Monday, June 30, 2014

The value of getting things wrong

This weekend our Cathedral, like many others across the country, has been on its best behaviour as we have welcomed the friends and families, parishioners, past, present and future and a more clergy than you could shake a stick at (unless, of course, you are an awesome, multi-gifted verger, who can shake a stick, or at least a verge, at any and everyone) for two wonderful ordination services, for priests yesterday and deacons today.
This is scene setting only, as it was VERY important for everyone present that things ran smoothly and, despite gremlins in the sound system this morning, that's exactly what happened.
And 14 new priests and deacons emerged from the Cathedral to serve God and his Church, - and behold, it was very good.

But last weekend, when so much went WRONG, was equally helpful - if only for the learn-pigeon Canon Pastor.
Let me tell you about it
First of all, because of back-to-back gala dinners in the Cathedral, the 8.00 am Holy Communion service was diverted to our friends at Holy Trinity, just up the hill...and because this is the Cathedral's month, I went with it, complete with an abridged-version of the sermon I had prepared on the Common Worship lections for the 10.30 Cathedral Eucharist.
Except that Holy Trinity use the BCP readings - so I had to produce an instant thought-for-the day...which, thankfully, was relatively straightforward.

Fast forward to the Cathedral Eucharist, where the Deacon decided to abbreviate the gospel, omitting the portion on which my sermon was based. Never mind. The full text is printed in "Cathedral Matters" so no harm done & on the whole the sermon seems to have gone down OK.

Home for late lunch, and snooze in the garden - relying on the return of OH from a supermarket dash to rouse me well before I needed to leave for Evensong. Except, his trip lasted way longer than expected and I woke, aghast, with 10 minutes to get myself to the Cathedral, robed and ready.
Made it, by the skin of my teeth, though without proper footwear or collar (oh, the blessings of choir dress, which hides a multitude of sins)...and was beginning to relax and think "I can do this Cathedral lark" or something similarly inappropriate, when we reached the "Final Suffrages" - the set of responses which close Choral Evensong here. 
The organist gave me a note. "Strange" thought I "That doesn't sound like a "D"...More like the "A" that has been the intonation note all through the service...But I don't have perfect pitch. I'm probably just loopy..." So I sang the phrase on the page in front of me, still unhappy about the pitch - it felt way too least a 5th...
No response at all from the choir.
I looked desperately at the director of music, who looked equally desperately back.
I couldn't make any sense of what has happened. I know I sang the notes on the page...but clearly Something was VERY WRONG.
After what felt like a couple of centuries, the Director of Music sang the plainsong intonation - and the choir responded - with plainsong. 
NOT the responses I had in front of me at all. 

Later I discovered that I had not taken leave of my senses. 
The note that sounded like an "A" WAS indeed an "A"...
I had been given the wrong music for the Final Suffrages...because, when Evensong is sung without the gentlemen, the choristers always do plainsong, regardless of which Responses they've used earlier.
Not my fault after all - though I have seldom felt such a complete and utter idiot!

But, coming in to work the following day, I realised that I was now far more relaxed, less worried about getting things right. 
Because, of course, I had got all sorts of things very publicy wrong - and nobody had died, the Cathedral had not imploded, and God was and is still God!
Hugely liberating!
Of course I will do all I can to manage the intricacies of Cathedral worship - and indeed Cathedral politics - according to the customs of the place...but it will never be perfect, and actually that doesn't matter.
Intention is all - and mine is to give God my best efforts in everything.
That's what really matters.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Both sides now

One way and another, for the past 15 years or so I've spent the last weekend in June attending ordinations.
Most of these have been in Gloucester Cathedral, as you'd expect for one whose public ministry emerged in that diocese, - though I've also managed Hereford, Winchester and St Paul's too along the way. Every time, the service has been splendid - beautifully put-together, with words, music and symbols all combining to underline the power of the sacrament and the awesome reality of a group of people committing themselves to the ministry of God's Church. I've always appreciated the way the Cathedral "stages" the event, in such a way that those coming to celebrate the ordination of friends or family have been convinced that it was really quite effortless, just part of what a Cathedral does - and that the Cathedral would carry the whole proceedings, come what may. 

Several times at Gloucester I've found myself with a job or two - for new priests and deacons are always involved in Communion, as are their training incumbents. I've never quite known what I was doing - whether I was really in the right place or what I would do if my chalice ran out before the line of communicants - but have comforted myself with the thought that there were always Cathedral clergy, as well as an army of servers and vergers, on hand to rescue me if things went wrong.

