Sunday, June 25, 2017

Do not be afraid sermon for Proper 7A at Coventry Cathedral, 25th June 2017

In my experience, there’s nothing quite like being told not to do something to make it almost impossible to avoid it…A month ago, at a wedding, the preacher threw in an apparently random line about not thinking about blue elephants, and I’m pretty confident that for the next couple of minutes nobody except the bride and groom managed to think about anything else at all. Apologies if you are now all busily pondering the same thing...May I call you back, for a minute or two at least?
You see, though the Bible famously reminds us not to be afraid 365 times, once for every day of the year, I must confess that much of the time I seem to be stuck on an recurrent leap day, the 366th , a day on which some degree of alarm is at least permissible. Over the past twelve months I’ve encountered similar feelings in more and more people, in a variety of contexts. Suddenly it seems that we have become a fearful society, aware of divisions and distress in our own communities, dreading terrorist action at home and abroad
Don’t mistake me.
Knowledge is good. There is nothing whatever to be gained by retreating, ostrich-like, to some sort of spurious safety in a world where everyone behaves beautifully and thinks exactly the same as we do. We may not be happier knowing how some of our neighbours feel about life in this country, with how much passionate intensity a handful of people seem to hate western values and lifestyles...but it is better, surely, to know. Even if it makes us fearful for a while.
The question is, then, whether fear is actually the enemy of faith, or a natural part of the human condition in a world which is often precarious and where suddenly there seems, to my mind at least, to be a critical shortage of wise, compassionate adults in charge. We’re told, of course, that perfect love casts out fear...but it doesn’t take more than a second to examine our own hearts and recognise that we’re a long long way from reaching that particular milestone. My love is partial, sometimes conditional, lacking that self-giving heart that would show that I am making some headway as a disciple of Christ. Honestly, there’s lots of room for fear to creep in
So, is Jesus being reasonable when he says THREE TIMES in just five verses “Have no fear” “Do not fear” “Do not be afraid”?
His outlne of what will lie ahead for the Christian community is far from reassuring. Listen.
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother….ones foes will be members of ones own household.
This isn't about Jews versus Christians. It's not about strangers betraying strangers. It's "all in the family," and far too close to home. And this is not, after all, surprising, because Jesus challenged his disciples – and STILL challenges US, to live into a new world order. It’s no longer families first (so perhaps it’s high time we renamed our Cathedral Children’s Church)…
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me
That’s kind of uncompromising, isn’t it. It suggests that actually we might need to risk upsetting people quite often, if we’re intent on being true to the gospel. As someone who’d cheerfully walk barefoot to Edinburgh to avoid conflict that’s something ELSE to be afraid of…
Frustratingly, being a disciple is not about being popular, even within our own famiies. Even within our own CHURCH family. It’s about justice and joy, challenge and choice. About courage and hopes and dreams and sacrifice..It’s not about keeping people happy. it’s about putting Christ first...loving Him beyond all….being willing to take all kinds of risks for his sake.
And it’s not that we have to put Jesus first to WIN his’s important to be clear about that. God loves each one of us without condition and without reserve (it’s that perfect love that casts out fear again). But by putting Jesus first we open ourselves to RECEIVE that love which is constantly available...setting aside all the alternative treasures, the other sources of security that might seem, for a while at least, more appealing.
And he doesn’t promise us security in their place. Sometimes, indeed, things will seem to go utterly, hopelessly wrong. Our Old Testament reading gives us a glimpse of this. We find ourselves with Hagar and Ishmael, exiled through no fault of their own, - caught up in the mess and muddle and questionable relationships of Abraham, father of a great nation...Here’s an excellent example of a family at odds – despite Abraham’s regular conversations with God and his obedience to follow wherever God leads. Sarah has played the “lawful wedded wife” card and had Hagar and Ishmael banished so their presence won’t compromise the future for her precious Isaac. So we see mother and son at the very end of their resources, gazing at death…
And then God speaks and says it again. Those four little words which echo throughout Scripture...those words God whispers in our ear, if we can only calm ourselves enough to listen
Do not be afraid”.
And God provides for them, in the midst of disaster. God meets their immediate need (there is water in the desert) and their existential need, too, for a lasting significance in the history of God’s people. God GETS what is important for them, and honours that...He does that for us too.
I love the last verses of the passage
God was with the boy and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness”
God is with US as well, and invites us into mature, grown-up discipleship., calls us to be not greater than the teacher, but as like him as we can manage. And, whatever our own wilderness experiences of worry and doubt, of inadequacy and failure, of fear and more fear God is with us in that too.
We can’t predict where our discipleship may take us, though we can be pretty certain that it will not always be along pleasant paths. But we CAN predict that the God who keeps loving count of the flight and fall of the sparrow will be with us on every step of the journey, leading us all to everlasting life.

