Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lent 2 A homily for 8.00 John 3 1-17

Did you sleep well last night? I hope so…Tossing and turning as the hours tick past can be a wretched experience.
I wonder if that’s what brought Nicodemus to Jesus…Perhaps he had been mulling over something he’d heard and just couldn’t sleep till he’d cleared it up.
Jesus had started a train of thought that had ended with a really burning question…it must have been pretty overwhelming to actually get him out of bed
One question to ask God’s Son…If you had that opportunity, I wonder what you’d choose…what you most long to hear answered….
Think on that.

Meanwhile, though, back to Nicodemus.
Perhaps he's afraid of what his friends and colleagues will say if he's seen approaching this controversial itinerant preacher. Hence his nocturnal ramblings.
After all, he’s a respected figure …part of the establishment with a reputation to protect. He’s not in the same position as that rag tag handful of Galilean boatmen who could just drop everything and go where Jesus lead. He’s immured in his current way of life…
He’s too old for a fresh start…. But still he comes, armed with his deductions, in search of some answers..
You see, he thinks he has worked it all out.
Jesus is undoubtedly a Rabbi sent specially by God.
That’s the only explanation for the signs and wonders he, Nicodemus, has witnessed.
In grasping that, he’s half way there but recognising a heaven-sent teacher is not in itself enough to propel a man from his bed in the small hours. Something more is nagging away but he doesn't know what,- he is just aware of that vague feeling of disquiet which is often a sign that God is trying to get through to us, if only we will stand still and listen.

Nicodemus, of course, has come to listen, to be taught, but he must have found Jesus's response at best discouraging, - positively baffling indeed. Instead of being congratulated on his perception, - he does recognise the presence of God when he sees it,- he is told that he can't even SEE the kingdom, still less enter it. He’s still way off course. He needs to be born again.
"Ah yes, born again" we say, nodding sagely, for this has become a Christian cliche over the centuries, carrying with it all sorts of associations, helpful and otherwise. It is hard to imagine how very strange the phrase sounded to Nicodemus – who is much too adult to consider a new start.
We’re confident that we know much better than him, with his literal vision of re-entering the womb
Actually, though, his confusion has much to say to us, if we really think about a new-born baby. It arrives naked, totally helpless, dependent upon others for food, warmth, love, everything it needs to help it live and thrive. In the same way, Nicodemus and all who seek the kingdom must become totally vulnerable and helpless before God, accepting that without him we can do nothing. This isn’t easy in the twenty-first century, when we tend to feel that we have conquered the world and everything in it,
It wasn’t easy for the cultured, educated Nicodemus either. Total vulnerability never is.
Then, a newborn baby comes without intellectual and emotional baggage, with literally no pre-conceptions. Nothing is impossible, impractical, foolish, beneath that hypnotic newborn gaze
In contrast, when we find ourselves challenged by the Gospel, too often our response is limited by our ideas of what is actually sensible, or socially acceptable. It takes a lot of courage to dump all that we have learned about how the world works, even when we are becoming aware of the shortcomings of the system…but if we are starting from scratch, we can be more genuinely open to the radical implications of the gospel message.
Being born again might look a bit like that

Finally, a baby and its parents in those very first newborn days can become all the world to each other, giving and receiving absolute unconditional love. There are no distractions for the baby: he knows no-one else to love, and has no idea that his parents, brimming with good intentions, will ever let him down.
Absolute unconditional love…Where else do we meet that?
You don’t need me to answer that…
It is offered to us, today and always, by the God Nicodemus yearned for day and night
The God we meet in Word and Sacrament.
the God who loved the world – not just the good, not just the Jews, not even just the Christians - 
the God who loved the WORLD so much that he sent his only Son…

Friday, March 11, 2011

"Rejoice, oh dust and ashes..."

