Saturday, May 25, 2013

This year's entry in the heresy stakes


In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit....

That may just possibly be the only thing I can safely say about the Trinity today – or any other day, come to that for I'm very conscious that when it comes to God, language fails us again and again and that pretty much anything I may try to say by way of explanation could lead us into heresy.
Shall I, then, give you the morning off as I share Wittgenstein's words
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”?

I have to admit it's tempting...for as we gaze on the glory of God, what more CAN we say beyond
Holy, holy, holy.....”

But for some reason I feel compelled to try to say something.
Over the years I've learned, at least, how NOT to speak the Trinity.
So – I'm sorry but I'm not about to give you each a jaffa cake – chocolate, orange and sponge yet one biscuit - nor am I going to ask you to identify yourself as sister/daughter/friend.

Those may look like clever illustrations but they don't actually help – because the God whom we worship is not simply a series of job descriptions, which can be attached to one person or another.
What is true of the Father is always and non-negotiably true of the Son and the Spirit.
God does not do the work of creation alone, nor Jesus the work of redemption.

At Creation, when the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters, Father and Son were present too
When Christ emptied himself to become human – that emptying was the experience of the Father and the Spirit...
And when the Spirit descended on the disciples – this was to restore to them that intimate relationship with God that they had first entered in their wanderings with Jesus.
All that belongs to the Father is mine......”
No divisions, no demarcations
God of God, light of light...for when you light another flame from the first, the first is not diminished...nor is the second less bright, less real, less powerful

Three persons – one substance

Now do you get it??
No...I don't expect you do....and I'm pretty certain I don't either – but I'm not going to worry.

[Some light relief...
There’s a story about an Asian gentleman to whom a well-meaning missionary was speaking about God the Father who created us, about God the Son who died and was raised up for us, and about the Holy Spirit of Love who appeared as a dove over the head of Jesus when He was baptized.
After the Asian gentleman had listened politely to the explanation, he said:  “Honorable Father -- ah, very good. Honorable Son -- also very good. But Honorable Bird -- I do not understand at all.” And even more: “Honorable Holy Trinity -- that I do not understand at all.”]

But we don't NEED to understand.
The Trinity is a TRUE mystery – not something to solve but something to enter into......something to be transformed by.
An online friend suggested
The Trinity is not merely a dusty incomprehensible doctrine but the Christian's exciting experience of God. “
and it is in that experience that we can come closest to the truth.

God does not require us to embrace a doctrine – but God DOES reach out to us in love.
Indeed, the mystery of the Trinity is very much LIKE being in love – as all-absorbing but as hard to get a grip on, though lovers know quite well what this amazing state FEELS like!
There's a wonderful book written in the middle ages that offers an antidote to the anxious quest for understanding. “The Cloud of Unknowing” suggests that the only way to truly "know" God is to abandon all attempts to know God, set doctrine aside and surrender to the mystery
"By love God may be gotten and holden; but by thought, never"

By LOVE

Think of our epistle.
There, Paul says nothing about understanding.
He talks instead of faith and grace – and, most compellingly, of love
poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”
Love
That's the route into the heart of the Trinity – for as they engage for all eternity in their mutual love, they seek too to draw us in...There is always space at the table and though God lacks nothing, yet God still yearns for you and me to be swept up in the dance of love that holds the universe in being.

You see, I believe that the central truth of the Trinity, -the point of it all, if you like, - is that our God is a God of relationship…that the Love that is at the heart of God exists to be poured out, because that is what real love does. Real love is equal in the giving and the receiving…real love makes room and draws others in. It is not about getting but about giving...not about having needs met but about mutual surrender
That's the love at the heart of the Trinity – and thus, the love at the heart of all creation.

And – did you notice – it's THAT love that is poured into our hearts...transforming our life and enabling our worship.
It is that love that brings us to our knees – as we realise that the Trinity is not a concept to be explained intellectually but God to be worshipped.

So -let's pray now, using words of Catherine of Siena …

Eternal Trinity, you are a deep sea, into which the more we enter the more we find, and the more we find the more we seek. The soul ever hungers in your abyss, longing to see you with the light of your light and, as the deer yearns for the springs of water, so our souls yearn to see you in truth. Amen

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Together for Pentecost

Thanks to a run of many funerals, rather less sleep than is helpful and a wonderful but wearing time on the "hook a duck" stall at yesterday's May Fayre, I woke this morning not actually at the top of my game.

