Sunday, January 26, 2020

We stand together, a sermon for Cathedralv Evensong approaching the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

Almost exactly a year ago, I was privileged to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Amid many profound experiences in an extraordinary pilgrimage, this one touched my heart in unexpected ways. You see, we’d spent all our time til then immersed in Christian heritage – but as kind Jewish women made space for me among the Friday night crowds so that I could whisper my own prayers, leave my own folded petition in a crack between the stones at the Western Wall I was newly conscious of my own affinity with those who worship there week on week. Why else do we read the Hebrew Scriptures, pray the psalms each day, if not to help us to remember our shared heritage? Jesus was, among so much else, a Jew...We "People of the Book" – Jews, Muslims, Christians, - are united by so much – but as we look towards Holocaust Memorial day, it is our shared humanity that matters above all.

Our Old Testament reading tells us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven...and in its sequence of paired opposites seems to lull us into a sense that all things are inevitable, that there is no more to celebrate in the good times than to mourn in the bad. The preacher presents human experience like a great pendulum held by God and swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other...each activity balanced by its opposite, each taking centre stage for a season, and the seasons themselves taking their place amid the ever-circling years.

BUT we know that some activities, some times are NOT inevitable, that they arise because of human choices. We know.that what happened under the Nazi regime to 6 million Jews and countless other victims of persecution, is in no way part of the natural rhythm of life. We cannot look at those events and then imagine that an equal and opposite reaction, an out pouring of colossal, sacrificial kindness, would somehow redress the balance. All we can do is lament the inhumanity which still holds sway and refuse to allow any group– any nation, race, faith, sexuality, - to be othered – set apart as somehow different, less important than ourselves, somehow less human.
                                                                 That’s the message of our Litany, of course, where the power of the missing word – not “Father forgive THEM” but simply “Father forgive” unites us all in our need of forgiveness. Whenever we pray it, we are invited to recognise our own potential to do good, to be people of good will, or the reverse, to change the world for better or worse in our lifetimes.
That’s our responsibility, one which we cannot lightly set down, for our action or inaction may shape the life of others in unforeseen and terrible ways.

The German pastor Martin Niemöller recognised this in the well known confession which might give us all pause

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.]

When Jesus was asked to summarise the Law, he was very clear. Love God and love your neighbour...And, in case you’re in any doubt, your neighbour means anyone with whom you share this planet…
Love might not mean warm fuzzy feelings – but it does mean seeking the best for that neighbour, again and again and again, no matter their race, creed, colour, sexuality or politics. Our job is to love and care for one another. That's why we are here.

So at this season we stand together, remembering that we are all God’s children, and that our God has no favourites. The striking Echo Eternal exhibition in the north aisle includes young people's responses to the stories of holocaust survivors. They are sobering reading, and I'd encourage you to engage with them later.
One writer began “They took away my name and gave me a number. I no longer existed. I had no name”.
In that appalling season of mass-murder, humanity went missing along with the millions of lives that were lost in the death camps.
But each life mattered then and still matters today.
400 years before the Holocaust, John Donne wrote “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”. We don’t have a choice about that. We are all involved in mankind, all human. But we do have a choice to live into our humanity or to settle for something meaner, smaller, that focuses on our own well-being, or that of our family, no matter what the cost to others.

For centuries the Jewish people, strangers in the midst of countries across the world, bore the brunt of so much fear and hatred, which reached its climax in the unspeakable events of the Holocaust. Today that spectre of anti-semitism casts a shadow over some parts of society – but remember, we still have choices. There is a time for many purposes under heaven but there is never a right time to hate, to exclude, to persecute.
And remember, too, that we live our lives in the light of eternity…
”God has set eternity in the hearts of man” so that we might remember that we’re here for a season but will need to account to God for the way in which we’ve used his gift of time.

