Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reflection for Compline - Tuesday of Holy Week

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered loss, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord

This week we attempt to respond to that invitation...to walk the way of the cross...to find ourselves in the story that took place once for all, long ago and far away, but which belongs to us and to people of all times and all places, since it is the story of our salvation.

Yesterday we looked at a story told in all of the gospels, and thought about whether or not we could aspire to the love that Mary showed as she poured out her treasured perfume, declaring her Lord dearer to her than all of the poor of the world.

Today, I'm inviting you to find yourself in a story that is all but untold, at this midpoint between the high triumph of Palm Sunday and the desolation of Good Friday, between Mary and Judas....between the extremes of love and betrayal. In many churches when a dramatized gospel is presented in Holy Week, the whole congregation takes the role of the crowd...and it can be a disturbing experience to find oneself moving from adulation to scorn in such a short space of time...
A crowd is a strange organism...both more and less than the sum of its parts...
notoriously fickle, as individuals cede personal responsibility, and stifle the inner voice of conscience so that it is drowned out by the surrounding hubbub.
You can get lost in a crowd, it's true, – but you can find yourself too, discovering who you really are as you choose to go with the flow, or to go out on a limb, risk standing alone.

So let's join the Holy Week crowd as we reflect on where we are in this greatest of all stories.

Looking back to Sunday,the crowds were there, gathering in the city that was already preparing for the festival to come. Men, women and children going about their business or loitering in the spring sunshine on a day when the whole world seemed full of hopeful possibilities...
We know that they were quick to sense the excitement, to lend their voices to the cries of Hosanna that filled the air as that unlikely, ragamuffin procession made its way into Jerusalem.
Did they really believe that the longed for Messiah was here at last, that they were seeing the ancient prophecies fulfilled before their very eyes?
Were they convinced that here – HERE – was their salvation...
Perhaps they were simply jumping on a bandwagon, - looking for someone, anyone, to help them emerge from under the yoke of Roman occupation?
Or were they just joining in because that's what you do...because here was a welcome diversion, something out of the ordinary to get involved with, something that would make a good story when they got home that night.
Being part of a happy crowd is such fun...it's easy to get swept along, suspending your own feelings and becoming part of a larger whole.
Does it really matter what the man on a donkey stands for? His face is kind and it's a lovely day...Who cares really? It's not that important...

But...but...the sky darkens...the hopeful innocence of Palm Sunday morning challenged when that same “kind looking young man” behaves in a way that scares and challenges, upsetting not just the money changers tables in the Temple, but the whole hallowed order of Temple culture, with its rituals for everything, its sliding scale of atonement sacrifice. Now leaders are angry, priests and worshippers outraged...
This is sacrilege.
It doesn't feel like fun to support the man from Nazareth any more...It's dangerous.
Small wonder that he and his friends have vanished from the city – getting out of harm's way, no doubt. 
Now is the time to keep mum, to keep your head firmly beneath the parapet. To befriend Jesus is to lose the friendship of those who really matter, the people whose approval will keep you and your family safe. Now is a good time to keep your opinions to yourself, - or to shift your ground, so that you stand with the vocal majority once more. I'm sure there will be something else to shout by the end of the week.

In choosing faith, or rejecting it, this is one possible agenda.
Each of us has the choice to join in with our peers, or to stand out from the crowd...
To recognise and welcome Jesus as the answer to all our deepest needs and longings...or to jump on a different bandwagon in the hope of a better here and now...

Where are you in the story?

SILENCE

Sometimes they strew his way and his sweet praises sing
Resounding all the day Hosanna to their King.
Then “Crucify” is all their breath

And for his death they thirst and cry.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Reflection for Compline - Monday of Holy Week - Coventry Cathedral

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered loss, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord

That wonderful Collect sets the tone for this most holy of weeks.
Every year we are invited, once again, to immerse ourselves in the story, to join our Lord on the Via Dolorosa, so that by staying close to Jesus and entering into the mystery of God's death,we can be touched afresh with resurrection hope.
That's the point of the week, and so it is a week when the question I love most for preaching and Bible study comes into its own.
I wonder...I wonder where YOU are in the story.

You see, in this week of all weeks, the boundaries that separate past and present, that divide 1st century Jerusalem from 21st century Coventry, seem so thin that they are porous...in this week, our ordinary lives can be put on hold for a while as we explore again what it means to accept the invitation to walk the way of the cross. The people whom we meet along the way belong in an alien world, so far away from us – yet they seem very very close. Of course they are familiar from their annual appearance in the Passion-tide drama...but they are familiar too because their personalities echo aspects of ourselves. “All human life is here” is a slogan that could apply as much to the Holy Week gospels as to any tabloid paper, for truly these people of the Passion hold up mirrors, so that we may learn more about ourselves, and come to understand both how and why this great story is our story, this song ours.

