Saturday, February 27, 2016

No such thing as a free lunch - a sermon for Lent 3C at All Saints High Wycombe

There's no such thing as a free lunch!
That's the sort of popular wisdom that can make the job of a Christian priest kind of challenging.
How do you persuade people that actually everything that really matters is gift when their learned experience has been that the good things in life are only available to those with enough wealth to procure them or enough cheek to blag them?

How do you speak into a culture of scarcity, a prevailing sense that there is never enough to go round...that a gain for you is a loss for me...with news of overwhelming abundance there for the asking?
There's no such thing as a free lunch – except when there is!

Sometimes it seems that what ought to be one of the easiest bits of the gospel to share– God's amazing grace – becomes instead one of the hardest challenges for the world today.
Rather than responding to God's great invitation with eager hearts and open hands, we hang back, deliberate, finally turn away because, perhaps, we're just not thirsty today, thank you.
You see on the whole we like to feel we have earned whatever reward we receive
We relish the illusion of control...the idea that we can pick and choose which invitations to accept, weigh up for ourselves whose hospitality is good enough.

And of course the snag with Gods hospitality is that it is so extremely indiscriminate.

Last month at Coventry Cathedral we launched a new service within our regular informal series that we call OPEN. OPEN Table does exactly what it says on the jar...It offers hospitality – food and friendship, to anyone who happens to turn up. The significant thing about it is that the service is held at the back of the cathedral nave, beside the great glass screens and miles away from the Graham Sutherland tapestry that dominates the space behind the altar. THIS table is spread where everyone can see....And hopefully they can see that those who are gathering aren't the usual beautifully scrubbed retired academics who form the bulk of our Sunday morning congregation...
At our first OPEN table we had recovering alcoholics, and Mother's Union stalwarts... guys struggling with overwhelming mental illness and professional couples with children at uni... ..middle-aged, middle class clergy and atheists turned reluctant believers, post-graduate students and people who left school at 14 without passing a single exam, people with a troubled and troubling past and West Indian ladies whose whole lives have been shaped by their trust in God.
We sat round the table together and we ate and we talked about life and maybe, a little, about faith...
And we laughed and sang and God was present.
Oh goodness, God WAS present...but so was everyone else.

And maybe that's just too much for some of us to deal with, specially if we're not really sure that we're either hungry or thirsty. We have places we'd prefer to be, rather than shoulder to shoulder with this motley crew of hungry, thirsty souls.
We seem, on the whole, to be getting on quite nicely spending money on fake bread, expending labour on short-term satisfaction
We think we're doing alright – stars and directors of our own shows.
We're not really hungry, not really in need of anything much at all...

But amid the language of invitation and abundance, speaking through Isaiah God makes it clear what is really on offer:
Incline your ear and come to me.
Listen , so that you may live.

If that doesn't bring us up short, - well, really, it should.
This, it turns out, is a matter of life and death.
Isaiah is speaking to a nation in exile, tempted to blend in to life in Babylon, to risk losing their core identity as God's people...but invited to something infinitely greater.
You shall call nations that you do not know..”
They are offered the chance to tell the world that God's unconditional embrace extends towards those who were not at first part of his chosen people – and we, and they, discover that HE chooses everyone.

But – here's the rub – we have a choice too.
We might argue that God was unwise in allowing this – but there it is.
God wanted people capable of relationship, not robots constrained by pre-determined programs.
We have a choice.
We can seek the Lord – there is opportunity right here in this place, today – and any day that we pause to turn our hearts and minds God's way.
He is always to be found...always, always closer that our closest thoughts...
It's not that hard, I promise.
We can change direction, abandon our attempts at pointless independence and return to the Lord who will have mercy...
But we do have to choose.

Much of my personal theology was shaped by a childhood spent repeatedly re-reading
C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Through the stories feasts happen again and again, to celebrate a new order, a restoration of how things should be...but the feast that I remember most clearly is the one in the Last Battle – the one that the dwarves refused to recognise at all.
If the book is unfamiliar, do read it...but for now, the situation is this:
A group of dwarves who, in the midst of the last battle of Narnia, sided only with themselves, fought against both sides, and in the end, were captured and thrown into the stable by the Calormenes. Despite the fact that Aslan, the great lion who represents Christ, had enchanted the stable door so it would bring the people safely home into the true Narnia, the dwarves could not grasp this. They believed they were in a stable, without light, and anyone who tried to suggest anything else was tricking them...
And here in the new, true Narnia, a feast was set...

"pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a Stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said, ‘Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.’ "

Amid all the delight of finally reaching the new Jerusalem, of celebrating home-coming in all its joy
( “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...")

it was this picture that stayed with me through 5 decades.

That little group whose determination to hold on to their own independence meant that, in the end, they excluded themselves from all the joy that surrounded them used to break my heart.
MY heart!!!

Just think what our own intransigence does for God...

For this is the God of the second chance, the God who is a patient gardener, whose will is that nothing shall be lost, but all in the end harvest....the God who sets his table for all, and bids us come to the feast.
All we have to do to qualify is to be hungry and thirsty, to long for Him and his ways and thoughts that are so much greater and higher than ours.

Perhaps that's were we falter.
Can we believe there is a place laid even for us, that our longing for God is far far outstripped by God's longing for us?

30 years ago I reluctantly accepted that, without further funding, my PhD on George Herbert would never be completed...Nonetheless, it is to Herbert that I turn again and again as I try to disentangle my own inconsistencies, my longing for and flight from the God whose table we will set in just a few minutes.
You'll know these words, but listen and hear the drama played out in your own life and your own soul. May you choose life, and come to the place made ready at God's great feast.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
Truth Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my 
So I did sit and eat.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lent 1 C sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist

I wonder if you've noticed how often the life of faith seems to be lived aboard a roller-coaster. You attend a service where God's presence is so evident that you feel sure that the whole world will look different forever – then go outside to discover that you have a flat tyre...
You go on retreat and encounter God in a new way, then return home and pick up the threads of a long-standing family disagreement as if nothing had happened.
A Warden in my curacy parish used to describe the process like this
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit...” is ALWAYS followed by “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be”.
In other words, - those mountaintop experiences that we thought about last week are often followed by something that brings us down to earth with a bump, reminding us that we are, each and every one of us, very much works in progress...that we may manage two steps forward, but there will often be one step back.

I wonder if that's how it seemed for Jesus. In the previous chapter, Luke tells us of his baptism, of the Spirit descending upon him and that wonderful voice, speaking directly to him
You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.
Now, he leaves the Jordan behind him and goes into the wilderness.

It's interesting that whereas Matthew tells us that the Spirit led Jesus inTO the wilderness, providing the motivation for this journey, Luke sees it rather differently.

Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness he says.

In other words...the Spirit was there throughout the whole experience, not just at the start.

That's something we need to remember. The wilderness – a landscape of disorientation,loneliness,and deprivation – is nonetheless a place where God's Spirit is present and active.

That may not be the way it felt to Jesus for those 40 days as he fasted and struggled...but though he was famished, empty – he was FULL of the Holy Spirit...the Spirit who never left him, even for a moment.

Standing, as we do, outside the gospel story we might assume that Jesus always knew what would happen – but surely as he emptied himself of his divinity to become fully human, Jesus also emptied himself of divine foreknowledge. His wilderness experience was REAL for him – not something manufactured as a teaching point for us...
But against all expectation, that place of deprivation and loneliness became a place of self-discovery and of blessing – for Jesus and for us too.

Each of the temptations offered him were temptations to be LESS than his true self and so we are shown Jesus wrestling with what shape his ministry will take. The tempter is crafty. This isn't about chocolate or single malt or an expensive sports car but something far more important...howJesus will inspire people to follow, and engage with building the Kingdom.
Will he go for the quick fix and the easy win?...And will it really matter if he does?

It sounds so innocent, really.
IF you are the Son of God – command this stone to become a loaf”
Well, why not indeed?
What harm could it do.
He was famished, after all. 40 days is a long time to fast.
After all, God once provided manna for his people in the wilderness...and Jesus could surely do the same – but to do so now would be to step outside the limitations of his humanity, just for his own benefit.
And so he will have none of it.

You see, I think that's the nub of it all.
To do something just for his own benefit would be to compromise the heart of his ministry and of his identity.
To value oneself above anything else is the root and ground of all genuine temptation – and surely one of the strongest voices in society today.
We're encouraged to see ourselves as privileged consumers, to focus on our own rights, to delight in having free choice in most things, even where and how we worship God.
It's disturbingly easy, as you look at 21st century western culture, to believe that life really IS all about ME, that I am indeed the centre of the universe I'm thankful that Jesus met this head on.
Not for him “Because I'm worth it...”
Rather in his steadfast insistence that
We do not live by bread alone” Jesus reminds us that getting what you want may not be the best thing for you...even if what you want is in no way bad in itself. There are other things that matter more.
Readers are expected to hear the rest of the words that Jesus leaves unspoken, recalling that gift of manna described in Deuteronomy 8
He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[a]
This experience, then, is about humilty and about dependence on God....We are creatures made to exist in relationship – above all in relationship to God, whose word shapes our lives.

