Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday Evensong at Coventry Cathedral Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 20:9-19

I've just returned from a long overdue retreat, spending 3 nights doing my best to be attentive to God in the hermitage at Launde. In case you thought of asking, on the whole I didn't do too badly thank you. It always takes me at least half a day to disengage from all the stuff that fills my head, to silence the well nigh ceaseless chatter and to listen...but almost always, I do reach that place when the egocentric fog clears and I return to my primary identity as a child of God. That's such a good place to be.

But why I wanted to share my recent experience was not so much to encourage you to take a retreat, though I certainly do, but to share with you what happened when I went through a green painted door in a long brick wall. It was a beautiful afternoon, filled with birdsong, and I had been wandering the grounds, enjoying the last snowdrops and the first bluebells and listening to that silence that we never really find in the city, where the low growl of traffic is a ceaseless ostinato, so familiar that we no longer notice it until it stops. And in that silence I came to the door...There was a sign, but it read not, as I'd expected "Staff only" but simply, "Please close the door". So I opened it, and went through. Through into a huge expanse of walled kitchen garden, with beds for herbs and vegetables, a deep well,a greenhouse filled with enormous improbable cacti, alien visitors from another place, who were clearly thriving where they'd landed. It was the sort of garden Mr McGregor could only have dreamed of, its beds laid out in orderly ranks, ready for the summer crops that would feed guests in the house. And that protective wall stood to contain it, giving shelter, keeping out rabbits and deer...making sure that whatever was planted had the BEST chance to flourish, fruit and grow. Everything was just as it should be. All we needed was a crop.

That was Isaiah's problem too.

My beloved had a vineyard, prepared the ground, tended the soil, planted the choicest Vine, the Vine he had brought specially from Egypt...a people to be God's own, and to model God's way of living for all the world to see. Yet this hand - picked people had let God down. For all the care lavished on them, they could not, would not be fruitful. Instead of an abundant harvest of fine grapes to share, they were producing only the tiny, bitter inedible wild grapes..fruit to pucker your mouth and set your teeth on edge.
What more was there to do? question taken up across the centuries by the prophet Micah , before finding its place in the agonising grief of the Good Friday reproaches. How could God love us more? Give us more of God's self?
"O my people. What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me..."
For Isaiah, here and now is the moment of truth. Looking at the vineyard, God finds no fruit, no justice, no righteousness on this Vine that is God's people, Israel. To be this Vine means to receive God's special care, God's loving nurture...but it means, too, to come under God's judgement.
And there is nothing to show him. No harvest at all.
"He expected justice but saw bloodshed, righteousness but heard a cry."
A well tended vineyard, with not a single grape. It was a theme that was to become heartbreakingly familiar.
So God spoke through the prophets again and again..the story of God's care and our neglect, God's cherishing and our indifference. As Jesus spoke to that mixed crowd in the Temple, where priests,scribes and elders mingled with disciples and the curious bystanders, everyone present knew that the vineyard parable was about them, about God's people, the Jewish nation. They knew too that the rejected messengers were those prophets who had tried, again and again, to call God's people back to themselves...and to their core relationship with God. Had tried to no avail.
But what next? A Son and heir. Now we are onto unfamiliar ground...we enter a new chapter. A Son???.
Who knows if the tenants in the parable actually had anything worth offering their landlord. Maybe, rather than cheating him of his profits, they were simply trying to hide their own fruitlessness. They knew his hopes and expectations, but knew too their own complete failure.They had nothing to offer, no matter how many messengers, prophets, sons were sent. Israel, called to be a light to the nations, a people shaped each moment by God's law of love, had become instead a people bound and defined by other laws, a people intent on protecting themselves not for the sake of the fruit they might give to the world but for their own security, hanging on for dear life to an identity that had lost its purpose.
This is not just bad discipleship but bad viniculture too. An American nun, Sr Judith Sutera OSB, who is also a master Vine dresser, writes thus
"Good vines require cutting and more cutting. A mile of runners won't give you one more grape, so get rid of the branches that don't bear fruit. Do you want to keep everything? Then expect nothing. Cut and then cut some more."
It seems that this is the point we have reached, that even God has run out of patience, that the guardians of fruitless tradition have signed their own death warrant. We have reached the end of the story of Israel the Vine, but now God begins a new project, replacing the Temple whose core purpose has been lost with one where the rejected Jesus becomes the missing piece, the corner stone to comlete the whole building. Now he becomes the template, against which we will all be measured...

