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?