Sunday, November 16, 2014

Shaking up the story - the parable of the talents reconsidered. A sermon for the 2nd Sunday before Advent Yr A at The Risen Christ, Wyken

I wonder where you are in the story”

That's always my favourite question whenever I sit down to prepare a sermon. Sometimes, with a passage we know as well as this one, it can help us to see past the layers of familiarity and find something new in even the most familiar text. 
It certainly helped me this time round, when I found myself relating very definitely to the over-cautious slave – the one who was so fearful of his domineering master that he buried his talent in the ground...I know myself well enough to suspect that if I had a boss like his, I'd be so scared of doing the wrong thing that I'd hesitate to do anything at all - which, when you look at the final verse we've heard, is a rather terrifying prospect.
But then, it seems to me that there's an awful lot of fear in this story...even before we get to the weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
Not surprising, with a boss like that around.
And yet, we've just agreed “This is the gospel of the Lord”.
Good news, apparently.


I guess the problem comes if we try to read this as an allegory, and not a parable. Allegories have a consistent one to one equation – for example, the lion, Aslan, is ALWAYS the Christ figure in C S Lewis's Narnia books. 
Parables are quite different...stories designed to help us to think about the big questions and concepts of faith in ways that are firmly rooted in everyday reality...but stories that demand that we work at them, without an easy code to follow.

So, - how does this parable fit in with our understanding of God? 
Surely he can't be anything LIKE the master we hear about in the story..the greedy, vindictive and abusive character who is so quick to condemn.
Ah – yes – that's the point. 
It's a PARABLE not an allegory, remember!
We are NOT expected to make that equation of God and master. 
How could we? 
There's nothing of God in this description of an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labour of his slaves, looking for maximum profit no matter what the cost...
Surely we've learned enough about God's infinite mercy to recognise this. Rather than reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he did not scatter, he is recklessly generous in pouring his resources out, regardless of our tendency to ignore them. 
In fact, it would be hard to imagine anyone less like the God we meet in Christ than the master in this parable.

So what is this story about, then? If it's not about appeasing a tyrannical Lord, nor about using the abilities God gave us (these talents are money - not a gift for singing or making cakes)..?

I think the nub of it all lies in verse 29: "to all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” - or in other words "the rich get rich and the destitute lose everything."


Now, that really IS frightening – not least because it's more than a wee bit familiar, if we dare to enage with the social commentators at work today. It can seem to be very close to the principle our society is working on...and it couldn't be less like the kingdom of God.

So – if piling on the profits come what may is NOT a sign of the kingdom, what should we be aiming for. As so often, it's frustrating to find ourselves with a passage isolated from its context. May I invite you, when you get home, to spend a few moments reading what comes next in Matthew's gospel – the prophesy of the sheep and the goats, where we learn that when the Son of Man comes, judgement will not be given on the basis of how much money we made, nor for that matter on how religious we were but rather on whether we cared for the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family. 
We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned...and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't.

So – let's try our parable again. It's nothing to do with making the most of your gifts, whether lavish or limited...Instead it's about looking hard at a world in which the rich get rich and the poor get poorer...because that world is NOTHING like God's kingdom. The world in which greedy, exploitative bosses impose a reign of terror on their slaves is not the one we are promised. That world is passing away even now, and Jesus will bring his work to completion; God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Do you believe that? And if so, do you have the courage to live as if that world is already challenge the demands of those who would try to ensalve us to worldy standards by telling us that our security lies in amassing resources for ourselves no matter what?
It's not easy...It's genuinely counter-cultural...but we're kingdom people, and that's how we must live.

And as we inch toward Advent, let's look for the signs that Jesus was right, that the Spirit is living and moving, active in the world. This week we have been celebrating 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. That was quite a moment! People were dancing in the streets and even on the Wall itself as that symbol of division was destroyed; they went home clutching graffiti-covered chips as souvenirs of an amazing event. It was the fulfilment of a dream and a hope, a moment when history changed gear, the moment of a lifetime, even. In 8 days time, Ali and I are going with a group to explore how life in Berlin since has lived up to that high point, to hear at first hand the stories of reconciliation and hope that have flourished there amid the wreckage of the old order. Tremendous!But, you know, I believe that something even bigger and better is on its way – and we need to look out for it.
We're looking for the coming of the Kingdom, remember.

