Sunday, February 24, 2019

Stormy Weather - a sermon for the 2nd Sunday before Lent

I grew up with on the Sussex coast, with a father whose happiest time had been during his service in the Royal Navy.

It follows, then, that the sea figures largely in most of my favourite childhood memories, be they of long summer days hunting fragments of the sea-polished glass that we called "mermaids' tears", or of dodging the waves as they crashed on the promenade during the winter storms.

My daddy had a great line in bedtime stories - and my special heroine was Grace Darling, who, with her father, dared to launch a small rowing boat amid towering waves to rescue the shipwrecked passengers and crew of the Forfarshire.

I loved that story, specially when I was snuggled beneath the bedclothes while the wind howled outside, and even now I continue to love storms and to miss the thrill of watching the grey winter sea roil...and to ask God why I'm persistently called to such land-locked counties.


All of which makes it hard for me to grasp just how frightening the sea was to the landlocked peoples of Israel...At the beginning of the creation story of Genesis, it is the sea that represents chaos and disorder. In the final vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation, there is no more sea....

And in the middle – well, in the middle, Jesus calms the storm.


When I was in the Holy Land last month, our time in Galilee featured one day of heavy fog and low cloud, só that the lake disappeared completely – and another of halcyon beauty with blue skies and birdsong. We didn’t see a storm, but having crossed the Lake in a traditional fishing boat, I no longer find it hard to beleive that the right conditions can produce a truly terrifying situation in a matter of minutes.

Easy, then, to sympathise with the disciples, seasoned fishermen who knew the lake well enough to be fully aware of the danger...

Easy too to dismiss the story as deeply irrelevant to this landlocked city of Coventry, where weather of any kind has to be pretty dramatic to have any impact at all.

So please, for a moment, imagine yourself in that small boat beside the disciples....Watch Jesus sleeping peacefully.

Isn't that amazing?

Mountainous waves. Strong men crying out in terror and there is Jesus, fast asleep! totally oblivious to what's going on. Though he may be physically present in the boat, there beside his friends, in every way that counts it seems that he's actually far far away.


Does that make you angry – or afraid? Quite probably both!

"Don't you care that we are perishing?"

Within the space of a few hours,  the disciples' world had turned upside-down. They'd been caught up in the adventure of following Jesus, excited by the teaching and healings they had witnessed, looking forward to signs and wonders aplenty, to golden days, green pastures, still waters........

and then, suddenly everything changed... They felt literally swamped,all at sea, absolutely terrified

And so, they woke Jesus up...

Jesus whose deep sleep  in the midst of the turmoil made the disciples feel even more afraid,abandoned,alone.
They woke him up, and you can almost hear them yelling at him in their fear:
'Teacher, don't you care? Don't you care that we're about to die?!'

They'd done everything within their power to weather the storm. They were at the end of the resources; at the end of their tether. They'd learned, as they had walked with Jesus, that he had extraordinary powers and abilities. They'd seen love and  compassion. And here, on what felt like the worst night of their lives, they looked to the person they expected to help them...
and he was fast asleep.
'Don't you care that we're about to die?'

Now, you may never find yourself in a storm at sea – but you will be living a charmed life indeed if you never find yourself asking that question.

It may be an experience of illness or unemployment

It may be the death of someone special

It may be a natural disaster far away, or a train crash in the next town...

But one day, something will happen to shake your sense of security, something that makes you realise just how fragile this life can be, just how precarious the defences we build around ourselves.


At that point, as you are buffetted by the wind, drenched by the waves, you may look round and wonder where God has gone.

Was he ever really there?

Is he actually powerless?

Or does he, in fact, not give a tinker's cuss about what you are going through.

 "Don't you care?...”
So many unexpected things come into our lives like storms creating chaos, and confusion... and like the disciples we  feel scared, abandoned, and alone... as if Jesus is asleep at the back of the boat, while we're in turmoil.
And in the same way that the disciples did, we find ourselves almost yelling:
'don't you care Lord?'
and we might add:'are you so indifferent to all this mess, this stress, this pain, that you can sleep right through it?'

And yet, while the disciples felt - and while we might feel abandoned by God's seeming indifference...
we ... are... not.

Not for one moment.
And... it's absolutely in order  to cry out to God - and even to shake a fist at him.  In fact, God invites us to cry out: we're told to ask, to seek, to knock... to pound on the door of heaven.
Though Jesus rebukes the disciples for lack of faith, the very act of crying out demonstrates that somewhere, buried deep, there remains enough faith to know that they - that we - will be heard.

