Saturday, July 30, 2011

Homily for 8.00 30th July

It began with a handful of grain – scattered carelessly in the field...
Not a big handful you wouldn't have noticed it falling on the soil - but nonetheless, through the grace of the Creator it sprouted and grew and in time there was a patch of corn...
Not a whole field, but a good few ears, which when harvested produced enough to grind to make a sack of flour
Not that much flour – nobody would have struggled to carry the sack home from the mill – but still it was enough for a family to thank God as they made their bread for a few months

Nothing spectacular in all of that.
The stuff of ordinary life.
You'd wouldn't bother to turn your head to look...not at the grain, nor the corn, nor the flour...not even at the fresh baked bread which made the whole kitchen smell so good.

5 loaves, wrapped up to make a picnic for a child...a child off exploring in the hill country, running free, but pausing, his attention held by the man telling wonderful stories to the crowd.
Just one small child
And one packed lunch
Nothing spectacular here either...

But when the moment came, when there WAS no food for all those gathered....that one ordinary boy dared to offer himself, with all that he had, to the Teller of Tales
That small basket, packed with a small boy's lunch – fruit of the earth and work of human hands – was taken, blessed, broken open and distributed
And somehow, beyond all expectations, by the grace of God it was enough.

So it is with us.
We bring nothing spectacular to God's table...
Ordinary people, bringing ordinary hopes, ordinary fears and broken dreams...
Nothing to offer, really – but if we dare....if we truly offer ourselves, with all that we have and all that we are

Then, we too can be blessed, broken, distributed....and find ourselves transformed beyond all hopes and expectations...
Blessed by God as we meet Him in the bread and wine of Eucharist
Blessed to go out and be a blessing in our turn

Augustine said to his confirmation candidates, as they brought bread and wine to the altar at the Offertory - “there YOU are on the altar...You are to be taken, blessed, broken, distributed so that the work of the Incarnation may go forward”

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The best I can do tonight...

Proper 12A – Romans 8 & Matthew 13

Another week when the news has been anything but good.
Corruption and scandal at home, famine abroad and then late on Friday night the news of the horrific events in Norway....the bomb in Oslo and the shooting of so many young people off at a summer camp in an idyllic island setting.
Truly the stuff of nightmares – and just as things seemed to be at their worst news began to spread across the internet – the gunman, Anders Behring Breivik, was described as a fundamentalist Christian.

Suddenly, I realised without any stretch of the imagination how the majority of peaceable, devout Muslims must feel as they read the often hysterical references to Islamic fundamentalists.
I was distraught as it appeared that none of those reporting could see the contradiction between the horrific violence that claimed só many young lives and the label of “little Christ...Christian” that had been attached to it.
I wanted to rush out into the road shouting
No.......No..........You've got it all wrong. Christianity isn't like that....Nobody who is following Jesus could ever act in that dreadful way”

I wanted to – but I didn't.

Because I started thinking about the way that I live out my baptism....the ever present gap between the person I'm called to be, the one whom on my best days I aspire to be, and the thoroughly ordinary, hurt and hurting Kathryn who repeatedly fails in her quest to follow Jesus.

I realised that Christianity isn't that much like my life either....That though I may long to spend my time as a sign of God's Kingdom, I sometimes find myself pointing in a very different direction.

And I'm probably not alone.

Because, I guess, each one of us betrays the Kingdom of God in só many different ways.
We may do só by failing to care enough – by ignoring the cries of the hungry children of Africa or the loneliness of the troubled old lady down the road.
We may do só by a disproportionate focus on the interests of our own kind – our own family, perhaps even our own church family...
We may do só by the choices we make in our shopping trips – to save ourselves money at the expense of others, far away out of sight and thus out of mind
We may do só by staying silent in the face of injustice or by the simple hypocrisy that leads us, like the Pharisee in the Temple, to thank God that WE are not like other people.
Though perhaps none of those betrayals is as flagrant or as cataclysmic in its immediate impact as the probable actions of Anders Breivik, still each reflects our failure to truly live the cross-shaped life that we're called to in baptism.

Too often when I read a report of the latest mad or bad cleric, the sillier discussions at General Synod, or the minor selfishness of a small community that thinks that “charity begins at home” means “US first – everyone else can just wait their turn” I want to exclaim've got it all wrong...Being a Christian isn't like that”
But sadly, that's often all the Christianity that people see.

