Saturday, March 31, 2012

April Fool - a reflection for Palm Sunday at Selsley

Palm Sunday and the feast of all fools...
The perfect day for a spot of holy foolery...
a day to find our expectations subverted...
April fool!
Here comes the King
Roll out the red carpet....listen for the marching bands...
But wait!
Where is the white charger, where the guard of honour, where the strident announcement that might is right?
Can this rag taggle cavalcade herald a triumphal procession, this tired man on a donkey be the king at all?
We need our king to be strong.
We need him to take over.
We need the world to change.
Save us now!
The cry gets louder, but it comes not from the great and the good, nor even from those who hold the purse strings, not from those voices with the power to confer authority,since they hold it themselves.
Money talks, but not today.
The proclamation issues, instead from the mouths of street kids, pariahs, those on the edge
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Royal David's son!
But not like this.
You have to be joking.
There must be some mistake.
April fool!

Later anger erupts...the madmen are taking over the asylum
The vagrant preacher presumes to destroy the holy order of the Temple, the Lord of Misrule challenges the protocols that determine who can do what, the catalogue of acceptable behaviour in that holy space.
Tables turned, established customs criticised in an appeal to an older order.
By what right does this man – carpenter, not priest or Levite, court controversy?
Who does he think he is?
By what authority does he issue his challenges?
April fool!

He'll be laughing on the other side of his face by Friday.
No popular acclaim but a thunderous cry from the masses
“Crucify...crucify......we will have none of him”
What price “King of the Jews” when you're nailed to a cross, unable to move a finger
What sort of Saviour is deserted even by his crazy gang of illiterate supporters?
No laurel crown but a cruel circlet of brambles forced down on his head.
No bowing or scraping but the vicious slapstick of scourging
April fool!

But wait!
In comedy, timing is all.
The world may seem stuck on Good Friday, determinedly putting love to death at every opportunity,
clinging to the belief that might & money rule the day.
Friday now, but Sunday's a coming...
Sunday when we peer into the darkness of death but hear instead a joyous cry
“Look behind you”
Sunday when the world is turned upside down once more, when heavenly chaos sweeps away the strictures of our misguided world in a tide of wild, exuberant creativity.
Sunday when we find that weakness is power and folly is wisdom.
When finding life means losing it.
When dead men walk and weeping turns to laughter.
April Fool!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Passion Sunday Yr B - St Matthew's at 8.00

Sir, we would see Jesus.
These words were famously, carved on the inside of the pulpit at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, by the evangelical preacher Charles Simeon – a salutary reminder to all of us who presume to speak of our faith, that our job is, always, to get ourselves out of the way so that those who listen may encounter not the vicar on one of her hobby horses...but the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

Sir, we would see Jesus
At our baptisms we are christened – become Christians, little Christs...signs of his transforming presence in our lives and in our world.
When our friends and neighbours encounter us – is this their experience?
It's interesting that it was PHILIP whom the Greeks approached.
They came to him because he spoke their language and bore a Greek name.
If he wasn't actually one of them, he was nonetheless someone with whom they could identify, someone approachable, someone who seemed safe and trustworthy.
Someone who might have been their neighbour, colleague, friend.
Who better to ask?

And they asked him because they knew he was a disciple. They could see that he was serious about spending time with Jesus, becoming his friend, learning from him.
His discipleship showed.
He was different as a result.

This Lent our benefice course has explored whether or not our friends, our neighbours could spot the difference in us – whether the faith we profess has a visible impact on the way we live.
Are we more generous?
More passionately concerned for justice?
More filled with love, joy, peace?
Those are the hall marks of a life transformed by Christ.
Spot the difference!
Of course, we are works in progress...failing each and every day, but by God's grace becoming little by little more attuned to our calling as little Christs.

Sir, we would see Jesus
Just a glimpse would be enough
When Jesus is visible amazing things happen...
And Jesus is most easily seen not in our triumphs, our proud moments of achievement and celebration.
He is more truly visible in those little deaths that we experience each and every day...
Those times when we let go – of ourselves, of our own agendas, of our hopes and dreams
When we are simply overwhelmed by life and unable to flounder on in our own strength.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies...”
Less of us and more of Jesus...that must, always and non negotiably, be our priority...for it is, also, the route to life.

Sir, we would see Jesus
May our lives, this Passiontide and always, point towards the one who, on the cross draws all people to himself

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What's in a name?

In this case, rather alot.

Today we are celebrating Mothering Sunday in the UK.

