Saturday, April 25, 2009

Oh God, why? a sermon for Easter 3 on the hill

I’d planned this week carefully.
Knowing I had the Gift Day at St M’s to occupy me all day yesterday, I’d arranged for Mary to preach at both churches today.
I would just turn up and preside and everything would be just fine…After all, last week looked set to be a busy one, with all the admin that had been put on hold during Holy Week & Easter, and had then waited while I took a week off. Today would be a good day NOT to preach.
But then, Tuesday happened…one of those occasions when even the most devout soul is left scratching their heads and wondering how, if God is real, such awful things could happen.
There is no possible way in which it is right and just that a lady of almost 100 should have to stand by and watch her much loved brother being worked on by paramedics as he lies in the aisle at their sister’s funeral…..nothing that can make it OK for a family already mourning the loss of a much loved mother/grandmother to have her service derailed by another death…
That sort of injustice is a perennial feature of life – but it’s possibly easier to close our minds to it as long as it affects people a long way away, - victims or famines, earthquakes, conflicts that touch us only by way of our tv screens.
It’s when it comes close to home – our village, our family, our selves, that the questions are too huge, too loud to ignore.

Yet we’re here in the Easter season, when we proclaim as confidently as we can the reality that Christ is victorious, that death has no sting, that all things work for good for those who love God.
And we know it doesn’t add up.
All that pain, all that brokenness and an omnipotent, benevolent God.
It just doesn’t work.
So, assuming we are still speaking to God at all (and it’s a pretty fair assumption that at least some of us will not be) we divert all our confusion, all our sadness, all our anger into one great cry
“Oh God, WHY?”
and there is, it appears, no answer.
Just the great, cold silence
And in that silence we have to confront the unthinkable question
“Do we really believe what we profess, week by week?
Are the words we cling to an expression of the deepest truth or, quite simply, codswallop?”

And of course, the rational answer is that there IS no answer.
We cannot produce a coherent proof that God’s in his heaven, all right with the world, because we’re not dealing with provable certainties.
In the Easter world of this morning’s gospel, the risen Christ moved among his disciples and reassured them of his presence by sharing in that most prosaic of meals, a piece of broiled fish….
But we’re among those of whom he spoke last week as he reminded Thomas
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”
We eat our fish alone – and sometimes that seems both cold and lonely.
So what do we do?
It seems to me we have 2 alternatives…Either we can dismiss all that we profess to believe, and give way to a desperate cynicism that accords very well with the spirit of the age or we can opt for faith, knowing that we won’t ever have the concrete assurances we may long for.
And it’s not easy.
Christ himself struggled, as the weight of doubt and dereliction bore down on him in Gethsemane, burdened him intolerably on the cross…
And he found the language to express those feelings in the psalms of lament which, for millennia, have allowed people to express the inexpressible, to contain pain that would otherwise overwhelm and destroy them.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” he cried
knowing that the psalm that began thus moved from agonised abandonment to resolution.
That’s important, but what is significant above all is that he kept on talking
Though he felt himself to be forsaken, he carried on as if God were still there, within easy ear-shot.
He never gave up on the relationship but continued to voice all that was on his heart, even in the face of God’s apparent absence and oblivion.
It is the experience that framed psalm 22 and the other psalms of lamentation, which also made it possible for faith to survive even the nightmare of the holocaust. When a council of rabbis met in the late 1940s to determine whether God or man should be blamed for the death of 6 million Jews the discussion was anguished and prolonged. Finally, after many hours of talking, it was agreed that the fault lay with God…a profound silence fell in the room. Minutes passed, until one elderly rabbi went over to the window and drew back the curtain. Outside was the pale light of dawn, and the rabbi turned back to his colleagues
“It’s sunrise” he said “It’s time to worship God.”
Those rabbis had ample evidence to condemn God, but also the remembered, treasured experience that encouraged them to forgive him.
For us, if faith is a matter of intellectual conviction rather than heart knowledge, it will always be harder…Christ knew this. That’s why he gave his disciples such ample proof that he remained very much part of their material world, a world of wounded hands and side, of broiled fish, and bread and wine.
We can’t have that same direct experience, though as we gather to share bread and wine in His name we may feel that he truly touches and transforms us.
Intellectually, we will probably be doomed to fail in any attempts to justify God
Emotionally – this God who cried out in desparation as he hung on the cross surely has something to say to us in our sadness, our fear, our brokenness.
We want to believe that we are in control, that nothing can touch us; we invite God to bless our comfortable lives, and then keep out of our way - but then life slaps us in the face and everything looks very different.
Suddenly we need God in a way we had never envisaged...but we're not sure he can help us, if he's hanging on the cross.