Actually, as I reflected on the life of our church, which is feeling the loss of some dear and special people who've recently gone home to God, it seemed to me that NONE of us was at the top of our game.

We weren't quite huddled in the upper room for fear of the Jews, but there was rather less Easter joy than might be hoped. The famous description of the Norwegian Blue Parrot after a long squawk seemed moderately appropriate, really.

And then worship began. The liturgy set the scene....
.

And now, with the followers of his own time, we await the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, his gift to his people, through whom we make Christ known to the world.

I knelt at the altar step trying with all that was in me, as I do whenever I kneel there, to carry the needs and longings of all the church family to God in my heart
We prayed together 

As we wait in silence,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we listen to your word,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we worship you in majesty,
All fill us with your Spirit.
As we long for your refreshing,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we long for your renewing,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we long for your equipping,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we long for your empowering,
fill us with your Spirit.

And then it seemed to me that something changed. 
Half way through the responses I realised that 
I was actually expecting something to happen...
And perhaps that's what matters. 
If you are looking for evidence of God's Spirit at work - you are far more likely to encounter it than if you are trudging onward (whether literally or figuratively), eyes to the ground.
There wasn't a dramatic transformation (no, I'm STILL not speaking in tongues! but I'm beginning to think that this is a semi public joke between me and God)  - more a steady increase of quiet joy so that by the time we reached Communion I was finding it very hard not to grin like a lunatic at each and every communicant.

Actually, I'm not sure I even tried. I just grinned!

And I learned a couple of things from the talk too...even though I was the one giving it.
We had a bowl of sand, which I invited one of the children to landscape for me - before I turned the hairdryer on it - destroying his sandhill in seconds - and, of course, making no end of collateral mess in the process. 
That's just how it is.
When the wind of the spirit blows, when we find our lives re-designed by God, it does have an impact beyond our own small corner and it may well be messy for a while....

A few deflated balloons were a distressingly effective symbol of a collection of weary Christians keeping on keeping on as best they can.I suggested that Eeyore was right -t that nobody could possibly be uncheered with a balloon - but there wasn't much evidence to support this.
Once said balloons had some air in them, though,



we couldn't help but start playing...and I'll not forget the joy of the children leaping and bouncing their balloons down the aisle as a sort of short-hand for all the energy and delight of the Spirit's work of transformation.

Flags, windmills and a sailing boat did their part too - but my final plan was to hand out lots of dandelion clocks and invite everyone to blow - dispersing the seeds as the Spirit sends us out into the world to change it for God.
The "clocks" were suitably grey and fluffy and some at least were so ready to send forth their seeds that they all came off in the car...others, though they looked the same, just weren't ready. I'd been deceived by appearances and tried to hurry them! Even the hair dryer couldn't persuade them to budge...
And if I'd only left them alone - in a day or two no doubt they would have done their bit to increase the national dandelion collection that is found in the vicarage garden...
but then I might have missed a crucial point. 
God gives us the time we need in which to respond to the Spirit. If it seems that nothing much is happening - that aint necessarily so. 

For a sometimes impatient vicar who wants the church to turn the world upside down overnight, that's a lesson worth remembering.






Saturday, May 18, 2013


When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place...

I love the Acts account of the day the Spirit came. It must be one of the most exciting narratives in all Scripture – one that simply BEGS to be used for a sustained meditation, as it invites us into the story to share in the heady excitement, the chaotic joy that fills every line.
Place yourself there for a moment.
Here is the Spirit coming in transforming power...the wind of God blowing so strongly that it all but sweeps us off our feet...the fire of God's love resting on each of us, warming us, and filling us with courage.

In contrast, the gospel we've just heard gives us a much quieter picture of the giving of the Spirit...an advocate who speaks on our behalf, a teacher who ensures that we will remember all that Jesus has told us...a Spirit of peace –

I wonder which story you'd rather be part of....the drama of Acts or the peace of John.
I wonder, too, which story our church most NEEDS to be part of.
The power of the Spirit IS hugely disruptive...extraordinary...a force that shapes existence in ways that cannot be predicted...
Do you remember how Nicodemus visits Jesus by night and asks what it might mean to be born again?
Jesus tells him
The Spirit blows where she chooses, and you hear the sound of her, but you do not know where she comes from or where she goes.”  

