Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fresh perspectives

Time on the narrowboat always helps me see things differently.
Instead of hurtling from pillar to post, constantly diverted, filling my days with a host of different people, with widely differing needs, I'm constrained (happily) to travel at 6 mph down a narrow stretch of water, in the company of a very small group of people.
I read alot (of course) but I spend alot of time doing almost nothing - watching for herons on the bank, looking at patterns of ripples in the water (these are more exciting in our new world of river cruising - though there's lots I miss about canal life), smoothing the velvet softness of Libby's ears.

This summer, the usual feeling of being in a different world was compounded by the fact that we were actually very close to home.
From our home mooring at Tewkesbury we cruised down the Severn to Gloucester, the little city that I know best, in whose Cathedral I was ordained, whose geography is mapped out, for me, in terms of the parish boundaries of my friends.
Quite extraordinary to view it as a look up at the Cathedral from the basin of the docks; to spend a while focussed not on the ecclesiastical present but on the maritime past as we wandered between the warehouses and noticed how the tiny Mariners' Church echoed the shape of the mercantile temples that surrounded it; to wander past the embryonic Gloucester Quays shopping mall, on which so much of the city's future may depend. To be a tourist at home!

All in all, a summer of interesting perspectives...but I suspect that it will at Greenbelt that I really find my eyes are opened and all sorts of things appear in a new light.

So, what HAVE I been doing lately?

Somehow we seem to be at the very end of August - the last gasp of summer (though it feels to me as if we've hit autumn early this year, with a chill in the air tonight that means a search for winter woolies before we depart for Greenbelt tomorrow).
I seem to remember that last year I had time to enjoy a new puppy during the school summer holidays...This year, I've been quite pushed to find clear evenings to enjoy the company of my own children. I guess that's an inevitable product of having been here longer...more contacts across the community = more demands on time. That's a good thing, of course - but it does make for rather full days, with little time or energy for writing.

So it is that I completely missed my own blogging birthday (Good in Parts turned 5 on the feast of the Transfiguration)...that I've failed to celebrate the Dufflepud's rather splendid exam results (or, come to that, his safe return from Africa)...that I've said nothing about the extraordinary evening that was my first big gig - U2 at Sheffield a week ago.

There has been some time to pause and breathe, and I've really appreciated that.
After a mornings meeting at Church House, I slipped into the Cathedral where there was an exhibition of contemporary icons filling that wonderful space.

I loved the absence of chairs - that in itself has a huge impact as you walk in.
I loved the icons themselves - both as art and as visual prayers.
I loved the words posted about the place

"It is not the viewer who judges the icon, but icon that judges the viewer"

"The light in an icon does not come from any physical sun, but is divine"

"An icon is itself a prayer - a hymn in colour"

Spending time immersed in divine light, surrounded by colours singing hallelujah for all their worth, I remembered alot of important things that might just have got lost in the shuffle.
And for a while, I stopped doing, and simply was.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Just to prove I'm back at work

And really will return to some sort of decent blogging one day soon, here's the text of my homily for the 8.00 tomorrow...
I'm not excited by it, but it's late and starting the first Sunday back at work in a state of exhaustion feels like a bad idea, so I'm leaving it for tonight and will see what actually emerges in the morning.

Dumbing-down is a phenomenon that seems to be discussed by many people in many places these days.
We hear critical voices complain that everything from A levels to Radio 4, and even the liturgy of the Church of England is not what it once was…
That can be hard to deal with if you know young people who are waiting anxiously for exam results...or if you are trying to reach out to people who are struggling with all their might and main to understand quite what goes on when we gather for worship in these strange stone buildings that we call churches, places that seem to speak of earlier times, different lives….

You may have gathered, then, that I’m one who feels that we have, in the churches at least, a duty to make our teaching and our worship as accessible as possible.
If that leaves us open to the charge of “dumbing down” then so be it.
Fortunately, God’s grace is not limited to those of a particular intellectual bent…His love is as available to those who will never learn to read as it is to Doctors of Divinity…
Faith, indeed, is a great leveller…and I guess at one level we could describe the incarnation, Christ’s coming into all the confusion of our world, as the greatest dumbing-down of all time.

