Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King Yr C

The past week has been a good one for royalists.
On Sunday we gathered here in our church, to remember those who died “for Queen and Country” ….
Then on Tuesday came the news of a royal engagement....and even those who have reservations about the monarchy seemed disposed to celebrate. Suddenly the media was full of the trappings of a state occasions, inviting us to dream of pomp and circumstance, the gold State Coach, and an engagement ring with a painful history. They invite us to invest in the fairy tale, even as we recognise that it is at best a diversion from the painful reality of a country struggling for economic survival.

Now, today, the Church too invites us to consider kingship...but with the kind of twist that we should be used to by now.

At first glance it may seem strange that at this culmination of the church year we find ourselves back in the events of Passion-tide. Already, encouraged by the pressures of the world outside, we are straining forward to glimpse the baby in the manger, yet today we find ourselves taken back to Golgotha, the place of the skull.
We're asked to salute the kingship of Christ, but we look at the gospel and see not a coronation procession but a ride to the scaffold...

Today Jesus holds centre stage, but he takes that position in complete vulnerability, for it is hard to imagine greater powerlessness than that of a man fixed to a cross with nails through hands and feet...There are a lot of people talking about kings and kingship in this story of the death of Christ, but most of them are speaking only in mockery.
Above his head the sign reads “This is the King of the Jews”, sentence and proclamation in one.
The irony is intentional.
There’s no kingly glory here, no jewels or gold, just a squalid painful death.
Some king, some leader...with not a follower to his name.
Leaders are called to be strong, commanding...worlds away from the helpless man who has no option but to listen to the taunts of the soldiers, their raucous invitation
If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”

We know, with the benefit of 2000 years of Christian teaching, that saving himself is not part of Jesus' agenda.....though salvation is indeed being won as the crowds gawp and mock.

If we were there, I wonder what part we would play in the drama...

On the whole, we might rationally prefer to ignore the crucifixion.

Even our epistle could tempt us to do so, with its lyrical celebration of Christ's divinity
He is the image of the invisible him all things in heaven and on earth were him all things hold together...”
Here we are celebrating the cosmic Christ...the one whose rule is obvious, non negotiable...It seems incredible, as we listen to Paul, that anyone anywhere could fail to submit to his rule...It is transcendent...written into the fabric of creation from the very beginning.......but the route to reconciliation is hard won...
By making peace through the blood of his cross”.

A costly kingdom founded on paradox...peace through life through a terrible, bloody death.

Do we truly want to be part of it?
There's huge pressure to join the crowd – there always is! And here common sense as well as self preservation might well encourage us to do so...It certainly persuades one of the two who hang beside Jesus.
I guess the thieves feel they have nothing left to the first criminal takes some small vicious pleasure in joining in with his own executioners as they deride the man who hangs beside him. Perhaps he has been a lifelong bully..perhaps he has always tried to ally himself with the powerful, if the opportunity presents itself.
Certainly he can see nothing to be gained by supporting Jesus.

In extremis, though, there can be a clarity of vision...Inessentials are stripped away as our time runs its course – and there is space to see things as they really are. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in fox holes, - and not that many on crosses.
Thus the second criminal recognises and articulates something wonderfully true.
Despite all the ironic mockery, despite the weakness and humiliation, the man beside him is indeed a king, so he turns to him in supplication
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”

There is no coercian. There never has been.
Jesus hasn’t used his power to dominate and manipulate during his ministry, and he isn’t going to start now. His way has been one which set people free, giving them their own status and dignity. He has formed them into a new community where they are each responsible for each other, commanded to love, not to lord it over one another.
This is the king who kneels to wash his servants' feet before they feast...the king who chooses not a war horse but a workaday donkey to carry him into his citadel, the king who constantly gives away power in order to empower others.

It is the kingdom and its values that matter to Jesus - not his status as the king...
His rule is founded on peace, justice and transformation...on making the broken whole...and so it is peace and wholeness that he promises to the repentant thief.
Today you will be with me in Paradise”

There on that hillside, the drama of salvation is played out...the three crosses representing the daily choice that confronts us all.
Love stronger than death holds Jesus there...the man in the middle, with a dying sinner on either side, trying to decide what his message, what his kingdom, means for them.

