Sunday, August 20, 2017

Evensong Trinity 11 Psalm 90

Lord,  thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another

Words for our time
Words for all time, coming first from the mouth of Moses, - so that the truth they offer does indeed come from many many generations past. Some 3000 years.Words which have lasted because they speak directly into the human condition, for we are a people often living in the shadow of terror and crisis and needing a safe place in life to call our own. While the default response to disaster in our day and age is no longer to gather in huge numbers in places of worship, there’s still a real need for communities to share in collective lament. This week, you’ll find it expressed in well-nigh every corner of the internet, as different groups rail against the words and actions of others, demonise those whose view differs from their own, and wail “What is the world coming to”.

In common with other psalms of lament, psalm 90 takes us on a journey..
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place for all generations.”  says one translation of the Hebrew, and we need to note that when Moses speaks of the Lord as our dwelling place, he’s talking about a relationship, not a particular location. Not even a cathedral. That may be surprising...We tend to think in terms of concrete structures with physical addresses... And yet, where you dwell is not necessarily the same as where you live. It’s where your heart is, where your passions lie – which may be something altogether different. You may remember those car stickers that were popular a while back, saying  “I’d rather be … singing … reading… skiing … swimming … walking the dog,”  They recognise that our hearts aren’t always exactly where we find ourselves. You may be working at a desk or stuck in a traffic jam, but your heart is high atop a mountain peak or still beside a quiet stream. That’s where you’d rather be. Where your treasure is….Where you dwell.
And Moses presents God as the place where we might choose to dwell, you and I...for that dwelling with God had been the defining experience of God’s people, as they spent their forty years in the wilderness. It wasn’t the landscape that mattered. It wasnt the pleasure of water from the rock or manna and quail to meet their needs unlooked for. It wasn’t the collective memory of the fleshpots of Egypt but God’s presence with them that reminded them that they were chosen...people with a purpose...people travelling through life with God. One writer defines that experience beautifully
“They walked by faith for so long that walking by faith became their way of life. What difference did it make where they were? All that mattered was that God was with them, leading the way.”
THIS is what is at the heart of Moses opening gambit, as the psalm follows a familiar path, from certainty, orientation, through disorientation and lament and back again to firm ground.

Looking back, first, at God’s steadfastness through many generations, then confronting the contrasting brevity of human life, the psalmist celebrates God’s presence with God’s people as strong defender then dares to magine seeing the world from God’s perspective, taking the long view. A thousand years in God’s sight are but as yesterday. Even a troubled and troubling week like the one we have just experienced is not, really, of such huge significance in the grand scheme of things. We get so embroiled, you and I, in our own lives, our own times – but in the history of the world, and from the perspective of eternity, we are only here for nano-seconds. And actually, that’s OK.
It may not seem to be very helpful at first. It  may well make you feel insignificant, yet more fearful in a week when nightmares threatened to become reality – but actually, if God IS our refuge, the place where our treasure is, then that offers comfort even as we recognise our own frailty. Though the psalmist seems to spiral down into depression and despair, dwelling for a time on the evidence of God’s anger and frustration, and the futility of those three score years and ten, yet even he reaches a turning point and finds hope.
“Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom”.
In other words – use your time well and wisely because it is finite and you CAN make a difference if you choose to. Apply your heart to wisdom. Not to fear. Not to revenge, Not to outraged denunciation of “the other” which seems to threaten your peace of mind for the moment. Apply your heart to wisdom, and recognise that the best wisdom is to be found when we are rooted in God’s love, dwelling above all in our relationship with our creator, who holds all our times securely in his hands.
That is the best defence against feelings of fear or futility...And it’s something to practise when life seems clouded by terrors beyond our practise by consciously giving thanks for that gift of time as each day practise by celebrating blessings, - food, friends, practise by looking for God’s presence in the beauty of the day and in the faces of those whom you meet…
“Show thy servants thy work”
It’s something to practise, too, in the hard times – turning to God for direction for the path ahead, taking the hand of another suffering person and forgetting your own agenda as you focus on theirs…
The great hymn writer Isaac Watts paraphrased psalm 90 in words that have become an essential part of Remembrance Sunday services. He too focusses on the frailty of human life and the wonder of divine permanence – but somehow does so without a trace of anger or lament. Perhaps he had learned the lesson of the psalm, and so could recognise the brevity and frailty to our lives and yet treasure each moment as the moment of encounter with the God who is our true dwelling
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come
Be thou our God while troubles last and our eternal home”.