Now, suddenly, I'm one of those clergy - and, though I was deacon of the rite I was all too aware of just how little I really know and how very dependent I am on the expertise of others! As the Cathedral geared up for the weekend, the Precentor's office, where I have a desk, was the hub for all sorts of comings and goings as he and the Director of Music, organist, Head Verger, Head Server, Church Wardens and more planned and revised and planned some more til all was as good as it could be. And it was very very good - most particularly the way the team swung into action to ensure that little things (and not so little - the failure of the radio mic system springs to mind) would not interrupt the proceedings but all would be done not just decently and in order, but with devotion and delight as well.

And the good news for me was that, though I now know exactly how swanlike the proceedings really are (calm on the surface, paddling like crazy beneath), there was no sense of de-mystification, no "Wizard of Oz" moment when knowing the workings spoiled the wonder. Instead, I found myself moved almost to tears by the privilege of reading Matthew 16 to those about to be ordained priest.
"On this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven".
For me, reading those words in that context - and conscious of the ways that the "power of the keys" has been transformative in my own life and my own ministry, the words were electric and I would not have wished myself anywhere else in the world. 

Today's deaconings were overflowing with joy. 
The congregation were so full of conviction as they responded to the bishop's question
"Is it your will that these candidates be ordained deacon"
it was impossible not to smile broadly - and there really was no need to try.

A wonderful weekend - and a privilege to be part of it.
Maybe by next year I'll know enough to be useful!

Friday, June 27, 2014

1 month in - a few inconclusive thoughts in a time of change.

Today being 27th June, it is exactly one calendar month since I started my new job at Coventry - as I had 3 days of orientation before my installation/collation on 31st May.
The past couple of weeks have felt quite different - as if I'm actually beginning to do things that might be useful to other people, rather than being found (or finding myself) things to do to help me learn the new context - or, worse still, to keep me amused! They've also felt markedly busier...instead of automatically heading for my bike the moment Evening Prayer is over, I've returned to my desk on more than a couple of evenings - though thus far I've not brought work home (unless you count sermon prep).It's interesting the difference that not living over the shop has made. On the whole, once I'm home, I switch off - and, because I'm still finding the learning process quite exhausting, I tend to spend my evenings in vegetative non-contemplation. At the moment I don't feel responsible for the community I serve in quite the same way as I did as a parish priest...I'm wildly in love with the Cathedral & indeed with the whole city - but I don't carry it around and worry about it as I did in the parish. This may be simply because I haven't quite picked it up yet (though +Christopher did indeed give me the cure of souls at my collation, and I don't remember saying "No thanks!") It may be because there are colleagues with whom to share the angst. Or it may be that the poor Dean has the special privilege of worrying about the Cathedral and its communities day and night, and thus I don't have to.

Whatever - I'm not complaining!

During the past couple of weeks I've started to do some visiting - some housebound members of the congregation, some sterling souls who have been heavily involved in the life of the place for many years - and while I've asked them what it is that they most love about the Cathedral, and what one thing they would like to change (different answers to both questions from practically everyone), many of them have asked me what has struck me most in these early weeks.
And of course, there are many many answers to this.

I'm constantly struck by the amazing privilege of praying in that space every day.
I can't decide whether I prefer Morning Prayer, in the circle close to the West Screen, where we are bathed in light filtered through John Piper's incredible window
Or Evening Prayer in the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and the glittering angel has a resonance close to that of Orthodox ikons
Or is it best of all to stand in the ruins, confronting the charred cross but with the sky open above me...
I just don't know. 
All I know is that it is good to be here - and that each and every Choral Evensong feels like the most tremendous present from God...something I have loved all my life, that I'm now part of on a regular basis - and I get to call this WORK!

I'm struck, too, by the sheer unexpectedness of life. Whatever my diary may say at the start of a day, I can be confident that there will be a whole host of unplanned encounters...symbolised for me by an "ordinary" Tuesday Evening Prayer, at which the congregation grew from 2 to 48 during the course of the Office as a whole pilgrim group from Hong Kong wound their way up the nave to join us in the Lady Chapel.

