Sunday, April 23, 2017

Seeds of faith – reflection for St Giles, Exhall 23rd April 2017

I agreed to be with you tonight a good few weeks ago, at a time when a comfortable interval had elapsed since the death of anyone whom I loved. I thought that it would be a purely professional matter for me to come here and share with you whatever God gave me to say as together we ponder the sadness of farewell and the hope of Resurrection.                                             I should know better by now! That kind of thinking is often misplaced...and, in fact, the reality is very different.                                                                         You see, on Easter Monday a much-loved mentor, my former bishop, died – far too early, thanks to a brain tumour. Among many other gifts of holiness and wisdom, he was a life-long teacher, and had continued his ministry as a teaching bishop even as he approached death, leaving his wife with a wonderful letter which she sent to us, his friends, together with news of his passing….                                                                                                   Despite the letter, which shone with faith and confidence, I found myself plunged into all the stormy uncertainty of grief that will be familiar to many of you...and wondered if it would, after all, be possible to bring anything at all helpful to the table this evening. But actually, most authentic preaching begins by speaking to the preacher...and somehow the past week has, in fact, reaffirmed my own confidence in that “sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life”.                                                                               It’s not about science, though.                                                                         It’s all about mystery, about faith…which is deeper and more wonderful than anything that can be demonstrated q.e.d.                                                           So, let’s go with that as our launch pad.

A seed is an act of faith.

If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I should plant a tree today..
So Martin Luther King summed up the faith and hope, the determined investment in the future that is represented by each seed consigned to the earth.
When we look at a single seed it is so ridiculously tiny and fragile – it doesn't look as if it could amount to anything.
I dropped an open bag of poppy seeds in my kitchen last year – and despite my best efforts to retrieve them so many individual seeds were quite simply lost, among the dog hair and house dust on the floor.                                 Lost – and yet within themselves, each and every one of those seeds was replete with potential.

We recognise this potential whenever we place a seed in the ground.
We trust that, though most of us probably don’t understand exactly how it works, given a bit of care and reasonable conditions, that seed will germinate and grow to provide new life where there was none before.
And we are able to believe this because we’ve seen it happen for us, year after year…but nonetheless, each planting is, truly, an act of faith.

Jesus talks about a grain of wheat falling to the ground to die - and we know that, if we dug up a seed a few weeks into the germination process, there would be little of the familiar shape left. It can only reach its potential by ceasing to exist in that original form. That's the sort of truth it's quite hard to deal with, when we use it as an analogy for our own experience of loss.
Most of us are here because we have had to face the reality of of saying Goodbye to a beloved body, put aside by the person we love. Perhaps we have seen it laid in the earth – and we certainly don’t need anything else to remind us of just how perishable, how fragile that precious shell the body can be. We are living with the consequences of that fragility, day after day after weary day.

So actually a clever analogy with gardening frankly doesn't help! We know the science but translating it to another context is a different matter. It can be so hard to visualise any sort of bodily resurrection. Even if we’re sure that we’ll see our loved ones again, it’s very difficult for us, this side of the divide, to imagine quite how that will turn out. I'm not expecting to find myself wearing a white robe and a crown, or playing the harp – because I think that sort of picture language is just that. A picture – someone's best guess, but a long way short of reality. And that's fine...I get what they’re aiming for – and on a good day I’m quite content to imagine that those whom I miss are living a glorious resurrection life that involves endless joy, praise and the nearer presence of God.
But there are bad days too, days when any number of images of saints in glory are no compensation for the absence of one particular flawed but beloved human being.
Days when the fact that I can’t explain how things actually work seems to make it almost impossible to believe in any of it.
I’m afraid I don’t have any sure-fire answers for days like that, because, of course faith is never the same as knowledge, and we can’t use the same objective reasoning to confirm our hopes for eternity.
It just doesn’t work that way.
It’s one of those times when we can only lean on our faith- if we have it - or the instinct that confirms for us that something, someone we have loved so much cannot simply vanish as if they had never been.

I believe that…
I believe it from my own experience of the death of my parents and some much loved others…I believe it from my current experience of adjusting to the loss of Bishop Michael.
I believe it because I have Jesus’s own promise that it is so…but I cannot, in all honesty, tell you exactly how it will come to pass in God’s economy, in which nothing and no-one is ever wasted.

