Sunday, June 10, 2018
Sunday, May 27, 2018
I was a teenage chorister, passages like those we’ve just heard used
to drive me to distraction.
see, my favourite escape route when the sermon didn’t grab me was
to wander off in my imagination, into the depths of the readings. This was fine when
they were stories of Jesus and his friends, or parables, or the Old
Testament adventures...journeys through the wilderness, escapes from
captivity...or the beautifully poetic prophecies of Isaiah about
lions and lambs, or deserts bursting into life.
passages like tonights were another thing altogether.
would tie myself in knots trying to actually picture the 4 creatures.
faces, 4 wings, eyes wherever you looked – how on earth did that
Ezekiel and John both indulging in substance abuse?
tended to think that they might be, and would retreat with relief to
whatever was going on in the psalm.
I find myself preaching on those same passages – and its tempting
to take the same escape route.
of course, that there’s no way out!
seems that all our readings, from Old and New Testament and psalm
alike have the same message…
my God, you are very great… You are clothed in splendour and
word of Scripture we’ve heard this afternoon is designed to convey
that...to offer a range of different images that might give us, the
hearers, a window onto God – or, as John experienced it, a “door
standing open in heaven”. Open doors are surely, always, an
invitation...It would be simply perverse to turn away...but as we go
through, we need to adjust our expectations, to understand that we
are entering a different kind of reality.
see, it’s important to notice what’s actually going on in the
writer is attempting an accurate scientific description of something
you might try and draw for yourself (I say this, though behind me you
have John Piper’s interpretation, to which we’ll return later,
which might also help your imagination to take flight).
how often Ezekiel tries to make this clear
looked like four
living creatures...” “The appearance
of the likeness of the
glory of God”.
knows we’re not dealing with exact equivalence. All these images
are things glimpsed through a glass darkly…best guesses at a wonder
beyond all words and all imaginings.
the same way that icons, beloved of the Orthodox tradition, don’t
presume to offer pictures OF God but rather invite us into a way of
contemplating God’s majesty – so these passages are in no way
factual descriptions of the glories of heaven, but routes into
such they are part of a great tradition, and those living creatures
are carefully chosen for their honorable place in Jewish writing as
representatives of the whole of animal life.
declares that each is present because “all have received dominion”
– the “king of the beasts”, the lion, symbolises strength and
power and rules over all wild animals; birds are commanded by the
eagle, far-sighted and visionary, and gifted with eternal youth;
domestic animals are led by the ox, patient, strong, obedient; and
here, too, is humanity, not in any way the “crown” of creation,
but a good, respected part of it.
creatures – made into perfected, extraordinary versions of
themselves, to emphasise just how charged and heightened these
visions really are – because our writers are glimpsing something
truly tremendous. We know this – even while we struggle to place
ourselves beside them, to share their imaginings, see through their
in fact our failures of imagination don’t matter in the least.
These living creatures are there not for themselves but because they
ARE creatures – part of the natural order, beings made for God’s
glory and taking their part, with us, in the eternal song of praise
around God’s throne.
commentator writes of the vision of Revelation 4
is a throne-room for the universe – and the throne is not vacant.
The universe is not a chaos, nor is it ruled by blind fate. Someone
is in charge”….and
this, of course, takes us back immediately to our great tapestry
where that Someone, Christ himself sits, flanked by the four living
creatures that our writers have described to us.
Sadgrove, a former Precentor of the Cathedral, describes the tapestry
as a ‘magic carpet’, carrying the worshipper on a flight not into
fantasy but into reality at three levels – the reality of God, the
reality of the world, and the reality of the person themselves.
what lies on the other side
of the door, if we have the courage to walk through.
We’re no longer dealing with “the appearance of the likeness of
the glory of God” but with a direct encounter with God made human,
with God’s whole life and being walking the earth in the person of
Jesus Christ...that same Jesus who now sits in glory, ruling over our
world, our history and our future.