BUT the God who hung on the cross is the same God that rose, the God who floods the world with Easter hope, the God who makes all things new. .So when we witness disasters or all the news is bad or when the people we love die before our eyes...we have the choice, to be transformed by Christ’s risen life or to remain forever in the shadows.
We don’t know, we can’t know while we peer through a glass darkly…but we can hope and believe and so live our lives that they show to others the transforming power of those beliefs.
Almighty Father, who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples
With the sight of the risen Lord
Give us such knowledge of his presence with us
That we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life
And serve you continually in righteousness and truth…….

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What shall I do to-day?

Currently a tad tearful as LongsufferingClockMaker has just taken Hugger Steward properly back to Cambridge, where he will stay til late June...Hattie Gandhi was only here for a flying Easter visit, as she is up to her elbows in dissertations & final essays, & the Dufflepud is away too, preparing for his summer trip to Africa.
But I don't want to waste the day. The question is - how to spend it?

I have 48 hours of holiday left & would normally rejoice in the prospect of a good long dog walk or a few hours working in the garden. Frustratingly, neither of these options is open to me. I can't manage 2 dogs on leads with only 1 reliable arm, & all the off-lead walks round here involve at least a short drive first...while the garden is so far from even existing as yet that there is nothing I can do without a few hours of solid digging & a trip to the garden centre too.
I'm reluctant to simply use the day to clear remaining debris from the study & feel the need to do more than sit read.
Any bright ideas for a project suitable for a one-armed extrovert with empty nest syndrome?
I'd really love to do something positive with the day.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Time for some good books.

Back in January I recall making some rather extravagant promises relating to my distressing tendency to buy books by the hundred and read them only by the dozen.
To my shame I must report that not one of the waiting "work" books has yet been read - perhaps sorting them into some sort of sensible order would be a useful task for the week. However, once the drug-induced dappyness of early days with The Arm had passed, I did rather better in the "just for fun" category, enjoying all the Phil Rickmans I had amassed, plus a clutch of mindless who-dunnits and, at long last, Gilead (which the puppy are as soon as I'd finished it!).
There was also The Shack, of course - though I remain ambivalent about this, at least it was a very quick read!
I loved Alexander Frater's tale of India "Chasing the Monsoon". which is every bit as exciting in its portraits of people along the way as evocative of the great weather system Frater sets out to follow, but I was much less excited by Jasmine & Arnica
I wanted rather more of India and (heartlessly, I know) less of the author's own struggles to work out her new identity as a blind woman. I really wanted to love this book - such mad courage travelling India as a blind white woman alone - but I couldn't get past the character of the author.

The great excitement, though, has been Michael Arditti's Easter.
I began it as Passiontide approached and finished it, exhausted but delighted, just before Palm Sunday...It contains some of the best writing I've encountered in a modern novel, and its setting in an Anglo-Catholic parish in North London was always going to please me...but it challenged too. The vicar who wonders if liturgy has become, for him, a substitute for faith, the gay curate who confronts the an HIV positive diagnosis at the beginning of a turbulent Holy Week, and the beautifully drawn cast that journeys with them through the week present a re-worked passion narrative, complete, praise be, with both death and resurrection. There are some disturbingly graphic accounts of gay sex on Hampstead Heath, which made for very uncomfortable reading (it was the clarity of writing and not the gay context I struggled with) so that, having initially recommended the book to my clergy reading group I lost my nerve and back pedalled wildly, but despite this it's a wonderful read, if not for the faint-hearted.

Having barely opened anything but Common Worship and the NRSV last week, I'm now back in India with Shantaram. Love it so far, with its vivid writing about Bombay, warts and's a huge book, but this week is holiday. I'll try to keep you posted.

Monday, April 13, 2009

looking back

This having been my first Easter as a proper grown up priest with 2 parishes to call my own, a spot of reviewing of the past week's manic activity seems called for.
Overall it has been wonderful & 2 particular struggles (the need for new orders of service for practically everything & the struggles of producing them via one handed typing & the general challenges of the arm) should, please God, be unique to this year.

