Saturday, January 25, 2014

Follow me - Epiphany 3A 2014 at St Matthew's

 This morning’s story is one of the most familiar of all the gospel scenes, and one of the most familiar of all gospel challenges.

When I was a child, I remember singing the action song “I will make you fishers of men” - and I'm willing to bet we could do a reasonable job of it here and now.

We all know the idea.
We, who have heard and responded to the call of Jesus, must in our turn share that call that invitation with others.
We’ve been fished – and now we are sent to fish in our turn.

But maybe it’s not the best metaphor for us as we consider our calling.

A fish, after all, doesn’t exactly thrive after it has been caught.
Think of a net full of fish, floundering and gasping on the quayside. It's a death sentence
…but when Jesus invited those men on the shore of Lake Galilee to “Follow me”, he was calling them to a more abundant life.
That call, to which they responded, apparently without a backward glance, was going to change everything.
That's how it is with God.
The world turns upside down.
They left home that morning as ordinary Palestinian fishermen – hoping for a good catch and a good return on their day's work.
But by bedtime, everything was different.

So, let’s think for a moment about all they left behind, the good things and the bad.
Most obviously, they left their boats – the way that they had earned their livings, the hall-mark of the people they were.
They had been independent, self-reliant - but no longer.
Suddenly they had to trust that they’d get by without the wherewithal for a day’s catch.
They left the damage of a day’s work behind, too – torn and tangled nets.
No time to sort things out, set their houses in order…they just had to go!

AND, they left their families. That's a hard one.
Zebedee, the father of James and John gets a special mention as we imagine him staring after his sons, wondering how he’s going to get the work done, whether his boys will be back in time to go out on the evening run – or every be back at all.
We know that Simon had a wife at home, AND a mother in law, and he certainly didn’t run home to tell them he’d be a little while.
He just went…in instant obedience to Jesus…he turned away from his undoubted ties and responsibilities and simply followed. How rash! How inconsiderate! How irresponsbile.
He just upped and offed and so found a wider world, a place of hopes fulfilled and wonders unfolding…a world in which the limitations of life as a lakeside fisherman simply had no meaning.

But it can't have been easy...for not one of those men knew exactly what, or who, they were getting involved with.
There was no small print to read, no consultation period in which to weigh their options.
They had to decide in an instant.
Jesus or not?
Their safe familiar present or an unknown future?

I guess the story has added punch for me at the moment – and I'm thankful that I'm preaching to you now that you know our news. The process of exploring an invitation to apply for the Coventry job, of crafting an application and spending 2 days in interviews seems a far cry from that moment on the sea shore – and yet, as I wrestled with God during that December night, trying to decide what to say to the bishop next morning, it seemed clear that it was the same call.
“Follow me.
Are you coming, Kathryn?
Follow me...”
I didn't want to leave this community, the dear people I've been with for almost 6 years...
I didn't feel qualified for the job ahead...I wanted to cling to my safely familiar routines and my lovely vicarage as well...but God reminded me repeatedly that we were on a journey together , that if I was serious about the promises I had made to Him along the way, then the next step was not really optional.
“Follow me. And trust me to take you safely where I need you to go”

And I realised that I had to leave some other things behind too....particularly the burden of insecurity and self-doubt that might stop me believing in God's future at all.
I needed to travel light – just like those fishermen.
They left not just their past career – but a host of other things...things we should all abandon when we turn to follow Christ.
Selfishness, insecurity, prejudice, fear of those who are different, apathy, inertia…things that inhibit our relationships with one another as much as with God.
They left those things behind, - though once or twice in the gospels we hear that they’d returned to claim them (think of the great debate about who would be the right-hand men in the Kingdom!), and needed some help from Jesus in order to lay them aside decisively.
As one who has to relearn the same faith lessons, who often returns to pick up the self-same baggage that I know I should lay down, that's quite encouraging. I'm not alone. Those first disciples made most of the same mistakes that every other disciple has made since...but they never doubted the value of their journey.