But in this morning’s gospel it sounds as if this wasn’t quite enough for some people
“This teaching is difficult…who can accept it?”
That’s a problem we still have – reluctance to accept the things that challenge us…

But why now? Perhaps all these references to bread have finally become too much for the group gathered around Jesus.
Or perhaps they are just rather tired of them
Not MORE bread…
It’s hard for us to imagine the impact of words about eating flesh and drinking blood on those whose world-view has been shaped by the Torah, with its outlawing of all blood sacrifices, and its strict dietary codes.
We hear them softened and filtered through our own experiences of coming to Communion week on week…
We say to ourselves
“Yes, yes…of course we need to share Christ’s body and blood…”
and our thoughts move on…For us, this is perhaps abstract theology and not practical reality.

But it IS a hard teaching.
Small wonder that the early Christians were often vilified on the mistaken grounds that they practised human sacrifice.
You can’t really blame would-be disciples those who found it All Too Much and went home.
After all, it sounded for a while as if they weren’t really wanted anyway
“No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father”
so it would seem that those who don’t come CANT come
Hard teachings indeed.

But, when you come down to it, at the core of all these teachings is the simplest of processes – the human need to be nourished, to be fed.
We all know the saying
“You are what you eat” and here Jesus promises that if we eat his body and drink his blood, we shall share his life…if we eat THIS bread, we shall live forever.
What we eat normally becomes part of us…
When we eat THIS bread, we become part of it.
Feasting on God, we are transformed to live a whole new life ourselves.

On Thursday I was part of an audience of several thousand listening to the band U2…Though they are not a band that plays overtly Christian music, 3 out of 4 musicians is a professed and active Christian and often their songs reflect this.
At one point during the evening, we all found ourselves singing along to an early hit
“I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” –a song that reflects a process familiar to those who followed Jesus from the beginning, and to those who still seek him today.
That search for answers, search for hope, search for meaning is another core human activity…
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…
As so often in the gospels, Peter’s words speak directly into our own experience.
Here is another searcher.
One who speaks with a kind of desperate weariness
One who has struggled to make sense of the teaching of his friend and rabbi.
One who wishes that things were simpler, that Jesus would offer an easy beginner’s model of discipleship that would attract rather than deter followers.
Peter has longed to go home, to settle down and get on with ordinary life without the troublesome demands of the man who seems intent on rewriting the Law

Now he has no control over events, but is caught up in them despite himself, propelled in just a short time from a life of comfortable anonymity on the shores of Galilee to a dubious status as the known associate of a wanted man. I’m sure that there were a few unvoiced regrets along the way for each of the Twelve. But they have found themselves drawn irresistibly by the person of Christ, and even if they don’t always understand him, they know that he is speaking the deepest truth they will ever hear.

So, no escape. Nowhere to go. You have the words of eternal life

Once you have really engaged with Jesus, nothing else ever compares.

Yes, for us as for Peter, the way may often be hard. There will be countless times when living as a disciple seems just too much effort. If only we didn’t have to bother about justice, freedom, mercy. If only we weren’t called to love so much. Couldn’t we just forget all about it and get back to normal?

