Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Holy Week highlights 3

And so we came to the cross.
We came by way of a church full of excited children, whose feet I washed, who each hammered a nail into our big, bare cross with the kind of enthusiasm that makes it hard to deny our own part in the Passion, who fell silent in a way that caught me by surprise as we sat in a circle, broke our hot cross buns and exchanged halves with our neighbour in what I will now forever think of as Hot Cross Bun Communion.

We came in the rawness of the Reproaches
"My people - what wrong have I done to you. What good have I not done for you? Listen to me..."

We came as we heard the Passion gospel again and shared in the agonised suspensions of Lotti's Crucifixus, which creates in music that sense of pain that fills this last hour.

We came to kneel, to venerate, to be silent

Then it was finished.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Holy Week Highlights Part 2

Thursday - the Chrism Mass...a wonderful time of connection to my colleagues, the clergy of this diocese, as together we renewed our ordination vows. As we robe in the Lady Chapel I'm reminded of Mark Balfour's comparison of the scene there to those times in childhood when you get completely entangled in your bedding and seem to be trapped in a world of white linen...it's very much like that and ought to be utterly ridiculous, laughable...But somehow as we process into OUR Cathedral it never feels that way. It's a reminder that we are part of something far far beyond ourselves, beyond our parishes, beyond our diocese, beyond this time and place...
The service is always beautifully put together - FabBishop is, after all, also a fab liturgist, and my curate and I both wondered how it would feel to be in other Cathedrals, with other traditions, having been formed and ordained here.

That afternoon I was quiet in the Lady Chapel, dressing the altar of repose for the Watch. I can't arrange flowers to save my life, but I love doing this, knowing that candlelight is very forgiving and that the place will be beautiful because of what it is, however pathetic my efforts.

The service was every bit as special as it always is. For all my efforts, my insistence that this is a KEY day for all Christians to come to worship, the congregation barely reaches half of a lowish Sunday...C speaks beautifully about our need to accept the service of others, to have our feet washed - but still very few come forward. We have long since given up hoping for 12...so place a single chair, and after I have washed my Deacon's feet, he washes the feet of the 1st member of the congregation and so on til there seem to be no more takers, at which point I have my feet washed by the last person in the chain. It works for us, as it enables us to both serve and be served - which is part of the challenge, I think.
"Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too"
We listened to "Ubi Caritas" then - as we had in the Cathedral this morning - 

which made me sad that #1S was in Cambridge, but glad that this music brings him close whenever I hear it. In this Holy Week that is all about letting go, the absence of 2 out of 3 children ought really to have prepared me...

A smaller congregation is sad in one way, but lends a marvellous intimacy, so that as we stand round the altar and I begin the Eucharistic prayer "Who this night - this very night - took bread" there is no space at all between the upper room and our church family gathered here. More tears, this time from the vicar, as I offer God's self in bread and wine to those dear dear people who are Christ's Body here...to a courageous, questioning lady who has felt unready, unable to receive but who opens her hands tonight...to my youngest son, who has worked so hard to help me keep this week holy despite all the upheavals and changes afoot...to M who will be the face of the church here when the curate and I have moved on..

Then, together, we prepare for the dark time. The wonderful Samuel Wesley chant for Psalm 22 is our soundtrack as we strip the altars and move everything that can be moved from the sanctuary. I extinguish the light in the aumbrey and we move into the Lady Chapel, for this one night transformed into Gethsemane, for the Watch.
I'm all over the place tonight, my head too full of "lasts" and "I wonders" to be very attentive to the great story that we have come to share...I spend a while beating myself up about this til I hear Jesus saying, quite clearly, 
"I didn't ask you to think holy thoughts. I just asked you to stay awake with me". That I can do - for a few hours at least - and it's good to be there. 

Holy Week highlights - part 1

Just over 6 years ago, I promised myself that I would never leave a church job over Easter again, as the emotional roller-coaster that is Holy Week combines with the emotional roller-coaster that is moving on from a beloved congregation in a thoroughly overwhelming way.
Inevitably I failed to keep my own promise - though at least this time round there is a week between Easter Sunday and my final services at St Matthew's...Nonetheless, the combination ensured that Holy Week 2014 was never going to feel low key.
Knowing that this would be the last time I experienced the liturgical wonder of Holy Week with this congregation as their parish priest, I was repeatedly aware of sacred moments as the week went on.

