Sunday, August 19, 2018

What about sky-writing? A sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 19th August 2018

I wonder if I’m alone in finding it a bit frustrating, the way God seems to speak to God’s people in unmissable, unmistakeable ways right through Scripture – yet I can really struggle to hear God for myself, even when I’m trying particularly hard to pay attention.
Oh for sky-writing!” is quite a familiar cry, as I imagine how lovely it would be if God spoke to me the way God spoke to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – and Moses!

Surely it wouldn’t be that difficult for God to oblige.

After all, the Moses whom we encounter in tonight’s reading hasn’t exactly got top credentials as a super-spiritual man of God when our story begins. 40 years on from that promising start as the baby in the bullrushes,he has fled from Egypt, after losing his head entirely and lashing out in a rage that leaves an Egyptian dead. Brought up as a prince, Moses is now quietly shepherding his father in law’s flock. Absolutely nothing distinguished about this in any way at all…
He’s just getting on with life.
He’s not looking for a new job, not contemplating his own destiny, or that of his people.
Indeed, if you look at the start of the passage from Exodus, it seems God hadn’t been too concerned about them either.
Though we read Exodus with a perspective shaped by our grasp of the over-arching sweep of salvation history, there’s not much sense of that about the place if you read this passage in isolation.

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

God remembered!!!

The God we meet in the Hebrew Scriptures is often very human.
He can be talked round (remember Abram bargaining with him over Sodom and Gomorrah).
He gets angry (there’s quite a lot of smiting about).
And, at this point as tradition has it, he has allowed his thoughts to stray (presumably the only way in which the Exodus story-tellers could account for the sufferings of Israel in Egypt).
Very very human.

Then suddenly, God is recalled to Godself by the cries of God’s people and determines to do something about it.

This may, of course, inspire questions for you.
If God heard and intervened then – why not at all the other countless times in history when people have begged God to act, and been apparently disappointed?
What about the Holocaust?
Or my dear friend’s cancer?
Or the flooding in Kerala?
Did we just not cry loud enough?

That’s one of the great problems of faith – and you’ll not be surprised to learn that I haven’t found a wholly satisfactory answer.
PART of it, though, might be hinted at a bit later in our Exodus reading.
We don’t tend to remember obscure ancestors who got everything wrong, and it seems to me that even in these early chapters of Moses’ adventure there's a constant impetus to redemption and hope so that we’d probably infer, even if we were hearing the Moses story for the very first time, that this story had a happy ending.
But I wonder if you have ever noticed how precarious his story really is.

Preparing this sermon I was brought up short by a phrase I’d never noticed before
When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him..

Despite what we’d imagine to be an unmistakeable sign that God was up to something – Moses might have ignored that piece of flaming shrubbery.
I’m told that there is at least one desert plant that can spontaneously burst into flames – so that perhaps the burning bush wasn’t as absolutely extraordinary as we might expect.
He could have walked on by...

When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see...”
God had been waiting for Moses to CHOOSE to come close.
God wasn’t sure of God’s man.
Perhaps other potential leaders had already walked past, turning away from a starring role in history, and yet God still waited in hope for a response.
Moses had a choice...and he might all too easily have missed the moment.
Even sky-writing can be overlooked, after all.
Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh.

Only he who sees takes off his shoes…

Keep your eyes open.

God speaks to us in so very many and varied don’t close your mind to the possibility that something apparently ordinary, absolutely rooted in the rational, might still be a message for you.
Let me tell you a story.
It was, after all, something that we might manage to rationalise away to nothing.
Surely I’m not the only person to do that?
May I tell you a story – of God speaking in a way that was about as far removed from burning bushes and sky-writing as it’s possible to imagine?

