Sunday, January 07, 2018

Rise and shine - a sermon for our Volunteers' Evensong at Coventry Cathedral. Epiphany 2018

Arise, shine -for your light is come!

My father spent some of the happiest days of his life as a serving officer in the Royal Navy, and so it was that in childhood my day always began as he put his head round my bedroom door offering a passable imitation of a Bosun's pipe before declaiming 
Wakey wakey. Rise and shine”…
And I knew, somehow, that, whatever the day might bring, the force of his love for me meant that I’d always shine, someho, in his eyes.
His faith in my abilities was absolute. 
Of everyone that I’ve known, he would probably be the least surprised that I’ve ended up here – something that was a far cry from my own imaginings when I finally stopped running away from God’s call to ordination and set out in reluctant obedience. You see, I know that I’m really deeply ordinary...Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that all the lovely things that have happened to me along the road have come as joyful surprises. Daddy, perhaps, might have claimed to see them coming (and sometimes I’m still sad that he died without even knowing I’d be heading to the university of our dreams…)

However, - there’s nothing worse than a preacher who goes on about themselves...though I guess most preachers find ourselves engaging with the words we most need to hear as we prepare...But – that’s not the point.
It’s all about rising and shining today.

Your light has come

Such welcome words in these dark cold days when January bites.
Though the galaxies of fairy lights may have vanished, the decorations have been returned to their boxes, nonetheless we continue to celebrate
The light is come
The light that shines in the darkness – while the darkness cannot even comprehend it...

And – the dawning of that light means that we too are called to shine.
Not simply to bask in its transforming glow but to SHINE...and to recognise that
The glory of the Lord is risen upon you...” and in that light, the whole world is transformed.

That's what an Epiphany does. It helps you see things differently.
Simply put, it's the moment when God is revealed.
It’s that instant of “Aha!” when you can say with confidence that this experience is nothing less than a real live encounter with our real live God – and after that nothing will ever look the same again.
Lift up your eyes and look around”...
This is not the same place that it was before...
These people are more beautiful...
They reflect that light which has dawned...and so do you
You shall see and be radiant. Your heart shall rejoice!”

Epiphanies change everything.
How we see the world – and how we see ourselves.

The Common Worship liturgy for this season invites us into a season of marvels .
Three wonders mark this holy day.
This day, a star leads the wise men to the Christ child.
This day water is made wine at the wedding feast.
This day Jesus is reavealed as the Christ in the waters of baptism.

Wonders that show us, and all humanity, something of the truth of God with us...
A birth story, a baptism and a wedding. What a wedding!

I have to say that, as one who has spent a fair bit of time involved in the fine details of wedding arrangements, I find them very nerve wracking affairs. So much seems to ride on the success of the day, there is such a longing for “perfection”, that the risk of disappointment feels enormous.
It's bad enough if the clouds gather, or the florist fails – but I would really really hate to be too close if the wine ran out.

But, of course, this is exactly what happens at Cana of Galilee.
A wonderful day of celebration is transformed, not by the radiant light of an epiphany but by the looming clouds of family shame and disappointment.
Such disaster!
Despite the best planning, the many attempts to ensure perfection, a roomfull of guests is faced with the exciting choice of water or water.
Human resources have failed.
But luckily that bride and groom whose names we'll never know had the good sense to invite Jesus to be part of their celebration – and in doing so, had, against all their expectations, brought God directly to their marriage feast.
Lift up your eyes and look around you!
So, when all they could offer was water – Jesus intervened and turned it into wine – and not just supermarket plonk but the finest vintage ever tasted.
How did it happen? I can't help with the mechanics of the miracle, and sadly I don't know how to replicate it, but at the most basic level it happened because someone had the sense to ask for help....a useful reminder for all of us. God is waiting, longing to bless us – but too often we try to struggle on, claiming our independence even as we fall flat on our faces again and again.
The God who in Jesus took the ordinary things of life and made them extraordinary is the same God who takes ordinary people – you, me and the lady down the road – and blesses us to be signs of God's kingdom.
Pablo Picasso, who knew a fair bit about being gifted, I’d say, once wrote
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”
And that’s exactly what you do, - each of you  splendid volunteers, who give of your time and energy, talent and skill to God through the work of this Cathedral. Be you singer or ringer, musician, verger or server, reader, welcomer, steward, Blitz museum host, archivist, guide, teacher, caterer, coffee maker, bread maker, polisher, weeder, filer, copier, editor ,Night shelter host or Work Club advisor, intercessor, prayer minister, or planner,  embroiderer, committee member, small group leader, pastoral visitor,f- or a host of other roles…
You give of yourself – and we are deeply and truly grateful – not just today when we voice our thanks, but on each and every day of the year.
You give of yourself, and God uses you as a gift to bless others.