You see, it wasn't just about leaving things behind – it was – and is – about heading into a new future.
A change of role – for them (and for me)
Fishers of men?
It’s a great image in its original context – but don't be misled.
At our baptism, we are commissioned to work for God's kingdom, and that is far more than an invitation to a fishing trip.
We hear so much about the mission imperative in the wider church today, and rightly so...
It's part of the Great Commission, the last words that Jesus spoke to his disciples – no longer by the lake but on a mountain top.
“Go and make disciples of all nations...Keep on fishing for people”
The drive to bring others to join us, to draw them into relationship with Christ so that they too may know the joy of his love, - well, that is HUGELY important.
The Church is here today because through the centuries ordinary women and men have shared and lived their faith in ways that made their neighbours, colleagues, family, friends long to live that way as well..
They have been magnetic Christians, drawing others to follow their Leader...and we should be inspired and encouraged by their example.
BUT we need to beware the danger of seeing people as simply targets for our evangelism, to be caught and dragged into the kingdom (or the Church), regardless of how they feel. There are some Christians for whom this calling to mission is so central that they only spend time with people outside the church in an effort to convert them.
That seems very risky – for it dehumanizes people and devalues relationships, turning the world into “them” and “us”…insiders and outsiders…trappers and prey.
Fishers of men - as if we planned to haul people in and serve them up with a side order of chips!

That couldn't be less like Jesus, could it?
Jesus, then and now, meets us where we are, spends time with us so that we are in no doubt at all that we are loved and valued – then challenges us to become our very best selves.
He sees potential where we'd never dream of it – and with His help we can dare to live so that our hidden potential is realised -and invite others to do the same.

You see, though all fish look very similar, there's an endless variety of people for us to introduce to God's love.
Old and young, chatty and quiet, thinkers and doers, the highly successful and the defeated and struggling...
One size, one style of church will NEVER fit all exactly – but we need to be ready to make all welcome even if that sometimes means setting aside things we ourselves have loved.
The church was never intended to be like a pack of fish fingers – processed so that everyone is identical...
Let me say again, this journey we're on leads us to become our best experience life in all its fulness...and that's worth a bit of risk.

So, as we travel together through these weeks of endings and new beginnings, the central call remains the same “Follow me”...
Follow from the place where we now stand into a future that we can neither fully predict nor wholly control.
Follow believing that the One who called those ordinary blokes from their working day has work for us as well
Follow knowing that all that we have, all that we are, can be given in service to God’s kingdom of justice, peace and love.

We'll sing this later, but let's pray it now:
Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I'll go where Your love and footsteps show.

Thus I'll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Secret Something

Since just before Christmas I've been carrying a secret.
Not a very dark and sinister one, it's true, but nonetheless, it has been a struggle.
I'm very definitely extrovert - so keeping something important to myself is completely against my natural inclinations and I'm very relieved to be able to come out at last!

The Bishop of Coventry has invited me to become Canon Pastor of Coventry Cathedral - and after some very intense prayer and reflection, I was delighted to accept.

This means that I will be moving on from St Matthew's at the end of April, - something that is quite hard to contemplate, as I love and value that community greatly and have gained so much from our journey together.
Nevertheless, I'm absolutely confident that God has called me to Coventry - and though I feel decidedly inadequate when I consider the work ahead, I know that "He who calls is faithful".

I'll be installed on 31st May - and very much hope that there will be a good number of friends in the Cathedral that afternoon. I know I'll need all the support I can get!

It feels very strange to be preparing to leave Gloucester diocese, where I've ministered as a Reader, Deacon and Priest for the past 20 years, but I was made so very welcome in Coventry, even amid the pressures and alarms of the interview process, and I'm excited that I will be part of the story of that amazing Cathedral for a little while.

In the weeks ahead, please do pray for me, for the people of St Matthew's and the wider Cainscross community, and for my new colleagues in Coventry too. I've never really understood the story of Abram/Abraham til now!

And if you want to know more about Coventry Cathedral and its great work of reconciliation - the website is here - with a really good video too.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

8.00 homily for Epiphany 2A "What are you looking for?"

What are you looking for?”
If that was the way the sides-people greeted you as you crossed the threshold on a Sunday morning, it might seem rather abrupt - indeed, it might just make you turn tail and flee - but nevertheless it's not a bad beginning.
Indeed, in John's gospel it's the beginning of everything for these first of Christ's disciples.

They've been looking for something for a while. Following John, listening to his words - and when he speaks about Jesus with such confidence, 
 "Here is the Lamb of God !" -- something excites their curiosity. 
They set off to find out more.
Lacking the confidence to approach him directly, they walk a few paces behind him, going where Jesus leads…
Already it seems that he is not so much lamb as shepherd.
Sooner or later, he spots them, turns, holds their gaze.
What are you looking for?" he asks.

It’s a straightforward question, perfectly reasonable.
If two complete strangers were dogging your every step, you'd want to know why. 
But, of course it is also a question with a host of deeper meanings.

What are they looking for?