Do not be afraid. You are loved and God is with you. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

All are welcome - a sermon for Coventry Pride Eucharist, 11th June 2017

I started writing this on Friday morning….the morning after a night of such surprises that its still hard to determine whether we should rejoice at the resurgance of a progressive hope, lament the depth of division that is clear in so many quarters of society, or simply stand like rabbits in car headlights too fearful to move as danger approaches. Tonight, as we celebrate God’s inclusive welcome, perhaps the best thing to do is to pray.
The General Election was not, though, the only historic vote last week.The synod of the Episcopal Church of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing same sex couples to marry in church, and I’m guessing we can celebrate that as unequivocally good news...and proof that it is always possible to change your mind.

And that, of course, is what tonight’s gospel reading is all about.
Tonight we are told that the unthinkable can happen.
That Jesus himself has to receive a lesson in the wildly inclusive love of God – and from a thoroughly unlikely source.
A woman.
And a woman on the fringes at that.
Someone he really shouldn’t be talking to, if he cares about his reputation.
Of course, we know that reputational risk is rarely a priority for him – and this periscope comes in a particular place in the gospel, as Jesus begins to live into the message of radical inclusion that we would want to claim as a dominant gospel theme.

But that’s not always easy, even for Jesus. Immediately before this encounter, 
he has gone out on a limb in challenging the rituals that had proscribed life for the Jews for centuries, as he begins to redefine purity as a state of being, rather than a state of diet.
For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person – not eating with unwashed hands”
We’re in interesting territory here, then both figuratively – the territory of larger hearts and more open minds – and geographically, as Jesus makes a move into Gentile country, close to the port of Tyre. This might be planned as a retreat, time to draw breath after his run-in with the Pharisees…but even here life catches up with him!
Here, where he might expect a break from the demands of ministry, real people with real needs just can’t be put on hold.
His space, his silence is disturbed by a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She will not hold her peace, demands a hearing,for she is intent on claiming the healing that 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 become 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 much- loved and cherished pet spaniels.
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 kind of language, especially if anything in your own experience of life in the church has made you feel that you too might not be recognised as fully human. To hear it from Jesus is painful…hard to take…We want to retain our soft focus image of him “Jesu, thou art all compassion…” and this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, this Gentile woman is made of stern stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
She, like many another, is determined to keep on wrestling for a blessing, and responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him.

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, as a result of their “shared conversation” he is forced into really seeing her, - seeing another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.
Jesus change his mind?
Surely not!
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, “there is no shadow of turning with thee”, right?
Well, maybe not.
For me, learning is part of what it means to be human. 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…He learned, he grew, and sometimes he changed his mind.
There’s so much more going on here than just an exchange of banter, for surely Jesus is forced to rethink the scope of his mission, to enlarge its scope.
This should, I think, serve to correct our own tendency to arrogance, to hardness of heart. It’s so tempting to believe that we don’t need to listen to others, because we already know the truth, and our perspective is, of course, the right one..
In that respect, perhaps, it’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. In our society, and in our church, we can sadly identify behaviours that match theirs. We’ve all encountered insiders who guard their corners, and cannot believe in a God whose heart and vision are larger than they, or we, can imagine
But if we take Scripture seriously, our limited view is inevitably challenged.
In Scripture we meet a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love almost surprises himself.
In Scripture, we encounter a God who is changed by his relationships, a God who is moved by the prayers of his children, and acts in unexpected ways to answer them.
In Scripture, above all, we meet a God who is love, and cannot remain unmoved by the beloved.