So, where are you in the story? 
And where would you like to be?
I'm choosing to step out of it altogether.
Perhaps you'd care to join me and challenge the world that we see here. Let's not be the fearful slave, but dare to take a kingdom risk...the risk of living by kingdom values here and now, as we wait for its dawning reality.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 9th November 2014

In my last parish we had a busy funeral ministry, with barely a week passing without at least one trip to the crem. Among so many, some services stick in the mind because of events on the day, some because of family relationships, and some because of the memories shared. One such was the story of the departed grandmother, who as a little girl was taken from her bed in a village in the North Cotswolds one bitterly cold night to watch Coventry burn. It was miles and miles away, but somehow very close to home as she huddled in her nightclothes and watched the silent, sinister firework display. She later told her family that the flames of the city illuminated the reality of war for her, there, on the doorstep – interrupting ordinary lives, changing the world forever for people who had never signed up, people who wanted nothing more than to carry on as usual...people like us.

Shortly after taking that funeral, I took another – for a young man whose wedding I had conducted just a couple of years before. He fell under fire in Helmand province and the same friends and family who had packed the church for his wedding now filled it for his funeral. It made the cost of war feel very real, its stark reality close to home. The pain of war is inescapable, non-negotiable, whether you come to worship past the ruins of our beloved Cathedral or live in a village community with no visible scars.

This year, of course, we’ve had ample opportunity to remember the dead of World War 1, the British losses made visible by that red tide of poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London. When I was a child, Remembrance Sunday seemed to be mostly about them, the “old comrades” and each year those marching past the Cenotaph got older and older, until the last WW1 veterans disappeared and their place was taken by survivors from WW2 .For a while, there was a feeling that remembrance might not be necessary for too much longer.....that when the last veterans of the second world war died, the custom of remembering our war dead might die with them.
It was too long ago and far away, no longer part of our daily world.

Then, of course, everything changed.

Now there are young  men marching past the Cenotaph,men who have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan, men like the crew of HMS Diamond who celebrated with us here just a few weeks ago. Kids, really. We know the stories of the many boy soldiers who falsified birth dates to meet the minimum age requirements of the Great War. Thankfully, 16 year olds are no longer able to bluff their way onto the battlefield – but 19 is not so very much older...Just think. A levels one month, basic training and mobilization the next.

War isn't something long ago or far away.

That’s why we come to remember.

Remembering is the way in which we bring the past into the present, reunite the pieces of broken history and learn their lessons. Or not.

The choice is ours.

You'll know the proverb “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” and as we gather to remember, we have that opportunity again. It has shaped all that we do in this place from the moment that Provost Howard, standing in the ruins of his Cathedral, refused the easy route of revenge and sought instead the costlier path of reconciliation and forgiveness – and it’s something we all need to engage with, moment by moment, day by day, as we wait for the coming of the Kingdom.  The light of the bombed cities can clarify things for us, too, if we’ll let it. It’s a harsh light to see ourselves by – but sometimes we need that painful clarity, for the choice to hate is something that is open to each one of us, and we cannot ignore it.  Of course, war is rarely simple. Sometimes justice and peace seem mutually exclusive, but when ethics fail us, we can choose hope.

That is our calling here…the calling to offer reconciliation and hope in place of violence and despair…but that means nothing if we proclaim it without living it too.

We must all play a part in building God’s kingdom of peace, starting right here, through the words we speak and the care we take of each other, by rejecting suspicion and hatred, by daring to take the risk of love.

Today we remember.

We remember those who have been crushed under the heartache of war, and those who are being crushed by it still. We allow the reality of war to come home to us, so that peace can come home to us too and take root in our lives. And as we do that, the promise of God is that the tiny lights our small acts represent will become part of that great light that no darkness can put out.

There is another way, and by God's grace we will find it – so that we no longer have to watch youthful veterans march past the Cenotaph as we gather to remember.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Souls - a homily in memoriam HBW

Whenever we gather around the altar in obedience to Our Lord's instruction to share bread and wine it seems to me that the veil that separates earth and heaven is very thin.
Whenever we join the song of the angels in heaven “Holy, holy, holy...”
I'm certain that if we cannot hear the angel voices, it is only because we aren't listening hard enough....but today, as we gather to remember our own beloved dead that great community is closer than ever.

