Sunday, February 25, 2018

Lent 2 Take up your cross

When I sat down to read through today’s gospel my first thought was
Oh cripes! I would NEVER have chosen this on a Sunday when I’m hoping to persuade everyone of the joy of engaging in community. Actually, I’d probably never have chosen it at all...”

And yet, here it is – and, thanks to the lectionary, that makes us engage with the whole of scripture, and not just our favourite bits, here I am preaching on it anyway. Perhaps it’s one of those passages with which I must, like Jacob, wrestle for a that I can share that blessing with you this morning. Let’s just take a deep breath and see how we get on.
It’s not going to be easy.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospelwill save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 
Take up their cross?
Lose their life?
That's supposed to be GOOD news? here we have it, straight from the Master himself
Far from precluding suffering, faith seems to guarantee it, but I'm not really sure that I signed up to that. Following Jesus is all very well – but does that have to mean walking the way of the cross? Couldn’t we skip the hard parts and major on the hope of resurrection?

As so often in the gospel, Peter is my ally, saying all the things that would have been uppermost in my thoughts too. Here’s Jesus preaching like doom and despair...quite openly! And Peter, desperately anxious about bad PR, taking his Master aside to suggest that he might offer something more palatable. After all, who wants to follow someone whose future includes suffering, rejection and death?
I’d have been anxious to hush that up too…In fact, that’s pretty much the root of my reluctance to actually get on and preach on this gospel, isn’t it! I want good news to be straightforward, unmistakeable, because after all – that’s the way life is.

Except, of course, that it isn’t.
Not one little bit.
Life is complex...sometimes joyful, sometimes sad and hard beyond all expectation. We don’t have to raise our eyes very far this morning to find evidence of that -with the deaths of Casper and Corey just down the road from us here. or those 17 who died in Parkland, Florida, or the hundreds killed in and around Damascus…
And for each of those deaths, others whose lives have been changed in a moment. Who bear the weight of grief and bewilderment, anger and despair. Who are carrying a cross, right enough – and finding its weight overwhelming.

We need, then, a gospel that enables us to cope with that, since it seems that we
won’t be able to fast forward to the Resurrection, without anyone having to go through the tough stuff?

It’s true that Jesus can and will carry all of that for us…
your sadness, my disappointment, our anger and doubt, denial and despair..
That's what makes the weight of the cross that he carries.
But we are invited, encouraged to carry it learn to be Christlike by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory.

Crosses are forged from many things, each unique to the bearer. The experiences of brokenness in our own lives, the awareness of the times we've failed God and failed each other, our lack of love, our lack of trust.
And things that just seem to be part of life – a difficult marriage, a sick partner an unplanned loneliness...things we might prefer to jettison, but find ourselves having to carry day by day by day.
Bespoke crosses, yours quite unlike mine, maybe lighter, maybe not...but part of the point of being a community is that we can, and we must, strive to bear one another’s burdens.

[That’s such an important aspect of being human and being Church, you know.
Weeping with those that weep is not an optional extra, - and nor is rejoicing with those who rejoice. As we continue to learn, through Lent and beyond, what it means to be God’s people once again, we will be one another’s best teachers. Though many will assert that you can be a Christian in isolation, the journey is both easier and immeasurably richer when we follow Christ TOGETHER…

That, of course, is why we care about small groups, and are focussing on them today. We need places where a deeper relationship can be forged than is possible simply over Sunday coffee or a quick exchange at the door. Whether those groups exist explicitly to encourage discipleship, or whether they are all about exploring a shared interest – in music, walking, the history of the blitz – they are the places where we can begin to trust each other a little more day by day, with joys and sorrows, worries and delights. While I may not feel brave enough to bare my soul on a large stage, I’m very thankful for a safe space to be honest about my particular crosses, a place where I can feel confident that someone will set to and carry me in prayer, even as I try to carry them in return.
It is not good for man to be alone”, observed God at the very beginning – and Church should be the place where we can most surely trust one another with the hard stuff, can recognise when someone is floundering under their burdens, and reach out to help them with their load.]

