Saturday, January 29, 2011

Candlemas sermon

What are you hoping for?
If you were invited to describe your dream of tomorrow – for yourself, your family, your church, I wonder what you'd say.
Perhaps you're not sure
Or maybe you've lost hope.
Even forgotten what you were hoping for?
If that's só, then today's gospel might just be for you.

Come with me to the Temple, to the outer court where crowds ebb and flow, and stallholders cry their wares
“Come buy – a kid for your sacrifice?” “Doves – turtle-doves....only the best”
Watch the bustle, the purposeful activity of the market-place.
Is this what you expected of the house of God?
Pause for a while, look about you
Watch for islands of stillness amid the surging throngs.
See that man standing quietly.....thoughtful.....

Ah yes...hopeful indeed, for this is Simeon.
Simeon the one who waits.
Who knows for how many years he has stood in hopeful expectation – the eyes of his heart straining to glimpse the “consolation of Israel” that the Messiah – the one anointed, chosen by God, would offer when he came.
Simeon, clinging to the assurance that he will not die before he has seen and known that Saviour.

Looking around him, he sees much need for consolation.
Israel is an occupied country once more, with a corrupt king and little to celebrate.
Though there is freedom to worship, there is no question but that Rome is in charge.
There is oppression and poverty even in the heart of Jerusalem – and it's here in the heart of Jerusalem that Simeon waits.

Still the crowds come and go, their faces swimming in and out of focus as Simeon continues his vigil.
Some look anxious – perhaps they come to the Temple to pray for healing of body or for peace in their family
Some look desolate – perhaps they come to mourn their dead.
Some look proud and happy – especially those carrying babies...Young fathers walking with a spring in their step, stopping to buy a sacrifice then going on into the second courtyard...Mothers, carrying their precious first-born sons – their gifts from God, to be presented to God once again.

And it's as one such group moves through the crowd that Simeon steps forward.
There's nothing, really, to distinguish this little family from many another.
Certainly they come without pomp and circumstance, with none of the trappings of wealth or status.
Just a man, a woman and a baby – and 2 turtle doves.
Yet as he moves towards them Simeon is sure.
THIS is the moment.
HERE is the promised salvation...seen as he takes the infant into his arms and praises God.
For Simeon, salvation looks like a baby boy, just 40 days old.

It would have been só easy to miss that family in the easy to doubt that God's answer, the hope of Israel, might lie in that tiny fragile body.
I wonder if Simeon was, for a moment, disappointed.
He had waited for só long – had such high hopes – and now God's answer was this baby....
Hard to believe that here could be, in truth, the hope of Israel

Perhaps it's that way for us
We wait in hopeful longing – and then we miss the moment of salvation because our gaze is turned elsewhere, because we never expected it to look like this.
We wanted something bigger and bolder – something unmistakeable, that would convince all the world.......but God offers us a very different resolution.
Or perhaps we haven't even begun to wait in hope.
Perhaps we don't believe that we will ever see a new order, a world transformed by God's intervention
We've lost hope.

At this point, let's turn our attention to another figure in the tableau that our gospel presents.
Here is Mary, proudly bearing her first-born, still trying to make sense of all the extraordinary events, the incredible words, the outlandish visitors that have somehow been part of his birth.
Here she is, doing what seems right...just as countless parents now bring their child to baptism, not because they are sure of their faith but because, doubting themselves, they want to place their precious baby where God's love will surely fall upon him.
She brings her child, in nervous expectation.......and is greeted with these amazing words, unlooked for, and probably not that welcome.

It starts alright..”Lord, now let your servant go in peace...My eyes have seen your salvation”
but as Simeon turns his focus from God to the scene before him the music shifts into a minor key
“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed......and a sword will pierce your own soul too”
Who would choose to stand with Mary at this axis of joy and pain? And yet, this is só often where we can expect to see salvation.
Just yesterday I met with a couple who are planning their wedding.
In the past year, both their families have suffered huge, unwarranted tragedies – the sort of events that could derail your life and leave you feeling that all hope and meaning were gone forever.
Usually, when I first meet a couple I'm intent on the MARRIAGE and try to draw their thoughts away from that grand event, the wedding...but this time the wedding assumed a new was their joint proclamation of hope in the face of death and confusion...the moment when, though a sword had pierced their souls, they nonetheless dared to look up and see salvation.

You may well be familiar with the proverb
“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”

Every time we choose hope, every time we proclaim salvation, however vague and uncertain it seems, we each of us light a candle.
You may have lost track of your own hopes, for this community, for yourself or for your loved ones......but the light that shone in the Temple that day remains with us.