NOT Mothers' Day - that is something entirely different - a "Hallmark" festival dedicated to saccharine images of the perfect mother, the one whose cosy but spotless home is a haven where each of her 2.4 children is fed a diet of wholesome but delicious food and all her washing is whiter than white. Outside the book of Proverbs I've never come across such a woman - which is fortunate, as I'd probably have to kill her on the spot - but a trip to pretty much any shopping centre across the country yesterday might have convinced you that she's alive and well as are all her delightfully grateful offspring.

Even when my children were at the stage of egg-box daffodils and those lovingly hand-made cards that dropped glitter all over the house, so that it shimmered for weeks afterwards (TOLD you there was no such beast as the hallmark Supermum!) I struggled with this image of motherhood, as I knew I could never, even for a second, live up to it. I hope that my children know that I love them with every fibre of my being - but I'm just NOT that sort of mother - so I felt uncomfortable, even fraudulent, when subjected to that kind of gushing praise. 
Also, of course, I missed my own mother, dead 10 years before my first-born entered the world (oh she  would have been so appalled to be showered with the largesse that the High Street would like us to think is inevitable)....and I thought about the babies I'd carried who were never born...and the friends who longed for children but failed to conceive...and I had a friend whose own mother was a nightmare, someone who, long before J K Rowling wrote about Dementors, would suck the life out of you so that you thought you would never be happy again....

So - Mothers' Day has never been a riotous success for me.

But we're not talking about Mothers' Day, are we?

In contrast, I'm delighted that the Church invites us to observe Mothering Sunday...because, of course, we can all both give and receive mothering.
I always ensure that the churches I lead have enough flowers to share with everyone who comes - men, women & children, as a thank you for the ways in which they love, care and nurture one another...
And I try very hard to make space for those whose experience of motherhood has been distressing.

Today having launched the proceedings with Fr Simon's splendid "Dangerous Pet"  (which went down a treat in both churches) I talked about the Church as the family created at the foot of the cross, when Jesus told his mother "Woman, behold your son" ,and his dear friend John
"Here is your mother".
I talked about the joy and the pain of mothering - about how they represent two sides of the same coin of love that God gives us to spend with reckless abandon, about how it can be hard to disentangle them, so that even those whose experiences of mothering and being mothered are really positive may find themselves a bit weepy today.
And, as I always do, I created a prayer station where people could light a candle in thanksgiving for any who had mothered them, or as a prayer for healing of sad memories of relationships lost or damaged...or never realised.

I know that this isn't enough, that amid the tide of posies and chocolates and fulsome praise the pain of so many may seem to be ignored. Some of our flowers went to a family not far from here who are spending their last Mothering Sunday together, as the mum is almost at the end of her cancer journey. Her children are just a little younger than my own, and the care that they offer to their mother is a testimony to the care and love she has lavished on them...They seemed genuinely pleased to see me but I'm under no illusions about the pain that everyone in that house is be feeling today...and next year will be the first of a string of heartbreaking anniversaries.

Maybe we just ought to abolish the celebration entirely.

But no.

The act of mothering is important. We all need, support, nurture, affirmation - and it's good to have this annual reminder that it's something we can all give as well as receive.

But I do want to say, very loudly, that to insist that today is MOTHERING SUNDAY is not, in this case, one more example of the church standing against the tide of modern life for no good reason. 
It is, rather, a reminder that we celebrate so much more than the perfect family...not that such a thing exists...
and a reminder that the Church exists to carry on mothering the whole world - the one that God loves so much. 

Mothering Sunday...(a homily for 8.00 at St Matthew's)

A day to say thank you

Thank you to our birth mothers, - those who carried us in the womb, laboured to bring us into the world and who, often, continued the hugely demanding work of raising us...offering us unconditional love, looking after our physical needs, modelling patterns of thought and behaviour and sometimes of faith to last us all our adult lives

Thank you to those many others who shared in that work of love and nurture too, without any biological ties to constrain them.

Whatever your relationship with your own parents, I hope and pray you'll know what I mean, that you will have encountered many to mother you.

On Tuesday I was privileged to give the address at Eirene's funeral.
Eirene was, most certainly, my second mother...
My own mother was an invalid, often in hospital as I grew up, and she died when I was just 18.
I loved her dearly, and she taught me so much...but she knew, as I did, that when the day came that I was left without her, Eirene would continue to do a splendid job of cooking me meals, listening to my joys and my woes, offering wise advice when asked and supporting me when I ignored it....
That Eirene would continue to model generous living, compassion, and that all important unconditional love which we need if we are to flourish and become fully human.

