Tuesday, December 24, 2019

For Midnight Mass at Alderminster 2019

I wonder which you prefer – travelling or arriving? Hope or fulfillment?Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?
I’m very much a Christmas Eve person. I love this blend of candles and stars, of gentle music sounding across the years, connecting me with the long-gone celebrations of my childhood (when, it seemed to me, Christmas really only began on Christmas Eve so that all that fervour of expectant longing was crammed into one day, and one holy night)..The thrill of being old enough to stay up for Midnight Mass...Of going out into the darkness knowing it was finally Christmas Day
Alright. That suggests that maybe I just love both.
I’m a Christmas junkie – and there is nowhere I’d rather be tonight than right here at this moment.

But I wonder if there’s anything to learn from how we feel about those two states of being.
IS travelling hopefully always better than arriving?
I’m sure it didn’t feel that way for Mary, on that dark night in a crowded city.
She will have longed to arrive – and for her baby to arrive too.
And I wonder, too, how it felt to God then.
The moment of Christ’s birth, the climax of history... the fulfillment of the plan which St John unfolds for us
In the beginning was the Word
God waiting for the right moment to become flesh and step into human history to transform it by his presence forever.

It was a messy place to be, that world God loved.
It still is.
A place of violence, poverty and oppression.
A place where cold rejection is part of the deal, both for exiles in an unfriendly world and still, each day, for God’s Son
He came to his own and his own people would not receive him”
A hostile landscape
A place where despite all our best intentions, we won’t manage the “perfect” Christmas…

I’m struck by how many clergy are battling with huge issues in the lives of their families, or facing serious illness in this week of all weeks when they were planning to share in joyous Christmas worship...and I know too many families where an empty chair at the Christmas table will leave this season overshadowed by grief.
Perfection just doesn’t happen because we live in a real world that is light years away from that offered by the media – or even by our Christmas carols.
Away in a manger” we sing – and in four words consign the Christ-child to a place of stained-glass unreality, safely at arms’ length from our own everyday experience. This baby is not even allowed to cry! Nothing must spoil the photo-shopped illusion of the moment.
Small wonder, if that’s what we offer, that people struggle to make a connection between that baby and their own mundane, often messy, lives.
Truthfully, if all we have to offer as a faith is those moments, it is unsurprising that many people feel they can do quite nicely without it, thank you.

So, let me direct you to another carol (one we’ve sung tonight?) which sees things a bit differently.
Oh holy child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in BE BORN IN US TODAY”
In the first century of the church, a theologian named Irenaeas put the same message very well
He became what we are, to make us what he is”
God became one of us, the Word made flesh in our broken grieving word, so that we can see what God’s life of perfect love is like, and seeing it, join in.
HERE is the destination to which tonight’s hopeful travelling must bring us . Here and nowhere else..
We have seen his glory” - and, glimpsing that, are transformed into a new humanity.
children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Imagine that made good in our lives.
The light of God’s love shining in even the saddest, darkest places.
Imagine Jesus born in us, and living among us daily.
Imagine a community transformed...and little by little, reaching out to change the world.

In a few minutes he will come to us in the Sacrament of bread and wine,- a gift that is part of the process of transformation as we pray
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel”

May the light of his presence shine in and through us, this Christmas and always.

Advent 4 A at Coventry Cathedral, 22nd December 2019

Are you a rule-keeper or a rule breaker?
I find myself irritatingly set on being a rule keeper on the whole. I will walk dutifully around 3 sides of a lawn if there’s a “keep off” notice, and get dreadfully anxious if I think that I might have accidentally infringed a rule I somehow didn’t know about…
I really don’t want to be a nuisance in any way, stepping over the line is a definite “No”, so – it’s just as well that I wasn’t involved in those early weeks of Mary’s pregnancy. I would probably have wanted to hide because, you see, anyone could tell things weren’t as they should be.

Matthew starts the story in such a calm, matter-of-fact way
Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way...” Engagement preceding marriage. Utterly respectable until – WHAM -
Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”
Let me read that again.
It sounds so undramatic, even ordinary – and because we’ve probably heard these words a thousand times, they may not have much impact.
But for Joseph – they rocked his world.
How on earth could he, how could anyone muster up enough faith to trust Mary’s outrageous claim?
A child from the Holy Spirit?
It beggars belief.

And it’s definitely not the right way to do things, is it…Not in accordance with the laws of Israel, which would have Mary AND her lover stoned to death without further ado.
Joseph is righteous. He wants to do things properly – but with compassion too.
Clearly, his hopes and dreams for the future are in tatters, but he isn’t one to be vindictive.
You can imagine the turmoil.
It’s scarcely surprising that he has difficulty sleeping, or that his sleep is troubled by extraordinary dreams.
Dreams that rekindle hope – if only he can have faith and courage.
This beginning of the Jesus story is not being played by the rules…
it’s an almighty mess, frankly (and of course, we know that worse is to come)
What should Joseph do?
He doesn’t have to be a part of this mess. He could save himself a lot of trouble by steering well clear – but somehow, faith triumphs, giving him strength to accept the scandal, the gossip, the risk that he too will be seen as a troublemaker, refusing to play by the rules.