We have to decide as well.
There's a chorus, popular at confirmations, that asks
Will you ride, ride, ride with the king of kings
will you follow our leader true
Will you shout hosanna to the lowly Son of God
Who died for me and you?”

We can only celebrate today if our answer to that is a resounding “Yes”...expressed not just with our mouths but with lives truly subject to the rules of his Kingdom.
May we all crown him King of our lives and hearts, now and always.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Remembrance Sunday

I'm grateful to colleagues on the PRCL site, in particular Anne LeBas, for thoughts, words and more help than it's comfortable to admit to....I really struggle with preaching on Remembrance Sunday, and this year seems particularly impossible...

God is light and in him is no darkness

Today is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry. Just a few weeks ago I conducted the funeral of a lady whose earliest memories included being taken outside by her parents one bitterly cold night to watch the city burn....miles and miles away, but somehow very close to home as she huddled in her nightclothes and watched that silent, sinister firework display. The flames of the city illuminated the reality of war, there, on the doorstep – interrupting ordinary lives, changing the world forever for people who had never signed up, people who wanted nothing more than to carry on as usual...people like us.

Fast forward to just one month ago in this church (All Saints church) when, on an evening entitled “Faith under Fire”,we heard from two clergy – one an army chaplain, one a parish priest, - about the impact of war today. The chaplain told us about conducting a wedding for a young man before he went out to Helmund province.....then conducting his funeral just three months later. It made the cost of war feel very real – even here amid the tranquility of the Gloucestershire countryside. Once again the reality of war was illuminated, brought close to home...inescapable, non negotiable.

So I found myself reflecting on the change that has taken place during my life time. When I was growing up, each year the veterans marching past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday got noticeably older until the last WW1 veterans disappeared and their place was taken by the veterans from the 2nd WW...For a while, there was a feeling that remembrance might not be necessary for too much longer.....that when the last survivors of the second world war died, the custom of remembering our war dead might die with them. It was too long ago and far away, no longer part of our daily world.

Then, of course, everything changed.
Today there will be young men marching past the who have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yesterday I had lunch with a clergy friend......she was slightly late and apologised for this because, she said, she had been seeing a wedding couple. Nothing unusual there – til she told me that they were anxious to get married immediately because the groom, aged 19,was about to go to Afghanistan.
Once again, it brought reality home to me.

We know about the boy soldiers of the 1st World War...the hundreds who falsified birth dates to meet the minimum age requirements. A sixteen year-old later told of how he was able to join the army: "The recruiting sergeant asked me my age and when I told him he said, 'You had better go out, come in again, and tell me different.' I came back, told him I was nineteen and I was in."
Another, John Cornwell was just sixteen when he won the Victoria Cross for bravery. Cornwall was on board the
Chester when it was attacked by four German light cruisers. Within a few minutes the Chester received seventeen hits. Thirty of her crew were killed in the bombardment and another forty-six were seriously wounded. Cornwall remained at his post on one of the ship's guns until the attack was over, but later died of his wounds.

Thankfully, 16 year olds are no longer able to bluff their way onto the battlefield – but 19 is not so very much older...Just think. A levels one month, basic training and mobilization the next.

War isn't something long ago or far away...

Today we are here to remember.
Re- membering is the way in which we bring the past into the present, reunite the pieces of broken history and learn their lessons.
Or not.
The choice is ours.

You'll know the proverb “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” and as we gather to remember, that opportunity is ours.

     The light of the bombed cities can clarify things for us, too, if we will let it,    and we can set against its harsh glare another, gentler light.
Of course, war is not simple. There is no easy solution to it. Sometimes justice and peace seem to be mutually exclusive...but when ethics fail us, we can still stand for hope.
The truth is that if ordinary people like us don’t think about war, care about its impact, and do what we can to counter the conditions which give rise to it, then the peace that we long for will never come to pass. We are called to play a part in building God’s kingdom of peace, close to home, through the words we speak to one another, the care we take of one another, by rejecting suspicion and hatred, by daring to take the risk of love.