Monday...after the high excitement of his entry into Jerusalem, the cheering crowds, the puzzled faces, after the hopes and dreams and prophecies fulfilled, after the angry whispers in dark corners, after all this Jesus leaves the city. He seeks an oasis of calm, somewhere he feels safe, among friends. He sits relaxed in the moment, looking neither to past nor to future.
And then suddenly she is there.
Around the table the convivial buzz falters and dies into silence.
Perhaps you're with them, aghast at the sudden unwelcome interruption.
How could she?
Mary who has sat at Jesus feet and heard his teaching. Mary who has dared to rebuke him for responding too slowly when her family needed help. Mary, emotional, embarrassing Mary, turns the evening upside down with a gesture of pure theatre – or is it pure love?
What is going on as she pours out that costly perfume, the dearest thing she owns?

It seems to me that so many of the events of Holy Week stand as parables for us.
Mary is demonstrating wild, extravagant love – but the love that she feels is as nothing compared to the love that will be revealed for all the world to see on Friday.
She has adopted the reckless generosity that is the currency of the Kingdom, - understanding that nothing – NOTHING – is worth more than loving Jesus and being loved by him.
It's a lesson that I still struggle with...longing to give up those things that are precious to me, but holding onto them despite myself, - aspiring to the total abandonment that would see me throwing myself into Jesus's arms, but holding back, “guilty of dust and sin”.
Oh to be Mary – knowing how much she has been forgiven, and loving in proportion...
Mary, who made the choice to stay close to Jesus no matter what.
Mary, who will, in time, be the first witness of the resurrection.

But for now there's another struggle playing out – presented in microcosm in the gospel reading, as Judas challenges her lavish gift, with an argument that seems only sensible. 
What a wicked waste! 
Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?
He can see nothing but the immediately practical, knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing, but Mary has but one focus – the amazing man who has given her back her brother, and given her too a sense of her own worth, her right to hear, receive and, in due course, share the gospel for herself.

And, as she pours out that ointment Jesus recognises it as a gesture of unconditional love and perhaps he files it away, as a parable that he could use himself, maybe quite soon...

Love poured out...filling the space with its fragrance... embracing the beloved, transforming the lover, and all those with eyes to see.

SILENCE

Were the whole realm of nature mine that were a present far too small
Love, so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.




















Saturday, March 07, 2015

Sermon preached at Pembroke College Cambridge, Lent 2, 1st March 2015 Mark 8:31-38

One of the many strange things that happens to you when you are ordained is that people tend to hold you responsible for all sorts of things that are clearly the responsibility of God alone. They expect, for example, that you'll be able to fix good weather for weddings...to which my stock reply is “Actually, I'm in Sales – not management”.
It's fair to say that some parts of the job can, on a bad day, feel rather like working in sales or PR for a brand that has almost nothing to recommend it – particularly when you find yourself confronted with readings like those we've heard this evening.
They certainly aren't the stuff of an easy win. In fact, I think I'll change the subject without more ado!

2 weeks into Lent now. How's it going for you?
Are you resolute in your disdain for chocolate, biscuits and alcohol or are you exhausted by the sheer weight of virtuous projects you've taken on.
It's odd, the way the idea of “giving things up for Lent” seems to have survived in our emphatically post Christian society. I guess for many it's really just another chance to have a go at those self improvement resolutions that foundered in the dull days after Christmas...another chance to prove ourselves by triumphing over self-created obstacles but if that's so, then I think we've gone a bit off course.

Listen!

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Deny yourself
Take up your cross
That's sounds, somehow, a whole lot more serious than stepping away from the chocolate. Let's look more closely and try to discover what this Scripture might mean for us.

First of all, a bit of context. Today's passage occurs just after the account of an amazing experience. Jesus took his 3 closest friends on a mountain walk – and as they reached the top the disciples saw, for a few moments, the truth of the man they were following. Before their eyes, Jesus was transfigured – not changed but revealed in all the shining light of his divine nature. It was wonderful – something to treasure (so much so that Peter wanted to build a memorial on the spot), a confirmation that they were on the right track after all, that everything was going to be alright – and BETTER than alright.
To Peter this looked like the start of something big – a PR breakthrough...
...so small wonder he was more than disappointed when instead of building on the triumph Jesus immediately began to talk about suffering, rejection and worse. What?!

Clearly that couldn't be right. Everyone knew that God's Messiah would be a triumphant leader, setting all to rights in a blaze of glory.Indeed, his very triumph would be confirmation that he was indeed God's chosen.
Suffering and death were signs of failure.
A crucified Messiah was simply a contradiction in terms.

