Saturday, January 30, 2021
Candlemas for Welcome to Sunday What are you hoping for? If you were invited to describe your dream of tomorrow – for yourself, your family, your church, I wonder what you'd say. I know we are all longing for hugs and family reunions, for the freedom to go out and about as we wish, maybe to walk by the sea or mooch in a bookshop, or to sing our praises to God with all that is in us. It feels like a long hard journey since we could last plan for tomorrow and expect our plans to be fulfilled. Now we're in a different landscape, and a darker one. Time to light a candle perhaps. If like me you're currently very much in survival mode, so that hopes and dreams feel much too risky really, well then today's gospel might just be for you. Come with me to the Temple, to the outer court where crowds ebb and flow, and stallholders cry their wares “Come buy – a kid for your sacrifice?” “Doves – turtle-doves....only the best” Watch the bustle, the purposeful activity of the market-place. Is this what you expected of the house of God? Pause for a while, look about you Watch for islands of stillness amid the surging throngs. See that man standing quietly.....thoughtful..... hopeful? Ah yes...hopeful indeed, for this is Simeon. Simeon the one who waits. Who knows for how many years he has stood in hopeful expectation – the eyes of his heart straining to glimpse the “consolation of Israel” that the Messiah – the one anointed, chosen by God, would offer when he came. Simeon, clinging to the assurance that he will not die before he has seen and known that Saviour. Looking around him, he sees much need for consolation. Israel is an occupied country once more, with a corrupt king and little to celebrate. Though there is freedom to worship, there is no question but that Rome is in charge. There is oppression and poverty even in the heart of Jerusalem – and it's here in the heart of Jerusalem that Simeon waits. Still the crowds come and go, their faces swimming in and out of focus as Simeon continues his vigil. Some look anxious – perhaps they come to the Temple to pray for healing of body or for peace in their family Some look desolate – perhaps they come to mourn their dead. Some look proud and happy – especially those carrying babies...Young fathers walking with a spring in their step, stopping to buy a sacrifice then going on into the second courtyard...Mothers, carrying their precious first-born sons – their gifts from God, to be presented to God once again. And it's as one such group moves through the crowd that Simeon steps forward. There's nothing, really, to distinguish this little family from many another. Certainly they come without pomp and circumstance, with none of the trappings of wealth or status. Just a man, a woman and a baby – and 2 turtle doves. Yet as he moves towards them Simeon is sure. THIS is the moment. HERE is the promised salvation...seen as he takes the infant into his arms and praises God. For Simeon, salvation looks like a baby boy, just 40 days old. It would have been só easy to miss that family in the crowds...so easy to doubt that God's answer, the hope of Israel, might lie in that tiny fragile body. I wonder if Simeon was, for a moment, disappointed. He had waited for só long – had such high hopes – and now God's answer was this baby.... Hard to believe that here could be, in truth, the hope of Israel Perhaps it's that way for us We wait in hopeful longing – and then we miss the moment of salvation because our gaze is turned elsewhere, because we never expected it to look like this. We wanted something bigger and bolder – something unmistakeable, that would convince all the world.......but God offers us a very different resolution. Or perhaps we no longer have the courage to wait in hope; we doubt if we will ever see a new order, a world transformed by God's intervention Should we extinguish our candle? Not yet For now, let's turn our attention to another figure in the tableau that our gospel presents. Here is Mary, proudly bearing her first-born, still trying to make sense of all the extraordinary events, the incredible words, the outlandish visitors that have somehow been part of his birth. Here she is, doing what seems right...just as countless parents now bring their child to baptism, not because they are sure of their faith but because, doubting themselves, they want to place their precious baby where God's love will surely fall upon him. She brings her child, in nervous expectation.......and is greeted with these amazing words, unlooked for, and probably not that welcome. It starts alright..”Lord, now let your servant go in peace...My eyes have seen your salvation” but as Simeon turns his focus from God to the scene before him the music shifts into a minor key “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed......and a sword will pierce your own soul too” Who would choose to stand with Mary at this axis of joy and pain? And yet, this is só often where we can expect to see salvation. In the past year birth and death have jostled one another, and our world has been changed in ways we've not yet begun to grasp. So many have been pierced with that sword of grief. So many parents have been bereft. And yet, as we stand mid way between crib and cross, we remain people of hope. We know that beyond the shadow of the cross,resurrection dawn still beckons. The night may be long but day will return. You may well be familiar with the proverb “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” Every time we choose hope, every time we proclaim salvation, however vague and uncertain it seems, we each of us light a candle. You may have lost track of your own hopes, for this community, for yourself or for your loved ones......but the light that shone in the Temple that day remains with us. Today Christmas tide comes to an end and Lent looms large, with its particular memories of events a year ago, and all that has happened since. We maycnot dare to look forward. We feel inly pain when we look back. So, in this present moment, let us light candles...many many candles and proclaim “A light to reveal God to the nations....and the glory of your people Israel” Those candles are our daily reminder of God with us.......Emmanuel.......with us in the joy of the Birth day but with us too when hopes seem to vanish, when we've lost sight of all purpose...even when we're too weary or short sighted to recognise His presence. What are you hoping for? It may seem incredible – but in that child, lying peacefully in Simeon's arms, all our hopes are realised, all our fears put to flight... Here is salvation – fragile, uncelebrated but utterly non negotiably real. It may not match our expectations – but it is all the salvation we are going to get, and, thanks be to God, all we will ever need.