This particular gospel story lies behind one of the most beloved of all prayers in the Anglican Prayer book, known as the Prayer of Humble Access
We do not presume to come to this your table O merciful Lord
Trusting in our own goodness, but in your manifold and great mercy
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table
But you are the same Lord, whose nature it is always to have mercy…”
We do not presume”
Well, thank God that sometimes we do.
Thank God for those who dare to challenge, to draw us into a landscape of larger hearts and wider compassion.
Thank God for this woman, the outsider, the second class citizen who refuses to go away but demands that Jesus recognise her right to engage with him.
Thank God that she stops him in his tracks, forcing him to see and recognise her humanity – and forcing him to own that manifold and great mercy which is always so much greater than our worst inadequacies, our most glaring failings and faults.
Here, as everywhere, love wins.
The mother’s love, a passion that drives her to take risks that she would probably never have contemplated for her own benefit.
The Father’s love, God’s love, that is stronger than anything in all creation…
Stronger than the divisions that scar society and church
Stronger than fear and hatred
Stronger even than death itself

Only ten verses later, we see Jesus practising what he has learned here, as he feeds not just one but 4000, almost certainly also Gentiles, on more than just crumbs…
It is as if he suddenly realises just what is possible, just how boundless the love and grace that is on offer.
And of course there are baskets left over.
That, surely, is the lesson the church most needs to hear.
There ARE no limits to be set on God’s love.
There is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with just crumbs from under the table. To affirm some need never mean denying others. Too often we behave as if we need to claim our ground at the expense of others, we create hierarchies to defend our own position at God’s table.
That’s certainly true in politics, - and the divisions that scar our country are the result of that way of thinking…that YOUR gain must mean my loss…
That the world can be divided into worthy insiders and unworthy outsiders
Us and them. Sadly, we behave as it those same rules must apply within our churches
But God never thinks in those stark binary terms.
God is God in community – and on this Trinity Sunday it is good to remember that in the famous Rublev icon, our God in three persons leaves space at the table for you and me...and his love – well, as the prayer puts it, his love compels us to come in, and we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome.

You see, God is not a God who draws lines to exclude but one who is continually enlarging the boundaries until we, each one of us, know for ourselves that we belong...that we are each one of us wanted, each one of us insiders, held in God's embrace….that nothing, - least of all any human divisions, will ever separate us from God’s love.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Open door policy?

Once upon a time I was a daily blogger - and honestly, if anything could entice me back into that indulgent discipline, it would surely be the roller-coaster that has been life so far in this year of grace 2017. My personal life has been both more challenging and more joyful than I would have imagined possible, my Cathedral life has been its usual mix of wonderful, challenging and frustrating...and the world, well, that would provide enough fuel for several blogs a day.

With two terrorist attacks in the UK just a few days apart, I've had lots to reflect on - not least the place of cathedrals in general, and ours in particular, at such times of crisis. This was brought into sharp relief when I learned that, as pretty much part of a crime-scene, Southwark Cathedral was unable to open for worship just when they must have been most longing to, on the day after the attack on Lambeth Bridge and Borough Market. It takes an awful lot for a church to close its doors on a Sunday. There's something in the DNA that dictates that, no matter what pattern of worship you might offer at other times, it matters to be doing something together on a Sunday...and there's a particular instinct to gather in the wake of awful events, so my heart went out to my colleagues at Southwark - with an added frisson of relief that on this particular weekend my son, who sometimes sings there, was safely with me in the Lake District.

