Sunday, April 04, 2021

 Oh no...not Mark!

In the past, when I’ve had the responsibility for negotiating with the lectionary options for Easter Sunday I’ve always, ALWAYS opted for St John’s account.

For a one thing, I love the drama of Peter and John racing to the tomb and John lacking the courage to actually go in once he gets there…

Turns out speed isn’t everything!

And of course, for all women in ministry, there’s the overwhelming delight of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the her risen Lord in the garden, encouraging us as we celebrate the apostle to the apostles, the one sent  with the good news of resurrection.

With that on offer, why would anyone EVER choose Mark – with its abrupt, disconcerting ending?

“Terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”.

That’s not the big finish that a gospel deserves!

On one level,  the sentence is obviously nonsense.

They said nothing to anyone….If that were so, we wouldn’t know this version of the story at all – so clearly in the fullness of time they found the courage to share their experience, as instructed by the angel. 

Even so,  it’s undeniable that Mark’s ending is not the Happy Ever After that fairy tales would choose. Turns out that's a good thing. This is not fairy tale but gospel truth. ...

All the way through his gospel Mark has tended towards bare facts – his narrative constantly driven forward from one event to the next with no poetic flourishes or philosophical pauses. Even if he had encountered Mary in the garden, Mark’s Jesus would not have given us that majestic promise 

“I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God” and thus joined up the dots not only confirming his identity, but what would happen next….

So, it’s typical that this gospel does not so much conclude as stop.

And that, I think, makes it the perfect gospel for Easter Sunday 2021.

Look around you.

Look into yourself.

We aren’t at the stage of beautiful language and wonderful resonances with Genesis (fall and redemption both in a garden).

Many of us are exhausted.

We are still dealing with ambiguity, anxiety and fear

We long for everything to be tidied up and restored to how it used to be – but the truth is that isn’t going to happen.

People have died

Others have had their lives changed beyond recognition.

Even for those of us who have had a relatively easy pandemic (a bit like having a “good war”) there will be long-term consequences that we’ve not yet really grasped. 

We may find ourselves hiding behind locked doors,afraid to mix and mingle.

We may find it hard to plan anything, in case those plans are thwarted once again

We may have lost our trust in those responsible for organising our society

We may have learned uncomfortable things about ourselves and about our neighbours that we wish we could forget.

When we emerge from our long long Holy Saturday into the light of the post-lockdown world it won’t be all plain sailing and Hallelujahs

Writing in the New York Times on “The Unsettling Power of Easter” Esau McCaulley puts it thus

“Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive. 

We know what to do with grief and despair. We have a place for it. WE have rituals that surround it (though we know, too, how raw the pain has been for those who’ve had to confront grief without those shaping, containing rituals)...

The women did not go to the tomb looking for hope. They were searching for a place to grieve….The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus, with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. 

It would make them look like fools. Who could believe such a thing?”

The women are sent back to the same world that crucified Jesus with the unsettling gift of hope.

We’re living in that world too.

It is by no means unimaginable that we would, that we do, crucify Christ again.

As we look at the dark stories that continue to dominate the news across the world, there can be no doubt of that.

On Good Friday Ben Okafur, black musician and prophet, shared an image of a black Christ crucified, with the words “I can’t breathe”.

You don’t need me to underline the message.

We continue to crucify Christ and sometimes it might well seem easier if he would stay decently dead and buried because then there would be no point in looking for, hoping for, praying for transformation, no hope to take forward.

We could leave the tomb sealed and just get on with a good long lament.

But – think how the women pondered the challenge of that massive stone sealing the tomb – then discovered that God had already done the heavy lifting for them, leaving them with no choice but to engage with the new, unexpected, disturbing landscape of hope.

They learned at first hand what we still experience today.

The Resurrection HAS broken in with all its unsettling power and while we too may be afraid, it’s our turn to respond to it.

We are the fools who encounter that disturbing, demanding good news – and now we are called to embody it, to be good news in our turn.

The world remains broken – and as we emerge from the tombs of lock-down though there will be rejoicing, there will be much that is in sore need of healing.

As we begin to engage with that work, where can we look but to the empty tomb? Christ HAS gone ahead of us into our Galilees, the familiar landscapes of our hurtful, hurting world. If we look, we will see him there, just as he has told us…and when we see him we can join in with his work of reconciliation, look with his eyes of compassion, contend for justice in his name.

The tomb is behind us

Let us set out to live as Easter people, transformed by that wild unsettling glorious hope.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A sword through the soul on Mothering Sunday

25 years ago I preached for the first time in my village church – a few months into Reader training.