The Spirit blows where she chooses...through our world and through history.
Across the face of the waters in Genesis, blowing Creation into being...
Across the Red Sea, holding back the water so that the Hebrew people could escape from Egypt.
She blew life into Ezekiel's dry bones and transformed them.
The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to spend time alone with God.
The Spirit blew through the church in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, through political events like the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, as the Berlin wall fell and the apartheid system was demolished.
And still she blows...and when the Spirit moves and the wind of God blows, everything changes!
We're not in control – though we can open ourselves to her action – or, if we choose, resist and turn away.

We may not see the need for change...may resist being blown along...prefer to follow more slowly, under our own volition.

And generally God won't force us...but think for a moment of what that means.
Visualise a sailing galley – high decked and splendidly rigged...but with her sails furled so that the only way she can proceed is through the efforts of hundreds of oarsmen, sweating and struggling to drive her forward.
Doesn't it seem rather sad to continue with the back breaking effort of rowing alone when there is a power available that can send that same vessel gliding over the water, the wind filling her sails

Many in the western Church are tired.
When I look at our congregation here, it seems to me that some of us are quite tired too.
We've been faithful...we've done our best but the world around us has changed faster than we have, and seems for the most part uninterested in our church and the faith we treasure
It can be hard not to feel disheartened as it seems possible that the familiar ways of being church, ways that we value, ways that we love, may not survive our lifetime

But...before we turn out the lights and walk away disconsolate – remember there is an alternative.
God hasn't given up on us yet.....indeed, God never will.
We can open ourselves to the power of the Spirit – unfurl those sails - EXPECT God to act

Joel predicted this centuries ago...Peter recognised it as he stood among the crowd on that amazing morning in Jerusalem...
They knew that God's Spirit was at work – and will always be at work...yes, gentle as a dove but strong as the mighty rushing wind as well...

The Spirit will always be at work..She will not rest til she has renewed the face of creation, swept us all into God's great dance that gives visions to the young and dreams to the old, new life to the weary and salvation to all.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

That they might be one - Easter 7C


Recently we've been coping with a lot of funerals at St Matthew's – some for parish neighbours we didn't know well, but others for members of the church family whose passing leaves a real gap. I've been blessed to spend time with these dear friends in the last stages of their journey, and that has inspired me to think a bit more about the whole business of saying Goodbye.
I know that I will never forget the last thing that Pat said to me, a few days before her death
I'll see you later...” she said “Here or there”
Those words were a wonderful expression of the faith that had filled her life and spilled out to touch the lives of others...and I paid special attention at the time because I was pretty certain that this would indeed be the last time we met in this life.

Last words have a special power – and our gospel today is part of the the lengthy prayer that Jesus offers at the Last Supper in John's gospel – the wise words that are know as “The Farewell Discourse”
Last words of advice from our Lord himself...Clearly we should all sit up and take notice.
We NEED to hear what Jesus is saying.
And what does he say?
Well, on one level, he says nothing to US at all.
We are eavesdroppers, listening in as he prays to his Father – but as so often in the gospels there is a sense that we are meant to hear just as elsewhere in John Jesus says to God
You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me."
But this prayer is both an entreaty to God – to make things happen – and a declaration for us of the way things should be.
At this most crucial point in his earthly ministry Jesus asks God for one thing for us
That they may all be one”
Words that have troubled and burdened us ever since, as we deal with factions and disputes, as we take sides over theology and worship separately on the grounds of belief or simply of preference.

Words that can change how you feel in a matter of moments.