I hate, of course, that I mind more about disasters when they are close to home...I want to live out those words of John Donne's "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind" - but the truth is that I'm substantially more involved with those who live just a couple of hours away than with those in other countries. That's not something to celebrate, but it's a truth that I have to face as I acknowledge that I'm very much a work in progress.

That's not what I want to focus on today, though. Today,it’s all about the challenge and delight of cathedrals as places of welcome and of sanctuary.  Having only worked here for three years, entrance charges have been part of my Coventry experience from day one. I’ve felt sad about them, of course. I’ve recognised that for the majority of our visitors it makes no sense that this huge and impressive building should not have resources to match. I’ve lamented the fact that those who come to be quiet, whether or not they are consciously seeking God, can only venture as far as the very public “prayer circle” by the West Screens without buying a ticket, and I’ve wondered about the many who might have popped in for ten minutes en route to a train, who will now never come through the doors.

But it took a day without charges to help me to fully understand how much the charges disable our mission, prevent us from really being God’s space at the heart of the city.

The morning after the Manchester bomb, the Dean made the decision that we should be free entry all day, and this was broadcast on BBC Cov & Warwickshire, so when we opened to the public at 10.00 it was no surprise to find a small gaggle of people already waiting. I was busy setting up prayer stations for “Thy Kingdom Come”, so had ample opportunity to be round and about the nave as the morning went on, and found myself having several significant conversations with visitors who had slipped in to light a candle, write in the condolence book, or simply sit quietly reflecting on the mess and muddle of these current days. When it came to the Litany of Reconciliation at noon, instead of the usual three or four people scattered about the nave, there were forty or more gathered clearly and explicitly to pray, and all through the day there was a buzz about the place, a sense of purpose and engagement that is often absent. Walking through the building in my cassock after the Litany, I was repeatedly drawn into conversation – and those prayer stations bore witness to more responses that first day alone than in the entire Ascension to Pentecost period last year.
In the past I’ve occasionally been asked by random visitors “Do you actually hold services here?” - the implication being that our building is simply a gallery for twentieth century art. On that Tuesday in May it was obvious to all comers that this was a house of prayer, a place of peace and sanctuary in a broken world. We were our real selves that day, and you can’t put a price on that

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Sermon for Easter 7 A

You will be my witnesses

My older son is half-way through his year of pupillage as a baby barrister...It’s something he has wanted to do all his life, and though the combination of a daily commute from Cambridge to London with the insomniac pleasures of new fatherhood is undoubtedly exhausting, on the whole I think he’s enjoying himself. He’s had a few issues with papers that arrive too late from a client’s solicitors to be admitted as evidence, but his witnesses have been a largely co-operative bunch so I turned to him to help me understand exactly what Jesus was asking of his friends when he told them “You will be my witnesses”
It seemed kind of important, really.
You see, during these days of focussed prayer as we ask “Thy kingdom come” together with Christians all round the world, the stated hope of the initiative is not just that we will, as individuals, families and churches devote ourselves afresh to prayer, but also that we will be empowered finding new confidence to be witnesses for Jesus Christ.

You will be my witnesses
That’s a direct commission from Jesus, but the thing about witnesses, says Giles, is that they have to have had a direct experience, they have to have BEEN THERE. There is no value in calling a witness who has only hear-say evidence.
They need to speak of what they know.
And that’s true for us as well.
WE need to speak of what we know.
If we are to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, then we need first to have experienced the wonder of his love for ourselves. Knowing about is one thing….but to be witnesses, hearsay is never enough.

That’s heart of this season…

Like the disciples, we have to face up to the physical absence of Jesus from our world. When he left that little group on the slopes of Olivet, that was it. No reappearance to tumultuous applause.
Jesus had gone...leaving his friends gazing forlornly skywards.
But he left that one time and one place so that, through the power of the Spirit, he might be present in all time and all places…With us always, til the close of the age.

