Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Reflections on reconciliation for the Stratford Poetry Mass, June 20th 2018

Peace and Reconciliation.

Working as I do at Coventry Cathedral those words inevitably roll off the tongue together, as if inextricably linked from birth, but that’s really not so. 100 years ago, when the guns fell silent  at last, there was peace for a time,  – but very little reconciliation.

Paradoxically, that came to the fore a little over two decades later, when a seed was sown in wartime, amid the smouldering debris of the Coventry blitz. The morning after that night of destruction, a Church of England priest, walking in the ruins of his beloved Cathedral chose just two words to mark what had taken place. Those words, “Father forgive” were important in themselves – but even more important was the word that isn’t there….. In the apse of the ruined Cathedral, and in our Coventry litany of reconciliation that we pray day by day the verb has no object.
We do not say “Father forgive them”.                                                                                                                  There is no sense that some need more forgiveness than others, that the world can be divided into “us” and “them” , goodies and baddies. Instead we face a simple truth that we all have within us the capacity for good or for evil, and that we all alike stand in need of forgiveness.

It’s that admission that is essential. Where any party is convinced that they are innocent, reconciliation is almost impossible, for it almost always involves letting go of something – be it a grievance, or something material that prevents us from turning to the one-time enemy, with open hands and heart.

That letting go, and that turning towards is a challenge. The whole reconciliation journey, from fractured past to shared future, is fraught with challenges, as we acknowledge and then seek to mend what is broken, in our relationship with ourselves, with one another, with God. In the beginning “God looked at all that was made and saw that it was good” – but since then we’ve changed the landscape, so that we travel through the hostile terrain of our wounds and misdoings, our divisions and estrangements.                                                                                                                  
 Rumi, the Sufi mystic wrote “Out there beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” – and that’s our destination too – a place where peace and justice, mercy and truth can to find a balance point,  to truly  rest with one another.

But oh, the way is tortuous and wearying at times.                                                                                     
  “If thou can get but thither” says Vaughan, as if this life-time journey could be accomplished just like that “ there grows the flower of peace”, while Jesus offers: “My own peace I give to you”. His is a strange peace indeed, framed as it is by a crown of thorns – but ultimately, that is the only route to reconciliation. It is the power of unbounded, unconditional love, poured out with reckless generosity  that can enable to believe in and practice love once again – to build what Provost Howard of Coventry called a “kinder, more Christ-child-like world”  –so that little by little we no longer need to think in terms of “them” and “us”, for God’s reconciling love holds all secure.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Trinity 2, Proper 5 : a new kind of family

Among the many different Bible translations that you’ll find in a good Christian bookshhop, there are also some extra special editions for particular groups...Youth Bibles, Devotional Bibles for Mothers, and Fathers,  Revolution Bibles for Teen Guys (I kid you not), and probably Bibles for dog-lovers and cat-lovers too. Of course, there are red-letter Bibles too, with Jesus’s words in stand-out ink, but as far as I can see, there’s one special edition missing.

Nobody has yet published a Bible with the words we wish Jesus hadn’t said picked out in florescent green. I’m sure it would be a best-seller – because there are so MANY of them.
You know the ones.
Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor” “Love your enemy, bless those who persecute you”…
You will probably have your own list of texts that make you wince...Mine include those above, but I really wouldn’t mind if he’d kept quiet instead of giving us this morning’s words too Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”
It sounds so easy, but it feels so hard.
Honestly, couldn’t he be a little less challenging? He’ll lose all his friends.
Picture the scene.
Here’s Jesus surrounded by a crowd so huge that nobody is even THINKING about feeding them...and he's not telling them gentle stories about lost sheep or prodigal sons.
Instead he is, not to put too fine a point on it, having a bit of a rant.
How can Satan cast out Satan? …..Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven...”
It's not comfortable listening, even at the beginning.
Nobody much is enjoying themselves...I’m willing to bet that there’s not a lot of eye contact between Jesus and his hearers. They’re all wishing themselves far far away.
Small wonder that the Scribes, present perhaps to ensure that orthodoxy is attended to, set out to discredit Jesus – to divert his hearers in mid flow...
Don't listen to HIM. He's not well...He's raving...Might even be possessed...Ignore him”.
And, in their task of persuading Jesus to shut up, to stop his incendiary diatribe, they recruit some rather unlikely allies...Mary and her sons and daughters.
Jesus's Mum and his siblings