Is there no hope, then?
If even the best of us fall over our own feet again and again, should we say, as one rather weary friend lamented earlier this week, that “the Christian project has failed”.
Certainly if we look at the lives of those who profess themselves Christians, there is lots of ground for disappointment...We don't seem to be bringing in the Kingdom, do we? The world is every bit as broken and enslaved as it has ever been.

But wait.
How does Jesus describe the Kingdom, that state of being in which God's will is done on earth as in heaven?
He doesn't, you'll notice, talk about overnight revolutions – about the world turned upside down, and everything made perfect in an instant.
Nor does he talk about our working our way into the Kingdom...It's nothing to do with us qualifying by our behaviour.
The images of the Kingdom that he gives us in our gospel today are all about gradual growth, delayed gratification...
A seed, só tiny that you might drop it without even noticing, that grows slowly, imperceptibly to become a home and shelter for many
Yeast, that takes it time to work within dough...that cannot effect change unless the conditions are right...but that cannot BUT change everything with which it has contact
A treasure buried in a field...buried so deep that few people suspect that it is there...but something of such value that it is worth all we could possibly pay and more....
A priceless pearl – worth more than we can imagine...the sort of jewel you might spend a lifetime seeking...

Nothing quick, easy or dramatic here...but also nothing that depends on us.
The Kingdom, - where God's love rules regardless of our failures, our intransigence, our stupidity....that Kingdom will come.
It will come because there is nothing that can stop it.
Not human sin
Not the powers of evil
Not the things of time, nor those of eternity.
God's love is inexorable...
It will find its way through our rebellions, our apathy, our feeble attempts to live as Christians and our petulant refusals to let God be God...

It will even find its way through the pain of those who are weeping for lost children today...
That's what love does.
It does not eliminate it is right and proper to lament, to cry out with all that is in us “Oh God – why”......knowing that as we do so, Christ allies himself to us in our weeping and in our longing for redemption.
Love comes with us into our darkness, shares our desolation, cries in our tears, but is not overcome.
Even Paul, who was undoubtedly a fundamentalist Christian in that so much of our theology is founded on his writings, never doubted that.
Love never ends” he said, to the Christians in Corinth......and then, as he looked at the trials and terrors that surrounded the new-fledged church in Rome he wrote still more powerfully
I am confident that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Christianity does not depend on us.
Hope does not depend on us.
We fail, again and again, but always, always God's love wins...and as we recognise and begin to respond to this, so the task of following, of becoming signs of the Kingdom, becomes, step by tiny step, that bit more possible

So – despite the grief of the world......Despite the shame that I feel when I measure my own Christianity against the fulness of God's kingdom, despite all that casts shadows across our lives I can say
I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in Love, even when I do not feel it
I believe in God, even when God is silent”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Mission Shaped Kathryn?

Off and on through the past year, though far less regularly than I'd hoped, I've been part of a group exploring "Mission Shaped Ministry". The course finished just a week ago, and I've been reflecting on its impact on me and the ministry of the church in my parishes.

At the same time, I've been part of other conversations around the work of our Deanery pioneer minister, - so the mission theme has been bubbling away quite close to the service this week.

We're blessed with a very able pioneer minister working as a curate in a nearby parish, but also giving 50% of his time to developing a Fresh Expression of church in the town at the centre of the deanery.
This neighbouring town*  is a wonderful mixture...some very down to earth people born and bred here....some spiritual explorers with alot of energy and commitment to alternative spiritualities...many devotees of Rudolf Steiner....lots of artists, thinkers, askers of Big Questions.
Altogether, it's an extraordinary place where it's never hard to find something interesting and thought-provoking going on, but sadly the Christian presence does not, to my mind, really seem to connect with the essence of the town. We've tended to hide in our churches, or to offer an attractive but specific model of evangelism through "Churches Together" - which has, I think, depended heavily on inviting people to some well-organised events, sometimes with big-name speakers. Of course, this approach does bear some fruit, just as it always has - and there are thriving independent, Baptist and evangelical Anglican churches about the place who are deeply committed to it, and who draw in good numbers through Alpha, "Praise in the Park" and, no doubt, through last year's Deanery mission.