Odilo, the 11th century abbot of Cluny, gave us this feast of All Souls as a commemoration of “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time.”
So we pray for them, looking backwards to those who have gone before us, but also forwards, praying for ourselves our children, and our children's children.
From the perspective of eternity, that barrier which we call death is non- existent. Where there is no time, no past, present or future, then there can be no endings or we sang this morning in the great hymn for All Saints
All are one in thee, for all are thine”

So today we pause to remember and to pray for those whom we love but see no longer, knowing that the ties that connected us in life, that made us pray for them and they for us, remain un-broken. As they stand in God's closer presence, I know they are still praying for we do for them.
We pray not to rescue them from the bonds of hell – our God offers unconditional love, welcome and forgiveness and we can be certain that Jesus speaks truly when he says that he will never turn away nor lose even one of those whom the Father has given him...
So – we do not pray in order to change God's mind.
How could any words of ours have more impact than his boundless love and compassion?

Rather we pray with thanksgiving for lives that have enriched our own and with confidence in the living hope that we are offered through God’s Son who destroyed death forever, and showed us that nothing in all creation that can separate us from God's love.
It is this realisation that enables us to rejoice, even in the sadness of separation.
The great Orthodox Kontakion for the departed puts it well
all we go down to the dust
Yet weeping o’er the grave we make our song
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia”

That is often hard to believe, to feel or to remember in the face of raw grief. I wrote most of these words earlier this week, before hearing of the sudden and painfully premature death of a much-loved nephew.
Today I looked at them again, to see if I still believed in them, as my family struggles to make sense where none seems possible.
Of course, this side of eternity loss and parting seem impossibly, unbearably sad.
We want to hold those we love close forever.

But – I do believe in a better reality, in a new heaven and a new earth, where there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.
So – mourning is a natural part of human love – but mourning is not the same as despair.
Though we may mourn their absence for a while, we do so knowing that friends on earth and friends above are all one in Christ Jesus.

So let us pray with John Donne
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitations of thy glory and dominion,
world without end.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bible Sunday sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away


That's a pretty confident assertion – even for Jesus.

We can assume that he weighed his words carefully, that he knew that they would make a life-changing difference to his hearers there and then – and to all that heard them thereafter...but how could he be so sure that those words would survive?

I’m pretty sure that the carpenter from Nazareth did not forsee the printing press…that as he spoke he was not reflecting on the day when the Bible would be the world’s number one best-seller…but for all that, his words point to an important truth.

Jesus was – and is – the great communicator, the one who translates, if you like, the nature of a God beyond our understanding into a God close at hand, telling stories, asking questions…using our language to reveal his truth.

“My words will not pass away...” for they point to the eternal…to a reality beyond all words, all understanding.


But - supposing they did...tomorrow.

Supposing some cataclysmic event removed every single Bible, not just from this Cathedral but from every church and school, every home and library, ever single corner of the world.

What would we miss?

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,*


God’s truth has been revealed in the person of Christ…so do we really need the stories that preceded him?


How would you feel if they went missing?

I wonder if you'd notice – and if so, why…


I mean, it's extraordinary.


In this year of grace 2014, with all the scientific marvels of the past decades, with all the technological advances that have transformed our world, here we are still reading a book whose earliest texts were put together four or five centuries before Homer wrote the Odyssey...

And we read without a trace of irony – with such high seriousness that everyone falls silent as week by week in this wonderful building, we hear stories of times so utterly different and distant from our own that there seems almost no point of connection.


Except, of course, the people.

They are all too familiar.

Rulers who went off the rails and did dreadful things

Nations that fought, conquered or were conquered in their turn

Men and women in the grip of love and hate, fear and jealousy, family feuds and national disasters.

People just like us...


So – on one level, that might be sufficient reason for persevering with this ancient library.

We find ourselves in its pages – and learn fresh approaches to the here and now from the perspective of history.  The slogan “All human life is here” was not produced to sell the Bible – and there are all too many ways in which we can recognise recurring patterns of human behaviour to lament or to emulate.


But that's not really the point, is it.


Because, of course, that library of books that we call the Bible is the history of a very particular relationship, and a particular conversation….for it is an account of  the relationship of God with God's people.

Though Christians are not the only “people of the book” , we do have a particular identity as a faith community gathered around and formed by this collection of writings.

We allow these writings to have a unique place in our worship – and should surely allow them the same importance in our lives.


It’s true, of course, that when we say, as we did just a few moments ago “This is the word of the Lord” we may have quite different understandings of what that means...but we surely agree that God can speak to us through the pages of this book of books.