Sometimes, of course, we carry things quite needlessly.
We insist on holding onto something that SEEMS precious, something for which we've struggled and fought, something apparently more alluring than Christ's call to deny ourselves, take up those wretched crosses once again and follow him.…
We prefer to load ourselves with other individuals and as communities too
We can become confused about what really matters, clinging on to something for the sake of tradition, or pursuing something that seems good but which is really of secondary importance. Perhaps this Lent might be a time to reflect on how we might let go of things like that – and a good few other things too. They are NOT part of our crosses, those prizes that seem so shiny and alluring now – health, wealth, success, even family stability. In fact they turn out to be so much dead-weight, things we can't take with us into the Kingdom.
What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Jesus knows, I promise, how hard it can be to put those deceptive weights down…
Jesus knows, too,the weight of each cross that we have to bear.
And he knows, and wants us to discover, how the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter.
It's into this that we are baptised...sharing Christ's death so that we might also share his resurrection.

So, there's our good news.  We, God's people, travelling togethet in faith, hope and love, will find the way of the cross most truly the way of life and peace.
Thanks be to God!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lent 1 Bread in the wilderness

When Jesus was baptized, the heavens were torn open,the Spirit descended like a dove,
and the voice of God cried out,
“You are my son the beloved – with you I am well pleased”
An amazing moment...An affirmation of his calling, in preparation for all that was to come.
A snap shot, too, of the life of the Trinity...Father, Son and Spirit, Love, Beloved and Lover...Jesus dripping from the water, immersed in heavenly Love and overflowing with the Holy Spirit.
A moment to treasure.
When I am baptising, I often use this reading and point out to the congregation that this is the first time Jesus appears on the scene in Mark’s gospel...He has DONE nothing extraordinary and yet, God looks at him and loves him because of who he is.
And I remind them that it is exactly the same for us.
There is nothing in the world that we can do to make God love us – and more or any less. God loves us because of who GOD is...and that is the best beginning that any of us could have.

For Jesus though, that moment of affirmation is short-lived.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”
That gentle dove transformed into an irresistible force, sending Jesus out beyond the bounds of civilisation, into the most hostile landscape imaginable.
Sunbeams scorching all the day, chilly dewdrops nightly shed
Not an inviting prospect
Nobody goes into the wilderness unless they have to.
You can die there, or, almost worse, you can lose yourself, your sense of who you are...
So why does the Spirit drive Jesus to spend time there, in that place where everything is stripped away, where the voice of affirmation gives way to the whispers of doubt?

Mark gives us none of the temptation stories we find elsewhere – just that brief summary
He was tempted by Satan...
But in those 5 words we find hope for our own wilderness times....for the place is surely not unfamiliar to us.
We may not know how we arrive there but inevitably at some point in our lives we will find ourselves there, - perhaps repeatedly.
And by God's grace we will not just survive but grow in those experiences.
You see, the wilderness is a place where everything external is stripped away, where we have nothing but ourselves and God rely on, where we have to confront the reality of who we are – and come to terms with it.
That won't be an easy process....but we know that in our wilderness we are not alone...Jesus has been here, as he has been through every other experience of human life.

Our collect today emphasises that it was here that Jesus was tempted, as we are...and of course that matters hugely.
But we need to reflect too on the pattern of moving from spiritual highs, from the joyous security of knowing ourselves beloved of God, to the times of isolation, the times when we feel that we have been DESERT ed...cast into the desert.
Perhaps if we remember that Jesus has been HERE before us too, it may give us strength to survive our own times of isolation, confusion and doubt.
Jesus was in training, whether he knew it or training for the time when, though he was drawing all people to himself he would cry out “Eloi, eloi lama sabacthani”...believing himself to be abandoned by God.
And his time of trial sets a pattern for our own...for wherever we walk in the wilderness, it will not be untrodden ground for us.
Jesus has been here first......has explored the depths of his being....perhaps has even wondered, for an instant, if the Love he experienced at the Jordan was but a transient illusion...
but Jesus has kept faith with himself, and in so doing has kept faith with his heavenly Father.
And so, even as he faced temptation, help was at hand
Angels ministered to him”
There will always be wilderness experiences...and we will not always be able to embrace them....for it's human to prefer the way of green pastures and still waters.
But during Lent we can model wilderness, can choose to strip away distractions, choose to go deep into ourselves to explore who we are, and who God is in our lives.
And if we dare that inner journey, then we will find that God is the one who makes the desert blossom like the rose, that it is in the wilderness that we find grace, and the heavenly manna that will feed us til we are safely home.