“window onto God” is quite unlike any other – because we are
invited to come close to, to know for ourselves, to receive into our
own beings the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth”.
pictures fail, and dreams fade on waking, this Christ meets us where
we are, in our everyday lives, and walks beside us here and now.
holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to
Revelation, the 24 elders join with the living creatures in a chorus
of universal praise…and surely our ultimate calling is to find our
voices and to join with them..
the meantime, though, we may feel rather more like that human figure
standing between the feet of Christ, simply too close to see what is
going on, oblivious to their surroundings.
though we may not have much grasp of God’s reality, nonetheless we
are secure – because the One who holds the universe in love will
not let us slip or fall, however poor our vision as we travel onward
til the door is fully opened and we are welcomed home to join
ourselves in the song of heaven.
Thursday, May 10, 2018
When I was a small child, I loved Ascension day because there was a half day from school after early Mass, sticky buns and country dancing. Now it’s more a day when I hanker after chestnut candles against blue skies, revel in glorious music and try my hardest to write a sermon that has no mention of the tips of Christ’s toes vanishing into the clouds…but I still love this feast, despite the problems that it might present to those who want to view their faith through a purely rational lens. In a world which, on the whole, doesn’t imagine heaven as a realm above the skies, we do rather struggle with the baggage of past understandings of the Ascension, and perhaps that is in part the reason that a festival that was once so significant that it involved a half day from school is now largely forgotten, even among the faithful. Today does matter though. It is a turning point.
“The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now” we sing, and it is tempting to think in terms of before and after, to see those two states in opposition to one another – and of course it depends on your perspective how you understand each part of the story.
There is one view for the eleven, left craning their necks for a last glimpse of the One who has given their lives hope and purpose through three extraordinary years…and pondering what his promise of “power from on high” might actually mean. For them, as for us, Ascension represents the start of a season of waiting in faith and in hope…and of trying to understand their new calling as apostles, those who are sent, rather than disciples, those gathered to learn.
And for Jesus? Well, when teaching children, I tend to explain today as “Christmas backwards” – but of course that is to oversimplify. While it is true that Ascension marks the end of Jesus’s physical presence in the world, it isn’t simply the moment when he returns home, takes off his humanity with a sigh of relief and everything goes back to “normal”…Things have changed for all time. The One who returns to glory returns wounded – for us and by us.
And the point is – the wounds are part of the glory! “The Messiah will suffer.” That’s essential…though not to assuage some cosmic system of justice. Some years ago, a speaker at a diocesan conference completely changed the way I was feeling about my beloved but rather struggling parish when she pointed out “The glory of God is as fully revealed on Good Friday as it is on Easter Sunday”. That enabled me to celebrate the church as it was there and then, rather than feeling frustrated that it wasn’t yet the gloriously confident, vibrant community of my dreams and longings. Surprisingly, (or maybe not really so very surprisingly at all) as soon as that happened, the church began to change….to see itself as revealing the glory of God in all the muddle and brokenness…and that fresh understanding began a process of healing and transformation. But that’s another story.
Last Sunday morning , Archbishop Justin gave us a similar message as he spoke about the tapestry – about the crucifixion, which is invisible from the nave, obscured by the high altar, but which literally provides the foundation for the image of Christ in glory which dominates our whole space. He pointed out, referring both to the tapestry, woven in a single seamless whole, and to the two moments of revelation “It’s ALL ONE.” Crucifixion and ascension are both alike manifestations of Christ’s glory
“And I, when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself”
Christ , risen, ascended, glorified, carries with Him both the marks and the lived experience of agony. They are for all time, - which means that our experiences of pain and suffering are part of what he carries with him for all time too.
This, of course, is also the message that our cathedral, ruined and rebuilt, carries to the world. We resisted the temptation to clear away the ruins, and recreate the lost cathedral – something done with startling effect in Dresden. Equally, we chose not to tidy up and build something new and different where the wreckage of the past had stood. Instead, we left the scars of history visible as a permanent part of our present reality. We do not cling to them with bitterness, but acknowledge that the pain was real, that places and people ARE changed and shaped by such experiences, that although we all carry our own wounds – of loss, disappointment, failure – yet we dare to move forward in hope of a new kind of future.
Often people describe the relationship of old and new cathedrals in terms of death and resurrection…That makes sense too, but the presence of the scars on hands and feet of Christ in glory reflects the wounds of the ruins on which he gazes out day by day. And it’s ALL ONE. Cross, pain and glory inextricably woven together in the fabric of our salvation.
In Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard, about the great medieval theologian famous for his love affair with Heloise, she describes Peter walking in the woods with his friend Thibault. They come across a rabbit trapped in a snare, and its suffering triggers a deep conversation about pain and the cross:
I think God is in it too.'.
'In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?' Thibault nodded.
'Then why doesn't he stop it?'
'I don't know,' said Thibault. 'Unless it's like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,' he stroked the limp body, 'is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.'
Abelard looked at him, perplexed. 'Thibault, do you mean Calvary?'
Thibault shook his head. 'That was only a piece of it - the piece that we saw- in time. Like that.' He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. 'That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ's life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because was like that, kind and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped.'
'Then, Thibault,' he said slowly, 'you think that all of this,' he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, 'all the pain of the world, was Christ's cross?'
'God's cross,' said Thibault, 'And it goes on.'
Christ in glory continues to hurt for the pain of the world. That gives a particular kind of hope to those who are suffering here and now. To the family of a young mum with a life limiting illness, who will not live to see her children grown. To my friends who watch by their mother’s bedside, wondering if she will recover after the removal of a lung. To another who has been told that thereis no more treatment left. To others who have flown across the world to be with their dying son. To those forced from their homes by violence. To those longing for a fresh start and new possibilities.
All of those weeping, aching souls can know that their pain is known, understood, shared by the one who is all love. Christ’s triumph does not undo or override the struggles that are part of the here and now…It redeems but does not banish pain. It’s all one….
So Ascension is about so much more than vanishing toes or easy triumphalism. There is glory and pain intermingled, Rich wounds still visible above in beauty glorified. It is indeed a turning point, but not one that signifies Christ’s departure from the world – but rather that same world’s brokenness bourne by him up to heaven, where the hands which bless us in our weakness bear the marks of suffering too.
Sunday, April 29, 2018
I'm just back from On Fire...and have discovered that this was my 7th year at a conference that I only discovered by a miracle of grace, and attended with fear and trepidation back in 2012 - but which is now one of the places that I feel most fully myself, the community where I have the deepest, widest conversations, and where, without fail, I am touched deeply by God.
By a happy God-incidence, my current boss, the Dean of Coventry, was the person who first mentioned On Fire to me. I love that a relatively casual remark of his, in a long ago ministry review, set something in motion that enables me to be whatever it is that I am in the life of his Cathedral 7 years on...
but then, On Fire is full of happy God-incidences, too many to record really.
So instead I want to share a picture that seemed to be a parable for much of my life. This year I was privileged to be conference Chaplain (one of those vocational times when my "deep gladness" did indeed meet the deep need that some brought to conference, so that I was able to listen and pray and discover that this was very much part of who I am in ministry) and this gave me so much joy that I spent much of the time wearing a silly grin and singing Rend Collective before breakfast. Madness!
It also meant that, as friends shard their stories, I did quite a number of circuits of the beautiful grounds of High Leigh, which is where I encountered this visual parable.
I went over, initially, because the gate itself looked very beautiful.
As I drew close, I realised that I would never need to open the beautiful gate, - which was fortunate, as it was chained shut....but beside it on the left was a "kissing gate", perfect for walkers...
No need to struggle with chains, or climb over the top. There was a perfectly negotiable route there. The decorative but difficult route was not one I had to engage with.
Then I noticed something else. On the other side of the gate, there is actually no fence at all.
You can walk straight from one part of the garden into the other with no barrier.
The gate is an almost imaginary construct....very handsome, to be sure, but utterly unnecessary.
And I thought about how that might be an image of the way I have related to God...first through a rather beautiful challenging approach (the demands of a singer on the Greater London Choral Circuit make it quite hard to lift your eyes from the music to engage with the living God who is the reason we sing at all)....
then through a simpler but still constricted approach, as I worked madly at being a good Christian, a faithful disciple, an effective minister...
But latterly I have realised that there is no barrier at all....that we "make God's love too narrow by false limits of our own"...
That I can simply respond to God's invitation "Come to me..." and that there is nothing whatever to prevent me.