That's not always a comfortable experience – and indeed, nobody could claim that the Bible is always an enjoyable read.

It's tempting to gloss over the awkward parts – both those that tell of unspeakable cruelties and those that give us far more information that we ever needed about the dietary codes of a nomadic race. Part of the role of the lectionary, with its daily portion of Scripture, is to ensure that we engage with the hard stuff, like it or not…for even the worst behaviour of Old Testament kings, the angriest excursions of the psalmist aren’t really so different in essence from the messier contents of our hearts.

It can be tempting, though, to shy away from those bits that hit home just a little too hard...those words  that remind us that the word of God is indeed active as any two- edged sword...and that sometimes the guidance and truth we need to hear is a far cry from the easy consolation we would like.


Sometimes we abuse the Bible – using its words as weapons against our brothers and sisters in Christ, distorting the message of Scripture to judge or to condemn...

I’ve witnessed some really disturbing games of Bible tennis, with texts being hit to and fro, each protagonist determined to use them to prove their point, to have the last word.

Can we claim such exercises as “The word of the Lord?” …..

I really don't think so.


Because, you see, I'm convinced that God's word to us is love.


Love is the fulfilment of everything that God wants to say, the ultimate truth of God’s word.

That word of God, God’s word of love, is found above all in Jesus himself, who lived and taught and died a life of love, so that the love of God could become reality for everyone.

And in Jesus’ rising from death, God showed that love is the greatest power in the world.

That’s the message and the meaning.

 The written word leading us to the living Word – the One who is love incarnate

This is the beginning and end of the Scriptures: it is on God’s love that everything – EVERYTHING – depends.


So “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” because, you see, our God is one who longs to communicate, and uses words, ordinary fragile, changeable words, to make himself known to us.

Remember Terry Waite, sustained through long captivity by the words of Scripture he had learned decades before…words dwelling in him as an antidote to hatred and despair.

Remember Provost Howard, shaping our ministry here as two words slipped from heart to mind on that November morning

God spoke to them through words they had absorbed, perhaps almost without knowing.

God speaks to us, through those same words, which we are free to study, to explore, to ponder whenever we like.

Take those words seriously.

Each holds an infinity of meanings, and even the most familiar of texts has fresh treasures to offer if you spend time immersed in it, opening yourself to new possibilities.

There is so much to discover,  but the overarching meaning is, always, non negotiably, love. 


So, let’s approach Scripture expecting to be changed by the encounter, confident that the story of those men and women of long ago will become our story…and that, like them, we can be swept up in God's great love story, through which he woos humanity.


For surely every Sunday must be Bible Sunday...every day a Bible day.


 The Bible is precious, priceless, inspired.

It deserves our best attention for behind the words on the page is the living reality of the Word made flesh.

Let’s, then, join in with the story.

We will misunderstand and get things wrong – but that’s finefor errors are part of learning.  

The Bible needs us, if it is to have any existence beyond the sterility of the page.

We need the Bible, if we are to gain insights into the ways of God for it is a book that will lead us to God and help us to engage with God in bringing in His kingdom.

It is a gift, to be savoured and celebrated, for it comes laden with the love of God.


Thanks be to God! 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Lord hath been mindful of us….

At Evensong tonight the boys and gents of the Cathedral Choir sang Wesley’s “Ascribe unto the Lord”. You don’t hear it that often, probably because it’s a massive piece, - one of those which can sometimes leave you wondering, by the time it’s done, whether it is in fact still Sunday – and if it IS Sunday, whether we’ve reached next week or are in fact in the week after.
Despite this , I’m very fond of it  - because once, 28 years ago, I had one of those moments with God.

Motherhood, which brings me more joy than almost any other aspect of my life, did not come easily to me. There were many miscarriages on the way to my 3 beloved children – and the 1st of those, the most heart-breaking, marked the end of my first pregnancy. With the kind of painful irony that seems to have real teeth, the following day was Mothering Sunday and I was booked to sing Evensong at St John the Divine, Kennington . This was about a year into my brief voyage across the Tiber, and I was missing Anglican worship, the choral tradition and my friends at SJDK far too much to stay at home, tearful wreck though I was. So I turned up, only to find that we were singing this marathon anthem…which was new to me that day. We made our way through it with determination til we reached the final pages
“You are the blessed of the Lord, you, - you and your children

At the rehearsal this made me wobble rather, not surprisingly...but when it came to the service, there , in that church that I loved so much, I swear that God winked at me…and I knew there WOULD be children if I simply trusted and held on.
Tonight, my youngest was singing with the choral clerks – and as I looked at the Sutherland tapestry of Christ in Glory, I rather think that Jesus winked at me again. “Told you so…” he said.