Yes each one of us is fundamentally quite ordinary...As we wander through Broadgate, there’s nothing to make anyone take a second glance and yet.........and yet, we can and will be transformed by God, if we can only find the courage to ask God to work with us.
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose is to give it away.
Arise. Shine. For God knows that you can...and will..shine for God.

The water that we bring, our everyday lives, our time, our being is blessed and transformed into that we too can be a sacramental sign of God's presence – for that is what the church is called to be.
But the thing is – those servants who poured out the contents of the water jars as directed had NO idea that a wonder was occurring. They had to act first – and one can well imagine how it felt to approach the MC with a cup of – well, they knew that the jar had held water...they'd filled it themselves...
There's something for us to learn here, isn't there?If we don't actually RISK trusting that God can do amazing things....if we don't attempt the extraordinary for God's sake ….then we will never discover what God's grace can accomplish.
Yes – even in me. 
Even in you.

Arise. Shine.

Truly, this is the season of wonders, as we continue to celebrate God with us, - in the simple things of everyday, - in water, bread and wine and in men and women, giving of their gifts of energy, time and talents.
For all this and so much more, thanks be to God!

The Christmas journey - sermon for Midnight Mass at Holy Trinity, Coventry

This is what I said at Midnight Mass....The following Sunday someone came up to me after the Cathedral Eucharist to say "thank you"...She had suffered a heart attack some years ago, had felt betrayed by her body until someone suggested that the place where her heart had been "broken" was the place where God was lodging to heal and restore. She found my sermon confirming that sense - and in sharing her story, she blessed me hugely. 

Light looked down and beheld darkness

I will go there, said Light
That’s the most important journey, of course…the journey we are preparing to celebrate…the journey that makes all the difference to everything….
But St Luke’s account of the nativity is full of journeys.
Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem,
The angels come from heaven to the shepherds
Just after they’ve heard the angelic chorus, the shepherds hurry to the manger.
Even at the moment of his birth Jesus is intent on stirring us up, on moving us out of our familiar ways, taking us out beyond our comfort zones.
Ironic, then, that we’ve transformed our celebrations of his birth into the epitome of traditions. We dream of Christmasses “just like the ones we used to know” and exclaim in distress if an “essential” carol somehow gets missed from the Midnight Service or too many features of our own ideal festivities are altered without permission.
Ironic because that baby is born to challenge and to change us…
The shepherds went on their journey – they saw the good news story with their own eyes – and then they had to go home and demonstrate that the baby’s birth really was good news for the whole world. Once the angels had stopped singing and gone on their way, the good news depended on them. Who would have believed their wild stories of a sky filled with angels if the events of that night had not changed the shepherds so that they began to live a new kind of life?
They turned from people who had been on the receiving end of good news, - who had heard it and seen it, - to people who were good news themselves.
And now we are invited on the same journey…called to travel even to Bethlehem
We’re not there just to see, marvel and return home to the status quo.
We go, like so many before us, just as we are, because we have no other option.
We go empty handed, because the Christ child needs nothing except our hearts.

Let me make a confession. Please be kind to me!
I spend far too much time that I don’t really have online...and sometimes I even get drawn in to utterly pointless quizes. I’m sure that none of you would ever be so silly...but there we go. That’s me.
And so it was that earlier this week I established, thanks to Classic fm, that if I were a Christmas carol, I’d be Harold Darke’s wonderful setting of “In the bleak midwinter”. That made me very happy, actually, as it’s one of my favourites, with its last verse that encourages us to give our hearts to the infant King.

It sounds so beautiful, a precious gift on this night of wonders...– but sometimes, you know, our hearts aren’t all they might be.
If we’re honest, - and there’s no point in being anything else - we’ll know that the gift of our hearts isn’t really that amazing.
There are probably some patches of selfishness, of un-forgiveness…of intolerance or prejudice…of anger or pride...and all of those parts of ourselves of which we are least proud are nonetheless wrapped up in our offering of ourselves to that baby.
Still, we travel as we are, because that‘s the only way that we can go.
No possibility of white-wash or self-deception here, since the One we go to visit is our God, our creator, a helpless baby swaddled against the night air.
But though we are all of us welcome just as we are…we are invited there to be transformed.

There’s another journey that we must make…from self interest to love, from anger to peace, from despair to hope…
As we stoop to enter the stable, that cramped space that contains Someone greater than the world and all that is in it, we are invited to change….to offer our poverty, our inadequacy, our disappointment, our fear and to receive back riches, strength, comfort beyond all expectation.
We come as we are and are changed till we are as He is….
That’s the point of it all, as Ireneaus recognised so many centuries ago, when he proclaimed:
God became what we are, so that we might become what God is.”
And God, of course, is love.

Imagine if everyone in this packed church went out into the world to live every day by the light of God’s love.
Imagine how our city might look then.
A sudden outbreak of love, joy, peace and reconciliation transforming everything.
And that’s our invitation, as we come face to face with Jesus, the one who can transform us tonight…
Jesus born in a stable, but present for us in one another, in God’s word and in the Sacrament of bread and wine.

