Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reflection for Compline - Tuesday of Holy Week

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered loss, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord

This week we attempt to respond to that invitation...to walk the way of the cross...to find ourselves in the story that took place once for all, long ago and far away, but which belongs to us and to people of all times and all places, since it is the story of our salvation.

Yesterday we looked at a story told in all of the gospels, and thought about whether or not we could aspire to the love that Mary showed as she poured out her treasured perfume, declaring her Lord dearer to her than all of the poor of the world.

Today, I'm inviting you to find yourself in a story that is all but untold, at this midpoint between the high triumph of Palm Sunday and the desolation of Good Friday, between Mary and Judas....between the extremes of love and betrayal. In many churches when a dramatized gospel is presented in Holy Week, the whole congregation takes the role of the crowd...and it can be a disturbing experience to find oneself moving from adulation to scorn in such a short space of time...
A crowd is a strange organism...both more and less than the sum of its parts...
notoriously fickle, as individuals cede personal responsibility, and stifle the inner voice of conscience so that it is drowned out by the surrounding hubbub.
You can get lost in a crowd, it's true, – but you can find yourself too, discovering who you really are as you choose to go with the flow, or to go out on a limb, risk standing alone.

So let's join the Holy Week crowd as we reflect on where we are in this greatest of all stories.

Looking back to Sunday,the crowds were there, gathering in the city that was already preparing for the festival to come. Men, women and children going about their business or loitering in the spring sunshine on a day when the whole world seemed full of hopeful possibilities...
We know that they were quick to sense the excitement, to lend their voices to the cries of Hosanna that filled the air as that unlikely, ragamuffin procession made its way into Jerusalem.
Did they really believe that the longed for Messiah was here at last, that they were seeing the ancient prophecies fulfilled before their very eyes?
Were they convinced that here – HERE – was their salvation...
Perhaps they were simply jumping on a bandwagon, - looking for someone, anyone, to help them emerge from under the yoke of Roman occupation?
Or were they just joining in because that's what you do...because here was a welcome diversion, something out of the ordinary to get involved with, something that would make a good story when they got home that night.
Being part of a happy crowd is such fun...it's easy to get swept along, suspending your own feelings and becoming part of a larger whole.
Does it really matter what the man on a donkey stands for? His face is kind and it's a lovely day...Who cares really? It's not that important...

But...but...the sky darkens...the hopeful innocence of Palm Sunday morning challenged when that same “kind looking young man” behaves in a way that scares and challenges, upsetting not just the money changers tables in the Temple, but the whole hallowed order of Temple culture, with its rituals for everything, its sliding scale of atonement sacrifice. Now leaders are angry, priests and worshippers outraged...
This is sacrilege.
It doesn't feel like fun to support the man from Nazareth any more...It's dangerous.
Small wonder that he and his friends have vanished from the city – getting out of harm's way, no doubt. 
Now is the time to keep mum, to keep your head firmly beneath the parapet. To befriend Jesus is to lose the friendship of those who really matter, the people whose approval will keep you and your family safe. Now is a good time to keep your opinions to yourself, - or to shift your ground, so that you stand with the vocal majority once more. I'm sure there will be something else to shout by the end of the week.

In choosing faith, or rejecting it, this is one possible agenda.
Each of us has the choice to join in with our peers, or to stand out from the crowd...
To recognise and welcome Jesus as the answer to all our deepest needs and longings...or to jump on a different bandwagon in the hope of a better here and now...

Where are you in the story?


Sometimes they strew his way and his sweet praises sing
Resounding all the day Hosanna to their King.
Then “Crucify” is all their breath

And for his death they thirst and cry.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Reflection for Compline - Monday of Holy Week - Coventry Cathedral

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered loss, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord

That wonderful Collect sets the tone for this most holy of weeks.
Every year we are invited, once again, to immerse ourselves in the story, to join our Lord on the Via Dolorosa, so that by staying close to Jesus and entering into the mystery of God's death,we can be touched afresh with resurrection hope.
That's the point of the week, and so it is a week when the question I love most for preaching and Bible study comes into its own.
I wonder...I wonder where YOU are in the story.

You see, in this week of all weeks, the boundaries that separate past and present, that divide 1st century Jerusalem from 21st century Coventry, seem so thin that they are porous...in this week, our ordinary lives can be put on hold for a while as we explore again what it means to accept the invitation to walk the way of the cross. The people whom we meet along the way belong in an alien world, so far away from us – yet they seem very very close. Of course they are familiar from their annual appearance in the Passion-tide drama...but they are familiar too because their personalities echo aspects of ourselves. “All human life is here” is a slogan that could apply as much to the Holy Week gospels as to any tabloid paper, for truly these people of the Passion hold up mirrors, so that we may learn more about ourselves, and come to understand both how and why this great story is our story, this song ours.