But above all I'm struck by the multitude of people who give of their time and energy to the work of the place. 
I was taken on with the brief of "Nurturing the Cathedral community as a reconciled and reconciling people" but there are so many Cathedral communities..
The congregation who gather for the Eucharist on a Sunday morning, that is the most visible expression of our life of worship
The smaller congregation that find God in the beauty of Choral Evensong and those who are drawn to the informality of Cathedral Praise - not to mention those who appear to share in the Office.
The Cathedral choirs - men, girls, boys, - who offer their talents every week - and those who find time to step in and enable the choristers to take the occasional break
The welcomers, stewards, guides and lay chaplains
The vergers - both full time, asssitant and honorary - whose patience and calm in the face of even the most idiotic of rookie canons is truly impressive
The servers
Those who sew, wash, iron, press...
Those who keep track of the archives
Those who clean, polish, weed, shore up & sand down
The assorted staff who ensure that music happens, schools are welcomed, special events take place, the world knows that we are here AND can buy a souvenir of their visit
And that's just the people I could think of without effort...I'm still so new that there will be many others I've not even registered yet...
The Cathedral Community is more varied and diverse than I would ever have imagined...If I were to try and draw a Venn diagram, it would be complex, multi-foliate...

It seems clear to me that I am called equally to love and serve each and every grouping and I dream of a space in which they could all become aware and appreciative of each other...

So I guess that it is that complexity of Cathedral life that strikes me most
and is probably why I'm so consistently tired at the moment.
But it's a good tired...and exploring the life of the organism that is both my spiritual home and my place of employment for the present is endlessly intriguing, enthralling and rewarding.
I'm blessed to be here!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Motherhood and apple pie" - a sermon for Trinity 1A at Coventry Cathedral

It's sometimes said that one of the hardest parts of living in a post-Christian society is the number of people who THINK they know exactly what our faith is about.
Take, for example, the way certain sections of the media tend to equate “Christian values” with “Family values”.
Safe, cosy, completely unobjectionable,both are seen as a kind of short-hand, much like “Motherhood and apple pie”.
Love them, or loathe them – in the public imagination Christian values are most definitely NEVER challenging.

Except, of course, that we know better.

We know our attempts, whether whole-hearted or faltering, to live lives shaped by Christ's teachings rarely make things easier in the short term.

We know that a faith that looks towards things as they could be is rarely good news for things as they are...Our very existence should speak of challenge and change – and that's not something that makes for a smooth journey.

And we can't say we weren't warned.

Really, it's quite extraordinary how many people miss this aspect of Christianity...
because the gospels are full of it, even if you gloss over the end of the Jesus story. Certainly, he himself makes it very clear, again and again.
Just listen – if you're feeling brave.

I have not come to bring peace but a sword
I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother...”

What price family values here?
What are we to do with this picture of conflict and complexity – in a place dedicated to peace and reconciliation?
Motherhood and apple pie? I don't really think so.

It's frankly terrifying stuff – perhaps almost more so for those of us who have never experienced any kind of persecution for our faith.
We ask ourselves whether we'd have the courage of our convictions...whether we might after all turn out to be fair-weather Christians...
Perhaps the gospel is too challenging for us after all.
We rather like the life we have – it's familiar, comfortable, largely manageable – and we would much prefer to carry all the baggage that we have so lovingly accumulated – family, friends, and material possessions – rather than surrender them, leaving our hands free to take up the cross.

And this is supposed to be good news???

Actually, I rather think it is. Here in Coventry, I know that many of you will have had direct experience of meeting brothers and sisters who've lived this – and you'll recognise their rather different perspective. For me, my first encounter with a real live persecuted Christian was a complete eye opener...putting an end to any assumption that “Christian values” and “Family values” belonged together, but also showing me the unexpected joy of those who HAVE on one level lost their life for Christ's sake. It was on my 1st visit to India, when I found myself sitting at table with Andrew, an Indian Christian working for Scriputre Union across the 3 dioceses of Karnataka North, South and Central. His family was originally dalit, untouchable – and despite the outlawing of the caste system, that legacy endures - but Andrew's grandfather converted to Christianity, following what amounted to a miracle. He was employed by a British tea planter, a Christian who held daily prayers for his staff...but grandfather, a devout Hindu, was not convinced. Then one day he had an accident, breaking his treatment was some days journey away, and by the time he arrived gangrene had set in and amputation seemed inevitable. Surgery was planned for the following day, and he lay in the ward, in great pain and utter desolation...He noticed a picture of Jesus, which he recognised from his employer's home...and in some desperation prayed "I am in too much pain. If you are indeed a god, act." That night his pain did not keep him awake, and instead he slept deeply and dreamed vividly of two men in white who came to him and assured him that Jesus had indeed healed his leg. In the morning, the gangrene had gone, the broken bone was whole and, not surprisingly, grandfather converted to Christianity on the spot. Healed and restored – a whole new life began – but in embracing it, he lost all that had gone before, for he was outlawed from his own family, forbidden to return to the place where he'd been born, pelted with stones and refuse by work mates and relatives. Even now, when his grandson Andrew returns to his home village, he is ostracised – by those very outcasts who might have been expected to show solidarity no matter what.
But, he says, it is worth it, for he has found an open door, an escape route from the confines of the eternal cycle of karma to freedom and dignity as a child of God – and for Andrew, that's worth any amount of abuse. Following Christ has helped him to find himself...his vocation...his purpose in this life and beyond.

