Sunday, October 31, 2010

Address for "Journey On" 2010

Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.
10 "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."
11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

My father spent his early years in Charlton, London SE7...It was a part of town so close to the river that it was heavily bombed during the blitz, and I grew up with stories of the family emerging from the air raid shelter to a world that seemed quite different. A neighbour's house received a direct hit and was flattened as though it had never been, while in my great aunt's house windows were blown out, ceilings collapsed – but, amazingly, a Bristol blue glass decanter survived intact on the dining table. But what intrigued my father, and me in my turn, were those houses which had one wall ripped out by the blast, but continued to stand. You could, he told me, look straight into those homes, in the same way that you see inside a dolls house when you remove the front...
I imagined sitting in one of those ravaged drawing rooms. If you looked away from the damage, you could pretend everything was normal....only a draught from the missing wall to give things away.
But if you turned to look directly at the 4th wall – the wall that wasn't there – well then you would grasp just how total the devastation that had hit this family as they went about their daily lives.
All jagged edges, chaos and rubble.
I think that all of you who are here today will have some idea of what that experience feels like.
You may have spent many days trying to focus on the things that are still the same...the dear friends and beloved family who are trying to support may have tried to return to familiar routines but found that somehow they just didn't work.
People will have encouraged you to focus on the three sides of the room that are still intact...but always, always you have been conscious of the gap.....where someone vital is missing...
The architecture of your world has been destroyed and, even on the best days, there's a chill wind blowing in.
But the amazing thing is that, like those blitz ravaged homes, you have managed to survive.
You may have wished sometimes that this was not so...have wondered why you kept on keeping on, when the journey seemed so much harder and darker than you'd ever imagined.
But you have survived.
And, whether you've been conscious of it or not, I'd say that God's love and God's strength will have been a huge element in that survival. The writer of our psalm was clearly familiar with some pretty cataclysmic changes in his life and that of his nation
though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
That sense of being swept off your feet, of losing all the familiar landmarks can be utterly overwhelming...and nobody would want to minimise that...BUT, says the psalmist, there is another power at work too
To set against the destructive waters of grief and loneliness
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God”
You have had to deal with powerful feelings – the flip side of that most powerful feeling – love - and it seems to me that our psalm can be applied to both the experiencing of loving and of losing. You could choose, of course, to shut away your turn away from love because it carries, always, the risk of pain...but to do this would be to allow part of yourself and your humanity to die as well.
But to embrace love, with all its dangers, is to allow that other river – the river that makes glad the city of God – to carry you along once more.
And then you'll find it's not all up to you.
You do not have to rebuild the ruins of your life single handed, even if there doesn't seem to be anyone among your friends and family who truly realises what you are going through.
You aren't alone...because that river is the tide of God's own love for you.

Be still and know that I am God
God at the beginning
God beside you on the days of golden gladness
God so close to you that you cannot recognise His presence when times are tough.

For Christians, where there is water thoughts of baptism are never far away .
When I baptise an adult or an older child I say these words

“ God has touched you with his love
and given you a place among his people.
God promises to be with you
in joy and in sorrow,
to be your guide in life,
and to bring you safely to heaven.”

I know, as I speak them, that our God always keeps his promises...that he will never desert anyone who call to him for help, whether formally part of his family through baptism or no.
In a few moments you'll be invited to come forward to light a candle as your own quiet act of remembrance...
You might choose, too, to dip your finger in the water here and mark your hand, or perhaps your forehead, with a cross, and to take a paper heart from the basket.
When you do so, focus for a moment on that tide of love that can carry you through no matter what life sends you...
though the fabric of your world may be torn and broken
though things will never be the same again
yet you are not alone and you will reach home safely.

The LORD Almighty is with us – with you - today

May he bless you on your journey.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sermon for All Saints Sunday Yr C

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened you may know is the hope to which he has called you, what the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.

While it's not always easy to love St Paul, I come closest to it when his own passionate pastoral love for those he has brought to faith shines clear in his writings. Conscious of his own direct experience of Christ on the road to Damascus, of the way his life was turned upside down, never to recover (what price Saul, the respectable lawyer, Pharisee and citizen?), he is ardent in his hope that everyone in the young churches he has founded will find their lives equally transformed, the eyes of their hearts enlightened.
You'll see it again and again in his letters – the fervour of the true missionary, which still sets hearts on fire almost 2 millennia afterwards.