But then we realise that we’re on a one-way street, with no u-turns possible. That we simply have to follow the road, for it is the only one that will bring us safely to our destination. In our own time, so many still haven’t found what they’re looking for. But, ultimately, it is the voice of Jesus who calls us - by whatever name we know him. It is Jesus who invites us to come to him. Jesus who speaks to us the words of eternal life

Jesus, the living Word…the one who shows us what God’s life looks like lived out in humanity, the One who shows us how we are to be…and who feeds us, week on week, so that we too may live forever.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This week

We have been working on our slightly battered narrowboatPolyphony ...Removing and replacing windows, applying more mastick (sp?) than I knew existed to every conceivable joint, and beginning (in between showers) to cover her weary red paint with a rather pleasing blue.
On Friday, we are downing tools and taking her off for a cruise somewhere down the Severn or thereabouts (she is currently moored at Tewkesbury, so we're having to learn the unfamiliar ways of rivers, after the relative simplicity of canals).
Whatever else happens, I don't plan to spend much time online for the next few days. It's extraordinarily good to have all my children in one place, - so forgive me if I just concentrate on enjoying them.
See you on the other side!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sunday special - high farce on the hill.

A good morning at both churches today.
Several groups of visitors, who were more willing to offer feedback than the regulars are - and were indeed distinctly complimentary
The return of a newcomer from a week or two back, who expressed her intention of coming again and didn't bolt when I suggested that I might drop in and see her after the hols.
A sermon that somehow carried within it (for the preacher at least) the friends who had been part of its production - making them feel very close throughout the morning.

And - the highspot of the day - the most fantastic offertory at Church on the Hill!

You remember that we are in the grip of all sorts of anti flu procedures?
Communion in one kind, a really thorough wash in warm soapy water
and a quick squirt of hand gel before I consecrate.
So the sacristan up the hill asked me when I would want the water - and I said
"Oh, at the offertory...I'll just wash in the same place that I would normally do the token lavabo".
Cue an offertory procession comprising the elements, the gifts of the people AND a large red plastic washing up bowl.

The Herring and I both lost it completely for a few moments - it's amazing how long even the shortest aisle can seem as you battle with hysteria.
When the Archbishops' guidelines were first published there were some rather wonderful nonsense emails circulating about the correct liturgical use of gel etc
This morning, we enacted one of them!

Thank you God, for the gift of laughter :-)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Drawn by God - a sermon for Trinity 9B

What draws you to church?
You come here faithfully, once a week or once a month, and I can’t help but wonder why.
I guess that on one level at least there will be as many reasons for being here as there are people in this congregation – and for many of us it may be hard to work out exactly what is the prime motive that brings us together.

Perhaps you are drawn by long habit; you come because you always have – you simply cannot imagine yourself anywhere else on a Sunday morning.
Perhaps you are drawn by beauty – by lovely words and familiar music, by rituals and patterns that seem to make sense of things beyond the reach of rational thought.
Perhaps you are drawn by loneliness: you come from an empty house, in search of companionship.
Perhaps you are drawn by need: you are seeking authentic community and see it breaking down in the world beyond the doors
Perhaps you are drawn by anxiety; you come because church represents a place of safety and comfort in a changing world.

Perhaps you are drawn by love, your love for God.

I pray you are, that you come for an encounter with the living God, the God who can sweep you off your feet and set you down again facing in a completely different direction, the God who surprises and challenges, the God who feeds us, week by week, on the bread of life.

It is worth pondering why you come, because, of course, you will soon be asked to invite others. As we prepare for Back to Church Sunday next month it’s good to consider the place that Sunday church has in our own lives. Now is a good time to begin to think about whom you might invite to our worship that day…and also to pray, since we can be certain that God will already have prepared some of our friends for the invitation. We are told that there are 3 million people in Britain today who would come to church if only they were invited. 3 million! Some of those will be people we know, people in this community who are ripe for an invitation, because they have already been disturbed by an insistent disquiet, that kind of gentle nudging that is a sign of God at work…
Augustine wrote, long ago
“Lord you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless til they find their rest in you”
and though we may be very slow to notice and acknowledge this, it remains true.
God is now and always at work drawing people to him…

Whether we know it or not, we are, all of us, drawn by LOVE – God’s love for us.