Good news after all, then!

But where does that leave us?

Do we have to pick a fight with the rest of our family? .

Well no – probably not! But we DO have to be certain that we know where our priorities lie.
The call to discipleship is an absolute – not one to follow on the days when we haven't got much on, when it fits in with our personal timetable.
You see the message is that nothing – NOTHING – is as important as acknowledging Christ as Lord...and sometimes this may even seem to be at odds with our calling to peace and reconciliation.
You'll know already that reconciliation has nothing to do with papering over cracks or denying difficulties.
Reconciliation goes hand in hand with truth: it is never achieved through superficial compromise.
Where difficulties exist they must be named and faced...and for us, trying to live as citizens of the Kingdom will often mean difficulties as we strive to speak up for the oppressed and challenge injustice.
We may find ourselves in situations we would never choose, places of deep, enduring pain – but we stand there as signs of hope and liberation.

Those aren't easy, empty words...and their inherent challenge would surely startle those who see our faith as a bland expression of kindness without meaning.
I almost wish that our faith was more “motherhood and apple pie”, more hallmark cards less gospel imperative

So here's the rub.
I want to take it seriously...I want to have the courage to put Christ first in all let go of everything else - but as Jesus tells his disciples...
Whoever loves father or mother...son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”
I'm pretty certain I'm not worthy of him.
Not because I've got a set of disordered priorities – though that's probably true too – but because, actually, we're NONE of us worthy of him.

Which brings us back to good news after all
We stand or fall not on our own worthiness but on His unlimited grace....

So do not be afraid . We have His word for it that you are worth more than many sparrows!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

How to make a Canon...or What Kathryn Did Next

Incredibly, it’s 2 weeks since I was Installed and Collated as Canon Pastor of Coventry Cathedral…

This is incredible on all sorts of levels.
The sheer wonder of being invited to do such a job at all – with its brief of nurturing the Cathedral community - and in this place of all places feels like the most tremendous gift.
To be part of a place where reconciliation is written into the DNA of the building and its people, and to be invited to explore with them how to make this part of the everyday life of each member of the congregation, is quite extraordinary.
Then there’s the joy of finding myself part of a Cathedral at all…of being placed somewhere where the daily round of worship, hospitality and service is the concern of a whole body of people…- so that I can pretty much guarantee that I will never find myself praying the Office alone.
And the specific and incalculable joy of the choirs… whose singing repeatedly opens windows onto heaven for me
The whole thing feels like the most glorious, if demanding, present – and I keep on having to check that I’m actually awake – that I haven’t invented the whole thing in a moment of delusion but am really and truly here.

But it’s incredible, too, that 2 such exciting weeks have passed without any substantive blogging…just when there is more to reflect on than I can even hope to keep track of.
And of course, that’s why. The learning curve is more of a learning vertical wall, really…I’m assimilating so much – names, faces, ways of doing familiar things quite differently, and a whole battery of things that are simply not part of parish life in most places, so I tend to reach home somewhere close to exhausted. I have to confess I’ve watched more tv in the past 3 weeks than in the previous 3 months, as I simply need to flop, cuddling whichever pet is nearest. I’ve hardly opened a serious book at home since May!