Highs included
  • the opportunity to be creative with the worship offered from Monday to Wednesday & the pleasure with which this was received...I now feel able to plan a monthly creative happening of some kind. Small numbers wont matter but knowing that there are half a dozen others who would be glad to see something develop is a huge encouragement & putting this sort of thing together feeds my soul too.
  • the lovely intimacy of a congregation small enough to gather around the table on Maundy Thursday & a largely similar group around the fire and the font on Holy Saturday night;
  • kneeling with my colleagues before the cross on Good Friday;
  • the recording of the Wesley psalm 22 that the Dufflepud found & played as we stripped the altars - not the same as having St M's choir to sing for us, but a very acceptable substitute all the same. Using recorded music to enhance atmosphere went very well sltogether & emboldens me to try more too.
  • singing the Exultet in the dark church - there's such a feeling of history combined with freshness: on one hand, I'm very aware that I'm using words & chant that go back to the eighth century, and I'm conscious of all those who have stood and sung as I now stand and sing - but at the same time it feels as if I am proclaiming the resurrection for the first time ever...I realise that makes no sense at all, but is truly my experience
  • seeing a mini egg clutched in an elderly lady's hand as she came up to Communion (on arrival at the All Age Communion yesterday everyone was given a glass pebble; in the prayersthey were asked to use these to represent all the stones that are rolled across to cut us off from sharing Christ's risen life & invited to leave them at the Easter garden, in exchange for an egg - sounds a bit tacky but went down so so well).
  • really good congregations at both churches (though church in the valley is big enough to demand unrealistic numbers before it feels full, most of those who were with us on Palm Sunday returned to share the Easter joy; tiny church on the hill was crammed - and I ran out of eggs)
  • Another high (for which I had no responsibility whatsoever) was the Chrism Mass on Thursday: it's always inspiring to renew ordination vows alongside so many others - this year two sides of the cloister at Glos were filled as we waited to process in - a great flock of white birds flapping gently - & lovely to catch up with friends, of course
Things I would like to improve/develop/consider further:
  • perhaps because we had put so many resources into Experience Easter, there seemed to be very little to engage children...I had hoped some younger families would share the Good Friday walk, but having trudged up the hill myself can see it's a bit much for younger children, & the stations as they stand would be unlikely to hold their interest. On the other hand, the tradition has been in place for a good long time, it's a rare opportunity for the two churches to do something together - and the cross on the hill looks simply stunning from the by-pass below - a very public statement
  • the Agape on Maundy Thursday was gently convivial, but again would not have worked for families...perhaps we have a Messy Church passover meal next year (though not on Maundy Thursday); I want to see the questioning and story-telling restored. Also because it followed straight on from the meal it was hard for those who wanted to attend the Eucharist but not the meal to know when they should appear; I'm told this deterred a few who would otherwise have joined us
  • where was everyone on Good Friday in the valley? Several of the Sunday congregation are older, non-drivers who might well hesitate to turn out in the evening, so a low attendance on Thursday was sad but unsurprising, but I was disappointed that more people did not appear for the Last Hour at the Cross. I would have thought this would be absolutely on the map for most of the regulars - but clearly not. Despite all I could say about the need to experience Holy Week, rather than leap from Sunday to Sunday, that is very much what the majority did
  • it was sad that church on the hill were unwilling to either host any of the additional services or, for the most part, to travel down the hill to experience them.
Things to remember:- all relate to the Vigil I think
  • it's a real struggle to light a taper from a blazing fire in a dustbin
  • check whereabouts of incense grains before switching all the lights off
  • a congregation that isnt used to gaving the Eucharistic prayer sung wont instinctively know how to sing responses to "The Lord be with you.."etc
  • the tendency to consider numbers when evaluating "success" (another dodgy term) MUST be resisted: though I came home anxious from the Good Friday service, I actually had a really complimentary email..............and, now I think about it, I have No Idea whether the church was full or practcally empty on those occasions when God was specially evident to me as I sat in the pews
  • if you invite readers in advance, it's a way to lure more people along & also enables them to practice reading in normal light levels (ie completely unlike the situation in church -oh well!)
  • if you want people to make lots of noise at the start of the Gloria - give them the means to do so & tell them this is what you want!
  • repeat till you get the message: just because worship does not match SJDK or St M's, it's not a problem
  • not all parishes have a tradition of major church cleaning on Holy Saturday morning: if youu want this to happen, you have to mention it!
I'm sure there is lots more to think about - maybe I'll add to this as I think of things in the next few days....Mainly I had a wonderful time & I pray & believe that those who came to worship went home feeling that something real had happened...