After all, there's no point in attempting a conversation if you don't believe that there is anyone around to listen.
So perhaps the underlying rebuke is more
`Why didn't you ask me first?'..........Why do you turn to me only when all else fails,  when you're certain your own efforts are hopeless?
`Why did you try to do everything you could under your own strength?

Did you really believe you could manage alone?’


Because we do that, don't we?

We fool ourselves into believing that the even tenor of our lives reflects our own power...

We don't expect to need God.

Remember the Titanic – the unsinkable ship.

In so many ways our lives today resemble that masterpiece of marine engineering for we are insulated from many of the life and death immediacies of earlier times.

This makes it so easy for us to believe that we too are unsinkable...

WE don't need God...Faith is absolutely fine for those who like that sort of thing, for the simple, the inadequate...the disadvantaged....but we seem to be managing quite nicely thank you, - until the moment when we dont

Then we cry out...
And as we do, we find out that the God who we thought was absent, or asleep, has actually been there with us all along,
right in the midst of the storm,
right there in our boat
right there hearing our cries,
right there feeling our pain...
and even though he knows we're sometimes so very slow to understand just who he is, his love is both abundant and ever-present...


It won't always still the storm...but it will give us the security that we long for, the sure knowledge that come what may everything is held in love.

Mother Julian of Norwich had her own experiences of storm and terror.

She was close to death when she experienced her famous “Revelations on Divine Love” - and it that first hand knowledge of human frailty, of the precarious foundations of our worldly security, that gives authority to her words

He said not 'Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased'; but he said, 'Thou shalt not be overcome.'

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, 17th February 2019

Just over a month ago, I returned from my first visit to the Holy Land.

I say, my first visit because having spent time in Jerusalem I am now filled with longing to return to that amazing city where faith and culture, history and hope are so compacted into a few square miles that it really does feel as if those medieval maps were right when they showed Jerusalem as the centre of the world.

I learned so much about myself in those 9 days and there’s lots of real significance I'll hope to share with you when the time is right – but forgive me that today it’s something wonderfully silly that I discovered on day 1 of our pilgrimage . Dahoud, our Palestinian guide, was showing us the overall shape of the city as we stood on the Mount of Olives…There's the Temple Mount, he said, and over there...that’s the valley of the Cheesemakers.

There was a stunned and delighted silence as we, a party of assorted mixed clergy, savoured the realisation that Monty Python’s Life of Brian had at least a tenuous foundation in geographical fact. We exchanged glances and then, quietly mouthed to one another

 “Blessed are the Cheesemakers” "Ah. What's so special about the cheese-makers?""Well obviously it's not meant to be taken literally, it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products"

Golden moments!

That teeny fragment,  of course, parodies those familiar moments in which, at the back of a large crowd, (or, at times, in a cathedral with a mischievous sound-system)  you can hear just snatches of what is actually being said…none of which make much sense….but nonetheless you try your best to make up what’s missing.I think of it as Waterloo Station syndrome. Nothing you can actually hear makes  any sense at all, so you write the script to suit yourself. So, “Blessed are the cheesemakers” becomes a handy shortcut that absolves us from trying to make sense of what Jesus is actually saying. His words are so often hard to hear in both senses....they don’t seem to reflect reality as we know it, nor offer an alternative to make our hearts sing. Engaging with them is neither easy nor comfortable. It feels safer to divert to comedy.

The thing is, of course, if you hear this passage while holding tight to a world view based firmly on personal and material success it makes as much sense as a blessing poured out indiscriminately on the dairy industry…“Blessed are you poor!” Jesus says – hitting home the promise that he made in the synagogue in Nazareth which we heard just a couple of weeks ago, that he has come to bring good news to the poor. Here’s that good news, delivered in a place where EVERYONE can hear, with crowds gathered from across Jewish life and beyond (the presence of people from the gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon making it clear that Jesus speaks across all our boundaries). Everyone can hear – but it’s the kind of good news that can be very hard indeed to make sense of .

What does he mean when he describes the poor, the hungy, the sorrowful, the outcast as “Blessed” – or, more baffling still – as “happy”. Happy are the sad? WHAT?

And then, when he goes on to speak woe to those who appear to be in a much better situation… Have we really heard him right or is this another case of blessing those cheesemakers?

The pattern of blessings and woes is one well established in Scripture – lying at the core of the Covenant between Yaweh and his people expressed in Deuteronomy. There you are blessed if you live according to the Torah, that intricate system designed to keep Gods people walking in accordamce with Gods will. It is to say the least disconcerting, to hear that same pattern here as the foundation of the new Israel.  The covenant is renewed with a radical reversal of the status quo and it's up to those with ears to hear to live within it with integrity.. This is the upside down world that was promised in the Magnificat….Or is it a world that is finally, gloriously, the right way up?