It was Mothering Sunday and my vicar had decided that as I, the mum of 3 small children, should take the opportunity for my debut with an engaging, interactive, all-age service.

If I recall correctly, I was geared up to compare and contrast the perfect mothers beloved of the media with real mothers like myself, who got things wrong, got cross, weren’t always on time for school pick-up and didn’t run immaculate homes....the point being that we can none of live up to impossible hype, but scramble through life by the grace of God and the kindness of friends,  and that only God is the perfect parent

Or something like that.

But then, Dunblane happened – and I found myself in a very different world from the cosy celebration of happy families and egg-box daffodils that I might have imagined

 Suddenly mothering was all about fear and pain and deep deep grief

 A sword will pierce your own soul too.

 Oh yes – so many of us would recognise that feeling.

 Every mother who feels they’ve failed to keep their child safe, - even when there is nothing they could possibly have done differently…

The mothers who miscarried the babies for whom they had such hopes, such dreams - I think hope is written in the DNA of all mothers

The mothers spending agonised, anxious hours surrounded by the life-saving but terrifying technology of SCBU, or watching at bedsides in hospice or hospital, hoping beyond hope

The mothers of Aberfan, Dunblane, Sandy Hook, Chibook and so many many more

The mothers whose sons were victims of knife crime - and those who carried the knives

The Argentinian mothers of the disappeared

The mothers who still entrust their children to tiny boats in rough seas in the hope that they will find a better life when they arrive on the far side

The mothers whose children were simply walking home on a quiet night

The mothers whose children have gone off the rails – who are sure it was all their fault

The mothers who have lost touch with their children, who didn’t know how to love them well enough, who don’t understand what went wrong.,,and the children who grew up feeling that they were somehow not good enough, unlovble, unacceptable.

And those who never became parents at all,  whether by choice or by mischance.

Those who feel absolutely alone in life, with nobody to confide in, nobody to delight in joys or share in sorrows

All those who won’t risk coming to worship today because it’s just too painful.

 A sword will pierce your own soul too

Why am I saying all this today?

Surely last week’s thoughts about the way of the cross provided more than enough pain and disquiet for a while…

I’d love to simply preach consolation...but reality keeps forcing its way in.

Because this has been an emotional week in an emotional year for many, probably ALL of us.

Because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t struggled at least a little – probably a lot – as we go through this month of covid anniversaries

Because we need to be honest to God about our feelings…not tidy them up, replace reality with a glossy mask that we think God might prefer.

Because we need to make our churches REAL – places where all feelings can safely be named, where no grief, no disappointment, no anger at self or God is unacceptable

None of us gets through life without a few swords through the soul.

Our wounds may not always seem to be of the same order as Mary’s, but that in no way diminishes their power  to knock us off course and leave us bruised and grieving

So – let’s admit it.

We who love our battered, glorious cathedral should surely be able to manage that!

The inspired choice more than 60 years ago to retain the ruins preserves our wounded reality in broken stone and heat warped iron. It’s a place which understands grief. Torn apart itself, it offers room for those whose lives have been torn apart in different ways.

And beside it, though the new cathedral may appear all triumphant transformation, beneath the overwhelming presence of Christ enthroned in glory, inextricably connected to it is the figure of Christ crucified, drawing the whole world to himself.

And there, unlovely in her grief,  but constant  in her love, is the statue of his mother. 

Mary the representative of all the wounded loving souls who can only stand at the place of suffering and hope that new life may yet begin, even there.

Last night, after I’d finished writing these thoughts I went downstairs to light a candle and place it in the window, knowing that many many others would be doing the same. And then I saw fearful images from Clapham Common and was tempted to despair.

But the candle still burned.

A candle of love and remembrance for Sarah, of course – and for so many other women who never got home safely – but also an act of subversion…a reminder of the extraordinary, ordinary truth that even here, and even now, even as our souls our pierced, this truth remains

Goodness is stronger than evil. 

Love is stronger than hate.

Light is stronger than darkness.

Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours through Him who loved us.







Sunday, March 07, 2021

Strange Way Part 2. What are we pitching for?

By the time I finished delivering the words posted below, I found that another idea was forming. "Strange Way" continued to reverberate around my head, and I could see Jesus and "the Church" (not represented by anyone in particular - just men in suits) meeting in an office somewhere to discuss an advertising pitch.