Sunday, January 17, 2021
Epiphany 3 2021 at Coventry Cathedral As we have so often observed, liturgical time is quite extraordinary. Not yet a month since we celebrated Christmas yet we have gone from birth to baptism – or, if you find yourself in John’s Gospel as we do today, from the mighty, majestic prose of the Prologue, confirming Christ’s identity for all eternity, to the very specific encounters that set the scene for his earthly ministry. Epiphany, of course, is the season of recognition – of seeing the truth and of responding to it…and that theme is a constant, but our gospel this morning speaks too of the importance of being seen I’m struck by how often friends online use the phrase “I feel so seen” as a way of conveying that they recognise the truth of a particular statement, and are applying it to themselves. Being seen – being known – is hugely important for us To be unrecognised, passed over, ignored is deeply painful. It can make us doubt our value as a person, undermine our human dignity. If you’re in any doubt, when it is safe to do so, have a talk with one of our homeless friends, the beggars of our city. Ask them what they find hardest about the process of begging and I’m willing to bet that “being ignored” “the way people look away and pretend not to notice me” will feature in the conversation. We look away because it’s too uncomfortable...or we don’t think we should give any money...or we haven’t got time to stop. But to acknowledge our shared humanity – even with th This is what persuades Nathanael to set aside his inherent suspicion of anything coming from Nazareth. He isn’t persuaded by amazing teachie speediest of greetings in passing. I have found that is nearly always received as a gift. We NEED to be seen.ng or world-changing miracles but by the moment when Jesus says “I SAW you” and tells him, there and then, what lies at the core of his being. Jesus sees him, knows him, affirms him. And, to truly thrive, I think we all need to be known. Though the Victorians used the text “Thou God seest me” as something of a threat, worked in cross stitch on the hall of many a home to encourage good behaviour among children and servants and those who might think of stepping out of line, the truth is surely that to be seen by God is grounds for celebration. To be seen with all our abilities and all our flaws is truly one of the greatest of gifts – and it’s a gift that God offers us all the time. It’s this Paul celebrates in the climax of the hymn to love that is 1 Corinthians 13 “then I shall know – EVEN AS I AM FULLY KNOWN” God sees me...Sees you...Sees the truth of who we are, and who we long to be as surely as Jesus recognised Nathanael’s integrity “an Israelite in whom is no deceit” God looks at us with love, with mercy, not with blame “Not what thou art, nor what thou has been, but what thou wouldst be, beholdest God in his mercy” wrote the anonymous mystic who gave us “The Cloud of Unknowing” In other words, God looks at us not through rose-coloured spectacles but with utter clarity, seeing into the depths of our hearts, and recognising our hidden longings, our most cherished hopes and desires – and loving us right to the core. God sees us. God loves us. Perhaps that’s all we need today...We are known and loved by God. If you are struggling, and find that hard to hear, then stay here and rest in that knowledge. At this very moment YOU are known and loved by God. But Jesus is not the only one SEEING in this passage. Philip’s invitation to Nathanael is surely the prototype for all evangelism Come and see What an invitation It reminds me of the way a child might grab you by the hand and drag you off to see something they think is truly exciting..that joyous urgency which should be the hallmark of all our invitations into faith. I wonder who first offered it to you, and began that journey which has brought us all to this morning. I wonder to whom you’ve handed it on – reaching out your hand to draw them in to the wonderful, perplexing adventure that is the Christian life. Come and See – well, what exactly? What do we hope that those who join us here to worship will see, experience through our words and our music, our building and our story, our art and our community? Surely we must hope that they might somehow glimpse the one whom Nathanael, at his own moment of epiphany, recognised as the Son of God. And if they look at us, as his ambassadors, - what might they see then? A group of people trying with all their might and main to model God’s self-giving love A congregation committed to really seeing everyone with the same compassionate gaze which we rejoice in for ourselves...And secondly, that ‘come and see’ are among the most important 3 words in the gospels. A A community modelling through everything that we do and are, just what it means to accept the invitation to life in all its fulness...so that the invitation that we offer is also a demonstration of the all-inclusive, all-consuming, all-powerful love of Christ. If we believe in that, and live into it, then we will surely draw others to come and see for themselves what it means to be known and loved in their turn… An Epiphany, as we know, changes everything.