Already, the early part of last week feels like a life-time ago. The joy and excitement of Palm Sunday morning overtaken by powerful feelings as a small group of us followed the Stations of the Cross that evening and found ourselves overwhelmed by connections between that story of loss and redemption and our own situations. I love Stations - but I've never yet found myself leading a group round with almost half of us in tears. Good, healing tears ...tears that opened the way to deeper connections...that ensured that everyone went home thinking that bit harder...just slightly more aware of the needs and the wounds of their neighbour.

Tuesday evening's service was a beautifully simple Iona Eucharist led by my lovely curate. She had set up a tiny altar in the Lady Chapel, so that the small congregation could sit around the table. There was space and stillness and great beauty...and not for the first time I was completely blown away by the liturgy itself
"Look. Here is your Lord. He is coming to you in bread and wine"

And it was so.

Next day was Tenebrae - something the boys and I have developed over the past 5 years. This year we felt we needed a few changes, so included some additional readings as well as the passages from the psalms and Lamentations that always belong to this evening of gathering darkness.
So we began the service by saying the ancient Phos Hilarion together,  listened to the Bairstow Lamentations, John of Portugal's Crux Fidelis and Gibbons' Drop, drop, slow tears, the latter paired with the beautiful words of Malcolm Guite's "Jesus Wept"

We found ourselves going ever deeper into darkness as we remembered that we were those to whom Christ spoke in Causeley's "I am the great sun" - a poem based on words from a Normandy crucifix of 1632

I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain but you will not obey.
I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
I am the city where you will not stay.
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not pray.
I am your counsel, but you will not hear me,
I am your lover whom you will betray.
I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
I am your life, but if you will not name me,
Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.

Finally even the light of the Paschal candle was extinguished and we listened to Allegri's Miserere before a rather amateur "earthquake" opened the graves again and the light returned. 
That was Wednesday.                                                                                  cont.

Essential Easter listening.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Sunday homily for St Matthew's 8.00

Don't touch me...said Jesus to Mary

Don't TOUCH ME...when every cell in her body must have been intent on flinging herself into his arms, weeping and laughing “I thought you were dead...” and weeping some more as she seeks the reassurance of his embrace.
Hugging and holding are part of love – from a human perspective at least.
But Jesus tells Mary “Noli me tangere” - don't touch me – don't hold me – let me go...and that act of loving release is surely one of the hardest that the world has known.

Letting go is so rarely easy – even when you understand exactly what lies ahead.
Mary has been used to spending time with Jesus whenever she wanted to...to listening to his stories, watching his miracles
She has come to rely on regular encounters...encounters that changed and challenged her, for sure...but encounters that fed her and encouraged her to carry on.

Now Jesus says “Don't hold on to me”

And the future looks terrifying and uncertain.
Couldn't we just put back the clock and pretend that this most gruelling of weeks had never happened?
Couldn't Jesus hug Mary, hold her close and reassure her
It's alright. I was never really dead. It was just a horrible mistake. Let's go and find the others and comfort them too”?
Couldn't life just go back to normal?
Wouldn't that be good news enough for today?
As I try to imagine a future in ministry that involves none of you – and few of the familiar tasks that have filled my days for 10 years – I'd rather welcome a Jesus that said “It's OK. Let's just put things back as they were, forget all these uncomfortable changes and carry on where we left off....”

But it's never his way.
He always calls us to be and to do more...
It was that way for Mary – and it will be that way for each of us too.

In that moment when she was deprived of all the reassurance she craved, Mary found something new – something beyond her hopes and her expectations.
Before her stood not Jesus resuscitated...the old life put back so that he and his friends could resume their old way of being with nothing changed.
Instead EVERYTHING had changed for this was Jesus resurrected – full of a new life beyond Mary's wildest imaginings...