She did this for me, and for my children, for the next three decades and I am particularly aware today of all the ways in which I've been mothered by her

But of course, at the moment when I might most have needed that sort of loving support – she was unable to give it.
Her children and I negotiated the reality of her death without her because that's how it works.

And it was hard, and it was sad but – God had put others in place to carry on that work of loving, supporting, listening, advising...others to model generous living, compassion and acceptance.
Others to mother me...for this, of course, is the work of the Church – our mother in faith.

I'm blessed in belonging to not just these two church communities of our benefice but also through the social networking site, Twitter, to another community of some 900 assorted friends who have chosen to be linked to me, who read my comments (in just 140 characters) about what's going on for me in my life and my faith, who share their own highs and lows and the stuff in between...
140 characters may not seem long enough to share very much, but over the past few years the friendships forged have become very real and very very strong.
When I talk about my “twitter family” I'm really not using the term lightly.

So as I wept at Eirene's loss, as I tried to negotiate my own grief while responding with love and care to the griefs of these parishes (for in the 3 weeks since Eirene died I've officiated at 10 other funerals), as I struggled with the emotional roller coaster that bereavement involves, it was the twitter community who heard my laments, who prayed me through the anxieties, who wept with me as I wept and did all that it could to carry my burdens for me.
As I stood up to speak at her funeral, it was with the knowledge that several hundred people who had never known Eirene, but knew who she had been to me, were praying for me and for all of us gathered there – and of course, the knowledge of their prayers enabled me to speak the words that were filling my heart that day.
Twitter, in short, did all that a church could do...all that a church should do....
Loving, supporting, listening, advising, praying
The work of the Church as a family, bound together through faith, hope and love
A family there for one another...sharing the work of mothering together.

So today I invite you to pause and give thanks for those people, and those communities that have mothered you...
and to pray a blessing on those whom you mother.
Some may be members of this church family...some may be part of that great multitude who now rejoice around the throne of God...
To some you may have the strongest of blood ties...others you may know by chance, by happy circumstance...

But all of them and all of you are caught up in this God given work of mothering....Because it is as we learn to give of the best we can manage by way of unconditional love that we become, each one of us, more truly Christ like...
Human relationships exist so that we can learn about that love which is at the heart of our relationship with God...a first taste of that relationship that he longs to have with each of us.

Julian of Norwich talks often about God as our mother – and sometimes people seem very shocked by this...but God uses the same sort of language speaking in the Old Testament through the prophet Hosea
When Israel was a child, I loved him, 
   and out of Egypt I called my son. 
2 But the more they were called, 
   the more they went away from me.[a] 
They sacrificed to the Baals 
   and they burned incense to images. 
3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, 
   taking them by the arms; 
but they did not realize 
   it was I who healed them. 
4 I led them with cords of human kindness, 
   with ties of love. 
To them I was like one who lifts 
   a little child to the cheek, 
   and I bent down to feed them.

And through Isaiah
“I will comfort you just as a mother comforts her children”
Even Jesus uses these same profoundly motherly images
“ often have I longed to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wing..”

Nurture, comfort, protection – God given gifts that we can show to one another as we reflect God's light and life...
Gifts that we may have received from our mothers...but gifts that we are called to share whether male or female, parents or childless...

I thank God for all those who have mothered me, for those who continue to do so and pray that I too may share in this work of love for God's sake.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The heavens declare the glory of God!

As we don't generally use the psalm provision in our Parish Eucharist at Valley Church, this morning we sang Joseph Addison's metrical setting of psalm 19 instead.
It's a beautiful piece of work which somehow took me to the heart of a beautiful spring day.
Take a moment or two to read it and marvel

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator's power display;
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth:
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice;
for ever singing as they shine,
"The hand that made us is divine."

Cleansing the Temple Lent 3B 8.00 homily

When I was a child, my parents took me on an outing from our home in Sussex to see the great post-war wonder that is Coventry Cathedral.
I was overwhelmed, my breath taken away by what I was utterly unlike any building I'd visited before, and challenged my expectations in so many different ways.
But perhaps the thing that I remember best from that trip was reading an entry in the visitors' book as I paused to record our names
My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves, flower arrangers, postcard sellers and outside broadcast teams”

It gave me pause because, surely flower ladies, Cathedral shops and the radio 3 broadcast of Choral Evensong were – and are – essential features of a Cathedral's life, - things that we absolutely took for granted.
I didn't understand why they had made someone so angry – though I recognised the anger, right enough.

But those words have stayed with me, returned to me time and again when I've visited holy places...
They have become, indeed, almost a template against which I measure their holiness, or its absence.
And I wonder whether that unknown objector 40 years ago had the right idea
And I wonder what Jesus would say about THIS holy place, if he arrived today.

