Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sermon for the 1st Mass of Revd Clare Welham, St Matthew's Cainscross, 30th June 2013

Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,

Clare prayed these words earlier, on behalf of each one of us...
They come from the Collect - that prayer that gathers all our different needs, longings and joys into a sort of basket of prayer which the President then offers to God as we begin to change our way of being, from the disparate individuals that arrived in church into a congregation, gathered with the common purpose of worship.
And today Clare prays the Collect for the 1st time – for, as a priest, she carries the Church's authority to preside at the Eucharist, to take the jumbled mess, the tangled threads of our lives and to offer them to God in this service that is both a celebration meal and a process of transformation.
We are all so full of joy and excitement at her priesting.
That wonderful service in our Cathedral yesterday, in which 8 men and women were ordained by God's Church to preside, to reconcile and to bless will surely leave all of us on a high for some time to come...
And here, in the church which is her spiritual home for now we are, quite simply, delighted for Clare. Not just A new priest but OUR new priest, someone whom we love, called to live out her ministry of prayer and preaching, of presiding, reconciliation and blessing HERE in THIS place.
That is a huge and wonderful gift to us – for which, I hope, we are properly thankful.

But – it would be a real shame if, in this weekend when we celebrate the ordination of new priests and deacons, we went home with the idea that vocation and ministry are just for the holy few.
Vocation”, of course, means “Calling”......and it does not matter who you are, what your unique blend of gifts, strengths and weaknesses might be...It doesn't matter whether you have a firm sense of the presence of God, or are completely bemused by watching otherwise intelligent people sign their lives away to something that seems to you an extraordinary are nonetheless called to something.
Vocation, said someone far wiser than I, is the place where your gifts and the worlds needs meet.

And, of course, the world has many many needs.

Yes – it needs priests and deacons....but it needs teachers, doctors, and nurses too.
It needs musicians and painters, architects and actors, writers and sculptors.
And for the most part we've been good at recognising that sort of calling.

But, you know, your vocation may not actually be realised in your daily work.
It's an added bonus when it is – but it may be that there is something quite different which lies at the heart of what makes you YOU...something that brings you to life in a deeper way...and that nobody has ever turned into a job at all.
It may be two things – carer and writer – teacher and musician...or even three – priest, wife, mother
Those are all equal vocations – I wonder when we got hold of the idea that for something to be truly valuable to God, or to God's world, it needed to be a full-time occupation – ideally with a salary?
If you pause to think, you'll realise that it's far FAR wider.

There are those with a vocation to listen...those with a vocation to make houses into homes...those with a vocation to turn a patch of scrubby ground into a productive, even a beautiful garden.
There are those with a vocation to parent or grand-parent...and, if you're old enough to remember seeing “Chariots of Fire” in the 80s you might remember the runner Eric Liddell saying “God made me FAST and when I run I feel his pleasure”
Vocation may be public and obvious, or hidden, behind the scenes.
You may always have known what it is – or you may not yet be certain.
Vocation is, I would say, what you are left with when you take away all the “oughts” and “shoulds”...
It's the thing you keep coming back to, that will never quite leave you alone.
It won't always feel “good” - but it will always feel true...something that you just HAVE to do in order to be truly yourself, something that helps you to be fully alive

It has, in fact, a kind of inevitability to it. It is what you are FOR.
Nobody else can sing your song in the world if you remain silent.

For Jesus – his vocation was who he was...God's love lived out in a human life...
But it didn't always feel good for him either
He set his face towards Jerusalem” - says Luke, writing in today's gospel
There's surely something there of the struggle to screw yourself up to do something that you know will be hard but that only you can do...a sense of resolution, of determined focus on the needful task, no matter what the cost.
And for Jesus, as for those ordained this weekend, vocation – who he is – and ministry – how he shows it – are close to being the same thing.
Every minute of his journey towards Jerusalem, each conversation along the way, reveals more of the truth of his identity and his calling.
And at the heart of it, as for all Christian people, is the call to loving service.
That is what ministry is...just another word for “service”....the placing of your gifts, the essence of your vocation, at the disposal of others.

