us from it but sends us out to get on with that insistent God given task of loving the world into the Kingdom. 
This is not just the “real” Lord's Prayer but the ultimate Eucharistic Prayer...a prayer in which Jesus consecrates not bread and wine but his very self, drawing together in unity all that his Father has given him into unity and sending them, sending US, forth into the world.
Dare we, as we listen to this prayer, offer a heart-felt “Amen”?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Christmas backwards!

That was the way with which I began our exploration of Ascension at the Valley Church School's service this morning. 
The children were wonderful, attempting to read and then interpret "SAMTSIRHC" until someone tumbled to the fact that it might just be a real word in reverse...and we talked about whether at Ascension God took back the gift he had given when Jesus came to earth.
You won't be surprised to hear that I told them he hadn't...but I wanted to share with you what happened next.
The children are very familiar with the idea that Christ is the light of the world...Whenever we light their big worship candle in school we say 
so we talked about the way that the Paschal candle had represented that light for us ever since we lit it in the dark of Holy Saturday night...
Then I took it from its stand and hid it...but the children knew it was still alight.
Finally I used a snuffer and invited them to watch carefully as I "changed the light" *
It was amazing.
The smoke continued for almost a minute, pouring from the wick, dancing and wreathing the altar ...The children followed it with their eyes and were very ready to accept that the light was now transformed into something that was everywhere, something that was within them....
We prayed then I sent them out to get on with carrying Christ's love and joy to the world...
As they went, class by class, we sang "You shall go out with joy" and it was truly wonderful.

One of those days when I can really feel how blessed I am to work in this community.

*a Godly Play idea which I first met when preparing the Godly Play Baptism lesson

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Love in action - a sermon on John 15 for Christian Aid week

Much of this material comes from the resources provided by Christian Aid. The story of the community of Gbap is as re-told by Revd Anne le Bas on the PRCL lists, and as so often I'm inspired by her words.

It's that time of year again.
The time of year when you find yourself feverishly cudgelling your brains to remember which is the smallest state in Australia;
when teddy bears abseiling down church towers become almost commonplace;
when more than 200,000 people wander around their neighbourhoods posting bright red envelopes through every door – and even have the courage to go back later in the hope that they may have been filled with money.
Christian Aid emerged from the rubble of post-war Europe and has been making a difference to the poorest communities ever since.


Well, of course, the clue is here in this morning's gospel, as we hear more of Jesus's great farewell speech.
I wonder what the disciples made of it.
Did they realise that all this talk about of love and of fruitfulness was part of a long goodbye...preparation for the moment when Jesus would hand on the baton to them and leave them with the task of loving the world into God's kingdom?

I very much doubt if they did.
Mostly, I expect, they were baffled as usual, distracted by speculation as to what kind of fruit lasted beyond its normal season, indignant that as free men anyone might ever consider them servants, brought up short by the suggestion that friendship might involve personal cost
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends
Did they imagine, for a moment, what “to love one another as I have loved you” might actually mean?
The scope of the love on offer?
The meaning of the lesson in progress?
Every teacher knows the delight of working themselves out of a job, of recognising that the student has fully embraced all they were being taught...
The greatest teacher of all time is about to put his own skills to the test...
We read with the perfect perspective of hindsight but for the disciples – literally students- Jesus had not yet progressed from “do what I say” to “do what I do” as he became a parable himself, dying and rising to show what LOVE really means.

Jesus knows that if his followers look to him to supply the answers forever, they will never be able to exercise the ministry they are meant for. He doesn’t want the distorted relationship of a master and servants, based on a power dynamic that stacks the cards against the weak . He wants them to learn to trust themselves, so that they can act boldly with their own initiative. God has been incarnate – made flesh – in Jesus. Now Jesus, the Word of God, invites them, invites US,to something new...He will not tell us what to say, put words into our mouths, but instead helps us to find our own God-given voice, to be words of God ourselves. We, like the twelve, are to live out the incarnation by becoming God's love in action.

So what?
Can we hear today's gospel and then go home unchanged to a Sunday roast and a glass of sherry?
That call to love in action MUST make a difference...and Christian Aid week gives us the opportunity both to see love at work and to join in.
Let me tell you a story.
Come with me, if you will, all the way to Sierra Leone on the West African coast.