Let us ask for his help that our time may be a blessing – that we may be kind to one another, tender hearted…rejoicing in our shared humanity. 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sermon for Epiphany 2A, 19th January 2020 at Coventry Cathedral

Why are you here?
No, I'm not indulging in a little existential angst on a Sunday morning.
I genuinely wonder why you are HERE.
I wonder, when you first came to church, what brought you through the doors.
Perhaps Sunday worship was part of family life from your earliest years, or perhaps you found yourself walking in almost by accident, one day in adult life.
Perhaps today is your first day.
If it is, do PLEASE come and chat to one of the clergy afterwards.
We’d love the chance to meet you and hear your story.
Whatever your original impetus, of course we’re delighted you hav got here.

I suspect though, that once you’d arrived you might not have kept on returning for long if you hadn’t had your own personal moment of epiphany, a glimpse of truth as everything fell into place, - however briefly – and you could say to  yourself
“Ah hah! Eureka! I’ve got it!”...or, as John the Baptist put it
“HERE is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

John, of course, was on the look-out.
He was alert for signs of God’s kingdom from the word go, and quick to share when they were revealed  “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God”
He’d known all along that he wasn’t the one for whom Israel was waiting and, though he did acquire his own disciples, he wasn’t intent on keeping them.
He understood his own role as a sign-post so when the moment came he didn’t hesitate
“Look, here is the lamb of God”

I’m hoping you have had a moment or two when suddenly everything made sense but if not don’t panic.The search really matters.
John’s two disciples had been looking for a while, following the Baptist, listening to his words, they were fired up by his proclamation
"Here is the Lamb of God !"
Imagine yourself hearing those words for the first time...not in the expected formality of Sunday liturgy but as breaking news.
He’s here.
Yes. HERE.

Wouldn’t you want to find out more?
So those disciples set off...lacking the confidence to approach Jesus directly, walking behind him in a face-saving game of follow-my-leader that turned lamb of God into shepherd…Sooner or later, he spotted them, turned, held their gaze.
They were stopped in their tracks as he asks
“What are you looking for?"
I imagine them shuffling, looking at each other, looking at the ground, embarrassed, til they come up with what could only be an interim answer, presented to fill an awkward silence
“Where are you staying?”

They DID  need to know where they could find him – of course they did – but the question he asked has many many answers
What WERE they looking for? What are you looking for? Are you hungy for healing? for justice? For change? for acceptance? for love?
Some of the many motivations that continue to drive humanity to seek something beyond ourselves.
We may not know which is uppermost at any given moment, but we know that we’re not at peace in the world….
This is the discomfort that Augustine noted when he wrote
“God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”
But to know that is to be at a different stage of the journey...and sometimes God seems intent on playing hide and seek with us, even as we set out determined to engage.

Where are you staying indeed, Lord?
There are many today who would say that Jesus cannot, must not, be staying in the Church. If you’ve been watching Panorama this week, you may be among those wondering how the institution can claim to be the Body of Christ when so much that is flawed, broken, even toxic, has been allowed to hide at the heart of the institution’s life.

And yet – and yet – Jesus has never kept the best of company. He is gloriously indiscriminate in his choice of friends, finding room in his heart for us all. Tax collectors and sinners, faint-hearted followers and penitent thieves and maybe even rogue bishops. While in the here and now we need a huge work of uncovering, of naming and accepting the harm we have done, and offering heartfelt contrition, I remain thankful that the final judgement does not rest with us, that by the grace of God eternity may offer a different perspective.
The celestial banquet is not, I think, going to be black tie and silver service but a glorious mess of love and laughter, tears and forgiveness, with Jesus always at the centre, the host with open arms.

But in the meantime, where ARE you staying, Lord?
Where can we find you today?

Jesus’ answer is a simple but wonderful invitation.
“Come and see!”
So – let’s go, let’s set out together and expect to find him round and about our city, remembering his bias to the poor, his fondness for the outcast…
Let's expect to discover him amid our brothers and sisters of other denominations as together we dare to dream of a Church united and made whole.
Perhaps he might even surprise us right here and right now, if we invite him to join us.