God is constantly at work drawing us into his love…. – but we have our part to play, for we too are invited to co-operate with the process.
We are asked to be agents of his mission, to bring the whole of creation into relationship with Him. [Ephesians 1:9-10 according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up ALL things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.]
That is the underlying purpose not just of BTCS but of everything the Church attempts – we exist to share God’s love with the world.
Imagine that love as a great magnet, drawing us towards God. Then think of how things that are in contact with something magnetised behave. It’s fun, isn’t it, making a whole chain of paper clips dance in the wake of a single magnet… Those far away are still affected as the magnetism passes from one to another…

God’s love is the strongest thing in all creation, an unstoppable force that has drawn us…and, please God, will work through us to draw others.
“Be imitators of God, beloved children, and live in love…”
Is that what we see in our churches?
That question has extra point as positions are polarised and barricades manned across the Anglican Communion – where there is plenty of bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling and not a little slander at the moment. It’s far too easy for any institution to get side-tracked, and lose sight of core values, essential foundations…
We can, and must, pray that this will change but for now let’s concentrate on our own local context.

When we gather here week by week, I certainly hope that it is for more than just a social event.
If the church building vanished, if the organ imploded, if your familiar friends and neighbours all moved away, if you lost patience with the vicar, fell out with the Bishop and despaired of the whole Anglican Communion, you would still have a calling to be the Church, imitators of God, sharing the love you have received.
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another
That’s our blueprint for behaviour here.
In other words – in our church community we practice the love we are to share with everyone…for it’s that love that will make a difference, that love that will draw others.

As I talked about this sermon with a friend, she asked
“How will people know that God loves them, if those gathered in God’s name don’t show them?” while another friend, on the eve of leave-taking before a big and difficult move, found time to bring me back to the heart of things, to the Bread of Life once more.
Between them, they made real the love that I’m trying to talk about, the love that draws us not just to this place, but, -which is far more, - the love that draws us to its source.

When we come to worship we come to give thanks to God for all his blessings, to celebrate his love and to be nourished and transformed as we encounter God in Word and in the Sacrament.
And it’s to that encounter that we should invite our friends.
Ultimately, it won’t matter if visitors choose to stay and become family here…
We’re not inviting our friends because we are setting out to fill our churches – rather we are inviting them because we want them to experience the limitless, unconditional love that we have received.
So our love for them must be no less without condition…

Martin Luther once described evangelism as “one beggar telling another where to find bread” – and as we seek to make God’s love real for our friends and neighbours, we know that here we are nourished by the Bread of Life.
We come together because we are drawn…lured by God.
Lured into God’s presence, lured into community, lured into hope.
And when we come, we receive all that we need, the living bread in whom all our hungers are satisfied
Christ himself, the bread of life, present not just not as we kneel for Communion, but present too in the friends around us – and in those people with whom we struggle.
Christ himself not confined to the sanctuary but close to us amid the mess and muddle of everyday life – where we spoil relationships, grapple with tiredness, mean well and do worse.
Christ constantly present, working his loving purpose that all should be drawn to Him, all redeemed, all raised up on the last day.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Thanks be to God

for a touch of sanity...
13 groups in the Church of England have now responded to ++Rowan's disappointing "Communion, Covenant and the Anglican Future" and their words are the ones I'd been longing to hear.
We wish to reaffirm our loyalty to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the scriptures, our commitment to the Anglican way, and our celebration of and thanksgiving for the tradition and life of the Church of England. Above all, our concern is for the mission of the Church in our world. We have no doubt that the Church of England is called to live out the Gospel values of love and justice in the whole of its life; these values are intrinsic to the calling of Jesus Christ to follow him and it is out of this context that we speak.

I'm glad that 2 groups to which I belong are represented (Inclusive Church, and WATCH of course) but slightly perturbed that Affirming Catholicism is missing from the list of signatories...I'd be very sad indeed if they felt unable to sign up to this.I've emailed to find out what is going on - the fact that there is a Catholic & Contemplative Fresh Expressions day scheduled for the middle of the Inclusive Church conference The Word on the Street worries me slightly too - as I'm pretty certain I'm not alone in believing that catholicism and inclusion should be synonyms. It may of course simply be a case of overloaded diaries, but I'd really prefer not to have to choose here - and I suspect there are others who are in a similar position...

Still, despite worries, this statement is an excellent expression of the views of so many. Now we must simply pray that it is heard.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The unknown god - a sermon for Evensong, Trinity 8 Yr B

As we enter an unpromisingly damp August, the height of the great British summer, I wonder if you are dreaming of far away places where the sun always shines… Imagine, then, that you are transported unexpectedly to Athens. I wonder what you would choose to do first. Retsina and stuffed vine leaves in the sun, or perhaps a spot of sight seeing? Athens has attracted visitors for centuries, and it’s the sort of place where past and present seem to blend into one another.… Tourists in the city tread in the footprints of generations – including the apostle Paul He too arrived there unexpectedly, thanks to a necessary deviation in his preaching itinerary. He had literally made the town too hot for him after his last preaching engagement…and was diverted to Athens for his own safety. At a loose end he wandered around, enjoying all there was to see….and casting a professional eye over Athenian places of worship. This is his starting point for a sermon notable because it’s the only one of his that appears to have been recorded fully…a sermon often held up as a model of good preaching. To start with, the venue is significant. Paul does not place himself in a synagogue with a band of the gathered faithful…. The message he has to share is too important for caution, or even discretion. Rather he goes for maximum challenge, in the hope of maximum impact. He takes his message to the place of greatest influence in all Athens. .The "Areopagus" is both a place, a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis (Greek for "hill of Ares" or in Latin "Mars Hill"), and an institution, the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens In Paul's day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated. Paul, who had been publicly proclaiming the Way of Jesus, was ridiculed by these movers and shakers as a "babbler" who advocated "foreign gods” But the Athenians loved a good discussion, and so they invited Paul to speak for himself at this most important venue…and Paul makes the most of the invitation. . He begins by making connections with his audience.He sets out to win their confidence, to build bridges so that it seems that they may have something in common after all as he admires their city, and compliments them on their religious practice… It’s a good technique. Instead of being on the defensive, they are likely to drop their guard, to trust this man despite his foreign ways. Wherever he goes, Paul sees signs that the citizens of Athens are intent on spiritual matters, with a shrine for every eventuality and even one to spare.

The story behind the shrine to the unknown god is in itself worth considering, with its underlying message of the need to hedge your bets in matters of faith and worship. Sometime in the sixth century before Christ, the city of Athens was being devastated by a mysterious plague. When no explanation for the plague could be found, and no cure was in sight, it was assumed that one of the city’s many gods had been offended. The leaders of the city sought to determine which of the gods it was, with a view to appeasing him. This was no easy task, since the city of Athens had literally hundreds of gods, and was pretty much the “god capital of the world,” a place so full of gods that (says one commentator) the Athenians “must have needed something equivalent to the Yellow Pages just to keep tabs on the many deities already represented in their city.”
When all efforts failed to discern which god had been offended, an outside “consultant” was brought in from the Island of Cyprus, Epimenides. He concluded that it was none of the known gods of Athens which had been offended, but some, as yet, unknown god. He proposed a course of action which, if it worked, would at least provide a possible remedy for the plague. He had a flock of choice sheep, kept from food until they were hungry. On the appointed day, he had these sheep turned loose on the verdant pastures of Mars Hill. A flock of hungry sheep was bound to graze – but Epimenides was on the lookout to see if by any chance any decided against this. To the amazement of onlookers, several sheep did lie down, ignoring the lush grass beneath their hooves. Altars were erected at each spot where a sheep lay down, dedicated to an “unknown god.” On those altars, - by a cruel twist of pagan logic, the sheep concerned were sacrificed.

Almost immediately, we are told, the plague began to subside.
Over a period of time, the altars were forgotten, with just one preserved, in commemoration of the removal of the plague by calling upon the “unknown god.” Who would have thought that centuries later, a foreigner named Paul would refer to this altar as the starting point for his sermon on Mars Hill?