But even as Peter tries to silence Jesus, to curb his depressing pronouncements, Jesus tells him that he's got it wrong.
Death IS actually what it's all about...
Death of the self
I can't think of a message less calculated to win friends and influence people but Jesus just doesn't seem to care.
In fact it looks very much as if he's set on putting most of us off before we even start.

Certainly he's determined that we should understand what we are getting into. If you've been baptised, you will have had the cross traced on your forehead – an invisible reminder of the shape your life should take from then on.
You bear a cross.
So do I.
A constant reminder that Discipleship is absolutely Not for the faint-hearted.

Let them deny themselves”
Words that are anathema in our age of self fulfillment and individualism – but you know, I really don't think it's all about chocolate – and I think we cheat if we use that kind of choice to divert attention from the huge demand of the gospel.

Jesus is saying, quite simply, that we need to learn that we cannot exist as the centre of our own universe...that a world that runs on the principle of self fulfilment for all is very quickly going to become a place of conflict and unhappiness...that a little ego goes a very long way.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

Last week I saw “Oppenheimer” - a very powerful drama about the man responsible for developing the atomic bomb. As the plot developed we saw him repeatedly making choices that seemed to stem from his own pride, choices that divorced him step by step from his own humanity. The success of the project became all important. While at first there was talk of the deterrent power of the bomb, of the way that it would cut war short and so save countless lives, soon it became clear that it was now an end in itself. It was a chilling experience, watching scientific brilliance dedicated ever more deeply to a cataclysmic cause – and as we emerged, the big question in our group was “How do you live with yourself afterwards”.
It seemed to me that we had been watching the experience of someone losing their own soul right enough – and losing it as a result of a determination to hold on to the ego and all that went with it.

That's really what's going on at the centre of everything...and where we should focus if we're serious about engaging with Lent.
It's a struggle of life and death as our human tendency to “me first” contends with the incredible power of self-giving love that is God's very essence.
Really not just chocolate.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 

Thankfully, Jesus doesn't simply talk enigmatically. - he models in his own person this upside down way of being, and invites us to live it too.
In fact, this whole passage is deeply prophetic – looking ahead to the way in which Jesus, losing his own life on the cross, gains it and in so doing transforms our life, our death and our future.

There are no guarantees of a pain free life. Indeed if we are serious about setting aside our egos then we can surely expect to find ourselves feeling and carrying some of the grief of the world ourselves...

But we are offered the help that we need in order to bear it.

Jesus steps in and carries it all....the sadness, disappointment, anger, doubt, and denial....all the weight of broken humanity.

But we can choose to carry it too...to learn to be Christ-like by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory.
We will all have our own unique burdens – made out of the stuff of our own lives and experience...
Of failure and loneliness, a difficult relationship, a sick relative, things we might well prefer to jettison, but find ourselves carrying day by day. Your cross will be quite unlike mine, - it might look more manageable – or less...That doesn't matter, because your cross belongs to you. No exchange programme possible.

I can't carry your cross...but Jesus can and does bear it with you.
His invites us on this arduous road of discipleship because he knows that the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter.
It's into this that we are baptised...sharing Christ's death so that we might also share his resurrection.

Peter could not believe that the route to the Kingdom lay through the death of his Master ...but we can look at the cross with the perfect, 20/20 vision of hindsight...
We KNOW that, however painful, however difficult the here and now – Easter is coming.

For now we are still in the midst of Lent, still havering over chocolate, still not sure what will happen in our own unfinished stories, unsure if it will all come out right one day,
But, despite the PR disasters, there is good news for us here this evening.

You see,
whether our lives end
in outward success or failure, acclaim or ignominy, whether we achieve our
goals or feel that we have never really amounted to anything in the world's
eyes, we are just as precious to God, Today, in mid-Lent, in mid-term, let’s not hurry on to the happy ending of Easter. Let’s take the time to realise that just where we are – even struggle and uncertainty, God is with us and God loves us, and he will bring Easter when the time is ripe. .



Into the wilderness revisited - part 2

So - the stations themselves...were something like this.



At the font - preparing to travel
This is the place where the Christian journey begins. 
Here we are washed clean, and celebrate our new birth into God's family.
We remember that water cleans and refreshes, that it is essential to life.
But we remember too the devastating power of flood and tsunami - the way that water can change your whole landscape in just a few moments.
Take a stone - and hold it as you reflect on those things that burden you, that dominate your life landscape unhelpfully, those things which you long to have washed away.
When you are ready, drop your stone into the font
As you leave, you may wish to dip your finger in the water and trace the cross on your forehead as a sign of your continued commitment to travel with God.