Paul knows he has struck gold, - and he's burning to share it with everyone.
So he casts about for ways to convey the overwhelming gift that is on offer – and, ever the lawyer, opts for the familiar currency of wills, and inheritance.
Through inheritance the treasure accumulated by one is passed on, free and gratis, to another.
Through inheritance family titles and dignities move down the generations...Through inheritance those with little to hope for may acquire wealth beyond their wildest dreams...
without doing anything to earn it.
This, says Paul, - this is what God offers...,in the words of the old acronym for grace - God's Riches At Christ's Expense.
This is our inheritance as Christians – and today as we commemorate All Saints, we thank God for those men and women who have grasped their inheritance and have passed it on through the centuries...those whose lives help us to recognize what grace really means.

You see, when we consider the lives of the saints, what strikes me first is how very ordinary most of them were, at least at first....from that clutch of Galilean fishermen to a consumptive French nun,from a wounded soldier who spent most of his time dreaming of damsels in distress to a forthright Albanian with a genius for spotting Christ in the slums of Calcutta. None of them looked in the least remarkable – they didn't start out as super-holy beings, nor, I suspect, did any of them spend their days with heads surrounded by a heavenly glow. They didn't even aspire to outstanding holyness – but, like Paul himself, they recognized the value of the inheritance on offer and seized it with both hands.
And, as they accepted the gift of grace that God offers to all of us, they found themselves transformed.
All Saints Day....A wonderful festival – but one that could make us feel at least a little nervous...
I'm sure you can see where we're going, can't you? Ordinary people grasping the gift of God's grace??
Then let Paul furnish another clue.

Again and again he addresses his letters to “the saints” in a particular community
“to all God's beloved in Rome, called to be saints”
“to those who are made holy in Christ, called to be saints”
“to all the saints in Philippi”
and as he writes, it's very clear that he's not focussing on some inner circle of specially holy people.
He's writing to the whole church – and often, to a very troubled church at that – but still he addresses “the saints”.
In other words, every one of us, brought through baptism into the family of the church, bathed in God's grace, is called to be a saint.
There's no escaping it
“to all God's beloved in Selsley and Cainscross, called to be saints”

Does that fill you with joy?
Or with panic?
Quite possibly both...
If saints are ordinary people who respond to God's love with all that is in them – then surely, it's only right to aspire to sainthood.
As Isaac Watts wrote in his wonderful Passiontide hymn
“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”

When you come down to it, anything less is probably a cop-out.

But I'm personally very aware that I give God at best a token allocation of my time and my energy. I'm congenitally fond of my own way and, to be honest, I'd prefer to not to have my life shaped by the template for holiness that Jesus presents in the beatitudes that we heard morning.
I don't want to be hated and excluded. I like being loved and secure.
I may not consider myself rich (though you may remember that when I checked my stipend in the global rich list a while ago I discovered I was in the top 5% income bracket for the world) – but I certainly don't like worrying about money.
I'd rather laugh than weep, rather eat than go hungry – and goodness, I like to be approved of.
Jesus has strong words for people like me, doesn't he.
“Woe to you” he says...
Not much hope of sainthood then.

So, is everything lost? Perhaps not.
One of the many Catherines whose stories have acted as a spur to my own faith, Catherine of Sienna wrote long ago
“We are not called to perfection but to infinite desire” while the unknown author of that wonderful medieval work “The Cloud of Unknowing” suggested
“Not what thou art, nor what thou has been, but what thou wouldst be, beholdest God in his mercy”
In other words – to recognize our shortcomings and sins isn't the end of the story. That inheritance is still there to be claimed, that overwhelming love is still on offer

Living a life of contagious holiness has never been easy...but it is at least straightforward.
Jesus doesn't mince his words, but nor does he demand that our feelings always have to match our actions...Always, in the Bible, love is a doing word – solid, practical, nothing to do with passing emotions
We probably won't feel warm and fuzzy towards those who make our lives difficult but we can try and act in their best interests.
Praying for those whom we struggle with is a huge challenge – but one that can often transform a relationship.
Letting go of material wealth is easier when we realise that if we stand with empty hands, God will fill them with treasure we can barely imagine.

That's the secret of sainthood.
To empty ourselves so that God may fill us.
For some, that process is instantaneous. They fall in love with God, and from that moment nothing else really matters.
For others, - and I'd guess the majority, - emptying ourselves, getting our own desires, our sense of self importance out the way, - is the work of a lifetime.

But we're called to be saints – and our presence here today is a sign that we want to try, at least, to take our calling seriously.