"You propose to get yourself put on a cross...You're going to DIE...and that's designed to demonstrate to humanity the reality of God's love? It's a strange way for sure" , one of the Church guys said.                                                   "Ridiculous. NOBODY would buy it. Our ideas are so much better.. Your PRODUCT is great. But your pitch? Hopeless"

So they went off in a huddle, and began to draft a plan...a complex plan that involved a comms team, a strategic development fund and a whole heap more besides. There was nothing much wrong with it in itself, everyone involved was dripped with the same genuine desire to maximise sales of the "product"...but somehow, things didn't quite stack up as they'd hoped. It wasn't always that easy to see what the plan was actually FOR.

The picture blurred, vanished for a moment and then clarity returned.

The same protagonists,  sitting around an office table, but now the roles have been reversed.The Christian Church plc is pitching to Jesus, offering its marketing strategy and the whole suite of supporting products. And Jesus is nodding, smiling, gently affirming the time and energy they've put into their pitch.

"I can see what you're trying to do - but how does all that growth agenda, that emphasis your strange definitions of success, actually point to the PRODUCT? We are all about self-giving love, right?                                                                And your focus is more, bigger, better churches.                                                  I mean, I love the idea of communities gathering to learn together and practice that love. That's inspired.I know how hard it is for humanity to really grasp it on their own.  I'm just not sure that they're going to understand the self-emptying bit if you keep on trying to make those churches you're so keen on bigger.          It looks as if you actually believe that more is better.                                          I mean, I know that's not what you are really saying - but it's so easy for core messaging to get lost if you're not careful. If I were you, I'd just draw a line under all that...I know it represents a LOT of work for many people - and I do appreciate that, and the sincerity of their approach - but it wasn't what I was expecting, honestly. I don't think it's the right place to start..."

Of course, the pictures are only in my head...and we AREN'T at the start. I'm pretty certain, though, that the dialogue, were it to take place, would run rather along those lines. From a human perspective, the way of the cross is emphatically NOT where we'd start. And, when we look at the Church, its hard not to imagine Jesus saying quietly "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here. I didn't, you see".

But we ARE where we are - with all those layers of loving,  well-meaning complexity, and a whole heap of other stuff, some of which feels anything but loving..And because the institution is what it is, there's no way out which won't hurt many people...

It's a huge dilemma - and I'm uncomfortable to even find myself articulating it, as a paid-up beneficiary of the system as it is, and most especially as I have absolutely no solution to offer. But the better part of me, the part that is fired up during Advent by the Kingdom prophecies and wants to stand on tip-toe to see the world of the Magnificat breaking in, longs so deeply for the Church to be famous for the way in which it lives out self-giving love, no matter what that might cost.

As to whether I'd have the courage to to go there, who knows. As Martyn says, it's a strange way...

Strange Way - thoughts for Lent 3 2021

 It’s quite hard going, this Scriptural journey through Lent, isn’t it!                      Last week we were being encouraged to lose our lives to gain them. This week we have the surpassing folly of the cross.                                                                Whoever would have planned a religion around the public humiliation and execution of its founder? Whatever was God thinking of, to invite us on this journey? On this strange way? Did he really think we’d manage to join in? He knew how it was going to pan out...and yet this was the way he chose...It’s complete madness – not just the journey itself but the hope, the belief that it was a route we would have the courage to follow.

You see– it’s the kind of madness that we, even knowing how the story ends, are unaccountably reluctant to buy into. We SAY we will. We even think we mean it.    All those babies whose foreheads I’ve signed with the cross – their egos crossed out by God’s love. All that drowning of self in the waters of Baptism.                    We WANT to be willing to go there but...really, it’s not wise is it?

As Martyn Joseph puts it in the song "Strange Way" that reflects on this “The world is too much with us”

We can’t really let go of the idea that this is all folly. Not wise at all.

Welcome to the strange strange way of the cross.

In Jerusalem, it has been tamed totally, the Via Dolorosa beautifully sign posted, with as many places to pray marked out as there are souvenir shops to sell you the aids to prayer. Even in January, 2 years ago, it was crowded with pilgrims, trying to make Christ’s story their own by following in his literal footsteps…They were sincere, we were sincere...We wanted to walk with him – we WANT to walk with him…but it remains so very difficult.

Strange way...