Fr Simon of Blessed, the alternative worship community from Gosport, has a rather splendid ministry of daily text messages...They arrive at random moments and always offer something worth reflection. Often their timing and content shout loudly "God-incidence!God-incidence!" as they feed directly into situations of which Fr S could not possibly be aware...and generally they move my thinking on in wholly positive and helpful ways.
On Ash Wednesday I was woken as  the morning text arrived,  a quote from wonderful Herbert McCabe
"When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love"
Familiar words, but always freshly inspiring, today they provided the backdrop for 2 wonderful Ash Wednesday services.
The day began with school worship...Timing was tight, so I couldn't even consider ashing all the children, but we did make ash by burning some nice juicy sins (written on scraps of paper) - using as our fire bowl a large Celebrations tin.
Thus, at a stroke, we not only prevented the vicar from burning the church down but introduced the idea that Lenten penitence is always fundamentally joyful...the coming together of our human need for forgiveness and God's irrepressible loving urge to forgive and restore.

But at the same time the process stirred another memory and brought home another truth.
You see paper doesn't burn well on its own.
The flames that leaped as I used the lighter soon burned out, leaving parts of the words - "Being unkind" "Being intolerant" "Forgetting to pray" still all too visibly present, reminders of a work in progress.
Then I remembered what I'd learned once before - that paper only burns successfully if you leave the source of heat there. The best approach is to have a candle in the firebox  if you want the flame to last.

For my own benefit, I'll labour the point. 
If you don't stay close to the source of light, joy and forgiveness - you're left with the reality of the person you really are, in all your untransformed grubby reality.
This Lent, I'm planning, hoping and praying to take time each day to get close to God, and allow God to get on with showing me the person God has always seen and always loved when looking at me...

And that will be something to celebrate!

Not for the first time, John Bell says it best

"Take, oh take me as I am.
Summon out what I shall be.
Set your seal upon my heart
and live in me"

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Lost Shepherd

At Llannerchwen I quickly fall into the pattern that has shaped my retreats for many years...After breakfast and morning prayer, I will usually spend the morning with the book that has called to me: this time, particularly, Peterson's “Contemplative Pastor”. I may well journal in response to it – often I'll do some art or craft work – and then in the early afternoon it's time to go for a walk.
The walks around Llannerchwen seem to be strangely illusive, if you try to follow the map that waits in the folder in each prayer-hut...but I think I'm beginning to learn that getting lost here is often the way to find out something important, a truth I might easily miss otherwise.

So that afternoon I set off confidently down the lane, relishing the sense of space and silence that the spring bird-song somehow seems to emphasise...Snowdrops and catkins spoke of spring waiting poised in the wings, but the daffodil buds remained tight and green...their triumphant glory will come soon, but not yet. But despite this, there was colour everywhere. The rich red earth, the thousand different greens of the deep moss that covers wood and boulders on this dampest of hill-sides. Springs burst from the bank, rivulets found a way through tiny ravines, chattering busily on their way, and for some time I was content to follow them down the hill, pausing to take in tiny details, remembering as best I could to say “thank you” that I was there, free to wander, to pause, to be.
At the bend in the road a track led off on the left to another house – but my way, said the map, was to the right – up through the farm and so back home. At first I followed a clear track through the woods, putting up a pheasant or two whose sharp “Cack, cack” seemed unreasonably urgent, at odds with my mood. At the edge of the woodland I reached a cross-roads: left would take me back to the lane, and a clear route back, but that did seem dull...With the whole of the Brecon Beacons to explore, who would choose a walk down a metalled round and back again? So I went on, following the green dotted line on my map, which told me that on through the farm yard lay my route home.
I could see the farm above me, and 2 men by a lambing shed (the sound of the flock grew louder as I climbed)...I worried, slightly, that I might be off course, trespassing unintentionally...but the map was very clear so I pressed on, and coming out in the farmyard followed a red painted sign whose arrow marked the way “Llannerchwen”.
Plain sailing for a while, up through one field but at the end there was a choice – 2 gates side by side and not a hint of which one would lead to the path home. It seemed to me that leaving the telegraph poles to my right was the better idea so I opted for the left hand gate and continued up the hill. Up hill had to be right – specially when I saw that woodland lay ahead, for my own prayer hut of Ty Siwan stands of the edge of a wood. It began to mizzle, in the way that seems a natural expression of the Welsh countryside. The mountains around me began to disappear into the mist and soon I could only see a few yards in front of me, as my glasses were fogged up. I reached the far side of the field, - but there was no gate, so I was forced to make my way round the edge in search of a way onwards. I crossed another field, still heading upwards, then another...I began to worry a little. The way up seemed to be much longer than the way down and the rain was beginning to make itself felt, the landscape closing in around me.
Finally I reached the far side of that field and saw ahead of me not the home paddock I had expected but a totally unfamiliar stretch of ploughed earth in which some distinctly scraggy sheep munched on roots and mangle wurzles.
No point in carrying on, then.
I had clearly missed my way, and would have to return to the farm and start again – or maybe even revert to the metalled lane I'd scorned before. It went against the grain to head back downhill, knowing that I'd have to climb again – but common sense dictated that this was the only way.
And then, as I crossed the second field, I saw another figure, hooded against the rain, holding a stout stick like the one that waited beside the door of Ty Siwan. I wondered if this might be a fellow pilgrim, or even one of the sisters...someone who knew where they were going and could thus show me the way home.
With a new sense of purpose I made haste towards her, - but as I crossed into the next field I noticed something – the shape of a long low building on the edge of a wood...A building I had completely failed to see as I toiled uphill, certain that my destination was just over the horizon. Suddenly I knew exactly where I was...which was fortunate because as I clambered over the stile into “her” field, the other walker turned and came towards me
“I don't suppose you know the way to Llannerchwen? I seem to have got lost”.
Suddenly lost sheep became shepherd as I pointed out the cabin and the stile, just across the field from us, which she too had failed to spot.
Together we made our way triumphantly downhill...over one more stile, and home!
If I hadn't been trying to follow her, I would never have seen the familiar landmarks that brought us home...If she hadn't retraced her steps, she too would have wandered around in the mist, getting colder and more anxious as one muddy field merged with the next, and the sheep seemed to mock up with their bleating.
I have to confess, I didn't admit to her quite how far off course I had been...nor the part that she herself had played in my change of direction. After all, we were both of us trying to spend a week in silence. But as I opened my front door and took off my muddy boots I could hear God's laughter and joined in. So much of ministry seems to involve treading a path that you believe is there, heading on a course that has been laid out for you, plugging along without much encouragement simply because you are sure that this is the way it has to be. I wouldn't be surprised if home really was just around the corner – but in struggling on uphill we run the risk of overshooting and carrying on, wasting time and energy forever. Better by far to find the courage to admit that we're lost, to turn around and seek another way, in company with others.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Too much or not enough?

Recently, thanks to my episcopal review, last week's retreat and a determination to avoid the dreaded burn-out, I've been spending some time pondering routes to a balanced life. Despite all the issues that I took with me, I know that by the time I left Llannerchwen last Friday I was properly present to myself, to others and indeed to God in a way that the breathlessness of parish ministry often precludes.
There are so many times here when, though I am trying my hardest to engage fully with the person in front of me, I'm horribly aware that I'm about to be late for the next appointment or am wondering what saying "Yes" to this particular request might mean for an already loaded diary...

That's just no good - for me, or for those whom I'm here to serve so it was a huge and wonderful blessing to come home without that sense of things pressing in which characterises life so much of the time...and it's a blessing I am keen to hold onto.
A bantam-buying expedition on Sunday and a flying visit to see Hugger Steward yesterday evening (OK, it's mad to drive to Cambridge and back for the sake of a 3 hour visit - but it was most definitely worth it) have helped so far, but I know that there are too many things clamouring for attention and it's hard not to be alarmed by them....
or at least, I was until a phone call with the son of the lady whose funeral I took this afternoon.
He, bless his heart, has been his mum's main carer throughout her illness and, like so many in his situation, finds himself somewhat lost now that she no longer needs his constant presence. He has mobility problems, which, he said, were now rather a blessing
"I'm glad it takes me longer to do means I won't have so much time to fill now"

Perhaps, rather than agonising about the state of my diary I should just be thankful that there IS so much to get up for every morning. 
And, while the sun is shining, get out to walk the dog.