Today Christmas tide comes to an end. We have to extinguish the light of our crib, turn from our celebrations of Christ's birth towards Lent and our preparations for His Passion.
For us, as for Mary, this is a day when joy and pain coincide.

But it is, also, a day when we light candles...many many we celebrate “A light to reveal God to the nations....and the glory of your people Israel”

Those candles are our daily reminder of God with us.......Emmanuel.......with us in the joy of the Birth day but with us too when hopes seem to vanish, when we've lost sight of all purpose...even when we're too weary or short sighted to recognise His presence.

What are you hoping for?
It may seem incredible – but in that child, lying peacefully in Simeon's arms, all our hopes are realised, all our fears put to flight...
Here is salvation – fragile, uncelebrated but utterly non negotiably real.
It may not match our expectations – but it is all the salvation we are going to get, and, thanks be to God, all we will ever need.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thoughts on welcome - a work in progress

This week, the UK press has been buzzing with the case of Mr and Mrs Bulls, Bed and Breakfast proprietors who in 2008 refused to allow a gay couple (in a civil partnership) to stay...The couple brought a case on the grounds of discrimination, with the Bulls providing a focus for the groups who believe that Christianity is being marginalised in 21st century Britain, and feelings running high on either side.
The judge in the first hearing found in favour of the couple, Steven and Martyn..but this doesn't mean that the issues are going away quietly. On Sunday I'm doing a live phone interview for local radio, as a former B & B owner with a rather different view.

I ran a B&B in the North Cotswolds for several years while our children were growing up...The main guest accommodation was in a small barn conversion, adjacent to the house – with guests coming over to the farmhouse for breakfast. This meant that the children were free to be loud and messy, while guests could enjoy the peace of the countryside...It also meant that I did not, for the most part, have to make difficult decisions about whether I felt comfortable with particular guests mixing with my children.
Important edit 

An anonymous commenter below alerted me to the possibility of misunderstanding here.
I should clarify here that I had and have no problem AT ALL with my children enjoying the company of gay guests...simply that if I had shared the view of the Bulls, I would still not have been in the same situation, in that my guests were not actually sleeping in my house. Once or twice people stayed with us who were, for example, particularly heavy drinkers: I did not have to worry that small children might encounter a guest unable to make it upstairs to bed, or rushing to the loo after one too many, because the guests slept in the barn.

I appreciate that this puts me in a rather different position from Mr & Mrs Bull – but I have to say that in their situation I would nonetheless have welcomed Martyn & Steven as guests
In part this is because I do not share the Bull's view that gay relationships are contrary to God's will...for me then, as now, a faithful, stable and committed relationship, whether straight or gay, is an expression of love to celebrate...and something that makes God smile.
But even if I held another view, it seems to me that their approach is not workable. Unless you demand a marriage certificate from every couple of prospective guests, it's surely not possible to marital status as a yard-stick to assess suitability.

There are many ways in which, as human beings, we sadden God.
Cruelty, selfishness, greed...
None of those is immediately obvious to the naked eye – so it's not practical to make moral judgements about whom to welcome on those grounds.
Why then, should we be selective about the issues that we treat as deal-breakers. It would be quite easy, on a quick reading of the press, to believe that Christianity is only concerned with issues of sexuality and gender - but that is so far from true
Those who are anxious that Christianity is under threat in this country are keen to present this case as one in which faith and Law are set against one another...My personal view is that welcoming all comers into my home was one way of reflecting the unconditional hospitality of the God, who doesn't demand that we have our lives in perfect order before we come to him. To be less than inclusive seems to me both unjust and unkind. 

As I was thinking about this, a friend posted a photograph of the words that she has over her desk: Micah 6:8
What does the Lord require of you? To do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.
Or, more simply still, "Love", said Jesus,"is the fulfilling of the Law".

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, Yr A at Cainscross & Selsley

Isn't the Liturgical year amazing?
Two weeks ago, we celebrated Jesus's birthday...Last week we heard of the visit of the wise today the baby has grown to manhood and his active ministry is about to begin, as he comes for Baptism in the Jordan.
It's also tempting to wonder about the hidden years. What was the teenaged Jesus like? Did he learn carpentry from Joseph? Did he tell wonderful stories with hidden meanings to his half siblings in the family home?
We don't know.
In fact, despite the Christmas carols that suggest otherwise, we actually know nothing about what happened to Jesus between the family's return to Nazareth and the moment when he turns his back on Galilee and seeks out his cousin, on the banks of the Jordan.