So, though I do want to think about seeds I’m not actually going to explore Paul’s words any more for now.
Who can really understand the Resurrection?
In God's good time we will all experience it – but for now...let's think about other seeds, seeds that are here in plenty today.

Those are the seeds of faith and hope that lie in each one of you, the seeds that have enabled you to carry on even when grief is sharpest, on the days when your feelings of loss are almost too much to endure.
Sometimes, I know, those seeds seem so fragile you doubt that they will actually grow at all…but each day you manage to get up and engage with life and remember to have breakfast you are saying
It IS worth it…Death, darkness, disappointment shall have no dominion over me”
Writing in a famous passage in his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul reminds us that we carry within us seeds that can bloom and flower in our relationships, the seeds that make us fully human....and that these seeds are, in fact, all that we really need to cling to when the chips are down.
These three remain - faith, hope and love”

When we are grieving the loss of someone dear to us, it’s tempting to say  "I’ll give up on love – because that way lies only hurt and desolation…”
That's sad – but sometimes understandable. We feel vulnerable and unwilling to risk further wounds. But even if we no longer feel ourselves able to give or receive love, we are still surrounded by it – and it comes in many different forms. The love of our families and friends is a huge comfort – but it’s not something that we are all blessed to enjoy – and that can make life feel specially bleak. The love of a community, a church, a social group, feels rather different – sometimes a little impersonal…but it’s still worth having, still love. And even if we feel cut off from all those everyday experiences of human love – even then, we are still shaped and held by love…endless love, love stronger than anything in the whole of creation.

We may not be able to say that we understand what happens next, but we can continue to nurture the seeds of faith, and trust that all shall be well, that the God whose who nature is love did not create anything to be destroyed or wasted. Whether we mourn a beloved parent or partner – or a myriad other losses, disappointments, wounds we have been dealt through life...we can try to believe in the coming of spring.

We can hold onto those split-second reminders of God's greater reality, the moments when an unexpected kindness, a child’s smile, the sound of birdsong, the sight of a tree in full blossom, turns the world bright again for us, just for a moment…
We can cherish those seeds of hope and keep them warm and close to our hearts, the place where they most need to grow.
Their growth may take a long time, for after all we’re not planting for the short term, something to spring up and die back in a season, but looking for something to sustain us each day.

So, no quick fixes, but I promise that as we journey on in faith, the glimpses of hope, the hints of love will slowly grow and come to fruition until we can each own for ourselves the promise
'Love is not changed by death and nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest'

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Still learning from FabBishop

As might be expected, I have spent much of the past week remembering. 
Remembering Bishop Michael teaching the art of leading intercessions (and the most wonderful spoof intercessions he produced as a "how not to" caricature of the worst we might hear...I still remember "And we pray for Emily, our tired vicar, whom we do so appreciate with all her little ways" ). 
Remembering him striding out on pilgrimage across Minchinhampton Common, as he walked his way around the whole diocese, less energetic clergy like me trailing in his wake for a few short miles. 
Remembering him in that most beautiful chapel at Bishopscourt, helping us, his first cohort of deacons, to approach our priesting with a proper understanding of what the liturgy sets out to accomplish and suggesting how we might deliver it (I've just re-read the notes and find I have settled into pretty much exactly what he showed us that day, though his teaching came with the advice "Experiment, explore, then settle with what feels comfortable for you - as long as you know WHY you are doing whatever it might be" )
Remembering the look of comical amazement when he encountered me en route to my car at the end of a diocesan conference, laden with all the paraphanalia of alt worship, including several broken flowerpots and a roll of barbed wire.He knew such things happened - he just hadn't associated me with them, I think!

But I also remember a time when I was deeply disappointed with his refusal to go out on a limb, his loyalty to the episcopal role as a focus of unity when I wanted him to man the barricades and speak out for a truly inclusive Church. I hated feeling at odds with him (I didn't actually see him at the time, so he was totally oblivious)...but when the opportunity came to tackle him at a training day I made sure I was sitting close enough to get a chance to speak. Then something else happened.
This is what I wrote at the time

We were thinking about the urgent need to translate the gospel into a language that makes sense to the huge numbers for whom traditional church will never connect.
As part of this, we were asked to think about the cost of mission...of how it might feel to respond positively to that question
"Will you go where you don't know and never be the same".
We thought about being vulnerable in strange situations, with people whose language, lives and priorities were unlike our own.
But we didn't just think in abstract. We were led to experience it for a few minutes...and I learned alot.