Distractions
Here is a map - it might be the route planner for your life journey - with God and towards God. 
God is our "true north" - the fixed point to which all our longings and all our journeyings should lead - but we are so easily distracted.
The compass points north for you - but you can use the magnets to confuse it, to draw that needle away from north just as other distractions draw you away from God.
Spend a moment thinking of what distracts you and ask God to help you to return to him again and again, just as the compass needle does when the magnets are removed.
(the magnets were brightly coloured "magnetic marbles" - which always distract me splendidly - so were doubly effective!) 

Temptations
When Jesus was in the wilderness, he was offered three different temptations by the devil - who offered him the easy life - food, power and fame- but on the devil's terms. Jesus knew that his whole purpose was to live God's way, with no short cuts - so he turned the devil away.

Spend time thinking of of 2 or 3 temptations that you struggle with.

Write them down - ask God to help you to deal with them - then shred them as a sign that with God's help you will reject those temptations and move on.
(I love that using the shredder is noisy: dealing with temptations is very rarely smooth, silent or painless - and often disrupts other people on their journey too)

Oasis
The wilderness is dry, arid - not alot grows, still less flourishes there.
But where there is water, miracles can happen.

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus..
Take a flower. As you hold it, think of a hope that you cherish, a longing that seems almost impossible.
Fold the petals carefully into the centre of the flower then place it, petal side up, in the water.
Wait and see what happens.
Your wait may seem impossibly long.
Is anything going to happen at all?
Wait. See. Rejoice.
Prayers are answered - but God's time is not like ours.




Impressions (based on a script by Jonny Baker from Alternative Worship)

In front of you is some sand.
Take off your shoes and socks and step into the sand to make a footprint - or draw a pattern with the stick.
This is your moment to make an impression.

What will be left of us when we've left?  What will we leave behind us? What will surviving witnesses say? Will the future be better because of what we did with our present? 
How long does it take to make a difference? (Can I start now?)
What will history say of us when we are history?
What will be left of us when we've left?

Holy Space
God is here and you are welcome.
This is your space to be with God - and God's space to be with you.
Make yourself at home. Be yourself. Be real. There's no rush.
Be still and let God love you.

Here God knows you.
Here God welcomes you.
Here God speaks to you.
Listen.
Receive.
Commune.
Be fed.

Take bread and remember that God sustains both your body and your soul.

Into the Wilderness - revisited part 1

I'm fast becoming the most absent blogger of all time - but a while ago I promised to write about the Lenten prayer stations we offered at "Later" - the Cathedral's Sunday evening informal service...
None of the material was new - I first produced "Into the wilderness" for the youth groups of St Mary's Charlton Kings 10 years ago now - but as always local environment and the particular needs of the regular congregation impacted on how I presented the stations - not least because prayer stations at all are relatively unfamiliar for this group, who have been used to a regular "praise sandwich".

So - I began by offering a gentle introduction to Lent itself (many of this group are new to church - or come for a bit of refreshment from churches which sit very lightly to the liturgical calendar)...It felt odd to be explaining alternative worship - but with a group of non readers present, I couldn't simply let the stations speak for themselves. I introduced the wilderness with the Godly Play script about the desert, shaping, smoothing, reshaping the sand in my big bowl as I did so.



Welcome to Lent....the 40 days that lead the Church to Easter...time to remember Jesus's own experience in the desert before he began his ministry...time to think about the temptations that he faced, and those we are facing ourselves.

A time of preparation for the solemn journey of Holy Week and the Easter joy to come...

There's far more to Lent than giving up chocolate – indeed, the good news is that there is no rule ANYWHERE that states that this is what you should do – but Lent is a good time for stock taking, for having a good hard look at what's going on inside you and asking God to help you change the things you don't like.

It's also a good time for decluttering your life, for helping you remember what's really important and what might just be a waste of the precious gift of time that God has given you, a time to rethink priorities.

A kind of spring cleaning time for your soul – and of course spring-cleaning happens in spring – when new life suddenly emerges in places that looked dead and hopeless.
Even the wilderness.
Even your soul.
So Lent is a time to celebrate – not sombre and solemn and unhappy but quietly joyful, carrying the expectation that with Easter the world will be transformed and we will be transformed with it..

So many reasons to bother with Lent!
We do it because we know we need it..
We do it because even Jesus, who surely hadn't any overdue spring-cleaning whatsoever, did it
And as we do it, we can learn more about ourselves and more about the God of love who meets us in whatever wilderness we may find ourselves – and meeting us, brings us hope

So – there are several stations designed to help you with this process of thinking about yourself, of clearing out the rubbish, getting back on track and being loved and cherished by God.

Take your time to explore – there's no right or wrong order, though you may feel that the bread which represents refreshment in the wilderness is a treat to take just before the end.