Being at On Fire reminds me that I need to walk in that meadow, to take off my shoes (this is holy ground) and my socks, and feel the grass between my toes and dance barefoot with God under the spring skies.
And because God is all kindness, in those precious four days in Hertfordshire, I get to experience what that is like.
How, then, can I keep from singing?
I’m just back from one of the richest, most inspiring weeks of my year – the “On Fire” conference, a time when charismatic catholic Anglicans gather for a programme of talks, workshops, and some truly wonderful prayer and worship. Year after year, I’m blown away by belonging to a community whose expectation is that God will turn up, will be tangibly active in their lives and their worship, and will respond readily and unmistakeably when they pray. Believe you me, it’s extremely exciting.
Monday, April 23, 2018
I wonder if youve ever noticed that some of the loudest words arent there at all?
I sometimes think that the greatest gift that we at Coventry Cathedral have given to the world is to be found in the word that isn’t there.
You know the one – the word that it isn’t there SEVEN TIMES
Whenever we pray the Litany together.
That’s quite a lot of absence – and the missing word, of course, is “Them”.
While Jesus, from the cross, looked at specific people who had done, in ignorance a particular and cataclysmic thing...and prayed in love and compassion “Father forgive them” - he is in fact the only one ever who could dissociate himself from the pain and brokenness of human life, from those destructive behaviour patterns that are part of the fabric of humanity.
He alone needed no forgiveness – so could ask for it with complete altruism, on behalf of everyone else.
For the rest of us, there’s no such option. We can’t pray “Father forgive them” with any kind of integrity because the truth is that we’re all in the mess together, and we are the ones who made it.
And so, gloriously, the litany points this out and invites us to ally ourselves with our brothers and sisters across the world and across history as we say “Father forgive” – and recognise that there IS no them and us...that we are all alike fallible, hurting one another, hurting the planet, and hurting God.
That’s part of the Cathedral’s DNA – and on our best days I imagine that we can all both recognise and feel the truth of it in our beings and our bones...know ourselves as flawed and broken as the person next to us...and know, too, that this means we are all alike taken up in Jesus’s great forgiveness project, all included in his saving act…
We hold to that missing word, and whisper fervently “Father forgive”
That’s on our best days.
There are other times, of course, when we are distressingly keen to rebuild the barriers that Jesus came to break down.
We LIKE defining the world in terms of “them” and “us”...and are keen to recruit Jesus to our team
Last week, John’s sermon included John Donne’s reflection “no man is an island” - but we often seem rather keen on insularity...both as individuals and as society.
We saw an example of this in our national life, in the way our government had planned to deal with the Windrush generation…and in the continued manoeuvres around Brexit…
It was part of the motivation behind the “Rivers of blood” speech whose anniversary has been marked this week…
And of course, it’s integral to the thinking behind the ongoing “hate that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class” right across the world.
Them and us.
And, to my shame, it’s part of me too...though I really do try to resist it. I know there’s a reserve, a suspicion, in the way that I react in some situations, some people with whom I try too hard, because deep down they make me nervous. They are different, in faith, politics, world view…
If it’s all the same to you, Jesus, I’d rather belong to a flock of people just like me.
It would make my life so much easier if only everyone else would fall into line and do things my way, enjoy Byrd and Bach and the laughter of children during worship…
Strangers are welcome as long as they can be assimilated...turn into people just like me and my tribe…
Does that sort of thinking sound even vaguely familiar ?
I suspect there might a similar process at work in some of you too...that you’ll have your own internal yard-stick against which you evaluate a newcomer in your street, a stranger who sits next to you on the bus, or comes in to the Cathedral to pray.
Part of accepting our flawed humanity is understanding that we are still not very good at learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity, though voicing the aspiration is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
Jesus is very clear about it.
There shall be One flock, one shepherd...who knows each of his sheep... the secrets of their hearts, their struggles, their hopes, their wounds and their dreams…
Knows them as fully as Father and Son know each other.
Knows them– and YET - Loves them.
Knows me – knows you – and yet...keeps on loving.
And lays down his life – to show that ALL are equally loveable...
You see, love is a universal language, that all can understand...