In this age of celebrity culture, it's almost unthinkable that a Saviour could ever stay hidden for so many years.....but perhaps Jesus is easier to miss than we might imagine. The star that shone to guide the wise men no longer brightens the way at the start of his public ministry, nor does it offer much help to us in our everyday search.
The truth is, Jesus often seems to be disguised, camouflaged by our own expectations.... though we might do well to look for him in our times in the wilderness.

Meanwhile, though, he might seem to be just one of the crowd that has come to listen to John, and obey his call to repentance...except, of course, that here is one who has nothing to sin to be washed away.
Poor John is baffled
“What are you doing here? This is no place for you...You already know and live everything I'm preaching can I baptise you?”

It IS hard for us to grasp...small wonder that John was confused.
Perhaps, though, we should know by now that Jesus will always choose the way of humility...even when he comes to claim his God-given identity.
John is right that he has no NEED of baptism...but Jesus does this, as he does everything else, for our benefit. Acting as our representative, he shows us we need to do. He identifies fully with every flawed and broken person, each and every sinner who comes to baptism longing for a fresh start, a new identity.

For, you see, Baptism remains very much about claiming identity. Our gospel passage points to Jesus' identity revealed as he emerges from the waters, but we too receive a fresh identity through our baptism.It's an identity that
transforms how we see our life, our trials, our failures, our wilderness, and finally even our death.

At the Jordan, God affirms his Son in words that only Jesus can hear...and those words are the reason that I specially cherish this scene.
This is just the start.
Jesus has performed no miracles, preached no awesome sermons. All his public ministry still lies ahead.
This is the very beginning and yet God declares
This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.
As God looks on him, so God loves him, totally and unconditionally, from the very beginning.
No further action is necessary...There is no requirement to prove himself worthy of love.
And it is the same for us.
There is nothing that we can do that will make him love us more, or less. Loving is just what God does. That relationship has always existed…our Baptism and what follows is our response to it, but for God the love he bears us has always been there, always a given reality. So, what happens for Jesus, in that moment that the heavens are opened, is his realisation of the way things are..his recognition of an eternal truth.
He is God's child.
So are you.
I'd like to share a story that I found online, as I prepared to preach today.
It concerns an man who grew up in small-town America, his life blighted because his mother had brought him up on her own...He had never known his father, and carried that stigma each and every day, bullied by school mates, looked down on by neighbours.
But one day, things changed...A new preacher visited the town, and at the end of the service invited anyone who wished to talk to come and meet with him. Something in the preacher's words had touched the lad and he decided to go and talk...He wasn't sure what he was hoping for, but as he approached, with the sort of embarrassed shuffle that is often adopted by self conscious teenagers, he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. Compelled to look up, he saw the preacher’s smiling face. Then he heard the preacher say, “What’s your name, boy? Whose son are you?”
Before the lad could answer, the pastor continued,
“I know who you are. I know who your family is. There’s a distinct family resemblance. Why, you’re the son of God!”
Then the preacher put his arm around the boy and pointed him to the door and said affirmatively, “Now go and claim your inheritance.”
That's the call for each one of us...To claim and to live out our inheritance.
or us, as for Jesus, Baptism represents an affirmation of who we are before God, of his ever-present love for us, and our response.
That response is not simply a question of words repeated in an expression of repentance, trust and belief for one day only. It is a response that should shape our whole life…a response that may lead us to places of pain and desolation, to the wilderness if not to the cross.
By the door of St Matthew's, there is a holy water stoup, something that looks like a second, smaller font...As many of you will know, it was discovered in the undergrowth when the churchyard was being cleared some years ago. For a while it stood empty and purposeless..but now it contains water from the baptismal font, water that has been blessed for use in baptism.
It stands there to remind us that we were not baptised once upon a time, long ago and far away, but that we ARE baptised...immersed in God's love, changed by his Spirit...As you enter and leave the building, you might like to dip your fingers in the water and trace the cross on your forehead, as a reminder of this...and a reminder of the essence of our baptism.
We are created so that we may each of us hear and respond to God’s word of love for us. We recognise this as we look at Jesus, that love expressed in human form, and we are enabled to live in love through the creative power of the Holy Spirit, who hovered over the waters of our Baptism. It is the Holy Spirit who stirs us and empowers us to live out our true calling, as God’s beloved children, with whom he is well pleased.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A promise kept