But there’s much to think about…beginning with that amazing service on the Feast of the Visitation, which was a joy from start to finish. It felt quite strange to stand in the Chapel of Christ the Servant and swear oaths of canonical obedience to +Christopher – for my whole ordained ministry has been spent under the leadership and care of +Michael, the “FabBishop” who has been enormously encouraging and supportive through the past 10 years. Now he is no longer “my” bishop – and there’s a slight sense of loss there…just as there is a sense of loss that Gloucester is no longer “my” Cathedral. It was the scene of so many significant events. The Cathedral service that celebrated the Decade of Evangelism when J was just a couple of weeks old, when I realised that God was nudging me to do something specific for him…The ordinations of the first women priests, when I received Communion from Viv Faull, and the nudging became more insistent…The confirmations of 2 of my children…My ordinations as deacon and priest…And so many memorable and splendid services. When it comes to worship, I really do love the house style that has been established there so the great diocesan occasions when colleagues were exasperated or amused were largely unadulterated joy for me. It does seem strange to be somewhere so very very different….but it’s a GOOD strange….one that excites and delights me.

So, having sworn the oaths and made the declarations that are part of the beginning of any new ministry, I then went in search of my Cainscross church family, who were to give me away, walking me up the aisle to begin my new life without them. That was both hard and wonderful…When I got married, my father was already dead and though a good friend did a splendid job of walking me up the aisle, I missed out on the sense of all that had gone before being part of the journey I was making. When I walked up the nave with my St Matthew’s family, I was so so conscious of all that they had taught me, all we had experienced together as we looked for God’s love at work in that precious community. I’m glad I couldn’t look back as they dropped away, leaving me standing beside my children as the service began…Goodbyes are so hard, even within God's providence.

It goes without saying that the service itself was amazing. All the hymns I most needed and wanted to sing...a congregation stuffed with friends from all directions, my family (in its augmented form) in the front curates (past and present) reading the gospel and offering the intercessions...the lovely Kemsleys bringing up the gifts of the people...the delight of giving Communion to so many  and knowing that other dear friends were also sharing this ministry...and somewhere along the line, I knelt, feeling very small and scared, and the bishop and assorted others laid hands on me, and I remembered once again that God who calls is faithful, and that somehow He would ensure that I was enough for the work. 
I made some rather huge and solemn promises but there were gloriously silly moments too, of course - as the bishop licensed me as a Residentiary Canon  "with all therights members privileges and appurtenances thereto belonging" and I speculated wildly about what such appurtenances might be...

But the words I won't ever forget came as I was installed - taken to the stall which is now my own- where the Dean (who really did get the best lines) spoke of  "rights and opportunities of service" and I realised that there would, indeed, be new opportunities to love and serve God and God's people, in this city and beyond, through the very nature of this Cathedral church.

Later I was given the Cross of Nails and the Dean said
"Receive this Cross of Nails, symbol of Christ's suffering and our salvation. As a servant of Christ crucified rejoice in the ministry of reconciliation which has been entrusted to you"....

Oh my! What a joyous responsibility...

And after Communion, after the wonderful Magnificat from Stanford in G (which was a party piece of mine many many years ago), after Haydn and Gibbons, came this most wonderful Post Communion prayer, for the feast of the Visitation

"Gracious God, who gave joy to Elizabeth and Mary as they recognised the signs of redemption at work within them;
help us, who have shared in the joy of this Eucharist
to know the Lord deep within us
and his love shining out in our lives,
that the world may rejoice in your salvation,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord."

Then the whole world was filled with people I love singing "O for a thousand tongues" and we processed to the West Screen. and looked back at that tapestry...and I knew all would be well.
Not every day, in every way....but deep down, where it matters...

Evensong on Trinity Sunday, 15th June 2014 Isaiah 6:1-8

I wonder if you can remember how you felt when you first set foot in this building. If you're a visitor, and arrived only half an hour ago it will be pretty easy, but long standing congregation members may find it a bit harder.

For me, it's a vivid memory.
I was a very small child, brought here by my parents...who were enthusiastic church-crawlers, so I was no stranger to visits to all sorts of places of worship.
Usually, though, they were small, quite dark and very very old – so the impact of stepping into this place of openness and light was extraordinary.
I never knew God was so BIG – was the first thought that crossed my mind, as I sat myself down firmly on the floor by the West Screen.
More than 4 decades on, not much has changed!
Certainly, as I walked up the aisle together with my church family from Cainscross 2 weeks ago, to be installed as Canon Pastor I felt very very small indeed...
I looked at the figure standing between Christ's feet on the great tapestry and thought
“Yes, that's me. Too small for the space. Too small for the job. Dwarfed by the majesty of God and the grandeur of this holy place. Help...” or, more Biblically, “Woe is me”

And of course, that's without the theology.
Isn't it interesting that the lectionary gives us Isaiah's account of his own call – in that holiest of holies which was filled with the glory of God's presence...on this day above all days...Trinity Sunday...
It's there, I think, because of the “Holy, holy, holy” - but it seems to me that as we set ourselves up to engage with the doctrine of the Trinity, its also a valuable reminder of our own intellectual inadequacy, an acknowledgement of just how small we are.

