Sunday, September 13, 2015

Christ the Cornerstone - a sermon for Evensong and Cathedral Praise. Ephesians 2:11-22

Walls, borders and boundaries.
The news is full of them at the moment – human devices created to keep what we call “civilisation” in order.
After all, if people simply had the right to wander freely across God's earth – anything might happen.
We might, heaven help us, discover that strangers and aliens were actually parents and children, teachers, hairdressers, nurses, taxi drivers,  - people just like us.
And we might be tempted to repeat the radical transformation we saw in Berlin in 1989, to tear down the barriers we have imposed upon ourselves and make fresh efforts towards peaceful co-existence, trusting that there are sufficient resources for all, if we work from a position of need and not greed.

We might.

But perhaps we might not...because, you see, we humans remain anxiously small-minded and often small hearted.
We find it much easier to organise the world along the lines of “them” and “us”...
And that has been so since time immemorial.
As Paul writes to the Ephesians, those divisions are constantly in his mind.
His readership, Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, were very much outsiders from a Jewish perspective...excluded by law and by custom.
Even the very fabric of the Temple was designed to keep Gentiles at a distance, as a structure of several barriers. Outside the Temple there was a yard, called the court of the Gentiles, and a wall. On the wall at intervals was placed a warning for a Gentile not to go a step further on the penalty of death. On the other side of that wall, the next court was reserved for Jewish women. Another barrier kept them from penetrating further. Inside that barrier only Jewish men were permitted, but they too were excluded from an inner zone for the priests alone. But even then, a final barrier existed where only the high priest could enter the sanctuary of the holy of holies, and that only once a year!
"KEEP OUT" was pretty much the motto of the place, expressed in its every stone.

Writing this on Heritage Open Day, when our doors have been freely open and visitors have streamed in by the hundred, it’s tempting but facile to make a comparison. Buildings can shout so loudly that sometimes it is just not possible to hear the message of those who speak from within – and sometimes those buildings need to be interpretted, to make sure that architecture does not accidentally subvert purpose.

For the 1st century Jews, though, architecture and purpose were as one and the message was clear. The Temple was a statement of the identity of the Jews as God’s chosen people…and God stayed secure behind the curtain that ensured that the holy of holies remained just that. Sacrosanct. Holy. Set apart…

It worked like this – in order of holiness...
Jewish men
Jewish women
and then – firmly outside, the Gentiles, non Jews – that is to say EVERYONE ELSE….- which would, of course, have included US.

And, says Paul, those Gentile outsiders were a very sorry lot, with nothing to look forward to at all.

Traditional Jewish teaching suggested that the coming of Messiah would bring only destruction for them. They had, after all, no place in the “commonwealth of Israel” - Paul's shorthand for the elect, the people defined by their relationship as God's chosen since the days of Abraham. And worse of all, these non Jews existed “having no hope, and without God in the world” - not, perhaps as atheists (the ancient world tended to believe in some sort of god for sure ) – but as those who found that the religion they practised made little difference to a life that was nasty, brutish and short.
As a rather cheesey Wayside pulpit (is there any other kind? Discuss) put it quite well
No God, no hope"..and then, adding a “k” and a “w” 
“Know God, know hope”

No God. No hope.
The situation for centuries. A world in waiting.
But – something incredible happened...that something that made it possible to add the "k" and the "w"....
Something that tore the temple curtain apart and changed everything for always.
The crux of this passage – and the crux of our faith.
The cross – the ultimate expression of God's solidarity with God's creation, of his all inclusive love for the world.

Yesterday at the Reader's Service I found myself silenced by some words in a hymn that I otherwise love; words that suggested that, at the moment of Christ's death, a mighty righteous anger at the heart of all things was finally extinguished.
On the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”, the author wrote – and everything in me longed to shout out “NO! At that moment God finally proved to an awestruck humanity that God is totally FOR us...that there is nothing that God will not do and has not done to communicate God's love for us."

And the power of that love broke down all division. Matthew tells us that it split the curtain in the Temple so that suddenly there were no outsiders at all. Everyone was included. Everyone could have access to God – all the time. Including people like us.

He [Jesus] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father

Where there had been divisions, there was now a new community of faith and worship...founded on that utterly compelling love which the world saw – and sees – in the person of Christ.

If that sounds exciting – it should do – though it's easy to lose sight of the excitement amid the familiar ways of life and of worship.
But, you know, it is what brings us here...
WE are not simply the constant beneficiaries of God's love at work in the world, but we are also inheriters of that new way of being, that new humanity reconciled to God and to one another – though that might not always be as obvious as it should be.