Once upon a time, on a weekend course, I was sent out on a Franciscan walk without watch, phone or any agenda except attending to what God wanted to show me. Anxious but obedient, I set off down the drive, taking time to look and listen as I very rarely do. Having suffered all my days from a fair degree of short-sightedness, I tend not to be a very visual person, and it was good for me to learn to gaze without hurrying on to the next thing.
Normally, of course, I would never have met the spider.
As it was, I nearly missed him, as he span his line around an ivied tree.
He had one of those mottled grey-brown bodies that was very much at home amid the layers of autumnal leaf-mould. I watched him scurrying along the bridge he was building from his own body, hardly breathing for fear that I might damage the fragile work of engineering that was before me. But then the rain started…large, heavy drops, which shook the dying leaves around his workplace. The spider froze, midway between one twig and the next, stopped dead in the very midst, the very moment of creation. Perfectly camouflaged amid the dead twigs and bark, suspended on his own silken way, stretched, elongated, he looked nothing like a spider at all.. I waited.
And waited.
As time passed, I became desperate for him to move.
I began to doubt my own memory. Had there ever really been a spider at all, or had my eyes been playing tricks?
I longed to shake the branch again, to prompt him to move, to reveal himself.
I knew deep down that I had seen him, that what I now gazed at, willing him to move, to prove the truth of my experience, had only paused upon its delicate and dedicated course.
I knew, but still I longed for confirmation, for fresh evidence of a reality that should need no proof.
Then I heard God laughing.
“Kathryn” he said “You’re doing it again. Don’t you realise that you do this with me, again and again and again? We spend time together. I fill you with a sense of joy and awe at my presence, and you focus completely on me. Then the time comes for you to leave the mountain, and even as you head homewards the doubts crowd in. “Was it really God?” you ask. “Perhaps I just felt happy because it was a beautiful place and a special day. Perhaps I was bouyed up by the presence of loving friends.”
You will the moment to repeat itself, to confirm its truth.
That spider is a spider, even though its intricate work appears to halt, even though it seems to vanish, and merge into its own small world.
And I am God.
You may lose sight of me too, may wonder if you ever really glimpsed me here…but I have the whole created world in which to hide or show myself. You need not doubt the evidence of your eyes”

Only he who sees takes off his shoes...

God’s message that day didn’t involve a life-changing new direction, or some amazing act of spiritual heroism….but it did encourage me to pay attention – a revisiting the story encourages me again and again because God is still speaking – to you and to me.

We know what happened next in the Moses story, because he was attentive and obedient to God, albeit after a bit of negotiation.
We can’t know what might have happened otherwise – but we do know that Moses had a choice.
When God saw that he had turned aside – THEN God knew that Moses would work with God in leading God’s people to freedom.
And, then as now, history is lived forward, understood backwards – and you have a part to play in God’s work in the world.
So, believe me, - this is holy ground, right here and right now.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – and Moses too – waits for us to choose to turn towards him, to willingly involve ourselves in God’s mission in the world.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Not our ways - a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral 29th July 2018

There are some people out there who believe that if you’re friends with God, you’ll lead a charmed existence.
They are those who’ve listened to preachers of a prosperity gospel and managed to forget that the subject of the Gospels themselves, Jesus Christ, was subjected to a terrible death, which he had done nothing to deserve.
Those who want to feel that the otherwise disturbing muddle of life circumstances is contained within an absolutely ordered universe, where good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour punished.
If they want to hold on to that world view, they would do well to avoid reading the book of Job, source of tonight’s first reading.
Job, you see, is an upright man, revered by many, approved by God, and his life circumstances when the book begins affirm the belief that was prevalent in Old Testament times, that worldly success was a sign of a good life, and a testimony to God’s favour.
God looks at Job and smiles with loving pride.

Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.’

However, - and it is an BIG “However” , things don’t stay that way for long.
Convinced that Job’s righteousness is only possible because all is going well for him, Satan persuades God to allow him to test Job’s faith. Disaster strikes, Job loses children, cattle, and later health and strength – all part of a process that seems to us at best capricious. What is God really up to, when such things happen?
How can we continue to have faith in one who deals so unfairly with humanity?

Enter Job’s friends, rallying round as best they can – though it turns out that they are not actually much help to him at all.
Like so many others before and since, they want answers to the problem of suffering – and in the absence of answers, they’re prepared to furnish some of their own. It’s perfectly understandable. We all want to make sense of the pain and evil we see around us. We want to find safety in an explanation, in some kind of reason.
If we can explain things, then we can tame them.
If we understand why bad things have happened, then we can make sure that they won’t happen to us….
Except, somehow, we can’t.
I’m sure that Job’s comforters set out with good intentions, but their attempts to help him make sense of his ordeal, their wild misreadings of the situation, and, their refusal to shut up and just be with him in his pain consistently made things worse….and in our reading this evening, Job reaches the end of his tether.
His friend Bildad has been eloquent about the ways in which the wicked can expect to come to a bad end and now, though popular myth presents Job as the embodiment of patience in the face of adversity, that’s definitely not the image he’s presenting to the world.