Actually, he may be engaging deeply with the rules, the truth, of how things actually ARE, rather than the perfect pictures of how they ought to be.

Yes, there is mess...There is disappointment...but that’s the world into which God will soon be born to an unwed teenage mother.
Born into scandal and shame.
Born into risk and fear.
Just the way that God has always planned it.

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel. God with us”

Too often we seek to deny the messiness of our very human lives.
The shiny Christmas decorations, the myriad lights that seek to drive back or distract us from the darkness of poverty and distress here in our city and beyond can be part of that denial, like all those ads encouraging a perfect family Christmas, a world away from tetchy, exhausted parents, and over-excited children greedy for the next present.
But, you know, Immanuel, God with us, is there in the reality.
In the frantic preparations that never quite seem to be enough
In the anxiety over family gatherings where not all the family is really that thrilled to find themselves together.
In the disappointment and the loneliness of those who had never imagined it would turn out like this.

God with us -

I’m going to date myself now by admitting a fondness for the 90s track by Joan Osborne, “What if God was one of us”.
In case you don’t know it, let me share the chorus
What if God was one of us. Just a slob like one of us. Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home.”
I have never dared to investiigate whether the song was written in faith or in irony – and if you know, please don’t tell me.
Because, of course, this is the heart of everything.
God IS one of us...whatever that might look like.


God with us in the endless business of the Cathedral at this time of year..in the hard-won beauty of the choir singing away the dark on Advent Sunday...in the weary scraping of candlewax from the floor...in the stickiness of a thousand Christingle oranges…and the starling-chatter of school-children filling the nave for their end of term celebration.
God with us in the patient preparations and proof reading for service after service after service...
God with us no less in the barely suppressed grumpiness of overtired staff and of volunteers who’ve agreed to do just one more event, because “we know you’re stretched at this season”

God with you, Paul and Sheila, in what must surely be an emotional roller-coaster as you prepare to bring so many years of loving service here to an end.
God with you in the next adventure as surely as God has been with you shining through all that you have brought to the life of this place.

God with us in our hopes and our fears, for ourselves and for our country.

God who has NEVER played by our rules, but turns them upside down in every way….living his manifesto, Mary’s Magnificat..
God the rule-breaker stepping down from the throne of glory that we would surely cling to...setting aside everything but love to be with us in our triumphs and disasters, our moments of faith and our days of doubt…

When Joseph broke the rules and joined Mary on the side of God’s wild subversion, he can’t have known what the future might hold.
I wonder how often he comforted his wife, comforted himself, by repeating Isaiah’s words
Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and they shall name him Immanuel”...how often he fell asleep, using that name as a prayer as he tumbled into darkness
Immanuel”...God with us…
Here, now and always.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Jesus, remember me - a sermon for Christ the King Year C at Coventry Cathedral

Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom
Words from this morning’s gospel.
When we sing them to a Taize chant it seems to go straight to the heart of things, to carry all unspoken longings and silent prayers…
Remember ME.
The cry of the small child, concerned that they might be overlooked and left vulnerable, particularly if there’s a new baby to divert adult attention.
The cry of the soul that fear that it is somehow too unimportant, not one of the great or the good, not even a particularly memorable sinner.
 Sometimes I wonder if all the relentless activity of the Church, all our beautiful acts of worship, could be summed up as a corporate cry of “Jesus, remember me”.
Actually you might say that this sentence is perfectly balanced between selfcentred humanity – with the ego loudly at work – and the Kingdom of God, based on self-giving love.
And it is a prayer that somehow the two may be brought together “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom”

They are, of course, the words of the penitent thief, hanging beside Jesus and recognising both the truth of his own situation and the abiding goodness of God. He too is looking forward with longing – to the end of the pain and ignominy of crucifixion, to the moment when he will look upon the face of Christ and find himself judged with infinite compassion and mercy, and when his sense of self will become lost in wonder, love and praise. Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.

But what is this Kingdom? Is our deep longing justifiable and justified. If you stand in Holy Trinity up the road and look at the amazing doom painting over the chancel arch, you might doubt that it is, might almost hope that you’d be forgotten rather than remembered, long to be overlooked somehow when Judgement Day comes. Even our own tapestry of Christ in Glory can sometimes make God seem more majestic than inviting…As someone who not infrequently wants to throw herself into the arms of Jesus, weeping and wailing over my own stupidity or the intransigence of the universe, it’s not always easy to be confident that those arms will wrap themselves around me.
Is there room for us – in all our broken humanity?


That’s the point of it all – the good news of this morning.