To begin with, we were invited to lay aside an object that we valued, to place it on the table in front of us.
Most of the time I wear a heavy silver bangle I was given in Bangalore...
I think it's beautiful in itself, and for me it carries the added beauty of memories of my wonderful weeks in India, all the learning and growing, the friendships made and prayers offered...It's one of my most precious possessions - so off it came, leaving my right wrist feeling a bit naked.

After just a few seconds to adjust to this, we were next invited to pick up something that our neighbour had placed there.
Then we were told to put it on.
And there on the the table was my bishop's episcopal ring. Around me, sensible friends were picking up phones, photographs, - gently personal items with no added significance for anyone beyond their owners. But this was his RING. The item he wore all the time, as a sign of his episcopacy.
Everyone held back from picking it up - til he pushed it gently towards me.

So it was that for a good twenty minutes I found myself wearing FabBishop's episcopal ring.
It was heavy....both literally and figuratively, as I imagined how it might be to wear it all the time, a constant reminder of the responsibilities he bears for us as the Anglican church in this diocese, and as a leader on a wider stage.
It didn't fit me very well - I was uncomfortable with it in every respect.
No surprise there. Being a priest is quite enough of a leadership role for me, thank you kindly!
But it taught me something too.
You see, +Michael showed me how, around the stone is engraved in tiny letters 
"ut unum sint" "that they may all be one".

Whenever I preside at the Eucharist I'm reminded of the day when I knelt before +Michael while he anointed my hands, and made them forever a focus of the priestly ministry of consecration, reconciliation and blessing entrusted to me at my ordination.
I'd imagine that when FabBishop looks at his hands he remembers not only that shared experience of priesthood but the particular focus of episcopacy.
"That they may all be one"

Since news of his death broke on Tuesday, I've been heartened by the tide of loving tributes that have flooded my part of the internet - and specially some words from Colin Coward, who spoke of Bishop Michael's own longing for a fully inclusive church. I've remembered the reassurance that he gave me when I wondered if it would be right to be ordained into a church whose teachings on "human sexuality" were so different from my own understanding of God's love and justice.
And I've realised once again that being where Christ places us won't always make us feel warm, fuzzy and flourishing...Sometimes we'll find ourselves in places we never chose, wondering how on earth to be our best selves for God in this context...and sometimes all we can do is be faithful.

I guess that Bishop Michael will be teaching me things for a very long time to come, and I pray that I will always notice, and be thankful.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Weeping o'er the grave we make our song

On Palm Sunday, not expecting an answer, I sent an email to my beloved Bishop Michael, whose faith, wisdom, and kindness supported me among countless others from the first day I met him, just a few weeks before he ordained me as deacon. He had newly arrived as Bishop of Gloucester and amid all the busyness of those early days, set aside time to see each one of us. I had been supporting a friend through some very hard times, and when he asked me how I was feeling about my approaching ordination, exhausted by the dramas of moving house, uprooting children and walking with my friend, I burst into tears.
The half hour I had been allotted somehow became an hour and by the time I left, comforted and reassured that "ordination works" I knew that I, and the whole diocese, was hugely blessed by his appointment.

He ALWAYS made time.

He really loved his clergy and was at great pains to make sure that we knew this - and of course we loved him in return. I so valued the emails that arrived whenever your parish was due to be prayed for in the diocesan cycle, asking if there was anything that we might want him to pray about, either in ministry or personal life, and I valued even more the postcards that confirmed that he had prayed, and sent a word of encouragement or comfort for the needs that had been shared. Building bricks for the kind of relationship that was surely imagined when the phrase "Father in God" was first conceived.

He lived what he taught and he taught with more clarity and wisdom than practically anyone - continuing that teaching through adversity and through illness just by being himself.
Always a teaching bishop, he even transformed this final journey towards death into a lesson in faith and hope and love. I've just opened the most remarkable letter I am ever likely to receive, his thoughts shared with his wife, so that she might share them with us too.
He prayed as one who expected prayer to change things - which it generally did.