Saturday, April 11, 2009


we carried the cross from valley to hill...hard work, for the hill is steep & at the end the ground was rough beneath our feet.
When we reached the place appointed, we paused for a while then turned with relief to the pleasures of hot cross buns and gentle chatter at the church below.

We left the cross alone.
People always have, right from the beginning.

Spread out below us, my 2 parishes and beyond...Thousands of people oblivious to the event at Golgotha, whose lives and whose eternities were changed for ever by what happened that day.

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.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What music?

From the very beginning I have wondered -- what is the real music of his life?
Born homeless, - in a minor key,- with dangers lurking on the streets that night
And me unable to provide that small security each baby needs.
As I rejoiced at new life given, I shivered, knew I'd failed already,
That my arms could not be enough to hold him safe, confined.
How could I welcome the angels' song, all glory & hosannas?
I craved the gentler music of a homely lullaby.

We longed to do things right, to be in tune with the traditions of our faith.
"I was glad when they said unto me, we shall go to the house of the Lord"
And so we went to join the crowds and add our simple theme of gratitude to the . Temple's age-old counterpoint. We hoped this way to silence creeping gossip, that makes scandal of a miracle. But even here the harmony was disrupted, as Simeon, that gentle, holy man, offered us words to soothe and terrify, music to bless and curse. Was he the good angel or the dark demon at our feast? I could not tell, but felt my own song falter, silenced by forebodings I did not understand. A light and a to make music here?

More dissonance: the fanfares, pomp & circumstance of travellers bearing kingly gifts, transformed in hours to the searing threnodies of mothers mourning, their life's music broken beyond repair. From then on, always, when I held my boy, I felt the weight of all those others who would never grow, nor sing their own songs in the joy of life.

I did not sing much in those years, listened instead to try and catch the theme of Jesus's own heart-song - but always it eluded me. I never really knew this child I loved, yet could not fully mother. Always, there seemed reserve, - and yet that's nonsense...for he gave and gave...perhaps he was all gift, if only I could grasp it. His complex simplicity was music pitched too high for me to hear, - but it drew others, whose rough instruments blended and supported in a way my softer lullabies could never seem to.

Even a few days ago, their sound rang out over the city - loud, bold and brassy, like a victory parade. For a while it seemed His song had changed its tune, modulated into triumph in a major key - but soon song was replaced by shouting.
"Out - my Father's house no place for this!"

Then we returned to shifting tones, the minor thirds of gathering shadows and insistent dread, a muted drum-beat heralding the men of night who came to lead my shining son into the gloom.

Confused cacophany.
Instruments flung aside, the players fled.
Deeper silence than before the world began.

There is no music now.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Homily for the Eucharist of the Lord's Supper, Maundy Thursday 2009

During our Lent course this year, we took one session to explore how we learn & grow in our faith…We realised that we all learn in different ways – some by reading, some by watching or listening, some by doing.
Often in church it seems we expect only to learn by hearing but not in Holy Week. As we’ve travelled through the week together, so we’ve tried to enter into the experience of Christ’s Passion, to make those once for all events live again in our own lives.
And tonight we are told to remember

Clearly Jesus knew all about our different learning styles, because when he wanted us to understand what he was really about, what God is really about, he didn’t tell us, in a 3 point sermon, or in a Lent course. He didn’t, on this most important point, even tell us stories.

No…he showed us, and he involved us.
He both showed us, as he knelt to wash his disciples feet.
And he involved us in the action, when he gifted us with the Sacrament.

Hugely subversive behaviour…Not the stuff of after dinner speeches at all. I guess we’re used to the concept of foot-washing as a radical gesture– and its impact was brought dramatically up to date by the Bishop of Birmingham, who last year spent Holy Week busily cleaning shoes outside his own Cathedral. Think of the shoe shine boys of the depression…. Think city pavements and dog mess...and then imagine someone, anyone you place on a pedestal getting to grips with all that.
That’s what’s going on here, as Jesus kneels at the feet of his friends.
That’s what God’s love is like…the love at the very heart of the Kingdom.
Jesus turns himself into a parable to demonstrate once again the self-giving love that has service written into every action, every thought, every moment. He shows his disciples, and through their eyes we too see, and together we have remembered…