It all depends on your perspective.

God is going to fulfill his promises and this will mean good news for those who’ve not had any for a long long time. It may not feel like quite such good news for you and me.

The thing is that while our truest, deepest selves yearn for the Kingdom, for valleys exalted and hills made plain, we still struggle to accept it.when the upheaval really hits home. We fall straight into the trap that Jesus recognised, trying to make life comfortable and manageable on our own terms – which tends, of course, to build our own Kingdom rather than God's. Like most of those who listened when he preached, we are breathtakingly hard of hearing about what really matters, and prefer to silence Jesus when he offers us these unwelcome judgements. Maybe we need to pause and think again.

Here on the levelling ground of the plain, Jesus levels with us. His four blessings, four woes, encourage us to look hard at our own choices.

In whom does your life centre?

It's so easy, in a world where choice is king, to set our own selves, our personal quest for health, wealth and happiness, at the heart of every endeavour. .

See I am setting before you life and death, blessing and curses said God in Deuteronomy.

Put like that it seems easy. Of COURSE we will all choose life…Except that here we're offered a choice, but discover that those things which lead ultimately to life are unlikely to make this present easy to navigate.

All those people we'd so much rather not be, turn out to be especially marked with God's favour. And we can't even hide behind St Matthew's softer version of these words and tell ourselves we are aspiring to be poor in spirit. Blessed are the poor! There are many websites that will tell you how breathtakingly wealthy each of us is in comparison with the global population, even if we find ourselves in straitened circumstances compared with a more obviously wealthy neighbour...but Jesus says clearly the poor are blessed. What do we do with that?  Does faith demand that we move from our homes, work at the minimum wage, join the line at the food bank? I guess that might help us to understand better but it doesn't seem wildly practical. So what then must we do, you and I?

Perhaps it might help to return to the start of the passage, where we hear of Christ's healing power. Is Luke telling us that Christ's power, which can heal us as it once healed others, will do so only  as it reverses our values?  Uncomfortable but soul-saving corrective surgery which we can't manage on our own – remember that Collect “ we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves”.

We can't grasp the things of the Kingdom if our hands are clenched tight around material benefits, because that's not what it's about. Though we've a couple of weeks still til Lent begins there's something very Lenton in this reorientation from Kingdom of self to Kingdom of God. Eugene Petersen's The Message, has subtitles that sum up his interpretation of each section. Here they read (to verse 21)"You're Blessed," and then going forward 24-26 “Give Away Your Life." You are blessed when you give away your life. Oh help. There’s not much scope for evasion there.

That is what the disciples have been recruited to do and, with God's help, it's our calling too. We know it's the way Jesus chose. Can we travel with him, borrow his perspective?  Can we see and love the people God sees and loves, though they may alarm or repel us just a little at first? Can we fall in love with generosity, and find our own satisfaction in meeting the needs of others? Can we stand on the margins in a place of dereliction and despair, and meet Jesus there before us? It's an exercise in trust, that God knows what God is doing despite the deafening evidence of the world's agenda, and trust is often something I struggle with  In The Message, Luke 6:26 reads, "There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests...Your task is to be true, not popular."

"Your task it to be true, not popular?"

Ouch. I would so much rather win friends that find myself sharing unpalatable truths…but that's not God's invitation. I long to accept, but it seems that I can’t unless God directly intervenes, working within me so that I may make Kingdom choices.

Perhaps that’s how it feels for you too – but it may be easier if we embark on this journey of giving ourselves away TOGETHER. That’s our calling as Church, is it now? To live into the truth of our calling as Christ’s Body on earth in all the costly daily work of showing God to the world by our own choices, constantly modelling God's priorities, weeping with God for the pain of a broken world, but knowing that by Gods grace the work of healing is begun.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Homily at 8.00 at Coventry Cathedral

One of the things that I love best about the Sutherland tapestry of Christ in Glory is that human figure, standing between the pierced feet.
It looks so impossibly tiny there, though I’m told it actually measures 4’6” - tiny and rather vulnerable, though there is surely nowhere safer to be than nestled close to the Saviour of the World.

Nonetheless, it’s a pretty accurate representation of something that shines through both Old Testament and Gospel this morning...that sense of our own surpassing smallness when we find ourselves called by God…
“Woe is me” says Isaiah, “for I am a man of unclean lips” - while Peter is equally unenthusiastic
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man”.

Coming up against God can do that to you.