That’s when I start to get a bit anxious.
I remember reading this passage while my children were small and thinking
“ Oh Jesus! Why? If my children are ever that rude to me in public I'll...maybe cry...maybe hit them...”
Nobody likes to hear family tensions being aired in a public space....and certainly the way in which Jesus seems to reject his own flesh and blood is an affront to those “family values” which were as powerful a force in 1st century Palestine as they are, in a rather different way, in 21st century Britain.
So, what's going on as Jesus asks his outrageous, offensive question, one that must have stung mother Mary like a slap on the cheek?
Who are my mother and my brothers?”
Is it possible that Jesus looks at them without really seeing?
That in the flood tide of his preaching he has actually lost sight of reality, forgotten who he is and where he comes from?
I don't think so for a moment.

As they appear, intent on leading him away, calming him down, winning his silence, Mary and her sons are allied with the voice of law and order, concerned to keep up appearances, anxious that Jesus should stop making waves – lest they should all be washed away and perish.
Jesus must be feeling under time to grab a sandwich, people surrounding him on every side – and nothing like enough friendly faces in the crowd...and now his nearest and dearest are missing the point too.
And yet...and yet, he will not be silenced, not even by his mother’s pleas.
He rejects both his family and their agenda of status quo, peace and stability, and casts about instead for a new family, a core community more truly able to offer support and encouragement, to share his vision and the task he has embraced as his own calling.
Searching, he lights on those sitting listening – hungry for his teaching, despite its tendency to baffle and to challenge.
A disparate group, brought together solely because they are drawn there by Jesus.
The kind of group you might assemble if the “Coventry welcome” on our front page was made real in our congregation today.
Nothing in common, except the single calling -to do the will of God.
Here are my mother and brothers...”
And so the Church is born – as surely as it is at the foot of the cross when Jesus gives Mary and John to one another, as surprisingly as when the Spirit came on the disciples at Pentecost.

The Church – the family of Jesus in truth and in deed...drawn by him and existing to do God's will.
It's as simple – and as difficult – as that! Our core purpose in a sentence – which will take us a lifetime to unpack

Bur through the centuries it has proved so very hard for us to keep our grip on that calling.
It's so much easier to be God's family in name than in truth.
But to live do God's will...that hasn't got any easier.
Sometimes, it’s not quite obvious where God’s will lies – and all kinds of family squabbles can break out then, resulting in unimaginable hurt that clouds the gospel for generations... More often, though, God’s will is all too obvious, but a bit too costly as well.
You see, to do God's will is never a recipe for social success.
It forces us to speak out against injustice – even the sort of injustice that is such an habitual part of life that we are barely aware of it.
It means standing on the edge with the excluded, the neglected, the outsiders
It means that instead of being the voice of stability and tranquility, we find ourselves needing to make waves again and again and again.
It involves us in letting go of much that we treasure and long to cling to.
We are here, purely and simply, to do God's live as signs of God's kingdom of love and justice and joy.
That won't often win us friends or allies...for the kingdom is founded on challenge not complacency.
It won't give us an easy ride, at home or abroad – indeed, an easy ride is almost in itself a guarantee that we've lost the plot.
It has been truly said that if we really preached the gospel, we would empty the churches – for the cost of obedience to God is higher than most of us are willing or able to pay.

But – and of this I'm certain – though doing God's will will not guarantee peace and prosperity it will fill us with the kind of joy that stems from knowing that all our security, all our identity, is found in God as we seek to do God's will.

We will stumble, fall and fail a thousand times – our human nature pretty much guarantees that.
But still and all, we ARE God's family – drawn by Jesus, called to do God's will.
So let us pause for a moment, reflect, and confess in our hearts our failure as individuals and as community to BE the Church, the family of Christ...our tendency to settle for an easy compromise, our longing for approval from our family and friends...
and having paused, let us turn our faces to the Son and begin our journey again.

If we do so, I know that God's grace will meet us, raise us from death to life and bring us, through Christ our brother, to an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.