We've had 175 years to solidify what we're about here – but I wonder if we remain true to our purposes.
What is a parish church for?
What was the Temple for?
Do buildings help or hinder our mission?

When the appeal was launched to build this church, I wonder what the contributors hoped would emerge.
Would it be a place to encounter the living God – or a place to imprison him, God in a box, constrained to suit our purposes?
Would it be somewhere where all those who have no home, no place to call their own would find that they belonged, were accepted?
Somewhere where the feast  Christ hosts would be celebrated week after week, with everyone welcome?

Or would it become a club for insiders, a place where it mattered that you knew the rules...that you could blend into the surroundings?

When Christ came to the Temple, he was outraged.
The God of Israel was not a God for Israel alone but for all people - Jew and Gentile alike, - and his house had room for all - but the outer court were the Gentiles came had been crammed full of all the traffic and commerce of an open air market.
How could they draw near where there was no space?
How could they hear the great story of God's love above the sales patter, the hawkers' cries, the farmyard cacophany of sacrifices in waiting?
The place of hospitality had become a place of exclusion.
Suddenly, you were welcomed only if you dress, speech, politics – if you were ready to join in with the irreverent worship of dishonest gain, to align your priorities with those of the powers that be.

When Jesus lost his temper, strode across the scene like an avenging fury, turning the tables and restoring lost priorities, his actions aligned him decisively with the OUTSIDERS......those for whom commerce left no room.
His anger, echoing down the centuries, reminds us that we too come must apart, to this holy place to pray – to attune our wandering hearts to the music of God's will once more.
It reminds us, too,that we are prone to distort that music,to crowd out the holy space with peripherals that benefit only the few...

There are, of course, loud and uncomfortable parallels with recent events – for it's only slightly over a week ago that those praying in an outer court were summarily evicted, told  that this house of prayer was not the place for them.
Sometimes noisy, potentially smelly, certainly disruptive – those Occupy protestors believed that they had a prophetic calling to challenge our core assumptions about the way we organise our world and, incidentally, about the truly essential features of our holy they churches, Cathedrals – or the inner chambers of our hearts.
Whatever your opinion of their approach, their message is one that we need to consider – a reminder that there IS another way, that society need not be founded on the pursuit of profit at all costs.

But Society will only change, the CHURCH will only change if we embrace change within ourselves.
We may be so used to the flower arrangers, postcard sellers and outside broadcast teams that we won't question their squatters rights even for a moment – but God's church exists for something greater than that. 
We are the living stones from which that Church is built – and we come to this passage of challenge and demand within a season of repentance – so let us ask for grace to align ourselves with Jesus, to assist him in cleansing the Temple so that it may be transformed into an authentic sign of his kingdom on earth.

A prayer by the Dean of St Albans

Lord, do something about your Church.
It is so awful, it is hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it.
Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned:
hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical,
respectable, comfortable, moralising, compromising,
clinging to its privileges and worldly securities,
and when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.
Lord, we need your whip of cords.
Judge us and cleanse us,
challenge and change us,
break and remake us.
Help us to be what you called us to be.
Help us to embody you on earth.
Help us to make you real down here,
and to feed your people bread instead of stones.
And start with me.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Donkey's Tale

Over on twitter some of us have been chatting about the anxieties and pressures that we put upon ourselves as we approach the reality of our calling to ordained ministry. I remembered how I'd had to bolt for the loo to be violently sick the first time I tried on a clerical shirt, while another friend approached her diaconal retreat in floods of tears, insistent that it had all been a terrible mistake......and another had run away during the retreat, in a desperate attempt to evade the inevitable.
And I remembered a rather wonderful book "The Donkey's Tale" by Margaret Gray...which seems to be out of print now...but which has helped me hugely along the way.
It's a picture book, with very limited text...but its gist is something like this.
"Once there was a very ordinary girl, who opened her door one day and found that all the poor and sad of the world were outside, waiting for her to help them. She felt, as you might imagine, helpless, inadequate, useless....but as she slumped in despair a donkey appeared and said
"hang on........let me tell you what happened to me."
And he recounted how once, long ago, he had been chosen by someone amazing.
"He was heavy, and the road was long, but he always gave the strength to get there..." and as he carried the man, not giving in to his normal impulses to be grumpy, stubborn, lazy......people saw a miracle happen..."something happening that was bigger than me."
"He doesn't need another genius - he needs a few donkeys who know they have to depend on his strength - not theirs
his wisdom - not theirs
his words - not theirs"
"So it doesn't matter that I feel useless" said the girl
"He will show me what to do and give me the strength to do it"
"Yes" said the donkey..." and do remember to look at yourself from time to time and have a good laugh"

Isn't it wonderful? Can't you see how it makes all the difference to how you survive, or not, in this mad and wonderful and impossible calling to serve as priests in the Church of God?
I'm so thankful for that donkey :)

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Carrying my cross - Lent 2 B All Saints

It's been a bit of a week at the vicarage.

