Sunday, April 27, 2014

"A tupperware bowl of holy water" - sermon for my final Eucharist as vicar of St Matthew's

This time last week, our churches were full as we came together to share Easter joy …
After the fireworks and fizz of Holy Sat night the whole church seemed brim full of life and hope and....yes... Resurrection
As we sang our final hymn Thine be the glory I was pretty sure that I could actually hear angels ,archangels and all the company of heaven lending their voices.
No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of Life
For a little while that sure and certain hope of Resurrection took hold of us, heart, mind and spirit, and there was no doubt left...or, let's be honest, maybe a smidgeon somewhere... But not enough to spoil things.

But it's a week on now,...a day that used to be known as Low Sunday...a day of returning to earth from the heights of heavenly praise. Even though the Common Worship calendar tries to steer us in another direction, firmly labelling this the second Sunday of Easter, there's still a lingering memory of LOW Sunday...and I know when I first realised today would be my last as your parish priest, I took a kind of gloomy satisfaction in reflecting that at least it was already a faintly depressed sort of day, when my tearful goodbyes might feel quite at home. I imagined a sound track which was a kind of blend of the Samuel Barber Adagio with Morrissey....but somehow now we are here that doesn't seem quite right.

We are still within the Great Fifty Days.,,,we continue to polish our Alleluias by the light of the Paschal candle, and it turns out that this is not so much “Low” but more "down to earth" Sunday, presided over by that patron of hard facts, the apostle Thomas. I'm very fond of him. I celebrated my first Mass on his feast day in July, and though I feel very sorry for him, labouring through the ages with his label "Doubting Thomas" for me he exemplifies thoseblessed souls whose presence can transform any group of which they are part, because they dare to ask the questions every one else has left unspoken. These are the people who can help us all grow, who challenge us by pointing out uncertainties and inconsistencies.
We all need their honesty, their passion for bringing truth into the light of day....and maybe Thomas has a special word for us on a day when I must confess to feeling a bit wobbly. You see I'd like a few certainties, please.
Some hard evidence that Jesus is alive, that the Resurrection is rather more solid than the clutch of tiny eggs I found in a melted heap in the glovebox yesterday.

And I don't have far to look. Look around!
Look at this building, still gleaming from the hard work of those who made a gift of time and energy on Holy Saturday.
Look at the flowers, their natural beauty enhanced by the skill of our arrangers.
Look at your neighbours, your brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you don't recognise them as evidence, then just listen.

One Sunday in March we wrote our joys and gratitudes setting htem against the links of the chain of sadness and concern we fixed to our cross. In contrast our gratitudes, there to lighten our hearts, were attached to a balloon which also stayed with us through the long weeks of Lent.
On Maundy Thursday, as we stripped the sanctuary together I got to read what you had actually written...and I felt like singing.
Here is our evidence.
Listen. Here are some of YOUR words...signs that you recognize God at work in one another – and I promise not ONE was written by the vicar.
The community is vibrant – the church is full of love”

Thank you for the opportunity of being a child of God without fear of recrimination”

Friends and singing”

A wonderful feeling of peace and belonging”

A church where everyone is welcome”

I rejoice in the love of God for us all and for the love shown in our church towards one another”

Compassion for the bereaved and needy. Acceptance of children”

The will to listen, act and help where necessary...being drawn into the fellowship of the Church...a gift of God”

Warmth and welcome”

The friendship within Church...the children's work and the drop in”

Open hearts and minds”

Giving of love and peace”

Friendly, dedicated people”

a network for harnessing all the agape love and care of acommunity...for practical, emotional, spiritual help and friendship...intrinsic pastoral care...if it brings others to God it is for their good, not ours”

a tupperware bowl full of holy water” (something that looks ordinary but contains a surprising treasure)

A community that works and prays together and welcomes ALL”

This is the Church. We,YOU are the Church,...the body of Christ here in this community, proclaiming in 1000 ways that Jesus is alive.
Because, finally, it matters less that we believe in God and more that God believes in us.
Easter is 50 days...but in the end Ascension comes and, for a little while we seem to be left alone as we wait the coming of the Spirit. Even then, as they stood with our Lord on the mountain and received his Great Commission, some doubted. Later those same dubious souls would be transformed by the power of the Spirit into compelling evidence themselves.
But they didn't see it that way.
Some doubted....doubted themselves, doubted God, doubted that it was even worth trying.

