Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sermon for Passion Sunday 2020 to the Cathedral Diaspora

If a week is a long time in politics it is almost immeasurable in this extraordinary season.
Though it’s only 7 days since Mothering Sunday, when the Dean and I stood at opposite ends of the High Altar in our beloved Cathedral, already that service seems a lifetime away.
Never has Lent seen such stripping away of so much we took for granted.
Never have I longed with more fervour to see the dawn of resurrection hope...but I fear that this year I may need to wait more than the two weeks til Easte

Nonetheless, however we are feeling, today Passiontide begins.
In churches in the catholic tradition, every cross, every statue would normally now be veiled, reminding worshippers that they are entering into a time of deep darkness and pain, as Jesus walks the way of the cross and invites us to walk beside him.
This year,  no veiling is necessary for we have to do without the externals altogether.
We are in exile from our buildings, learning to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

And with the mounting tide of fear and grief threatening to engulf us from time to time, it’s easy to imagine ourselves amid the grim landscape of Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, its scenery a brutal reminder of the mortality that is all too real among us .
I think we need to pause and look hard, however much we would prefer to distract ourselves.
There’s nothing to console, encourage or please us here.
Just bones, with no stories behind them...a sad reminder that golden lads and girls all must as chimney sweepers come to dust.
This is the landscape for lament – and in this season, lament may be all the prayer we can manage.

And that’s OK.
There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging our grief, our anxiety, our fear.
This IS a hard place – the most barren landscape that I have inhabited in all my life – and we are bound to weep with those who weep.
What has gone wrong, that the world is so violently shaken on its axis#?
Where is God in all this?
"Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died..."
Our Gospel reading provides an instant, unmistakeable answer.
Where is God.
Standing beside us, weeping.
Jesus wept
That famous shortest verse in Scripture carries all that we need by way of assurance that the God whose son wept at the grave of Lazarus is here too, sharing our grief for each life lost, each story changed  to tragedy from happy
Jesus wept.
And Jesus still weeps.

So, if you don’t know how to pray – weep and let God share in that weeping.

But remember, too, that ours is a God of transformation.
Ezekiel prophecies as God directs....mad though it may seem. Does God really wantvhim to engage with a heap of bones?
and gradually, incredibly, the bones begin to come together.
He speaks again and they put on flesh once more.
And finally the Spirit moves and they return to life.
Living and breathing
A vast multitude...the dead restored…hope rekindled for Israel and for all God’s people.
The raw grief of a burned cathedral subsumed in the wonder of people coming together to build something beautiful, founded on the ways of peace
“I shall put my spirit in you and you shall live”
Not yet, perhaps...there is a time for every purpose under heaven...but God holds all our times in his hands.

And  this hope is not just for nations, not simply a promise of collective redemption. It is for individuals, in all the complicated sadness and bewilderment of loss.
God is here too.
Jesus shared in the grief of the bereaved sisters, and his voice rang out in the quiet of the graveyard..”Lazarus, come forth”...calling his friend by name because the power of that voice would otherwise surely raise the dead of all ages, bring them, sleepy, bemused into the daylight…
Where is God? Opening our graves, seeing that we are released from the grafe clothes,, and calling us back to life...

Whatever comes next – no matter how overpowering the coming week may be, God is involved in it.
God weeping beside us, his arms holding us steady even when human hugs are denied.
God at work bringing about resurrection in places where there is no hope of life at all.
God’s passion for humanity meaning that he bears all that we bear, carries the pain and sadness of the present time as just one more weight in the burden bourne on the cross.

But wait.

Imagine yourself back in the Cathedral, sitting in your usual place
Think, if you would, about the great tapestry of Christ under whose gaze we live every second of life there..
Now take a journey from the nave, past the high altar into the Lady Chapel for a different perspective.
Here we can see not glory alone but also pain and suffering, the dreadful loneliness of Jesus hanging on the cross, facing death abandoned by friends and father alike
“My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”
it can be as hard to look him in the eye now as it is to gaze on Ezekiel’s valley of bones.
Our instinct is to turn away – to try and find something easier to dwell on.
Best, perhaps, simply to lift our eyes to see Christ enthroned, sidestepping his suffering.
But the truth is,  there is no break between the two scenes.
In reality as on the tapestry, pain and glory are all one.
I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself
God is as fully glorified when darkness shadows the world on Good Friday as in the golden dawn of Easter morning.
There is meaning and hope to be found in both if we have the courage to engage with them.

We cannot hurry through this present crisis, for the whole world is suffering, locked down together, bereft of so much that was loved and lovely – but even as we pause to lament, we can try to lift our gaze and find God at work even here, even now, making all things new.
Let us commit to work beside him, Christs body dispersed but still living and active, ready to be part of the healing of our communities in the days ahead.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Lent 1 A Evensong at Coventry Cathedral

I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that, when we gather to worship week by week, we do so in celebration of a love story. Sometimes this is more obvious that others...but in this evening’s readings there’s no room for any doubt. First, we heard one half of the great commandment – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul...with the added injunction to make sure that everyone – your children, your neighbours, anyone who passes by your houise – knows that this is a fundamental, non-negotiable fact of life.

Except, of course, that it isn’t. 