But this alone is not enough… Jesus also gave us something to do.
I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and said “This is my body that is for you. DO THIS in remembrance of me”
Here too Jesus is upsetting the natural order. Blessing and breaking are reserved for the Master of the feast, the head of the household. Taking the loaf to the table and giving out the pieces afterwards, - this task belongs to servants, or (in homes too poor for servants) to women.
So Jesus involves each of us in something that exists to change the world as it currently is. At supper with his friends he made it clear that the coming Kingdom is for everyone, men women and children, slaves and masters…for all are called to follow the servant king in lives of loving service.
He tells us to do this…to take and bless, to break and share and as we do so to remember – and he will be with us.
Whatever your theology of Eucharist, there’s no getting round those actions and those words.
This, this fragment of bread and sip of wine, is Christ’s body – offered to us.
All that we bring to the table is our feeble, damaged selves..
But as we offer those selves, wounded by life, dented by disappointment, we find ourselves taking part afresh in the drama of our redemption. Because as we bring ourselves to his table, Jesus exchanges those poor offerings for his own self, - the life of God contained in bread and wine.

So, whenever we gather the meal continues, with places ready for each of us.
Here in bread and wine is all the sustenance we need to enable us to live for God and to serve God's people.
Here is the life of God offered to us.
Christ in us, so we may recognise and love him in everyone around us, and serve them as we are served.
Let us do so…and as we do so, let us pray that we may understand

Remember me

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuges of fugitives in caves and the dens of the earth.

Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams have failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the think June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundred part of them.

And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God.

Dom Gregory Dix: The Shape of the Liturgy (London 1945)

So this is what I shall do in a couple of hours...Oh the privilege of this calling!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

It's been a quiet week

at Church in the Valley.
On Monday, 6 of us gathered in the Lady Chapel for an Iona Eucharist. Hugger Steward & I had gone overboard with tea lights & fairy lights & there was lots and lots of beautiful silence. Such a good place to begin our journey towards the cross.
I found myself almost unable to continue as I read those searingly honest words from the Prayer of Consecration
"our hands are empty, our hearts are sometimes full of wrong things"
Every time, something in liturgy from Iona forces me to halt, to really hear the words I am saying. That's not a comfortable process - but it's a good one.

Tuesday, we walked the stations of the cross - such a small group that I worried that Jesus might feel lonely. When I was a child, I was much perturbed by the huge crucifix outside Christ Church, St Leonards-on-Sea
"Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?" it enquired as we chugged past on the 76 bus - and I always hated that sense of dersertion, of nobody seeing the depths of His pain. Last night, as a bare handful followed the via dolorosa, those feelings re-awakened. Each year in Holy Week I try vainly to protect Jesus, in all his frail humanity, from what lies ahead...last night I worried that we were adding to the hurt. Station 3 of Experoence Easter focussed on Christ's loneliness in the garden, inviting the children to make models to remember times when they had felt alone or afraid. Being the children they are, they made even their fears rather beautiful - an unexpected bloom in the garden. As a handful of families walked the trail on Saturday, another mum and I agreed that our worst fear was of leaving our children - that our failure to feel OK about trusting those beloved offspring to a world without us was a distressing indicator of the state of our faith. But our God knows about feeling alone - so maybe it will be alright.

Tonight was Tenebrae - which I loved. The same small nucleus, joined by just a few more, we gathered by the high altar. As we shared the Passion narrative together the darkness grew & shadows lengthened. In a kind of mirror image of the Holy Saturday Vigil, we sat listening to stories in a dark that increased as each candle was extinguished...I took the Christ candle out as the Dufflepud read the last words from the cross
Eli, eli, lamma sabacthani.
Hiding in the vestry all was quiet til I banged a metal tray relentlessly...
Earthquakes, the veil of the Temple rent asunder, graves giving up their dead. Then the Christ light returned & we heard once again of Isaiah's Suffering Servant
"Surely he has bourne our grief and carried our sorrows".

Maybe not such a quiet week for we who have been there.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

One year on

I was licensed to these parishes on 6th April last year, though the liturgical calendar means that I'm mostly remembering my final week at St M's (which I left last Easter Sunday) as I travel through this Holy Week.

But though one year is no time at all, I guess it does mark a transition...Since the arrival of a colleague February I have not been the newcomer at Chapter, and with 52 weeks behind me I think I can stop thinking I'm the "new" vicar, and begin to believe I'm really here, where I belong.