Time to turn, then, to another inspirational hero...a bear of very little brain but a deep understanding of love.
If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. ”

I believe in you. You know that.
But God believes in you...and has given you every gift that you need to continue his work in this place.
Let go of your self doubt, your fear for the future.
Be transformed yourselves,by the One who calls.
We've had a wonderful journey together...but we journey on to new wonders.
You are the gospel, the good news for Cainscross, Cashes Green, Ebley and beyond.

God believes in go on providing hard evidence that He is at work, in his world and in his Church. In the name of the Father....

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hopes and dreams

filled St Matthew's in the last weeks of Lent, as our schools visited once again to Experience Easter. As always, the children's responses to the events of the first Holy Week were inspiring, thought-provoking, deeply moving - anything but childish. The Palm Sunday station draws parallels between the (misguided) hopes and dreams of the crowd that lined the way into Jerusalem, and those of the children - who are encouraged to give stones a voice by writing or drawing something to symbolise their own hopes and dreams and then placing their stone in a cairn by the altar. There's something about a heap of stones that represents the hopes and dreams of several hundred children that concentrates the mind wonderfully, I find...and removing that cairn before we stripped the sanctuary on Maundy Thursday felt almost a violation.

However, hopes and dreams, thanksgivings and regrets are also very much the stuff of this final chapter of my ministry here. I had my exit interview with the Archdeacon on Tuesday - which turned out to be wonderfully affirming in terms of what God has done here during these past 6 years, and also very reassuring in terms of the future. Financial strictures mean that I won't be replaced for some time, but the Archdeacon promised that those at "the centre" are mindful of all the life and health of this place and determined to support it in the future. I, however, had no idea what to expect of an exit interview - I've never stopped being a vicar before! - so thought I'd best revisit the statement of needs that the parish put together before my appointment. 

  • They wanted someone who would work collaboratively, encouraging others to use their gifts - and there turned out to be so many people sitting quietly in the pews who had much to offer. The ministry of Mary, our wonderful Reader Emerita, whose pastoral outreach to the neighbouring care-home has transformed our relationships there, and given birth to the weekly "drop in", is just one example...but there are many many more (who would probably STILL not see their way of being as "ministry" - though I beg to differ)

  • They wanted someone with a eucharistic focus, who was not scared to innovate, someone who would build links with the wider community and local schools, ministering to all ages and backgrounds. Bringing the Eucharist INTO our school is perhaps the thing that I most rejoice in. At yesterday's farewell, the privilege of blessing or communicating every single child and member of staff was beyond words...

  • They wanted to increase the involvement of children and young families in the life of the church, while developing the spirituality, skills and expectations of older people.

Of course you can never say "job done" in ministry - but I'm gently pleased to see how those hopes and dreams have come to pass in many different ways. When you are living something you rarely recognise that it is changing, so it's good for us all to look back and see the road we've travelled together.
I'm pretty sure that in 2008 nobody could have written the wonderful "statement of intent" that PCC and School Governors signed last month - with its triumphant conclusion
I rejoice that our Messy Church team includes pensioners and young parents, Christians with a lifetime of lived experience and mums who came as "punters" but have found their way to a more solid acknowledgement of faith as we've travelled together.
But above all I rejoice in the many ways in which the church blesses our community. Reading the post-its on which we had recorded our gratitudes at the beginning of Lent, I was so encouraged by the signs of flowering in the desert...(I'll share some of them when I preach tomorrow)
It's true that we don't look very exciting!
My chronic issue with "STUFF" means that pretty much any day is a messy (small "m") church day.
Our usual Sunday attendance comprises largely pensioners and toddlers, so we might not strike you as a church that means business.
We never did create the amazing children's choir of my dreams but - BUT - BUT
we are a church that is genuinely welcoming to everyone, a church where you can be yourself and know that you are loved by God and by the people who gather there.
My hope and my dream is that this will continue - that St Matthew's will go forward with confidence, beloved of God and loving their community for his sake.

One post-it described us as "a tupperware bowl of holy water". Literally true - the holy water stoup by the main door leaks, so there's a plastic bowl holding the water to bless and welcome all...but also a wonderful metaphor for the church community. We might be very ordinary, not at all erudite, not offering polished worship or glorious music...but within there is treasure...a sign of God's longing and our calling to love and bless his people here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Christi anesti....

And then at last it is time for the Vigil.