Homily for Proper 15 Matthew 15:10-28

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. There are what defile a person.”
Sometimes the synergy between the appointed lections and current events is breathtaking.
It’s been quite a week in the news, as the events of Charlotteville, more than dreadful enough in themselves, have produced wave after wave of horrible responses….
A clergy eye-witness wrote powerfully of her experience last Saturday as she knelt with many others praying for peace.
As more Neo-Nazis passed the clergy line, they verbally abused us one by one over the course of a few hours. One man screamed that Jesus hates us. Another screamed that we hate the white race and are contributing to white genocide….”
Out of the heart come evil intentions indeed.
And that’s before we even think about Friday’s events in Spain….
Lord, have mercy.

It’s hard, very hard, to understand where such hatred has its roots, tempting to just rejoice that we DONT understand – but then that runs the risk of relapsing into self-righteousness…
And, of course, we’re falling into the “them and us” trap immediately. And that is something today’s gospel reminds us is not good news at all.
It’s maybe comforting that Jesus himself seems to need to be taught this.
The beginning of the passage sees him turning away from the natural heart-land of the observant Jew, speaking against those purity laws that have been part of a nation’s identity for centuries...Then he heads into foreign territory, breaking more barriers – and when he arrives, finds himself challenged once again, jolted into a fresh recognition of common humanity by that woman who simply won’t take “No” for an answer.

But, dear Lord, that’s hard for me this week.
I want to put an unscaleable barrier between myself and the far-right, whose harsh words are reinforced by frightening actions.
I want to keep all my friends and family safely away from “people like them”.
But that’s not the Jesus way.

The one who healed the Canaanite's daughter, and who also opened the eyes of the man born blind can deliver anyone --there are no barriers for Jesus, not even those I’ve erected inside my own head and my own heart.
Time, then, to revisit our own Coventry litany, with its two word refrain that resists the urge to divide humanity into “them” and “us”.
ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God….
We know that when we hear the news
We know that when we look hard into ourselves.
The hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class, Father forgive”.
Amen, amen, amen.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Trinity 5 Evensong We cannot keep from speaking...

For we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.

Last week a Facebook friend shared a rather alarming statistic.
Apparently members of the United Methodist Church in the States invite someone to come to church with them on average once every 38 years.
Once every 38 years.
Isn’t that staggering.
I’m trying to get my head round a mindset that means that you care enough about your faith to give up time for worship week on week, but without any impetus to share
They feel that it’s worth giving up a chunk of their time week on week to attend worship but they aren’t excited enough about what happens there to suggest that any of their friends or family join them!
I find that really hard to deal with.
I can grasp that when it comes to God I might be more enthusiastic than many – it would be a bit of a problem were that NOT so, really, given my calling – but even so….Either those faithful United Methodists in the States are just turning up at church week by week because it’s a habit or something has gone rather wrong with their sense that they (and WE) have good news to share.

I’m sure that the average for Coventry Cathedral congregation would be MUCH better than once every 38 years. At least, I hope so…
I know that some 2000 years have elapsed since Peter proclaimed his faith in front of the authorities – but we are here on this Sunday afternoon in Coventry because we believe that we’re onto something worth attending to.
Admittedly, things may not be quite as exciting here and now as the experiences of the early church.
Peter and John have got into trouble because they presumed to tell a paralysed man who was stationed daily by the Beautiful Gate to the Temple
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth get up and walk”….and, scandal of scandals, the man followed instructions.
He rose and walked.
Transformed.we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.
Just like that.

And Peter is full of it – and full of the Holy Spirit too – and can no more keep silence than a child on their birthday.
And so, using the experience of the paralysed man as a launch-pad, he embarks on a compelling narrative of salvation, a challenge to the old order and to those who represented it.
And at the heart of that challenge is Peter’s declaration
We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard”.

So, it struck me that perhaps one reason that some are more reticent in speaking of faith ourselves is because they’ve forgotten to expect to see and hear salvation stories playing out day by day. They’ve got used to thinking that the golden days are gone...that while God still holds the earth secure in God’s love, the action is over for the moment. Their faith is more to do with dogged hope than with the experience of transforming power. And that does not make it the less admirable (think about Jesus telling Thomas “Blessed are they who have NOT seen, and yet believe) but it does make it harder work…and if your faith is mostly a matter of wistful longing then it is going to be that much harder to work yourself up to share it with others.