So - what have I learned this first year here?
I remember the initial realisation that, however good a curacy may be, it actually prepares you above all to be vicar of your training parish! The first weeks here were spent frantically adjusting to familiar things that were still utterly different, because of the new context (and resisting the constant urge to ask FabVicar if I was doing alright!...that's not something anyone will be likely to tell you in the world of grown-up vicaring).
I've learned that many of the aspects of church life & worship which I had assumed to be essential just aren't on anyone else's agenda particularly. People mostly appreciate what is offered but wont be hugely disturbed if this is simple fare.There is no sense that the churches have a "right" way of doing things, which you disturb at your peril, - and this flexibility is a great gift. Conversely, of course, it can mean that I need to provide a high proportion of the energy and motivation for anything I want to introduce - though as Messy Church demonstrates, people are wonderfully supprtive if they see the point of something.
I do need to be careful that, with my alarming tendency to produce new ideas in bulk, I don't exhaust those splendid souls who find themselves lumbered with helping me see them through...but mostly I need to learn to balance my role as a vision holder with enabling the vision of others. It would be disturbingly easy to dream my dreams for these communities, sweep up others as we make them real, and then see them falter and die when the time came for me to move on...Whatever happens in these parishes in the next year, and beyond, needs to be truly "home grown" - a vision that, under God, belongs to these communities. I know there is one...I need the patience to allow it to emerge in its own time, the wisdom to lead without imposing a direction, the grace to set aside my vision should it threaten to impede fragile growth.

One year on, I still need to pray that I may really mean the easy words about shared ministry, that those ringing phrases from the licensing service may truly reflect the lives of these churches

" Together, by God's grace, we will grow in our faith and discipleship...Together by God's grace,we will be a Christ-like community of love...Together, by God's grace, we will tell the good news of Christ to the world...Together, by God's grace, we will worship him in spirit and in truth...Together by God's grace, we will seek to be the living body of Christ..."

Together, - that's the key.
It is not good for clergy (or anyone else for that matter) to be alone.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Servant King

The second station...focussed on foot-washing & what that might look like in 21st century Cashes Green.
In the interests of practicality, the children weren't invited to take off socks & shoes but rather to dip their fingers in the water & trace the cross on their palms as a silent prayer that God would use them to help someone in a special way this Easter. As I listened to their ideas about situations where they might make a difference, it was clear that they had got the idea well and truly, were doing well as they thought about the essence of service.
But for my own part, I have to say that I felt a bit like Simon Peter
When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you wanted to go; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and take you where you would rather not go (Jn 21:18).

It's so easy to agree to serve...but to be served- that's such a different matter.

During this most peculiar Lent I've learned so much about the state of dependence. It was (relatively) easy to accept (and even ask for) help from my children & a small cluster of good friends, but well nigh impossible to ask for help from the congregations. To-day is my first anniversary here & there are many good souls whom I'm happy to know, several who are well on the way to being friends, one or two whom I'd visit if I were having a bad day....but nobody whom I could envisage asking to wash my hair or do my ironing. Not yet.

I think I may have failed to grasp the potential lessons of this Lent. I did try, truly - but I think I'll be working on meaning these words for a while yet.
"pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too" .

During the Maundy Watch some years ago I wrestled with my reluctance to allow Christ to wash my feet.
I recognised the need to jettison such arrogant self-sufficiency, but I guess I am a slow learner.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Hopes & Dreams

This was the title of the first "Experience Easter" station (the one for which Hugger Steward washed 500 pebbles).
`Jesus said "If the crowds were silent, the stones themselves would speak." What do you think he meant? '
A long pause...nobody is quite sure, then a small voice.
"Stones do speak. There's a stone out in the churchyard that says how much we miss my mum."
Having thought about the hopes and dreams of those who lined the road into Jerusalem, the children reflected on their own hopes before writing or drawing something on a stone to symbolise them. Responses ranged from the predictable "to play rugby for England" to the heart-rending "to have a good friend" "to see my mum smile".
By bedtime last night, the pile of stones was huge, - each one a child's dream, looking forward but memorialised as surely as those names carved in stone in the churchyard.
The idea of 500 children's dreams piled on our chancel steps all but undid me.
Holy ground.