I wonder, really, how the institutional Church could ever find the courage to embrace it. Institutions aren’t supposed to take risks or be vulnerable.                Benevolent institutions, like the Church, are supposed to be safe places yet maybe we, the Church, have just got too tangled up in commitments and expectations. We have people (like me) who depend on it for a roof over the head and food on the table, who rely on the survival of the many and complex layers of church life. That life includes so much that is good, so much that points towards God’s beauty and God’s truth...but it is hampered, too, by so much else besides.And now, thanks to Constantine, thanks to centuries of history, thanks to establishment and so many more twists and turns, we have entirely necessary management structures and strategic development plans and a focus on mission and growth – because that’s what any large organisation needs if it’s to thrive and flourish.

And none of that is BAD in itself...In fact it is eminently sensible. Wisdom that the Greeks would surely applaud. And though our sanctuaries may sometimes be a little crowded with traders doing business, we are certain they’re not there to cheat anyone...careful to ensure that there’s no illicit insider dealing that disadvantages those who can ill-afford to engage.

We’re doing our best in human terms – really we are. 

But – I’m worried that isn’t enough. We PREACH Christ crucified – but we don’t live as if that is our calling too.  I'm conscious of the colossal irony of my saying this, in my comfortable home, surrounded by things that I have gathered, knowing that income and even pension are reasonably secure. I'm not saying that as one standing outside the organisation, but as one well and truly bound up in it, in all its layers of well-intentioned trammelling. But I'm disquieted. Thoroughly disquieted. I think we've wandered off course. The very body that exists to model Christ’s self giving love seems, instead, to have created a complex structure to protect the world from the utter dereliction of the man on the cross and his cry “Eloi, eloi, lamma sabacthani”

Instead of taking the wild, heaven-sent risk of choosing life in all its fulness, we feel safer opting for the lesser good of comfortable words for now and the everlasting arms for later. And, of course, the truth is that those everlasting arms will hold us secure no matter what…We can rely on that. Jesus felt himself forsaken by God, but in making that journey he ensured that we would never have to face equal abandonment...because even in our darkest, most dreadful places, he walks before us.

So – we are protected even from our own urge to self-protection, because God loves us too much to allow our cowardice to separate us from him.

But nonetheless – we are less than we could be – the CHURCH is less than it could be – when we opt for what makes sense in human terms. God’s economy is not the same as the Chancellor’s – his investment in us is all reckless, profligate love with no guarantee of a safe return on the investment

This is not an economy of scarcity but one of ABUNDANCE.

Imagine if we dared to live in ways that spoke of that. To give and keep on giving. To sit light to everything but love.                                                                      We might not feel secure all the time.                                                                We might not walk well-trodden paths, surrounded by cheering bystanders.          We might have to give up things that seemed important to us.                            I think that’s what the way of the cross means, for most of us.

It’s about letting go of everything except that knowledge that we are wonderfully, non-negotiably loved by God and living that difference in everything.

Yesterday I was privileged to attend one of the most wonderful, joy-filled funerals I’ve ever been part of.  Bex Lewis was a remarkable woman, a pioneer in Christian social media who had a genius for networking, and a yet greater genius for encouraging, building up, inspiring others. She was just 45 when the double-whammy of stage 4 breast cancer and covid claimed her exhausted, battered body, and the night of her death the hashtag #bemorebex was trending on twitter…

Her good friend, the writer, speaker and all-round encourager Andrew Graystone and his wife had bubbled with Bex during these challenging months of illness, - which were never, somehow about loss or decline, but simply about another hasthtag #busylivingwith mets. In his glorious, hopefilled address Andrew said

" to be more Bex? Embrace the life in all its fullness that Jesus offers. Fill every ounce of your flesh and blood with adventure and generosity just as Bex did. But realise that real life is not limited to space and time. There is a life that goes way beyond atoms, beyond digits, beyond days....beyond death itself. It's measured in love given and received." 

It’s undeniable that Bex walked the way of the cross in her experience of cancer. It’s also undeniable that she remained vibrant, full of love and life and hope, right through to the end. Her faith was a constant – though she was never annoying pious...this was no Victorian heroine going gently into that Goodnight. She lived until she died – and now, with God, she lives for eternity.

No – she wasn’t a saint – at least not one of those pale, emaciated beings who look so utterly removed from our reality. She was nothing if not real - and so full of warmth and humanity, but she was also wise enough to grasp that God’s foolishness is always wiser, his weakness stronger than anything we could manage ourselves...and she found in her journey that the way of the cross really was, and is, and ever shall be the way of life and peace.

It’s a strange way right enough – but it’s the way Jesus invites us to travel. May he give each one of us the vision and courage, the faith and the grace to take that route and to follow it all the way home.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Life in all its fulness . Thank you Bex.