So many memories to give thanks for...
of inspiring sermons, from the pulpit in Gloucester Cathedral, and in our parishes, where he was present for celebrations great and small;
of the way he washed our feet on our priesting retreat, with such loving attention that they seemed to be the only feet in the world: this Maundy Thursday the Dean and I commented that we always carried that picture with us as we kneel, jug and basin at the ready;
of his quietly arriving in the chapel at Glenfall House the night before we were priested...when I had prostrated myself before the altar and then, somehow, fallen asleep. He didn't break the profound silence but signalled, head on hands, that I should go to bed. He'd be up praying for us.
of the way he KNEW us...knew our pleasures and struggles...our longings and our fears.

Early in my time at Cainscross he came for a Confirmation on our Patronal Festival.
He'd not been convinced this was the right post for me (though he later said I'd done well there, which meant so much to me) - but once I was in, he was utterly supportive and came to at least one service every single year that I served that parish.
That first time, I'd worked really hard to pull the liturgical life of the church together and was particularly excited that I'd managed to find a thurifer so that we could have a procession worthy of the name. +M both knew what I was aspiring to and recognised where we actually were
"What a grown-up church..!" he said, teasing gently.
That evening was both wonderful and mad, as our local alcoholic and rough sleeper had newly connected with St Matthew's, and with me in particular, and was not going to let An Event occurr at the church without him. He was most disconcerted by the appearance of someone who appeared to be "out-vicaring" his vicar, and refused to believe that +M was actually the Bishop of Gloucester til I said so. Repeatedly. By this stage both +M and I were almost helpless with suppressed laughter.
As we finally formed up for that much-planned procession he whispered under his breath
"It was your idea to come here..."
He even, bless him, managed a Messy Church for us (about as far outside his comfort zone as it was possible to get. He told one of the children that it wasn't long til his birthday but that he wouldn't be at home for it this year, so wouldn't get a cake. Cue frantic searches of church cupboards and I think he was genuinely pleased with the glitter-covered creation with an indeterminate number of candles that appeared for the feast. Certainly the children believed they had delighted him)..
In parish terms, I think I'll best remember him sitting with about a dozen of us in the Lady Chapel leading Lectio Divina after one of his all-day visitations.
Suddenly, Lectio Divina became my congregation's Very Favourite Thing as he helped them realise that they could engage with Scripture on their terms, and found the confidence to speak of what they found there.

Whenever I put on my red boots I remember how, wearing them for the snowy journey from Gloucester to Coventry for the Dean's Installation, I ran out of time to change - and found myself unexpectedly sitting on the servers' bench beside the choir stalls - with my feet in full view of +M. Those boots got redder and redder as the service continued. Ever the liturgist, he demanded the highest standards of himself and we who loved him wanted, always, to meet them.

When I was dithering over whether to apply for my current post I asked his advice. His retirement had been announced by then, so it was somehow OK to explain that his departure was one of the reasons it felt like time to go - though he would have none of that! The lure of cathedrals, though, was a very different thing. I'd done all that I could to make the liturgy beautiful at St Matthew's (and on a good day, it wasn't bad) but when I confessed that a recent visit by the cathedral choir had reduced me to tears throughout the service, he completely agreed I should move on. "I always thought you'd be a Precentor - but you don't care enough about the commas, do you? - and you'd worry about whether things were "good enough" too much to manage to worship yourself" - again, that extraordinary sense of being totally known.
"Of course it's not too big a job for you. You'd do it well..." persuaded me to submit the papers.

For all of this - and so much more - I will always be thankful.

I'm thankful, too, to Alison and the girls, who allowed us all to take far more than a fair share of their husband and father - and so very very sad that there was not more time for them to enjoy retirement after a costly ministry. It's tempting to be angry with God that they were not granted happy golden years together - but I'm certain that +M would have none of that either.

The email I sent to him last week included the hope and prayer that "walking in the way of the cross it might be none other than the way of life and peace".
Last night that prayer was answered.