We learned a while ago that this service is never going to draw crowds have adapted our pattern, replacing the formality of readings from the lectern to a small and scattered congregation with a gathering around a "fire" to tell stories in the dark. There were 22 of us in the Lady Chapel and together we told the story of God's action through history from creation and the Fall, via the Exodus (NOBODY could remember all the plagues, though we tried very very hard) and the prophets...
2 wise and reflective little girls enhanced our story-telling considerably - and were wonderfully solemn and excited as together we lit the holy fire outside and then the Paschal candle....
The Herring of Christ(TM) made a splendid job of carrying it into church, through our lovely west doors, and of gradually lighting our candles on the way...The candle safely planted, I launched into the Exsultet - one of the joys of the liturgical year. Somehow it always feels as if I am the first person ever to sing it, as if this amazing news is NEW to the world...
I love it - so have naughtily never remonstrated with deacons who claim that "singing isn't their thing" but just rejoiced in the privilege.

Alleluia!Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And now we are all excited joy...The Gloria from the B Minor Mass blasts though the church...lights are switched on everywhere - and we realise just how splendid the work of cleaners, polishers and flower ladies has been.
We go to the font to renew our commitment to Christ - and I soak everyone as best I can, after an urgent request for rosemary....
Damp and delighted, we proclaim the resurrection with all our might - then send up rockets, rousing sleepy birds from the churchyard yews as we tell the neighbours in Church Road
"He is risen indeed! Alleluia!"

Holy Saturday - waiting...

Even though I should expect it by now, it's always a shock to go in to the church on Holy Saturday morning and feel how completely empty, how very much NOT a church it is...
The Sanctuary as stripped as we can make it, the aumbry empty, the Sanctuary lamp extinguished - and instead, there are people sweeping, dusting, polishing whichever way you turn.

I love this "Feast of the Holy Dusters". I met it first (like pretty much everything I most cherish in Holy Week) at St John the Divine, Kennington, where it delighted me that this really was a whole-church event...I was given a chandelier, some brasso and a chunk of wadding and instructed to keep polishing til I could see my face. My companions at this task were a retired priest (of whose brain I was in abject awe) and a lively small boy, who got most of himself covered in brasso before abandoning the task. I had never got to talk to either of them before, so the morning was unexpectedly rewarding in all sorts of ways - and when we emerged from our particular corner, it was to a church transformed.
At St Matthew's there is less holy tat to care for, so we tend to work on a larger canvas. My husband is more than happy up a ladder, so takes on the once-a-year clean of all high places - rather too often dislodging a load of cobwebs immediately AFTER someone has loving swept the surfaces below. The brass team will already have performed sparkling wonders...but somehow, nobody ever remembers the paschal candle stand, so that often falls to me.

This year I found myself reduced to tears by it - not because it was so particularly filthy (though a year's worth of baptisms, a good 40 this time) meant that it was distinctly waxy - but because I realised that this, something I have used so the candle for each of those baptisms, without even thinking about it....and now it will not be part of my life.
The beautiful new Paschal candle will burn down for others. I won't be here to see it...

And this realisation encouraged me to look at other parts of the church that I've taken absolutely for granted. The icon, on semi-permanent loan from my title parish, that stands on the high altar. The high altar itself, where I have presided at 8.00 Communion 3 weeks out of every 4. 
No more 8.00s for the foreseeable future - so I wonder if anyone will even use it at all! (At my last 8.00 I surprised myself by kissing the altar on depature: I'm catholic, but not often THAT catholic - but it seemed to matter to say "Goodbye" properly)...The holy water stoup that was, once upon a time, a font - which we found buried in brambles at the bottom of the churchyard...The crucifix that hangs over the pulpit...
Things I will miss simply because they have been there - the backdrop to ministry for 6 years. 
Suddenly the simple process of a church spring-clean was transformed into a rite of farewell. 
The votive candle stand in the Lady Chapel....The olive-wood figure of Our Lady that I found after much debate as to what sort of a statue we could actually afford but still want...
Special things, ordinary things, things you never notice at all til you know you will be leaving them.

Tears over a candle-stand seem really silly - but it represents the unthinking moments that are the stuff of life in any place, and it's the every-day as much as the extra-special that I know I'll miss as I go.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Holy Week highlights 3

And so we came to the cross.
We came by way of a church full of excited children, whose feet I washed, who each hammered a nail into our big, bare cross with the kind of enthusiasm that makes it hard to deny our own part in the Passion, who fell silent in a way that caught me by surprise as we sat in a circle, broke our hot cross buns and exchanged halves with our neighbour in what I will now forever think of as Hot Cross Bun Communion.

