Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, 2nd Sunday of Epiphany, 15th January 2017

If you look at the front of your service booklet, you’ll see what has become known as the “Coventry Welcome” , words which I was sent in a slightly different form a long time before I came here, and which I rewrote slightly to include in a sermon 2 summers ago. They were well received, the Precentor decided to use them as one of our front covers – and then someone posted a photo on Facebook the world went slightly mad. At one point I was getting up to 100 emails enquiries per week about the text, and it was providing a conversation starter with people who had very little idea of what a cathedral might be for, or why they should even consider that they might WANT to visit. Oddly enough, after a bit of a lull, it has recently generated vast interest once again – so much so that I spent a bit of time yesterday recording an interview for the American radio station npr….It’s all rather exciting for middle-aged cleric on a dull day in January!

The thing is that, while I’m not sure we actually manage to live up to it ALL the time, that welcome statement is surely a reflection of where we ought to be going as a Church community. We are here because we believe that we’re onto something rather wonderful – something too good to keep to ourselves….and that must surely mean that we are committed to sharing that with any and every one, no matter who they are, where they come from, what they look like.

So – let’s take that as a given.
We WANT people to join us for worship.
We WANT them to know there is space for them here, come what may.

But what next?

What do we do for those who’ve made it over the threshold, who’ve coped with the strange but beautiful patterns of word and music that make up our liturgy, who’ve possibly even dared to stay for coffee?
How do we take them on the journey from curious vistor to frequent attender to engaged community member?
If you have, how did you make that journey yourself?
Can you remember?

Perhaps it started with another question – though probably not one you were asked directly.
It’s the question from our gospel reading
What are you looking for?”
If that was the very first thing that was said to you here, it might seem rather abrupt. I suspect that mid-week visitors to the Cathedral are sometimes confronted with a rather similar question, enough to make the uncertain turn and flee.
Nevertheless it’s a question that needs answering.
What are you looking for, that brings you here week by week.
Is it inspiring worship or engaging teaching? Is it a community of like-minded people? Or is maybe, just maybe, a sense of the presence of the Living God.
What are you looking for?

In John's gospel that's the beginning of everything for these, the first of Christ's disciples.

They've been looking for something for a while.
Following John, listening to his words - and when he speaks about Jesus with such confidence, they are fired up by his words
"Here is the Lamb of God !"
What, here? Now?
They set off to find out more.
Lacking the confidence to approach Jesus directly, they walk a few paces behind him, playing follow my leader wherever he goes.
Already it seems that he is not so much lamb as shepherd.
Sooner or later, he spots them, turns, holds their gaze.
They are stopped in their tracks as he asks
What are you looking for?"

It’s a straightforward question, perfectly reasonable.
If two complete strangers were dogging your every step,you'd want to know why.
But, of course it is also a question with a host of deeper meanings.
One of the biggest questions of faith

What are they looking for?

There's a song by the rock group U2 that might have been written for today's gospel.It's the story of a quest - climbing the highest mountains, scaling city walls - only to conclude
"But I still haven't found  what I’m looking for”
These men have been with John for long enough to be classified as his disciples.
They have responded to his fiery message of repentance – it has touched something in them.
But it isn’t enough.
They still haven't found what they're looking for.
John himself has pointed them towards Jesus.
They are hungry, like so many others, - but hungry for what?
Hungry for healing?
Hungry for reassurance?
Hungry for change?
Hungry for justice…?
Hungry to belong?
Who knows -they certainly don’t.
All they know is that something is wrong with their world and it needs to be set right, that they still haven’t found what they seek.
What are you looking for?” asks Jesus, and to this crucial question they really have no answer.

So often the questions of our faith are not the obvious tidy ones…the ones that can be addressed by a catechism or an Alpha course.
We find ourselves here - drawn to church, to faith, by an unnameable, inexplicable longing….the restlessness that Augustine noted when he wrote
God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”
We wrestle with doubts.
We will not always like the church, or feel certain of our faith.
We may go through patches when, like T S Eliot’s Magi, we are convinced that “this was all folly”, but somehow we keep coming back, almost despite ourselves.
What are you looking for?”
It’s a question that could open the door onto all sorts of undreamed of worlds…a question that just might force us to confront the needs and longings that we try to stifle…a question worth asking yourself, I'm sure.

As a priest, it’s a question I don't think I ask enough - though I often try to explore it when parents come to discuss their child's baptism.
In my anxiety to welcome all comers, I sometimes miss out on the need to challenge them. I may know in the depths of my heart that in Christ every human need and longing is met, every anxious question answered - but if I don't explore exactly what it is that brings people through our doors, how can I help to serve them?
I’d love to know of your own hopes, fears and expectations...to spend time exploring together What are you looking for?”

And the way the disciples respond - isn't it classic!
The sort of trivial remark I too tend to blurt out when confronted by a situation that suddenly seems to be rather more intense, more serious that I had bargained for…I need something to fill the gap, to cover my embarrassment, so I witter away…
Ummm….(Thinking wildly) .......Where are you staying?”

Jesus’ answer is a simple but wonderful invitation.
Come and see!”

Some years ago, I was given this passage to pray with on retreat.
I was asked to place myself somewhere in the story, and so in my imagination, I found myself accompanying the disciples along the river bank , never letting Jesus out of my sight.
Like them I blushed and stuttered as he turned and spoke to me directly…and like them I was unable to resist the invitation to “Come and see”

And that day, as I imagined a small dark room in a sugar cube house (based in my mind’s eye entirely on the line drawings that illustrated the Good News Bible), Jesus invited me to spend the day with him…and at lunch time he took bread, broke it and placed some in my hand.