I'm weeping today for our loss but trying, too, to live into the truth that he proclaimed in life and in liturgy. After my 1st Mass I shared with him the extraordinary experience of knowing how close my own personal saints had been as I presided at the altar - the way I could practically hear my father's voice in the Sanctus - the way I suddenly and deeply understood the Communion of Saints as never before. That made sense to him - and was at the heart of the wonderful letter that Alison has just emailed to so many many people.
So, I've been in the Gethsemane Chapel, singing the Russian Kontakion and will try to keep the "Alleluia" foremost in my thoughts whenever I remember Bishop Michael.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

For the Maundy Eucharist at Coventry Cathedral, 13th April 2017

A week is a long time in politics:  a saying that was old long before the arrival of the internet placed us fair and square in a world of instant everything. Certainly most of us seem to travel an unimaginable distance through life in the space of seven days – and a journey  particularly marked in that first Holy Week in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago

As the crowds formed, dispersed, regrouped around the person of the itinerant preacher from Galilee, the mood of the city changed with them, from joy to anger, from perplexity to frustration (and later from emptiness to incredulous joy). We’ve made that journey too, as together we’ve walked the way of the cross and now we’re reaching the final act of the drama…

It’s Thursday, and so the Triduum, the great Three Days of God’s saving action, is upon us.

Faced with human indifference, with our repeated failure to come and learn God’s way, God has emptied himself, thrown all that he HAS, all that he IS at the problem.

It’s Thursday.

The darkness gathers but there’s light and community as a group meets around a table in an upstairs room.

If you knew this would be your last night on earth, I wonder what you’d do.

Probably, try to contact those you love…maybe attempt reconciliation in broken relationships…no time to finish reading those unopened great works of literature, to learn Hindi or to visit the far away lands you’d always dreamed of…but still, a time for unfinished business - or to enjoy a special meal with your friends?

Jesus had lived a perfect life.

He had only one piece of business left to complete...and so, he did what he had always done.

He sat down at table with his disciples.

He offered hospitality and welcome.

He invited those who loved him; he also invited the man he knew would betray him.

He gathered friends and enemies, righteous and wicked and those in between, and he broke bread with them, and offered them wine.

He ate with them, as he had countless times before.

He celebrated the Passover with them, as he must have done year on year.

When Jesus broke bread, everyone -- the Pharisee and the whore, the rich and the poor, righteous and sinners -- experienced God's welcome at his table.

 When Jesus broke bread, the hungry were fed.

When Jesus broke bread, serving any who came to him, people experienced what REAL power, God's power, the power of love really is and does:

I am among you as one who serves.

In a few moments, we’ll re-live that gesture of service which sums up that self emptying love and profound intimacy.

If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet

It’s a privilege to kneel and do just that.

It is harder, perhaps, to accept that our feet need washing.

We all come to God’s table covered with the dust of busy lives, our worries, sorrows, grievances, failures. We come, footsore from our journey…bruised from painful encounters on the way, “guiltie of dust and sin”. But, knowing this, it can still be so hard to accept that we need to sit, with the disciples, and ;et Jesus kneel before us.

Like Peter, we must acknowledge our need, and, once cleansed, we may sit down to the feast.

On this night, as Jesus invites us to his table, he invites us to remember him.

To remember him EVERY time we break bread -- at the altar, certainly, but also in the school canteen, as we grab a sandwich on the run, as we come together with friends or family.

For tonight is very much about Community too…and so there is another invitation, in this breaking of bread. For on this night, this very night on which he was betrayed, Jesus broke bread, and said to those gathered,

"This is my Body."

Not just the bread, but the company who gather to share it: this is Jesus' Body, given for the world.

And whenever we gather with others made in God's image, others for whom Christ gave himself, Jesus invites us to re-member, to bring his broken body together once again, aware of and honouring his presence in one another

It's a solemn charge, and an awesome opportunity, to encounter and receive Christ in everyone we encounter, and to remember that in the Eucharist it is we ourselves who are offered. To live out the words of Augustine

YOU are to be taken, blessed, broken and shared

Taken…called…set apart by God for his purposes.

Blessed…for this grace filled encounter should change each of us forever.

Broken…for the call is to the way of the cross, which we have to take up each and every day,

Shared…because as Christ’s  Body, WE are the ministers of his Kingdom in a needy world.

So that is the invitation we receive tonight, to break bread in the presence of the one who celebrated his last supper as he did every meal, to be the Body of the one whose body was broken for us.

This is my body. Do this in remembrance of me.

Famous last words. Spy Wednesday "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

45From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice "Eli
 46About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” 47When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He is calling Elijah

This week we are thinking about the power of last words, how we will hear them, replay them again and again, to find and make new meanings that will give us strength in a time of loss or separation.