Some of you will have heard me share the experience of praying with this passage many years ago, on my very first retreat,
In my imagination, I found myself accompanying the disciples along the river bank , never letting Jesus out of my sight.
Like them I blushed and stuttered as he turned and spoke to me directly…and like them I was unable to resist the invitation to “Come and see”
And that day, as I imagined a small dark room in a sugar cube house (based in my mind’s eye entirely on the line drawings that illustrated the Good News Bible), Jesus invited me to spend the day with him…and at lunch time he took bread, broke it and placed some in my hand.

And then I realised that I had found what I was looking for, that the place where he was staying was right there…right here…Jesus in you…Jesus in me…Jesus in bread and wine….

Come and see.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Epiphany sermon for Coventry Cathedral, 5th January 2020

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.

Familiar words, I’m sure,- enshrined in our national consciousness after George VI used them in his Christmas broadcast in 1939, just a year before Provost Howard spoke into a world where the unknown had become real and very frightening…
Words that my high school headteacher loved to share in the 1st assembly of the Lent term.
For the moment, let’s not rush ahead and remember how the verse continues but rather reflect on the journey that each new year represents. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that things are more precarious, more challenging in our national life than they’ve been, pretty much in my lifetime. And though you may feel your own circumstances are pretty stable, there are bound to be some surprises ahead, both welcome and more problematic. The fifty two weeks that it takes our planet to complete its orbit around the sun offer time enough for all sorts of things to happen.

So that plea “Give me a light” is real, and immediate, specially if you know there are decisions to make this year.
I’m not great at that. I often wish that God would decide for me, say, only half jokingly, that I long for a sign, “some sky writing would be good, Lord, telling me exactly where I should go and what I should be doing.”

Give me a light.

Of course, Matthew’s wise men seem to have had exactly that privilege, light and to spare for their journey.
An Epiphany.
A moment of clarity when God is revealed, when we can say with no doubt that God is here
So- for the wise men, perhaps their epiphany came with the rising of the star…their very own sky-writing, telling them where to go, what to seek.
Arise, shine for your light is come”
Certainly, they seem to start out on their journey confident that they know where they are heading…all they have to do is to follow their star. Though I'd guess that the Christmas card scenes that present it as obviously the one and only REAL star in the heavens might be distorting the truth slightly…Step outside on a clear night and the sky tells a different story, even here in Coventry.
Look up.
See for yourself.
Of course, looking up might be quite a challenge if you’re feeling overwhelmed personally or politically as the year begins. Looking down and feeling sad may seem more natural – but you’ll miss so much if you stay that way.
Look up and yes, the sky will be dark but in the darkness are countless stars...stars that are always there, of course, but only visible when night falls.
So, our wise travellers looked up -and saw something that others missed.
More, they chose to focus on that light, rather than the surrounding darkness and so they set the tone for their journey.
To focus on light rather than darkness is always, in every circumstance, an act of faith.
It’s not blind optimism but hope rooted in experience.

But – that doesnt guarantee plain sailing.
This journey of faith was not, is not, for the fainthearted. The wise men needed took courage and conviction to stay the distance and wisdom to discern when the journey was really over. It seemed only common sense that the royal palace should be their first port of call...A star presaging the birth of a king must surely point to a kingly place – except that this new king confounds expectations at every turn. Our travellers have drifted off course, followed their own assumptions and so come face to face with someone for whom the gospel is anything but good news. Herod responds with the anger born of frightened self interest when the wise men ask to see the one born “King of the Jews”.
You might remember that the next time Jesus is hailed as “King of the Jews” is as he confronts worldly authority once again, in the events leading up to the crucifixion, and the shedding of innocent blood. It’s the same here, of course. God's arrival in our world is quite unlike the sweet and gentle scenes of our Christmas cards and carols. It ushers in mass murder and a young family forced to flee for their lives. But for all the violence and fear,nothing in all creation will be able to escape the touch of God's mighty act of salvation. Not Herod, not Rome. Nothing.