Sometimes, as for Clare today, those others will welcome and celebrate your gifting.
Sometimes being true to your vocation will force you to stand outside the walls – to speak uncomfortable truths that few want to hear or simply to move on.
Even Jesus had to do this. He didn't hang around trying to persuade the Samaritan villagers to change their minds, nor did he compromise his message and ministry to make it easier for them.
He could not both please everyone and stay true to his calling (and, though sometimes it seems that clergy are expected to stand as universal nice-guys, that situation remains true today)
If there was a choice to be made, he kept on keeping on.
He had set his face towards Jerusalem and was not to be distracted from his journey.

And he has laid that on us, his would-be disciples, too.

We are to be tireless, single-minded in following -whether we're called to live out our vocation as priests or painters, flower-arrangers or treasurers
I know very little about ploughing – but I'm told that if you look back over your shoulder when you are trying to plough, you will inevitably end up making a mess of the task, and leave the field with wiggly furrows.
The trick is to keep looking forward...focussing on the goal.
If you want to do the job properly, you simply can't look back – no matter how attractive the landscape behind you.

But we do have a choice in this journey of vocation.
We are all called, but we are never constrained.
The hymns that Clare has chosen for us to sing today reflect this...
First we heard God's invitation “I heard the voice of Jesus say Come unto me.....”
Then came our response “I choose to be holy, - set apart for you Lord”
Later we will affirm that each of us comes “Just as I am” - a jumble of hopes and dreams, fears and failures, doubts and certainties
We come as we are – because that's what it's all about.
God calls us as we are – to use the gifts that He has given us.
He calls us into relationship with Him
He calls us to make his love known

God will never force us – but as you ponder your own vocation today, remember that all our individual vocations contribute to the over-arching purpose God has for God's Church and God's world, which Paul wrote of to the Galatians
use your freedom to serve one another in love”

This is what each of us, ordained or lay, believer or sceptic, is invited to today.
Use your freedom to serve one another in love

May God bless us as we try to live that calling – for his sake, and the sake of his world.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Clothed and in our right mind - a homily for 8.00 Proper 7C

As I'm sure you know, MARAH – the charity that offers food and support to homeless and vulnerable adults in and around Stroud – offers open house for lunch at “Fresh Ground” twice a week. I've recently been invited to spend some time there, as a kind of unofficial chaplain “loitering with intent”, hearing stories and offering support where I can. It's a privilege to be there, seeing those whom we might struggle to engage with because of their challenging behaviour welcomed in as friends and served as honoured guests. It's a joy to realise that some of the volunteer staff first visited as clients...and to hear their stories of transformation and hope. It is a constant reminder that new starts are always possible by God's grace, no matter how messed up we are – and that once transformed, even we can become agents of God's love for others.

The demoniac in our gospel takes the phrase “challenging behaviour” to a whole new level. Small wonder that he is excluded from normal society. He's as frightening as he is frightened - not simply because of the shouting, the antisocial behaviour, the unnatural strength. His vulnerability is alarming too – a brutal reminder of our own frailty (“unaccomodated man is no more than such a poor bare forked animal as thou” says the Fool to Lear) Naked among the tombs, he is prey to the elements, and to other forces beyond his control, beyond OUR control.

Apparently beyond help he is cast out by his community,cut off, left to a living death. Isn't it always easier to turn away from those who challenge us, who make us uncomfortable because they don't fit into our patterns of acceptable behaviour? We might not speak of demonic possession today – but many people find themselves at the mercy of feelings, thoughts and patterns of behaviour that they would never have chosen...driven by addictions beyond their control..And we are still wary – disguise our own lurches off the tightrope of acceptable behaviour – urge wobbling friends to seek help – cross the road to avoid direct contact with those who make us nervous.