The region was once a centre of the transatlantic slave trade, with slaves being shipped from its ports. When slaves began to gain their freedom some returned to Africa, supported by white British philanthropists. But most had no idea where their ancestors had come from and no way of returning to their roots. So a colony was formed in the early 19th Century , arbitrarily carved out of what seemed to be spare land and
groups of slaves were settled there, regardless of where their ancestors
might actually have hailed from. It might have seemed like a good idea at
the time, but it was riven with problems. There were bitter conflicts with
the existing population of the land. There were no natural connections
within the new population. The new settlement was heavily dependent on
British protection and soon it simply became an outpost of the expanding
British Empire. It was a prime spot, a gateway into a continent that was
increasingly being exploited for its rich natural resources. Independence
didn’t finally come until 1961 but it is no surprise that even after that it
has been a very rough ride. This is a nation which was built on the rubble
of slavery – the ultimate distorted relationship - and then pushed around by
nations with agendas of their own ever since.

No wonder it has been hard for it to establish its own identity, find its
own dignity and exercise its own power wisely. Eventually it erupted into
bitter civil war in the 1990’s which lasted over a decade and left the
country in ruins.

That’s the backdrop to the work Christian Aid is doing, supporting those who
are trying to re-establish themselves in villages that have been razed to
the ground, on farmland that’s been abandoned and reverted to nature, with
infrastructure that has been destroyed. Sierra Leone’s people are great
survivors. Simply to have got through these tough times and still have the
urge to try again shows that. They are full of ingenuity, enterprise and
energy. What they have lacked though, are the basic tools for rebuilding.
One in five families doesn’t even have enough to eat – the most fundamental
necessity. It’s like being expected to climb Mount Everest in bare feet.
And that’s where Christian Aid and its partner organisations have come in.

The particular project whose story Christian Aid is telling this week is in
a village called Gbap (pronounced Bap). One woman there, Mary Samuel, put
its problems in a nutshell..  “If we had food today,” Mary said, “what would
we eat the next day?” There was nothing to rely on, no certainty about the
future. But things have changed for her since the Methodist Church of Sierra
Leone, which is supported by Christian Aid, came to their tow. It encouraged
the people of Gbap to set up a village development committee so that they
could decide for themselves what they needed to do. It was a simple thing,
but through it the people of Gbap were given a voice.

They decided to set up a food production group. With the Church’s
assistance, they distributed seeds and tools to local farmers. They trained
them in more effective agricultural practices, so that they could cultivate
the floodplain outside the town and develop a rice farm and a cassava plot.
They negotiated the loan of a tractor, and that meant they could plough more
land and produce more food.
Inspired by this, one thing led to another. They are now building an work
centre to house a cassava-grater and rice-thresher – vital machines that
will help them process their raw produce into something that will sell for a
higher price at the market. And they have built a new school – a long overdue replacement for the crumbling building they had before, which was so unsafe that many parents
refused to send their children there.

Christian Aid believes that poverty is, at its heart, an issue of power. And in their approach to development, we try to avoid models of ‘donor and beneficiary’, to work instead as equal partners,  friends sharing power together. 
This year, the people of Gbap have been empowered to take their future into their own hands to speak out for change and look towards a better future. And in hearing their story, we too can be changed. Mary Samuel looks at the changes to her village and comments: ‘Today we are
seeing something which has come from us.” That’s what’s made the
difference. The people of Gbap have learned to see themselves not as pawns
in the games played by national and international forces beyond their power
to influence, but as people who can take their own future into their own
hands and do something about it.

Not servants but friends...equal partners in the work of loving the world into God's kingdom.
Let's join in too.

Will you pray with me now?

Gracious God, who bids us to love one another
May we listen to the voices of all who speak out for a more loving world.
Inspire us to gifts of love and friendship;
Sustain us when we stand together for change
and transform our offerings
so that we may become part of the miracle of your Love.

Bless the gifts that we offer
Bless the work we will do
And bless all who bear witness
to our support for your people on the edge
Bless all our endeavours
and our small contributions
and transform them into fruit that endures.