During the past few weeks some of us have enjoyed a series of talks by the Dean, “The Holy Spirit and the People of God”. As we explored the ways in which the Spirit was active in the Old Testament as in the New, and traced her work in the present too, it was noticeable that there were periods of church history when you might have been forgiven for thinking that the work of the Spirit was simply to bring the Church to birth – and then leave us to get on with the work of being God’s people. I’m confident that this is NOT the case…but I also have tremendous sympathy with those who feel that somehow the Spirit has mostly passed them by, that faith is a matter of head-knowledge rather than the inspiring heart knowledge that is the unmistakeable fruit of a direct experience of God at work.
But you know, while we may not have seen a dramatic healing or an incontrivertible miracle, there’s still so much evidence of God’s power at work...It’s simply a question of looking with expectancy.

Yesterday, for example, I was talking to a visitor from Canada, who happened to be in the nave just in time for the Litany and Eucharist. Talking to visitors is almost always good for my faith, I find, because their appreciation of the Coventry story and their response to our cathedrals, both old and new, reminds me of quite how remarkable this place is. Just in case you’re struggling with end of term exhaustion, shall I remind you?
Of the way that Provost Howard lived his faith through his determination to reject human patterns of behaviour, centred on revenge and retribution...of the power of forgiveness, co-operation ahd hope that is built into every inch of the new cathedral that exists to remind us that while we all carry scars, but that wounds can be healed, and peace built even in the face of death and destruction...of the worldwide family that is the Community of the Cross of Nails, - hundreds of people in many and varied situations, united by their determination to choose peace…
That’s evidence of a kind, I’d say...God at work even amid the pain and devestation of war… The Holy Spirit inspiring God’s people with a fresh vision of the world as God’s love would have it be….
Things that WE – you and I – have seen and heard...Things to share with joy...

Or if you prefer to look elsewhere, tonight’s psalm is full of suggestions
Come and see the works of God
The psalmist invites God’s people to look back at their history and see God’s hand at work...He encourages them to rejoice in the past – and as he catalogues the wonders of yesteryear he inspires himself afresh to join in the chorus of praise
Come and hear, all you who fear God,
    and I will tell what he has done for me.
17 I cried aloud to him,
    and he was extolled with my tongue….
And that act of praising created a virtuous circle, so that the psalmist found himself carried forward on a tide of rejoicing that enables him to recognise just how active God is in his own life...Not just the God of history but the God of his life...the God who listens and responds when he prays

That’s the God who is active in the work of transformation right here and right now.
My piece of evidence might make you smile. You see, I can’t manage even the simplest piece of decorating without getting paint everywhere. But the smurf-like shade of my fingernails last night is a sign of something rather wonderful...the emergence of a new church community in the unlikely setting of the former cathedral shop. Yesterday a whole group of friends gathered from far and wide to join in a painting party that in itself set the tone for what St Clare’s hopes to be...friendly and flexible, created by its members, bringing people together from a huge variety of contexts to live out the great commandments to love God and neighbour.
It’s exciting to witness God doing a new thing among us...and I’ve found myself sharing that excitement with all sorts of people in the past weeks and months.

There’s lots of evidence if you view the world with expectant hope.
The God at work in the wisdom of Solomon, the faith of the psalmist, the passion of Peter is at work here and now...If you’re in any doubt, look at those around you...Each life a tapestry of joy and struggle, pain and blessing...shaped by the overarching love of God.

we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard

Let’s be brave and share our stories...and share, too, in God’s work of transformation here and now.

Come to me Homily Trinity 10A

One of the hardest things in life for many of us is admitting when we need help.
I’ve found myself playing games around the question with some really silly things
“”No – it’s fine – I can MANAGE”….through gritted teeth just a few seconds before dropping a bit of furniture that only misses my toes by inches…
I’ve caught myself in the same games around more important things too. When my parents died just as I left school, I didn’t let on to anyone that I didn’t have enough money to survive while their back account was frozen as the solicitors did their thing. I know now, as the parent of adult children, that my parents friends would have been devastated to know I was struggling and hadn’t asked for help...but for me, it was really important to be seen to be coping. Even if I wasn’t. Even if that was a lie. It’s fine. I can manage.