In particular, we are thinking about some of those words which the evangelists give Jesus as they recount his passion. It’s worth noticing, perhaps, that there’s little uniformity in the narrative as it appears from one gospel to the next...but that each of the seven sayings which are recorded as Christ’s famous “last words” has something important to say to us, two thousand years after the event….just as those sayings made sense in the moment, when they seemed a wholly reasonable response to the situation in which Jesus found himself.

They may not always sound like good news but believe me, they are….offering light to travel by as we walk the way of the cross and strain forward for the joy of Easter morning.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Hearing these words spoken by Jesus from the cross, for a moment the world lurches and there is nowhere safe to stand.
He has been so close to God that he called him Abba – and even suggested that this closeness was possible for us as well.

But now, it seems, that God has joined the ranks of those whom Jesus believed were his friends…Mad himself scarce...slipped off into the night to avoid trouble…

Why have you forsaken me?

Dreadful, unanswerable words. What was God thinking of, to desert his own beloved Son, the sinless One

As Thomas Morley’s beautiful motet “Nolo morten

“Father, all things fulfilled and done according to your will I have”…Jesus has done everything right...not a single task left incomplete,and yet, here is Jesus, forsaken.

If he, who is one with God, feels so terribly alone, bereft and deserted at the hour of death, how can we, in our human frailty, approach our own mortality with anything but terror?
Taking our cue from St John and St Paul, we would prefer to imagine that Jesus was so intent on the glory ahead, or so fixed on the joy that was in him, that the actual process of dying was almost immaterial.

If Jesus experienced neither fear nor pain, that would offer  us hope of an equally gentle transition. But this moment of bleak desolation is hard...hard for Jesus, hard for us.

But of course, the whole point of the incarnation is that Jesus is not just fully divine but also fully human.

Dying a terrible death, replete with every kind of physical and mental suffering (that state of being that Dame Cicely Saunders dubbed “total pain”) he demonstrates conclusively God’s solidarity with humanity in every bit of the human experience. Just as his birth was neither easy nor conventional, so his death puts him outside society – and, for a time in extremis it feels as if it has put him beyond even the comfort of God’s presence.

And I'd guess it may feel like that as we stand on the edge of the unknown, as sight, sound, sensations desert us leaving us feeling very much alone...But we are not alone. Not for a moment - and neither is Jesus.
Nothing can separate us from God's love. Neither life nor death nor anything else in all creation.
Nothing can put us beyond his reach.

Not for Jesus, nor for us...but that doesn’t change the impact of our feelings – nor the impact of his. Our fears and our doubts are part of the sacrifice that he offers on the cross, and in so doing he not only declares them acceptable (if HE can wobble in his faith, then we know that he will understand our own lapses of confidence, our own free-fall descent into the kind of uncertainty that proclaims that “this was all folly), he also makes them ultimately powerless over us.

My God, my God, why have your forsaken me – is a quotation, from Psalm 22. We hear it, often, as the altars are stripped on Maundy Thursday….as the tabernacle is emptied, the church’s heart ripped out, and we go together into the darkness of Good Friday.
However, like his Jewish hearers, like that crowd that milled around Golgotha, blood-thirsty or respectful, Jesus knew that psalm moved ultimately from despair to hope and resolution.

Though the scornful cries “He trusted in God to deliver him. Let him deliver him if he delights in him” seem to take us deeper into the darkness and desolation, reminding us that for many life is indeed nasty, brutish and short; though the psalm’s graphic images of a wasted body “poured out like water” and a broken spirit, a “heart turned to wax” seem almost overpowering, yet there comes a moment when the psalmist comes to his senses again. He remembers that with God, past performance really does guarantee future results...and so, in a moment, lament is turned to praise.

And that is a gift to us all. Honesty demands that the pain and desolation must be confronted andacknowledged, so that we need never feel ashamed if we feel ourselves cut off from God at times of crisis.

But even in the darkness there is a spark of light, though it may be so faint that we can barely glimpse its gleam. We are never forsaken.This is the God who loves us so much that he allowed himself to be separated even from his own being, going through those same feelings of dereliction for us, so that we should never have to go through them alone.