Let me explain
A couple of years ago I was at a training event – and sitting at the same table as our own Bishop Michael. I wasn't very pleased with him that day. Only a couple of days earlier he had refused to publicly affirm something that mattered a great deal to me – and I was planning to air my disappointment with him in the course of the event. Only very early on, as an illustration of something (I can't remember what) we were asked to give something we valued to someone else around our table to look after for the rest of the day. And so it was that I found myself wearing Bishop Michael's episcopal ring for a few hours.
It was heavy on my hand – a man's signet ring with a dark stone...and around the stone I saw engraved “Ut unum sint” “That they might all be one”
As I read those words and realised that for Bishop Michael they would be non-negotiably present whenever he caught sight of his hand, at any moment on any day, I understood just HOW heavy the ring really was – and how heavy the burden on our bishops to be a focus of unity within the church.
Every day they are confronted with the need to make Jesus's high priestly prayer a reality – while the members of the churches they serve seem intent on ignoring it as much as possible.
For a little while that day I was able to put aside my own anger and disappointment that +Michael had not fallen in with my particular agenda as I recognised his role in calling us back to the over-riding agenda that Jesus placed before us in his farewell discourse.
That they might all be one”
But oh, we seem so far from becoming the answer to that prayer.
There are divisions within our families, our churches, our nation.
A seemingly endless series of opposing pairs – male or female; rich or poor; gay or straight; Christian or Muslim; conservative or liberal; educated or uneducated; young or old; have or have not.
But those labels that we bandy about so liberally are attached not to issues but to people...
real people, with names, lives, joys, sorrows, concerns, and needs just like our own.
I think we sometimes forget or ignore this. It is easier to deal with an issue than a real person...to keep our distance from the unfamiliar by drawing lines to exclude and to reassure ourselves that WE are right, approved of, accepted, in control.
In order for me to win someone must lose, in order for me to be included someone must be excluded otherwise winning and being included mean nothing. The divisions of our lives in some way become self-perpetuating.
But Jesus prays “that they may be one”

He doesn't pray for tolerance, for smoother relations between factions...
He doesn't pray that differences would be eliminated.
He prays “That they may be one......as he and the Father are one – so that OUR oneness might be a revelation of God's presence in the world.

That does not mean, however, that we will lose our identity or individuality.
Jesus does not stop being Jesus nor the Father stop being the Father because they are one. Jesus and the Father are one because they love and give themselves to each other.
Their oneness – and the oneness to which we should aspire - is not about eliminating differences.
It is about love.
Love is the only thing that can ever overcomes division...for divisions are, ultimately, based on fear...and perfect Love (the love we meet in God) casts out fear.
In love there may be differences but there is no division.
God’s love knows no conditions and no boundaries.
God loves male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight.
God loves Christian and Muslim, conservative and liberal, educated and uneducated.
God loves young and old, introverts and extroverts,haves and have nots.
All are loved fully, completely, and uniquely.

Often when I'm baptising I tell the family “Baptism will change nothing on God's part. God already loves your child so much that if she was the only person every born, Jesus would still have come into the world for her.”
I don't often unpack what that total love means...
God's love has NO boundaries...not even between Jesus and you...or me.
Shall I say that again?
God loves you as much as he loves Jesus.
God loves your neighbour as much as he loves Jesus.
God loves your enemy as much as he loves Jesus.
No difference, no distinction.
Absolute love for each and every one.

If that is how God loves how can we be content to do less?
For far too long we have dealt with each other through our boundaries, differences, and divisions. See where that's lead! It's not very pretty
Though Jesus is praying to the Father you and I will in large part be the ones to answer his prayer.
We can collaborate with Him – or go our own way,clinging to those divisions wrought from fear and suspicion.
Let's begin, every day, to choose Love.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Stroud Team Ministry Eucharist for the Ascension


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 it doesn't seem 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, to hallow each second of every day.
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
To the congregations of our Stroud Ministry Team -with all our anxieties and shortcomings, all our lost opportunities and our dreams and visions of a new kind of tomorrow.
WE are the ones charged with building the Kingdom in our community – starting from now.

We probably don't feel adequate...and by most yardsticks we probably aren't.
But God has given us all the gifts that we need in order to BE his Church in this place...We can do more together than we would ever have managed alone...for the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
We won't always appreciate or value one another's contributions. Change is hard, and there will be compromise and sacrifice ahead. We may sometimes wish we could just go it alone and there may be times, too, when we would love to go back to that hillside in Galilee......to fix our eyes on the middle distance and strain to catch a glimpse of our ascending Lord....but that's not what we're about!
We have to wrest our gaze from the heavens and focus on the task before us here on earth...the real, challenging task of so living that Stroud – with all its needs and opportunities – begins to grasp just how much it is a community LOVED BY GOD.