Saturday, January 09, 2021
How have things been for you this Christmas time? I know many things have felt very different. For me, who first started singing in church when I was 8, it was quite extraordinary to travel through Advent and Christmas with barely a note passing my lips.It turns out that it is singing, even more than the presence of those I love most, that really makes Christmas happen for me. I wonder what it is for you? Is it attending Midnight Mass, and then coming out into the star-filled night and knowing that Christ is born once again? Is it joining your friends to worship God in a beloved building? Or getting out the boxes of decorations that link us each year with Christmases past? Perhaps its the smells – of pineneedles as the tree is brought in, or hot mincepies or the spicey steaminess of wine mulling on the hob? I wonder what we could leave out, and still have all the Christmas we need? Perhaps Christmas 2020, so radically different from all the years that had preceded it, might have been the year we found out. Music aside, I was startled by just how important it became to me to get presents to all the beloved people I would not be seeing as usual. The day after covid burst our Christmas bubbles I suddenly found it imperative to research ways to get parcels swiftly to London. Of course I knew full well that Christmas is not, and has never been, all about the presents – but somehow all my love and longing and sadness at separation needed somewhere to go and became focussed on the necessity for absent family to open something from me on Christmas day. When my email pinged to let me know that parcels had arrived safely I felt a joy which, I suspect, far outstripped that of the recipients who were, after all, largely getting the books they had asked for. So I’ve been thinking about gifts and giving as we come to this feast that celebrates the Magi and their intrepid journey to deliver the presents that came laden with added significance, but which must have seemed SUCH a disappointment to that beleagured little family in backstreet Bethlehem.. You will know the old joke, that wise women would have arrived prepared to clean up the house, and brought practical gifts including a casserole...but that’s not the point, is it. Those presents are there as pointers for us – to tell us something not about the givers but about the recipient. They are a set of clues pointing to the identity of the child. One of our unsung carols makes this clear as we see the child reflected in the gifts: as royalty, worthy to be crowned with gold; as one to whom prayers could be directed – Let my prayers rise before you as incense; as one whose mortality, as a body to be embalmed one day, was as much part of his nature as is his divinity. Matthew’s account of the coming of the magi is full of prompts for us, who travel so far behind them...but for those first travellers what was the point of their adventure? Were we there for a birth or a death, ask T S Eliot. Certainly the encounter would be life-changing...as it still is for us. When we come face to face with the reality of God as a human baby, our ideas about what matters most must be turned upside down. Those things which had seemed all important are revealed as trivial. The things we thought we knew are swept away as we enter a new reality. And yet, for us as for the Magi, that moment of encounter, of epiphany – of knowing that we are seeing the truth of God’s love present in a tiny child – will often come without fanfare or fireworks or wild excitement. Eliot tells us that “finding the place was, you may say, satisfactory”...It might seem a strange word but this encounter is truly enough, leaving them, leaving us, wanting and needing nothing more. God is here and we are here. The whole world contained in that moment of revelation. All our senses can desire, indeed. And that sense of having enough – or being content to be ourselves before God, exactly where we are may perhaps be a gift we can consciously take from the struggles of 2020. To know God is with us whatever life has thrown at us is to know that we have everything we really need. Certainly, though we cannot safely gather together to worship Christ in our Cathedral today there is no virus on earth that can prevent us from kneeling in love and awe exactly where we are, and exactly as we are, right here and right now. And – we can offer our gifts. But – what would he like? What should we bring? Another unsung carol, Peter Cornelius’s setting of “The Kings”, suggests an answer. “Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring. Offer thy heart to the Infant King” Offer thy heart. What does that mean in practice for you and for me? Sometimes faith seem more of head than heart – which is nonsense, of course, because in some ways faith makes no rational sense at all. Nevertheless, its practice really can feel like a barren, intellectual exercise at times– and during the perplexities of the past year I have encountered many for whom that has been true, who