Regular readers in the "glory days" of this blog may not be surprised to hear that this isn't quite where I am. I felt called to these communities for a ministry of incarnation - offering practical support, sharing where I can with the struggles and joys of life on the estates of my parish, above all trying to encourage people who rarely look up, to dare to lift their gaze and notice God at work in and among them every day. I also felt a vague tug - nothing as clear as a call - towards the spiritual explorers of the neighbouring town. I love being with those on the edge, always have.It was, actually, the one thing that made my much-loved title parish frustrating at times - for life was so comfortable and certain for the majority there. I'm famously keen on multi-sensory (aka touchy feely?) worship, on tea-lights, pebbles and plainsong in a darkened church, -so, when it came to the mission last year our contributions in the valley were based on helping to reclaim the community centre FOR the estates community and offering a labyrinth, as a toe in the water experiential prayer opportunity for those who will never engage with the black and white certainties of evangelical Christianity. 
No - we didn't,as a result, bring lots of new Christians to baptism but both ventures were valuable in quite different ways, and connections were made on which we continue to build.

You see, for me it's all about community....About affirming the communties that do exist and helping them to see God in one another...About doing all that I can to help build community where there seems to be isolation and struggle (Messy Church is an important part of this)...About remembering again and again that God IS community - the community of the Trinity...into which we are invited. The vacant seat at the table in Rublev's icon. 
At the heart of my calling as priest is the need to invite others, wherever and however I can, to experience the hospitality of God - in ways in which that will be recognised and welcomed.

I love inherited church. It has formed me, given me a route to ministry, sustained and supported me through a whole host of life crises (and been noticeably missing at others) - but even at my most optimistic I can't say that I expect it to "work" for a majority today.
So, I also love the climate of exploration and discovery that has emerged in the wake of "Mission Shaped Church"  but the thing that really excites me most is the invitation "to find out what God is doing and then join in".
I'm pretty sure that while God is undoubtedly at work in and through God's Church there's an awful lot more to God's mission than our limited, church-shaped imaginations will allow. I wonder what God is REALLY doing among those alternative seekers...and how best I can join in and celebrate.

*our boundaries touch - til I lived here I believed that valley parish was part of hippy dippy I know better :)

Friday, July 01, 2011

What a timely Friday Five

After a particularly stressful June, and an amazingly helpful time with my ever-wonderful Spiritual Director, I found myself writing 2 blogs in the space of 12 hours for the first time in months...I remembered how helpful I used to find the process of writing reflectively for this space, the web of wonderful connections that emerged, the fact that most of my best writing is here. And I felt wistful. I spend alot of time on twitter & have new & treasured friends there too - but the medium is utterly different, and I do feel the loss.
But ironically, it was a RevGals tweet that sent me over to look at the Friday Five for the first time in - well, a year possibly....
This was what I read, from my good friend Kathryn - one of those whom I really miss now I no longer spend my free time wandering through my blog reader.

A friend and I were lamenting recently about the good ol' days of blogging and memes. Certainly there are still some very active blogs around our web ring, but the days of the Friday Five getting 50-70+ responses are in the past. We lamented that the Friday Five is the equivalent of the women's guild of RevGalBlogPals.

I am one of those who went from blogging just about daily to periodically at best. Unfortunately, the number I routinely read has gone down as well. What about you?
1) Have your blogging (writing/reading) habits shifted since the days of yore?
Goodness, yes! I used to find time to blog well nigh every day - sometimes more than once. It was a huge part of how I learned in ministry during my curacy, a place to try out ideas, to receive encouragement and challenge, as I explored what it meant to be a priest and a parent, how to balance my own expectations and those of other people with the emerging reality of parish ministry...I loved this blog at its best and am sure that I was a better priest, more alert to God's presence in the everyday, because I was engaged in constant reflection here. 
Then I became an incumbent in two very different but quite challenging parishes. I still look for God's presence in the everyday, but too often I'm galloping through life at such speed that I don't really engage with it. The weight of expectations has increased, as has the need for reticence and circumspection if I am writing about the parish. So, inevitably, my blogging has declined - and as for my reading.....When bloglines, the reader I'd used from 2004, announced it was about to vanish, I wasn't even sure that I needed to find a replacement...I now depended on a tweet to alert me to updates from friends - and so I often missed important news, the minutae of daily life that we'd once shared on our blogs. I can't imagine a return to my former practice - but I'm hoping, with the help of a few wise friends, to engage in some serious rebalancing of my life this year...and I know that, as part of that,  it would be good for me to return to a regular process of reflection here if I can manage it.