Monday...after the high excitement of his entry into Jerusalem, the cheering crowds, the puzzled faces, after the hopes and dreams and prophecies fulfilled, after the angry whispers in dark corners, after all this Jesus leaves the city. He seeks an oasis of calm, somewhere he feels safe, among friends. He sits relaxed in the moment, looking neither to past nor to future.
And then suddenly she is there.
Around the table the convivial buzz falters and dies into silence.
Perhaps you're with them, aghast at the sudden unwelcome interruption.
How could she?
Mary who has sat at Jesus feet and heard his teaching. Mary who has dared to rebuke him for responding too slowly when her family needed help. Mary, emotional, embarrassing Mary, turns the evening upside down with a gesture of pure theatre – or is it pure love?
What is going on as she pours out that costly perfume, the dearest thing she owns?

It seems to me that so many of the events of Holy Week stand as parables for us.
Mary is demonstrating wild, extravagant love – but the love that she feels is as nothing compared to the love that will be revealed for all the world to see on Friday.
She has adopted the reckless generosity that is the currency of the Kingdom, - understanding that nothing – NOTHING – is worth more than loving Jesus and being loved by him.
It's a lesson that I still struggle with...longing to give up those things that are precious to me, but holding onto them despite myself, - aspiring to the total abandonment that would see me throwing myself into Jesus's arms, but holding back, “guilty of dust and sin”.
Oh to be Mary – knowing how much she has been forgiven, and loving in proportion...
Mary, who made the choice to stay close to Jesus no matter what.
Mary, who will, in time, be the first witness of the resurrection.

But for now there's another struggle playing out – presented in microcosm in the gospel reading, as Judas challenges her lavish gift, with an argument that seems only sensible. 
What a wicked waste! 
Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?
He can see nothing but the immediately practical, knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing, but Mary has but one focus – the amazing man who has given her back her brother, and given her too a sense of her own worth, her right to hear, receive and, in due course, share the gospel for herself.

And, as she pours out that ointment Jesus recognises it as a gesture of unconditional love and perhaps he files it away, as a parable that he could use himself, maybe quite soon...

Love poured out...filling the space with its fragrance... embracing the beloved, transforming the lover, and all those with eyes to see.


Were the whole realm of nature mine that were a present far too small
Love, so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Sermon preached at Pembroke College Cambridge, Lent 2, 1st March 2015 Mark 8:31-38

One of the many strange things that happens to you when you are ordained is that people tend to hold you responsible for all sorts of things that are clearly the responsibility of God alone. They expect, for example, that you'll be able to fix good weather for weddings...to which my stock reply is “Actually, I'm in Sales – not management”.
It's fair to say that some parts of the job can, on a bad day, feel rather like working in sales or PR for a brand that has almost nothing to recommend it – particularly when you find yourself confronted with readings like those we've heard this evening.
They certainly aren't the stuff of an easy win. In fact, I think I'll change the subject without more ado!

2 weeks into Lent now. How's it going for you?
Are you resolute in your disdain for chocolate, biscuits and alcohol or are you exhausted by the sheer weight of virtuous projects you've taken on.
It's odd, the way the idea of “giving things up for Lent” seems to have survived in our emphatically post Christian society. I guess for many it's really just another chance to have a go at those self improvement resolutions that foundered in the dull days after Christmas...another chance to prove ourselves by triumphing over self-created obstacles but if that's so, then I think we've gone a bit off course.


If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Deny yourself
Take up your cross
That's sounds, somehow, a whole lot more serious than stepping away from the chocolate. Let's look more closely and try to discover what this Scripture might mean for us.

First of all, a bit of context. Today's passage occurs just after the account of an amazing experience. Jesus took his 3 closest friends on a mountain walk – and as they reached the top the disciples saw, for a few moments, the truth of the man they were following. Before their eyes, Jesus was transfigured – not changed but revealed in all the shining light of his divine nature. It was wonderful – something to treasure (so much so that Peter wanted to build a memorial on the spot), a confirmation that they were on the right track after all, that everything was going to be alright – and BETTER than alright.
To Peter this looked like the start of something big – a PR breakthrough...
...so small wonder he was more than disappointed when instead of building on the triumph Jesus immediately began to talk about suffering, rejection and worse. What?!

Clearly that couldn't be right. Everyone knew that God's Messiah would be a triumphant leader, setting all to rights in a blaze of glory.Indeed, his very triumph would be confirmation that he was indeed God's chosen.
Suffering and death were signs of failure.
A crucified Messiah was simply a contradiction in terms.