have struggled to reconcile what they believed they knew about a loving God with their experience of grief and suffering. I have tried to reassure them that feelings are a very poor guide to reality, since they can be as changeable as the weather...so that the warmth of certainty can be as apt to vanish as the sun on a cloudy day. But, in the same way that we know that the sun still shines, even if we do not experience its warmth, we can know that those truths in which we believe continue their reality whether they FEEL true or not. But if faith is to make its way from head to heart, if we are serious about offering our heart to Jesus, what does that mean? One thing, I suppose, is that our hearts are places of honesty. If we speak from the heart, then we do so without any pretence or concealment. If our hearts are wounded, even broken, that’s part of what we bring with us to the Christ child. Always, surely, we bring our love – but to express that we may need to turn from the manger to meet Christ in yet more unexpected places. The Magi imagined that their destination would be a royal palace – that they would celebrate Christmas, if you will, amid all the panoply of majesty and power – but found themselves in an obscure back street with a deceptively ordinary family. They discovered what they could miss out and yet have all the Epiphany they needed. As we find ourselves at home once again, may we learn to recognise and to love Christ there...to offer him our hearts through acts of kindness to tiresome neighbours, frustrating delivery teams, exhausted checkout staff. If we can learn to love him in the ordinary and the broken corners of our lives and of our world then each of us will have all that we need to sustain our relationship no matter what the year ahead may bring. And that will be, you may say, satisfactory.
Friday, January 01, 2021
This time a year ago, the house was full to bursting with creativity as my gorgeous daughter hosted the annual party for her group of friends who met first in their teens at Kilve Court...Their bond is so strong that it has survived assorted marriages, a separation or two, some time living on different continents...these are very much the founder members of my Weasley clan, the extra kids who have become such an important part of my life in the past decade - and it was delightful to spend New Year's Eve together. We talked, among much else, of my exciting plans for 2020. A sabbatical. A big birthday (which was to feature an enormous party for everyone I loved but had never dared to mix together). A once in a lifetime safari, and we decided that even though it wouldn't really be our turn to host again so soon, it might be worth spending New Year in Coventry in 2020 as we plunged into the excitement of our year as City of Culture. Oh goodness. We couldn't have known but our plans, our ideas were so wildly out. As someone who really HATES making plans, it had been a challenge to orchestrate the sabbatical, but by January this year the main blocks of time were in place, the writing goals established and I started counting down the days. I was tired. VERY tired. 16 years in ministry and some major life changes will do that to you. It was definitely time for the break of some kind. But first - there were three months to emjoy...Theatre - "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" - a wonderful night of springtime hope after the endless days of "always winter, never Christmas" Music - a perfect evening of flawless singing from The Sixteen, performing Acis and Galatea at St Mary's Warwick The Blake Exhibition - bringing so much joy as February brought the first signs of spring... By now there were anxious rumblings about the new virus that was spreading across China...but China is a long way from Coventry. I defiantly ordered a takeaway for Chinese New Year, realising that some of my neighbours were choosing to stay away from our local restaurant in case the new virus might be transmitted via a prawn chow mein... So, our next exhibition was rather less relaxed - but I'm oh so glad I got to it. When I was a child, most of my friends went to see the big Tutankhamun exhibition which took England by storm - but it arrived in the same year that my mother had major heart surgery, so that kind of outing waa just not possible...We had tickets for 6th March and took more care than usual not to spend too much time in close proximity to others. By now the news from Italy was frankly terrifying and it felt as if we were standing at the top of a very high mountain, knowing that there was only one way down, and it was step and very very dangerous... I cried as I said goodbye to my son and his partner at the end of that day. "We'll be up for Easter" they said, cheerfully - but by then it really didn't seem likely. The unthinkable happened: Public worship was suspended. On that last Sunday as I communidated the elderly cathedral congregation it was so hard not to listen to the voice that said "You'll not see them again this side of glory"... An