Does that sound terrifying...something beyond our highest dearest aspiration? Are you, like me, left scrabbling for good news in the dirt of a vineyard that seems to be so much less fruitful than you'd hoped?

Then remember that Jesus also said I AM the Vine...not simply the one in whom God's fullest intention for Israel is made good, but the one whose runners stretch even into those places of least fruitfulness, the one who is inextricably involved with our barren hopes, our wasted efforts, our inertia, greed and fear. Jesus the Vine is connected with us in those places where we are furthest from God's will and God's pleasure...Indeed he is here scrabbling with us in the dirt as we look desperately for some harvest worthy of the name.

Today Holy Week begins and as we walk again the way of the Cross, it is to discover for ourselves that the whole story of humanity, of God's love and our intransigence is focussed on the person of Christ as he moves towards Calvary. If we follow closely, the sorrow and love that drops from the crucified one will transform our barren vineyards, softening our hard ground and harder hearts til we are fully human once more. A shoot shall spring up from the stump of Jesse...the Vine shall be renewed, its branches reaching everywhere, to bear fruits of righteousness for there is nowhere beyond the reach of that self giving love.

Poised to jump...

The strangest thing about Cathedral ministry is, pace my friends in parishes, how completely un-frantic even the highest and most holy seasons are...
I know m'colleague, the Canon Precentor, has been extraordinarily busy creating orders of service...but even he is spared the hours of nocturnal copying and anxious prayer over a reluctant machine which were for so many years an inextricable part of all major celebrations in the parish. 
With so few children and no schools to call our own, there's no cutting out and prepping for family crafts at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, and Experience Easter was left in the capable hands of the schools team. 
Music? That's down to the choirs, of course. Rota for the Maundy Watch? Not part of life here...any more than the Holy Saturday spring clean. And so it goes on. The many wonderful teams that make up cathedral life simply do their jobs..the tasks of preaching and leading worship are shared without fuss...and such paddling under the surface as does go on is shared out too.

So one thing to say as Holy Week begins is a huge THANK YOU to everyone whose work makes it happen. When I came home from the Cathedral after worship this morning, the vergers were just settling down to prepare the oils for blessing at Thursday's Chrism Mass. I sometimes wonder if the verging team could usefully have the subtitle "The team that never sleeps...".

But I'm also wondering whether there is something about the intense busyness of a parish observance that actually helps with the spiritual journey too. Right now this feels as if it could be a week like any other, give or take that point each evening when we come together for Compline as the shadows lengthen, in the Cathedral as in Jerusalem. 
I hope that, despite the fact that all that is required of me is that I step at the right moment into the places alotted to me, I find ways to immerse myself, heart, mind and soul, in the week that changed the world. It's the most important journey of all.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Passion Sunday at Coventry Cathedral

There's something about this place...Coventry Cathedral. From outside it may look rather like a concrete barn, and the inside isn't exactly warm and cosy but still and all, there's a certain something...Something that seems to inspire extraordinary devotion from people who are left cold by other church buildings, - and even by the faith behind them.

Something that draws in volunteers from well beyond the city boundaries, as singers and bakers, needlewomen, archivists and guides - and many many more. Something that  inspires staff to work with a dedication that far exceeds the call of duty...just ask our soon to be commissioned Dean's Verger Jon about that...Or ask his wife about those times when he pops in to the Cathedral though officially off duty, to sort out some verging crisis or another. Devotion over and above...
Not that I can talk.
A few months ago I heard myself talking about a commitment to love and to cherish the place – and it was pointed out that I was using the language of marriage.

Yes, there's something about our Cathedral, right enough.

You could say that, after a while, it becomes a passion..though not, I hope, a consuming one. There's always a danger that special places, particularly those that are designed to act as sign posts become instead destinations, an end in themselves...

But mostly we, who gather this morning, know that this cathedal has a greater a theatre of memory, in which God's story is retold day by day, week by week, as we come to worship and find ways to hold, even make sense of our own stories within God's overarching narrative of  love.

We tell the story of God made man, recall the events that shape and define our faith as we travel through the year, from Christmas, through Lent and now, now we reach Passion Sunday.
Passion Sunday.
What are we to make of that? It's not, after all, the Sunday when we HEAR one of the Passion gospels read aloud – that comes next week, as a solemn post-script to the triumph of Palm Sunday.