I began with Paul speaking from the heart to his children in Christ...the Ephesians.
Listen to his words again, let him speak across the centuries
“to all God's beloved in Selsley and Cainscross, called to be saints”
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened you may know the hope to which he has called you, what the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sermon for Bible Sunday Yr C

What did you think as you listened to the news reports on Wednesday?
Perhaps the Spending Review didn't seem to affect you too much at first – but as I listened I found myself visualising all sorts of people whom I know and love, or work with in the parishes, whose lives will be substantially harder when the cuts kick in.
There are members of the education department whose jobs with children excluded from school will simply cease to exist...Elderly parishioners who will no longer get the “social care” that has made such a difference to their ability to cope in their own homes.
I say this without, I hope, making a political judgement.
Times ARE hard – but Wednesday night seemed bitterly cold, however you look at it.

However, the sun rose on Thursday morning and a few of us gathered, as we do each week, to celebrate Holy Communion.
Actually, in my head what we did, and what we do, is to celebrate Mass. This isn't because I'm trying to haul you all by the scruff of your necks into the arms of Rome – that would be a non starter for all SORTS of reasons. But I do love the way referring to our service as Mass reminds us that what we're doing is not just about forging community together, as God's children gathered at God's table...(that, after all, is the root of Communion)...nor is it simply about being thankful, (as the word Eucharist reminds us)
No...This amazing sacrament in which we experience God week by week exists as an expression of God's ongoing Mission – and of our Mission - in the world. That's what the word “Mass” means – taking its name from the final words of the deacon, in Latin, “Ite, missa est” - Go, you are sent!
On Thursday, the small congregation was uncharacteristically late, so that I was afraid for a few minutes that the service wouldn't happen...and I minded. Hugely.
It seemed important to me, in the wake of all the upheaval and anxieties of the day before, that we should celebrate together...It seemed, and still seems, as if that short space of time around the altar should make a difference in important and material ways.

Let me try to explain.
When we gather for the Eucharist, we encounter God first of all in the Word. We engage with the story of God's people in the Hebrew Scriptures, and build bridges to our own situations, our own time.
We stand to hear the Gospel as a sign that we are ready at once to go and live out its commands...Later we encounter Christ embodied in bread and wine, receive God's own life and are sent out to live it...
That's the action of the Mass, week on week on week.

Today, of course, is Bible Sunday – which gives us an extra reason to consider the impact of our engagement with the word.
That process of hearing God speak and then living his word is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. As we read the Bible daily, as it is opened up to us during worship, we will find ourselves opened up in turn, shaped, gradually transformed by these ancient books to which we must still pay full attention today.
Sometimes this process takes months, even years.
Sometimes the impact of the word will be immediate and obvious.
That's clearly the process we heard about in our gospel reading.
We can imagine Jesus reading Isaiah's words, already centuries old, and realising as he did so that they were for him...that he was the embodiment of this mission.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel...”
The words take on a life of their own as he realises that this is what he is for..

We, in our turn, are blessed to have that interplay of written word – Scripture- and living Word – Christ himself, always before us.
We know what God's word looks like in action, for we have seen it in the life and ministry of Christ, and we are called to live it too.
If we read the Bible assiduously and do nothing then the words are empty and lifeless.
If we let them work on us, if we open our lives to them, then they can become our mission statement...and it is up to us to discern how best to live it in the months ahead.

Whatever your politics, you'll surely recognise that the coming days will be dark and difficult for all too many.
Paul exhorts us to steadfastness and to hope.
Already I am receiving invitations to involve our churches in social action as never before in my lifetime.
Let us, then, be truly people of the Book and live out Isaiah's mission, perfected in Christ.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Friday, October 15, 2010

Think Twice

If it weren't so sad, it would be quite funny how long it can take me to get the message...This morning I can hear God's laughter quite clearly, as one penny at least has finally dropped - til the next time!

Let me tell you about it.
The summer after I arrived here, my parishes became part of a new Deanery, created by merging two existing one, under the leadership of gifted and enthusiastic Area Dean. Chapter suddenly became substantially larger, task groups were created ideas began to buzz, and before long we were piloting all sorts of diocesan courses and initiatives, - and then somebody said brightly
"Let's have a mission!"

Cue ambivalent feelings. Of course as a Christian and as a priest I believe passionately in mission.
It's what I'm for, whether defined as "finding out what Jesus is doing and then joining in" (ABC in "Mission Shaped Church" or (the statement adopted by one parish that I know and love)
"Cherishing and working with this community in God's name".
Those are very much about incarnation...about God's love made flesh and "moving into the neighbourhood".
But this Deanery is quite an evangelical place - so I knew that their ideas of A Mission might be rather more geared to proclamation...
As always, being me, I had to work through a good deal of the ludicrous internal conversation that goes something like
"Well, they're the real Christians...Their idea of mission must be right...We ought to do it their way....Help! Who do I know who'll be happy to give a challenging 10 minute talk that brings people to the point of committment...? What NOBODY??? Call yourself a vicar......."
It happens every time.
I tie myself in knots over the fear that those churches where evangelical certainty is the order of the day are somehow more authentic, that I'm letting God and my congregations down by my inability to do things that way...and then give myself a good shake and carry on.