We came in the rawness of the Reproaches
"My people - what wrong have I done to you. What good have I not done for you? Listen to me..."

We came as we heard the Passion gospel again and shared in the agonised suspensions of Lotti's Crucifixus, which creates in music that sense of pain that fills this last hour.

We came to kneel, to venerate, to be silent

Then it was finished.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Holy Week Highlights Part 2

Thursday - the Chrism Mass...a wonderful time of connection to my colleagues, the clergy of this diocese, as together we renewed our ordination vows. As we robe in the Lady Chapel I'm reminded of Mark Balfour's comparison of the scene there to those times in childhood when you get completely entangled in your bedding and seem to be trapped in a world of white's very much like that and ought to be utterly ridiculous, laughable...But somehow as we process into OUR Cathedral it never feels that way. It's a reminder that we are part of something far far beyond ourselves, beyond our parishes, beyond our diocese, beyond this time and place...
The service is always beautifully put together - FabBishop is, after all, also a fab liturgist, and my curate and I both wondered how it would feel to be in other Cathedrals, with other traditions, having been formed and ordained here.

That afternoon I was quiet in the Lady Chapel, dressing the altar of repose for the Watch. I can't arrange flowers to save my life, but I love doing this, knowing that candlelight is very forgiving and that the place will be beautiful because of what it is, however pathetic my efforts.

The service was every bit as special as it always is. For all my efforts, my insistence that this is a KEY day for all Christians to come to worship, the congregation barely reaches half of a lowish Sunday...C speaks beautifully about our need to accept the service of others, to have our feet washed - but still very few come forward. We have long since given up hoping for place a single chair, and after I have washed my Deacon's feet, he washes the feet of the 1st member of the congregation and so on til there seem to be no more takers, at which point I have my feet washed by the last person in the chain. It works for us, as it enables us to both serve and be served - which is part of the challenge, I think.
"Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too"
We listened to "Ubi Caritas" then - as we had in the Cathedral this morning - 

which made me sad that #1S was in Cambridge, but glad that this music brings him close whenever I hear it. In this Holy Week that is all about letting go, the absence of 2 out of 3 children ought really to have prepared me...

A smaller congregation is sad in one way, but lends a marvellous intimacy, so that as we stand round the altar and I begin the Eucharistic prayer "Who this night - this very night - took bread" there is no space at all between the upper room and our church family gathered here. More tears, this time from the vicar, as I offer God's self in bread and wine to those dear dear people who are Christ's Body a courageous, questioning lady who has felt unready, unable to receive but who opens her hands my youngest son, who has worked so hard to help me keep this week holy despite all the upheavals and changes M who will be the face of the church here when the curate and I have moved on..

Then, together, we prepare for the dark time. The wonderful Samuel Wesley chant for Psalm 22 is our soundtrack as we strip the altars and move everything that can be moved from the sanctuary. I extinguish the light in the aumbrey and we move into the Lady Chapel, for this one night transformed into Gethsemane, for the Watch.
I'm all over the place tonight, my head too full of "lasts" and "I wonders" to be very attentive to the great story that we have come to share...I spend a while beating myself up about this til I hear Jesus saying, quite clearly, 
"I didn't ask you to think holy thoughts. I just asked you to stay awake with me". That I can do - for a few hours at least - and it's good to be there. 

Holy Week highlights - part 1

Just over 6 years ago, I promised myself that I would never leave a church job over Easter again, as the emotional roller-coaster that is Holy Week combines with the emotional roller-coaster that is moving on from a beloved congregation in a thoroughly overwhelming way.
Inevitably I failed to keep my own promise - though at least this time round there is a week between Easter Sunday and my final services at St Matthew's...Nonetheless, the combination ensured that Holy Week 2014 was never going to feel low key.
Knowing that this would be the last time I experienced the liturgical wonder of Holy Week with this congregation as their parish priest, I was repeatedly aware of sacred moments as the week went on.

Already, the early part of last week feels like a life-time ago. The joy and excitement of Palm Sunday morning overtaken by powerful feelings as a small group of us followed the Stations of the Cross that evening and found ourselves overwhelmed by connections between that story of loss and redemption and our own situations. I love Stations - but I've never yet found myself leading a group round with almost half of us in tears. Good, healing tears ...tears that opened the way to deeper connections...that ensured that everyone went home thinking that bit harder...just slightly more aware of the needs and the wounds of their neighbour.