I've just "attended" the most amazing funeral - an absolutely joy-filled, hope-filled celebration of a remarkable life. Bex Lewis was loved by so many, because she made the most warm, generous, open gift of herself to everyone whom she encountered. I was one of 370 joining online, friends whom she had scooped up, encouraged, inspired in so many corners of the world. We were blessed to know her, to laugh with her, learn from her - in my case a friendship sustained almost entirely online, with a few forays in to face to face, generally focussed on Greenbelt. As I watched the service on YouTube this afternoon I was struck by how many many online friends and acquaintances were connected to Bex without my realising. There were few corners of the Christian digital world that she hadn't explored and often shaped for the better. She was a pioneer in so many ways - particularly in all things digital. Google Bex Lewis and you'll see what I mean. But over the last year, as she has been #busylivingwithmets, she has been a pioneer of a different kind, one of the first of my peers to walk calmly, faithfully, honestly towards death, "Bexit" as she called it in her conversations with Andrew Graystone It was hard to watch as things got harder for her - but she kept on talking us through her experiences, her reflections, - open about the grim days, gloriously positive on the better ones, though never with false hope. We all knew that stage 4 mets don't reverse, but imagined we would have a bit more time. 
Covid was the rogue card in the pack for her, as for so many other - and that makes me sad and angry too. 
Death IS an outrage. How dare it cut off so much that is good and beautiful and true!

But there's a different perspective, of course. 

It was good to hear Andrew remind us, mong so many other well-chosen words, that all of "this" - cancer, and suffering, and endings, and death, - is NOT part of God's plan... And his words about how to #BeMoreBex will stay with us for a very long time "Embrace the life in all its fullness that Jesus offers. Fill every ounce of your flesh and blood with adventure and generosity just as Bex did. But realise that real life is not limited to space and time. There is a life that goes way beyond atoms, beyond digits, beyond days....beyond death itself. It's measured in love given and received." 

Oh - and afterwards, a few of us met up on FB to exchange verbal hugs and help one another regain our balance. We'd met in that space, in that group, with Bex before - and the friend who launched the call got the FB message "Bex is busy". 
Oh, she WILL busy...being loved and giving love, and shining that luminous smile of hers at the One whose love formed her from the beginning and who now welcomes her most joyously home.

Thank you Bex. You made such a difference.

 Epitaph by Merrit Malloy 

When I die, give what’s left of me away 
To children and old people who wait to die. 
If you need to cry, 
Cry for your brother and sister 
Walking the street beside you. 
And when you need me, 
Put your arms around anyone and 
Give them what you need to give to me. 

I want to leave you something, 
Something better than words or sounds. 
 Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved. 
If you cannot give me away, 
At least let me live in your eyes, 
And not in your mind. 

You can love me most 
By letting hands touch hands, 
And by letting go of Spirits who need to be free. 
 Love does not die, bodies do. 
So, when all that’s left of me is love, 
Give me away.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

2 weeks into Lent now. How's it going for you? Are you resolute in spurning chocolate, biscuits and alcohol or already exhausted?. Perhaps this year you feel you’ve already given up more than enough and any more deprivation will have a decidedly negative impact. That’s a perfectly reasonable view. It’s interesting, though, how the idea of “giving things up for Lent” seems to have survived in our emphatically post Christian society. I guess for many it's just another chance to have a go at those self improvement measures that foundered back January but if that’s so, then I think we're a bit off course...and our gospel would seem to support me. 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. Peter, in a new self appointed role as Jesus's PR man, already suspects that his Master might be more than just an extraordinary teacher...indeed he has just reached a milestone at Caeserea Philippines, declaring when pressed "You are the Messiah But by their nature Messiah were supposed to triumph. It's kind of the small wonder that Peter does not want to pursue this line of suffering, death and resurrection. 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. And that’s supposed to be “GOOD news”?! You can't blame Peter if he put his head in his hands and groaned! I can't think of a message less calculated to win friends and influence people but Jesus just doesn't seem to care. Did you imagine this as part of the deal for you, personally, this morning?It looks very much as if Jesus is set on putting most of us off before we even start our Christian journeys. You can’t say we haven’t been warned. If you've been baptised, you will have had the cross traced on your forehead. I often tell parents that it’s an invisible name-tape, asserting “This child belongs to Jesus” - but it’s also, less consolingly,an invisible reminder of the shape our lives should take as baptized members of God’s church. The “I” of ego crossed out by God’s transforming love. As a priest it was hard for me, this year, to be unable to revisit that microcosm of death and hope that is represented by the Ash Wednesday liturgy, in that moment when we trace the cross on faithful foreheads, to mark a staging post on the journey that began, and will end, in the same way. Can I invite you right now to take a few seconds to remind yourself that you bear this mark..Trace that shape. That’s your commissioning badge, the cross on your forehead... “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. We carry a cross, you and I, as a constant reminder that discipleship is absolutely Not for the faint-hearted. Jesus expands this “Let them deny themselves” Words that are anathema in our age of self fulfillment and individualism, where self-care can sometimes too easily slip into self-indulgence...and it’s still not just about chocolate. 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 unrestrained 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.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life That’s the stuff of tragedy, of course. A few years ago I had tickets to the RSC for “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 in his scientific achievements, 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 before our very eyes – 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 or engaging with our faith. 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. It’s particularly tough this year, as we have had so much taken away already and we have been made conscious, in some cases for the first time, of what it means to live with a real knowledge of our own mortality. It has been both natural and necessary, I think, to cut ourselves some slack.. We’ve carried a whole stack of unexpected additional crosses – loneliness, financial insecurity, fear for our loved ones and for ourselves – through a landscape in which it has been uniquely hard for us to support each other So – being kind to ourselves has mattered. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. The great commandment to love carries within it that reminder that we DO need to love ourselves...but there’s a world of difference between loving ourselves in ways that enable our flourishing and abandoning all restraint in a “me first” agenda that blights the lives of others. We’ve seen that kind of rampant egotism at work on the world stage of late... but we may well recognise less obtrusive versions of it within ourselves... habits of settled selfishness that we don’t even think to question. Now is the time to root them out… Lent is about so much more than 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. On the cross he will become a parable, losing his own life to gain it for all time and for all people, transforming life, death and eternity.. But the point about a parable is that it shows us truth so that we can live it. In other words, this is where we come in. We will all have our own unique burdens – made out of the stuff of our own lives and experience... Of failure at work or loneliness at home; of a difficult relationship, a sick relative, a deep bereavement...things we might well prefer to jettison, but find ourselves carrying day by day. Your cross will be quite unlike mine. If we looked at them side by side, one might look easier, more easy to manage – or the reverse. We don’t get to choose, anyway. Your cross is yours, mine my own. We can’t carry one another’s crosses, though we might perhaps walk side by side, and encourage each other along the way. While I may long to, I can’t take the weight under which you stagger...- but Jesus can and Jesus does, if only you’ll let him. As we hesitantly kneel to shoulder the weight, Jesus steps in and carries it for us....the fear and sadness, disappointment, anger, doubt, and denial....the pressing weight of broken humanity. He carries it, step by painful step, setting his face towards Jerusalem and the long, slow journey to the cross... But –there’s an invitation. We can choose to carry it learn to be Christ-like by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory. He knows this road so well, invites us on this arduous journey of discipleship because he knows that the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter. 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... It’s true that for now we are still struggling, longing to hug our dear ones, wondering if our jobs will survive, uncertain what will happen in our own unfinished stories, unsure if it will all come out right one day, We long for reassurance that it WILL be alright, are desperate to press on to the happy ending – to the lifting of lockdown, to loving reunions, to the new life of Easter transforming the world. But let’s pause and reflect, as we each settle the weight of our own particular cross more comfortably on our shoulders., because here and now, in our struggles and uncertainties, GOD IS WITH US, And yes - Easter is coming, nothing can stop it and through the weary miles ahead we will never travel alone.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I only see you when you smile - a sermon for Racial Justice Sunday, next before Lent Yr B 2021 at Coventry Cathedral

How’s your eyesight? Have you found that a year of live lived mostly through a computer screen has taken its toll? Can you see as well as you did, or is it time for an eye test? Clear vision is a gift which we shouldn’t take for granted. Today’s gospel relies on it, as we hear again Mark’s account of the Transfiguration. We hear of Jesus and his three best mates going up the mountain – and then, an amazing experience. “He was transfigured before them”…transformed in front of their eyes. I say “transformed” – but in fact, nothing about his reality had changed at all. His appearance, though, was altered enough for that reality to show through – and that experience changed forever the disciples’ perception of their Lord’s identity. He wasn’t different. They were. The American author Madeleine l’Engle put it this way in her wonderful book The Irrational Season "Suddenly they saw him the way he was; the way he really was all the time, although they had never seen it before, the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible. This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. This is the way he was - is - from the beginning and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself, came manifest to us; and there on the mountain, they saw him; they really saw him, saw his light. Now, perhaps, we will see each other, too. Now, perhaps, we will see each other, too. Hold onto that idea. For the disciples that day, it just took a shift in perspective to see the truth. Like Peter, most of us would like to stay on the mountaintop – in that wondrous space, far from the trials of reality – where the air is clear and we can see the truth of God in all its beauty…but that’s not an option for us, any more than it was for him. The disciples had to follow Jesus down into the valley – and to hold on to that new vision, that fresh understanding of his nature through the heartbreak of Holy Week that lay just around the corner. They had seen the truth and then they had to share it – even when it endangered them. God’s truth still needs sharing – and on this Racial Justice Sunday, it may not be a comfortable process. It’s strking that our gospel today celebrates whiteness; connecting whiteness with holiness. “His clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them”. Miraculous, shining, splendid…repeatedly the Bible presents whiteness as something wonderful. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow…. Conversely, the word ‘black’ often carries more negative associations…reinforced in translation Dark skies become black skies, a portent of bad things. If you fancy it, have a look at the 18 times the word “black” appears in the Bible. You will find that it is rarely a term of approbation. “Let light shine out of darkness” says Paul…setting the two in opposition in a way that has, like it or not, shaped our collective psyche. That which is white is good, normative – the black, deviant, discomforting… Just think for a moment… He’s my white knight We live in dark times, It’s a black day for the nation … You get the picture. Black and white set in opposition to one another. It’s really not surprising that prejudice and xenophobia abound… Not surprising – but not what God intended. Let’s fast forward for a moment to Revelation, and the vision of those gathered before the throne of God ‘from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,’ THIS is how the Church, the Body of Christ, should be –living God’s future now, reconciled and reconciling… To be honest, I think we have a bit of a way to go., Here at the Cathedral there’s much to help us on the way… Our calling articulated clearly in the CCN principles: Healing the wounds of history Learning to Live with difference and celebrate diversity Building a culture of peace. We would do well to attend to them today. Remember Madeleine L’Engle? “Now, perhaps, we will see each other too” We cannot celebrate diversity if we don’t actually SEE it… Over the past weeks and months, since the death of George Floyd and the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement, a group of us at the cathedral have been trying to educate ourselves, learning to recognise just how far from level the playing field of UK society really is for people of colour, trying to face up to our own unconscious prejudices and those which scar the face of the Church as well. We’ve been helped in our explorations by a book “Ghost Ship” by the black Anglican priest Azariah France-Williams, whose narrative is disturbing but illuminating. One passage has stayed with me, a description of the writer and two cousins at a church bonfire party. When the evening ended and it was time to board the coach home, the white youth leader couldn’t find the boys, though they were only a few feet away from him “We stepped forward into the light of the fire and he laughingly said “Because you are black and it’s dark, you lot are invisible unless you keep smiling. We all laughed and boarded the bus – this was a very familiar comment to me “Unless you smile, we cannot see you”. The book has helped us to see a little more. We have learned that to be colour-blind is not a virtue: in denying someone’s colour, you cut them off from their culture and refuse to see them as they really are..That’s no way to celebrate diversity. We have learned just how deeply implicated the Church of England is the slave trade – and discovered with horror that it was only in 2015 that UK tax payers finally paid off compensation to the slave masters inconvenienced when slavery was abolished in here in 1833. That’s a deep deep wound in history that we have preferred to gloss over…never the best way to achieve healing. We have realised, too, that the dominant voices of the Church of England, even in a diverse city like ours, tend to be white…and that the institution is still a hard place for people of colour to flourish. We have recognised the truth that we still see them best when they smile – when they fit in with our rules without making waves, when they conform to our ways…. . We have tried to see things – and to see ourselves and others, as we really are. And having seen, we have work to do. We have to BE the Church, you and me. We are called to go up the mountain, to stand in the fog and listen to strange, unfamiliar voices, saying things beyond our comprehension, sharing hard truths, teaching us to see. That may well be uncomfortable…but as God’s people we must risk being disorientated, being thrown into confusion, in order to be able to clarify our calling. In the turmoil of the pandemic, in this disorientation, in the rawness of truths exposed, we encounter injustice in our country and in the Church – in our past and in our present too. And once we have seen things as they are – we cannot keep silent. Our world has been bruised and battered in this past year. The pandemic, the climate emergency, black lives matter. Nothing will be helped if we try to hide the truths we have discovered. We must set aside our old certainties and risk our comforts to join God on that mountaintop, where truth is revealed…and where God speaks to each one of us “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Listen - and follow. Remember. Reconciliation is never a matter of burying uncomfortable realities. If it had been, we would probably have swept away the ruins, rebuilt as if the blitz had never been – but we know that’s not an option. We are called to honesty – to challenge injustice, prejudice and falsehood wherever we see them. To speak against systems which exclude, enslave and keep people down. Like Jesus, we need to spend time with the marginalised, learning from them, hearing their stories, learning to see them, whether they smile or not. Humankind cannot, we are told, bear too much reality – but if we run from it, we will lose the opportunity to look on the face of Christ, his likeness revealed in each of his children. Today, let’s ask for the courage to really see.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Address for Welcome to Sunday, on Green Communion Sunday 2021

Where have you seen God this week? I hope its not been one of those grim periods when God seens intent on hiding. I know it can be hard to keep on with faith when some of the regular practises of worship that have sustained us through a lifetime are currently not available to us, and we may well be exhausted by our heartfelt collective prayer Please God, make it stop, But nonetheless, let's take the fact that you've made it to Dining Room Church as a hopeful sign, on the strength of which I will dare to repeat the question... Where have you seen God this week? For me, throughout this whole season of struggle, sadness and stubborn hope, I've seen God more in creation than anywhere else at all. Last spring, when the threat of the virus was very new and real, I took comfort from the life force bubbling over in that most exuberant of springs. Watching nature renew itself in such beautiful profusion somehow comforted me as I considered my own mortality. For a while I really knew, in heart as well as head, that beyond my life and death, birds would still sing, buds open, lambs be born...and that somehow made my own sense of vulnerability easier to bear. I found myself singing Great is thy faithfulness around house and garden Summer and winter and seed time and harvest... and that did indeed help me to ask for and receive Strength for the day and bright hope for the morrow... God spoke to me and his message of love stilled my soul And this week as I saw snowdrops, catkins and even a cowslip begin to speak of spring, once again God met me in creation with the good news I needed. The Celts used to talk about the little book - that was the Bible - and the great book - that was creation, and they read God in both. The instinct to worship in response to the beauty and mystery of the universe is as old as the human story itself. The Psalm we read just now is a reminder that for thousands of years, people have looked at the world around them, and seen God as creator of heaven and earth, of the sea and all that is in them. The passionate outpouring of the Psalmist, in this, and in so many of the psalms, is a song of praise to God the Creator which echoes down the centuries and still resonates today. But even here we are reminded that all life is finite, that we are not rulers of our own destiny When you take away their breath they die and return to the earth. This past year has bought that home to us again and again. We had thought, for a while, we were unassailable, masters of the universe....only to find ourselves brought low by something too small to see with tbe naked eye...The very triumphs of human science and engineering that enable us to travel all around the world and experience it's winders, nonetheless also enabled a tiny virus to travel around too, wreaking dreadful havoc. We are clever, yes...but we are not in control. We too have limits. When all is said and done, full of potential as we are, we are created, not creator. Kathy Galloway once leader of of the Iona Community writes It’s a timely reminder, because as a species, we have not been very good at recognising our limitations with regard to creation, to the earth we inhabit, and share with other species and life-forms. It is one of the most painful lessons of adulthood, realizing how little we really know, and how much less we can command. The struggle to impose our will on everything around us, including the earth, causes grave damage to the environment, to other people and to ourselves. The need to get our own way, especially with regard to energy over-consumption, is really something that belongs to the ‘terrible two’ stage of infant development. Our tendency to assume that the universe is at our disposal, that it has no intrinsic worth other than its usefulness to the human species has made us dangerously, even criminally careless. I've just begun watching Sir David Attenborough latest series The Perfect Planet. As always, it is stunning in its beauty, but his message is stark. Our planet sustains life, is, as far as we know, the one perfect planet in all our galaxy because everything is held in balance. But humankind has gone all out to upset that balance. We have over reached ourselves again and again, and now, as ice caps melt, islands are covered by rising tides and species become extinct forever, we face the probability of a dreadful reckoning. The climate emergency may be the greatest act of human defiance ever. If we believe that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it, if we seek and find comfort in our frailty as we treasure the rhythms of the seasons, then we need to be prepared to change. I've needed to hear God's voice speaking in creation. Don't let's drown him out with our toddler cries of "me, me, me"...but set aside the greed that destroys the work of human hands and lays waste the earth. Are you with me? It really is time for a change...