Saturday, September 30, 2017

Fish out of Water a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 1st October 2017

This week, I spent 3 days in the great city of Liverpool with 156 clergy colleagues, enjoying the first Coventry Clergy conference since 1967. I’m glad that I didn’t know that in advance. I was part of the organising group and the pressure to provide something that would be valuable to all, regardless of their theology or stage of ministry was quite sufficient as it was….I can’t bear to think how the group would have felt if we’d known that the last time the college of clergy got together like that was 50 years ago.
With that kind of lead time, how on earth could we have hoped to avoid disappointing almost everyone?

Fortunately, though, we were only told that it was 15 years since the last diocesan conference (which had included a wider group of people) and then left to prepare a programme that reflected the unlikely theme “Fish out of Water”.
Usually, of course, that phrase produces pictures of a gasping fish, close to death as it is taken from its natural element...and on a bad day, I guess clergy can sometimes feel a bit like that...After all, many of us were trained and equipped to serve a Church and a world that no longer seems to exist…we might have felt called to one style of ministry, only to find ourselves stepping up to do something quite different, without knowing for sure how that might fit into the over-arching call to serve God’s Church for the sake of the Kingdom.
Spending time away with others who share that same experience can be incredibly valuable – specially for those working on their own in a parish, where it can sometimes feel as if nobody understands what your priesthood is really all about.

That, though, was not the thinking behind the conference title. Instead it reflected a proverb, new to me when we began planning 2 years ago “If you want to understand water, don’t ask a fish”. In other words, don’t expect to really see things which are very close to’ll take them for granted, brush up against them so regularly that you make allowance for their presence unthinkingly, stop noticing them altogether. If you want to actually examine something carefully, you’ll probably need to step back to get a better perspective – and our conference aimed to provide that opportunity. Liverpool is not Coventry. It’s similar – a multicultural city which saw considerable war-time damage...A city with not one but two new cathedrals...A city that has seen great changes, with one industry vanishing and a new reality invented as the home of 2 universities. We saw all this, registered the similarities and spent time wondering what we could learn from them...whether the Liverpool approach gave us confidence in our own responses to the challenges and opportunities of our context. Taken out of the water of our daily lives we were able to learn more about them.

But the context of ministry, and that of faith, is always more than the external surroundings, or even the way that our inner lives are shaped by them. For each one of us, our core element is our life in Christ – the one “in whom we live and move and have our being”….That is the substance of our 2nd reading tonight, - the categorical assurance that Christ and the Father are one, that to have seen Jesus is to have seen God…

I wonder...I wonder what that means for you...Here in this Cathedral where our view of Jesus is so shaped and conditioned by the great tapestry behind me of Christ in glory...
Does that speak to you...? There are other images too...of the crucified one hanging on the cross, in the lower part of that same tapestry, which you can only see from the Lady Chapel...or the vulnerable baby clasped in his mother's arms in the Stalingrad Madonna found in the Millennium Chapel....or the head crowned with thorns, the "Car Crash Christ" on the way into the Chapel of Unity.
Which speaks to you?
You don't have to choose, actually. It's not either/or. All aspects are always and eternally part of who Christ is - and thus of who GOD is. Suffering and glorified....vulnerable, helpless but saving the world...
Jesus....showing us God.
everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also.
That’s it, pure and simple.
An antidote to dodgy theology and confusing interpretation.
A test of orthodoxy and a reassurance in the face of life’s storms.

In the latter years of the twentieth century, David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, attacted much controversy and condemnation for some honest exploration of the details of faith – but once the media hype had settled what was left was his own personal creed
God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope”
He added, sometimes “You can’t keep a good God down. Even the CHURCH can’t keep a good God down”….and God – well, God is as he is in Jesus.
To me, that sounds like the ultimate in orthodox teaching. God shown to us in the life and teaching, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God both promising and demonstrating to us that nothing can stand in the way of self-giving love, that always, non-negotiably, love wins...that at the heart of everything, before everything and after everything has ceased to be, we can depend on God’s love

If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

Abide in him….for HE is our natural element...the only place to stay if we are to really flourish…
A fish out of water needs to be returned to water pretty swiftly, really...but if time outside helps us to see what our environment is really all about, then it has to be worthwhile.

One night last week we were offered the almost inevitable after-dinner quiz - which featured a round of acronyms. Sadly, it did not include one of my favourites...KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Keep it simple...God is as he is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon for Proper 18A, Trinity 13, 10th September 2017 at Coventry Cathedral

What is the Church?


That’s the kind of question that you find yourself answering a lot during theological training – but not often afterwards. Fom then on you’re usually far too busy working at being a public face for the Church, contending with her oddities, screaming (whether publicly or internally) at some of the institutional baggage she has collected through the centuries, worrying about her future, or quite simply living with her. For her clergy, the Church is simply the non-negotiable reality that shapes every single day...but that can make it hard to remember what she is really called to do and to be.


Today’s readings might help us reflect a little though...with their emphasis on relationship -for one thing is certain – you can’t be “the Church” on your own. So let’s start with the gospel – which makes it very clear that the Church is a community gathered around Jesus. That community might be large and impressive – a Cathedral crammed to the gunwhales for an ordination perhaps – or small and intimate – a handful offriends meeting in a former shop – but the fundamental point is that what brings these people together is their longing to get close to Jesus.  And Jesus honours that longing with his promise

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.