Tuesday evening's service was a beautifully simple Iona Eucharist led by my lovely curate. She had set up a tiny altar in the Lady Chapel, so that the small congregation could sit around the table. There was space and stillness and great beauty...and not for the first time I was completely blown away by the liturgy itself
"Look. Here is your Lord. He is coming to you in bread and wine"

And it was so.

Next day was Tenebrae - something the boys and I have developed over the past 5 years. This year we felt we needed a few changes, so included some additional readings as well as the passages from the psalms and Lamentations that always belong to this evening of gathering darkness.
So we began the service by saying the ancient Phos Hilarion together,  listened to the Bairstow Lamentations, John of Portugal's Crux Fidelis and Gibbons' Drop, drop, slow tears, the latter paired with the beautiful words of Malcolm Guite's "Jesus Wept"

We found ourselves going ever deeper into darkness as we remembered that we were those to whom Christ spoke in Causeley's "I am the great sun" - a poem based on words from a Normandy crucifix of 1632

I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain but you will not obey.
I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
I am the city where you will not stay.
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not pray.
I am your counsel, but you will not hear me,
I am your lover whom you will betray.
I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
I am your life, but if you will not name me,
Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.

Finally even the light of the Paschal candle was extinguished and we listened to Allegri's Miserere before a rather amateur "earthquake" opened the graves again and the light returned. 
That was Wednesday.                                                                                  cont.

Essential Easter listening.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Sunday homily for St Matthew's 8.00

Don't touch me...said Jesus to Mary

Don't TOUCH ME...when every cell in her body must have been intent on flinging herself into his arms, weeping and laughing “I thought you were dead...” and weeping some more as she seeks the reassurance of his embrace.
Hugging and holding are part of love – from a human perspective at least.
But Jesus tells Mary “Noli me tangere” - don't touch me – don't hold me – let me go...and that act of loving release is surely one of the hardest that the world has known.

Letting go is so rarely easy – even when you understand exactly what lies ahead.
Mary has been used to spending time with Jesus whenever she wanted listening to his stories, watching his miracles
She has come to rely on regular encounters...encounters that changed and challenged her, for sure...but encounters that fed her and encouraged her to carry on.

Now Jesus says “Don't hold on to me”

And the future looks terrifying and uncertain.
Couldn't we just put back the clock and pretend that this most gruelling of weeks had never happened?
Couldn't Jesus hug Mary, hold her close and reassure her
It's alright. I was never really dead. It was just a horrible mistake. Let's go and find the others and comfort them too”?
Couldn't life just go back to normal?
Wouldn't that be good news enough for today?
As I try to imagine a future in ministry that involves none of you – and few of the familiar tasks that have filled my days for 10 years – I'd rather welcome a Jesus that said “It's OK. Let's just put things back as they were, forget all these uncomfortable changes and carry on where we left off....”

But it's never his way.
He always calls us to be and to do more...
It was that way for Mary – and it will be that way for each of us too.

In that moment when she was deprived of all the reassurance she craved, Mary found something new – something beyond her hopes and her expectations.
Before her stood not Jesus resuscitated...the old life put back so that he and his friends could resume their old way of being with nothing changed.
Instead EVERYTHING had changed for this was Jesus resurrected – full of a new life beyond Mary's wildest imaginings...

No, life couldn't go on as it had before. How could it?
In that meeting in the garden, Jesus demonstrated for all time that God's love is stronger than anything in creation – even stronger than death – and invited Mary to proclaim and to demonstrate that truth to everyone she met.
Mary cannot hang on to the place any more than she could hang on to the risen Christ.
Instead she is given a new task and a fresh purpose
She is the first apostle, sent to bring good news to the twelve,- an apostle to the apostles…In a world where women had little power, where their voices were generally unheard, hers is the most important message of all
I have seen the Lord.

And it's true, isn't it?
WE have seen the so many holy moments in this church, at this quiet this community where people are welcomed in his name, coming as they are, with doubts, questions, joys and wounds....
We've seen him in one another and in these most beautiful valleys where we live.
This Holy Week I've seen Him in the joy of our children and the reverent silence with which they shared “Hot Cross Bun Communion” on Good Friday, in the many small feet I washed that day and in the sheer hard work of those who turned out yesterday to make our church shine for Easter as much as in the excitement as we carried the Paschal candle into our darkened church as we began our celebration of the Resurrection.
We HAVE seen the Lord....

But we will see him in other places too, again and again, if we simply remember to open our eyes and expect him.