But in this place of fear and fragmentation we meet Jesus. We shouldn't be surprised to find him there. Others may have written the demoniac off – but not Jesus. He always pays particular attention to those shut out, literally and metaphorically -- those with nothing, beggars at the gate, lepers, loose women and dead children.
He thinks nothing of engaging with the ritually unclean – and here he is in unclean Gentile territory, underlined by the presence of that herd of swine...
Jesus is never choosy about the company he keeps -for he is intent on restoring not just the individual but the community as well....Again and again he confronts everything that stands in the way of wholeness, everything that divides us from one another, everything that prevents us from knowing the love of God in loving community.
Here in this wasteland of death and destructive behaviour Jesus stands – and sees that within the alarming person of the demoniac is one of God's own precious children. The demoniac recognises Jesus too – asking him a crucial question
What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the most high God”
Naming is powerful. The demoniac has lost his own name, his own identity. He is at the mercy of fightings and fears, within without...but Jesus speaks into that maelstrom and brings healing – for that is always his purpose as he comes into our lives.
Paul recognised this as he wrote to the Galatians, who modelled a society no less entrammelled by fightings and fears...Like us, they were quick to show suspicion of the stranger, eager to draw lines, to exclude some and approve others. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – divisions all the way...some are “in” and others firmly “out”. But that's not Christ's way.
In Him these divisions are overcome – along with all the others that prevent us from living as citizens of the Kingdom. Can we name some of those demons? There's Poverty. Racism. Sexism. Religious Bigotry. There are all too many such powers in this world, a thousand varieties of hardness of heart that shut out some people, and imprison others.
But clothed in Christ we too can recover our right mind, and learn afresh the deep truth that we are all children of God through faith -- none less worthy of good food and clean water, shelter, medicine, or education, of love and hope.
Clothed and in our right mind, we have a new share in Christ's ministry of healing and reconciliation in our turn and, like the demoniac before us, to declare how much God has done for us.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Take my love, oh Lord, I pour at your feet its treasure store - meditation for Trinity 2C at St Matthew's

Very much a risk - I'm offering this as a guided meditation for both 8.00 and 10.00. Hard to imagine more differing congregations but....

This morning we're going to tell the gospel story together...
I don't mean by this that we're going to join in with the words in the same way that we do on Palm Sunday....but we are going to work at making it OUR bringing the events of the past into our present.

So come with me to the house of Simon the Pharisee.
It's quite a grand place – and today it is full of important people.
Look around you
How do you feel about being there?
Are you comfortable and at home – or do you feel a bit of an outsider?

You are there because it's a special occasion.
Jesus, the wandering teacher and prophet, has been invited for a meal.
Simon is anxious to see for himself just how dangerous the man may be
Perhaps you share his suspicions.
Perhaps you are waiting to see him for yourself before drawing any conclusions.

He's here – taking his place at the table.
You join those who crowd around him – for you want to hear what he has to say.
But then – there's a commotion – his words drowned out by another voice entirely.
Someone is pushing through the crowd – hair loose – dishevelled – weeping - wailing
What an embarrassment!
Nobody wants that sort of scene at a dinner party
Is she drunk?
She's certainly wildly emotional – bending over Jesus, kissing his feet, swamping them with her tears – and now she's using that free-flowing hair like a towel.

And what's that smell?

Perfume....not cheap by the smell of it.......but very pervasive

It's everywhere.

You can't get away from it.

Listen – Jesus is speaking to Simon.
Strain your ears to hear him.
Do you see this woman?”
We've all seen her right enough...couldn't miss her if we tried.
But it doesn't seem that Jesus is irritated by her
His voice is full of love as he speaks of the woman.
Listen to his words as he rebukes Simon for his failures of hospitality but commends the woman, in all her messy abandon, for showing great love.

How do you feel now?

Are you irritated that her bad behaviour is being rewarded, indignant that Simon, who has done his best in inviting Jesus to visit, should be publicly humiliated by his guest.

Or is there something here that gives you hope?

Her sins, which are many, have been forgiven...hence she has shown great love”

Think of those things for which you need forgiveness.

What precious gift would you now bring to Him in gratitude?

Take it and place it in his hands.

It is accepted.

YOU are accepted.

Hear Jesus speak those words for you.

Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 

Saturday, June 08, 2013

IF only......words for 8.00 at St Matthew's, 9.30 at St Lawrence, Trinity 2 2013

As you'd imagine – like most people in public ministry I see a huge number of funerals.Last year alone I conducted more than 60, varying hugely from a really wonderful thanksgiving for a lady who died some months after her 100th birthday, full of faith and resurrection hope, to the almost silent pathos of a family saying Goodbye to the baby they'd never known outside the womb....and with much else in between.
Funerals matter.
They are a moment when even the least reflective people find themselves wondering about the purpose of life – and our destination afterwards.
They are a time when hardened atheists may pause, agnostics find unexpected comfort
But they are generally times when all we can do is just be there...offering our love and our sadness.
We don't go to a funeral with high hopes and I'm really not sure how the average congregation would react if the deceased was abruptly restored to life in the course of the service.