Because nobody can pretend that it's EASY to understand the Trinity....and today makes that obvious.

One way and another I've been wrestling with it for years. I was baptised in the church of the Holy Trinity Hastings...spent my undergraduate years at the College of the Most Holy and Indivisible Trinity, Cambridge – and I was ordained in the Cathedral Chuch of St Peter and the most holy and undivided Trinity in Gloucester. Note the distinction between those two labels if you would...It does sound rather as if, while Trinity Cambridge is dedicated to God the Trinity, indivisible, Gloucester Cathedral is dedicated to a Trinity who could be divided, but happens not to be. Something to ponder, now that I can consider such heresies from a safe distance. Because, of course, today is also known in the trade as “air your favourite heresy” Sunday. The theology of the day seems designed to make the unwary, whether preacher or listener, feel very small indeed...and not a little stupid. Small wonder that incumbents the world over invite their curates to preach, and that wet-behind-the-ears Canons also find themselves rolled out for the occasion.

Woe is me....
This is the day, too, when the Athanasian creed comes into its own, and I'm reminded of just why it isn't our default expression of the faith.

8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
  1. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
Is your head spinning? Do you feel utterly inadequate? If so, you're probably on the right tack!
Today is a day to give let go of any intellectual acknowledge the limits of our understanding...God is indeed a mystery – but not one to be solved by a clever detective, rather one to enter in to, with wonder, love and praise.
So better, today, to stand before the mystery that is beyond all words and simply worship. The seraphim give us the lead with their cry of “Holy, holy, holy” and even their chorus of praise is overwhelming, making the building shake as the clouds of incense reflect their proclamation that “the whole earth is full of God's glory”.
In the face of this – we needs must fall silent – and it might be tempting to leave this sermon right there. There is, after all, rather too much irony in proclaiming the need to fall silent, and then continuing for the full 10 minute semon!
But in Isaiah's account of his theophany, the story contiues. Having set a scene in which awe and wonder are the only possible response, Isaiah takes us in a new direction.
Confronted with the glorious sight of God in his majesty, his own state becomes obvious.
“I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips YET mine eyes have seen.....”
It is in fact only that encounter WITH the Lord of hosts that enables Isaiah to recognise just how far from holy he is. Yes, there is the sense of unwarranted privilege “YET mine eyes have seen” but also the certainty that it is the light of God's presence that enables him to recognise his state. For surely, the closer we come to God the greater our sense of our own shortcomings. It is because we glimpse ourselves and our world by that light that we begin to understand just how flawed, how broken we really are...tiny figures dwarved by God's majesty
“I am a man of unclean lips...AND mine eyes have seen”.
But do not despair.
I'm reminded of a story told by Adrian Plass, in which an old-fashioned hellfire preacher, having spent a long long time reminding his congregation of their burden of sin, shame and shortcomings, places a chair at the head of the nave and says
“Imagine Our Lord is sitting there....Imagine his dreadful majesty...Imagine that he calls you forward. Aren't you terrified, awestruck, appalled?” - and Adrian's inner dialogue as he realises joyfully
“Our Lord is sitting there...He's calling me forward. He will make EVERYTHING ALL RIGHT”
Because, of course, the God of Isaiah's awe-filled vision is the self-same God who, incredibly, loves the world, loves US so much...The same God we meet in Jesus...The same God whose Spirit transforms us day by day...
Trinity Sunday is, above all, about God in relationship...God in relationship with Godself – in that ceaseless love that circles from Father to Son to Spirit, filling all creation with delight
And God in relationship with us...for, like Isaiah, we are called – not in a voice of imperious command, but in one of gracious invitation, which forces nothing upon us.
Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?
This, of course, is why we so often hear this passage read at ordinations, or at the start of a new ministry...but that question is one to respond to no matter where we are in life.
God, enthroned in glory, surrounded by all the company of heaven, needs you...NEEDS you to collaborate with God's work of transforming grace in the world.
Graham Sutherland left space between the pierced feet of Christ for us to find a sanctuary. It's a space in which we will feel, rightly, very small...but in which we are totally safe and secure. Place yourself there for a moment...and ask to share the perspective from which Christ sees this building and each person who comes here...Ask to share His his love for each one who comes through the doors, his grief for the pain each bears or inflicts.
Ask that the Spirit will lead you into all truth – and all love as well...then, if you will, echo Isaiah's words