Actually, as the plans unfolded, I began to feel increasingly comfortable with them. Under the badge "Think Twice", each parish in our deanery was asked to stage some sort of event to which non-church-going friends might be invited, and at which they might be inspired to "think twice" about Christianity - though not, praise the Lord, via an altar call. With plenty of time to plan, some wonderful ideas have come into being..
Debates "Think Twice about Money" "about the Environment" "about Assisted Suicide"....
exhibitions "Harvest of Talents", antiques evenings "Think Twice about what you throw away"...And many churches have used the three week mission period to hold an extra special Harvest Festival.

Church on the Hill, a community that includes many of retirement age, and a good few with a military background, chose to explore "Faith under Fire", and invited a former curate from the benefice, now Priest in Charge of Wootton Basset, and a serving army Chaplain to reflect on the impact of war on faith, and of faith on way. They spoke movingly, though they chose to take a different direction from the one I'd originally envisaged...The church was full (though very few were not at least occasional worshippers) and the curry supper provided was delicious. But (you can guess where this is going, can't you?) I went home saying to myself
"That was a really good evening...but it surely wasn't mission!"

Church in the valley was predictably less well organised (mostly because the organisation was down to me)...We made a fair stab at going OUT, as we worked with some members of the local youth and community centre to hold a "Community Harvest" there. We ate fish and chips, a few people talked about the harvest of their year (my chickens featured heavily) and we auctioned gifts to raise money to be split between the Pakistan appeal and the renovation project of the community centre. Attendance wasn't great, given the constituency - about 30 in all - but there WAS a blend of church attenders and others, and some happy conversation all evening. God barely got a mention (apart from a wonderful reading about apples, where God crept in almost unnoticed) but this felt a bit better...We were at least going where we were sent!

Finally came our attempt to "Think Twice about how you Pray"
As I sat in the candle-lit church, soaking up the peace and the plainsong, this seemed altogether good and necessary, for me at least...and those who walked the labyrinth that evening seemed to appreciate it. But there were just 2 who weren't part of the Sunday congregation, and though I've no way of knowing who, or how many might have walked the labyrinth while the church is open every day, and when I'd got home and the enfolding peace began to diminish I felt a little indignant.
Perhaps we'd opted for the wrong events (though we'd done our best to involve and consult with others, the reality was that beyond clergy and Reader there hadn't been many who'd wanted to contribute even ideas to the venture)...Perhaps everyone had good reasons for staying at home...Perhaps (mounting panic here) they didn't think that anything we offered would be worth inviting a friend to...Perhaps (internal scream) they just don't care about mission at all, have decided that "church is fine for us,- we like that sort of thing - but there is no need to worry about those who don't"

It's complicated, isn't it? Because actually, I believe that this is true. I don't, when the chips are down, believe that the ultimate destiny of anyone will be hugely affected by their appearance or not at a certain time on a Sunday morning. I am passionate about my calling to help the people of these communities to encounter God - but I'm not particular about the location of that encounter. Of course I'd like to be "leading a growing church" - partly for the feel-good factor for all of us, but also because a growing church is an exciting and energising place to be, and presents more opportunities for service than a church that is weary and disspirited....But I don't believe that on the Day of Judgement my usual Sunday attendance figures will be a compelling part of the evidence offered for or against me (actually, I'm not sure that I have that sort of picture of the Day of Judgement anyway "For lo, between my sins and their reward, I set the Passion of your Son, our Lord"). Full churches are good - but not a make or break issue.

BUT (that's a huge "but", in case you'd failed to notice) I DO think it matters if my congregations don't care that their friends may not be meeting with God. If they (the congregation) don't feel that our churches are the best place to do this, then perhaps we could talk about how we might do things differently...but if the congregations honestly don't wonder or worry, don't long for their communities to be transformed into signs of the Kingdom, then things are more than a little off course.

That's where I'd got to by the time the BCP Mass had ended yesterday morning. I'd moved from anger to sorrow (so some improvement there) and I then returned to the vicarage to "get on with things". A detailed list of tasks was, in the event, left almost untouched as a result of assorted phonecalls.Too many lives are currently unravelling in the valley community and though there are limits to how welcome "the church" might be in some of these situations, there are enough real people who like to talk to me to mean that this particular bit of the church is quite involved really.

And this morning, the penny dropped. Here and now, what I'm sent to do is to be with those who are hurting and try to show that they are loved by God...That's mission, for my context today.
I'm glad that God made me think twice...