Palm Sunday sermon for church on the hill

This will surely be the oldest sermon I have ever preached! As pressure mounted over the last week, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I would surely have a reworkable Palm Sunday sermon from my curacy that could be pressed into service for Evensong on the hill. I had forgotten, of course, that a full dramatised Passion meant no sermon at the Eucharist at St M's, while a service of musoc & readings replaced Evensong every year. So it turned out that I had no recent Palm Sunday offerings at all - and was thrown back on words I offered in a similar Cotswold village 1o years ago. With only a gentle tweak they fit quite well with what I would want to church on the hill to hear, so I shall take a deep breath & preach it when the time comes.

“Hosanna!” “Hooray” “Here comes the king”
The crowds who lined the road to Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday certainly though they had something to celebrate. After many abortive uprisings, here at last was the Messiah, who would free them from Roman domination. No matter if his triumphal entry was on the most unlikely beast, a scruffy, workaday donkey of most uncertain temper. This was the start of something big. Life would never be the same again. For the holiday crowds, there was certainly something stirring in the air. If they had known what would happen on Friday, I wonder what they would have cried
“Fly, Lord.” perhaps?” Go home, before it is too late”.

But here are we, some 2000 years on, using the same word, ”Hosanna” if not quite with their excited fervour. What do we think we are doing? After all, the Roman Empire has long since passed away, and we are citizens of the privileged west. Why are we still remembering a journey made centuries ago, which, in political terms, did nothing to alter the course of history? You will tell me, quite rightly, that Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, the crown of the Christian year. Those who cried “Hosanna” “save us now” were in fact being unwittingly prophetic: the process of man’s salvation was being worked out before their very eyes. Certainly that is not something I want to argue with, but I would like us to think a little more about what was happening when that man rode into Jerusalem in a week that was to lead him from public acclaim to public betrayal.

For we who come week by week to worship here and listen to the “old old story” it is perhaps difficult to grasp how surprising was the course of Jesus’s ministry. From the moment when the Magi find the infant king amid the dirty straw of a Bethlehem cave, Jesus constantly confounds all expectations. Those lavish gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh must have seemed miss-matched to the child found living in poverty as a refugee. But that apparent contradiction, at the very beginning of his earthly life, was to be the recurrent theme for the whole of Jesus’s ministry and reached its most perfect expression in the events of Holy Week.

Some years ago, the well-known Jesuit priest Gerard Hughes published a book which he called “God of Surprises”. It’s a splendid book, deserving of the rave reviews it received, but one of the many remarkable things about it is that no-one else had apparently used that title before, for our God loves to surprise . For us, his people, there is an historic tension between our need for, and recognition of God as unchanging and inviolable, and our knowledge that he is too a revolutionary God, who puts down the mighty from their seats & exalts the humble & meek.
God is “the same yesterday, to-day , forever” but he nonetheless constantly challenges his church to change direction, pulls the rug from beneath our comfortable certainties and demands that we start afresh, gasping at his ingenuity. Certainly, He is a God of surpises.

Jesus, of course, repeatedly surprised the Jewish authorities. After centuries of prophecies, and devoted adherence to law and tradition, they were confident that they knew exactly how the Messiah would look, and how he would behave. Though the pedigree of the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, of the house of David, qualified him for the Messianic role, his behaviour excluded him. Despite firm grounding in the precious religious traditions of Judaism, he repeatedly stepped outside its boundaries to challenge its teachings. As God’s Son, his love for the whole of creation superseded his adherence to any manmade system, however beloved, and he demanded a radical rethink in which compassion for the individual took precedence. When this compassion led him to welcome social outcasts, dine with prostitutes and touch lepers, the guardians of tradition were shocked. When he dared to speak of tearing down the Temple itself and asserted that the Sabbath was for man’s benefit, and not an end in itself, he outraged them. Though the Jews longed for a revolution, they wanted it on their terms, a revolution which would leave all their cherished traditions intact. The surprise that was Jesus was just too great for them.

It’s very easy, as Christians, to claim some moral superiority here. We recognise Jesus as Saviour and Lord, and are happy to pray for the coming of his kingdom, but I do wonder if really we are so very different in our response to him. As he constantly challenged the beliefs and expectations of 1st century Palestine,. so he surely challenges the comfortable certainties which threaten to stultify the church of to-day. That King who entered the city on a down trodden beast of burden must have something to say to us about a world in which churches are rich and people starving, in which people can profess to love the God they have not seen, but neglect Him in the stranger sleeping on the street. Though people have clung to the idea of Christ’s kingdom as “not of this world”, the Incarnation tells a different story, of his total involvement with the world, his passionate care for its victims. If we claim to follow him, we too must share that active compassion, and there will be a cost. When his Kingdom comes, I don’t think we can expect to be home in time for Sunday lunch!