So far, so good.

Jesus stays true to himself but next comes the temptation of power, an easy route to victory – all gain with no pain. To yield would mean Jesus ruling the world – but enthralled to Satan and thus so much less than himself.

Later Jesus would show all times and all people that God's power is made perfect in weakness, - for the greatest moment of his glory was when he was lifted on the cross, in powerless vulnerability. I don't think Satan understands that kind of power – not then, not ever.
For now Jesus simply asserts that all worship belongs to God...worship offered elsewhere is meaningless and empty – for worship is all about putting things in their proper order..
God first.

Finally he's encouraged to make God PROVE that he cares.
Go on.....jump....He'll save you if you're THAT special”
I know I fall into this one again and again....for despite all the evidence I find it hard to really believe that I am loved and worthy of salvation...while my head knows better, my heart continues to struggle from time to time with the outrageous grace of a God who cares enough to share our human life AND our human death...triumphantly demonstrating that there's nothing He won't do for us
Because you're worth it”
Jesus is the proof of God's love – not a needy recipient of it....and in this 3rd exchange we hear him coming into his own identiy. He is secure in the knowledge and love of God..and so the Scripture he speaks becomes in itself a declaration
Do not put the Lord your God to the test”
Yes, Jesus is quoting once again...but as he rejects the idea of tempting God he is also sending the tempter packing...routing him from his work of tempting God made man in Christ.
So through these temptations Jesus discovers his true identity and the course he is to take.He reveals something of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, which is founded on unconditional, unwaveriing love. The Spirit leads Jesus in the wilderness, because the Spirit leads him everywhere.

Great. As one friend put it in her sermon on this passage “Bully for Jesus. He's filled with the Spirit, never alone...but what about us?”

What help is it for us that he was tempted? What difference will it make when we enter the desert places of our own lives, when we feel ourselves deserted...

Actually, you know, the same holds good.
We are never alone....and those wilderness experiences, those times of desolation, are also the times when we have room to grow, and to discover both the truth of who we are and the wonder that God knows that and loves us all the same.

Our temptations are important in helping us to recognise the flaws and weaknesses, the engrained distortions of reality that we barely notice any more. In the wilderness, there is less going on around us – more chance to notice what is going on inside. Our temptations may, like those we've heard about today, attract us at first because they seem to be routes to a greater good...but in fact they are byways, leading nowhere.

During Lent, we are each of us invited to spend time considering both who we are and who God calls us to be. That's the point of it all.
We go into our own wilderness to seek God in the silence of a less cluttered landscape.
For in these forty days you lead us into the desert of repentance, that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again”

To learn to be God's people.
That's our core purpose...the reason we are here...not just here in the Wilderness, but here on this earth at all...and so the wilderness experience is something to be welcomed and cherished. You see, we can be confident that even in those apparently unfriendly surroundings the Spirit is present, leading us, helping us to strip away the small props and luxuries that we've come to rely on, enabling us to increase our conscious dependence on Him.

The wilderness is the place where we recognise who we are, our own particular temptations, and face them head on, so that we might come to a deeper understanding of our own nature.
It's also a perfect place to meet with God.
It's quiet out there – a good place to spend this time listening.
Listen to the voice of your ego, the one that insists
Go on.......because your worth it” and in listening come to a greater understanding of your own struggles and difficulties.
But having listened to yourself, listen even harder to the still small voice of God.
Expect to hear Him – and pay attention to his transforming words of love.

"And learn to be your people" Part 3

Fasting....not to make ourselves thinner or healthier but to increase our sense of dependence on God...part of the process of stripping away everything that doesn't actually matter.
Reflect on the things that you depend might be family and might be car or mobile might be anything....even things that are good in themselves....
Take a stone for each one...choose to put it down at the foot of the cross...and ask God to help you order your priorities so that you come to recognise your real dependence on him.