We do not need to fear, then, that our testimony is invalid.
No, we weren’t present for those world-changing events in and around Jerusalem 2000 years ago, but we can be witnesses nonetheless... – because God is still active, a living presence transforming hearts, minds, lives through the power of the Spirit.

If you’re a regular worshipper, think about what first brought you to faith – and what encourages you to return to worship, week by week.
My guess is that it will have little to do with head-knowledge – the records of others, the received wisdom of centuries…though that has a huge part in helping us to root ourselves in the great traditions of the Church.
Most of us, I imagine, will be here because we met with God – perhaps in a precious moment when we experienced directly the touch of his love, or perhaps when we saw it poured out in the lives of another person.
That’s part of the paradox here.
We, God’s people, are not just witnesses but evidence as well.

And that can be rather a problem.
When we look at the world, we cannot say with confidence that humanity – even CHRISTIANITY as it lived out day by day – is an unmistakeable testimony to God’s power at work.
On Thursday we gathered to celebrate the reign of Christ – sang Joyously that the head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned in glory now – but we gathered in the ruins where we had stood in Vigil for the victims of the Manchester bomb just an hour before.
Eye-witness accounts in the media this week will have more to say about horror and fear at home and abroad in Istanbul and Jakarta, Minya and Manchester than about the visible signs of God’s kingdom of justice and joy.
How do we square that circle?
Where is the evidence of God’s just and gentle rule amid all the grief and terror?

As so often when we focus on the kingdom of God, we find ourselves in the territory of “now and not yet”.
Those of us who spend an unhealthy amount of time online will be very familiar with the words of one Mr Rogers, an American children’s tv presenter from the 1950s...They have been offered as reassurance to share with the children of today, who are struggling to make sense of what has happened this week – and they are good, wise words.
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers.
THERE is our evidence...but we are called to be part of it too.
There’s no escaping the responsibility. Each one of us needs to proclaim the truth of the words that we used a refrain at one point in Thursday’s Vigil “Good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death”.
We all believe it. I’m sure we do.
But we need to live so that it is clear in everything that we do and say and are.
That’s the only thing that can make a difference in these troubled and troubling times.
Living in the kingdom means living by the kingdom’s rules, as the vestry prayer puts it “Showing forth in our lives” those things which we proclaim with our lips.
Witnesses of and evidence for the Kingdom of God – you and me.

But you know, if that fills you more with panic than with joy – you’re in good company.
Think of those disciples on the hillside again.
Baffled and Bereft perhaps, but also hopeful...Jesus has made them a promise
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” and it is with confidence in that promise that they pray constantly in the days that follow

And that’s where we come in, as we too are invited to pray constantly in this “in between” season

Last week, the Precentor helped us to engage with just what “comfort” might mean as we look towards Pentecost...and quoted today’s beautiful Collect, one of the jewels of the liturgical year. I was reminded then of a scene in the Bayeaux tapestesty, with its caption “Bishop Odo comforts a soldier”...The comfort is being delivered with the aid of a large club...and sometimes being encouraged to live as evidence of God’s kingdom may feel a bit like that.
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name...will you go where you don’t know and never be the same
That’s OK to sing…music can be great at helping us to evade some of the more demanding aspects of faith, I find….but the comforter is coming...bringing the strength and inspiration we most need.

And the Spirit can and WILL make all things new – within our lives, within the Church, and within this broken, struggling world.

If this week has left you baffled and bereft – or just plain terrified – can I encourage you to join in this great wave of prayer that God will act...will draw us all, one by one, into his work of transformation and renewal.
Let us join with our brothers and sisters far and near to pray “Thy Kingdom come”, so that we may be both evidence of God’s grace at work and witnesses to God’s power to transform the world into the likeness of God’s kingdom, that God’s name may be glorified.