You are dust and to dust you shall return

It is always the most extraordinary thing, that moment of unexpected intimacy, as the priest dips their finger in that black ash and marks the forehead - where once the cross was traced in baptismal oil.
"You are dust, and to dust you shall return"
Words that have, in previous years, made me feel heavy - as if I were pronouncing, rather than simply acknowledging, a death sentence.
Words that have made me remember those whose foreheads I marked in previous years, who are now gone from us, demonstrating the truth I had spoken.
"You are dust".

This year,kneeling at the rail, a young mother asked me to ash her daughter, just a couple of months older than my precious Eleanor Grace.
I'm not sure what I expected, really - but certainly not the beautiful smile with which little Bella greeted the words, the open welcome with which she received the cross on her forehead.
For a second I felt myself the unwelcome guest, the bad fairy at the christening in a Grimm's tale.
I had brought a memento mori into a context where surely what should have been celebrated was the gift of life...but Bella knew better.
Her smile was that of someone who knows that all is exactly as it should be - and she reminded me of the freedom that is part of our mortality.
You are dust - so the huge weight of our preoccupations really doesn't matter.
You are dust - so, actually, the mountain of STUFF we accumulate to worry about is of absolutely no significance whatsoever.
You are dust - so you have permission not to worry, to live in this moment, to savour the here and now just as a small child might do.

This year, "You are dust" has become a mantra that has re-ordered my priorities, reminding me not to fret over trivia, never to lose sight of my eternal destiny but to rejoice in the freedom of being mortal as once again I try to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Breathing Space Prayer journey with John's Prologue

It's always a little confusing to be confronted with John's Prologue weeks after the candlelit solemnity of Midnight Mass, so when it cropped up a week or two back, I was slightly perplexed as to how to make it work for "Breathing Space". In the event, I needn't have worried. God turned up and made the evening take wings, so I've decided it's worth keeping a record of it, just in case...

Station 1:
A gold gift bag beside the font, with cards spilling out of it, each with a message from Scripture, a message from God.
"I have loved you with an everlasting love" 
"You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased"
"I will never leave you or forsake you"
"I have called you by name, you are mine"
"I am with you always, to the close of the age"
"See, I have written your name on the palm of my hand"
"You are precious in my sight...and I love you"
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
In the beginning was the Word”
God is all about communication - relationship - reaching out to us, wanting to make Godself known.
What God was, the Word was....As John puts it, Jesus is first and foremost God's word, God's expression of Godself. In what he said and what he did, he showed us what God was like, what mattered to him, what he cared about. If you want to know God, says John, look at Jesus - the Word that sums God up.

If Jesus is God’s word to us – then what does he have to say.
Here at the font, where we mark the beginning of our Christian journey, take a card with a 

word to you from God.
Spend 5 minutes reflecting on it...Carry it with you….Believe in its truth.

God’s word to you today and for the weeks ahead.

Station 2 at the chancel steps: An orchid in full flower, a jug of tulips, images of natural 

beauty and of the miracle of life in the womb
Script: All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
Jesus was there when the world began. The power of love that we see in his life is the same power that holds everything in being. The whole of creation might be seen as a love-letter from God. Enjoy these examples of creation. Ask God to help you to recognise God’s work day by day.
Station 3:  a large laminated world map spread on the floor beside the Kiel globe candle stand.
Baskets of tea-lights.

Script: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Think of the dark places and the dark situations in our world. Perhaps there are even some in your life. Take time to be glad that God’s light has not and never will be overcome...That all the darkness in the world cannot put out the light of even the tiniest candle. Light a candle – or many candles – for all those who specially need the comforting light of God’s presence, and place them on the world map on the floor.