That, you’ll be thinking, is a good story – but what does it have to do with us.
After all, we are the products of a far more sophisticated age… We’d never indulge in that sort of behaviour. The sheep of Athens would be safe with us. Ummmm
Are you quite sure?

Look around you…open your newspaper, turn on the television.

There are all the overt spiritual adventures beloved of New Age devotees, of course – and we don’t have far to travel to encounter those…
There are crystals, tarot and all sorts of meditation systems…or you could sign up to be a Jedi if you prefer…

Beliefs that range from the slightly off-course to the wildly implausible all have their adherents.

But there are also any number of other belief systems that attract worship today. Wealth



Maybe good in themselves (though not always)…but all of these are transformed by anxious searchers into ultimate goods – things to be treasured and affirmed as the answer to all our needs…
Gods, in fact – though gods whose power to sustain and transform is so limited that it is, in fact, non existent….

And perhaps as we gather in this lovely building, which has gained so much support from people far and near, we ought also to consider another potential danger…

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything,

We love our holy places, and rightly so…but they carry with them a risk
Listen to a friend of mine, Justin Lewis Anthony, writing recently in the Guardian
“Orthodox Christianity teaches us that God is everywhere; equally present at the high altar of Salisbury Cathedral as he is in the open-cast gold mines of Brazil. However, human beings are not very good at realising this. We seem to see God, know God, better in certain places than in others. We explain this away, by saying that "I'm more open to God in the beauty of nature" or "the veil between earth and heaven is somehow thinner here", and so the custom of pilgrimage grows up: places become hallowed by the recognition and prayers of others: it is possible to know God better in this particular place, and we divide the world into holy and profane.”

It is so horribly easy, I fear, to find ourselves confused…To treasure beautiful buildings for their own sake, instead of recognising that they are at best only signposts to the beauty that is beyond all human skill and art. But God cannot be confined in even a grade1* PreRaphaelite dwelling God is at large in all of God’s world – unpredictable, challenging, exciting…

God is at large – but God is also closer than we think, more intimate than we can imagine
There is no chance of concealing our true serves, of hiding behind our best faces from the One in whom we live, move and have our being. We may feel safer if we assume an idealised version of ourselves as we come to worship…- and it’s tricky, because God does indeed recognise and honour our aspirations to be different, better – but God isn’t fooled.
Not for one moment.
So we need to be honest with ourselves about just who we are, - and we can take this risk without any fear because God knows us inside out…and
still God loves us
God loves us because …ALL of us….regardless of colour, creed, race or sexual orientation are God’s own children.

In the same way that we cannot proscribe or limit where God may choose to dwell, we cannot limit those to whom God relates.

Everyone is related…everyone is invited.

No limits
That’s a message that is both radical and exciting, a message that challenges each of us as we reflect on our tendencies to worship with like minded souls in ways that we find congenial.
We have other family members whom we ought to know and delight in.

Others who share the inheritance of love and glory that is God’s gift to his children.

So where will we find God?

Not among the sites of Athens, nor among the shrines that throng our streets and dominate our homes today.
We will find God wherever we seek God– for the whole world is a sacrament of God’s presence.
Our God is not unknown…
For in Christ Jesus God meets us where we are, and invites us to join him where He is.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Here I stand (with further thanks to Henri Nouwen)

So often the email from the Henri Nouwen Society says exactly what I need to hear, just when I most need to hear it...This is no exception.

Lifted Up with Jesus

The death and resurrection of Jesus are God's way to open for all people the door to eternal life. Jesus said: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). Indeed, all people, from all times and places, are lifted up with Jesus on the cross and into the new life of the resurrection. Thus, Jesus' death is a death for all humanity, and Jesus' resurrection is a resurrection for all humanity.

Not one person from the past, present, or future is excluded from the great passage of Jesus from slavery to freedom, from the land of captivity to the promised land, from death to eternal life

And let the people say "Amen"!