And yes, I am blessed. HUGELY blessed. Thank you for the reminder.

Greater than our hearts - a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 19th October 2014 1John 3:16- 4:6

Today's 2nd lesson is a landscape dominated by 4 great standing-stones...monolithic concepts that fill the sky-line no matter where you are yourself.
Love – truth – action – condemnation....
Huge concepts to engage with...and taken together they make this part of John's letter a really tough read. After all, God throws down the gauntlet in the 1st verse of our reading..He has given us a powerful practical demonstration of his love, one that it is impossible for us to miss
In this we know what love is – that he laid down his life for us” and as if that wasn't enough, we're told that HIS way must be our way too...
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”
Really? Me? That's truly daunting
On my best days, when there seems to be love overflowing in every corner of the world, I still doubt my ability to love LIKE THAT.
Would I really place myself in the way of a bullet intended for one of my family?
And even if I managed that, what if the bullet was heading for a random stranger?
And if I can't manage that – well, standing here to preach is a colossal presumption.

Our writer makes it very clear indeed that God's focus is on truth and action, not word and speech.
We can SAY loving things as much as we want to, but if we don't supply hard evidence that they are real for us, then there's no chance that God's love has settled in our hearts.
When I struggle to practice what I preach, when I come home from Mass and kick the metaphorical cat, when for all my protestations of love for God and for his people I seem to live a rather different kind of life...Well, that's the point at which my heart sets to and does a very good job indeed of offering quite serious condemnation.
Call yourself a Christian! Who are you trying to kid? It's all about love – and you know that, deep down, you're woefully short of that sometimes...In fact, if you barely seem to know what it is.
Never mind trying to get on and show it, your best course of action would be to curl up in a distressed and distressing pool of guilt and misery, because obviously that's really going to help everybody, right?
Why not just wallow in your role as miserable sinner and leave it at that...
Your heart condemns you well and truly.
Guilty as charged.

But – we're not going to stop there. Our letter writer certainly doesn't. His stress on truth and action isn't designed to paralyse but to encourage. The thing is, you see, to stop worrying about whether either you or I can muster the sort of love that God shows to us – and to get on with DOING the next loving thing in front of our noses, never mind the feelings! To be honest, I'd guess that most of us are pretty unlikely to have to brave the bullets and lay down our lives for our friends – but we may well have to lay down a whole host of other things – personal preferences and prejudices, short cuts and easy ways out of genuine relationship – in order to more truly show authentic, truthful love and generosity of spirit.

Let's think about it in terms of our common life here, in a place where worship, welcome and reconciliation should be our constant touch-stones. It's fair to say that there's a long journey to travel if they are to so much part of us that they characterise every aspect of our dealings...but the message is the same.
It's a question of moving beyond the words to the deeds.
Of course we will need to spend time exploring together, trying to grasp what those words will actually involve, how they will impact each aspect of our common life and our shared identity.
We may need to reflect on things we thought we understood already. Welcome, for example, seems easy and obvious – all about the smiley face at the door, and good quality coffee served alongside friendship...but of course it's not quite as easy when you realise that it extends far beyond the way you smile at strangers, to the way you open your life to them.
And that's just a start.
So we will indeed need to ponder and discuss what these words really mean – but we can't actually own them until words turn to actions, and our values shine through our deeds.

The interesting thing is that, like love, they demand that we focus elsewhere. It's not about US at all!It's not about what Welcome, Worship and Reconciliation will bring to our Cathedral – but what our Cathedral might bring to the world by fully living out its calling as we focus on the God whom we worship, the stranger whom we welcome with such opennes that barriers dissolve and disappear in the perfect mutuality of reconciliation.