Christ's Kingdom is founded on the sort of love that gives without reserve, that befriends with ceaseless generosity, that values everyone, regardless of gender or opionion, as someone made in God's image, someone for whom Christ was pleased to die…
Of course we tend to live and to love within far narrower, more self-interested boundaries…While we may give lip service to a commitment to justice and righteousness, we can seem to be more intent on self-interest.
Bishop Paul Bayes of Liverpool tweeted this advice last week, as we look towards the general election
“If you’re a Christian then, after praying, reading and learning, cast your vote in the way that you believe will help the poorest”
It’s instructive to notice which leaders deliberately engage with the needs of those on the edges. – and the passage from Jeremiah makes it clear what God thinks of those who don’t.
It’s also instructive to ask ourselves if there’s a tendency to vote in ways that we believe might make lives a bit easier, even if we’re not convinced they’re altogether upright. We are too prone sometimes follow the rules of our own kingdoms, to safeguard the interests of those whom we find it easy to love, too often leave injustice unchallenged…
We pray “Thy Kingdom come…” but maybe at times we have our fingers crossed – because we want God's kingdom to fall in with our own plans.

But – here's the Good News!
God is ALWAYS greater – greater than any human endeavour, greater even than the institution of the Church (though in her true essence, of course, the Church is herself part of the outworking of the Kingdom) God's Kingdom WILL come, regardless of our faltering efforts, our feeble witness, our failures of love and compassion. The BEST news!
More, the King who will come in judgement is the one who loves us so much that he dies for us…each one of us, even for me. We have nothing to fear, everything to look forward to as we look towards the Advent themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell.
The writer Adrian Plass tells the story of a preacher who was anxious that his congregation should fully engage with that theme of judgement so he placed a chair at the head of the nave and invited them to imagine that it was occupied by Jesus, enthroned in great glory He told them to imagine that, each in turn, they were coming to stand before him, to receive his verdict on their lives. He asked them “Now, tell me, are you not full of dread as you stand at the judgement seat?” And Plass responded “No...because if Jesus is there, then he will, really and truly make everything, - EVERYTHING ALL RIGHT”

So we don’t need to despair of ourselves, our church or  our world as we consider this feast of Christ the King. Instead, we need to strive to embrace the challenges of the kingdom, and to embrace those who see the Church in very different ways. We need, too, to admit our own fearfulness, our reluctance to engage, to really live as citizens of heaven…We need to recognise that God’s kingdom does not wait out of reach for the end of life as we know it, but is close at hand, ready for us to grasp it and be transformed.

Jesus, remember me – and help me to live in your Kingdom here and now as you prepare me to be in Paradise with you forever.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Sometimes it seems that the spiritual life is not unlike an extended game of hide and seek.
Last week at the Eucharist we heard the familiar parables of lost sheep and caring shepherd, lost coin and determined housewife.
We were reminded that God will not rest til he has found each one of us and bought us safely home.

Our New Testament reading this evening, however, presents the search in a new light.
Now it is Jesus who promises to be elusive, and the Pharisees are after him.
I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me.
You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.’

Do those words sound at all familiar. They come again, in a passage we hear rather more often, at the end of chapter 13:
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me;
and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.

Jesus even helpfully quotes himself.
The same words, but very different contexts indeed.
In chapter 7, tonight’s reading, Jesus is teaching in the Temple, so powerfully that his listeners are astonished. When they question how he learnt what he is sharing, Jesus tells them his teaching is from God. He then challenges them, asking why they are out for his blood...More dialogue, then the temple police are summoned to arrest him.
And then he says to the very people who he has accused of planning to kill him
‘I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me.
You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.’

That seems only sensible, doesn’t it.
You really wouldn’t expect those who wanted to kill Jesus to be part of his resurrected, ascended life. They’ve made their choice. Of course they can’t, and won’t, come with Jesus...

But, can I ask you to think about the parallel verses, that we find later on.
Now Jesus is with a very different audience, at the Last Supper.
Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet as a sign of his love for them, and of his servanthood.
Jesus has predicted his betrayal and Judas has gone out into the night, as we later discover,
to fetch the soldiers and temple police to arrest Jesus.
And once it is just Jesus and the faithful 11 disciples, he speaks to them,
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me;
and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”

What are we to make of this? It feels harsh. Jesus telling his beloved friends that THEY cannot come with him either.
How can he say this same thing to two such pposite groups of people?

And what might it mean for us, you and me, as we strive to be disciples?

Where I am going, you cannot come.
The thing is, the story doesn’t stop there. And that’s where we find hope.

Because, as Jesus explains, just because they can’t come where he is going, doesn’t mean they can’t
be there.
Listen: “
if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself,so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going...’ 

It’s not by our own efforts that we can make our way to heaven.
I will come again and will take you to myself…
The initiative is all on HIS side and he is tireless in seeking us out.

It doesn’t matter if we’re among those who love Jesus and long to follow him all the way through death and beyond, or whether we have more in commone with those who find his message so troubling they wish to silence him forever.
The message is the same...as I said to the Jews so now I say to you,
Where I am going, you cannot come.”
You can’t come...but I will come and take you.

It doesn’t depend on our efforts or our attitudes. The work is his, and his alone.
This is not a message of exclusion- there’s room and to spare for all...but we need to know that we can’t get there on our own.

You can’t come to me, I have to come and get you.