So today our focus is on something else...

Not  THE Passion – Christ's suffering on the cross, though that has come very close......but, rather, the passion behind the Passion.

This is what inspires us and draws us to worship.

We're here because of God's passion for us – that overwhelming love that brought the universe into being and is endlessly poured out on each and every one of God's children.

We are here because that passion seeks us out relentlessly (the ceaseless pursuit of the Hound of Heaven) and is not content until it has brought about our ultimate salvation...

One dictionary defines of passion as “intense desire” - and indeed it is God's intense desire for us to come into relationship with Him that lies at the root of everything. That desire, that passion, is so great that had you or I been the only person ever born into our world, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter would still have happened – just for us.

But we tend to think of passion as a two way process – the glue that holds a relationship together... so what of our part in the process? Those who come here week by week will know we have been exploring how we score in evaluating the 8 Essential Qualities of healthy, growing of which, - which achieved neither our top nor bottom score – is Passionate Spirituality. In other words, our passion for God. In other words, we seem to think that we're rather lukewarm about our faith.I'm kind of sad about that, though by no means surprised. We don't tend to get overexcited about things in these parts really...We are a community that values dignity, decency, order...and the beauty of holiness, but I wonder how it would be if we were as wildly enthusiastic about God as God is about us. Can you imagine if we were people whose relationship with God was obviously and incontravertibly the most important thing in life.
Would that delight or alarm you?
We don't want to be seen as a load of nutty Christians after all....but still I wonder how it would be if we were a community whose love for God was a flame that burned so brightly that it drew others to its warmth and light?

But the reality is that like most other churches, our passion for God can sometimes be hard to spot at all.

God pours out his love without any inhibition, in wild and glorious of God's self as unreservedly as Mary gave of her precious ointment in today's gospel. Here is love vast as the ocean. How do I respond to that? With cautious good manners or a comparable reckless generosity?

“It is most wonderful to see his love for me so free and sure
but tis more wonderful to see my love for him so faint and poor”

runs a hymn I sang in childhood – and the sad truth is that most often, even when I focus as best I can on the wonder of God's love, I hold back, shrink from throwing myself into his arms.

I'm don't really understand why – though I guess it has something to do with a core of selfish, rebellious independence. Passion, you see, is apt to sweep you off your feet...and that doesn't sound so good if you want to choose your own path. Who knows where you might end up - even Coventry Cathedral. So, that foolishly self-reliant core, that part of me that fears to be lost in wonder love and praise, continues to hold out on God...even while I know that I will be most fully myself when I am lost in Him.

My better, best self, reading the gospel we've shared this morning identifies completely with Mary, ready to pour out her costliest treasure – that fragrant, wickedly expensive perfume – worth a whole year's wage for a labourer..I long to show Jesus that I can and will give him everything, worldly goods, heart, mind and soul, every moment of every day– just as he, in his passion, has given me everything.

I want to show my love in ways that will fill the whole house - even a space as big as this cathedral- with a beautiful perfume, so that nobody can miss my extravagant devotion.

That's my best self.

But I know in my heart of hearts that, had I been one of the crowd in that house in Bethany, I would probably have grumbled with Judas about the terrible waste, tutted in disapproval at such public displays of emotion, looked away, embarrassed at such naked feeling. Who does she think she is, making an exhibition of herself like that?  It's not very British after all.

I wonder, had I stood at the foot of the cross, if my reaction might not have been equally luke warm – for surely there has never been such a public display of longing love since the world began. Arms of love open wide to embrace the whole of creation – even me.

And yet, in the face of all that love, I still struggle to enter into God's Passion for me, risk remaining forever a spectator as I try to hold onto an independence that is, in the end, worth nothing.

“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things...”, or, to put it another way,
“whoever tries to keep their life will lose it”.

That's the kind of passion we might aspire to as we contemplate God's passion for us. The kind of passion that will lend purpose to everything we attempt - be it caring for this building or its artistic treasures, welcoming visitors to explore or to worship, worrying about fabric, money, resources...
That passion has the power to transform everything.
If, like me, you fear that you fall far short, might we at least dare to ask God for the courage and faith to let go, to risk the fall into those everlasting arms –for only then we will really discover their strength and their gentleness as they hold us secure.
And might we, this Passiontide and beyond, aspire to make these words true in our lives 

“Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small.Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”