As always, if none of the stations work for you, then just spend the time resting in God's presence.
A wilderness is a place with few distractions – a bit like an empty hour in a quiet Cathedral.

Let God meet you here.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Image of his Father. Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist with Holy Baptism, 2nd Sunday before Lent 8th February 2015

It's not always easy to be excited on a chilly Sunday in February...but today is REALLY exciting.
It's a day of new beginnings...for Sacha, as he returns to the Cathedral where he ministered as a Reader, but now as an ordained priest come to complete his curacy among us...
for Victory, as she is baptised into God's church and starts a new phase of her life journey as a member of the Christian family.

I'm tempted. indeed, to describe this morning as a "family service". But before you all head straight for the door, let me reassure you that I'm not about to launch into an action song and I promise I've nary a puppet concealed in the pulpit.

But nonetheless -  today is very much about family.
It's there in our readings and in our collect...which we might sum up by saying
“He's the image of his Dad”
That's a comment we often hear as joyful relatives cluster around the cradle of a new baby.
And really, we all know what they mean.
We aren't talking mirrors or plaster casts.
We recognise familiar features displayed in a different context, in another face – and are, for the most part, delighted
Family likeness matters to us, because we are embodied creatures...we recognise one another through our particular arrangement of physical attributes – height, weight, colouring – as well as through tones of voice, shared stories, habits of mind.
Our bodies will carry the gene patterns we inherit from our parents – and we live in those bodies.
Solid.
Incarnate.

Hang on to that thought for a moment – we'll return to it, I promise

But the image we're invited to reflect on by both collect and epistle today is of a rather different order.
Let's start with the epistle...a declaration on the same sort of grand, cosmic scale as the majestic text of John's prologue, which we heard as our gospel.
The Colossian Christians are invited to consider the amazing truth of Christ's nature...Christ who is transcendant, who has always been there, at the heart of all things, the one in whom all things hold together.
There is absolutely no doubt about his nature as the one “in whom all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell”
In other words, though God himself is invisible, Jesus is nonetheless the image of his father...showing all those features that we understand to be part of the nature of God.
“The Word was with God, and the Word was God”
Just as John takes us back to the dawn of creation, so does Paul, reminding us that Jesus is both the means and the purpose of creation “all things created through him and for him” and also its first expression...“The firstborn of all creation”.
The first-born – with more to follow, as our collect reminded us
“You have made us in your own image”...

Ordinary, everyday people like you and me – made to reflect God...and invited to look for that reflection in all whom we encounter.
That's what we're all about – and that's what I want to share with Victory, on this her baptism day.
Very soon your parents and godparents will make some big promises for you...and then I'll give you that invisible badge, the sign of the cross that I'll drawn with special oil on your forehead...the sign that says that from today and forever you belong to Jesus.
I know that you understand already that God loves you and that Jesus wants to be your friend and companion on every step of your journey through life...
But today is special – your church birthday, if you like.
Of course you've got a perfectly good family already – but today you get an extra one, just in case...because from now on WE are your family too, as are all the other Christian women, men and children that you'll meet in your lifetime.
We're your family because we belong to Christ's church...and because each one of us should share a family likeness. We too should be the image of our father, God.

And we don't have to wonder or worry about how that might work out.
God has made it easy for us to understand because, though Father God is invisible...Jesus – well, Jesus shows us exactly how God is...
In his paraphrase Bible, The Message, the American theologian Eugene Petersen puts this in a way that I find really helpful.

The Word became flesh and blood,
 and moved into the neighborhood.

As simple as that.
We understand the world through our bodies...so God became flesh and blood.
We live in community, alongside friends and neighbours, so God moved in beside us.
God living among God's creation.
The fulness of God contained in a human body
Sharing everything.
Birth and birthdays.
Joy and sadness.
Life and death.
Embodied
The word became flesh.

And that's still how it works.
Though we don't see Jesus himself walking among us, that's where our role as the “image of God” comes in.
WE are to embody God's love, his grace, truth and generosity.
WE are to become a reconciled and reconciling people, coming home to God and enabling others to do so too.
WE are to so live that we help others to understand what God is like.

Don't for a moment imagine that this role belongs only to the ordained. When a friend of mine was inducted to her new church in the States, she put her ordination certificate – her Holy Orders – up on a wall in her church office. Her PA responded by pinning her baptism certificate proudly to the wall beside it, because, she said “That's my ordination certificate...If priests are ordained to be signs of God at work, well so are all those baptised in his name”.

In other words, the message of today is for Victory as much as for Sacha...for you and me and the lady sitting next to you, even if you don't know her name.
Touched by the Holy Spirit at Baptism, receiving God's life week by week in bread and wine, 
We are God's children – called to live so that everyone who meets us recognises “the image of our Father”.