There's a great story about how, on the first Ascension Day, Jesus was greeted in heaven by whole squadrons of rejoicing angels....but after the celebrations were over Gabriel took him to one side.
Lord...” he said
I know you've won the victory over sin and grief and death.
I know you've done all that is needed to restore creation and bring in the kingdom – but in the meantime, what's your strategy for making it real in the world today”
Jesus pointed down through the clouds at that rag taggle group clustered on the hillside, scratching their heads and rubbing their eyes and generally looking completely bewildered.
That's my strategy......”
Gabriel peered down...
and Lord -what's Plan B?”
There IS no Plan B”

NO PLAN B. We are it! The agents of God's mission in the world.

On Tuesday in this church Archdeacon Jackie gave her charge to the new Wardens of our Deanery...a simple but transformational charge
Receive the Holy Spirit”.
Tonight I invite you to pray most fervently for that Spirit to come down afresh on us and on our churches...to kindle again the fire of God's love within our hearts and within our communities.

Ascension marks the departure of Christ in human form from our world – but the inauguration of his reign on high. Lets live as signs that his Kingdom has come and celebrate with great joy Christ's eternal victory.



Saturday, May 04, 2013

Not as the world gives...8.00 homily for Easter 6



My peace I leave you...not as the world gives
Sometimes in reading the gospels it seems there may be some particularly careful editing going on. We need always to remember that the gospel writers were working in specific contexts, seeking to communicate the Good News of Christ to particular communities with particular agendas...They told the truth, as they understood it, and in ways that would be helpful to their target audience. And it seems time this might be one occasion when John chose his words particularly carefully.
Remember John includes these word as as part of Jesus farewell discourse...and after all the talk of peace, a bloody, painful death is on the way. Already there are murmurings of disapproval. Even at the time, the disciples themselves were surely aware that Peace and Jesus didn't often seem to fit into the same sentence. This was the man who had overturned tables, and driven people out of the Temple using a whip of cords – scarcely the action of a pacifist. He had repeatedly challenged the great and good, taken on the religious authorities on their own terms, courted controversy in all directions. Yet here the farewell gift he offers is Peace...so you can almost hear John, in editorial mode thinking – Help...we need a quick explanatory note...Peace – but not as the world gives
When Jesus says Peace..it doesn't mean a trouble free life...not for him, not for his disciples and nor for the young Christian churches for whom John writes.
I'm afraid it doesn't mean a trouble free life for us, either.
Peace - Not as the world gives...Not peace by the pool in a luxury Indian hotel where young children slave behind the scenes...
Not peace that allows you to ignore the Big Issue seller as you dive into Costa for a flat white...
Not peace that stays silent in the face of racism, fascism, injustice, violence...
So....how DARE politicians feel they can take "Christian values" as a shorthand for all that is safe and cosy, another version of motherhood and apple pie? Don't they realise – don't WE realise - that if we're serious in our discipleship, we Christians should find ourselves running up against the powers that be again and again and again?
I would imagine that well nigh every minister trained to preach is told at some point “If you don't offend someone with your preaching every time you go into the pulpit you probably aren't preaching the gospel” but it's tempting to opt for the quiet life, for safe popularity achieved by steering clear of the tough areas. I'm not very brave...my head's natural position is well below the parapet but...Jesus offers this gift to us too
My peace I leave you...not as the world gives”

Listen to these words by the writer Cornelius Plantinga, defining “Shalom” - the peace that Jesus offers.The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

The peace that we're offered is won through the cross and has nothing to do with easy tranquility, achieved at the cost of our principles...It's a brave peace – an uncompromising peace – a peace that demands much of us if we're to truly claim it.
So – may I share with you a prayer attributed, perhaps surprisingly, to Sir Francis DrakeWhether he wrote it or not, it offers us a challenge if we're tempted by the easy life
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

Dare we pray this..?
Dare we trust in the extra-ordinary peace that we are offered...a peace that has deep roots in the unchanging reality of God's non negotiable love and justice...?
Dare we put ourselves on the line, knowing that though things may not go smoothly here and now, the One who shares His peace with us has overcome the world and inaugurated the Kingdom?
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid.