Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sheep, goats and extravagant love - a sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist on the Feast of Christ the King


Whenever we approach this celebration of Christ the King, I'm struck by the irony of a feast established to cement the relationship of the institutional church and an oppressive secular authority, but celebrating a very different kind of rule. The festival originated in a somewhat disquieting pact between Pius XI and the emerging fascist government...but survived because it points to a greater reality. So today we contemplate afresh what it means to live in Christ's kingdom – a kingdom “not of this world” but whose citizens are called to its way of living very much in the here and now. And we've two pieces of prophecy to help us....

In ancient Israel, the language of sheep and shepherd was often applied to kingship. Ezekiel underlines this as he proclaims God's promise to search for the wounded and the straggler in a reunited kingdom– as much as to judge between sheep and sheep. You see, even when following their shepherd, it seems that some sheep just don't care whom they hurt in their search for good pasture...and then the shepherd changes from gentle leader to agent of judgement... who will “feed them with justice”. He can do this because he recognises their motivation for what it is, and is alert to every nuance of their behaviour. This shepherd knows his flock alright – good sheep, bad sheep and goats as well.

But surely there's no real challenge to sorting out sheep from goats. Indeed, when you think in terms of the sheep and goats we know from our own farming landscape, there's no room for confusion. It would be a very dim shepherd indeed who couldn't tell them apart. Sheep are sheep and goats, well goats are different. You can tell by them by the beards, the horns, and the smell.
Can't you? Well, not so much in southern Europe or Asia, where floppy ears and wicked yellow eyes seem common to both groups…
Unless you spend a lot of time with them, it would be hard to tell the difference. And that, I think, is the point.
According to an article in the Jewish Heritage magazine though both sheep and goats could be used in Temple sacrifice, goats were seen as "armed robbers who would jump over people's fences and destroy their plants." While sheep graze at a fairly consistent ground level, goats not only graze at the ground but can also tear leaves, buds, fruit off trees, and notoriously, washing off lines, and are thus far more destructive. But you wouldn't know that unless you got close to them, - close enough to see how they behaved.

And that’s the crux of the story, isn’t it.?

How they behave, How we behave.
Are we sheep, or are we goats?
What do you think?

The American spiritual director and author Dennis Linn was speaking to a group of elderly nuns, and asked
"How many of you, even once in your life, have done what Jesus asks and fed a hungry person, clothed a naked person or visited a person in prison?" All the sisters raised their hands.
Dennis said, "That's wonderful! You're all sheep."
Then Dennis asked, "How many of you, even once in your life, have walked by a hungry person, failed to clothe a naked person, or not visited someone in prison?" Slowly, all the sisters raised their hands. Dennis said,"That's too bad. You're all goats."
The sisters looked worried and perplexed. Then suddenly one very old sister's hand shot up. She blurted out,
"I get it! We're all good goats!"



A contradiction in terms, or an accurate reflection of the reality of life? I'm not going to make us all thoroughly uncomfortable by repeating the questions here – but it's fair to say that in my experience very few of us are wholly good or wholly bad. As we strive to follow in the steps of Christ we can become more conscious of our own failures, so that sheep are more aware of the times when they behave like goats., and as Paul reminds us, “all fall short”…but there are times when we get things quite wonderfully right as well.

So perhaps what divides sheep and goats is not so much behaviour as motivation…They may set out to follow the same shepherd, but what happens along the way? What's behind their behaviour? 
It all comes down to the kind of King we're following.

If you've a few spare moments when you get home, ask google images to show you some suggestions for “Christ the King”. There's quite a range, -Ultra pious, rather saccharine depictions of the Infant of Prague, unexpected links to church buildings and a whole galaxy of icons, from across the Orthodox Tradition. Most feature a predictably regal Christ - crowned, on the throne, and often bearing orb and sceptre. This is the king beloved of hymnody, the king "all glorious above"whom we'll be singing of through Advent...but I'm not sure that this is the king of today's gospel.
Oh yes, he's present at the start of the reading
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
This is the court of judgement ...the place where we will hear our final destiny...Tremble in awe
But if we aspire to belong to the kingdom right now, then there are more important truths for us to hear today, more important even than the verdict on our lives...
To live in a kingdom is about far more than standing to wonder at the majesty of the king at his final grand entrance...and we may be in real danger of missing the essence of both kingdom and king if we focus too much on the set-piece, deus ex machina moments that will complete our personal drama.
We should not be driven, not even for a moment, by fear.

Our King is rather different.

If we want to live in the kingdom, then Christ the king is the one who sets the standards, who shows us what kingdom life will be life.
Christ, who chooses to spend his time with the marginalised, the oppressed, the forgotten.
Christ who is utterly committed to those whom nobody values, nobody respects,
Christ who identifies himself só completely with “the least of these” that when we look at them, we know we are seeing him too.
The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner...
People who NEED us, who need very specific care – not just a generalised expression of good will...
People we probably won't be at ease with, people who may demand things that we find it very hard to deliver.
People we might not like, but are called to love.
People in whose faces we should expect to see the face of Christ.

Thomas Merton observed that the kingdom of God is not one that preaches a particular doctrine or follows certain religious practices, it is the kingdom of those who love. That's what lies at the heart of our parable – and at the heart of the kingdom.
The great commandments of Love.

To love our King is to love what he has made...children, men and women, joyous,broken, hopeful or despairing...
To love our neighbours is to love the One in whose image they,we, are made...and to recognise the divine image not on stamps or coins but in their faces, wherever we encounter them.

That's what it means to be true to the kingdom...to love, and love again.
The DNA of King and kingdom are one...so that Bonhoeffer's question
 'how may Christ take form among us today & here?' is both a mystery to be solved – as we look for Christ among those whom we encounter – and a challenge to be embraced as we consider how we can BE Christ...
Two sides of one coin,
We may not realise, in our active loving, that we are serving Christ – and só the parable offers a wonderful surprise for those who didn't recognise that in loving service of the outcast they were offering loving service to the king...
But those with ears to hear are given insider knowledge in this parable, that if we want to serve the king we will inevitably HAVE to offer loving service to the outcast.

You see, there is, in essence, just one commandment, the commandment of love, and real love is always manifested in action. And, when it comes down to it, it is living lives of love that will build the kingdom of God here on earth.
We aren't asked to decide who might be sheep or goats...all we are asked to do is to carry on loving – wildly, indiscriminately, just as Christ our King does.






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.

Really?

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."

Ouch.

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 here....to 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 beginnings...as 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 us...as 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, naïve 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 ourselves...in 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.