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd”
They will listen because that language of love transcends faith and culture....Does not depend on good behaviour....cannot be bought or earned…
No matter how big a mess we have made of our pasts
No matter how raw and painful our present the message of love speaks into our situation.
It is, always, a free gift.
God's grace poured out in wild extravagance and made clear to us at that moment when Jesus, on the cross, draws all people to himself.
Not just the good, the trying to be holy,
Not just the people with whom we would enjoy sharing a sheepfold, or a desert island.
One flock, one shepherd.
And yes – we do need to learn to hear his voice…
And we may not always enjoy what he has to say, for that voice will be calling us to have larger hearts, to pray blessings on those whom we cannot understand, those whom we fear, those whom we are sure that we cannot be called to like, to follow ways of greater love.
No them and us, remember.
One flock, one shepherd.
But, though we do need to listen to his voice, that’s all that is asked of us.
The salvation that we find in no-one else is not conditional.
We're talking grace and not works here.
We can't earn God's love.
We can't forfeit it.
Think of the person you find it hardest to love...whether someone you know personally or someone you think you know through their words and actions reported in the media day by day.
Think of them and remember, they too are part of the one flock…
In a few days time I will have the privilege of conducting the funeral of a wonderful man, one of a whole set of honorary parents whose wisdom, love and care helped me navigate
tricky years of young adulthood after the death of my own parents.
I loved him then and love him still and it will be a joy to pray
“Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
But I know that I need to be able to pray those words and know their truth no matter who I speak of…
No them and us
but one flock, one shepherd…
Jesus in whom, alone, we find our salvation.
Jesus, whose love and grace amaze us with their wild generosity day by day by day…
Thanks be to God.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Those whose children have flown the nest and are just too far away.
Because, of course, Mothering Sunday – unlike the secular celebrations of “Mothers' Day” has never been all about mothers...
Woman - here is your son. Son, here is your mother.
But we'll not be perfect at this either. Broken people in a broken Church - trusting in God's grace to provide the golden seam that is used in Japanese pottery to repair damaged work, til it is more beautiful than ever before.
Mummy died when I was 18...and my next brush with the day came 8 years later, when I had my first miscarriage on the eve of Mothering Sunday. I was only a few weeks pregnant that time, so though I was deeply sad at the loss, there was no question of my not keeping a commitment to return to SJDK, the church that had been so important to me before my marriage, to sing Evensong. Wesley, "Ascribe unto the Lord" - with its reminder "You are the blessed of the Lord, you and your children"
In my emotionally charged state, those words felt like a promise - one I clung to through the series of miscarriages that followed, the times when it felt as if while one child might be possible, children were a dream too far.
Turns out I was blessed...3 children, loved and loving, who've now flown the nest but return bringing joy with them, which has spilled over into a new generation. And yes, as I delight in all that Eleanor Grace has brought to our lives, on the special magnetism of a baby who draws us all together in more love than I'd have believed possible, I do feel sad that I was never able to share my own children with my parents - but that sadness is no more acute today than on any other. It ebbs and flows, just as the wistful wondering about those lost babies of mine also ebbs and flows through the seasons.
And I think that, actually, I'm OK.
This is not a sad story.
And this is because I've always been given love, care, support from so many many different directions...from friends, from children (my own and other peoples), from my church family, - and (waiting quietly in the background til I was ready to recognise her) from God too.
Here's my personal list:
Mummy and Daddy, Eirene, Jilly, Uncle Truffle, Lucy B, JW, Fr Nigel and Fr Neil, Beth and Alastair, Libby and Anne, Stan, Peggy, Carolyn, Camilla, Ann, John & Marcia, Marilyn, Don and Ellen...
I thank my God on every remembrance of you, and of many many others who've showed me how to pass on the gift of mothering.
I wouldn't buy a "Happy You Day" card, as Waitrose has suggested - because somehow that buys into the world of L'Oreal "Because you're worth it"....but a card that said
"Today and every day, thank you for your love and care" - now that could be a real best seller in my world.
And I might thrown in some chocolate too.
Sunday, February 25, 2018
So, there's our good news. We, God's people, travelling togethet in faith, hope and love, will find the way of the cross most truly the way of life and peace.
Thanks be to God!