2) Do you have some favorites that you miss?
Far too many....Some are still there, but I just don't get time to read them. Some have changed character (rather as this blog has) to become more of an official voice, less a personal journal. Some have gone for good...My friend and colleague HopefulAmphibian was one of the first to vanish, as he moved from curacy to incumbency...On the far side of that same divide, I now understand why....but I still miss his voice, along with many others, here.

3) Are there some blogs you still put in the 'must read' category?
When friends tweet about a blog update, I'll usually try to drop in to catch up - but I barely look at my google reader so I guess that means "no". How sad. Perhaps now is the time to change this...

4) If we gathered at your knee, what would you tell us about those early days of blogging?
I had no idea, when I first began to blog (as I found myself reading and responding to the writing of a small group of Greenbelt friends) that I would ever MEET anyone this way...But in being as honestly myself as I knew how to be, as I explored my first beginnings in ordained ministry, I found frienship, support and my voice as a small time theologian and began to believe that I really WAS the priest whom others seemed to see. Blogging changed my self-understanding and widened my horizons beyond all my wildest dreams. I'm certain that, if I'd not begun to build friendships all over the world, the life-changing trip to India in 2006 would quite simply have looked too frightening to contemplate...And I know that I'd never have crossed the Pond without RevGals reaching out to me, to share in the first Big Event. I guess that means that blogging changed my life...which sounds over dramatic, but is, nonetheless, absolutely true!

5) Do you have a clip or a remembrance of a previous post of yours or someone else's that you remember, you know an oldie but goodie?
This weekend I'll celebrate the 6th anniversary  of my ordination as priest, and on Sunday I'll preside at 10.00 in my lovely valley church, remembering my 1st Mass at St Mary's, on 3rd July 2005. This is what I wrote then...and it remains so true, an inextricable part of who I am

Off to Mount Moriah

The Eucharistic lectionary yesterday featured that story that strikes dread into the heart of children's workers throughout the world - the (almost) sacrifice of Isaac...
As my curate read it to the small Thursday congregation gathered up the hill, painfully conscious of the high cost that some clergy families are paying right now for the sake of vocation, I was almost speechless...
Why THAT reading today?
What could I possibly say about it?
It didn't seem to me that there was the option of ignoring it - it's not the kind of Bible story you can gloss over or expect the congregation to forget.
So I waited for inspiration.
I read the Gospel.
Nothing stirred.
We said the Creed (BCP service, this).
Still nothing.
Too late now. No escape..
"Please sit down.
What are we to make of this story? 
What does it say about God? how could we ever share it with our children?"

And suddenly I found myself answering my own questions - not just for Abraham and Isaac, but for my own children (who have undoubtedly felt themselves offered as a sacrifice on the altar of my priesthood from time to time) and for the families of all my friends who have asked, from time to time, whether this mad, wild and sometimes wonderful calling is really worth it.

Because, of course, in the end God DIDNT demand that sacrifice.
The point was not that God wanted to take back the gift that had been given, nor that some ghastly blood-lust should be assuaged.
God wanted Abraham to confirm his that relationship that had enabled him to leave his father's house and venture into the unknown at God's invitation.
I'm pretty certain that this is what it's all about, really.

Even at my darkest, most disillusioned moments I've always known that God cares about my children even more than I do...because God's perspective is total. My recurring problem is actually trusting in my heart that God will deliver the care that, in my head, I know I can rely on. So, I make contingency plans, try to protect my loved ones just in case God fails to turn up, struggle with herding a whole flock of sheep and rams up the mountainside so that there's absolutely no danger that one of my most precious, beloved children will be sacrificed on the altar of my ministry - or in any other way at all.
And in doing that, I limit both my expectations of God and God's opportunities to act - because, in my experience at least, God just doesn't wade in unasked.

I don't think this makes things feel any better, when you seem to be stuck in the wilderness with nothing to rescue your children from all sorts of painful sacrifices...but it does, perhaps, offer a further reassurance that, as FabBishop always says as he shares the cure of souls with a new incumbent, we can honestly
"put our trust in God. He is faithful"

And of course, the ending of the Abraham story gives us something huge to look forward to....for he is, famously, blessed to be a blessing. I know that will be true for my friends who are stuck on the mountain as well.