No, life couldn't go on as it had before. How could it?
In that meeting in the garden, Jesus demonstrated for all time that God's love is stronger than anything in creation – even stronger than death – and invited Mary to proclaim and to demonstrate that truth to everyone she met.
Mary cannot hang on to the place any more than she could hang on to the risen Christ.
Instead she is given a new task and a fresh purpose
She is the first apostle, sent to bring good news to the twelve,- an apostle to the apostles…In a world where women had little power, where their voices were generally unheard, hers is the most important message of all
I have seen the Lord.

And it's true, isn't it?
WE have seen the Lord...in so many holy moments in this church, at this quiet service...in this community where people are welcomed in his name, coming as they are, with doubts, questions, joys and wounds....
We've seen him in one another and in these most beautiful valleys where we live.
This Holy Week I've seen Him in the joy of our children and the reverent silence with which they shared “Hot Cross Bun Communion” on Good Friday, in the many small feet I washed that day and in the sheer hard work of those who turned out yesterday to make our church shine for Easter as much as in the excitement as we carried the Paschal candle into our darkened church as we began our celebration of the Resurrection.
We HAVE seen the Lord....

But we will see him in other places too, again and again, if we simply remember to open our eyes and expect him.

He caught Mary by surprise in the garden of the resurrection.
She went there without hope...but we have a sure and certain hope, the hope that we celebrate today, the hope that should fill our every moment as Easter people.

We know that love wins – and that Love's victory is the best news that we could ever hear.
Yes -that victory brings change – and it's not for us to hold on, to try to safeguard how we encounter Jesus
Resurrection means the power of Love let loose in the world...Love that always involves us in letting go in sacrificing ourselves for others even as Jesus, supremely, sacrificed himself for us...and knowing that here too, he is risen.

Don't hold on...let go....share the wonder of resurrection joy, the good news that we have seen the Lord, today and always.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ride on, ride on

I've always loved Palm Sunday.

At the vertiginously high church of my early childhood, St John the Evangelist, Upper St Leonards, I was enthralled by the idea of the choir and clergy ALLOWED OUTSIDE THE CHURCH in all their amazing "dressing up clothes" and entirely happy to be associated with them in a rather sedate procession down Brittany Road from the hall to the church. I guess it was those processions that meant that I learned the words of the great Palm Sunday hymns very early...I was transfixed by the image of "the Father on his sapphire throne" and those incredulous angels "the winged squadrons of the skies look on with sad and wondr'ing eye"....so I was caught up both in the drama of the day - the short walk along a quiet road - and the many-layers of imagery in the hymnody, even before I found myself drawn into the gospel story itself.

Later (and still to this day) I found "My song is love unknown" expressed everything I felt and needed to say. I was acutely conscious of my own likely place in the crowd
"Sometimes they (we) strew his way and his sweet praises sing
Resounding all the day, "Hosanna to the King" 
then "Crucify" is all our breath and for his death we thirst and cry"
How could I swing from one extreme to another?
Why was it such a short journey from Palm Sunday to Good Friday?
Would I never be able to trust myself to stay on the right side in this?

I'm sure that dramatized Passion readings took place in many of the churches I've belonged to along the way - but for some reason they didn't really hit home for me til ordination. I'll never forget my first Palm Sunday presiding, when I found myself as "ex officio" Jesus - entering into the narrative in a way that took my breath away...or the echo that we roused in St Matthew's as we shouted "CRUCIFY HIM"...

But today was powerful in new and unexpected ways. 
Today I was hugely aware of endings...and the service itself underlined this from the introduction onwards

"We are all part of the rhythm of life.
We are born. We give birth.
We live in relationships.
We search for meaning.
We make choices.
We face endings.
As we celebrate this day of our journey together - PEACE BE WITH YOU".

We've used this liturgy for several years now - but, oh goodness, it hit home as I contemplated Holy Week spread out before me, my last as vicar of Cainscross. 
It has been such a huge privilege to help this congregation recover their sense of a week full of worship, to try gentle experiments til we worked out what felt best for these people at this time...and though honesty demands that I acknowledge my failure to persuade the whole congregation to walk the way of the cross through the week, the little core who attend everything seem to find the experience every bit as challenging and moving as I do.

And today our Passion Gospel must have been the best yet.
Sitting in the pews with that splendidly mixed group - a female Evangelist, a teenage Christ and a whole crowd of wonderful others - it was brought home to me as never before that this IS our story. 
Not long ago and far away but here and now - in Cainscross, in Coventry and beyond.

Maybe it's not surprising that the little girl next to me had to ask - in a rather pointed stage whisper
"Kathryn - are you CRYING?"
To which the only possible response was "Might be...."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Written for 8.00 at St Matthew's - though it may not actually be preached

Several years ago now, I was working with a group of children to design our own set of Holy Week stations. We tried to sum up the message of each event in a single caption, and for today the caption was
Welcome Jesus!
And of course welcome is very much the flavour of the day, with cheering crowds in holiday mood.

The triumphal entry....” that's what we call it....instantly connecting Jesus with all those set piece returns of Roman generals, led in procession to the Temple after a glorious victory
See the conquering hero comes”
What's actually going on?
It's easy for us to interpret Palm Sunday in the light of Easter day..to proclaim, as we will next week
"Endless is the victory..." but the Jerusalem crowd knows nothing of this – so why are they celebrating?
Perhaps it's just that good-humoured holiday excitement that wants to turn everything into a festival.
Perhaps the crowd is trying to force Jesus' hand, by proclaiming him a conquering hero to turn him into one on the spot...seizing the moment to rush in and overthrow the Roman army then and there.

See the conquering hero comes!

But actually this is an entirely manufactured triumph
The conquering hero comes not in a chariot, nor on a white charger but on a colt the foal of an ass. He is not preceded by prisoners of war but acclaimed by some of those he has freed...through life changing words and miracles.
We shouldn't be surprised. The way of the Kingdom is now, and always has been, to subvert our expectations.
Right from the start the agenda has been quite simply to turn the world upside down til, paradoxically, it finds itself right way up once more, restored to it's true self, as it was in the beginning when God looked at creation and saw it was good.

But...back in Jerusalem that festival day,there is till much to do. Having shouted their welcome, the crowd disperses and Jesus is left alone. But he continues to follow the pattern set for triumphal entries....and goes to the Temple.
What he finds there makes him very very angry.
Here where there should be an all-inclusive welcome..in the very court of the Gentiles,open to all comers...were people intent on feathering their own nest at the expense of others.
Money changers had their place there....you could not do much in the Temple complex til you had Temple coins in your hand....but was was going on here was extortion, exploitation...and an abuse of hospitality.

It couldn't go on...

So the conquering hero behaves like an angry teenager...

Storming in, turning the tables upside down, sending the soon to be sacrificial chickens scuttling across the courtyard clucking wildly.
Cleansing the Temple – that's what we call it...but it might have felt more like a violation – a riot – the sort of thing that the tabloids decried so vehemently in 2011....
Cleansing depends on your perspective – and for those whose tables were overturned, it can't have been a positive experience.

But still, as I pondered what God wanted me to say to you – and to myself – this Holy Week, it was to the cleansing of the Temple that I returned again and again.
If the children were right, that the message of today could and should be “Welcome, Jesus” - then I wonder what work he needs to do in each one of us, so that the Temple of our hearts can become a place where he is truly welcomed and at home...
What things have we allowed to grow out of proportion?
What is preventing us from being hospitable to God – and to his people?

We know, don't we, that we belong with those fickle crowds whose hosanna turn so rapidly to Crucify him...
We know that while we long to welcome Jesus, we so often find him a difficult and demanding guest
So – this Holy Week, may I invite you to talk to him about the things that need cleansing within you...
Ask him for the courage to LET him transform you.
It may not be comfortable – but in this week when we walk the way of the cross, perhaps that's as it should be.
There may be things we hate to let go...but if we want to welcome Jesus, then we need to make room for him, and all his demands.

He's not an easy guest – but he's the only One who can save us all.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Things you can't throw away

So the decluttering process continues - as the move gets ever nearer.
In 3 weeks time, we should be in Coventry, however unlikely that seems at the moment.
This means that I have just 2 weeks to get rid of all the surplus stuff we really can't accommodate...things that we had kept "just in case" have to really EARN their right to travel with us, as storage space is scarce, and I have finally tackled the infinite number of files and folders that have jammed the 4 drawer filing cabinet and taken up several feet of bookcase for a good long time now.

Actually, the filing cabinet was pretty easy. So much of the stuff that I used to save carefully is now online...and who needs sermons so old that they predate the use of the PC? There were, inevitably, piles of paper of a vaguely financial nature that scared me so much they have earned a place in a box marked "Probably dead, but may not lie down" in case I might need them one day for the Tax Man...but I filled 3 large recycling boxes with barely a backward glance.
And it was morning and it was evening. The nth day.

But then I came to the numerous files from ordination training. All those pages and pages of notes and handouts, which I have never consulted, as I'd mostly forgotten I had them...Some assignments that were thought-provoking enough to be readable without embarrassment - and which I've allowed to survive...And the feed-back sheets. Oh, those feed-back sheets!
Completed with such care and love by my wonderful village congregations in the Rissingtons...They worked so hard, those small communities, loving, praying and encouraging me through the process - through my first unsuccessful selection conference, helping me brave a re-run by their conviction that I was a priest, whatever the selectors might feel, and finally letting me share my excitement and my struggles as I trained.
Including listening to any number of sermons, and evaluating all kinds of worship that was way beyond their normal experience - or indeed, their normal preference.
Ann, Joan, Donald & Arthur are now safe home with God, though others who took the time to help me train continue to bless those churches with their presence, - but reading their thoughtful, generous comments last night I could HEAR their voices - and gave thanks for the whole army of people who have spurred me on the way.
It may take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a Church - or three - to form a priest.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

8.00 homily for Passion Sunday Yr A Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45

It's probably safe to assume that I'm the only person present today who is sad enough to subscribe to the Church Times....!
Recently that trade rag ran a 4 part series, a Health Check on the C of E.
Though there were many happy things to celebrate, overall the picture was not too bright.
We might not yet be staring the Grim Reaper straight in the eye, but nobody could claim that we are exactly hale and hearty.
Look around at the churches of Stroud.
There are pockets of life – but an awful lot that is struggling, weary, dying...

And today we have 2 readings that speak to this situation, as surely as they have spoken into situations of decline death and decay through millennia.
Let's start with dem bones....dem dry bones
Scattered in the valley, the aftermath of some terrible battle perhaps
A grim reminder of mortality, of the brevity of our time here
Just a heap of bones – with nothing to tell the stories of the people they once were.

Dry bones.

And then...Then Ezekiel prophecies as God directs....and gradually, impossibly, the bones begin to come together. And he speaks again and they put on flesh once more. And finally the Spirit moves and they return to life.
Living and breathing
A vast multitude...the dead restored...

Fast forward to our gospel reading – and once again the dead live.
Jesus calls his friend Lazarus back to the land of the living – and tells the astounded onlookers to unbind him.
Called in to new life by his Saviour and Lord, he is still confined, constrained by the trappings of death.

That made me stop to think.
Are there things that still bind us, as individuals, or as a church – even when we have heard the voice of Jesus calling us back to our selves, inviting us to enter into the fullness of life and joy he offers...
I'm sure there are for me...I wonder what they might be for you?
The duties laid on you by the expectations of others?
The heavy weight of yesterday – the limitations we impose on ourselves when we allow ourselves to carry on believing an unkind word or hasty judgement from decades past...when we take on another's judgement as our essential truth?
Fear of failure?
Or the equally pernicious fear of success?

There are many things to bind an individual...

And there are as many that bind the church
Nostalgia for a lost utopia – a golden age when churches were full to overflowing and God and politics marched hand in hand
Attachment to beloved buildings that prevent us from re-imagining our worship in ways that make sense to the lost generations
Determination to focus on unity at almost any cost
And more fear....
So much fear.
If a stranger walked into our worship this morning, I wonder what she would see?
Dry bones?
Bodies trapped in grave clothes?
Or people living the new life for to which they are called?

We know, each one of us, that God calls US to fullness of life...that his passion for us is expressed in 100% perfect love.
It is that love that can breathe life into our dry bones...that love, casting out fear, that calls us from the darkness of death to walk free in the sunshine once again.
It is that love, too, that can transform the Church – which is, after all, not ours but God's....

So, on this Passion Sunday, let's pray that God will once again pour his love into our hearts, that we might live transformed by his Spirit and share that love and that life as signs of his kingdom where dry bones live and the dead are raised to newness of life.