He caught Mary by surprise in the garden of the resurrection.
She went there without hope...but we have a sure and certain hope, the hope that we celebrate today, the hope that should fill our every moment as Easter people.

We know that love wins – and that Love's victory is the best news that we could ever hear.
Yes -that victory brings change – and it's not for us to hold on, to try to safeguard how we encounter Jesus
Resurrection means the power of Love let loose in the world...Love that always involves us in letting go in sacrificing ourselves for others even as Jesus, supremely, sacrificed himself for us...and knowing that here too, he is risen.

Don't hold on...let go....share the wonder of resurrection joy, the good news that we have seen the Lord, today and always.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ride on, ride on

I've always loved Palm Sunday.

At the vertiginously high church of my early childhood, St John the Evangelist, Upper St Leonards, I was enthralled by the idea of the choir and clergy ALLOWED OUTSIDE THE CHURCH in all their amazing "dressing up clothes" and entirely happy to be associated with them in a rather sedate procession down Brittany Road from the hall to the church. I guess it was those processions that meant that I learned the words of the great Palm Sunday hymns very early...I was transfixed by the image of "the Father on his sapphire throne" and those incredulous angels "the winged squadrons of the skies look on with sad and wondr'ing eye" I was caught up both in the drama of the day - the short walk along a quiet road - and the many-layers of imagery in the hymnody, even before I found myself drawn into the gospel story itself.

Later (and still to this day) I found "My song is love unknown" expressed everything I felt and needed to say. I was acutely conscious of my own likely place in the crowd
"Sometimes they (we) strew his way and his sweet praises sing
Resounding all the day, "Hosanna to the King" 
then "Crucify" is all our breath and for his death we thirst and cry"
How could I swing from one extreme to another?
Why was it such a short journey from Palm Sunday to Good Friday?
Would I never be able to trust myself to stay on the right side in this?

I'm sure that dramatized Passion readings took place in many of the churches I've belonged to along the way - but for some reason they didn't really hit home for me til ordination. I'll never forget my first Palm Sunday presiding, when I found myself as "ex officio" Jesus - entering into the narrative in a way that took my breath away...or the echo that we roused in St Matthew's as we shouted "CRUCIFY HIM"...

But today was powerful in new and unexpected ways. 
Today I was hugely aware of endings...and the service itself underlined this from the introduction onwards

"We are all part of the rhythm of life.
We are born. We give birth.
We live in relationships.
We search for meaning.
We make choices.
We face endings.
As we celebrate this day of our journey together - PEACE BE WITH YOU".

We've used this liturgy for several years now - but, oh goodness, it hit home as I contemplated Holy Week spread out before me, my last as vicar of Cainscross. 
It has been such a huge privilege to help this congregation recover their sense of a week full of worship, to try gentle experiments til we worked out what felt best for these people at this time...and though honesty demands that I acknowledge my failure to persuade the whole congregation to walk the way of the cross through the week, the little core who attend everything seem to find the experience every bit as challenging and moving as I do.

And today our Passion Gospel must have been the best yet.
Sitting in the pews with that splendidly mixed group - a female Evangelist, a teenage Christ and a whole crowd of wonderful others - it was brought home to me as never before that this IS our story. 
Not long ago and far away but here and now - in Cainscross, in Coventry and beyond.

Maybe it's not surprising that the little girl next to me had to ask - in a rather pointed stage whisper
"Kathryn - are you CRYING?"
To which the only possible response was "Might be...."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Written for 8.00 at St Matthew's - though it may not actually be preached

Several years ago now, I was working with a group of children to design our own set of Holy Week stations. We tried to sum up the message of each event in a single caption, and for today the caption was
Welcome Jesus!
And of course welcome is very much the flavour of the day, with cheering crowds in holiday mood.

The triumphal entry....” that's what we call it....instantly connecting Jesus with all those set piece returns of Roman generals, led in procession to the Temple after a glorious victory
See the conquering hero comes”
What's actually going on?
It's easy for us to interpret Palm Sunday in the light of Easter proclaim, as we will next week
"Endless is the victory..." but the Jerusalem crowd knows nothing of this – so why are they celebrating?
Perhaps it's just that good-humoured holiday excitement that wants to turn everything into a festival.
Perhaps the crowd is trying to force Jesus' hand, by proclaiming him a conquering hero to turn him into one on the spot...seizing the moment to rush in and overthrow the Roman army then and there.

See the conquering hero comes!