The account of Isaiah’s call is often heard at ordination services, where that obedient “here I am, send me” is being played out in the lives of those coming to receive that sacrament.
It’s a day of joy, of new commitment and fresh empowerment…

But it didn’t feel that way at the outset, probably not for the ordinands (if my experience is anything to go by) – and certainly not for Isaiah nor for Peter.
I’m sure we can all sympathise.

Imagine that you’re here one morning, coming to worship as you do week on week when WHAM, suddenly everything before you slides away to make room for a vision of the heavenly court, a vision that sweeps you off your feet and sets you down with a completely new agenda.
That’s Isaiah’s story.
On an ordinary day, there in the Temple, the world rocks on its axis, and he’s commissioned to a new kind of ministry and heads off in response...with the assurance that he can expect nothing glamorous, nothing overtly successful.

He is to be a prophet - unwelcome, unheard, misunderstood.

Oh joy!

And it’s not much better for Simon, soon to be Peter.
Instead of an experience at worship he’s ambushed by God at the day job – which isn’t going too well either.
For me, the equivalent setting would be in the midst of emails on a Wednesday morning. You’ll know your own context .
An unrewarding situation, in which the only option seems to be to plough on despite discouragement.
Probably on auto-pilot.

And then, at the end of a long night of disappointment, Simon is given fresh instructions, which will lead, little by little, to a complete, overwhelming transformation – and his response?

Isnt that fantastic? Isn’t it so exactly the way we feel when God starts making God’s presence known in our comfortably familiar lives.

We’re not that keen on change and we know that we don’t have much to offer...Yet God calls us, just as we are – seeing potential of which we are completely ignorant. Both Isaiah and Peter are given confidence by the very fact of their calling – but they know that actually they’re nothing special in themselves, understand that they are fully reliant on the grace of God and, with all their reservations, they are ready and willing to respond.

Jane Williams, writing on these passages, suggests that you and I might imagine it was easy for them– with their own special moments of revelation, to help them to grasp just how great is the power of God that is at work…
And certainly, Isaiah’s vision and the miracle that Peter witnesses as those empty empty nets are filled, give a glimpse of the tidal wave of creative power that will be unleashed at the Resurrection...but, she points out, Isaiah, Peter (and Paul) would look with envy on what we have seen of God’s power over two millennia, and wonder at our lack of faith.
Think about that.

Perhaps, like the human figure on the tapestry, we are sometimes too close to grasp what is going on.
Because God’s power is as much at work in the ordinary as in the high drama of Temple-shaking revelation.

Jeff Shrowder, a retired priest in Australia, wrote:

I went fishing - once:
dreary, even with a friend,
and we caught nothing.

Peter’s misgivings
I completely understand,
but he fished again.

Doing the ‘ordinary’
can sometimes grow to ‘beyond’
and overwhelming.

Be prepared, then…God is still active, still calling...If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Of rocks and rivers #pilgrimage8

From Jerusalem to Galillee.
I had expected this to be the highlight of the pilgrimage, depending less on the competing claims of rival sites, their shape and identity almost overwhelmed by the passage of time, more on the unchanging landscapes that would have been familiar to that little group that had gathered around  the man from Nazareth two millennia past.
The utter hostility of the wilderness at Wadi Qelt took me straight into those Godly Play stories I'd told so often.
"The wilderness is a dangerous place. People can die there. You do not go into the wilderness unless you have to."
What was he thinking of, that man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho? He was clearly asking for trouble. Small wonder that trouble arrived, and that priest and Levitt alike felt powerless to help him. This was not the landscape for human kindness, though it has made an impact on my heart and mind which will, I suspect, last a lifetime. It was, too, a landscape that seemed to include a familiar friend, - the smaller sibling of the lump of rock from which our font at the Cathedral was carved. Seeing it in situ here, it seemed quite incredible that anyone had ever thought of taking something from this grim landscape, transporting it over thousands of miles to become the place of new beginnings, where the journey of faith starts at baptism. On this day of all days, it had special resonance.

Via Jericho, we travelled on to the Jordan, a river with "more history than water"...travelling on a road through residual minefields to the possible site of Christ's baptism. It was utterly extraordinary to arrive there as the western Church celebrated the Baptism of Christ, and this serendipity more than compensated for the muddy waters, the soldiers whom we could see on guard on the Jordanian bank, thee sheer ordinariness of the place. Of course, rivers change all the time; this was absolutely not the water into which Christ stepped, though the reed- lined banks were probably not much changed. It seemed, though, more a matter of good manners than personal engagement to renew our own baptismal bows, to have Christ's cross traced on hands or forehead...until one of our group went into the water, scooping it up and pouring it over his head, as I'd seen pilgrims do in India's sacred rivers.