Does that seem an impossible ideal, na├»ve and unattainable? It's certainly not where I'm standing today – not yet – but I do think it's where I'm aiming.
And our reading helps me along the way. In fact, it's transformative.
Many years ago, while I was still a child, I read and re-read Rumer Godden's “In this House of Brede”, set in a community of Benedictine nuns. I loved it for many reasons – the Sussex landscape it presented was the countryside I knew and loved, the music that flowed in and out of its pages was the spiritual soundtrack to my own life – but I loved too the story of faith that had drawn the central character from life as a top Civil Servant to become an enclosed nun. I learned a lot, without realising that I was learning anything – but perhaps the most important legacy was some words from the Cloud of Unknowing which lodged in head and heart and have remained there ever since.
Not what thou art – nor what thou hast been- but what thou woulds't be beholdest God in his mercy”

In other words, if your longing is to love in deed and in truth, then let go of your fear of failure and do whatever act of love lies before you. Your heart may well condemn you- both by the evidence of imperfect love and dubious motivation that it presents when you take a closer look and by that disapproving inner voice that so often threatens to drown out the voice of God's loving compassion.
But – don't listen to it.
Our blessed assurance lies beyond God's faithfulness and knowledge of what we wouldst be – of all that we aspire to, no matter how often we fall short
Here is the our calling, expressed in a single verse
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us
But if your love is smaller, feebler, than you long for it to be – nevertheless all shall be well.
Don't focus on yourself. Look to God and find your reassurance there – for, though your heart condemns you God is greater than your heart.

All praise to Him, now and forever.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I wonder if you know the work of the cartoonist Simon Drew....For some years I had one of his drawings pinned above my desk. It showed a rather perplexed-looking terrier, surrounded by thinks bubbles “Now where did I put the car keys”
Will I be able to pay off my credit card”
Did I leave the gas on?”
Whatever can I do about global warming…”
Beneath was the caption
The tomb of the unknown worrier”

You see, I'm rather good at that kind of worrying myself – and as I listened to the news last night, there was no shortage of global concerns to give me pause. ISIS, Ebola, Cyclone HudHud and the recent success of UKIP...there's plenty to worry about before I even begin to think about finance (which always has the power to paralyse me with anxiety).
That's rather a shame, really, because Paul says that this should not be an option for me as a Christian.
Be careful for nothing” says Paul to the church in Phillippi…or, if you prefer it

Don’t stress”.

Such sensible advice, but so hard to follow, don't you think?
To be fair, Paul doesn’t simply forbid us to worry.
He gives us an alternative programme to follow, as he encourages us
rejoice in the Lord always, and by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving to let your requests be made known to God.”
He's looking for hearts and minds transformed, it seems...and it all begins with joy.
"Rejoice!" Not just once, but again...
look to the things that give you joy – focus on all that is good, and remember that we have the all-time best reason to be cheerful. THE LORD IS AT HAND!
That doesn't mean we all have to turn into Pollyanna's, pretending that everything is just fine when we're surrounded by real and serious problems…Paul isn’t acting as a kind of spiritual cheer-leader, insisting on an upbeat response to any and every grief. He is writing to a church filled with doubt and fear, amidst a crooked generation in an aggressively evil environment. Life is a struggle, with in-fighting and persecution. There is no shortage of things to fret about, and yet Paul insists, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”
I don't know how the Philippians took that – I'm often frustrated that we don't get to hear the response to all those New Testament letters – but I suspect they may have snorted in derision at first, that they might not have been much better at living a joy-filled life than I am myself.

You see, the sad truth is, that often Christianity seems to be a religion for kill-joys...People imagine that we spend most of our time focussing on the things we can't do, and disapproving of those who do them anyway – and it's certainly true that opting to follow Jesus isn't a recipe for an easy life. Everything from our relationships to our shopping habits may need to change...It's hard work...and for those who focus on the external sources of happiness, it just doesn't make sense. But the thing is that joy exists independent of the environment and will persist through any and all circumstances – because it doesn't depend on them.
The secret to joy is not to look at the circumstances of your own life. Focus instead on Christ and his work in you. Now it begins to make sense.
Don’t worry…Be careful for nothing.
This does not mean “Be careLESS of everything” but rather do not be worn down by anxiety…
"Present your requests to God" Let God know specifically what troubles you – what your needs are –No matter what is going on, in all things PRAY!
This reading is often used at Rogation services, when we gather to ask God's blessing on the sowing of seeds...and that's the perfect illustration, really, since planting a seed is always and everywhere an act of faith. How can something so small and fragile carry within it all it needs for fruitful life? How can burying that tiny fragment in the ground lead to the growth of a whole new plant, just like its parent? Clearly with the planting of each and every seed, we find ourselves in the realm of miracle…and it's so as we plant the tiniest seeds of faithful prayer.