Saturday, January 03, 2015

Epiphany Evensong at Coventry

Epiphany Evensong at Coventry

Arise, shine -for your light is come!

Welcome words as the darkest days of winter retreat...joyful words as we find ourselves kneeling at the manger once again...
The light is come
The light that shines in the darkness – while the darkness cannot even comprehend it...

And – the dawning of that light means that we too are called to shine.
Not simply to bask in its transforming glow but to SHINE...and to recognise that
The glory of the Lord is risen upon you...” and in that light, the whole world is transformed

That's what an Epiphany does. It helps you see things differently.
Simply put, it's the moment when God is revealed.
It’s that instant of “Aha!” when you can say with confidence that this experience is nothing less than a real live encounter with God – and after that nothing will ever look the same again.
Lift up your eyes and look around”...
This is not the same place that it was before...
These people are more beautiful...
They reflect that light which has dawned...and so do you...
You shall see and be radiant. Your heart shall rejoice!”

Epiphanies change everything.

So- for the wise men, perhaps their epiphany came with the rising of the star…their very own sky-writing, telling them where to go, what to seek. Certainly, they seem to start out on their journey confident that they know where they are heading…all they have to do is to follow their star.
Though I'd guess that the Christmas card scenes that present it as obviously the one and only REAL star in the sky may be distorting the truth slightly...Step outside on a clear night and the sky tells a different story...countless stars...but our
hese travellers looked at the night sky and saw something that others didn’t. What's more, they chose to focus on one light, rather than the surrounding darkness and so set the tone for their journey.
To focus on light rather than darkness is always, in every circumstance, an act of faith – and this season is itself a triumph of faith, a succession of wonders beyond all expectation.

We are invited to marvel at them in the liturgy for the feast itself, and then in the weeks that follow they are unfolded to us, one by one.
The star over the stable – proclaiming Christ's presence to the Magi
Later, the voice at his baptism that proclaimed him God's beloved Son...and this afternoon the demonstration of his ability to transform the ordinary, the workaday, into something amazing, full of joyous celebration.
Wonders that show us, and all humanity, something of the truth of God with us...
A birth story, a baptism and a wedding

I have to say that, as one who has spent a fair bit of time involved in the fine details of wedding arrangements, I find them very nerve-wracking affairs. So much seems to ride on the success of the day, there is such a longing for “perfection”, that honestly it seems impossible that any mortal couple could ever live up to their own hopes and dreams – let alone those of the bride's mother. (Feel free to remind me of this in the summer if I show signs of getting carried away by excitement at my older son's wedding, if you would)
It's bad enough if the clouds gather, or the florist fails – but I would really really hate to be too close if the wine ran out.

But, of course, this is exactly what happens at Cana of Galilee.
A wonderful day of celebration is transformed, not by the radiant light of an epiphany but by the looming clouds of family shame and disappointment.
What a disaster.
Despite the best planning, the many attempts to ensure perfection, a roomfull of guests is faced with the exciting choice of water or water.
Human resources have failed.
But luckily that bride and groom whose names we'll never know had the good sense to invite Jesus to be part of their celebration – and in doing so, had, against all their expectations, brought God directly to their marriage feast.
Lift up your eyes and look around you!
So, at that moment when all they could offer was water, tasting of shame
Jesus intervened and turned it into wine – and not just supermarket plonk but the finest vintage ever tasted.
How did it happen? I can't help with the mechanics of the miracle, and sadly I don't know how to replicate it, but at the most basic level it happened because someone had the sense to ask for help....a useful reminder for all of us. God is waiting, longing to bless us – but too often we try to struggle on, claiming our independence even as we fall flat on our faces again and again.
The God who in Jesus took the ordinary things of life and made them extraordinary is the same God who takes ordinary people – you, me and the lady down the road – and blesses us to be signs of God's kingdom.
We are utterly ordinary, each one of us....nothing to recommend us, nothing to make anyone take a second glance
and yet.........and yet, we can and will be transformed by God, if we can only find the courage to ask God to work with us.
The water that we bring is blessed and transformed into wine..so that we too can be a sacramental sign of God's presence – for that is what the church is called to be.
But the thing is – those servants who poured out the contents of the water jars as directed had NO idea that a wonder was occurring. They had to act first – and one can well imagine how it felt to approach the MC with a cup of – well, they knew that the jar had held water...they'd filled it themselves...
There's something for us to learn here, isn't there.
If we don't actually RISK trusting that God can do amazing things....if we don't attempt the extraordinary for his sake ….then we will never discover what His grace can accomplish.
Yes – even in me. Even in you.
Truly, this is the season of wonders,
Lift up your eyes and look around you” as we continue to celebrate God with us, - in the simple things of everyday, - in men and women, water, bread and wine – not just at Epiphany but every day of every year.