Can you imagine it?

Seriously CAN you imagine it?
Do you, do I , actually believe that God might intervene like that – might do so at any moment, or have we somehow convinced ourselves that He is no longer actively involved in our world, that the age of miracles is dead, that the impossible will never happen...

After all, our world view is very different from that of the ancients. They understood that everything in life was a gift from God – above all life itself. We have been reading Job in the Daily Office recently - “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” he said, as he dealt with his own cataclysmic losses – but for the most part that's not where we are today.
We are encouraged to believe in our own cleverness – and regard death as almost an affront.
With all our scientific and technological advances – bodies still wear out, and hearts stop beating.

And it still hurts as much as ever it did.

So – come with me to the small town of Nain, just down the road from Capernaum...Be part of the crowd that follows Jesus...Go with him towards the gate of the town
But as we approach – we are met by another procession – led by a woman weeping for her only son.
Not only has she lost her husband – and thus her place in society as a married woman – but now she is left without any protector, any hope of economic security...She is left desolate, a non-person with neither rights nor hopes – just as the widow of Zaraphath was left desolate centuries before.

Stand with me as a representative of all the helpless, grieving people of the world comes, full of the pain of goodbye, towards the Lord of Life himself.
Watch as he confronts her in all her misery – not stepping discreetly aside to let the corget pass, but pausing there in the middle of the road to look on as tears run down that mother's cheeks.
Jesus looks at her – and sees the truth of her situation.
He looks – and his heart goes out to her.
He FEELS her grief as his own -for that is what compassion means – to suffer alongside those who are suffering.
Then, flouting convention once more he touches the lifeless body of her son, stepping outside the Law, making himself unclean...
He reaches out in love.
He doesn't just say “there there, never mind...” he ACTS to make a difference offering comfort beyond her wildest hopes and dreams, changing her sorrow to joy.

What a gift!
Hope from from death...through the work and words of Jesus,
But do you have just a twinge of
that was then. This is now. What about hope and joy for the grief of today?”
Yes, these ARE different times, and ours is a different understanding of the ways of the world but it is the SAME GOD OF COMPASSION who meets us in our grief and offers hope
When we are at rock bottom, certain that there IS no hope to be found – so often we will gradually realise that God is there, beside us in the darkness, sharing our pain and offering a route to transformation and a new beginning.
We may not experience a physical miracle like those which brought joy to the widows in our readings, but we can and should expect to be touched by the God of compassion who is always making all things new. These stories of life restored are not fables of long ago and far away but a testimony to the God who cares about life here and now...the God who invites us to live life in all its fullness and invites us, too, to do all we can to counter the life-denying powers at work in our world.

For you see, once we are touched by God, we too can be agents of his compassion – we too can be part of the change that we long for – we too can offer gifts of life and hope.
Yesterday tens of thousands gathered in Hyde Park for “the big IF” - a gathering to remind the G8 of the obligation that we have as human beings to care for one another, a challenge to the mind-set that seems content that poverty should continue in the face of plenty...You might have been among them...or one of the thousands of others who sent messages on-line expressing the longing for a fairer sharing of the earth's resources, an end to unthinking injustice.
Whoever we are, we can all manage small acts of care and compassion, we can look beyond stereotypes to recognise our brothers and sisters who struggle today – whether we meet them in the Shambles or simply on our tv screens.
We can commit ourselves to include rather than exclude, to create a climate in which the seeds of new life and hope can flourish in people’s lives, however fragile they appear.

Miracles DO happen today.
They happen because God's compassion is always at work.
God reaches out as surely to the 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan today as he did to the two widows whose stories we've heard this morning.
God cares as much as God ever did – and God cares so much that there is nothing he will not do to bring love and healing.
But God loves us so much that he wants us to be part of that enterprise, to work with him, to be signs of healing and hope ourselves.

So – let us ask, today, for the gift of compassion.
It comes as a treasure from a loving God who invites his children to love one another as He loves us...a God who knows that his love is the strongest power in creation – a power that can raise the dead and transform the living.