Suddenly it was all real. That act of personal commitment in a place surrounded by threats both hidden and visible had no glamour, and none of the sense of seep mystery that had engaged us at the holy places in Jerusalem. This was immediate, as startling as cold water in the face. We are called to be faithful in spite of weariness, disengagement, even fear. We don't need, though, to do anything...simply to be in that place where we are ready to hear our Father's voice, and then to press on with the journey.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sermon for Evensong for the Feast of the Presentation at Coventry Cathedral 3rd Feb 2019

6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The great Temple is gone worship happens's structure long since broken down....its site fought over....only a vestige remains as a place of prayer, the Western Wall
"How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people; how is she become as a widow?
She that was great among the nations, how is she become tributary?

Two weeks ago, I found myself there on a Friday evening, just after Shabbat had begun, and that remembrance shaped my response to this passage and has indeed affected how I think about our own experience of ruin and restoration here in Coventry.
Let me tell you about it.
Just after sunset, We pass through a turn-stile and approach the square in front of the Wall, to the sound of uninhibited, joyful singing: and surely, yes, there is a group dancing - an exuberant  circle dance that makes me long to join
There is so much activity all around us. A father is briefing his small son on what to do, what to expect..Suddenly, I'm desperate to be part of this family, a daughter of Sarah, to join this community at prayer, if only there might be room for me.
I cover my head and begin to make my way timidly towards that part of the Wall where women are permitted to pray. I wonder how obvious it is that I am not a Jew...Whether I may be recognised and denounced as an interloper.
At that moment I want, more than anything else, to belong.
I watch the comings and goings  realising gradually that if I want to touch the stones at all, I will have to be be brave and determined and push myself forward through the crowds. There doesnt seem to be a system, a queue...(how very English of me to even half expect one!)...
Careful manoeuvring gains me a space and I  find myself somewhat unexpectedly kissing ancient stone, because it feels like absolutely the right and only thing to do. I push my folded prayer as deep as I can into a crack between the stones, where it joins the countless others.  I think about the impact of so many devout and desperate cries to God here in this place...about all those who are  praying around me now, and all those who had prayed before me, and will pray here long after I' have gone. The longing of an exiled people, to be able to rest here, to return time and again to pray, to join the crowds and whisper petitions to the God who though not confined to any Holy of Holies, has been worshipped here for so long, wrings at my heart and becomes my longing too.
I feel very much at home.

But, isnt that extraordinary! Something amazing has happened.
I without a drop of Jewish blood in my veins can take  my place here at the heart of Jewish tradition
Though the destruction of the Temple seemed utter disaster, it has opened the space to make room for pilgrims from across the world, in fulfillment of God's promise
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Looking around me it feels as if Isaiah's prophecy is being lived out
By being reduced to just one wall, a space has been made here....
We are at the heart of one of the most troubled cities in the world, indeed one of the most troubled in all human history, a place where different faiths have struggled and fought and wept for centuries, a place truly shaken to its core again and again and again.
And here God has acted, to enable the prayers of all peoples to find a place despite the loss of the building initially built to enable it.
We still haven't reached a point of peace....but at least the journey is under way, whatever it may look like

Now cast your mind to a broken building rather more familiar to us here.
A building now open to the skies, accessible and inviting to those who would not normally enter this shiney new building next door
A building that was loved,  cherished, prayed in for generations whose impact has been enlarged beyond the wildest dreams of those who had gathered there before the world was changed BY ITS DESTRUCTION
And yes,  the glory of the present house, broken as it is, far far exceeds everything that went before, even though something of great beauty and significance has been lost.

We'd never plan it that way ourselves would we?
We'd choose to hang on to those things we have made, to the security of those things in which we have invested emotions, time, money....but remember  "the silver is mine and the gold is mine, declares the Lord Almighty"
This is God's Church, God's mission to love the world into relationship with one another and with God.
God is always bigger,
God's presence and God's agenda cannot be confined within any space, no matter how beautiful,  no matter how beloved.
So on this day when we celebrate the presentation of Christ in the Temple, revealed as a light to the nations,  we recognise that the fullest revelation of his light shone forth from the cross,  which broke open all human understandings of our relationship with God and with one another.
We know too that that revelation both broke his mother's heart...and saw him dead and buried.
There is cost in the journey of transformation.

So let's ask for  the grace and the courage to surrender ourselves and the Church we love to this wider, wiser divine vision....trusting that beyond all our smaller losses, smaller deaths and moments of destruction, God's transforming power is at work, which will bring about by God's grace the greater glory of resurrection,