Today we remember. We remember those who have been crushed under the
heap of heartache that is war, and those who are being crushed under it still.
We allow the reality of war to come home to us, so that peace can come
home to us too and take root in our lives. And as we do that, the promise of
God is that the tiny lights which our small acts represent become part of that great light that no darkness can put out.
God is light and in him is no darkness...

There is another way, and by God's grace we will find it – so that we no longer have to watch youthful veterans march past the Cenotaph as we gather to remember.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent, Yr C

With my thanks to my dear friend Songbird, and the contributers to the "Desperate Preacher" site...This week I surely qualified there!

November with dark nights and dreary mornings, with fallen leaves and bare branches, is a fitting season to contemplate life, death and the hereafter – and the church provides many opportunities to do so. Last Sunday, All Saints, we reflected on our calling to be saints here and now – filled with and transformed by God's presence in our lives...then on Tuesday, All Souls, I read aloud 241 names – the beloved dead that we remembered before God in that most moving of services. Next week we'll think especially of those who die in war...Wherever we look at this time of year, questions of life and death are there...Death, the elephant in the room, is shifting around, refusing to be quiet só that we can ignore it.

I'll never forget taking a funeral for an elderly lady in the early months of my ministry...Her grand-daughters, a few years younger than me, were the chief mourners and we celebrated their grandmother's life, the gift she had been to them and the difference she had made to the world, and stood together as we entrusted her into God's care. They laughed and cried and the service was a wonderful mix of honesty and idealism, as funerals só often are.
But afterwards, as we sat over a glass of wine, the younger sister turned to me and said
“I know that God is looking after Gran – but what I want to know is.......where is she now”
And that, of course, for all my training, I simply could not answer.

Every generation and every culture has wondered about what happens when life as we know it ends and there have been all sorts of attempts to make the unknown bearable...from the ancient Egyptians, filling their tombs with every possible physical essential, só that the dead will be fully provided for as they continue on their those who see life as cycle of death and rebirth, until finally we reach the freedom of nirvana. The Saducees, questioning Jesus, have no concept of resurrection, of life after their question is at best mischievous. They don't really want to know what is going to happen to that poor, much married woman.

But I think that we often try to domesticate eternity by envisaging it according to the world that we do know, the experiences that are our daily lot. We imagine it as a sort of upgraded earth, where all the things we wish were different will indeed be put right.
But, as we are reminded in Scripture, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"--
in other words, - we just don't have a clue!

Heaven is completely different so the two big pillars of the argument -marriage and death- make no sense at all in heaven's terms. Marriage is for now – not for later. Death is for now as well– there is no dying then.
This is something that Moses understood as he recognised that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were alive with God – só he chose to call the Lord the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. He could simply have described him as “my God”, but that would have been to limit himself to the present....Instead he widens his horizon, bringing the past into the present and asserting that ancestors who are dead are alive with God.
Alive – but not in a way that simply continues and improves upon the existence we know right now.
We are not the same after this life. Resurrection is not the same as ressucitation.
Jesus was nothing if not honest with us. He assures us of a resurrection, but not of a repetition of our earthly lives. For some of us that’s a loss. But in many ways, and for many people, it may be a relief, too. Christ's own life, as it came to a human end, contained disappointment and betrayal, being let down by his friends and cruelly killed by his enemies.Jesus understood the pain of being human and he understood too the pain of dying.
“Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.
Jesus calls us to trust in the God of the living, and focus on our life here and now... and let God look after the next life. The how remains beyond us, as it did for Job when he proclaimed his confidence in the paradox that asserts
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God”
That doesn't make any sense, from our time-limited, material frame of reference – but imagine those words as set by Handel...and you will, I'm certain, understand their deep and lasting truth. For the moment it may be only through the lens of great art that we can have an inkling of what is to come...só i'm afraid I would still have no helpful answer for Victoria and her sister – but I hope that i would be slightly less embarassed by this failing.
I know that my Redeemer lives......and that God is the God not of the dead but of the I can, ultimately, trust him not just with my own life and destiny but, even more, with that of those whom I love most...both living and departed.....for to God all of them are alive.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Stepping Stones

Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life”
Though I may sometimes wander from the straight and narrow of Common Worship, when I lead the bearers into church or crematorium chapel at the start of a funeral service, I always begin with these words. For me, it matters hugely that as we enter that space, with that particular task ahead of us, the first word that I speak is Christ's name.