But actually this is an entirely manufactured triumph
The conquering hero comes not in a chariot, nor on a white charger but on a colt the foal of an ass. He is not preceded by prisoners of war but acclaimed by some of those he has freed...through life changing words and miracles.
We shouldn't be surprised. The way of the Kingdom is now, and always has been, to subvert our expectations.
Right from the start the agenda has been quite simply to turn the world upside down til, paradoxically, it finds itself right way up once more, restored to it's true self, as it was in the beginning when God looked at creation and saw it was good.

But...back in Jerusalem that festival day,there is till much to do. Having shouted their welcome, the crowd disperses and Jesus is left alone. But he continues to follow the pattern set for triumphal entries....and goes to the Temple.
What he finds there makes him very very angry.
Here where there should be an all-inclusive the very court of the Gentiles,open to all comers...were people intent on feathering their own nest at the expense of others.
Money changers had their place could not do much in the Temple complex til you had Temple coins in your hand....but was was going on here was extortion, exploitation...and an abuse of hospitality.

It couldn't go on...

So the conquering hero behaves like an angry teenager...

Storming in, turning the tables upside down, sending the soon to be sacrificial chickens scuttling across the courtyard clucking wildly.
Cleansing the Temple – that's what we call it...but it might have felt more like a violation – a riot – the sort of thing that the tabloids decried so vehemently in 2011....
Cleansing depends on your perspective – and for those whose tables were overturned, it can't have been a positive experience.

But still, as I pondered what God wanted me to say to you – and to myself – this Holy Week, it was to the cleansing of the Temple that I returned again and again.
If the children were right, that the message of today could and should be “Welcome, Jesus” - then I wonder what work he needs to do in each one of us, so that the Temple of our hearts can become a place where he is truly welcomed and at home...
What things have we allowed to grow out of proportion?
What is preventing us from being hospitable to God – and to his people?

We know, don't we, that we belong with those fickle crowds whose hosanna turn so rapidly to Crucify him...
We know that while we long to welcome Jesus, we so often find him a difficult and demanding guest
So – this Holy Week, may I invite you to talk to him about the things that need cleansing within you...
Ask him for the courage to LET him transform you.
It may not be comfortable – but in this week when we walk the way of the cross, perhaps that's as it should be.
There may be things we hate to let go...but if we want to welcome Jesus, then we need to make room for him, and all his demands.

He's not an easy guest – but he's the only One who can save us all.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Things you can't throw away

So the decluttering process continues - as the move gets ever nearer.
In 3 weeks time, we should be in Coventry, however unlikely that seems at the moment.
This means that I have just 2 weeks to get rid of all the surplus stuff we really can't accommodate...things that we had kept "just in case" have to really EARN their right to travel with us, as storage space is scarce, and I have finally tackled the infinite number of files and folders that have jammed the 4 drawer filing cabinet and taken up several feet of bookcase for a good long time now.

Actually, the filing cabinet was pretty easy. So much of the stuff that I used to save carefully is now online...and who needs sermons so old that they predate the use of the PC? There were, inevitably, piles of paper of a vaguely financial nature that scared me so much they have earned a place in a box marked "Probably dead, but may not lie down" in case I might need them one day for the Tax Man...but I filled 3 large recycling boxes with barely a backward glance.
And it was morning and it was evening. The nth day.

But then I came to the numerous files from ordination training. All those pages and pages of notes and handouts, which I have never consulted, as I'd mostly forgotten I had them...Some assignments that were thought-provoking enough to be readable without embarrassment - and which I've allowed to survive...And the feed-back sheets. Oh, those feed-back sheets!
Completed with such care and love by my wonderful village congregations in the Rissingtons...They worked so hard, those small communities, loving, praying and encouraging me through the process - through my first unsuccessful selection conference, helping me brave a re-run by their conviction that I was a priest, whatever the selectors might feel, and finally letting me share my excitement and my struggles as I trained.
Including listening to any number of sermons, and evaluating all kinds of worship that was way beyond their normal experience - or indeed, their normal preference.
Ann, Joan, Donald & Arthur are now safe home with God, though others who took the time to help me train continue to bless those churches with their presence, - but reading their thoughtful, generous comments last night I could HEAR their voices - and gave thanks for the whole army of people who have spurred me on the way.
It may take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a Church - or three - to form a priest.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

8.00 homily for Passion Sunday Yr A Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45

It's probably safe to assume that I'm the only person present today who is sad enough to subscribe to the Church Times....!
Recently that trade rag ran a 4 part series, a Health Check on the C of E.
Though there were many happy things to celebrate, overall the picture was not too bright.
We might not yet be staring the Grim Reaper straight in the eye, but nobody could claim that we are exactly hale and hearty.
Look around at the churches of Stroud.
There are pockets of life – but an awful lot that is struggling, weary, dying...