I’ll come and get you even from the depths of hell...I will come and find you...friend or enemy...because, I have loved you with an everlasting love and nothing in life or death, nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sermon for Proper 24 Luke 18 at Cathedral Eucharist

This, for me, has been a week of waiting. Waiting for the report from our Safeguarding Audit. Waiting for news of a friend’s job interview. Waiting for a grandbaby due at the start of the week, but still conspicuous by his absence. And my own personal impatience has been playing out against the background of our collective waiting – for the results of the Brexit negotations, for some sense of what the future may hold for us, and for our friends and neighbours across Europe and beyond, for a reassurance that the most vulnerable really WILL be taken care of in the weeks and months ahead. I’m not good at waiting at times like this. I’ve never yet been able to pray with any conviction that litany from the Iona community that includes the refrain “Thank you for the waiting time”. I want things fixed – preferably in line with my own personal agenda- as soon as is humanly possible, or better yet, according to a divine timescale that is actually QUICKER than my own. I have at least tried to pray...but, as the Rolling Stones once put it “I can’t get no satisfaction”. While I feel as if I’ve been emulating the persistent widow, thus far nothing much seems to have changed – and that makes me consider what is going on when I pray. A friend’s father used to ask her “Are you actually praying, or just worrying on your knees” - and I guess I have probably been doing a bit of that, - particularly where the grandbaby is concerned. And in fact, there’s nothing much wrong with that. Taking worrying situations into God’s presence is frequently the best possible approach. Pouring out hopes and fears, griefs and frustrations – and knowing that all our confused jumble of feelings and experiences is heard and understood by the One who loves us and knows us through and through. Worrying on our knees can sometimes be just fine. It really is important to do our waiting and worrying in God’s presence...but the one thing I’ve learned about prayer through the years is that the answers God supples are very seldom those I expected. Indeed, I don’t often recognise them at all, until long long afterwards. When I left Cambridge after 3 wonderful years singing the services in my college chapel, spending every available second immersed in the Anglican choral tradition, I was VERY angry with God. I knew what I wanted to do next and it just wasn’t possible. I didn’t so much pray as storm at him… “If I were a man, I might be able to join the back row of a cathedral somewhere...but as it is, there’s nothing for women, nothing for me at all. I’ll just have to try and find a job in an arts centre” No such job was forthcoming. I did a lot of other things through the years, - some wonderful, some less so...and had actually completely forgotten that conversation (was it a prayer?) til I found myself sitting around a table earlier this year with various reps from the local arts scene...and I suddenly heard my own words played back to me, and realised that God was chuckling gently as he pointed out that my long-ago prayer had come to pass by a very circuitous route. And yet, I’m still really bad at taking the long view...at holding on to my faith that God is at work when I don’t see the answers I hoped for What about you? Spend a moment considering those times when you’ve asked God directly for something. Not simply a general “Bless all your children” kind of prayer but something quite specific. Perhaps you’re still asking... How were your prayers answered? Did you get what you asked for? Or did you come to realise, in retrospect, that what you DID get was something better? If you can’t think of a time when you’ve asked directly for something – just possibly that’s because you aren’t quite sure that it’s a worthwhile exercise. Not long ago I heard the story of an inn that was being built in a part of the States where the spirit of prohibition lingers still. Many in the churches there were distraught at the prospect of anyone selling alcohol over the counter in their home town...so they held an all-night prayer meeting, begging God to intervene. A storm broke, lightning struck the inn, and it went up in flames. The owner then brought a lawsuit against the church holding them responsible. The Christians hired a lawyer and denied responsibility. On the day of the hearing the judge said, in his opening remarks“No matter what verdict is reached today, one thing is clear. The landlord believes in prayer and the Christians do not!” Ouch. I wonder if that charge could be levelled at us here. What are your expectations when you pray. Generally I think we have to let go of the idea of a quick fix solution. Luke makes this clear as he introduces the parable, unusually unpacking its meaning before he tells the story. This is about the “need to pray always and to to lose heart”. It may be just as well that we’re told that at the beginning, because it’s not the most accessible story in Scripture, is it. Jesus clearly intends the judge to stand for God, but this judge is about as unlike God as possible. He cares neither for God nor man, but is all about the quiet life..” And yet, this widow, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, keeps on coming to him. Is this because she’s desperate, stupid or simply naive? Surely she must know his reputation...Perhaps she is simply a person of faith, hanging on to the belief that justice would prevail despite all the evidence. And she’s right. The point of the parable is, of course, that if even a rotten judge can be persuaded to do the right thing by someone who pesters him day and night then of course God, who is Justice in person, and who cares passionately about people, will vindicate them, will see that justice is done. And that concept of justice is key. We can’t expect God to fall in with our plans, just because we’re persistent. We’re invited to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness...to know God’s mind, if you like, and tune our hearts and our wills to that. And that’s when prayer takes off. When we let go of our own agendas and seek God’s, trusting that God’s will really IS the best possible outcome for us, for our loved ones, for the whole hurting, broken world. Sometimes we’re not quite able to believe that is true. We have an idea of who God is, we’ve read the books, but have not really come to know God for ourselves. That, too, may take a while. It’s the vision behind Jeremiah’s words, as God own dream for Israel. No longer shall they teach one another or say to one another “Know the Lord” for they shal all know me from the least of them to the greatest. Know God directly...God’s messageswritten on our hearts, our hopes and dreams swept up in God’s great purpose of reconciling the world to himself. If in doubt about that, may I refer you to last week’s epistle. Remember Jesus Christ. God within reach. God sharing stories, bread and wine with us day by day. We can and we DO know God when we turn to Jesus. The days are surely coming when that will be true for the world ….but sometimes they seem to drag out rather. We live in the gap, the “now but not yet”, believing in God’s better future but finding ourselves in a frequently painfully imperfect present. So in the meantime – remember that you may be the answer to your own prayers...that if you are entreating God to do something about climate change, about injustice and oppression far away or close to home, about children crying and parents in despair...God may have work for you to do. And when you pray with persistence, don’t lose heart. You may be tired and disconsolate. You may feel there’s no point carrying on any longer, if nothing seems to change. But that’s the moment to redouble your prayers and ask God to show you how to live into his future, to write his name and his truth in your heart and not to be satisfied with anything less than God’s righteousness.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Sermon for Proper 22 C Luke 17 Harvest at Coventry Cathedral