Whatever may happen in the next half hour, for me this has the effect of planting a standard...It balances the moment when, in the baptism service, I anoint the candidate with the sign of the cross and claim her for Christ. It is, I suppose, a moment when we all need to know that God is a God who keeps promises.

But recently I was part of a discussion which included a priest whom I know, love and trust deeply. Our topic was resurrection...those resurrection moments when the world seems transformed (the morning after the Berlin Wall fell was one example, the day Mandela was freed another)...and trying We tried among ourselves to decide whether these were really resurrections – doorways into a new kind of life – or epiphanies – moments of recognition of underlying hidden truth. The conversation ranged far and wide, along many and fascinating roads...and I threw in to the mix that certainty that I always feel when I speak those words at a funeral service, that here is something quite different, quite, quite new...
My friend said that she no longer uses those words, because of their insistence on belief...which makes them, potentially, too harsh a measure against which to judge the eternal destiny of a much loved relative.
“What does it say,” she wondered “to those who feel themselves to be without belief?”

“Those who believe in me, though they die shall live and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”
I guess that could indeed sound harsh, exclusive to mourners struggling with the painful reality of loss and I have sometimes curtailed the reading from John 14 which is so often chosen, because, I suspect, of it's cosiness, it's soothing reassurance that we are on a journey home...
“Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life...”.
I stop before the final sentence:
“No one comes to the Father except through me”
Is that dishonest?
Am I selling the gospel short?
Should I be handing in my license with immediate effect?
I really don't think so.

Do I, then, believe Christ's words?

Yes, absolutely....but I DO NOT believe that this means that those who never commit themselves to Christ are lost.
God loves us far too much for that.
Yes, Jesus opened the one and only gateway through death...He IS the Way...and it is only in him that we can see what it means to live a life fully in God's presence...only in him that we understand what humanity should look like...
But I'm confident that when people seem to reject Him, it's because we've failed to present the Truth in all its Beauty. They aren't rejecting God, but the limited imperfect version of God that we, whether in the Church or outside it, have offered to them.
Sometimes, wonderfully, God finds a way through the cracks...and people come to recognize God despite our inept presentations, our inadequate lives, our leaky theology.

I've written before of the impact that C.S. Lewis had on my world view in childhood – and those influences are as strong as ever.
I know, as far as I know anything, that there will be many who, like the Calormene soldier in The Last Battle, find themselves bemused and startled that their lifelong quest has brought them to a destination that they had never imagined.
I imagine countless souls gasping in wonder, and saying
“Now I understand. I never realized it was like this...”

But funerals are not the time for theology...for deep discussions and persuasive arguments.
They are a time to assert with all the faith and conviction that can be mustered that all is well, that nothing is lost, that love is truly stronger than death.
What matters more than anything is that as the priest leading the service I can believe for everyone there...that when I say
“Confident of Christ's victory and claiming his promises, we entrust X to your mercy...” I do indeed have perfect confidence in that victory, those promises.

