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.