Station 4: Beside "The Plumbline and the City" a pile of "certificates", and pens

Script:  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 
Like Amos, whose vision of a plumbline over his city set the true course for a nation that had gone astray, John the Baptist was called to speak out, to invite people to look at their lives in the light of God, to reconsider and to repent. He was to be a signpost, pointing to Christ.
That calling to John is a calling for us all. We too are sent to testify to the light….Each of our lives can speak of God, passing on something of his love to others if we let that happen.
Take a card and write your name in the space. Spend a bit of time with God thinking about how you might be a witness, your life a gospel through which others may come to see God at work. Carry the card with you as a reminder in the days ahead.
"Kathryn...Sent to bear witness to the light"

Station 5: the (closed) gates to the railing at the Lady Chapel
Script:  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
Sometimes Jesus can be a real bother! There’s his voice that reminds me when I’m getting too pleased with myself...Or beginning to think that it’s all about me. He speaks again, challenging me if I think I might not bother to do whatever act of kindness is obviously there in front of me, which just feels a bit too much like hard work. He keeps on saying “Love God first. Love others the way you love yourself”. And there are times when I really want to shut the door in his face and live life on my terms.
And he never ever forces himself on me. He just stands there waiting at the edge of my life, when I know I should keep him at the centre…God excluded from the very world that God made. God stuck on a cross to keep him out of our way, to stop him from interrupting our agenda.
Think of some of the ways you try and keep God out of your life….It’s really easy to open the gate and be close to him – but we use all sorts of things to keep him safely out the way. You might want to write some of them down and fix them to the railings….

Station 6: in front of the tapestry, inside the Lady Chapel
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us
Look at one another. God became human like us….so that we, in all our human frailty, might become like God. God settled with show us what a God-shaped life would look like – and invites us to live that life, to be His body here and now.
We can help one another to see him and to welcome Him in all the wonder of his love, that is full of grace and truth
Look at your hands – see the touch and the tenderness God’s own for the world
Look at your feet – see the path and the direction God’s own for the world
Look at your heart – see the fire and the love God’s own for the world
Look at the cross – see God’s Son and our Saviour God’s own for the world
This is God’s world and we will serve God in it
May God bless you
May God keep you ever with great care
and lead your lives with love
May Christ’s warm welcome shine in our lives and peace in heart and home prevail
til greater life shall call. Amen.

Love means never having to say that you're sorry

That was the line espoused by Ali McGraw in the 1970s film "Love Story" - and as a romantically inclined teenager that made perfect sense to me. Falling in love would mean a soft focus walk towards a beautiful sunset, accompanied not only by my beloved but by a whole string orchestra. And because our love would be perfect, we would never ever disappoint one another and so we would never need to say "sorry".

Well, that phase lasted til my first romance, I guess...And when I married the father of my children, the exhaustion of early years parenting, the absence of enough cash for the number of days in the month, and a whole host of other stresses and strains presented me with a hefty dose of harsh reality really quite quickly. It turned out, in fact, that love meant having to say I was sorry on a distressingly regular basis. I realised that if love was going to have any hope of surviving, then it had to be based on reality. And in the real world I, and my loved ones, mess up regularly and so we need to say sorry several dozen times a day.
That's just how it is - even in human relationships, where there are always faults on both sides, and where learning to forgive as well as be forgiven is just the way things are.

So this year, with Ash Wednesday falling on 14th February, love and saying sorry come together with renewed force. Ash Wednesday, you see, is all about accepting the truth of who we are...fallible human beings, constrained by time and mortality...(though there is something very liberating in realising that we are, truly, dust...that so much of the stuff that preoccupies and disturbs us here and now is of no lasting significance at trying to adopt, as we travel through Lent, something of the perspective of eternity).

It's about taking a long hard look at ourselves, about seeing the mess, the pain, the destruction we have caused - and accepting responsibility for them.
BEING sorry.
But it's also about recognising the truth of who GOD is...the depths of his love from which nothing can separate us...
about accepting that even as we bring all our personal baggage of sin and failure, resentment and despair to God, God loves us far too much to leave us grappling with it. 