What do you have faith in today?

We seem to be living at a society that can no longer trust many of the institutions and roles that we had formerly relied on, a society in which promises are made and broken on an almost hourly basis. Deep divisions have surfaced, unexpectedly, and we find ourselves in a very different world from the one in which we’ve spent much of our lives.

Can we have faith in anything, and if so, what?

That may seem a bizarre question to be asking from a cathedral pulpit...so let me reassure you, before I go any further, that I am confident that we can have faith in God and in God’s limitless, unconditional love for each one of us. That is the foundation of everything for me – and I’m guessing, because you’re here this morning, that you may share that view.
We believe God loves us.
Let’s celebrate that and then go home…

Except – that’s not actually what it’s about
There’s another layer that we need to explore
Faith is not an intellectual property – something that is very nice if you like that kind of thing. It is, or it should be, the basis for every aspect of our lives and behaviour.

So, the question is, what difference does our faith make.
What do we actually DO with it?

In our gospel the disciples are clear that they’re going to need more faith than they can currently muster, to get them through the tough times ahead. Ever since Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, they’ve been conscious of storm clouds gathering and they’ve just been given a terrible warning to “be on their guard” constantly. So, their request for more faith seems utterly reasonable. They NEED to know they’re going to get through this somehow.

But Jesus doesn’t see it that way.
In a disconcertingly hard-edged response, he says unequivocally that if they had any faith worthy of the name
they could do amazing things, including offer the bottomless forgiveness Jesus demands of his followers.
In the absence of any visibly mobile mountains, it might be easy to retire crushed at this point. But to do so would be the miss the point completely. We don’t need colossal supplies of faith in order to cope. We simply need enough faith to recognise that God can do great things.
Tom Wright puts it this way
Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on. If it’s the Creator-God, the God active in Jesus, then the tiniest little peep-hole will give you access to power like you have never dreamed of

Of course, that power is not to be used to satisfy our own pleasure or boost our own prestige – it’s there to further the work of the Kingdom…That’s what we’re all called to – and though it might seem at first that the message of the latter part of the gospel is that being a faithful servant won’t get you anywhere, to see it that way is to miss the point. No, we can’t expect a standing ovation for simply living out our calling – but there’s good news here all the same.
We aren’t awarded God’s grace in response to the service we offer...Our relationship with God is not about transaction – but about transformation.
We are loved and we are blessed to BE A BLESSING.
So – what does that actually mean, right here and right now?
An understanding of God’s overwhelming, undeserved grace must, surely, produce some sort of response from us...and on this Harvest Sunday, we are invited to give in response to all that we’ve been given. If everything, EVERYTHING, is gift then we can and we must open our hands and our hearts to give in return. That is both duty and joy. It’s the principle behind tithing – planning to give 10% of your income to further God’s Kingdom, whether through giving to the church or some other gift in the service of others.
All things come from you, and of your own do we give you” we say...but to actually do it can feel rather more challenging.
I think we might just be back to the question of faith. It can be tempting to think “I’ll give what I can afford” - to shift our perspective as if we somehow have a right to all the blessings we enjoy, and only need to share what we feel we can do without. I speak from an all-too-well-established personal experience. Left to myself, I’d much sooner squirrel away everything I imagine I’ll need – and only THEN contemplate giving anything back to God. And that’s never going to work – because, of course, fears and anxieties expand to fill the space you allow them. To head down that path would mean miserly misery.
But I choose to live a life ruled not by fear but by faith. I choose to look through that window and to see how great and generous is the God from whom all blessings flow. I’m challenging myself this morning – in the presence of all of you – to actually act on this, here and now. So I choose, therefore, to give in response to so very many blessings...to use what I AM given to bless others so that, perhaps, my faith may in turn enable them to live lives dominated by thankfulness instead of fear. Will you do the same?