Such very familiar words – I wonder if you really heard them as Sarah read them just now.


Jesus promises that when we gather in his name – he is among us.

Right here and right now.

THAT’S what makes us Church.

Not our building (though it is, confusingly, what makes us a Cathedral)…

Not our entrance requirements – whether you see those in terms of baptismal status or of adherence to each and every clause of the Nicene Creed.

Not our success or failure in obeying his commandments

What makes us Church is that we meet around Jesus – and it his presence with us, - in his Word, in one another, and in the beaking of bread, that enables us to do and to be whatever else worthwhile we might attain.

It really IS all about him – so whatever your view of the tapestry, its presence in this building calls us back again and again to the reason we are here.


Though the NRSV translation which we heard this morning begins “If another member of the church sins...” the original Greek phrase is “If your brother...”. So, when we speak of the Church as family – we’re not saying anything new. The members of this community will share a family resemblance with one another. Leaving aside the optimistic use of the hypothetical “IF” (for we know full well that as the fallible people we are, we surely WILL hurt and distress one another along the way) Jesus encourages us to be honest about those hurts...Familes do not agree 24/7 – but if there is a healthy, trust-based relationship, its members can admit when they’ve hurt or been hurt by one another and seek healing together.


So – we need to be a community that reflects this. A community where we will not always agree with one another, but where damage and difference is acknowledged and reconciliation sought. The Church must never be a place where integrity is sacrificed to a superficial niceness: Jesus is very clear indeed about this – but it should, always, non-negotiably, be a place where love is practised. Again, and again and again.


And that’s where Paul comes in...distilling all the complexities of human relationships, all the duties and joys, into that fundamental

“Owe no one anything except to love one another…” “Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law”

Put like that it sounds so simple, - deceptively so, of course, because this thing called love is the work of both a moment and a lifetime, both a feeling and a decision...And that is as true for a church as it is for any other family.


But there’s a fair amount of confusion about that little word, love. We use it flippantly to describe a feeling of admiration and desire “I love those shoes”. “I love the carrot cake in Rising Cafe”..We use it to describe things that make us feel better “I love Bach...And poetry...and sunsets”...We use it  romantically, when what we really mean is “I’m hoping that in connecting with you, my own needs may be met”…

Love, then, might seem to be all about warm and fuzzy feelings.


But I’m reasonably confident that this is NOT what either Paul, or Jesus, is getting at.

The kind of love that we’re called to is of a different order.

It doesn’t even mean giving others what we ourselves would value, even though we’re told to love our neighbours as ourselves...just this week, I watched a really well-meaning attempt at love lead to near disaster in another community of which I’m part, thanks to an assumption that what would make one person feel better would have the same effect on another. Let me tell you, there were some very wobbly moments, with hurt experienced on both sides before that was resolved. Good intentions just aren’t enough, and we are so bad at setting aside self-interest, even when we try.

I suspect Desmond Tutu may have a better grasp of this than many.


Perfect love is not an emotion; it is not how we feel. It is what we do. Perfect love is action that is not wrapped up in self-regard, and it has no concern with deserving. Instead, perfect love is love poured out. It is self-offering made out of the joy of giving. It requires no prompting. It seeks no response and no reward...”


Action not wrapped up in self regard...Love poured out….That self-less drive to serve the other person, to care for them, to seek their best...sounds impossibly, immeasurably costly...the kind of love that leads to the cross, indeed.


And that’s what we owe one another.

I’m beginning to wish we could find another way to define and to be Church. This feels way too demanding – but Paul says that this must be the only transaction between us as disciples of Christ

“Owe no one anything except to love one another”


That language brought me up short, for debts are rarely something to celebrate...and even if you consult a thesaurus and substitute “obligation” there’s a sense of being weighed down by duty. Is that what Paul is about? Are we asked to pay our debt to Christ by our love for one another? That surely cannot be.

God’s love is unconditional, asking nothing in return...though God’s love for me stirs up my love for God, and inspires me to WANT to love other people…

But which other people?

Those sitting around us this morning?

Those whose company we cherish day by day?

That might be manageable….but I’m afraid it’s not enough.

If love is a way of paying our neighbours their dues, of offering what they are owed – then, actually, ALL are due love. Jesus is very clear about that, casting the net wide, reminding us to love our enemies, to bless and pray for those who persecute us. Those with whom we have nothing in common. Those whom we struggle to like.. Those whom we are afraid of.

Yes, even those world leaders whose actions terrify us...those groups and individuals whom we suspect are bent on our own destruction…


We owe a debt of love even to them.


Goodness, this business of living as Church is hard. I’m not sure if I’d have joined if I had really understood it. I’m absolutely certain that I can’t actually manage it, because I’m small and human and fallible and badly, oh so badly, in need of God’s grace.

I can’t pay my debt of love – and so I will never fulfill the law.


Which takes me, thankfully, back to where I started.

The Church is a group of people gathered around the person of Jesus Christ.

He is here, in the midst of us. In the midst of our longings to love and our failure to do so.

Jesus Christ, Love alive in human calling us onward to be more than we had ever imagined giving of love’s self again and again and again, and helping us to learn to do the same.


Can we, dare we, try and be Church together?