Yes, these ARE dark and difficult days. The world is messed up in ways we can only begin to imagine – and worry might seem the most rational response. But we have an alternative...
However ridiculous, however inadequate it may seem, we have the choice to carry on praying even when it seems to be a completely fruitless activity.
Just as planting a seed involves us in a process of patient waiting while nothing much happens, we have to believe that a similar process will see prayers answered, if we wait in hope.
And as we wait – there's good news, news of God's peace which "Transcends all understanding"...of a peace beyond human reason or logic,- the peace of knowing God's presence and protection.
So a seed of prayer sown, leads to the miracle of a mind transformed.
As the peace of God comes to occupy the place anxiety once held!

That's what happens when we pray in joyful hope.
We pray and God plants a seed within us, diverting our attention from those things which cause us pointless anxiety, which drain our energies and rob us of our sleep. Instead we can focus on
whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable...
Doesn't that sound better as a response to the 3 a.m. devils?

So here is Paul’s prescription – his four part antidote to anxiety.
Change your attitude - Rejoice! all shall be well, for God is in charge!
Do things differently - in everything – absolutely everything – give thanks and pray! Ask for what you need, and it will be given to you
Wait for your answer and instead of worry, you will experience the peace of God!
And while you wait, think of all the gifts and blessings that surround you.

That's so much better than immuring yourself in the tomb of the unknown let's pray that through God's transforming power the small nugget of belief we bring to the table may flourish and grow, so that as the body of Christ in this place we may be full of that irrepressible joy of which Paul writes, as we live lives grounded in the peace that is beyond our reason, beyond all understanding.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Travelling Light - more belated thoughts inspired by Greenbelt 2014

I began writing this post during our summer holiday on the narrowboat Polyphony..,somewhere that travelling light is almost irrelevant, as there's so much of home already waiting aboard - though this time round we did travel with a poorly chicken, which put a somewhat comic gloss on the whole thing.
Leaving things behind is always a big deal for me - and I've learned that when you travel, the heaviest things are often those you don't take with you - the people you leave when it's time to move on, the beloved pets who simply wouldn't enjoy sharing a family holiday but whose absence is felt like a small, heavy lump weighing on your heart.

Sometimes those things you leave become so heavy that you can't actually keep going - and then you realise that there's a whole work of letting go still to be done
The wonderful Anne Lamott, whose presence at this year's Greenbelt was a lifetime highlight, says of letting go "Everything I have ever let go of has claw marks on it" - and that's so true for me.
Things and people - the things of home, the people of your community - can be both an anchor, offering stability and certainty
("Your firmnesse draws my circle just, And makes me end where I begunne") and a dead weight which might just drag you down til you sink without trace beneath waves of grief and desolation.

That is so much part of the process of bereavement. If a "good death" is about letting go of unfinished business, trusting that somehow (by God's grace, on a good day) those you love will be OK without you, even though the thought of being without them is a pain so huge that it would rob the sun itself of warmth and light...If that is what a good death means - handing oneself, ones work,ones relationships into untiring, ever-open arms...then a good bereavement must involve a complementary letting go as well...

Because, on this life journey we both carry and are carried by other people..Through the death of my parents, I have been, and will probably be again, the precious burden that others have laid down...I've experienced the way in which our relationship cannot be unchanged by their departure (though I firmly believe that love itself is not changed by death, for the dead or for the living)
I've known the sadness that comes from being left behind, the way that absence seems to be for a time a bigger reality than presence had ever been...and I have learned to gradually build a cairn, turning the dead-weight of grief into a tower of precious memories, a land mark that changes the sky-line of my life, something by which to regain my bearings not once, but again and again.

I don't yet know how the final leave-taking will be...though there are, I guess, faint echoes in the process of leaving a parish, of moving from a space at the centre to one totally outside, seeing the tide come in and wash away any sign of those castles you built so assiduously, with so much energy and hope.
Of course you're not forgotten, but the space that you left is rightly filled by others, and a new normal quickly becomes just the way things are.
That's not altogether comfortable to the ego - we often imagine that it might be good to feel indispensible - but it's certainly the way things should be.
At my best, I want those I love to travel light too...
No claw marks!
What's it all for?: sermon for Evensong on the Feast of S Michael & all Angels

What's it all for?
That's a question that has been trotted out so often it now represents a comic caricature of existential angst...but for all that, it might be one worth asking from time to time.
What's it all for?