Sunday, September 01, 2019

That's it, to a T

"Make God laugh. Tell him your plans" runs the rather world-weary saying, which always suggests to me a vision of the Almighty that is, if not actively cruel, then at least not entirely compassionate. The implication is, of course, that any silly little hopes, dreams and visions we might have for our own futures are liable to be swept away at a second's notice in accordance with the vision of the God who can see all possible futures and knows which one we'll inhabit.
It's not inaccurate, I guess - but it isn't encouraging either.

However, sometimes God's sense of humour, played out in that same ground between our present experience and God's eternal perspective, is genuinely funny. Hence the story of the tee-shirt.

It all began last December when I realised that the season of staff Christmas parties was almost upon me and that I still did not have even the most tasteless of Christmas jumpers to call my own. This wasn't entirely accidental. I really do loathe them, - but I dislike being a "bad sport" even more, so, when an advert for Christmas sweat-shirts caught my eye, I decided that now was the moment. It helped, of course, that I really liked the design...a violin, viola, cello and bass, each instrument wearing a Santa hat and surrounded by falling snow. It was ALMOST tasteful and certainly appropriate for string-loving me, so I found my credit card and placed an order. Long sleeved. Black. Perfect to go over a clerical top for those unavoidable moments when you need cheese with everything.

Only, when the parcel arrived, what emerged was not black at all, - it was navy - and the sleeves were short.
Yes, the design was right - but otherwise, what I received was a short-sleeved Christmas tee-shirt. And, living in the English Midlands, I could think of few things that would be more useless, really...I mean, December is COLD! Even at the Bishop's Christmas hoolie...
But, December is also a rather busy time for clergy so I never got round to returning the garment, despite all my chunterings
 "What use is a Christmas TEE SHIRT in England? Whoever invented such a thing? Blinking idiots..."

The offending garment found its way into the tee-shirt stash beneath the bed and that, you might imagine, was that....Until, in July, I accepted an invitation to be part of this year's Greenbelt Communion service. And then I got my script, with the stage instructions encouraging us to wear Christmas clothes or whatever else might foster the concept of Christmas in August. And on the day itself, last Sunday, as temperatures soared breaking Bank Holiday records, I was so very very grateful that my only Christmas garment was short-sleeved, light-weight, perfect, in fact, for an August Nativity.

I'm not sure if even the writers had planned the Christmas theme when I'd ordered that tee shirt 8 months ago.
I certainly hadn't.
But someone had an idea that maybe a tee-shirt might come in handy after all.
I thought I heard a gentle chuckle as I set on last Sunday morning...

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Proper 17 1st September 2019

Let mutual love continue

What a text for this week of all weeks, when with every hour, it seems, the fault-lines that we had never noticed, through decades of gentle liberalism, are becoming ever deeper, yawning chasms, threatening to engulf so much that we have taken for granted…
The practices of traditional democracy
Respect for the monarch
A peaceful society in which civil disobedience might occasionally take place, but really should not be encouraged

In just a few short days all of those  givens seem to have been swept away and, if I’m honest, at the moment there are certain of our political leaders, and even more of our journalists, with whom I’d really struggle to sit at table.

I don’t LIKE what is happening one little bit, and it is making me very anxious.
That anxiety is no longer rooted in what may or may not happen on 31st October, but refers, rather, to the way that I no longer feel able to read society...So many things that I would have imagined unthinkable suddenly seem to be practically commonplace  and I’m rather at sea as I try to avoid panic and make sense of it all,
I’d like my former version of reality restored – even if it was, in fact, distressingly myopic, reflecting only the translucent rainbow walls of my protected bubble – but the truth is that I can’t Unsee what I have seen – I cannot forget what I now know about how my neighbours view the world
And so I have to find a way through somehow. And right now I’m not finding it easy.

I’ve considered whether I might simply pull up the drawbridge...Respond to my fears...
Gatherimy family around me in a protective huddle and try to forget about the rest of the world altogether.
After all, if I have misread so many cues, surely I’d do better to stay only with those whom I love best, those whom I  really do know almost as well as I know myself…

Except, of course, that’s not how it works.
Not in our epistle, and not in the gospel either.
We’re not invited to withdraw. Quite the reverse.
We’re to carry on doing what we’re called to do.
Loving in this Cathedral community – regardless of the disagreements which will inevitably follow once our relationships that have moved beyond the simply superficial.
Loving in our neighbourhoods, - jettisoning our personal agendas to pursue the common good.
Loving, even when it costs: we may well have to set aside things that we’d imagined to be non-negotiables...whether they are treasured attitudes or treasured possessions, or maybe those extra tins we’ve stashed on the top shelf of the larder just in case there’s a shortage of chick-peas by Christmas.

Yesterday, a good friend posted a rather beautiful series of line drawings of the seven “Works of mercy” that the Church has been advocating pretty much since the Sermon on the Mount– and it struck me that there is no better guideline for how we should act – and not just if the crisis deepens. May I remind you of them?
We are to :
feed the hungry;
give water to the thirsty;
clothe the naked;
shelter the homeless;
visit the sick;
visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive
to bury the dead

If that sounds daunting, I’m sorry. Do remember, though, you’re not on your own.
But yes, if we’re serious about mutual love – it’s going to be tough.
If we’re serious about reconciliation, it’s going to be tougher.
We may have to let go of the things we’ve hung on to, to leave our hands free to carry the things that have been weighing our neighbours down.
The good news is that, if mutual love is the order of the day, then they will find themselves carrying our stuff for us too as we exchange not only burdens but perspectives too….