But even as Peter tries to silence Jesus, to curb his depressing pronouncements, Jesus tells him that he's got it wrong.
Death IS actually what it's all about...
Death of the self
I can't think of a message less calculated to win friends and influence people but Jesus just doesn't seem to care.
In fact it looks very much as if he's set on putting most of us off before we even start.

Certainly he's determined that we should understand what we are getting into. If you've been baptised, you will have had the cross traced on your forehead – an invisible reminder of the shape your life should take from then on.
You bear a cross.
So do I.
A constant reminder that Discipleship is absolutely Not for the faint-hearted.

Let them deny themselves”
Words that are anathema in our age of self fulfillment and individualism – but you know, I really don't think it's all about chocolate – and I think we cheat if we use that kind of choice to divert attention from the huge demand of the gospel.

Jesus is saying, quite simply, that we need to learn that we cannot exist as the centre of our own universe...that a world that runs on the principle of self fulfilment for all is very quickly going to become a place of conflict and unhappiness...that a little ego goes a very long way.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

Last week I saw “Oppenheimer” - a very powerful drama about the man responsible for developing the atomic bomb. As the plot developed we saw him repeatedly making choices that seemed to stem from his own pride, choices that divorced him step by step from his own humanity. The success of the project became all important. While at first there was talk of the deterrent power of the bomb, of the way that it would cut war short and so save countless lives, soon it became clear that it was now an end in itself. It was a chilling experience, watching scientific brilliance dedicated ever more deeply to a cataclysmic cause – and as we emerged, the big question in our group was “How do you live with yourself afterwards”.
It seemed to me that we had been watching the experience of someone losing their own soul right enough – and losing it as a result of a determination to hold on to the ego and all that went with it.

That's really what's going on at the centre of everything...and where we should focus if we're serious about engaging with Lent.
It's a struggle of life and death as our human tendency to “me first” contends with the incredible power of self-giving love that is God's very essence.
Really not just chocolate.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 

Thankfully, Jesus doesn't simply talk enigmatically. - he models in his own person this upside down way of being, and invites us to live it too.
In fact, this whole passage is deeply prophetic – looking ahead to the way in which Jesus, losing his own life on the cross, gains it and in so doing transforms our life, our death and our future.

There are no guarantees of a pain free life. Indeed if we are serious about setting aside our egos then we can surely expect to find ourselves feeling and carrying some of the grief of the world ourselves...

But we are offered the help that we need in order to bear it.

Jesus steps in and carries it all....the sadness, disappointment, anger, doubt, and denial....all the weight of broken humanity.

But we can choose to carry it too...to learn to be Christ-like by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory.
We will all have our own unique burdens – made out of the stuff of our own lives and experience...
Of failure and loneliness, a difficult relationship, a sick relative, things we might well prefer to jettison, but find ourselves carrying day by day. Your cross will be quite unlike mine, - it might look more manageable – or less...That doesn't matter, because your cross belongs to you. No exchange programme possible.

I can't carry your cross...but Jesus can and does bear it with you.
His invites us on this arduous road of discipleship because he knows that the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter.
It's into this that we are baptised...sharing Christ's death so that we might also share his resurrection.

Peter could not believe that the route to the Kingdom lay through the death of his Master ...but we can look at the cross with the perfect, 20/20 vision of hindsight...
We KNOW that, however painful, however difficult the here and now – Easter is coming.

For now we are still in the midst of Lent, still havering over chocolate, still not sure what will happen in our own unfinished stories, unsure if it will all come out right one day,
But, despite the PR disasters, there is good news for us here this evening.

You see,
whether our lives end
in outward success or failure, acclaim or ignominy, whether we achieve our
goals or feel that we have never really amounted to anything in the world's
eyes, we are just as precious to God, Today, in mid-Lent, in mid-term, let’s not hurry on to the happy ending of Easter. Let’s take the time to realise that just where we are – even struggle and uncertainty, God is with us and God loves us, and he will bring Easter when the time is ripe. .

Into the wilderness revisited - part 2

So - the stations themselves...were something like this.

At the font - preparing to travel
This is the place where the Christian journey begins. 
Here we are washed clean, and celebrate our new birth into God's family.
We remember that water cleans and refreshes, that it is essential to life.
But we remember too the devastating power of flood and tsunami - the way that water can change your whole landscape in just a few moments.
Take a stone - and hold it as you reflect on those things that burden you, that dominate your life landscape unhelpfully, those things which you long to have washed away.
When you are ready, drop your stone into the font
As you leave, you may wish to dip your finger in the water and trace the cross on your forehead as a sign of your continued commitment to travel with God.