Last Friday, I went down to Dorset to say Goodbye to Eirene, the wonderful woman who has been a 2nd mother to me all my life, and most particularly so since my parents died when I was 18.
She, in her turn, went home to God on Saturday – and I know I should rejoice that she is now restored to the life and health of which Alzheimers had deprived her for the past few years, is indeed better than she has ever been – but all the same, I miss her – I'm sad....and that's OK.

Sadness is part of being fully human...and faith doesn't preclude suffering.
Faith doesn't preclude suffering.
Hang onto that thought, if you would......for it's coming back again.

Also within the week were several other deaths so I found myself treading holy ground with many grieving families...
Then there were sad stories of family breakdown, children and parents divided, mothers unable to cope and fathers walking away...
Of couples filled with goodwill but unable to communicate with one another...
Of adults struggling to find hope and purpose as they failed to find work, not just once, but again and again.

By yesterday morning, I was full to the brim with the sadness of others, sadness that mingled with my own sorrow so that it seemed really hard to live out my calling to preach the gospel...GOOD news....

And then I sat down to read the texts for today...started to read the gospel......and oh goodness....where is the good news here?
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 

Take up their cross?
Lose their life?
That's supposed to be GOOD news?!?!
here we have it, straight from the Master himself
Far from precluding suffering, faith seems to guarantee it.

I'm not really sure that I signed up to that.
Following Jesus is all very well – but does that have to mean walking the way of the cross? Couldn't we just cut straight to the Resurrection?

I have to say, Jesus, after the week I've had I was rather hoping you'd do the work for me...
Couldn't you carry my cross, please? After all, you're the expert.

And of course, that's actually exactly what he has done.

All that sadness, all that disappointment, all that anger and doubt and denial...and all the sin of the world.
That's what makes the weight of the cross that he carries.

But we are invited to carry it learn to be Christlike by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory.

Our crosses will be wrought of different materials, each unique to the bearer.
Perhaps the experiences of brokenness in our own lives, the awareness of the times we've failed God and failed each other, our lack of love, our lack of trust.
And the things that just seem to be part of life – a difficult marriage, an ailing parent, a troubled child, an unplanned loneliness...things we might prefer to jettison, but find ourselves carrying day by day.
Your cross will be quite unlike mine, - we might imagine that we'd each find the other's easier to carry, but exchange is not possible.

And we can weigh ourselves down still more, if we insist on holding on to the things that seem precious, those things for which we've struggled and fought, the things we might be tempted to put ahead of Christ's call to follow.
But there's really no point in doing that.
The prizes that seem so shiny and alluring now – health, wealth, success, even family stability – they turn out to be so much dead-weight, things we can't take with us into the Kingdom, burdens that will hamper us as we try to follow the One whose call is constant.

He knows, I promise, how hard it can be to put those deceptive weights down...just as he knows the weight of each cross represented here.
And he wants us to follow because, of course, the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter.
It's into this that we are baptised...sharing Christ's death so that we might also share his resurrection.

Each of us was commissioned to follow this Lent, I invite you to consider what that looks like for you, at this stage of your journey.

I promise you that it means more than simply finding a way to the future, for it will involve seriously discerning and carrying out the work to which you are called here and now.
You'll probably be all too aware of the cross you've been given to carry, know its weight to the last milligram...and, I'd guess, you're aware too of those bits of yourself that cause the most problems, the bits that are hardest to deny and set aside as you go on your way.
I can't pretend that the cost of following Christ's call won't be high – it may cost even the death of some of those things that looked so precious.

But remember, it's your life that's at stake – your real life in Christ for all eternity.
Peter could not believe that the route to the Kingdom lay through the death of his Master ...but we can look at the cross with the perfect, 20/20 vision of hindsight...
We KNOW that, however painful, however difficult the here and now – Easter is coming.
Our own daily deaths – those we choose, as we set aside the things that weigh us down, and those that we would love to avoid if we could – those deaths are part of the way in which we become little by little aligned with our Lord...and travel not only the way of the cross, but the route through death to life everlasting.