Meanwhile, though, our travellers have still not had their real epiphany. They have seen a king but not THE king. Perhaps they'd made a mistake in setting out? Wasted time, energy…
The voices ringing in their ears that this was all folly”
Should they admit defeat? Head for home?
But they were determined to go the distance and followed the directions provided, directions that sent them away from the seat of power, from splendid palaces to an obscure village – yet still not least among the princes of Judah, perhaps.

As the wise men left Herod’s presence, they saw the star ahead of them once again.
Your light has come...”
Yet this was still not their true epiphany. The star-light led them on to a very ordinary house – where all their expectations were subverted.
Your light has come
God a toddler, cuddled up in his mother’s arms…
Emmanuel. God with us.
It might have seemed an anticlimax.
No angel choirs or fiery messengers, no earthquakes or thundering voice but an everyday scene repeated in countless homes across the world.

Already, in this epiphany, if they were truly wise, our travellers could discern the signs of the times, could recognise the nature of the kingdom. It was, and it is, a kingdom that included the little and the least, the poor and the weak. A kingdom that welcomes those who were searching, those who have wandered in the wrong direction for a little while. A kingdom for insiders and people from beyond the edges of society, Jews and Gentiles, those already at home and sojournors in a strange land

The magi had come far to worship a new king, yet found themselves somehow at home and welcome in his kingdom.

The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says this
An epiphany is an experience that transforms everything, and before you can do anything with it, it does something to you... it always seems to demand a change in people‘s lives. To live with a faith that makes room for Epiphany leaves us on our heels, ready to step out to wherever it is that God may be revealed

The paradox, of course, is that we may not have to travel far at all.
We don’t really need to go looking for God in rare and particular places. Instead, in the child born in Bethlehem, God has sought us out and come to dwell with us in the midst of all of our humanity.
God with us as we begin our journey into the year ahead.
Your light has come
We can seek that light in other places that carry the promise of epiphany - in the company of those who are hungry and thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned, the lonely and those stripped of their dignity; - among people who turn from the destructive powers in their life and in this world, to discover new strength from God; among those called to leave the familiar behind and step out in new directions; - wherever people experiences healing and new life or moments of forgiveness and new love.
Truth is, as Richard Rohr continues “if God can be manifest in a baby [born] in a poor stable for the unwanted, then we better be ready for God just about anywhere and in anybody.”
Anywhere and in anybody”…..

Arise, shine, for your light has come.
The arrival of the Light of the World in our midst enables us to shine with reflected glory. As the moon has no light of its own, but reflects so beautifully the flaming radiance of the sun, so we, in all our mundane humanity, can and should shine…
The light that drew the magi to the house in Bethlehem, that showed them God in the ordinary, should shine through us as well and we should expect to see it in other places and other people too.…

That’s why I’m an enthusiast for the old European tradition of chalking the doors – a visual prayer on the lintel that Christ will bless the home with his presence – a reminder to me and a sign to others that I WANT mine to be the sort of home where his presence can be felt, his love shared. I’ve a pocket full of chalk if you want to mark your home too…to remember as you come and go that the Lord is here. There really is no need to travel far to seek him.

So, as you go forward into this new year, be alert to celebrate epiphany wherever you encounter God. It won't be just in this building, that's for sure...nor simply at the the high moments of life In all times and places and people, even the most pedestrian and apparently uninspiring...because, after all, what good is it if we only see God on high days an holidays…
Most of life is quite difficult, even can seem dreary, dark – but remember – the magi looked UP and saw the beauty of the night sky...revealed only because of the darkness.
So, even in our own lives, and even in our own times of gathering gloom, we may come to experience the glory of God through Jesus Christ

Your light has come – so, as Minnie Haskins wrote long ago

Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”