Dearest Lord, whose Son endured the loneliness and darkness of the cross, so that we might enjoy eternal fellowship with you, Grant that amid life’s shadows we might know that we are never forsaken, but walk always in the light of your countenance, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Famous Last Words: Holy Tuesday "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit"

Famous Last Words. Tuesday

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit When he had said this, he breathed his last.The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Our journey through Christ’s last words is one that draws us into conversation with Him, and encourages us to do business with ourselves. We can place ourselves in the crowd, imagine the impact of those words on the bystanders who heard them first. We can wonder how we might have heard them then, what feelings they would have evoked.

And then we can lift those words up and carry them away to look at them more closely, allowing a new light to fall…These are messages from someone whom we love, which are given to us to reflect on here and now, to remember as we journey on, following His footsteps as best we can.

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

 Words we sing as part of this very office of Compline, words that speak to us of a laying down, of endings, of the final departure of the passing soul...perhaps we bow our heads and keep silence for a moment in the face of the enormity of the death of God
Only in extremis could we ever imagine letting go so completely of the very essence of ourselves.

Giving up our spirit.

In this age of self-fulfillment it’s almost unthinkable.

“Into your hands”

Letting go of our inmost being…

Isn’t it just too much to ask?

If I give up my spirit, who am I? What have I left?

Of course, it’s easier for Jesus.

Jesus, who told us to call God “Father”…whose relationship with God was one of unbroken love and trust, of complete unity placing himself with complete confidence in the everlasting arms.
In some ways he is handing himself over TO himself
He has known throughout his life and his ministry that he is God’s beloved Son…that he and the Father are One, that in his death and resurrection the Father will be glorified.
Such trust must have seemed woefully misplaced to those passing by in the chilling noontide dark to witness his agony, but even Jesus somehow holds on to the knowledge that his spirit is uniquely precious and beloved, and will be received with joy.

Father, into your hands…

Safe hands, then,  at least for Jesus…but for us? Could we pray this, perhaps, as a last resort. The King James version says that after these words Jesus “gave up the ghost”…a phrase that, for us, is apparently redolent of defeat and despair. We don’t like giving up anything, really.

But surely we are wrong

“Father, into your hands”…

What was true for Jesus is true for you and me

Those comforts (gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, conferring strength) that were part of Jesus’s own experience are available for us too.

Each of us is uniquely precious…God’s beloved child in whom he is well pleased.

Each of us will be received with joy.

Each of us has been touched by God’s breath, the Spirit, and our true being comes directly as gift from him, so that this act of handing over is simply returning responsibility to the only one who is ultimately able to sustain it.

Father, into your hands

So here is an invitation for us.

An invitation to give up the self-consciousness that seems to be an irrepressible part of being human, so that “into your hands” becomes not an end but a beginning.

An invitation to pray this prayer every day – and ask for God’s help to mean it.

It is a prayer to mark not just the transition from earthly to eternal life, nor even the ending of the day as we step out of consciousness and lay the burdens of wakefulness aside.

It is, rather, a way of marking, welcoming, and hallowing our real life with God, a way of ensuring that we remember, as Moses did so long ago
“All things come from you O Lord, and of your own do we give you”.
So this prayer of Christ’s from the cross can be the one with which we start each day. It is both a protection from the worst of ourselves (for if we are serious in our prayer, giving God free-rein over what makes us US, then we can expect that God will be equally serious in bringing about our transformation)… and a recognition that we can do little or nothing without God. Though we may struggle to learn it, to consciously place ourselves and our enterprises in God’s hands daily, to let go of our anxieties and entrust ourselves to him unreservedly at each and every moment, is indeed the route to life in all its fulness.

During Lent, some of us in the Cathedral have been reading Rowan Williams book Being Disciples together, and I was taken by his suggestion that holiness is that state in which someone is so intent on God, and on God’s presence in other people, that they become utterly un-self-conscious, lost in wonder, love and praise.

By this light the saints are those who can pray “Into your hands” and mean it...who are prepared to trust themselves completely to God, knowing that with him, to lose your life is to gain it.