How long will you torment me and crush me with words?”
he cries, taking over the initiative after being on the receiving end of torrents of misguided advice. Now it is Job’s turn to ennumerate all the ways in which he has been hurt, excluded,crushed at every turn….
It seems to him his friends are co-conspirators with God, intent on making things unbearable for him – and Job makes no attempt to conceal how badly he is suffering.
Have pity on me, have pity on me, you my friends;for the hand of God has touched me. Why do you persecute me as God...”
With friends like these, who needs enemies? Job has repeatedly protested his innocence, maintained that there is nothing, NOTHING in his life that would justify the suffering he is experiencing – but his words seem to be falling on deaf ears as they continue to try to apply the law of cause and effect to his situation.
Will he die before he is vindicated?
Will he never achieve justice?
Lest the worst happens, Job longs to create a lasting record of his truth.
23“Oh that my words were now written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
24That with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
Speech is lost in the moment, the written word more permanent, books treasured for longer still but for real immortality, words engraved on rock may endure for centuries. Job is buying time for his truth to out, his reputation restored.
But into this tumult of injured innocence drops suddenly a music of absolute, unshakeable tranquility
I know that my redeemer liveth and that he shall stand on the latter day upon the earth”
As happens elsewhere in the Old Testament, the glorious music of Handel’s Messiah threatens to completely seduce us, so that we lose sight of the original intention here, the words subverted by a very different musical code. Though we cannot help but think “Jesus” when we hear the word “Redeemer”, Job’s appeal is to a different source of help. The Hebrew word he uses, “ga-al” means to redeem or to act as a kinsman-redeemer – a figure familiar in Jewish law and practice. Redemption here has to do with “release from legal obligation or deliverance from desperate circumstances, closely connected with a payment necessary to effect that release” It was this principle that was at work in the story of Boaz and Ruth, as Jewish law made provision to redeem family members in dire straits. Recognising himself at the end of all his resources, Job looks longingly for such a one to come to his aid.
In the history of his people, God had repeatedly taken on that role, saying to Moses, “I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians…. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments” (Exodus 6:6) or later, during the Babylonian Exile, speaking through Isaiah, “Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name. You are mine”
Job seems to have perfect confidence that his redeemer IS at hand...though as he anticipates the destruction of his earthly body we’re left to wonder quite what he is looking towards. So to whom is he appealing? We honestly cannot know – but this is certainly not the calm declaration of unshakeable faith that Handel’s music suggests. Job has recognised God as his accuser – so it makes little sense if he turns to him for vindication. That seems to be nonsense, no matter how beautifully we set the words to music….though Job is expert at bridging the gap between reason and experience, saying earlier in his trials
Though God slay me, I will trust him”
And perhaps that’s the answer.
The problem of suffering is real and intractible for those of us who claim God’s essential goodness….but it’s something we cannot ignore.
So what, if anything, does all of this have to say to you and me today? What does it say in a world where wild fires claim the lives of children on holiday with their parents, where a compassionate and able oncologist falls a victim to cancer himself, a much loved man active the service of others receives a terminal diagnosis out of a clear blue sky,where some families seem to be buffetted by disaster while others sail blithely on?
Don’t look in the book of Job for answers...but, if you look hard enough, you might just get a glimpse of how to live with the questions.
You see, I think Job teaches us that there is nothing whatever wrong with asking God “why”, or telling God exactly what we’re feeling when God offers no satisfactory answer. Wrestling for a blessing, as Jacob once did by the ford of Jabbock, forces us into God’s arms, even as we struggle. As the book of Job continues, God speaks to him out of the whirlwind, reminding him once again that his ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts ours.
We are limited, fallible, mortals...and in verse after verse we are reminded of this. God is always greater, always beyond our comprehension...We can and do protest, but a God who is small enough to fall in with our expectations would be no God at all…
Yes, dreadful things happen – and we rightly protest and lament but in the end, we come face to face with the reality of God and can either fall silent in prayer or turn away forever.
The Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel writes of the day when the rabbis put God on trial. Gathered in Auschwitz they debated through long hours as day turned to night, coming finally to the conclusion that God WAS guilty – that he had a debt to pay to humanity. Profound silence followed this verdict until one of the rabbis observed
It’s time to worship God” - and they all went to pray.

To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life