And today we have 2 readings that speak to this situation, as surely as they have spoken into situations of decline death and decay through millennia.
Let's start with dem bones....dem dry bones
Scattered in the valley, the aftermath of some terrible battle perhaps
A grim reminder of mortality, of the brevity of our time here
Just a heap of bones – with nothing to tell the stories of the people they once were.

Dry bones.

And then...Then Ezekiel prophecies as God directs....and gradually, impossibly, the bones begin to come together. And he speaks again and they put on flesh once more. And finally the Spirit moves and they return to life.
Living and breathing
A vast multitude...the dead restored...

Fast forward to our gospel reading – and once again the dead live.
Jesus calls his friend Lazarus back to the land of the living – and tells the astounded onlookers to unbind him.
Called in to new life by his Saviour and Lord, he is still confined, constrained by the trappings of death.

That made me stop to think.
Are there things that still bind us, as individuals, or as a church – even when we have heard the voice of Jesus calling us back to our selves, inviting us to enter into the fullness of life and joy he offers...
I'm sure there are for me...I wonder what they might be for you?
The duties laid on you by the expectations of others?
The heavy weight of yesterday – the limitations we impose on ourselves when we allow ourselves to carry on believing an unkind word or hasty judgement from decades past...when we take on another's judgement as our essential truth?
Fear of failure?
Or the equally pernicious fear of success?

There are many things to bind an individual...

And there are as many that bind the church
Nostalgia for a lost utopia – a golden age when churches were full to overflowing and God and politics marched hand in hand
Attachment to beloved buildings that prevent us from re-imagining our worship in ways that make sense to the lost generations
Determination to focus on unity at almost any cost
And more fear....
So much fear.
If a stranger walked into our worship this morning, I wonder what she would see?
Dry bones?
Bodies trapped in grave clothes?
Or people living the new life for to which they are called?

We know, each one of us, that God calls US to fullness of life...that his passion for us is expressed in 100% perfect love.
It is that love that can breathe life into our dry bones...that love, casting out fear, that calls us from the darkness of death to walk free in the sunshine once again.
It is that love, too, that can transform the Church – which is, after all, not ours but God's....

So, on this Passion Sunday, let's pray that God will once again pour his love into our hearts, that we might live transformed by his Spirit and share that love and that life as signs of his kingdom where dry bones live and the dead are raised to newness of life.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The absence of bookcases

Last Friday, my first-born left home.

She has done this before, of course.From the times when she ran away to the bottom of the garden as a child (Mummy - you just don't understand!) through her departure to work at a Thai orphanage in her Gap year, to her undergraduate and post-graduate courses. In fact, though she has spent the last year largely living at the vicarage, she's been more absent than present since she first left home at 19, so that I never ever took her presence for granted, but enjoyed it hugely when she was here. 

Despite this, last week was different.

You see, this time she took not only herself and the contents of her wardrobe - but also her cat, her books AND the bookcases they had lived upon.
So, in the space of a few days a room that was full of her creative presence, a wonderful muddle of fabric and print, almost always with a cat curled up on the bed, was transformed into an abandoned shell...a space that looks a touch grubby, a little sad, and very very EMPTY.

It was the departure of the books that made me realise that this is real. She really has made her home in another place (though she will still have a room that is "hers" in the Canonry, I really don't expect she'll be aiming to spend much time in it) - and that's just as it should be. She has friends, work and a whole network of connections that make the south-west the place for her and I suspect that even had I not been on the move north, she would soon have wanted to avoid a daily commute to Bath/Bristol and struck out on her own.
That's what growing up is all about - and though it's less fun for the parent than for the child, it's part of the fabric of life.

And, as so often, my daughter has helped me to see things in a new way. Her That empty room of hers has helped me to realise that, much though I love the vicarage, and happy though our time living here has been, when you take away the people it IS just a house...
In 4 weeks time, DV, we'll be settling into another environment, cramming the empty spaces there with the trash and the treasures of family life, filling its silence with our noise, the chatter, the squabbles and the music. I have no idea how life will be there, what events will shape our family in the time we spend there - but I'm pretty confident that once my book boxes have been unpacked and the cats are back to purring on my bed, I'll be certain we have come home.