Sometimes it seems that, like the Jews,we are so intent on forcing Jesus into some mould of our own that we refuse to notice when he breaks free of it. We refuse to be surprised by him, preferring him tamed and fettered by our own expectations, our very own God in a box. When we do this, we miss the point completely. The world of Good Friday and Easter Day is a world turned upside down. Here is the greatest surprise of all, that death , ignominy and defeat are transformed into resurrection, triumph and victory. Can we wholeheartedly welcome this, with all its implications for our lives, or is it easier to leave Jesus slumbering in the tomb, and slumber there beside him. If we let him break out, there is no knowing where he may take us.

So as we begin to tread the familiar path through Holy Week we must learn to expect the unexpected. We can rely on the love that beckons us onwards, but we cannot dictate the direction. The transforming righteous revolution for which creation waits with longing may be just around the corner, for, if we pray “Thy kingdom come” we must be prepared to let God answer our prayer. We need to look at the world with clear eyes and an open mind, so that we can truly celebrate the triumphal entry of the man on the donkey, who by his cross and Resurrection turns the whole world upside down.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

I've got that Holy Week feeling

Things are pretty frantic in the vicarage. Having welcomed every child from two out of three schools in the parish to Experience Easter, and with funerals continuing to come in droves, time to prepare practically for Holy Week has been cut to the bone. I look set to be printing service sheets minutes before handing them to the congregation pretty much all week - there's not alot in the church cupboard that I'm happy to use untweaked, and one armed typing remains a challenge. So I really ought not to be blogging at all - but the Friday Five was so apposite I could not resist.

Sally over at the RevGal site says:

Holy Week is almost upon us, I suspect that ordained or not, other revgal/pals calendars look a bit like mine, FULL, FULL, FULL........

Jesus was great at teaching us to take time out, even in that last week, right up to Maundy Thursday he withdrew, John's gospel tells us he hid! He hid not because he was afraid, but because he knew that he needed physical, mental and spiritual strength to get through...

So faced with a busy week:

1. What restores you physically?
Sleep. Hot baths (oh I do wish I could hurl this plaster cast to oblivion - but I don't even see the Great Bone Man til Monday & nothing is certain even then). Walks with dogs & children.
Currently & unusually I'm not sleeping that well - which probably fuels the escalating panic which in turn prevents me sleeping....aaargh.

2. What strengthens you emotionally/ mentally?
Hugs from those I cherish. Reading words that have inspired me before (two saint Johns, Donne & the Evangelist are particularly effective, but there are many many others). Music - Bach is best, Mozart too (but please can someone help me dislodge the phrase from the Credo of the Weber Mass we are singing in choir that has been haunting my dreams since Monday?:I think I have it right now).

3. What encourages you spiritually? Doing my job - at the altar (though not at the desk) the community...that sense of being swept up into the ceaseless praise around the throne that so often comes during the Sanctus when I preside. My friends & soul mates & of course the Best Spir Dir ever. Music again - I think I need to put on the B Minor Mass urgently to restore some perspective.

4. Share a favourite poem or piece of music from the coming week.
So much of Holy Week has a sound-track for me dating from my time as a chorister at St John the Divine, Kennington. The Vittoria Passion; Lotti's Crucifixus; John of Portugal's Crux Fidelis...That's just not going to happen in an little church in the I will be focussing on the Passion Chorale as we sing it around 3.00 on Friday.

5.There may be many services for you to attend/ lead over the next week, which one are you most looking forward to and why? If there aren't do you have a favourite day in Holy week if so which one is it?
In this first Holy Week here I'm too conscious of the responsibility for enabling the worship of others to dare to look forward yet. Some of the services that loom so large will be new to the parishes, in some we will have to find a route that honours their traditions but makes liturgical sense to me...It's going to be an intereseting week (specially if I dont get typing/copying very soon).
I'm also aware of a part of myself that is courting disappointment by wishing that the liturgy might be more finely-tuned and polished than it's likely to be. I realise that even if I hanker for it, the house style of St M's would not be authentic here, so I need to get over this fast! As I said, interesting...
But with all that going on, I am really looking forward to Stations of the Cross on Tuesday evening. I've a lovely set of posters from the sisters of Turvey Abbey, and just to try to follow Jesus, one step at a time, is surely all I need attempt - in Holy Week or ever.