And then I realised that what I was looking for, the place where he was staying was right there…right here…Jesus in you…Jesus in me…Jesus in bread and wine….

Come and see.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Cathedral Eucharist for the Naming & Circumcision of Jesus, 1st January 2017 Numbers 6:22-27, Luke 2:15-21

Happy New Year, my friends...No matter how you approach this strange line in the sand we’ve created for ourselves, it’s always an "interesting" moment in life, I find.
Last night there will have been a bit of stock-taking for many, wound-licking for some, a recognition of blessings to be counted and challenges to engage with, be they large or small...And today, however we spent the evening, we wake to that lovely sense of a clean slate – a whole gift of time to live through, a succession of new moments that will none of them be exactly the same as their predecessors.
There might be resolutions, - or maybe not.
Excitement or apprehension.
We never DO know what’s coming – and that’s probably all for the best.
This year, though, I’m particularly excited, as our middle child and his wife are, please God, expecting a baby in February.

They were with us for Christmas, and we’ve spent quite a bit of time considering not only names for their daughter but also what names she might call her grandparents. I have a bit of a problem here, as the only Grandmother I knew was well into her 80s when I arrived,  a very difficult lady whom I found it hard to love. As a result both “Grandma” and “Granny” feel like names I can’t own – and somehow “Nanny” isn’t quite right either. In the end we’ve decided to see what the wee one herself comes up with when she’s old enough to say anything. My own approximation to “Kathryn” as a toddler was “Catkin” - so who knows, the wheel may yet go full circle. I was surprised, though, at how much it seemed to matter. There was something about being given the same name as a lady who made my mother cry that was HUGELY uncomfortable. As if her name somehow carried her essence, -an idea with deep and ancient roots.
Again and again in Scripture names are a significant gift...marking a new identity for Abram/Abraham, Simon/Peter, Saul/Paul...or offering an insight into true calling. Mary and Joseph avoided all the discussions about whether or not their first-born should be given a family name...because he was named even before conception, when the angel visited Mary.
“you shall name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins”.
It wasn’t a unique name – Jesus, Jeshua, Joshua are all common variants of a name that means “Jehovah brings salvation” - but it was uniquely true for the son of Mary….his destiny bound up in his name….a glimpse, from the very beginning, of who this child IS. It’s an immensely audacious name to give to a baby – and as she held her tiny son while he received circumcision, a sign of his people’s covenant with God, I wonder if Mary’s pondering included “How on EARTH can this little one truly be or become all that is promised”.
So much suggested by a name. Of course, we who know the rest of the story may be less surprised, less unsettled – but we mustn’t overlook what an extraordinary thing this naming is. Before his teaching and preaching, before his healings and miracles, before his death and resurrection, Jesus is already identified by God as the one through whom He will save his people. An eight-day-old baby named Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High.” In the naming of a tiny child, we already catch a glimpse God’s gloriously mad plan to save the world through the gift of a vulnerable human being.
And there are many other names that help us to understand more of that same child’s nature….names that we draw from the Old Testament ,- “Wonderful counsellor, Prince of Peace, Messiah” and from the New , - “Lamb of God, Light of the World”….and my favourite of all, found first in Isaiah 7 and then reiterated in Matthew’s Gospel, “Emmanuel. God with us”.
That’s the name I shall cling to as I go into the year ahead.
No matter what happens – both good and bad – I won’t experience it alone, and nor will you.
That most wonderful name means that whenever we are most afraid – or most joyful – the one who knows all the secrets of our hearts is there beside us. Emmanuel. God with us.
Of course, our own names too will have their individual significance, be they the names chosen for us with love and with care by our parents, or that collective name that many of us here today share – the name of Christian.A Christian, after all, is a little Christ...or, according to some, more accurately a slave of Christ, one living in total obedience to his call on their life. I wish I found that a more comfortable reflection, but I have to ask - If the names of Jesus offer an insight into his nature – is the same true for you or me?
To be a “true Christian” has very little to do with where or how we worship, far more about where we place our loyalty, our confidence and trust. If we are Little Christs then each one of us should be visibly living in obedience to the law of vulnerable Love that Jesus proclaimed at every moment of his life and ministry…living lives of visible difference.
Circumcision reminded the Jews of God’s external covenant with them and reminds us of the new covenant in Jesus bought with his blood. This cut on an eight day old Jesus points to those wounds inflicted on the cross for our salvation. When we became Christians at our baptisms, we too received a sign of the new covenant – the cross traced on our foreheads as indelible reminder of the self-sacrificial shape of the life to which we should conform.
In the old Catechism, after the famous question
“What is your name? N or M
The next question was “Who gave you this Name? And its answer “My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.
That is to say, each one of us is part of God’s salvation story...members of Christ, beloved children, inheritors of the kingdom.
It’s fair to say that names really can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story (think Gradgrind or Malfoy)...They can also tell us about their aspirations….and if we aspire to be Christians, that will surely set our agenda for the year ahead and for all our years to come.
In his Holy Name, let us claim and live our true identities as children of God and heirs of the kingdom...and when we fail, let us call out to Emmanuel, God with us, who will never leave or forsake us...whose very name reminds us of his ultimate purpose, to save his people from their selves and from their sins.