There's a song by the rock group U2 that might have been written for today's gospel. It's the story of a quest - climbing the highest mountains, scaling city walls - only to conclude "But I still haven't found  what I’m looking for”
These men have been with John for long enough to be classified as his disciples.
They have responded to his fiery message of repentance – it has touched something in them. 
But it isn’t enough. 
They still haven't found what they're looking for.
John himself has pointed them towards Jesus. 
They are hungry, like so many others, - but hungry for what? 
Hungry for healing?
Hungry for reassurance?
Hungry for change? 
Hungry for justice…? 
Who knows - they certainly don’t.
 All they know is that something is wrong with their world and it needs to be set right, that they still haven’t found what they seek.
What are you looking for?” asks Jesus, and to this crucial question they really have no answer.

So often the questions of our faith are not the obvious tidy ones…the ones that can be addressed by a catechism or an Alpha course.
We find ourselves here - drawn to church, to faith, by an unnameable, inexplicable longing….the restlessness that Augustine noted when he wrote
God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”
We wrestle with doubts.
We will not always like the church, or feel certain of our faith. 
We may go through patches when, like T S Eliot’s Magi, we are convinced that “this was all folly”, but somehow we keep coming back, almost despite ourselves.
What are you looking for?”
It’s a question that could open the door onto all sorts of undreamed of worlds…a question that just might force us to confront the needs and longings that we try to stifle…a question worth asking yourself, I'm sure.

As a priest, it’s a question I don't think I ask enough - though I often try to explore it when parents come to discuss their child's baptism. 
In my anxiety to welcome all comers, I sometimes miss out on the need to challenge them. 
I may know in the depths of my heart that in Christ every human need and longing is met, every anxious question answered - but if I don't explore exactly what it is that brings people through our doors, how can I help to serve them?
I'm very conscious that I've never asked each of you this question...
What brings you here, week after week?
What are your hopes and expectations?
What are you looking for?”
I'd really love to know.

And the way the disciples respond - isn't it classic! The sort of trivial remark I too tend to blurt out when confronted by a situation that suddenly seems to be rather more intense, more serious that I had bargained for…
I need something to fill the gap, to cover my embarrassment, so I witter away…
Ummm….(Thinking wildly) .......Where are you staying?”

Jesus’ answer is a simple but wonderful invitation. 
“Come and see!”

Some years ago, I was given this passage to pray with on retreat.
I was asked to place myself somewhere in the story, and so in my imagination, I found myself accompanying the disciples along the river bank , never letting Jesus out of my sight…
Like them I blushed and stuttered as he turned and spoke to me directly…and like them I was unable to resist the invitation to “Come and see”

And that day, as I imagined a small dark room in a sugar cube house (based in my mind’s eye entirely on the line drawings that illustrated the Good News Bible), Jesus invited me to spend the day with him…and at lunch time he took bread, broke it and placed some in my hand.

And then I realised that what I was looking for, the place where he was staying was right there…right here…Jesus in you…Jesus in me…Jesus in bread and wine….

Come and see

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ Year A - 12th January 2014

The liturgical year is a strange and wonderful thing. It's not even 3 weeks since we celebrated the birth of Jesus: today we fast forward 30 years to the start of his adult ministry. It’s as if the Gospel writers were focussing on a series of snapshots from the family album. The opening pages show us the new baby and his first visitors; now we have another family photo frozen in time. When we say the Creed, we’d almost be forgiven for thinking that nothing of note happened between the stable and the cross, but today is a moment of no less public importance, and it’s appropriate that we celebrate it just one week after the Epiphany. Last Sunday, after all, we rejoiced that the glory of God in Jesus Christ was made clear, shown forth, to all the nations…for that is what “epiphany” means. Today is another celebration of the public revelation of Christ’s nature
this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.