It takes work – of course it does – but it really is worth doing. Imagine if as we arrived here on a Sunday morning we really truly KNEW that we were coming into a place where we were deeply known and deeply loved not just by God but by our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s one of the most precious gifts we can ever offer.

And then, of course, we’re called to widen our perspective still further.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” - or, as this morning’s parable would have it “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”
The Kingdom of God is all about the OUTsiders…
I’m always wryly amused at the way the word “parochial” has become symbolic of small-town, small-minded attitudes when the original vision was of a place where aliens might gather to feel at home, literally an inside place for the outsider, a community of sojourners in a strange land.
We’ve been welcomed as outsiders ourselves and now we are to be agents of God’s hospitality – and there are no limitts here.
If we expected one order of precedence – a kind of top table based on our own understanding of who is worthwhile, a net contributor to society, people who would pass border controls with little fuss..We’re about to be rather startled.

Because Kingdom loving includes those who were once outsiders, aliens, rejects – and sees us taking a lower place  in humility, rather than holding on to our rights, our analysis of who and what actually matters.
At this kingdom banquet,it’s the non contributors, those who will struggle to secure leave to remain, who are to be our first guests at the table
There’s loads of room. There really is.

Though Jesus didn’t actually say it in as many words, I’m confident that this view would most certainly make him smile
When you have more than you need, build a longer table not a higher fence

In the face of all our fears, that reminder that we DO have more than we need
That we are not only called to be hospitable, but resourced to make it possible
That we shouldn’t expect to exclude ANYONE from our welcome speaks directly into the fears and confusions of this current time.
A longer table, not a higher fence...
Hospitality is  one of our cathedral values because it belongs at the heart of everything.
We have been given so much – grace up on grace – so that we might give in return.

Our hearts may not always lift as we welcome the stranger for sometimes she will seem VERY strange,  a bit smelly, and utterly impossible to understand.
But that doesn’t matter.
We don’t have to FEEL welcoming – any more than we have to FEEL love.
We just have to do it anyway.
That’s part of our identity as God’s people.

And we need to remember too that, in the Kingdom where the first will be last and the last first, we can’t hold onto ideas of relative status or importance. I can’t stress this too much, in a building that teeters on the verge of encouraging all us to feel a bit special, just because we belong here.
Instead, I have to ask, when did you last, metaphorically or even literally, wash someone’s feet?
Jesus did make it pretty clear, really – acting as his own sermon illustration in case we were in danger of missing the point...

Sometimes, the Kingdom of God might look like a sea of toddlers and teddies crowding the floor by the West Screens...or a Muslim family taking shelter from a sudden downpour….or a street homeless guy in search of a cuppa….or….you can fill in the blanks yourself

And remember – it’s not really our table anyway. We’re all here by invitation
We are here by invitation of the One who holds nothing back.
Who offers us boundless, unlimited, unconditional love day by day and delights when we share that love with a hurting world.

There’s a song by the Australian hymnodist, Shirley Erena Murray, which sums up pretty much all I want to say now...You'll find it with Google so do read and reflect.

For everyone born a place at the table
For everyone born, clean water and bread,
A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
For everyone born, a star overhead.
And God will delight
When we are creators orf justice and joy,
Compassion and peace
Yes God will delight
When we are creators of justice,  justice and joy.

Amen. Let it be so.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A journey with wit and wisdom

It's Saturday evening. We've hit one of those rare moments of calm when the main path through the festival village seems almost empty. E., 21/2, runs ahead of us, flinging her arms wide and shouts to anyone with ears to hear
"Greenbot....I love you!"

So do I, her granny.

It's been 20 years now since I first fell in love with this place of wonder, hopes and dreams, falling into the arms of the festival with delight, as I discovered that there WAS a tribe to which I belonged, a place which heart and soul could both call home. 

In those first years at Cheltenham, with free range children exploring far and wide, enjoying a freedom and safety that I couldn't always offer them elsewhere, it was all about the talks. I bought tapes by the dozen, discovered new writers, new ways of approaching faith in terms of radical Kingdom living which my gently conventional Cotswold village church somehow never quite articulated, lapped up so much wit and wisdom, found myself stretched, challenged, inspired. I loved it all, - and the belated realisation that my own sense of discontent with the way Church and life seemed to play out was shared by others kept me going through the switch-back journey of discernment and ordination training. 
I made friends - online friends (a concept that was still excitingly novel, and transformative for me) with whom I spent many a happy evening on the Greenbelt forum, and so for a few years the festival was mainly a feverish series of catch ups, of "Greenbelt hugs" (oh, dear, dotty, beloved Anna, you are missed, still missed!) exchanged en route to yet another unmissable talk.
With them I savoured many, many Greenbelt moments. glimpses of God in unexpected corners that filled me with joy.