So, for me, those sentences that begin the service are important...They are beacons of hope that shine through the maelstrom of emotions...stepping stones that we can rest on, fixed and firm amid the sinking sand of doubt and despair...
Like so much of the liturgy they are truly words of power, transforming people and situations so that the heartsick battered little group that gathers in a crematorium chapel becomes, as it needs to, a community of faith...clinging with desperate conviction to the promise of the cross and empty tomb.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Blogging along

Once upon a time I had a blog that I visited nearly every day.
We did our thinking together, worked out something of what the mad dance of ministry as a curate might entail, tried to make sense of the glimpses of God we noticed along the way.
Then things changed.
I became an incumbent, no longer working in partnership with WonderfulVicar but in a new place, with different patterns of life and worship, different expectations of the clergy and more responsibilities than I had ever imagined.
Blogging took a back seat as I realised that thinking aloud might sometimes be unhelpful, even, occasionally, dangerous...
I did still glimpse God along the way – though perhaps not quite as often – but it seemed wiser to keep most of my daily doings to myself.
Busyness took over.
I was still at my computer more than I'd ever expected at vicar school, but much of my time was taken up with rotas, publicity, papers on this and responses to that...even a parish magazine.
Blogging felt like rather a luxury, as did time spent reading the blogs of others.
This made me sad for I love to write, and love still more the web of connections with friends far and wide that my blog wove for me.
But somehow, even when something was aching to be blogged, it rarely happened.

I've made so many false starts, so many declarations of an intention to return – and I guess I know that the days are gone when writing here seemed an essential element in my emerging ministry...but I can't bring myself to pull the plug and abandon the blog forever. I'm frustrated with myself, recognizing that it's far too easy to miss the God moments if I'm not sharing them with anyone...indeed, as an extrovert, experiences are never absolutely real unless they are shared...
Wonderful things are still happening. Terrible things are still happening. Often I find myself walking a tightrope between the two, not entirely sure of my destination until I arrive....finding joy, un-looked for, as I visit a funeral family...or disillusion and emptyness even as a community gathers to celebrate.

And I need to write of it somewhere because, it seems to me, part of the priestly calling is to keep on telling the story...the story of my communities, of the men, women and children with whom I'm travelling day by day....and the great God Story in which our lives are swept up. My calling, surely, is to build bridges from the one to the journey with my eyes open so that I can try and point out to my fellow travelers the signs of God at work.
For the moment, this blog, neglected, almost forgotten, is still part of the process – a tool that encourages me to stay alert.
Clearly not a luxury, after all.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Reflection for All Souls

Whenever we gather around the altar in obedience to Our Lord's instruction to share bread and wine it seems to me that the veil between earth and heaven is very thin.
When we join in the song of the angels in heaven “Holy, holy, holy...” I'm certain that if we cannot hear the angel voices, it is only because we aren't listening hard enough....but today, as we gather to remember our own beloved dead that great community is closer than ever.
Odilo, abbot of Cluny, gave us this feast of All Souls and fixed November 2 as a commemoration of “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time.” So we pray for them, for ourselves and our children, and our children's children.
From the perspective of eternity, that barrier which we call death is non- existent. Where there is no time, no past, present or future, then there can be no endings or the hymn would have it
All are one in thee, for all are thine”

We pause to remember and to pray for those whom we love but see no longer, knowing that the ties that connected us in life, that made us pray for them and they for us, remain un-broken.
Standing in God's closer presence, I know they are still praying for we for them.
We pray not to rescue them from the bonds of hell – our God offers unconditional love, welcome and forgiveness and our 1st reading spoke truth
" The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and there shall no torment touch them”
Rather we pray with thanksgiving for lives that have enriched our own and with confidence in the God whose Son destroyed death forever, and showed to the world that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from God's love.
Friends on earth and friends above...all one in Christ Jesus.

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
  into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitations of thy glory and dominion,
world without end.

Music for All Souls

The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Music for All Saints

Yesterday morning I was lamenting the fact that I'm unlikely to find myself part of a church where this sort of music is on the menu, at least in the immediately forseeable future...
Imagine my thoroughly un-Christian feelings (overwhelming envy would just about describe them) when my youngest, the Dufflepud, announced that he was off to sing it at Lancaster Priory last night.

I'm not sure where I first sang it, but for me it remains one of those windows onto heaven that fill me with longing

Oh how glorious is the kingdom 
wherein all the saints rejoice with Christ
Clothed in white robes they follow the Lamb wherever he goes.