I like to claim that its because I “don’t want to be a bother” - which sonds kind of well-mannered and self-effacing...but in reality I suspect there’s more than a grain of arrogant independence involved. And that’smy choice, but it’s a choice that may have an impact on my daily life and my relationship with friends, colleagues and family. What would have happened if Abraham’s servant had been too busy being independent to accept the offer of water from Rebekah…? Would he ever have found the bride he had gone to seek?
We don’t know.

What we DO know is that when we try the “go it alone” approach in our relationship with God, it’s positively dangerous. God made us for relationship with God...and since all that is good and wonderful comes as God’s gift, we condemn ourselves to a deprivatation that is both unnecessary and terribly terribly painful if we turn away “It’s alright. I can manage”

That determination to be independent is one of the greatest barriers that prevents us from accepting all that God offers...I think that’s part of why Jesus so often uses children to remind us of how we’re to live in God’s kingdom. Children may be gradually learning the ways of independence, but to start with at least they simply can’t survive if left alone. And though they do have that survival instinct that makes them insist on “me first “ til they’ve learned better, they don’t on the whole worry about how they look to others...they aren’t worried about being judged weak or inadequate if they accept whatever help is on offer.
They don’t trip over their own egos whenever they try to take a step towards God.
And we are, famously, invited to become like a set aside anything that prevents us from recognising and rejoicing in our dependence on God.
Listen to the invitation Jesus offers
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
That’s what is SAYS –But when I picture Jesus carrying a burden, what I actually SEE in my mind’s eye is Jesus carrying the cross itself...struggling, falling….So it’s hard to understand this invitation to share the weight of his burden, when he seems to call it LIGHT
And yet, even though I don’t understand it, nonetheless Jesus insists “Carry my burden instead of yours. It’s easier”…

So – what are my burdens, if the cross itself would be lighter? What things weary me week by week? What wearies you?
I thought about that for a bit, and came to realise that many of the burdens I carry are weights I place on myself. Nobody out there expects me to be a kind of super-priest and super-mum, available 24/7 in an immaculate home offering wonderful hospitality and comfort to all in need...but every now and then I behave as if that’s what God has asked of me – and get really ratty when I realise how far short I’m falling.
You’ll have different burdens that weary you – but it’s worth thinking about whether any of them are self imposed and self created...Do you just ask too much of yourself, and then beat yourself up when you fail?
That’s never God’s way. God doesn’t want you to be perfect. God wants you to be real.

Then, besides our self inflicted burdens, Society burdens us too…
There are expectations that we’ll all aspire to particular ways of living…that we’ll want to model our family lives on the glossy illusions offered us by the media…that our children will be miserable if they don’t have the latest must-have toy, that we’re all complete failures if we don’t manage a week in the sun on holiday every year

Those kind of aspirations have a cost in both financial and human terms…they weigh heavy…If you succeed, there is pressure to continue to be successful. If you fail, that failure is a weight of its own.
Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden…
we need not carry those burdens…they don’t really belong to us unless we choose to adopt them. We can put them down and walk away.
Of course, there ARE other burdens that are ours…burdens that we need to carry. Responsibilities for our loved ones, responsibility to live well, to use the potential that God has given us. Burdens created by a society that doesn’t always do its best for those who might be struggling...burdens of poverty, or ill health. Those weigh very heavy indeed – and I’m afraid that Jesus does not say that he’ll take these burdens from us, but he suggests a better way to bear them.
My yoke is easy
'The underlying Greek word means 'kind.'
My yoke is kind.
A kind yoke is one that is carefully shaped so that there will be a minimum of chafing.
Jesus' yoke will be kind to our shoulders…will enable us to bear our loads without struggle.
I’m told that in Jewish rabbinic tradition, to learn from a particular rabbi was described as “bearing his yoke”…It meant that the pupil would be constantly beside his teacher, walking where he walked, seeing the same views sharing his insights, learning almost to think his thoughts….to live according to his rule of life.
Some rabbis set very demanding targets…a long list of dos and don’ts that wore down their disciples...Their yoke was hard to bear, and their disciples stumbled and fell.
The yoke that Jesus offers, the one he bears himself, is very different.
In place of rules that we might fail to keep, we are given grace in abundance…More, Jesus invites us to become his yoke mates, joined in a team with him.
We can learn how to pull our load by working beside him and watching how he does it. The heavy labour will seem lighter…
Yoked with Christ, we are enabled to choose the good and to refrain from the evil and we discover that there is no freedom greater than that of walking each day beside our servant King.

Nobody needs to go it alone!