I watched those free-range children find their own roles, their own homes in the Greenbelt community...When I first travelled to India, at the same stage in my daughter's life as I had lost my own parents, it was to Greenbelt friends that I entrusted their emotional and spiritual flourishing if something went wrong and I failed to return. 
Those friendships were intense, sometimes demanding but never less than life-enhancing - and forged in our shared love of this place of hope and transformation year after year after year.

Greenbelt has always been a place where I could try new things...listen to music I'd never have met elsewhere, experience worship that was light years away from the norm I encountered as I travelled through curacy and into the early years of life as a parish priest. 
Sometimes Gloucester diocese, my then home, had clergy training days at the racecourse - and it always felt as if somewhere, just out of sight, the festival was going on in a parallel universe...that Snowy was stewarding a crowd into a John Bell talk, while The Rising brought in crowds to Centaur and DFG were up to something subversively funny in Underground, 
Ten years in to our relationship I had come to realise that there would ALWAYS be more than I could possibly fit in...but that if I missed something wonderful one year, there would be something no less wonderful waiting for me when we returned just twelve months on. I became less frenetic in my passage from Performance Cafe to Centaur, from Wild Goose to Christian Aid. It would all be alright. There were enough of us who were trying to live our faith in a Greenbelt kind of way, such that if I didn't get to everything, there would be others to pick up any one message and take it home with them.

5 years ago, I moved from Gloucester to Coventry - and the festival moved too, recovering from the trauma of 2012 Mudbelt, after which life at Cheltenham was never quite the same. Planted afresh on a greenfield site at Boughton, Greenbelt changed shape a little, but the passion, the beauty, the faith, hope and love were absolutely unaltered and we moved into a new chapter in our family too, as long-term partners became family and then, 3 summers ago, the very special Miss E experienced her first festival. With her dad up to his ears as head of traffic, it wasn't an easy weekend for her mum, but she's a wonderful woman who persevered anyway, so that last year we had the fun of chasing a rampaging toddler through the festival village, passing friends, talks, art work at a gallop. I'm not sure what I actually attended in2018 (I know I was at Communion, with the same group of beloved friends with whom we've shared this holy moment for at least a decade, as children were born to enlarge our circle) but I found that, despite a vague feeling that I hadn't actually experienced that much, when I returned to work I FELT as if I had been to Greenbelt. Renewed, enthused, challenged and changed. The addictive mix I've been lapping up continues to sustain and delight me.

And, this year, as temperatures soared, things were different again.
Different, but exactly the same in terms of what actually matters. Understanding friends coped when our conversations never shifted from the superficial to their former depths, as I had one eye constantly on a blonde, curly head intent on heading off across the Lawn to explore fresh woods and pastures new. In a new season, landscapes adjust their contours, and new delights emerge.

No, i didn't get to all the talks I might have enjoyed - but goodness, I was fed well by those I did attend. Mark Oakley, Padgraig O'Touma, Rachel Mann and the incomparable Nadia Bolz-Weber made everything gloriously alright, restoring my faith in preaching, in the power of story and in the joy of living in my own body...something Miss E had been trying to get across for a while.
I spent more time in the Haven and lying in the shade while Miss E created her own campsite out of a folding seat and organised her toys for "'Munion in the bootiful big tent" than I did soaking up the peace of the Chapel...but there were Greenbelt moments aplenty. 
Too late to gain a space inside Shelter for Saturday night's Taize service, I sat on the grass looking out across the lake towards the house and the festival village. I thought about a dear friend whose mother's life is gently coming to an end as we sang "Wait for the Lord whose day is near, wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart!" and reflected that Greenbelt, more than anything else, enables me to keep faith and stretch out in yearning towards the Kingdom with all that is in me. And God was there, and I was there, and around us Greenbelt buzzed with life and that same longing urging us onwards.
And on Sunday morning I had an almost unbelievable, overwhelming privilege, when, asked to read at the Communion service, I found that my "lines" included my most loved verse in the whole of Scripture.
"For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. And the darkness never will", matched by the wonder of the Magnificat, with its vision of the world turned upside down..rekindling my own treasured memory of being installed at Coventry on the feast of the Visitation, singing "Tell out my soul" as my beloved church family walked me up the aisle of the Cathedral towards a new life and ministry there...
I was even, incredibly, entrusted with the words of Institution, shared with a remarkable 9 year old. 
So many precious, precious words, to speak aloud in the place I love.
And I stood on my little platform, surrounded by 5,000 plus Greenbelters singing "O holy night" with all that was in them, and knew that here, right HERE, heaven was touching earth again. 
And I was part of it, caught up in love and delight and grace upon grace upon grace.

"Make life more like Greenbelt" said my younger son, as we headed home one year, coated in mud but shining with joy.
"Greenbelt is a state of mind, not just a festival" said another...and once again I'm restored to myself, by 4 days unlike any other. 
As so often, my best beloved E said it best, with her joyous exclamation
"Greenbot...I love you".
"Amen", and again  I say "Amen."