Here I am. Send me

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Easter 7 A John 17:1-11 Homily for 8.00

I'm sure you have sometimes experienced those uncomfortable occasions when the person leading intercessions at the Eucharist uses the opportunity of public prayer to let the congregation know exactly what he thinks they should be doing – and is pretty directive with God too. Sometimes it can be hard not to feel distinctly “Got At” and I'm pretty clear that prayer as political lobbying or as social commentary is really NOT
what it's all about.

But the prayer that we have heard in this morning's gospel...that is something very very different.
We know that Jesus prayed all the time...Early in the morning on his own, aloud in the midst of the crowds, and of course he provided a pattern for us, those words that we know as the Lord's Prayer.
This, though, is prayer of a different order.
At a point of stillness between the signs and wonders of his ministry and before the action of the Passion, Jesus pauses – and we are privileged beyond measure to hear what he has to say as he pours out his heart to his heavenly Father. You might almost describe it as the “real Lord's Prayer” , and each year on this Sunday after the Ascension the lectionary invites us to reflect on a different part of it. It stands as a hinge point in John's gospel, the great High Priestly Prayer that is, in essence, the ultimate Eucharistic Prayer, for here Jesus consecrates not bread and wine but his very self. John, of course, does not include the institution of Holy Communion as part of the Last Supper before the Passion, but this prayer has equal force, as it gives us an amazing insight into Christ's heart for us. Incredibly, you see, the subject of this great prayer is, at least in part, you and me!

One of the most powerful prayer exercises I've even undertaken was during my pre-priesting retreat, when I was invited to spend time with this 17th chapter of John's gospel, substituting my own name whenever Jesus prayed for his followers.
Go home and try it, please! I promise that it will be an enriching experience, a journey into the heart of Christ's loving purpose for you, his precious child.
In his commentary John for Everyone, Tom Wright points out that this prayer is both a celebration and a petition – a reminder to us that we shouldn't always use prayer as a series of demands! Jesus rejoices that he has completed his work – it really IS finished – and then asks that God will indeed bring in the Kingdom, as Jesus is exalted as Messiah...and that each one of his followers should grasp and enter into that Kingdom, on the way that leads to everlasting life.
This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God – and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent”
There we have it...
When Jesus is praying for us, at the heart of his prayer is the longing that we would know him and know his Father...
That is all we need for ourselves...a deep heart-knowledge of God.

But, even in this passage, there is more.
Eternal life is never a private gift to be squirrelled away but something to share.
As Luke's account of the Ascension makes clear, we are not simply to be witnesses who stand by and do nothing. We are to take what we have seen and experienced, that message of eternal life, and share it with the world...and our witness will stand or fall on our unity
 Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
Hearing those words in this place of reconciliation, they strike me with a new force.
Ut unum sint.
That they may be one.
People united by the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ – and empowered by that knowledge to share God's love so that all people may share that gift of eternal life.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Sermon for The Visitation, 31st May 2014 Induction & Collation at Coventry Cathedral

One way and another, the past few weeks have been a bit of a blurr! First there was the emotional roller-coaster that is Lent, Holy Week & Easter, then the sadness of saying farewell to my church family in Gloucestershire, and the joy of so many wonderful welcomes here in Coventry. Since Tuesday I've been trying to learn my way round this great perhaps it's not surprising that I'm a wee bit confused about where I am and which way is “up” – but I have to say the Liturgical calendar really doesn't help!
On Thursday we were celebrating Our Lord's Ascension – the last chapter of the story of Jesus of Nazareth here on earth...Next weekend we will rejoice in the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church...but today? Today we're back at the beginning of the story as the pregnant Mary goes to see her cousin Elizabeth.
Honestly...Where, oh where, is The Doctor when you need him?