Great excitement at the vicarage yesterday, as for once (probably the first time since I found myself doing such things at all) the first Baptism of the year took place before the first Funeral...I tend to do a fair number of both, but it always feels as if the funerals far out-number baptisms, whatever the statistics may say - largely, I'd guess, because there is generally a much deeper connection with those whom I meet in the context of bereavement, when there is little room or energy for pretence. I love officiating at all the "occasional offices" but too often the happier the event, the weaker the bond forged with the family. I believe with all my heart in having a totally open and unconditional baptism policy - how could I do otherwise? it's God's church, not mine! - and I recognise that this can mean that families come through our doors for Baptism when it's most unlikely they will forge lasting bonds with the church.
Yesterday, though, was a splendid exception. Baby William's baptism at lunchtime was a delight as his whole family were really focussed on what was happening...They responded when invited to, listened (and commented on) the address, and were pretty much a dream congregation, really. They even said, as they left "See you soon..." and I dared to believe that I might.

What I didn't expect was that, after all the excitements of a baptism and a family celebration afterwards, they would make the effort to return to church that evening to join us for our Epiphany Carol Service....but there they were, baby, parents and a clutch of other family members, holding their candles and singing with enthusiasm. They even stayed for mince pies afterwards, - but they can't have known what a difference their presence made to the way the New Year started. So very grateful!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Homily for Epiphany at All Saints

At this time of year, one of the favourite trick questions beloved by clergy tends to come to the fore.
It is, of course, “How many wise men visited Jesus?” or perhaps even “How many Kings?”
You all know better than to fall into the trap by shouting out “THREE” - though you'd be surprised at quite how many do...You all know that the idea of three visitors is based on the three types of gift mentioned by Matthew, around which a whole host of assumptions and stories has accrued through the years.
But today we remember those travellers, whatever their number, the wise men from the East whose journey to Bethlehem showed the way for all beyond Israel to seek the Christ born there.
We remember them because their journey is our journey, their search our own...whatever we may carry with us.
So now I'd like to tell you a story, one that was part of my childhood and that of my children too...the mythical tale of The Other Wise Man. You know, of course, that what we call myth is often a vehicle for deep truth, wrapped in a story that has no pretension to reality.

I think that is the case, are you sitting comfortably?

There were four wise men, who were astronomers, scanning the skies, reading the signs of their times and comparing notes on their findings. They were expecting a new star to arise in the East signifying the birth of a great new ruler – and one day, the stars proclaimed that this King had been born.
Their plan was to set off when the star appeared, meet up and travel together bearing gifts for the newborn King. Artaban came from Persia, and carried with him the treasures of the orient – three priceless jewels, sapphire, ruby and pearl.
When the star appeared, he set off for the agreed meeting place, but on the way he came across a sick man by the roadside and could not pass by without offering help. After a delay, he reached the meeting point only to find the others had gone on without him.
So he sold the sapphire to buy a team of fast camels to cross the desert, hoping to catch up.
Too late!
By the time he reached Bethlehem, he found the town in uproar.
Mary, Joseph and the child had fled to Egypt, the other Wise Men had presented their gifts and gone home, and Herod had ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys. Artaban was appalled as he saw violence on every street corner, and came face to face with a group of soldiers about to tear a small boy from his mother’s arms and kill him. He tried to stop them, and eventually prevailed as mother and child were released, in exchange for the ruby.

So the fourth Wise Man travelled on to Egypt, searching high and low to find Jesus. He wandered for many years through different lands, always looking for the promised King, but he could not find him. Eventually he came to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover.
The city was crowded and the atmosphere tense.
Executions were taking place and he heard that one of those who had been sentenced to death was a man said to have had a strangely marvellous birth in Bethlehem, who had received gifts from three wise men. He was known to many as the Messiah, the Anointed one, the King.
Artaban hurried to the hill outside the city where this man was about to die on a cross.
But on the way, he ran into a group of men dragging a young girl away to sell her into slavery.
She begged him for help and he responded by giving her the pearl to pay for her freedom.
He was sad because this was the last of his treasures which he had kept for the King.

At that moment, there was an earthquake, knocking Artaban off his feet. He heard a voice speaking to him, the voice of the King saying, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me.’
The old man replied, ‘Lord, I have searched for you for thirty three years, but I have never seen you or cared for you.’
The voice of the Lord came again, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me.’
And so his journey, and his life work ended.
His treasures were accepted.
The Other Wise Man had found the King.’