Learn to be God's people once again.
Take a piece of broken pottery...carry it with you or put in beside your bed to help you remember that God is the potter, we the clay – that little by little we are being shaped and remade into the people God longs for us to be, as we feast and fast in line with his pattern for our lives.
(I find my piece of pottery in my coat pocket whenever I lose track of where I've put my keys. It slows me down, even in that moment of urgent anxiety...makes me remember that I'm broken, yes, - but nonetheless a clay jar that holds treasure)

Finally listen...listen as God speaks to you, not just through Scripture, nor, tonight, through creation nor one another. Choose a word card and let it be your companion through Lent. 
This is YOUR word...Walk with it, reflect on it, ask God what it might mean for you, how God wants to make this word real in your life. Savour it through all the 40 days ahead...and watch it work on you. 

Here's my word. I'm not sure how I feel about it. After all there were so many others I might have picked - they were in a pile face down, so your word chose you rather than the other way round. "Justice" "Obey" "Adventure"....wouldn't one of those have been more interesting, more challenging, more....

and yet, and yet...OK it feels a bit obvious, a kind of "duh" word...but it's more than challenge enough really. And it's the foundation of pretty much everything else.

I'll walk it through Lent and see where we get to...
No second-guessing the destination. 
It's all about the journey.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"And learn to be your people" Part 2

Our journey began in the desert of repentance.
A place where we can focus on who we are and who God wants us to be. 
Repentance means facing both who we are and who God wants us to be...recognising the gap between and asking God to help you work on bridging it.

Take time to reflect on this and write something in the sand for which you want God's forgiveness...then smooth out the sand and know that as you do so God forgives and frees you.

A pilgrimage of prayer
Don't try to change the world and become a super-spiritual being overnight. It won't happen and you'll just get frustrated and disappointed with yourself. Forget about praying every single monastic Office. Believe me, you won't.
But maybe commit to spending time with God at an odd moment of every day...washing your teeth....going through your bedroom door...In that moment, thank God for his presence with you and ask him to help you to long to spend more time with him, day by day.
And here and now, pray for the grace to keep a holy Lent - and pray for whatever God places on your heart too.

Fasting....not to make ourselves thinner or healthier but to increase our sense of dependence on God...part of the process of stripping away everything that doesn't actually matter....
Reflect on the things that you depend might be family and might be car or mobile might be anything....even things that are good in themselves....take a stone for each one...choose to put it down at the foot of the cross...and ask God to help you order your priorities so that you come to recognise your real dependence on him.

"And learn to be your people once again..." Part 1

Words from the Proper for Lent which hit me with a resounding force year by year as they remind me of how horribly easy it is to forget the point of being human...
Augustine wrote "Life is for love. Time is only that we might find God" - and I'm conscious as Lent begins that I don't generally use those priorities as every day guidelines.

Not in any way, shape or form.

I have (and I doubt if I'm alone in this) a terrible tendency to follow my own agenda, and simply invite God in to bless the good bits or mop up the rest.
And God, being God, carries on loving me.
But really, it won't do.
So, Lent by Lent, I try once again to engage with the learn to be God's child, living each day in the light of God's love.
I fall over my feet repeatedly - sometimes because I'm not looking where I'm going, sometimes because I'm carrying so much rubbish that I can't see the way ahead at all...but when I do, God picks me up, sets me on track again and so I continue.

It was in this spirit that I created some prayer stations for OPEN, the 6.30 Cathedral service. I'm thankful that others seem to value these evenings of Breathing Space, because the experience of designing the stations, as much as engaging with them, nourishes me in so many ways. It would be heartbreaking if it turned out to be a wholly selfish activity.

However, the evidence suggests otherwise...and because a time of stillness before Lent began was itself such a gift, I'm sharing the substance of that journey. 

Lent is a time of prayer, penance and sacrifice, a time for the entire family to be more attentive to the words of Jesus and to each other. It is a time to try harder to put Christ’s teachings into practice. It is a time of concentrated effort toward the springtime of spiritual growth, or rebirth and renewal. It is a time when the whole Church goes on retreat for 6 weeks. It is a 40-day journey with Jesus. Lent means doing something as well as giving up something.

For in these forty days you lead us into the desert of repentance that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again. Through fasting, prayer and acts of service you bring us back to your generous heart. Through study of your holy word you open our eyes to your presence in the world and free our hands to welcome others into the radiant splendour of your love.

So we are going to plan our step at a time.
That's what the footprint sheets are all about.
As you work round the prayer stations, jot down thoughts that come to you...Use the foot prints to create your own personal agenda for those 40 days of Lent, the balance of prayer and penitence, of fasting and feasting, that God tells you that you need here and now.
The 40 days of Lent are a gift....
Use tonight to help you prepare to receive it.

Around the cathedral are some things to help you with this...