It seems to me that even as we begin to say "Sorry" the things of which we repent are swept away as God takes us up in the kind of loving embrace that every child should surely receive, if the world was as God intended.
Love sweeps away our "Sorry"...but we do need to say that "Sorry" to be free to hear and receive the love.

My friend Stu used, on Ash Wednesday, to use different words when marking his penitent congregation with their crosses of ash.
"I have loved you with an everlasting love" "You are my friends" "I am with you always".
Loving messages from the God who calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light...

Sorrow and love find their fullest expression at the cross, but as we begin to travel towards Calvary, they belong together here as well, where we begin to learn the joy of trying to walk with integrity and recognise that love will often mean having to say that we're sorry.
And that's just fine!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

8.00 Homily for the 2nd Sunday before Lent, Coventry Cathedral.

I seem to be powerless to change the bizarre formatting that appears here when I cut and paste and perfectly innocuous document from elsewhere in my files. Apologies. It makes my head ache too.

In the beginning was the Word”…
In the beginning.
As Genesis, so John. Here, we’re concerned with the roots and origins of all things, establishing beyond doubt the identity of the Christ with God the Creator.
The Word was with God and the Word was God.”
But existence is not the whole story. Indeed, this IS a story. Once upon a time – before time was…
The Word.
Ours is not a God who is content to just BE...remote, transcendant, “immortal, invisible,God only wise, in light inacessible”
Our God is bent on a relationship, on communicating Himself with his creation…He is not only a being, but the Word. God also reaches out in longing to communicate his love to us.
A couple of weeks ago, I woke up to find myself voiceless thanks to one of those irritating viruses...I took the dogs for their usual morning walk – but realised that I would have to keep them on the lead, as I couldn’t possibly call to them.
I walked through the Cathedral unable to do more than wave to those staff I would normally exchange a quick greeting with, as I hurried on to the next thing.
I hated it. I didn’t feel like myself at all – and that was just for two short days.
I can only imagine how hard long-term enforced silence must be...Frustrating, isolating, how does one ever get across the truth of who we are...
Words matter.
And John describes Jesus first and foremost as God’s Word.
He tells us that Jesus was God’s expression of himself.
In what he said and did, he showed what God was like, what mattered to him, what he cared about.
John is saying here, “if you want to know God, look at Jesus – the word that sums him up.”

It is an extraordinarily powerful thing to say, especially as actually,
there wasn’t anything very obviously special about Jesus. He wasn’t some
kind of superhero, just a first Century Palestinian Jew from an artisan
family in an ordinary village. There was no halo. There were no choirs of
angels or processions of trumpets going before him.
But those who experienced his ministry knew that here they could see God’s priorities lived out. There was a passion for justice, loving care and respect for those whom life had trodden down. That’s what brought Jesus into conflict with the authorities and got him crucified. In an age when might was right a Word that spoke out for the voiceless – the poor, the disabled,the outcast – wasn’t going to be one that those in power would want to hear. It had to be silenced.

And the first reading we heard, from the book of Proverbs, essentially says
the same thing in a slightly different way. It introduces us to Wisdom,
personified as a woman, present with God from the beginning, sharing in his
work of creation, present among human beings, close to them - “delighting in
the human race”. God isn’t sitting on a cloud in the sky looking down on the
world with disapproving judgement, says Lady Wisdom. He, and she, are right
there in the thick of the world, rejoicing in it.

The God who spoke through Lady Wisdom, the God who spoke through Jesus, the
Word made flesh, has not fallen silent now. He still speaks. The medieval
mystic Meister Eckhart once said “All creatures are words of
God.”* Each of our lives can speak of God, passing on something of his love
to others if we let that happen.  “To all who received him, who believed in
his name, he gave power to become children of God,” said John. Translated
into plain English that means, if we want to be a part of what God is doing
we can be. We can live as part of God’s family. We can show his family
likeness in the things we do. When we love others, when we speak up for
those who can’t speak for themselves, as Jesus did, we are at that moment God’s word for the world.

The Bible says that Jesus was, supremely, God’s Word to us, but it also says
that each of us is a word that speaks loud and clear too. Let's pray that the word of our lives speaks unmistakably of God's love, today and every day. Amen