LIGHT looked down and beheld darkness.
I will go there,’ said Light.
Peace looked down and beheld war.
I will go there,’ said Peace.
Love looked down and beheld hate.
I will go there’ said Love.
So light came, and shone.
So peace came, and gave rest.
So love came, and gave light.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Advent 4 Ana-Mary-Gram

Though they say that a picture is worth a thousand words, I would contend that poetry can often get into places in our hearts and souls where other words cannot reach…That poets and prophets alike have the gift of standing at a distance and seeing things in a new way – and as I pondered this morning’s readings I realised that beloved George Herbert had done it again. In common with most writers of his day, he loved a bit of word-play and among all the treasures of his “Temple” collection is a two-line anagrammatic poem which sums up pretty much all that today’s readings represent. He is playing with the name of Mary – an anagram of army as he writes -
HOw well her name an Army doth present,
In whom the Lord of hosts did pitch his tent!
And there we have it.
After so many dreams and longings to secure God’s presence by building God a house…after David’s aspirations and Solomon’s international construction project (which always puts me in mind of the way that treasures were gathered from all over the world as this Cathedral rose from the rubble)….after Israel’s years of exile and return…after the Roman occupation…after all this our God on the move finally settles, for a while at least.
The one who walked with Adam in the cool of the evening, who spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush and talked to him face to face as a man speaks to his friend, the God whose still small voice was heard by Elijah…the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob comes among God’s people once again and pitches his tent …
As one translation of that well-loved phrase in John’s prologue runs, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us…moved into the neighbourhood…dwelt among us
Heaven taking root on earth –
“For in that rose contained was heaven and earth in little space”
In Mary.
A teenager in a small town in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.
One among many, you’d imagine. Nothing to mark her out in the crowd. What was so special about her?
I suspect that for David, right the way through, there was a hope that to build a Temple might be his great legacy project. You see, though he knew God well, David was so often the centre of his own much of his life was All About Him. Hard for him to let go of the idea that it would be DAVID’S Temple that would stand for centuries...though there is the promise for him, too
“I will make for you a great name...Your throne shall be established forever”.
That’s not bad, really, for a shepherd boy turned king, with some very dubious moments along the way. David matters. His story counts...the David chapter remains important in the grand sweep of God’s story of love for God’s people.
But with Mary, things are quite different.
She may seem to be just an ordinary girl and yet – and yet, even before God bursts into her life turning everything upside down, she’s already described as “favoured one” – “full of grace” in some translations…
David was a man after God’s own heart, but here is someone so open to God that grace already fills her heart and soul.
God knows he will feel at home with Mary…IN her…
God comes close to her “The Lord is with you” – and because God comes close to Mary, Mary comes close to God…so close that, incredibly, she becomes the God-bearer herself.
Here is God’s stopping place – the site where God is pitching his tent for now. Forget the splendours of the Temple, - all that God is, the whole fullness of divinity, will be contained within her womb.
As the carol puts it “res Miranda” – a wonderful thing indeed...Mary, blessed among women indeed –though it is a costly blessing…
Small wonder that the angelic messenger opens the next part of the conversation with that familiar angelic greeting
“Do not be afraid…”.
If ever those words were appropriate, this is the time. And though what he says is terrifying enough, what actually happens is far more so. Though Mary responds with obedience, it doesn’t honestly feel as if she has much choice
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you…” – and at that point, really, resistance is futile…
From then on Mary’s life is transformed forever – and so is the life of the world.
Yes, David gets his mention. We know that it matters that Joseph is “of his house”, - that, very soon now, Mary’s child will be born in Bethlehem, Royal David’s city…
“He will be great...and the Lord will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end”
The parallels are unmistakable. Luke’s hearers are meant to recognise that here an ancient promise is being fulfilled. Mary may not know where the road ahead is leading but here and now God has come home, pitching his tent …
While George Herbert enjoys the word play that turns Mary to Army, the God whom she sings of in her Magnificat turns things the other way up. David’s calling was to be mighty in battle, to defeat the enemies of God’s people and assert the power of his name over all earthly rulers…
Mary’s calling, higher by far, was and is to provide hospitality for the One whose power is made perfect in weakness, who puts down the mighty from their seat, and exalts the humble and meek.
As Gabriel speaks to her, this new world order is already coming in to being.
And – we are part of it.
The promise of mercy...made to Abraham and his children is made to us too…
but we have to make room, as Mary did.
We HAVE to offer God hospitality, knowing that to do so as fully, whole-heartedly, as she did will probably turn our worlds upside down too.
Tonight, many of us will find ourself singing the familiar words
“Be born in us today”.
While Mary was God-bearer when Christ came into the world, we are all called to be God-bearers here and now. The world needs God so much – and with God, nothing is impossible.