Monday, December 29, 2014

"Sing lullaby" Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Coventry Cathedral, 28th December 2014

I’m must have been about 6 when I first opened my father’s copy of the Oxford Book of Carols and started trying to pick out tunes on the piano…and I hadn’t got very far in the book when I stopped to fall in love, from the first time I heard it, with number 22, the Coventry Carol. That such a beautiful haunting lullaby could have its roots in the violence of the slaughter of the innocents seemed extra-ordinary, and somehow the carol and an early visit here to this Cathedral entwined themselves in my memory so that the ruins of the old Cathedral became, in my imagination, the backdrop for the act of violence and terror which we remember today.

It’s a sudden change of tone, isn’t it...One moment we are celebrating the birth of Our Lord and Saviour and all is golden splendour, angel fanfares and great joy – and then, overnight, the mood changes. Cradle and grave come very close, as we remember those whom the early church called the Companions of Christ, Stephen, first Christian martyr, John the Evangelist – and, today, the Holy Innocents. The light of lights has dawned, but the surrounding darkness is real and oppressive . Christ is born into a world of violence and pain – and though through him all things can find redemption, nonetheless the pain here and now is real, the grief overwhelming.

This year, the Spectator magazine caused some controversy by producing a striking Christmas card that showed the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, Infant – and star – set against the backdrop of a bombed out modern city. Bleak, even desolate, but surely a more honest reflection of the reality of his birth in poverty in an occupied country where mass murder was used as a way to keep order.
Christmas, you see, is complicated – and it’s when we try to oversimplify, to focus on sentimental images of mother and child, that we run the risk of losing sight of its reality. There is a poem that begins “Christmas is really for the children”, going on to explore the discrepancy between the image of Little Jesus, sweetly asleep and the fate that awaits the Son of God outside Jerusalem just 33 years later…but the signs of what is to come are there from the beginning. Christmas is SUPPOSED to be discomforting – what else can you expect when God throws in His lot with humanity, in order to redeem and transform it. It was never going to be a walk in the park.

And so a darker reality unfolds before us. Feeling threatened by some unknown king to come, Herod arrives on stage full of hatred and violence, a pantomime villain intent on real harm. If Christ is the new Adam, we have a new Cain in Herod - who dashes the skulls of the innocents against the rocks of fear and distrust. Evil exists in the world and it will stop at nothing in its attempts to thwart the loving purposes of the God who comes to make his home with us.
It’s hard to deal with, isn’t it?
We’d much prefer to look away, to avoid reminders of the hard truth of human cruelty. For those toddlers in Bethlehem there is no happy ending. What Herod stole cannot be replaced…and the lament of the mothers of Jerusalem echoes through the centuries, joined today by the cries of the mothers of Peshawar and beyond. Not even the sweetest lullaby can mask the truth. These children are dead, not sleeping…
But despite the tragic fragility of life, there is resilience too. The Christ-child survives…I dont mean by this that his survival makes all the pain and bloodshed OK...indeed, his survival might seem to add to the tragic injustice if we didnt know what lay ahead for him too. Theres a carol that plots our journey well
Sing lullaby...lullaby baby now reclining sing lullaby. Angels are watching, stars are shining over the place where he is lying
Sing lullaby...lullaby baby now a sleeping...Soon will come sorrow with the morning, soon will come bitter grief and weeping
Sing lullaby....lullaby baby now a dozing....soon comes the cross the nails the piercing then in the grave at last reposing
He will go through it too. There are no shortcuts. At the foot of the cross His mother will join with her tears with those of the mothers of Bethlehem. Spared in infancy, Jesus nonetheless experiences a bloody death that he deserved no more than those baby boys. His is not a protected,sanitised route through life... That would have been no help at all. Ultimately, of course, his birth, death and resurrection are a triumphant declaration that nothing is ever lost or wasted,
That carol concludes 
Sing lullaby..lullaby is the babe awaking? Hush do not stir the infant king dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning, conquering death, its bondage breaking...
Beyond the darkness there awaits a day break we can scarcely imagine.
But nonetheless its right, I think, that Rachel refuses to be comforted...Looking towards an ultimate restoration doesn't negate the immediacy of grief.
So...what do we do with this remembrance of deep wounds that are recreated too often in the course of human history?
As for me I will hold on to the certainty that all history is God's story, the God who weeps with Rachel even as He holds her little ones in love , the one whose own body is broken, his own blood spilled for us, the one who promises to wipe all tears from our eyes.
My first Christmas as a priest I struggled with the realisation that, having placed the image of the Christ child reverently in the manger at midnight mass, I was then called to break his body at the altar, so that the first violence committed against him was at my hands. But then I looked beyond the moment to the great sweep of redemption history, pondering the miracle of love that places itself, vulnerable, in our hands...so that we might share eternal life. Cradle,cross and grave go side by side...because Christ shares the whole of our experience so that it might be redeemed.
So remember the Holy Innocents of every age, weep for them by all means, for honest lament is a part of all real relationship with God, but do not let the darkness of the world oppress you.
Remember the Holy Innocents are called the Companions of Christ and companions are those who break bread together.... And this is the bread of life,given for all. Let us come to share it.





Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sermon for BBC Coventry & Warwickshire Carol Service, recorded in Coventry Cathedral on Saturday 20th December 2014

What's your favourite Christmas advert?

My Facebook friends seem pretty keen on Magic & Sparkles – though that may just be because they are hoping to win something amazing...

Perhaps you prefer the lonely, love-sick penguin?

Or what about football – and chocolate?

Or you may have another preference altogether – but I can't help wondering what those adverts would say to a random alien, should such a being land in Coventry today and question what all the fuss was about...

 

There are an awful lot of very busy people, clearly getting ready for something – but what – and why, oh WHY?

 

Actually, you know, all those adverts are onto something despite themselves.

I don't mean that Christmas is really all about deciding where to spend our hard-earned cash – of course I don't – but if you pause for a moment to think about the themes of those high-profile adverts, you might just find yourself surprisingly close to the truth

 

Let's start with the famous Christmas truce in the trenches, that moment when the guns were stilled and the sound of that carol we've just sung together floated in the air over No Man's Land. Of course the experience of Christmas 1914 was about so much more than football – or even chocolate...

It was about a moment when peace and reconciliation became a reality, right there on the battlefield...a brief reminder that the baby whose birth this world-wide party celebrates was born to teach us how to live lives of generous humanity, lives in which the “me first” agenda that leads to war is set aside as we put others first and seek the best for everyone.

That brief moment of transformation 100 years ago was, and remains, evidence that the birth of Jesus did make a difference..., though we're distressingly slow at getting the message.

 

We know that the Christmas truce happened during the War to end Wars...but just 21 years after it ended, we were at it again, and though this Cathedral stands as an sign of hope and peace, it is only here because of more pain, more destruction.

The trouble is, we just can't seem to get it right ourselves,

I'm confident that if I asked for a show of hands in favour of peace on earth, there'd be a 100% response here – but it's not our lived reality, try as we might. That baby born in an occupied country without a proper home has much to say to the children of 21st century Palestine whose parents have to negotiate armed checkpoints to get to work...while those grieving mothers whose lament we know as the Coventry Carol share their heart-song with the mothers of Peshawar.

 

It seems we just cannot break the cycle – so we must turn to something a lot more effective than either magic or sparkles – nothing less, in fact, than REAL LOVE

Love – so unshakeable and unbounded that no matter what we say or do, no matter how often or how badly we mess up, love never gives up on us.

 

THAT'S the point – the point of all the celebrations, cards, and candles...try as we might to bury it under piles of presents or disguise it with wrapping paper and tinsel.

At the heart of all we are about in this season of Christmas is a real live baby – a baby who is God in a manger, God throwing His lot in with creation so he can teach us how live and love fully.

We have sung about “Our Lord Emmanuel” - and Emmanuel is the name that sums up  Christmas , for it means. God with us.

God with us in the midst of our mess and muddle, our fear and failure as much as God with us in the joy of a happy family, the excitement of a full Cathedral.

God with us today – in Coventry...in our hearts, and our lives, if we are willing to open them to him.

 

Though more than 2000 years have passed since that night in the stable in Bethlehem, the light that shone there continues to light up the darkness of our world – and we share it whenever we choose the way of Real Love, instead of selfishness, pride and greed, whenever our lives and our actions proclaim “Emmanuel...God with us”

 

You see, Christmas is about a new world here and now...something we can, with God's help, live into as we try to make a difference in our turn by everyday kindness, - the sort of kindness that volunteers at the night shelter, donates to the food-bank, fills a carrier bag with Christmas treats for a refugee family...

God with us – the secret ingredient that transforms as magic and sparkle never can.

 

Sometimes it seems to me that Christmas is a bit of a battle between the views represented by two popular carols. It's your choice which you go with (though of course you can go on singing them both!)

On the one hand, AWAY in a manger puts Jesus at arms length...presents the Christ-child as an unreal baby who never cries and has to be begged to love us...one who is neither really human nor properly divine, but rather a soft-focus creation designed for Christmas cards.

I want of none of that.

In contrast, O Little Town of Bethlehem ends by inviting that child to be born in us – Emmanuel- God with us, touching each of us with that Real Love that changes us from the inside out, so that we too can shine as lights in the darkness.