Here is a map - it might be the route planner for your life journey - with God and towards God. 
God is our "true north" - the fixed point to which all our longings and all our journeyings should lead - but we are so easily distracted.
The compass points north for you - but you can use the magnets to confuse it, to draw that needle away from north just as other distractions draw you away from God.
Spend a moment thinking of what distracts you and ask God to help you to return to him again and again, just as the compass needle does when the magnets are removed.
(the magnets were brightly coloured "magnetic marbles" - which always distract me splendidly - so were doubly effective!) 

When Jesus was in the wilderness, he was offered three different temptations by the devil - who offered him the easy life - food, power and fame- but on the devil's terms. Jesus knew that his whole purpose was to live God's way, with no short cuts - so he turned the devil away.

Spend time thinking of of 2 or 3 temptations that you struggle with.

Write them down - ask God to help you to deal with them - then shred them as a sign that with God's help you will reject those temptations and move on.
(I love that using the shredder is noisy: dealing with temptations is very rarely smooth, silent or painless - and often disrupts other people on their journey too)

The wilderness is dry, arid - not alot grows, still less flourishes there.
But where there is water, miracles can happen.

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus..
Take a flower. As you hold it, think of a hope that you cherish, a longing that seems almost impossible.
Fold the petals carefully into the centre of the flower then place it, petal side up, in the water.
Wait and see what happens.
Your wait may seem impossibly long.
Is anything going to happen at all?
Wait. See. Rejoice.
Prayers are answered - but God's time is not like ours.

Impressions (based on a script by Jonny Baker from Alternative Worship)

In front of you is some sand.
Take off your shoes and socks and step into the sand to make a footprint - or draw a pattern with the stick.
This is your moment to make an impression.

What will be left of us when we've left?  What will we leave behind us? What will surviving witnesses say? Will the future be better because of what we did with our present? 
How long does it take to make a difference? (Can I start now?)
What will history say of us when we are history?
What will be left of us when we've left?

Holy Space
God is here and you are welcome.
This is your space to be with God - and God's space to be with you.
Make yourself at home. Be yourself. Be real. There's no rush.
Be still and let God love you.

Here God knows you.
Here God welcomes you.
Here God speaks to you.
Be fed.

Take bread and remember that God sustains both your body and your soul.

Into the Wilderness - revisited part 1

I'm fast becoming the most absent blogger of all time - but a while ago I promised to write about the Lenten prayer stations we offered at "Later" - the Cathedral's Sunday evening informal service...
None of the material was new - I first produced "Into the wilderness" for the youth groups of St Mary's Charlton Kings 10 years ago now - but as always local environment and the particular needs of the regular congregation impacted on how I presented the stations - not least because prayer stations at all are relatively unfamiliar for this group, who have been used to a regular "praise sandwich".

So - I began by offering a gentle introduction to Lent itself (many of this group are new to church - or come for a bit of refreshment from churches which sit very lightly to the liturgical calendar)...It felt odd to be explaining alternative worship - but with a group of non readers present, I couldn't simply let the stations speak for themselves. I introduced the wilderness with the Godly Play script about the desert, shaping, smoothing, reshaping the sand in my big bowl as I did so.

Welcome to Lent....the 40 days that lead the Church to Easter...time to remember Jesus's own experience in the desert before he began his ministry...time to think about the temptations that he faced, and those we are facing ourselves.

A time of preparation for the solemn journey of Holy Week and the Easter joy to come...

There's far more to Lent than giving up chocolate – indeed, the good news is that there is no rule ANYWHERE that states that this is what you should do – but Lent is a good time for stock taking, for having a good hard look at what's going on inside you and asking God to help you change the things you don't like.

It's also a good time for decluttering your life, for helping you remember what's really important and what might just be a waste of the precious gift of time that God has given you, a time to rethink priorities.

A kind of spring cleaning time for your soul – and of course spring-cleaning happens in spring – when new life suddenly emerges in places that looked dead and hopeless.
Even the wilderness.
Even your soul.
So Lent is a time to celebrate – not sombre and solemn and unhappy but quietly joyful, carrying the expectation that with Easter the world will be transformed and we will be transformed with it..

So many reasons to bother with Lent!
We do it because we know we need it..
We do it because even Jesus, who surely hadn't any overdue spring-cleaning whatsoever, did it
And as we do it, we can learn more about ourselves and more about the God of love who meets us in whatever wilderness we may find ourselves – and meeting us, brings us hope

So – there are several stations designed to help you with this process of thinking about yourself, of clearing out the rubbish, getting back on track and being loved and cherished by God.

Take your time to explore – there's no right or wrong order, though you may feel that the bread which represents refreshment in the wilderness is a treat to take just before the end.

As always, if none of the stations work for you, then just spend the time resting in God's presence.
A wilderness is a place with few distractions – a bit like an empty hour in a quiet Cathedral.

Let God meet you here.