Perhaps it's specially important for those of us who work in a place like this, where the ways of the institution, the demands of the building and the expectations of our common life can provide enough impetus to keep us active without undue reflection pretty much seven days a week. But to press on like that is unwise, even dangerous...
Cathedrals, - even when they are as beautiful and beloved as this one – are never ends in themselves. Everything we say and everything we do must, in some way, proclaim and further the work of God's Kingdom, and so here in Coventry we have three specific purposes against which to measure all our activity, whether amid the high celebrations of our patronal festival today, or in the down to earth business of a Monday morning.
Those purpose are Welcome, Worship and Reconciliation – which is reassuring since the Catechism would suggest that of those, worship is, in fact, the whole purpose of human existence. “Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”. In other words, Worship is the only proper response of creation to Creator, the final answer to that question “What's it all for?”,

And as we celebrate with St Michael and all the angels today, we are given an imaginative glimpse of how worship may be when we sing to God in heaven, something to look forward to while we travel on.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’
The writer of Revelation has quite a strict sense of hierarchy - there are angels, living creatures and elders not to mention, in another chapter, those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb – but the focus of all their energy is worship...the business of putting things in THEIR proper order...that is to say, re-ordering them so that God comes first. That's what worship is – giving God his worth...Neither more nor less.

And if God is given God's worth – then God will come first.

That's easy to write and you might think it was a given for all of us who profess the Christian faith – but my own experience is that it is overwhelmingly difficult to do. Though I long, with St Patrick, to ensure that God and God only is first in my heart, so many other things threaten to supersede Him...and I'm not alone. Through the centuries people repeatedly lapsed into idolatry, placing something else, something less at the centre of life.. Sometimes these idols are neutral – money perhaps – sometimes they really are good in themselves – things like family, Church, or social justice – but they are no substitute for we need to keep on practising this business of putting things in the proper order...We need to keep on practising worship. That's what we do when we gather here – we practice worship so that we may more fully engage with it in the world outside...we play at heaven, if you like, aided by angels, archangels and the whole communion of saints.

So when we worship, our routes in are pretty much incidental. Whether you prefer Chris Tomlin or Thomas Tallis, Mozart or Matt Redmond doesn't matter a hoot...because, you see, worship isn't about you. . It’s about God. If God is glorified, and the place where earth touches heaven is recognised and revealed – THAT is worship.
Sometimes it seems that we come together with a rather different agenda,that has more to do with satisfying our own tastes, or meeting our own needs....but true worship is not about how we feel, though we will find it fulfilling beyond all our expectations if our intention is to immerse ourselves in that constant stream of praise and thanksgiving that is the whole business of heaven.

I've never had close dealings with anyone from Tibet, but I've always been fascinated by the idea behind their beautiful prayer wheels...that prayer is a constant thread running through creation, in which we join from time to time. Some prayer wheels are placed in streams, or beneath waterfalls, so that they really do turn constantly, so that it is obvious to all that the prayer never stops. The worship of heaven is like that...continual, under-girding everything, - something into which we step whenever we fix our mind on God and God's glory alone.

That may sound such a high ideal that we don't know how to approach it...if that's so, the psalmist gives us a clue.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
    before the gods I sing your praise;
2 I bow down towards your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

In other words, we need to be whole hearted, as we celebrate both who God is, and what God has done. Stop for moment and think...Even on an ordinary Sunday in Coventry, that list is quite overwhelming, touching every aspect of our selves and our life together. We live and breathe...We hear and are touched by gifts of music, of art, of friendship. We glimpse for a second the wonder of God's self-giving love.
How can we do other than give thanks?
We may be in a hard place – for life is often less than gentle with us.
When we, or those we love, are hurting, all those gifts may seem empty...but God carries on giving.
There is no-one else who should stand in God's place...the lesser gods fade into obscurity before the steadfast love that holds the universe in being and will never, even for a moment, let us go.

So – if you don't feel like worshipping – worship anyway. Take lessons from the angels, who understand that worship is a way of being, not simply one activity to be chosen from among many . To engage your whole being in worship is to open yourself fully to its transforming power. Worship is, above all, an encounter with God, from which not one of us can expect to emerge unchanged...and that's wonderful because we too are being changed from glory into glory, til at least we can find our place in that crowd who worship round the throne.

Because, you see, that IS what it's all for.