So where is the truth in this much loved myth?
Do you really need to ask?
The Christ whom we seek shows his face to us in so many different ways...
We glimpse him in each other as we gather to worship, encounter him as we listen to his word, receive him in the breaking of bread.......but he's there to be found in all places of pain and need in our world.
We meet him in the flood victims of Pakistan, the homeless on the streets of Stroud, the recovering acoholic who likes to sit in St Matthew's if he is having a bad day.
We might meet him yet nearer to home, if there is someone who needs something from us – a family member, a colleague at work, a neighbour we recognise at church..
Christ may well come in the guise of a stranger, or, harder still, as someone so familiar to us that we think we know them inside out...and, you know, we all have a gift to offer.

Not jewels – he doesn't really need them...but gifts of love, of time, of service, which can be every bit as costly to the giver.
Today as we celebrate Epiphany we reflect on Christ revealed to the nations, the Word made flesh living among us as full of grace and truth now as at creation.
We are called, at this season and beyond, to seek
revelation, that life changing experience of Christ alive in our world, so that like the three Wise Men we may be ‘overwhelmed with joy’ and offer our lives as a gift to the new King.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Looking forward, looking back

I'm snuggled in bed with Theo the kitten purring loudly on my chest - and with just a few minutes of typing time before he launches into another round of Kill the Cursor, his new favourite game. Maybe time, then, for a quick round of Janus, a reflection on 2010 as it vanishes in the mist behind me and just a quick glance at what might lie ahead...

2010 was the year I'd been dreading for so long.
24 years ago, when my DD Hattie Gandhi was first placed in my arms, I threw myself heart and soul into motherhood and from then on a large part of the landscape of my life was defined by my children, shaped by their needs, enlivened by their joys...Of course I knew (and know) that they were simply "on loan", that however precious the ties, however deep the connections, my task as a parent was to work myself out of a job, to make my children ready to manage life in a world which, one day, will not include me at all - and over the past 5 years I've been learning what that process really feels like as each in turn moved from school to university.

Helpfully, of course, those 5 years also saw my own transition from curate to incumbent - so that instead of the responsibilities of nurturing and launching 3 young adults I gained responsibility for 2 radically different communities, their spiritual welfare, their exploration of God in the every day....Despite this, though, I was dreading autumn 2010 when my younger son, blogname The Dufflepud, would depart for university and my firstborn would complete her MA and step out into the adult world of work.Because my own parents died when I was 18, this whole chapter is uncharted territory - I don't even know how NOT to do it (though I guess I'd suggest that the approach my parents inadvertently adopted is probably not the ideal!!).

So - 2010 loomed, black and scary on my horizon for quite a long time....the knowledge that I would turn 50 (which certainly sounds grown up, even if it doesn't feel it) compounding the problem. Surely I'd emerge from THAT year a radically different being - assuming there was anything left of me at all.

If that all sounds rather silly - your view of the situation is entirely correct!
Yes, 2010 saw the departure of the "last child" but though I miss them all inordinately, there are so many other things crowding into my life, from chickens (the birthday present that asserts each day that life begins at 50!) and the Christmas kitten to a whole raft of new and interesting jobs within the diocese, and new connections and relationships within the parish too. The few evenings when I was home alone last term (I think there may have been 4 all told) were blissful islands in a sea of busyness, rather than bleak little encounters with a lonely world....I even managed a few evenings with dear and special friends, and a spot of proper cooking...and I met a whole collection of new chicken-keeping friends with whom to share. I coped, I really did - and even enjoyed myself!

Yes, my children were STILL responsible for the highlights of the year - the wonderful surprise birthday party that gathered so many loved and loving people that the whole evening was an exercise in counting my blessings in human form - the pride at Hattie Gandhi's wonderful MA distinction - the joy in meeting and coming to love Hugger Steward's GF - the delight in hearing of new discoveries, new interests as the Dufflepud settled into university.
But perhaps the greatest joy of the year was one that came from near-disaster, when the Dufflepud missed his grades for his first-choice university. He and I were both shell-shocked, and a bit of me just wanted to wail and gnash my teeth at an unkind universe....His siblings, however, are made of stronger stuff and between them looked after both his practical needs - sorting out a kind of "Cabinet War Room" to help him negotiate the complex process of UCAS Clearing - and the more sensitive issues of self esteem in a family where A grades have been almost taken for granted. The way the children operated that day was perhaps the best gift in a year of many gifts - for they showed me in everything they did that they were indeed the sort of caring and competent adults that I longed for them to be - and that, when the time comes, they will indeed look after one another.
So maybe 2010 was indeed the year that I grew up - and it turned out not to be so frightening after all!

2011 - who knows? But whatever lies ahead, I've some wonderful people travelling with me - and more Love than I can imagine leading me on.