But however difficult it may be to keep track of our whereabouts in the year, today is most definitely the feast of the Visitation...a celebration of a particular visit that has something particular to say to all of us whether we come as visitors or extend a welcome to new friends today. My Cainscross family might warn you that one of my favourite ways to engage with Scripture is to ask, with Ignatius Loyola, “Where are you in this story?” - and that is my question today.
Where are you, in this story of a remarkable visit...

Let's begin, not with the perspective of Mary but that of Elizabeth – whose greeting provides the most wonderful welcome that her cousin could imagine.
Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
Before Mary has even opened her mouth to share her incredible news, Elizabeth, alert to the unexpected, recognises that God is at work. What a reassurance for Mary – who must surely have been wondering in the weeks since the angel's visit whether she'd dreamed the whole thing.
While I'm really not comparing myself with the Blessed Virgin, we might have a little in common. Are you familiar with imposter syndrome? It's an officially recognised phenomenon, whose sufferers, despite achieving something significant, find it impossible to believe in it. They are constantly expecting to be told “There's been a mistake”....and to find themselves sent back without more ado to the obscurity they feel they deserve.
Well, for a while now I've expected to awaken from the dream in which I was invited to come here. I've expected another phonecall, telling me to stay at home...But here we are today, and each of you who has welcomed me here has affirmed my right to be here, recognising that maybe God is doing as God so often does – using someone unlikely to join in with God's plans for this place at this time. Perhaps, just perhaps, Mary felt a bit like that too. It's hard enough even in an ordinary pregnancy, to grasp at first that a new life is really growing inside you, to imagine the changes that are to come...and Mary's pregnancy is anything but ordinary! So, did she sometimes wonder if she was quite mad? Did her ponderings lead her to question the visit of the angel, and his incredible promise?
If so, Elizabeth's words of greeting must have had a tremendous impact...the first confirmation that Gabriel's message might bear fruit in the life of this teenager from a small town in Galilee.
Blessed are you...”
So - perhaps today you stand with to recognise God at work in others, and to name this so that all the world can see and celebrate too.
Like her son John the Baptist, Elizabeth acts as a sign-post, directing others to Jesus, even as a baby in his mother's womb.

And Mary? What of her, the handmaid of the Lord?
She is already the God-bearer, carrying within her that precious spark of life whose coming into our world changes everything for all time and beyond.
She has earned an unchallenged place in Salvation history, her obedience to God's call enabling her to co-operate with God in a way that no-one else has ever done...but she is still in some ways an ordinary girl, seeking reassurance from one older and wiser, a woman whom she can trust this greatest secret.
Mary needs Elizabeth's greeting before she can fully claim and celebrate what is already happening within her and for her.
Even the Mother of God needs the reassurance and support of fellow pilgrims...and inspired by the reassurance she receives, she flowers into that hymn of praise that we call the Magnificat.
My soul magnifies the Lord” she proclaims, or, as we've already sung
Tell out, my soul...!”
There's a good deal of singing in our readings today. According to Zephaniah, God looks at his people and sings for joy – a concept that I find both incredible and life-changing. God looks at you and me – and SINGS! Isn't that wonderful?
So too Mary's joy cannot be contained but bursts forth in singing, as she rewrites the words of Hannah, the unexpected mother of Samuel, and turns them into a prophecy of the way of the Kingdom.
For, make no mistake, this Magnificat is a song of revolution....
We often hear it softened, subdued by the beauty of so many settings at Evensong, its edge dulled by familiarity but look again at the words.
He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away”
Not for nothing does another transcription present it as a “song of high revolt” which is sung to the tune O Tannebaum – familiar all over the world as “We'll keep the red flag flying”.
Though Mary's song looks back with gratitude at God's power at work in her life
The almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name”, this is not simply a celebration of the way things are but an invitation to look ahead into God's future.
As we sing we are plunged headlong into the upside down world of God's kingdom – the world that Mary's Son lives and proclaims by word and action, the world where the meek shall inherit the earth.

So – where are you in the story?
Where are you as an individual?
And where are we as we gather as God's church?
It seems to me that we must, in turn, be both Mary and Elizabeth.
We must be God bearers, sharing God's reconciling love with world that sorely needs it.
We must be sign-posts, pointing the way to Jesus and celebrating the evidence of God's Kingdom among us
We must recognise and affirm God's work in others and celebrate it in our own lives.

Like Mary and Elizabeth, we must allow God's Spirit free reign, enabling us to make Magnificat together – so that we too can become collaborators in that Kingdom work of turning the world upside down.