Last week, as we celebrated our Queen's long reign, there were many memories shared of her visits to Coventry, and to this place where, of course, she came to lay a foundation stone. A corner stone is similar, but not identical in purpose. It was the first stone to be placed at a construction site when a building got under way,its function to set the pattern for the building as a whole.
So if Christ is our cornerstone – not only is he the one on whose love we build our lives, but also the one whose life provides the template, sets the standard for all of us who follow after.
This new community of love founded at the cross is now the place where God dwells on earth...not in a building but in a people.
The Church.
The household of faith -where those who were once excluded are now part of the family,

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

That's our genesis as a community of reconciliation...but it's important to note that the Church's potential as a dwelling place for God depends on COMMUNITY – on being joined together.
The Church to whom Paul wrote stood for the overcoming of those deepseated divisions that had split his first cenutry world into Jews and Gentiles...Today that Church MUST stand
for the overcoming of divisions forced on the world by tradition, class, color, nation, for only in our unity can we represent God's presence in God's world. The cross of Christ, lifted up and proclaimed, draws all people to our loving God, and speaks of an end to all division. And that is what we must show to the world, where the pain of division continues to hurt and destroy.

It's part of our calling to welcome and hospitality...which won't mean automatic assimilation...
When we speak of those who have joined the church as having experienced “conversion” - this won't automatically turn all who enter our doors for worship into people Just Like Us. Paul recognises this as he explains that unity comes through the blood of Christ...
The idea of blood shed to achieve conquest was very much part of life in the Roman world...and those conquered were quickly brought into conformity and uniformity with Rome's ways.
In the upside down world of God's kingdom, blood shed in apparent defeat brings diverse peoples together and invites them to share in God's mission in Christ...
So – nobody can be excluded.
We are asked to be reconciled with all people...not just those who fit in with our notions of what a church (small c) should be like....because actually, the point of Church (capital C) is that it is a community for all. It won't always seem that way (though look around at your neighbours at "Later" and you might feel more optimistic) - but that's our calling. 
Not a club for the likeminded but a home for the excluded...

We will all struggle with different kinds of people.... It may be people of other faiths, or alternative lifestyles. It may be those of a particular political hue...For me, I'm conscious of the very real danger of being illiberal in my liberalism...of wanting to exclude those who see the world in terms of black and white, “in” and “out”.
But...I'm not called to exclude them. 
I'm called to love them.

In case you're still not sure what you can do to practice reconciliation yourself, someone online suggested a quick route to discovering those groups with whom you most need to make peace. Try praying for yourself the prayer of the Pharisee in the Temple – and fill in the blank.
O Lord, I thank you that I am not like ___________________.”
Then change your prayer
Ask God to help you to recognise His image in that group of people...and to enable you to work with them in the service of his kingdom, that together you – we – may be built into a dwelling place for God...and a sign of God's kingdom on earth.
Because that, after all, is what we are for.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Migrants, crumbs and the Syro Phoenician woman - a sermon for "Later" at Coventry Cathedral, Trinity 14, 6th September 2015

This time last week I was at Greenbelt contemplating another night under canvas. It had rained hard all afternoon – and I was feeling slightly grumpy about my decision to camp, having commuted to the festival from the comfort of my own bed for the past 10 years.
In the event I was perfectly comfortable, despite a rather leaky waterproof.
Camping at Greenbelt was a good choice.
I was there with my family, my friends, and the wider festival community whose presence makes those 4 days of faith, art and worship an essential highlight of my year.
Yeah, it was damp and chilly on the camp-site on Sunday and Monday – but the truth is that I wouldn't have changed places with anyone else in the world, no matter how much you paid me.

But at the same time as 6,000 festival goers settled down for the night in our muddy field, across Europe thousands of refugees were also struggling to get to sleep in camps that had nothing to do with faith, fun or creativity...
The refugees whose very existence has prompted the language of crisis ...whose desperate faces fill our screens...who, surely, if we listen, will call us back to ourselves and to our true humanity.

They are people on the edge, right enough.
People like the woman we encountered in our gospel – an outsider, on the fringes...less important than the dogs who scratch and scramble for crumbs under the table.
Someone who doesn't belong, who has no rights.
But a mother, desperate to do the best for her child.
Just as Aylan's parents, and thousands like them, were desperate to do the best for THEIR child.

But oh dear God – we're slow to learn, aren't we?

Living on an island seems to make us alarmingly well – insular.
And yet – and these words written by another Dean John...John Donne of St Paul's, writing almost 400 years ago

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

We can't pull up the drawbridge...because we are interconnected.
These are our brothers and sisters, crying out in despair.
And we can't hide behind the differences of race or creed or language.
Whatever Cain thought, there are times when we are most truly our brother's keepers...our differences swept away in the face of our common humanity.

I know it's not easy. Not easy practically, politically, even emotionally.

We're not good, on the whole, at dealing with outsiders
We are, all of us, more comfortable with familiar situations, familiar people...and that can make the Christian life a challenge.
We know the theory – God's love embraces all...but we tend to organise our lives, even our churches, into zones of like-mindedness.

And we're not alone.

