Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Considering Collects: Advent 2

O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power
and come among us,
and with great might succour us;
that whereas, through our sins and wickedness
we are grievously hindered
in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honour and glory, now and for ever.

Only a week into Advent and I'm losing the momentum already.                                                                                                                               There is all the usual tide of seasonal busyness as we offer our own liturgical journey towards Christmas, while the city's schools descend upon the Cathedral in droves for Christmas services, awards evenings etc, on the nights when we're not hosting concerts or a multitude of other events. This year there are also 3 significant funerals (of course EVERY funeral is significant, each life eternally precious, each bereaved family worth of infinite love and support) - 1 for a much-loved member of the Cathedral's own family, the others, for the wider city, involving the management of large crowds of mourners. It's really hard not to get bogged down, to lose sight of all that "standing on tip-toe" joyous expectation that we find in the daily antiphon "Look towards the east, O Jerusalem, and see the glory that is coming from God".

This year and every year, I so easily get stuck - which is why this collect is such a gift for Advent 2, inviting God to take the initiative as only God can.                                                My dictionary informs me that "succour" finds its way to us from Latin via Old French:succursus - God running towards us, intent on rescue "when we were yet far off", mired in our own sins and wickedness, that trip us up at every turn so that our forward momemtum is negligible.
Advent can feel like an assault course, particularly for those working in our churches, whether as clergy, musicians, teachers, mince pie makers or "just" welcomers - one of the most vital ministries of all. Turns out its actually an obstacle race, in which we create our own hurdles, tunnels and wobbly bridges...but the One to whom we are making our hesitant, half hearted way is already running to meet us, and won't rest til we are safely home.

That, my friends, is Grace  in action!

Advent 2 C at Coventry Cathedral

On Monday this week due to an unexpected cancellation of all the trains from Coventry, I found myself driving to Haydon Bridge and back in a day. It wasn’t a bad drive at all, despite dreadful weather, until on the way back I left the A1 in search of affordable petrol, hit an overnight diversion – and found myself traversing the byways of Nottinghamshire for mile after mile.Then, to make it worse,  with my petrol levels now pretty much vapour level only,the diversion signs disappeared – so it was back to googlemaps, who wanted me to return to the Motorway without delay. I did get home eventually, but it was a long day and I did wish the signage had been clearer. I wasn’t sure where I was going, so it was really challenging to get there!

Our gospel this morning is full of routes and bypasses.
Here we are on the second Sunday of Advent, with the world outside already dashing headlong towards the culmination of weeks of manic shopping.
We must be heading somewhere, but where?
Almost every conversation I’m part of at the moment includes the familiar formula
“It’s your busy time, I suppose….” with the inevitable follow-up question
“Well, are you ready then?”

Are you ready?
That’s exactly the question that lies behind this morning’s gospel, though the preparations that John views as necessary have very little to do with a shoppers’ jamboree. Are you ready? Ready for Christmas  - ready to engage with the reality of Christ’s arrival in our world as a helpless baby…or with his return as King and Judge?

Are you ready to travel through next year in conscious relationship with God, - or will the feelings of deep devotion so real in the candle-lit darkness of Christmas Eve get lost amid the seas of torn wrapping paper the following day?

Being ready takes time, effort, energy.

There are many distractions and diversions…Together here today, we are at the very least putting ourselves somewhere we can hope to concentrate on the coming reality…but maintaining that focus through the week is so often a challenge. That’s part of why I’d love us all to experience the Retreat in Daily Life that’s being offered in the New Year. Making our relationship with God an explicit priority may look rather scary…or laughably impossible (let me tell you, I’m already anxious about how I’m going to fine 30 whole minutes every day…I mean, that’s HALF AN HOUR!!!)…but actually, if we believe, with Augustine, that “Life is for love and time only that we may find God”, how could I possibly use my time better?

And I do want to be ready…I really truly do.