Through God’s grace may this be true for us all

Father of mercies and God of love In his last hour your Son, our Saviour, committed his spirit into your hands.
Help us to do the same
To know that in your hands we are held secure
That there is no safer place to be.
So father receive us now, as we commit ourselves into your hands
Our souls and bodies
In life and in death
For time and for eternity
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen




Monday, April 10, 2017

Famous Last Words: Monday. Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing

I hate Goodbyes. It doesn’t matter whether they are short-term as children return to university or visiting friends depart, or much more lasting, non-negotiable...goodbyes in the face of death, goodbyes that we know will have to content us til we too go home to God.
Such farewells are extraordinarily difficult, because we’re physical beings, rooted in our material world. We value the physical presence of those whom we love.
But if they must leave us, as ultimately they must, we cling to our memories of our final encounters...what we did together, what they said to us.
Last words have a power beyond the moment, as they will be replayed again and again in all the time of separation….so it is no wonder that Christians through the ages have focussed on the words that Jesus spoke from the cross, reading them again and again, finding messages that speak beyond the immediate circumstances of the first Good Friday.
These are messages spoken in the face of a terrible, painful death – yet even the bleakest is somehow comforting. As we hear them afresh this week, let’s allow them to draw us deeper into the heart of God’s love for us

And of all those famous last words, these are the ones that perhaps speak to us most loudly in this place, this Cathedral of reconciliation, where Provost Howard’s decision to offer “Father forgive” as his response to war and destruction sowed a seed of hope that continues to flower today.
We know these words with one missing...use them day after day.
We make much of the inclusive power of the omission….of the way that simply saying “Father forgive” brings us all to recognise our common culpability, our share in the habits of mind and heart that can be played out with such terrible results. We realise that when it comes to destructive patterns of behaviour there is no “them” and “us”…and there is a sort of liberation in that discovery. All have sinned and fallen short.
For all our longing to do better, to be our best selves for God, we fall over our own humanity again and again – and so we stand together in need of forgiveness for sins that are both corporate and personal.

But Jesus is in a different place. He is the only one who needs no forgiveness at all…For him, it makes perfect sense to pray “Father, forgive them”
With all our work in reconciliation, there is an underlying assumption that the wounded party needs to forgive, the guilty one to receive forgiveness...It’s a transaction in a currency that we can sometimes find it hard to master and it would be tempting, so often, to put our hands in our pockets and refuse what is being proffered.
I wonder how those words sounded to the Roman soldiers as they performed their familiar duties as executioners. Maybe they were indignant. How dare Jesus suggest that they didn’t know what they were doing, were not masters of their trade?
They knew what they were at well enough - except, of course, that they didn’t know the half of it.
What they saw was a defeated man, one who had attempted nothing by way of defence, whose friends had abandoned him, whose body was already broken before ever the work of crucifixion began.
They knew what they were doing with him - but surely none of them, following orders that day, had even an inkling that this Galilean carpenter was indeed guilty as charged….He WAS the King of the Jews, he WAS the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of God…
And that reality was what put him fair and square in the place of execution.
There simply wasn’t enough room in the world for his kind of power and that of the ruling classes.
They were directly opposed...Here a servant king knelt to wash the dusty feet of his followers, there a Roman governor sat in judgement, given the power of life or death over those who came before him.
It was impossible that there should have been any other outcome.
This kind of self-emptying, unbounded love is simply too hard for us to grasp...because, deep down, we suspect that there is not REALLY enough of it to go round…
So we either reject it altogether, walking off into a bleak illusory independence that demands that we build barriers between ourselves and our neighbours…
or perhaps we try to earn God’s make him love us because we are delightful, charming, loveable people.
In both cases we miss the point.
God loves us not because of who we are or what we do...God loves us not in preference to anyone else….God loves us because God is wholly and eternally love.

God can do no other.
And so God reaches out to us constantly, through the beauty of creation that is pure gift, through the inspired wonder of life-changing music, great art, transformative words…
And God’s Son reaches out in this one overwhelming demonstration…
How much do I love you? THIS much…

“Father forgive them…”
Jesus speaks of us...we who long to follow, but too often fail
We whose hearts and minds are too often distracted by the wrong thing, who are too ready to choose a smaller, meaner way of being...We who keep silence when we see injustice meted out to the vulnerable, who refuse to let the pain of the world disturb and challenge us.
Jesus speaks of us - understanding us as we never manage to understand him…
Hear his words now, and take them to heart. Jesus, who knows you through and through, loves and forgives you, and invites you to be reconciled to him and to your neighbour.

Be kind to one another, tender hearted as God in Christ forgave you.