The command is there but if you’re coming to it for the first time, you might reasonably wonder just WHY this is laid upon you ...and indeed, much of the grand sweep of Old Testament history suggests that even those who were living through events were pretty rubbish at understanding or following through on that relationship between God and humanity. 
Why should they invest in it? 
And how do you love a God whom you don’t know except through history and hearsay.
So – we have the commandment and then several centuries of failure to obey it. 
Centuries in which God’s loving-kindness is rebuffed again and again by people determined to live life on their own terms..until finally God comes into the world and lives among God’s people, not only telling them but SHOWING them what God is like.

That’s what our second reading is about.
Jesus is both demonstrating and telling about God’s all-inclusive love. The reading begins with a complaint. Jesus is mixing with all the wrong people – people who aren’t respectable at all – people whom it would surely be wise to avoid, people who will bring his ministry into disrepute. 
Try as we might to be open-hearted ourselves, we can probably think of some groups of people whom we’d cast as undesirable...people whom, with the best will in the world, we might be uncomfortable sitting next to on the train, people whom we would quite like to attend a different church on the other side of town...Were adrpt at drawing lines, avoiding connections, but not Jesus. 
He sees those awkward, uncomfortable people rather differently. 

This is a love story, remember….God so loved the world – not just the nice, clean, well-behaved parts of it but the whole messed up, self-destructive, hurt and hurting caboode. 
All of it. 
Particularly the underdogs, the outsiders, the ones whom NOBODY chooses to invite to their party.

That’s really hard for us to accept. 
Our love is a pretty amateur affair  and we tend, beyond our family, to apply some fairly stringent conditions before opening our arms, hearts and homes.
We may avoid the language of sin – somehow we think it sounds quite old-fashioned- but that diesnt stop us from judging others, as we weigh them in the balance and find them wanting
That habit is alive and well in our community, even in our church...but that's NOT what the gospel is about.

The gospel is all about love.

It's that which means we're in no position to judge. 
Even if we managed, as the Pharisees believed that they did, to obey every letter of the law  we would trip up over our failure to love. In truth there are no righteous who need no repenting. We fall short. All of us.
However, that's OK. 

Jesus begins his story, as he so often does, by asking a question
 ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
It's a good stop for a minute to think about your answer.

Think about how you’ve felt when losing something. Something unique and precious (grandma's wedding ring,  the keys to your car) may inspire a pretty concentrated search...
But frankly, if you had 99 other similar things (sheep? Coins?) – would you really bother to hunt for long?


There are 99 sheep trotting along happily– why bother to go in search of the 1 that won’t play nicely? The loner, the trouble maker, the one who didn't fit in?
Why  risk the safety of the flock – leaving them amid all the dangers of the wilderness while you look for JUST ONE???
It doesn't seem prudent. 
It doesn't even seem kind.
All those good little sheep deserve care and attention. 
Surely a good shepherd can’t just abandon them...

No, Jesus, I don't think I'd answer your question in the way that you hope.
If I were the shepherd, then the flock would be left sheep lost forever. Because my love is human and limited...It just doesn’t go far enough

But thankfully I'm not the shepherd. 

I'm one of the sheep. And so are you. 
Perhaps you feel that you're one of the majority, grazing calmly with your fellows, travelling obediently along the path that is set before you...
And that might make you a little sad, even indignant when the shepherd – and the Church that exists to join in with His work – insists on making such a fuss about the missing sheep. 
What's so special about that one missing sheep after all? It's not exactly a prize merino. WHY does it matter.

It matters, of course, because God loves it with a love that  WILL NOT LET HIM REST until the flock is complete.
That's the gospel..the good news for all of us.....because, you know, actually each of us is sometimes the lost sheep...willfull....Confused....Downright disobedient.....we seem bound to wander away from the Shepherd from time to time....but HE NEVER EVER LEAVES US ASTRAY.
He loves us too much.

I was once at a toddler group when one of a pair of twins vanished.
One moment their mother was happily chatting to a friend, the next she had abandoned the conversation and was scanning every corner of the room for her missing son. It didn’t matter that her daughter was safely by her side…she needed to find that small boy so badly he might have been the only child she had. Her daughter, though, was sensible. As her mother swooped off to the furthest corners of the room, she was followed by a small but determined figure, who had no intention of letting her mother out of her sight. 
The whole drama didn’t last long, and ended in a happy reunion behind a stack of tables.…but for a brief period maybe those of us involved had an inkling of the way God feels about each one of us. He loves us so much, that we might be his only child. He actively seeks us out when we have wandered away or broken off communications with Him. It’s almost as if He feels incomplete when one of us is missing. He takes every risk, right down to sending his own Son, to seek us out and rescue us. 

And that leaves us with another question...
Are WE in the right place?
perhaps we should ask ourselves whether, if the one sheep is with the shepherd, it might not be the 99 who have gone astray 
If Jesus is somewhere out there on the margins, hunting for missing sheep, shouldn’t we be there close beside him. 
Surely the most important question for each of us is not 
“Is Jesus with me?” but “Am I where Jesus is” 
There is no better place, for we can trust him to lead us into new pastures, to keep us from harm, and indeed to lay down his life for us.

It's a love story, remember, and that's just the way love works,