So, having identified the destination it’s up to me to begin to clear a road in my life, fit for the king who comes to meet us.
Dirt tracks and potholes might be OK for lesser travellers, but for royalty something better is needed, a smooth clear road, going directly to its destination…
Travelling as we generally do on roads which are maintained to a pretty good standard, it’s hard for us to really imagine the image of radical land clearance that lies behind the Old Testament prophecy John the Baptist recalls.
But 12 years ago in the week before Advent I travelled by coach several hundred miles from Bangalore to Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India.
The journey was memorable for many reasons but the road itself was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
It headed out of the city in a promising way, but we’d only gone a few miles before the trouble began.
You see, it really wasn’t ready.
It still needed a lot of work….parts had been washed away in recent floods, parts had never actually been finished, and where responsibility for roads shifted from one state to another there was often no connection at all, so that often we’d find ourselves bouncing and jolting over rough ground for several miles, until, for no apparent reason, suddenly there we were back on a metalled road again.
It existed in theory, when you looked at a map, but not in any real terms, when you tried to negotiate it.
In fact, it was much like the route to salvation that God had provided in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was there in outline, but nobody was doing particularly well at travelling the length of it.                                                                                 For centuries the prophets had tried to point out its whereabouts, crying
“Here is the way, walk in it”, but people seemed determined to veer off course, to take paths that were easier, smoother, more attractive. I suspect they wouldn’t have been keen on finding a half hour a day to focus either.
Enter John the Baptist, but only after God has bypassed a whole host of important-sounding people, Tiberias, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Caiaphas, Annas. These, surely, are the movers and shakers, the ones who can actually make a difference to the way people travel.
Nonetheless when it comes to preparing the way, God looks not to Jerusalem or even to Rome but out to the wilderness, to the unprepossessing figure of John,.
So even at the beginning of the Jesus story, our expectations are subverted.
The messenger sent to prepare the way speaks without the authority of State or Temple. He’s not in the centre of things at all…but he’s the one entrusted with the message. It is his voice that awakens us to our condition, as he reminds us of all the debris that needs to be swept out of the road way, the sins that we need to repent.

Prepare the way of the Lord.

It seems that our Advent preparations should really have more to do with discarding than with stock-piling. Extraneous baggage must be abandoned, and Malachi assures us that we will be refined…our impurities burned away until we are able to offer an appropriate gift in righteousness.
Righteousness - things as they should to be….a world running according to God’s ultimate plan.
That sounds like a pretty radical levelling of the rough places…
the same process that we are promised in Mary’s Magnificat.
He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek,- just another way of expressing the promise of Isaiah,
Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low.  T
the landscape shall be smoothed out, until there are no barriers to prevent us from seeing the salvation of our God directly, for ourselves…
All that is evil will be brought to righteousness and struggles will be transformed into victories.
Then, and only then, we shall all see the salvation of God.

But there is more.

It’s not the messenger in the wilderness who actually does the work of preparation. He alerts us to its need, but in the event, it is the Lord himself who will roll up his sleeves and set to, to straighten the roads, lower the mountains, fill in the valleys.
God will act in order to make us ready to receive him, God will act to create a level playing field for all of his creation, a world of equal opportunities realised in equal shares for all, a world built on justice and peace.
The King is not going to travel along the royal highway in a chauffeur-driven limousine…rather he is going to seize a shovel and clear the way himself, for he is determined to make it possible for each of us to reach our destination.

The message of Christmas time is above all that God does not choose to remain aloof from his creation, sending others to do his work, waiting, with fingers tapping impatiently, for all to be ready for his coming. He doesn’t ask if we are ready, he has worked decisively to ensure that we are. God chooses to enter directly into our experience of chaos and devastation…
God elects to travel with us along our shockingly imperfect, unfinished road, transforming it as he does so until by God's grace we can each one of us travel safely home.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Homily for Advent Sunday Year C, 2nd December 2018

Reading the news these days is an increasingly sobering experience.
Many things that seemed safe and certain have become uncertain as we negotiate the interminable, tortuous loops of the Brexit process…
Working people are not earning enough to feed their families, so that many of the clients at our foodbanks are not those without work but those on low wages.
We hear that if we don’t act decisively NOW to address climate change, it will very soon be far too late – and yet when politicians attempt to encourage us to change our approach to the earth’s resources, people respond with angry riots…
The signs of our times are decidedly depressing.
And those of which Jesus speaks don’t seem to be much better.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people seem to
pend their lives anxiously scanning the news for each and every hint of disaster. Today’s gospel positively encourages it.

But is that ACTUALLY what Jesus wants of us?
It’s Advent – the time of watching and waiting…but should we wait with fear or with hope?.
Listen to Jesus…(you’ll find it’s often a really good thing to do)
Now when these things begin to take place, STAND UP AND
In other words, however many people scour the news for evidence that Creation itself is destined for disaster, God made the world for a different purpose, and is faithful in bringing that purpose about. Apocalyptic texts (those looking forward to the end times) take a serious look at everything going on in the world -- all the suffering and fear, all the fireworks and skirmishes between the powers that be -- and see within them all the true and final destiny for all Creation.
So the message of today’s gospel is
When you notice all these disasters in your life and in your world – DON’T panic.
Though the odds may seem stacked against you, this is not the end of everything but the beginning of redemption.

An online conversation about fig trees this week reminded me of the fact that though we notice buds in the spring time, they actually grow during the previous summer and are set in the autumn, waiting through the cold winter until the warmth of spring wakes them to new life. So even when all looks dead, pent up life is just waiting to spring forth.
Even where there seems least hope…where all the signs point in a very different direction.

Remember, it’s all too easy to misread the signs.

As we begin another Advent, this season is itself is a sign.
A sign for our beleaguered church
A sign for our war-torn, despairing world.
Christ is coming!
We need to remember that for us as Christians Advent is always experienced in the light of incarnation.
Though we recall those who awaited the Messiah through centuries of Old Testament history, our waiting is qualitatively different.
We know that Christ has arrived… we celebrate the 'time of waiting' in the knowledge of the God who dwells with us. Thus we celebrate Advent within the context of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter! We know, on one level, the end of the story…though we continue to look anxiously to see how it will end for our planet, for the whole of this world that God loves so much.
But we know one truth.
Christ is coming soon.
We proclaim this week by week
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”
When we eat this flesh and drink this cup we proclaim your death Lord Jesus, until you come in glory”
The signs are very clear.
We look not at a dead-end, a cul-de-sac, but at a cross roads.
The point of God's intersection with us….the moment when our human time meets with God’s eternity… the day of resurrection!

But as we live at this point of intersection, we need to be alert to recognise the signs that tell us not just that the Kingdom is nearly upon us, but that it is already here
Remember that fig tree, that bore its buds for long months before the conditions were right for them to spring into new life.

Hope may seem dormant but Jesus urges us to "be on guard," "be alert," "stand up and raise your heads" so that we don't miss out on all the wonderful things God is already doing, or forget to look out for those God has in store.

So this Advent, let us celebrate hope in all its elusive beauty
Let us cling to the clearest sign of all, the sign of the cross, where Love demonstrates for now and for eternity its power over all those other signs that scare us most
And let us celebrate together that foretaste of the Kingdom, a banquet spread for all God’s people.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Considering Collects 1: Advent Sunday

It has been dark at both ends of the working day for a little while now and as the days of November remembrance slip past, there seems to be darkness of a different order falling on our community.
We are dealing with all kinds of change: some beloved friends moving away, to be closer to their families, others confronting mortality, and these losses, actual or anticipated, cast a shadow.
On the world stage, too, there seems to be a gathering dusk as anger and prejudice are ascendant, 
as those with little learn that they can expect even less, as families set forth in tiny rubber dinghies, so desperate to find a "better life" that they risk losing even the lives they have on the stormy waters of the English Channel.

There's darkness aplenty, then...and so it makes sense when the garish lights of city centres are joined by an ever-expanding blaze of Christmas lights transforming quiet suburban streets into something close to fairground attractions. At this season, apparently, it's fine to ignore all the wisdom that says "You're wrecking the planet" and larger electricity bills won't need to be paid til next year.

Fear of the dark is ancient and well-established and so humanity does everything in its power to drive it out. This is the darkest season and so strain towards the light, only to find that the Light is already reaching out to us, surrounding us, coming into our darkness to transform it.
That presence means that we need no longer be afraid, that touched by the Light we are both protected and changed, so that we can become creatures of Light ourselves.

On Advent Sunday we wait in the silent dark until, from far away in the depths of history a voice sings out
"I look from afar, and lo, I see the power of God coming and a cloud covering the whole earth.
Go ye out to meet him and say "Tell us, art thou he who shouldst come to reign over thy people, Israel?"."

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

A year of Collects

I miss regular blogging - I really do - and though experience suggests that I'm unlikely to actually manage to return to the habit (I thought I was busy in the past, but was sadly deluded) I wanted to encourage myself to at least attempt some kind of weekly reflection...
Sometimes, - often - I find myself with so much I'd like to write - but the stories aren't mine to share
Or, once in a while I actually have time and space - and can think of nothing to say.

So, as a new church year begins, I wondered about attempting to write something about the Collects - those liturgical gems, the seasoned and seasonal baskets in which we gather all the prayers of the faithful week by week .
They bring together the attributes of God and the felt needs of humanity in prayers of such beauty that simply to read the words is to begin the process of feeling those prayers answered, and like a sonnet their form is so clearly defined that there is no danger of rambling on in "vain repetitions".
They are the antithesis of those lengthy extemporary prayers whose the use of "just" seems to have no impact in breaking the flow of words with which the Almighty is bombarded.
Collects are refined and focused, each word selected and polished with loving care  - expressing something of the liturgical theme of the day and launching the congregation on a journey which will last for the rest of the Eucharist.

Here's the wikipedia definition (I love "for one thing only and that in the tersest language")....but it is, unsurprisingly, the poetry that draws me and makes the praying of the Collect a joy.

A collect generally has five parts:[1][3]:250
  • Invocation or address: indicating the person of Trinity addressed, usually God the Father, rarely God the Son
  • Acknowledgement: description of a divine attribute that relates to the petition (often qui ... - who ... )
  • Petition: "for one thing only and that in the tersest language"[3]:249
  • Aspiration:
    • The desired result (begins with the word ut - in order that)
    • Indication of a further purpose of the petition
  • Pleading:
    • Conclusion indicating the mediation of Jesus Christ.
    • Response by the people: Amen

We start the new year tomorrow with one of the most beautiful Collects of all.

It may be the only one that I write about - but let's see.
I've always been a great one for MAKING new year resolutions...

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, 2nd September 2018 Proper 18B

Spiritual but not religious” is an increasingly popular description for many who’ve turned their back on the traditional, institutional practices of faith but who still acknowledge that they are more than simply bodies and brains.
Even the “Coventry welcome” that graces the cover of your order of service proclaims a measure of distaste for “organised religion”...(I guess it would be cheating to claim that I’m much too DISorganised to be in danger of any such thing myself) – though it would be hard to think of anythign more symbolic of religious institutions than an Anglican Cathedral congrgation busy about its Sunday worship.
One way and another, religion is getting a pretty bad press these days – and perhaps that’s understandable.

After all, ours is an age that values personal choice and freedom above almost everything else...yet the very origin of the word “religion” is all about binding “Obligation, bond, reverence” says the dictionary definition, before reminding us that the word comes from the Latin “religio” - to tie...from which we also get ligature, ligament etc.
If you’re a free spirit believing passionately in the autonomy of the individual then why WOULD you choose to be tied into a way of life that might seem to be all about restictions, about the law of “thou shalt not”…

What possible benefit could there be? How could such practice help you to grow?

At first glance it seems, actually, as if Jesus might agree with this view. The Pharisees, who are the supreme practitioners of the RELIGION of Judaism, have come from Jerusalem to investigate what’s going on around this charismatic itinerant Galilean...And their first criticism is that his followers are sitting light to their religious obligations. Those Pharisees are very very anxious that the disciples are neglecting personal hygiene – you can imagine them saying to one another “It’s the slippery slope! If we let this go, they’ll have broken every one of the commandments by tea-time”. They’re great ones for the minutae – but in their focus on the details they’ve lost sight of the big picture. They have clung zealously to all the demands of the torah, but not to the purpose behind it – to create a people set apart in a special relationship with God…

If that’s not the main agenda, - if that relationship is not reflected in every aspect of life, - in our words AND in our deeds– then we’re practising the kind of religion that is simply not worth the paper it is printed on. Jesus has lots to say about the ways in which our behaviour reflects our state of inner being...the truth of our hearts. It’s just not possible to conceal that, long term – from one another, from ourselves and of course from God. Even, or maybe especially, if that truth is ugly – spoiling our cherished self-image – it cannot be evaded for long. That’s what defiles. So the message is that our aspirations to practice true religion will achieve nothing if we’re not actually connecting with God.

This is the situation Jesus presents to the Pharisees. He recognises the good intentions behind their adherence to the law. These are not his natural opponents, but rather brothers who’ve become distracted along the way.
Jesus knows that they WANT to be in a right relationship with God – but that’s not the way they’re living. Instead they’ve used obedience to the letter of the law as a substitute for living into its reality of love.
This people honours me their lips but their hearts are far from me...” - and what’s in those hearts cannot but leach out, spoiling all their aspirations, defiling them even as they engage in a relentless pursuit of religious purity.

James makes the same point “Be doers of the word...”
Religion exists not to create ties that restrict us from really living but to give us a trellis which supports us as we grow in faith and love…
For James there seem to be two opposing forces competing for our time and energy...and that time and energy comes as a gift from God, an outpouring of grace give to us that we might bless others.
This is the essence of true religion.
Not the observance of rituals, not obedience to laws for their own sake but time used in loving service…
Put like that it sounds so simple – and so obvious. You’ve known it for years.
To choose the good is to practice pure religion, a reflection of the goodness of the Father of Lights from whom all good things tie ourselves thoroughly into our relationship with him and to allow God to transform us as we respond to grace at work in us.
But somehow it never is.
As a friend said, It’s not WHAT you know, but what you DO with what you know.
We may know that when we fail to “walk the talk” - when we hear the word but let it slip from our minds immediately, changing nothing in ourselves, we’re falling tragically short...but that doesn’t always inspire us to do something about it.
But I’m very much afraid that ACTION is not an optional extra. Really, it’s not.

When I was quite a small child I remember going out one Sunday with a school friend’s family – who were, rather startlingly in the cosy middle England of the early 1960s, not practising Christians. As we passed a church, the congregation were pouring out and my friend’s mother said, without a trace of irony, “Look at the good people”. It seemed natural and easy to equate the practice of religious observance with a matching life-style then.
5 decades on, immured as we are in investigations into historic sex abuse, conscious of the weight of institutional imperfection, I can’t imagine she’d have made the same connection…
Walk the talk. - or there’s no point to any external observance of our faith.
It is the Gospel in ACTION that will make our worship pure and vital...will transform empty ritual into life-giving encounter.
Without that, we might just as well stay at home with the papers.

So, let me say it again. True religion can be measured in the impact of Sunday’s worship on the working week. If there’s no visible difference in the way we respond to the needs of a broken, hurting world...if we worship Christ in Word and Sacrament on Sunday but ignore him in those troubled and troubling people whom we meet on Monday morning...then we’ve overlooked the vital ingredient and got stuck with the superficialities as surely as those who glance at themselves in the mirror but fail to really see themselves at all.

We receive richly from God – so that we can give generously in response to God’s grace. Remember, the point of religion is to bind us, one to another, and fix us firmly in our relationship with God.

Left to myself, I know that I’m easily distracted, prone to wander off course – so actually a few ties to keep me heading in the right direction are entirely welcome, even necessary.But it’s the direction that matters – the orientation of our lives towards the God who is wholly, and eternally LOVE – with no variation or shadow of change...

Sermon for the feast of Ss Simon & Jude, Coventry Cathedral 2018

Today we remember the apostles Simon and Jude.
Actually this may be one of those times when remembering is overstating things a bit, and if you find yourself wondering what you actually know about either of these saints, don’t despair. You’re almost certainly in good company (though I’m not going to invite you to turn to your neighbour and compare notes).
Simon – and Jude. By no means the most famous of the twelve followers of Jesus. Both of them suffer from working alongside more famous characters who share their name. Simon is NOT Peter...This is Simon the Zealot, the jealous one, who was probably linked with the Jewish nationalist movement (no, not the Judean People’s Front, NOR the People’s Front of Judea!) , bent on ousting the Romans from occupied Israel. Today he would probably be viewed as a potential terrorist and given a wide berth.
Jude, also called Thaddaeus (but often referred to as Judas NOT Iscariot) is indeed Jude the obscure, the patron saint of lost causes and last resorts. Because of the confusion with his better known but universally unpopular namesake, a belief arose that practically NOBODY would ask for his help as an intercessor...and thus that he worked extremely hard for the few who did...hence his patronage of lost causes. To my knowledge, there is only one shrine dedicated to St Jude in England in Faversham,Kent. A friend of a friend, ordained, once visited and was asked by one of the welcomers at the shrine whether there was any special reason for the visit. His answer “I'm a parish priest" (which he’d intended to follow with “interested in places of pilgrimage”) produced the speedy and sympathetic response" Oh, I see. We get alot of those."
St Jude, it seems, is up for a challenge and will always go the extra mileif his help is invited.Though a letter at the end of the New Testament is ascribed to him, it tells us nothing about the man at all, and may well have been written by someone quite different…
Simon – NOT Peter. Judas – NOT Isacariot. Ordinary and undistinguished. Reminding me just a little of those conversations I had in my first months here, when again and again someone would say apologetically “Well, of course, we’re NOT Birmingham” - as if all the energy and purpose of life was to be found elsewhere.
Reminding me too, of the dreadful habit that the Church of England fell into for some years of defining those clergy who give of their time and talents without any payment by what they were not “NON stipendiary priests”.
It’s never a good idea to define any one or anything by what it is not, really.
Still Simon and Jude are not really in the first rank of famous Christians..not dwellers in the limelight at all, but they are faithful followers who managed to stick with Jesus throughout his public ministry...and of course that's where their value lies.
Simon and Jude, remembered, not because of what they did, but because of who their friends were, who their friends
are. Part of a small group that changed the world. They didn’t choose their own individual way: they devoted their lives to following Jesus, and so their lives will always be remembered. Their story reminds us that being a Christian isn’t a matter of just “me and my God”. It's about all of us travelling together... Being a Christian is a corporate act: you can’t make it on your own. Christianity is the least individualistic of all the world's religions...we share corporate responsbility for one another and for the world that God loves só much. We need each other, we need to be part of the body of Christ, in order to be saved. More, we don’t get to know God alone: we come to know God together – and we need the different insights, gifts and understanding that the whole faith community, young and old, can bring.

In our gospel reading from John, Jesus speaks to the twelve apostles including Simon and Jude after his Last Supper. He’s already told his disciples that they must love one another as he loves them; as they gave themselves to Jesus so they must give themselves to one another; and they must stick together, because the world outside will hate them as it hated Jesus himself.

That’s what we’re called to do as disciples of Jesus. To love one another and stick together: to be together with all other Christian people; to be friends of the friends of Jesus.
‘Any friend of yours is a friend of mine’.
Sometimes that seems surprisingly hard. We look at our fellow Christians and, really, they aren't the people we would choose to share our lives with. Our tastes and our habits don't match. Indeed, we struggle to spend time together at all...Judging by the gospels, the 12 apostles thought each other really rather strange and didn’t get on too well either: but they learned to become a community of love in Jesus Christ. Perhaps the persecution that they suffered strengthened the bond. It's noticeable today that where the church is allowed to exist in peace and prosperity, precious energy is wasted in factions and disagreements. Instead of working together for the Kingdom, we work against one another...whether our divisions are over human sexuality, our preferred translation of the Bible, or the relative merits of robed choirs or music groups When we don't need to stand together, against the world, we are shockingly prone to indulging in in-fighting that does nothing to mark us out from the crowd. We don't seem to be strangers and aliens in our broken world, but very much at home in it, as broken as our neighbours...
But we are called to something different. To unity on the foundation that is Christ...
There’s a very good visual image of all this which Paul gives us in today’s epistle reading from Ephesians ch.2. It’s the picture of us as God’s building. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, the first key stone which is laid and which is the point of reference for the rest of the building. There’s a lovely phrase about the cornerstone in Isaiah 28.16, from which this image comes:

I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
‘One who trusts will not panic.’

Or as our collect for the day says, ‘God builds the Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone.’ We are part of God’s building. Next time you have the opportunity go and look at a drystone wall: there are lots to be found just down the road in the North Cotswlds. Look at the many different shapes, irregular, unpolished, not matching one another but all having a place, necessary to give structure and strength. That's how the Church works. As individuals we fail....but together....well then, when we feel alone or isolated or meaningless or weightless – as Isaiah tells us, Don’t panic! We belong in Jesus.

Sometimes that call not to panic feels like a really tall order. We hear the call to be holy, the reminder that we are citizens with the saints above...we look at our own lives, with all their failures and unfinished business.....and.....well, most certainly I for one DO panic. There's só much I long to change...
But you know,all of us are broken people in one way or another, and it's those broken people that Jesus calls to him. A church of broken people finding strenth together, through our unity in Christ.
We may not have chosen each other, but each of us is here because, wonderfully, God has chosen US. And God asks us, not to judge and exclude each other, but to love and serve and find Christ in one another, even in those with whom we profoundly disagree. That can be very costly, of course. In a place like this, with a specific vocation to reconciliation, it can seem to mean that we are called to sacrifice our own views, however passionately we might hold them, for the sake of offering hospitality to the views of others. That is really really hard – and there will be times when holding our ground or speaking out in dissent is a prophetic act – but we can’t assume this. There will be other times when we are só intent on our own point of view that we never really hear the other viewpoint at all – and that’s not something to be proud of. Excluding difference is never part of our calling as Christians, though we may find ourselves making a journey to a new understanding together.
The world may hate us, but we are called to love...and to love inclusively.
We do not stand against one another but FOR all God’s people, of every kind and condition;
We belong together in love, whatever decisions are made elsewhere.

As Isaiah says: One who trusts will not panic. Don’t panic – for all of us who follow Jesus, whether conservative or liberal, gay or straight, black or white, famous or forgotten, men or women have a place in God’s household, the community of Jesus, who is the cornerstone of God’s Temple which will last for ever.

Do not panic. Love one another.

Sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 9th September 2018

One of the more challenging aspects of preaching at Evensong is the way that Old and New Testaments sometimes seem to offer us such very different pictures of God as they recount the story of God’s dealings with humanity, so that it’s quite hard to know what to do with them.
So tonight we are confronted in Exodus with a God who seems capricious, deeply partisan, maybe even rather egotistical as events are mapped out.
It’s impossible not to ask what harm it would have done if, instead of ramping up Pharoah’s resistance, God had instead worked to SOFTEN his heart.
OK, so the Exodus story would have lacked a bit of drama without the plagues, the Passover, the crossing for the Red Sea – but THINK of all the lives that might have been saved, the fear and grief avoided….

Yet we are told explicity (in verse 4 of our first reading) that God chose to harden Pharoah’s so arrange events that Pharoah flew in the face of wise and compassionate leadership with the dubious justification that, in effect, all this would be good for God’s image.
“I will harden Pharoah’s heart and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharoah and his army and the Egpytians will know that I am the Lord...”

In other words – that’ll show them.

Arguably, of course, this says little about the true nature of God and a great deal about the mindset of God’s people, guilty then as now of sometime forming God in their own image. That’s a danger we can all fall prey to once in a while, I suspect. The Israelites really needed to confirm their own status as Very Important People, and aspired to this by confirming THEIR God at the top of the tree.
That’s a version of salvation history that’s not easy for us to deal with...particularly this picture of a deity who is actively out for his own glory…

It’s hard to imagine how our prayers would run tonight – or at any other time – if this remained our key understanding of God.
We’d offer a lot of humilty, blended with at best anxiety, at worst dread, fear, trembling.
Would we even choose to approach God at all? Or be tempted to stay far away...
Who knows how he might be feeling? Those first-born Egyptian infants, after all, had done nothing to provoke his wrath...the soldiers of Pharoah’s army were only obeying orders...It would seem foolish to engage with this unpredictable character, but if needs must, then the keynote must surely be GREAT respect but absolutely NO affection.

And of course, it is absolutely true that we should never sit lightly to our relationship with the One in whom all things hold together, but we are given a very different picture of God as we enter the world of the New Testament and hear what Jesus has to say about his heavenly Father.
Yes this IS the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Jesus leaves us in no doubt about that- but we meet him in a new way, not only, and supremely, in the person of his Son – but also in the way the Son relates to the Father.

While we always need to remember that the status of a father in a 1st century Palestinian household was very different from the casual friendliness of “dear old Dad” today, with a clear sense of paternalistic authority held as of right...nonetheless the idea that WE, you and I, are invited into that kind of “Father/child” relationship with GOD is, frankly, mind-blowing.
Remember, Moses and those who came after him were given such an abiding sense of God’s holiness that they weren’t even allowed to pronounce his name...the point of the Hebrew letters that we repeat as “Yaweh” was that they were unpronouncable, - because God’s name is unsayable.
And now – suddenly – Jesus is inviting us to make a relationship with a heavenly Father and is focussing on what one commentator has called the “essential kindness of God”.

And, actually, that essential kindness is the thing to cling to no matter what.
When you pray say “Our Father”...
And so the prayer unfolds, in all its blessed familiarity.
Words we may have said at bedtime every day of our lives.
Words we sing and say together in this place day after day after day.
Countless times.
Countless voices saying “Father..” “Father” “Father”….
– and we’re in danger of failing to notice what it really says to us.
We pray with the confidence that God will supply our daily needs.
We pray with the assurance that if we come to God conscious of our sin and brokenness, and ask for forgiveness – we WILL be forgiven.
We pray, knowing that God is interested in what we are saying...that he cares about US and not simply about the “glory of his name”.

This is worlds away from the picture of God that the Exodus passage painted.
Yes God is awesome, amazing, beyond all that we can aspire to...BUT nonetheless
God wants us to know ourselves as members of God’s family….As Jesus invites us to call God “Father” he invites us, too, to rediscover our place in creation...We are made, as the catechism puts it, to know, love and serve God here on earth so that we may finally be happy with him in heaven.
WE exist “for the glory of his name” - but in glorifying God we both celebrate and receive God’s gift of Love that is lavished on creation.

Of course we must always remember that “Our Father” is “in heaven”. Forget the slippers, and the cosiness of a family hearth.
We are invited into intimacy but balance that with reverence. We are wonderfully welcome to approach (there is something so hugely appealing about that vision of going into a secret place, having “time out” alone with the God who knows us through and through and loves us all the same) but while we are invited to come close, this is never, ever cosy.
God remains GOD...Hallowed, holy, revered…

Once again, our tapestry of Christ in glory helps me out.
Remember Jesus tells us that to see him is to see the Father. All God’s power and glory present in Christ, true God and true man.
So – look up and see him – awesome, beyond our reach and our understanding.
But notice, too, the human being standing between Christ’s feet.
Dwarfed. Insignificant. But held there safely.
Prayers spoken there will be heard.
Sins taken there will be forgiven.
And God who keeps watch over Israel, will keep watch over us too – and deliver us from evil, no matter how parlous the times may sometimes seem.

So – PRAY. Pray this prayer that reminds us of who we are and who God is.
Of how to live in relationship with God and of what that relationship can mean in our lives and our world.
Pray confident in God’s grace and his abiding love, which Jesus both shows and tells us.