1st century Jews, Jesus among them, had had many centuries to establish themselves as a race apart...God's chosen people...The ultimate insiders, secure in an identity reinforced by law, faith and practice. But in our gospel today Jesus encounters someone from the other side of the tracks – and is challenged and changed by the encounter.
He has crossed into Gentile territory, where Jewish law, Jewish custom have no remit – and comes up against a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She pushes her way in, intent on claiming the healing she believes her daughter deserves.
Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus. Kneeling at his feet she entreats his help.
And what happens?
For reasons that may be obvious, I’ve never tried to tell this story in a primary school assembly, but if I did, I know that the children’s answer to that question would be. What happens?
“Jesus makes the child better”
That’s what we’d all expect.
Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely that’s the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado.
Except that he doesn’t.
Not at first.
First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs….and I don’t think we’re under any illusion that he meant cute and cuddly spaniel puppies.
He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human, and they’re therefore beyond the scope of his love, his healing.
“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”
It’s extraordinarily hard to hear this. We want to retain our soft focus image of Jesus, the source of endless compassion…but this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, this woman is made of sterner stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
Instead, she responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him without missing a beat.
We may be dogs, but surely you’re not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs.
She refuses to take No for an answer…
And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
Against his own expectations, he is forced into really seeing her, - another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.
Hang on...
Jesus change his mind?
Surely not!
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, no shadow of turning, right?
Well, it seems to me that since Jesus is fully human, he must have lived and learned. Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development – “day by day like us he grew”
So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationship…and maybe sometimes he changed his mind. It seems to me that today's gospel presents Jesus rethinking the scope of his whole mission, as he responds to that Gentile woman whose love for her child is every bit as fierce and determined as any Jewish mother's.
His eyes, his ears, his heart are opened...and another miracle of scandalous grace occurs.

And oh, how badly we need that scandalous grace today.
We find it so hard to admit we might be wrong.
We cling to the notion that we don't really need to listen to the voice of strangers, because we already know the truth. It’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. We don't have to look far in our churches, or in ourselves, to find traces of that same approach.
Time, then, for us to be challenged.
Today's gospel concludes with a second encounter, as Jesus heals the deaf man, transforming his life and his world with that great “Eph phathah” “BE OPENED”.
That, surely, is the call to us as we confront the heartbreak of men, women and children fleeing for their lives, and risking those lives again and again as they seek a place of safety, somewhere they can call home.

Preaching back in July I quoted some words of radical welcome ...and because they were well received the Precentor decided to print them on the cover of our service books. They have generated tremendous interest in the weeks that followed...and I would want to say loudly and clearly “HERE I STAND. I CAN DO NO OTHER”

Here's what I said...
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, gay, confused, filthy rich, comfortable, or dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to wailing babies and excited toddlers.

We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You are welcome here if you are ‘just browsing,’ just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you are more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you are having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like ‘organised religion.’ (We are not that keen on it either!)

We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because granny is visiting and wanted to come to the Cathedral.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids or got lost in the city centre and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters… and you!*

But...speaking our welcome is one thing. Living it is quite another.

We can long to BE truly inclusive, reflecting God's boundless hospitality in our every moment....but we don't always get that right.
So- we need to ask God to speak that great “Ephthaphah” over us too....
We need God to open OUR ears, eyes, minds, hearts..
We need to allow ourselves to be challenged and changed, as we encounter a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love seems almost to surprise himself.
We need to be open to the realisation that with God there are no boundaries...that there is grace enough to include us all
We need our eyes opened so we may SEE our brothers and sisters as God does, as beloved children, neither better nor worse, more or less beloved than we ourselves.
... our ears opened to hear their voices – and our tongues loosed so that we can be their advocates, speaking for those silenced by circumstance.

Today the 3 readings the church offers all share a single theme

James makes it so very clear.
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? He asks
If we don't act on our faith, it is ultimately pointless...for our faith should be transformational, enabling us to go beyond our innate caution, our fear of the unfamiliar, to offer the clothing, food, shelter that our brothers and sisters so badly need.

We don't need to be fearful. God's generosity abounds.
To welcome the stranger will not lead to penury for the hosts.
To exclude them may just be the end of our claim to humanity....for actually, there is no “us” and “them”. Each of us, from the politicians who make decisions to open or close borders to the refugee family camped at Calais is created in the image of God...and God loves each of us equally.
No favourites.

“God loves the rich and poor.” the Old Testament reading from Proverbs proclaims...going on with stern words for those who try to restrict that love...

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.
Those who are generous are blessed.
Do not crush the afflicted at the gate
for the Lord pleads their cause.

The afflicted at the gate...a picture as compelling as the images that have shaken the world this week.
And but for the grace of God, we could find ourselves waiting there too.
A friend in ministry offered a prayer space, with stations that included a pop up tent and an invitation to pray for refugees...As she tidied up, she found this reflection, written from the viewpoint of a Syrian mother....another desperate woman longing to save her family.


It could have been you.
Or me.
No man is an island, entire of himself.
We belong together – children of the same heavenly Father....alike dependent on his love and his mercy – which are without limit.

So, in the end, there's no need for any outsiders.
We all belong and there is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with crumbs from under the table.
Again and again, God’s reckless mercy sweeps us off our feet, his love compels us to come in, and we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome.
May God give us grace to share that welcome with all who need to know that they are not alone, that the human family can and will care for its own, in God's name.