It’s a dramatic scene. John the Baptiser, who has so confidently proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, is confronted by the living reality….but…oh goodness!…it turns out to be his cousin. I wonder how that felt – though John seems to grasp straight away just who stands before him – hence his shock at the idea that he, John, with all his human faults and failings, should presume to baptise the longed-for Messiah. You have to sympathise with his reservations…the baptism he has offered is one of repentance…a washing away of the sins we all struggle with….yet now, Jesus, the sinless one, is seeking baptism for himself. Why??
How can you Christen the Christ – the source of all baptism? How do you graft him into a Church that has yet to be born?
It just doesn't make sense – and his response to John's query is not much help either.
It’s necessary to fulfil all righteousness”
Actually, on second thoughts, that response is oddly similar to that which so many parents give when they are asked why they seek baptism for their baby
It’s the right thing to do….”
But surely, you say, the baptism of Jesus must be a very different thing from that of a baby in Cainscross in 2014?
I thought that too when I started work on this sermon, but now I’m less convinced.
When Jesus was baptised, nothing essential changed in his relationship with God.
He did nothing extra to deserve that approval which is made explicit here…this was, after all, the start of his adult ministry. God was not applauding his teaching of multitudes, his healings, signs and wonders, for these still lay ahead. At the moment, there is seems nothing remarkable to report, except, perhaps, for obedience.
to fulfil all righteousness” means, above all, to exist in a right relationship to God, a relationship based on loving humility.
Just as Jesus began his life by emptying himself of his heavenly glory, so he now begins his ministry by submitting humbly to baptism.
And as he does so he is proclaimed
my Son..the beloved..”
Here a pre-existing truth is made clear – a truth which holds good for each one of us…we too are beloved of God, without any need to earn that love.
Though baptism is an initiation, it is not an initiation into a relationship with our heavenly Father, as if, when the baptismal water flows over us, God should suddenly exclaim
Oh look! It’s Kathryn. Now I recognise her!”
Baptism changes nothing on God’s side. Rather it clarifies for our benefit something that has always, incredibly, been there, beyond our wildest dreams or deserts.
We are, each of us, God’s beloved, with whom he is well pleased.

Yes…but….surely Baptism demands something of us too?? After all, Jesus came to baptism immediately before he began his public ministry…it acted as a kind of commissioning, almost an ordination. A friend told me about a church in America where a new priest arrived and, wishing to make his parish office his own, positioned his ordination certificate prominently over the desk. The parish secretary, seeing this, said proudly “I have one of those too” and produced from her own desk her baptism certificate. She recognised the truth that baptism, far from being a one-off event is part of a process by which we each become more Christ-like. Not “I was baptised” but “I AM baptised”
the ordination of each of us into the royal priesthood of all believers…
That's our fundamental, lifelong calling. For us, baptism is the beginning of a journey with and towards God…Though it doesn’t depend in any way upon us and our fitness for the task, it does lay obligations upon us : to live the lives of those who have been baptised into Christ’s death so that we may share in his resurrection.

There's been a lot of water in the news in the past couple of weeks...dangerous, destructive, sweeping sea walls away, covering low lying ground, even claiming lives...I'm sure many would currently sympathise with the ancient Israelites, for whom the sea was the emblem of chaos, and who looked forward to the time when it would have no more influence on their world. We know that water is essential to life – but we know too that all waters can be dangerous, and those of baptism perhaps most of all.
Baptism is, truly, a kind of death…of self…of the old order…of anything that rebels against God’s rule of love. We cannot expect to go down into those waters and emerge unchanged…
When we are baptised, the cross is traced on our foreheads…it remains there as an invisible sign of the event that has taken place and a reminder of the shape that our lives should take from then on. Each of us is commissioned to make that sign visible once more, in the way that we live out our baptism. The way in which Jesus lived his life from this defining moment of initiation into his ministry led him inexorably to the cross….but beyond the cross, for him as for us, the Resurrection beckons.
this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”
That is the stupendous message of grace that is available to each of us…
A son, for the Biblical writers, is one who inherits not just the family name and estate, but all the honour due to the father. Sharing his father's name, a good son can act in that name and with that authority. The family honour -- or the family shame -- is his. The family business is his business.
Thus, when we say that Jesus is God's son, we are making a claim for and about Jesus. We're asserting that Jesus has authority to act in God's name, that God is honoured when we honour Jesus, that all that Jesus did represents him simply going about the family business.
"Like father, like son,".
It works both ways,too.
When we say that Jesus is God's son, going about the family business, we're not just saying that Jesus is like God; we are saying that God is like Jesus. We are saying that what Jesus did – his championship of those on the edge, his refusal to play by the world's rules, his overwhelming sacrificial love -- was God's business on earth. Indeed, we're saying that the best framework through which we can interpret what God's business on earth looks like is Jesus' behaviour.
In other words, God's business on earth is "Yahweh and Sons" (and daughters, of course!). As God's children, we are co-heirs with Christ. God's business is our business, and carrying out that business in the style of our elder brother Jesus is what we are FOR. As God's children, God's compassion and God's mission are at the core of our identity. It is this to which we are commissioned at baptism…this which makes baptism not a one off…a snap shot in the album of our lives…but the very centre of our beings as Christians.
this is my beloved Son…”
God’s words are heard by the crowd, so that their impact is unmissable.
From now on, there is to be no doubt about the primary relationship in Jesus’ life.
He is to be seen, supremely, as God’s Son and his whole life is defined in terms of that relationship.
That is our calling we seek to live out our baptism vows so that
the invisible sign of the cross becomes clear, and we too can be recognised by our family likeness “this is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased”