Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lord, let me know my end: a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 1st Sunday after Trinity, 29th May 2016. Psalm 39

For I am a stranger and a sojourner here

Sojourner isn't a word much used today. It has its roots in the idea of a day tripper, "sojours", someone passing through, without putting down any roots – and some versions of the psalter translate the word as “Passing guest”.

We know all about passing guests here, of course.
Passing guests from all over the world, drawn by our story of Reconciliation.
Passing guests from the city, come with a particular need – to give thanks, to mourn, to commemorate together.
Guests coming to be resourced, guests coming with no agenda at all – walking purposefully through the building to leave without a backward glance.
Guests bringing gifts, – as you have brought your gift of music.
Guests whose stories interweave with ours for a little while, so that  we impact upon one another  and are enriched by the encounter.
Guests who sometimes decide to settle down and stay, so that sojourners are transformed into friends and family, strangers into community.

But our psalmist has another idea in mind with his use of the word here, as he reflects on the transience of life, the idea that though we are here on earth for the moment, our real home is in heaven.
We are, you see, God's passing guests...only here by his gracious invitation.

I find it difficult to hear this psalm without the portentous music that accompanies it in Brahm's German Requiem.
Lord - let me know my end and the number of my days.

How long have I got?
Should I start to pay particular attention to the items on my bucket list?
It's a question that continues to surface for us.
Here and now feels very permanent, the only reality we've directly experienced – but we know in our heart of hearts that nobody gets out of here alive.

The strange thing is that for the most part we refuse to accept mortality. While our 19th century forbears seemed intent on reminding themselves on a daily basis that death is inevitable, surrounding themselves with so many momenti mori that from a distance it can sometimes look as if they made death a way of life, now we have hit the other extreme. "Death is nothing at all..." proclaims a whole industry intent on persuading us that the failure of our bodies is nothing more than a minor inconvenience.                                              "Those whom we love can still be part of our lives – as jewellry, works of art, or whatever you will, really...Let us distract you..." they say. "Don't worry about endings. Focus on the here and now. Seize the day!" 

But the trouble is that death is real...and that actually, we need it to add impetus to our lives. As my colleagues and children would tell you, I'm a professional procrastinator.
Without some sort of deadline sermons, articles, birthday cakes would simply never happen.
Thankfully, there's a time limit built into our lives too – so that even such should be encouraged to get on with things.

“Thou hast made my days as a span long” - human lives just as long as the breadth of God's hand – a measurable period in which all is gift. Not one second can be taken for granted – and so it matters that we spend those seconds, minutes, hours well and wisely.

That's the point.
Not a morbid preoccupation with the moment when we pass from time into eternity but a determination to use our time for things that really matter. Seize the day, indeed - but seize it to good purpose!

“Blessed are they who live with integrity, who walk in the way of the Lord” said our anthem...or if you prefer it, Augustine proclaimed
“Life is for love. Time is only that we might find God”.

That's what it's all about.
Yes, we are small sparks of life, here on a temporary basis – but this does not, as the psalmist suggested, mean that we simply walk “in a vain shadow”...that nothing has meaning or purpose.
We are here to love, and to encounter the God who created us, redeemed and loves us.

And now, Lord, what is my hope? My hope is even in thee
It is in our relationship with God, and in living each day in the light of that relationship that we find our peace and security. In this world of time and chance, here is solid ground....

Love God. Love neighbour. Live to make a difference – and you will do well.

On Friday this cathedral was packed as the Barbadian community from across the Midlands and beyond gathered to give thanks and say goodbye to a remarkable lady.                         You won't know her name. 
She didn't amass a fortune, large or small.
She didn't have a glittering career, working instead in the kitchen of a local care home..But she lived her life with a warmth and generosity that meant that everyone who knew her was inspired, encouraged, persuaded into being their better selves – and the loving family that she left behind have clearly learned from their mother. She used her time well, right enough...and she knew, too, where her hope and security lay.

If she was a passing guest, she was the kind of guest that gets stuck in, helps you deal with a long-avoided household task, brings love and laughter with her as part of the luggage, even if her stay is short.

That's who I want to be in this world.

Someone with such security in God that I can live knowing that time is limited.
Someone who can accept mortality without fear or dread, seeing it as simply an encouragement to get on with being my best self here and now.

Someone who knows that, even when she fails and falls,again and again and again, there is a solid hope in God, who holds all our time in his hands.


Monday, May 16, 2016

What IS a Cathedral for?

That's a question which, on a bad day, can seem to haunt the dreams of those whose ministry takes place in one...
Of course there are many many answers - from the strictly functional (the place where the bishop has his cathedra seat), through the aspirational (the mother church for the diocese, a place of resource and nurture for the whole diocesan family), the poetic (flag-ships of the spirit) with many another definition along the way. 
My longing for ours is that it should be known as a place of unconditional welcome, where all who come, no matter what their tastes in music or worship styles, should feel at home and able to connect with the God whose beauty is the reason for all of it...
Sometimes we manage this better than others - but I rather think that in the past 24 hours we've not done badly.

It began, as Sundays often do, with the Cathedral Eucharist - at which I had the privilege of presiding.
Even before we started, as we waited in the north aisle, with incense clouding the air ahead, there was a sense of eager hope. The congregation was in good heart, and had turned out in some force, many even remembering to wear something red. The Baptism family were gathered (no mean feat when you're juggling twin toddlers as well as a 6 month old baby), the new Wardens all in place waiting to be commissioned, and even the 1st Communicants (whose view of time is somewhat elastic) were present and visible. 
And - it felt as if we really were expecting something of God...who, of course, did not disappoint. 
I may have felt a little guilty as we loaded our poor Wardens with badges and staffs - baggage representative of other burdens that the institution places upon them - but they are such splendid people that I mostly felt thankful and relieved. 
In contrast, it was sheer joy to baptise little A. (though she would not say the same thing - and expressed her own views with passion), and to welcome the group of children who had been longing to take their place at the family table for so long. We moved from font to High Altar and when the organist began to play music from the Royal Fireworks, to match the clouds of smoke as I censed the altar (he's good that way - one day I really will be unable to stop the giggles), it was very hard not to grin like a maniac and sqeee loudly as I went on my way... God was SO present. 
Presiding is, for me, the heart of my priesthood - and yesterday everything conspired to make it particularly wonderful. Tallis "Loquebantur", the delighted smiles of the children opening their hands for me to give them the Sacrament, the wonderful diversity of congregation which is part of Cathedral life.
God was in playful mood with others too. Over coffee I had several conversations reflecting the unsettling and inspiring work of the Spirit and was myself still purring when I headed home.

Later, of course, the Cathedral was filled with a new and different congregation - from all over the diocese and beyond, as we hosted the Beacon event for the Midlands. The worship could not have been a greater contrast to the morning's, but was equally effective in enabling encounters with God.
I had one confirmation candidate - and it was most definitely holy ground as I stood with him before the bishop (one of four confirming...which changed the dynamic entirely, and somehow made it feel MORE intimate and not less, as each candidate came up in turn to their confirming bishop, rather than the bishop moving along a line). While in the nave all was exuberant celebration, in the Chapel of Unity children worked with huge concentration, creating crowns of flames and paper plate doves - and covering as many surfaces as possible with glitter too. One small girl, retreating to a prayer pod, said that she was glad that there was somewhere quiet to think while "THEY" (gesturing to the nave) got on with being noisy :)....She also reminded me that the Holy Spirit could be as quiet as breath on a feather....I wonder if I will be around when she is old enough to be confirmed - her faith and friendship with God simply shone - a highlight of the day.

And then came Monday - the morning after the day before. 
Ordinary Time, green and growing. 
And I found myself presiding again - for a congregation of three, in the Lady Chapel.
And there God was again. 
And I found myself reflecting on the way the disciples "spoke in different languages, as the Spirit gave them voice" - and on the different languages of worship we had spoken over one 24 hour period - and I hope and believe that in all that variety there was a space for everyone to find a home and a welcome.

Me, I'm being challenged and reminded that God WILL be there - bidden or not - expected or not...for this is, of course, HIS Cathedral, existing as a sign-post, a visual reminder of that transforming presence, that brings joy out of sadness and life out of death. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Aslan is on the move

or, if you prefer, God is up to something.
This week, the Church of England has been invited to pray around those familiar words from the Lord's Prayer "Thy Kingdom Come...", and to focus our prayers on an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to transform the Church into a convincing sign of the Kingdom of God, an agent of God's transformation in lives and in communities.
All through the week I've been inviting people to simply pray "Thy Kingdom Come" and expect things to change...but I wasn't, if I honest, that alert to signs of those changes happening around me - until a conversation at a committee which isn't always the most obvious sign of God at work woke me up to some of the remarkable things that have been happening around the place.

At the weekend, the ruins of our second cathedral were full of happy faces, of out-pourings of local creativity at a one-night music festival, of students dressed to the nines enjoying their summer ball, of people of all ages savouring delicious street food and great music under cloudless skies. The whole thing shouted "Welcome" in so many different ways, and it was a delight to see people responding to that with warmth and enthusiasm - and to know that the God who shares in our joy was celebrating with us.

On both Tuesday and Wednesday I had completely unexpected opportunities to learn about some of the wounds that still linger in our communities, and maybe to offer small, tentative gestures towards restoration. Conversations happened that I could never have imagined being part of and, please God, seeds of hope and reassurance were planted.

Tuesday also included one of the most extra-ordinary experiences I've had in recent years. We welcomed several hundred Jains into the cathedral - as both tourists and pilgrims. There had been alot of correspondence with our splendid Dean's Verger before the big day - and an agreement that I would lead a time of meditation, ushered in by a chant.... This really alarmed me! Several hundred unknown Indians chanting in the nave  (even though I had enthusiastically agreed with the suggestion that we use "Maranatha" as our chant), had, I felt, the potential to disturb and confuse any casual visitor...
I had, of course, reckoned without the God who was so much part of the entire event.From the moment that our guests arrived they made it very clear that the cathedral was holy ground. We exchanged Namastes as they poured in...slightly late of course (though this had more to do with traffic around the city than that wonderful Indian maxim "In the west you have clocks. In India we have time")...filling the nave with the vibrant colours that delighted me whenever I led worship in India. When their visiting guru had arrived, I welcomed them, told them a little of the cathedral's story, and introduced the chant and meditation. I was still worried that we would struggle with the twenty minutes planned for this, but from the moment that I prayed it was very obvious that God was present in large, large letters. The opening prayer had been suggested by the Jains' co-ordinator - which was remarkable in itself. 
'Heavenly Father, open our hearts to the silent presence of the spirit of your Son. Lead us into that mysterious silence where your love is revealed to all who call, 'Maranatha...Come, Lord Jesus.'
They way that they responded was extra-ordinary.
As we chanted those four syllables, softly, til the word became part of the rhythm of breath and the blood coursing around our bodies, til the whole Cathedral seemed to be carrying that longing "Come, Lord Jesus", there was no doubt at all that every single one of us from the youngest child to the most venerable great-grand-parent, knew that we were in God's presence.
We moved into a silence that was nothing like long enough - and later, so many of our visitors took time to find me and tell me of the depth of their experience. Though officially Jains have no belief in any god, they were very clear that they had been in the presence of the divine, and that we had stood on holy ground together.
Later they were to pray the whole Litany of Reconciliation with my colleague in the ruins - the grace of God poured out and enabling us to live into the heart of our reconciliation ministry, which seeks to heal the wounds of history, learn to live with difference and celebrate diversity and to build a culture of peace.

And may I point out - it's only Friday! Sunday's a-coming, when we welcome the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost and active in transforming the world.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Address for Remember our Child Annual Service May 2016

Psalm 56


There's a popular misconception out there that if you have faith in God, you can expect life to be all green pastures and still waters...that somehow bad things just won't happen to you.
That's a really dangerous assumption – and one that is disproved somewhere on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
It always has been.

If you doubt me, have a read of the book of psalms....a collection of poetic prayers that were old well before Jesus walked the earth. They are the story of all the ups and downs of the life of faith...good days when it's easy to celebrate and praise God.
Hard times when it's almost impossible to believe that God is there at all.
Whatever your feelings on any given day, I can pretty much guarantee that there's a psalm to match.

The reading Shirley just shared with us is a really good example of the journey that faith and feelings often make together.
Clearly the writer is up against it.
He feels ground down – trampled by people and events.
And I'm guessing that feeling isn't unknown to most of you...that sense of being so squashed by life and by grief that you might as well be face down in the mud, suffocating, unable to look up and see the stars even for a moment.

The earliest days of loss are just like that, and if you're here in that first rawness of grief, then really all anyone can do is to stand beside you, weep with you, hold the light, even if it's no more than a flickering candle, until one day your own being recovers the light of life.
To be honest, for most people that's all that GOD can do at first...stay close, weep with you, carry the light.
God doesn't wade in to fix things, much though we might long for him to do so.
God goes through them with us.

That's just the way it is.

And what's interesting in our reading is that though things are obviously very tough indeed, the writer somehow manages to hang on to his faith...
He doesn't cave in, blame God and turn his face to the wall.
Instead he makes a very positive declaration.
Despite all that has been going on he dares to say
In God I trust. I am not afraid.

Of course it's tempting to blame God – and a bit of honest anger is, believe me, absolutely OK.
You see, God is so involved in our lives that all our pain, bewilderment, grief and fear is completely real for him.
God takes on those feelings and carries them for us – just as God carries so much else.
Those feelings are precious to him because they are a reflection of our love..and it is in loving that we come closest to God on this side of eternity.
It's true, God has never promised that life will be straightforward and pain free if we throw in our lot with him.
Quite the reverse.
in the world you will have troubles” Jesus warns his friends...
But what we ARE promised is that nothing in the world will ever separate us from God's love and that nothing – NOTHING – is ever wasted

Every moment of pain, every tear you have wept, is precious that God saves all those tears in his bottle, a priceless relic of our feelings of love and loss.
I love that. In just the same way that each of us, as parents, files away the strangest things – outgrown baby clothes, a threadbare teddy, a football shirt – because they were special for our children, and so are forever precious to God hoardes those tears that we've shed, tokens of our love and our suffering.

God gets it, understands completely how we feel...
God never glosses over the reality of our pain – not for an instant.
And in all that pain God is FOR us.
Uncompromisingly on our side.
Weeping with us, yes – but also lending his strength and his hope.
God is for me.
God is for you.
No matter what the external situation might suggest – you are not alone in a hostile universe, where pain and sadness have the upper hand.

If you let him, God will lead you gently, step by tiny step, on that same journey that the psalmist has taken.
It's a journey from the pain of loss, through the gradual remembering of God's care, to that moment when you can begin to raise your eyes and glimpse a new dawn breaking over the horizon as you recover the light of life again.
The God who made and loves your children holds them safe and holds you too.

You know that each moment of your child's life had meaning – that their whole life was complete and perfect in itself, even if lasted just a few brief days. It would not have been a BETTER life if it had been longer.  A day lily is not a failure because it withers and fades so much faster than an oak or a Californian redwood. There is no comparison.  Each is perfect in itself. There is nothing lacking.
Our children were completely themselves – exactly the people God had always intended them to be.
And now that life – and your memories of it – are safely held close to God's heart.

And you are left to continue your journey of grief, in which every moment has meaning and purpose too.
Of course the loss of a child changes the whole world.
Nothing is ever the same.
But nothing is wasted either.
The God who saves our tears in his bottle, weeping over each one of them with us, can be trusted to take care of us just as he is taking care of our children.
So – let yourself trust and do not be afraid.

That grief which was so huge that at first it threatened to keep you face down in the mud forever does not need to be your defining truth.
There's nothing disloyal, nothing unloving, in allowing yourself to look up, and choose life.
When the time is right, you could even begin to gradually unclench your fingers and let go, handing your grief over into God's hands so that you can walk forward, in the light of life that he holds before you, the light that will, in God's time, guide you safely home.


Feet on the ground and hearts in heaven, a sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day 2016

Everybody hates goodbyes...

That's something that feels particularly true for me this year, which began with one child moving to Canada for 2 years and another heading off to Ghana on a volunteer project for some months. I'm at that stage of parenthood where I'm always practising letting go – but if I'm honest, I'd rather like my children with me where I am...maybe not under the same roof, but definitely within easy reach for a quick coffee.

Yup - it's fair to say that I'm RUBBISH at goodbyes.

The trouble is, I think, that even the little goodbyes are in some ways a preparation for the bigger ones – those that feel really rather final...I always try to remember, though, that "Goodbye" is the quick way of saying "God be with you" – and that wherever we are, and whatever may happen – that is always and wonderfully true – and even when I'm struggling I can think back to Pat,  a wonderful lady in my last parish, who said to me, a couple of days before her death

“See you later. Here or there”.

 But it's that difference between here and there that we find ourselves caught in – so sometimes it's quite hard to actually see Ascensiontide as a celebration.

 The physical, walking, talking, fish-eating Jesus is gone from our world...– no longer visibly present to us as the man from Galilee, though he is, of course, wonderfully present wherever his Church practises Kingdom living – loving mercy, doing justly, walking humbly with God.

Today, though, I want to share a story with you that looks at the Ascension in a rather different way. Before I begin, I must remind you that whenever we talk about God, we find that our words aren’t really good enough. God is beyond our language just as God is beyond our understanding – so the ways in which we speak are mostly metaphor…using something we do understand to help us describe something that is too big to be limited by our brains or our language.

For example, we often describe Jesus as the Light of the world – but I’m sure that none of you think in terms of a light bulb or even a candle when you pray. We think about God as a rock, but that has more to do with the fact that we know we can rely on God’s loving presence, come what may , rather than counting on any supposed mineral qualities.

So, when you hear this story, which talks about heaven as somewhere up in the clouds, I don’t want you take that too literally. Let's not revert to those weird and wonderful medieval paintings which show a pair of feet sticking out of a white and fluffy cloud.

Ascension tells us something important – but  the language a way of talking about something that’s way beyond speech.

