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.