The real meaning of the story…that’s true enough,

So, if you’re sitting comfortably, suspend your disbelief while I  share a story with you that has been told since the days of the early church - by the desert fathers and mothers, sitting around their camp fires -by St Gregory of Nyssa and St Basil the Great - and by many others we won’t get to know this side of Paradise. I heard the story from someone who’d read it in the works of Abba Sayah*…He admits that it’s a story with only the shakiest of provenance - but there is no doubt whatsoever of its underlying truth.

As the gospels tell us, after forty days of resurrection appearances, Jesus knew it was time to leave his disciples – his mother, his brothers and sisters, all his companions in the Way. It was hard to say goodbye, but he knew that the time had come. After all, he was the Truth and we humans can only take so much of that.

So Jesus called them all together on the mountain top, and made his farewells. It was a tearful moment. Mary was crying. John was crying. Jesus was crying. Even Peter, the immovable rock, was reaching for his handkerchief. 
They knew that Jesus had said he would always be with them. But they also knew it wasn't going to be the same. There would be no more breakfasts by the seashore, no more late night discussions around the campfire, no more unexpected jugs of wine…and so they wept.

Jesus was sad too, but he was glad to be returning to his Father, and he knew it was all part of the plan. And so he began to ascend.

As Abba Sayah told the story,  as Jesus began to rise, slowly and gracefully into the air, John just couldn't bear it. He grabbed hold of Jesus' right leg, and refused to let go.

"John?" said Jesus “What are you doing?”

And John shouted back,

"If you won't stay with us, then I'm coming too."

Jesus calmly continued to rise, hoping that John would let go. But he didn’t. And then, to make matters worse, Mary suddenly jumped up and grabbed hold of Jesus' other leg.
"I'm coming too," she shouted.

By now, Jesus’ big exit had obviously been ruined, but he looked up into heaven, and called out:
"Okay, Father... what do I do now?" And a voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.
"Ascend!" the voice said.
"Ascend?" Jesus asked
"Ascend!" the voice replied.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, with John and Mary holding on until they too were lifted off the ground.
But the other disciples couldn’t bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board…and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in the middle of the sky. Jesus at the top. John and Mary next. The apostles hanging on below. Quite a sight, if anyone had been watching...

And then - what was this?  Suddenly all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere…friends and neighbours from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people who just knew that he was something special…Young and old,-  men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles…a huge crowd – and they too refused to be left behind…So, they made a grab for the last pair of ankles and hung on for dear life. One way and another there was quite a kerfuffle -people squealing “Wait for me” -then startled yelps as they felt themselves seized by the ankle -and above it all the voice of God calling out, “Ascend!"

But all of a sudden, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.
"Wait!” he shrilled,  “I've lost my dog!  Wait for me”
"I can't wait," Jesus called back, "I don't know how this thing works."
But the little boy wasn't going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might.

For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air - Jesus pulling upwards, and the little boy holding on to the tree, scanning the horizon for his lost dog.  But Jesus couldn't stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven.  
At first it looked as if the tree would uproot itself.  But then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a rug up in the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky.  And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow.

To cut a short story long: Jesus DID ascend to heaven, He went back to his natural habitat, living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. 
But, as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation – the whole kit and caboodle – everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him. And there's the truth of the story.

When I'm celebrating Ascension with children I sometimes talk about it as “Christmas backwards”.
At Christmas, we concentrate on Jesus coming to earth to transform us with the presence of God. At Ascension, we focus instead on Jesus taking earth back with him into heaven…
Whichever way you look at it, the work of Jesus was to transform us and the world we live in by infusing everything with the presence of God.
Heaven meets earth; earth is drawn into heaven.

And, as Abba Sayah said. that's where we've been ever since. If we have our feet on the ground but our hearts in heaven, that should make a real difference to how we live our let's do all that we can to demonstrate to everyone we meet  that we are children of God and citizens of heaven.

Over the next week, our Archbishops have invited each and every member of the Church of England to pray with a particular focus “Thy kingdom come”....and to ask God to send the Holy Spirit to help us to live each day as witnesses to God's love and signs of God's kingdom. There are pilgrimages and prayer vigils, a huge celebration for Christians from all over the Midlands in your very own cathedral, and all sorts of other ways that you might get involved with this. If nothing else, if every one of us prayed the Lord's Prayer as if we expected it to change things – the results could be amazing.

Remember, feet on the ground – making a difference in our own ways in our own communities...but hearts in heaven, filled with the love that makes us one in Christ, and signs of God's Kingdom.

*The Abba Sayah story appears in Edward Hays "The Ladder" publised by Forest of Peace Publishing 1999