extraordinary week, with the cathedral open for private prayer and used as almost never before...so many visitors dropping in to be quiet, to cry, to light candles and to join with fervour in the hourly prayers I led, which felt, somehow, as if they might just be the most significant thing I had done in ministry. A last drive along the A14, carrying part of my recent delivery of "Who Gives a Crap" loo-rolls and a 5k bag of pasta from my Brexit cupboard, a walk across an almost deserted Cambridge and a final picnic in the Botanic Gardens, trying to stockpile hugs and smiles to last for a good 12 weeks (in my innocence, I guessed that would surely be long enough...) Then came the day when I left the office to take a funeral, feeling pretty certain that I wouldn't be back. I took some of the essential books from my desk, grabbed a cassock alb as it didn't seem wise to wear a cassock when we were told to wash everything we'd worn in public on a hot wash the moment we got home...and that was it. That night the Prime Minister made his announcement "You MUST stay at home". Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives" and I, who had always believed myself an off-the-scale extrovert, found myself suddenly home alone. And, do you know what, that part was absolutely fine! Of COURSE I missed friends and family...The inability to hug those I love most was a regular physical ache and I would wake up with my cheeks wet with tears as another round of good-byes had filled my dreams...but that spring was so beautiful, and the stillness such a gift. The daily walk, shaped by what Libby the elderly retriever could manage, was nonetheless a positive joy. War Memorial Park took on the feeling of real countryside as the hawthornes bloomed and the birds sang and sang and sang. And, after the utter dread that had gripped me when I assumed that I would not be allowed to celebrate the Eucharist as a single person alone...the special permission given by the bishops was such a glorious gift and my house was transformed by "Dining Room Church", where I found myself connecting with people I'd never met, who became the most faithful of daily congregations...and Christ was present in them, and in Scripture and in bread and wine as surely in the aweinspiring grandeur of the Cathedral. Holy Week and Easter cemented this and the days passed gently, as I learned new ways of being a priest to a dispersed community, while at the same time trying not to pick up all the collective fear that was flooding into every corner of life online, to compound our own anxiety. It was, mostly, pretty much OK. I didn't transform the garden or learn Russian. I didn't even read The Brothers Karamazov as I'd hoped. I did read more poetry than I had for years, sustained by words chosen sparingly but with such care. I found myself praying the rosary with a dogged determination, reflecting that Our Lady had to live through those mysteries from a purely human perspective, that her "pondering" may well have included a measure of anxious bafflement along the way. And I cuddled my dogs and zoomed with colleagues, friends and family and no, it wasn't the same, it wasn't as good as actually being together - but you know, it was SOMETHING! My 60th birthday, like my sabbatical, was subject to some drastic rearrangement - but so many people were concerned that it might be a hard day to spend alone that I felt overwhelmed with love through the whole day, and beyond, as I mourned the death of two cats just 12 weeks apart. With horizons shrunk to the domestic, it seemed unthinkable that I might survive more than a week or two in a catless house - and so the two Babes from the Wood, Sorrel and Bramble, feral kittens rescued with their mother from Walsall Woods were passed on to me, just a couple of days after their rescue. The early weeks with them were hard. I had tripped at work and torn a ligament, making movement really painful and almost impossible - so I couldnt sit on the floor and engage with them at a safe height. For weeks I barely saw them except at meal times, though they were soon ready to eat from my hand...but gradually, gradually they became braver. They became my project, and I was able to give them the time and patience that I would never have managed in a normal year. As lockdown eased there came the possiblity of hugs and snuggles with my Cambridge family, a support bubble that remains the most glorious gift - a tiny glimpse of normality and of actual human contact to sustain through the depressing news that lockdown had not got the virus under control, that there had been too many people ready to return to normal too fast. There were precious days with my London children - exploring the Cathedral of Trees near St Albans, consoling ourselves for the lost safari with a day at Woburn Safari Park, walking and talking along the Thames near Richmond. There was even a mini Greenbelt, when for the first time all year there was laughter and conversation and even singing in the house, and a bottle of wine we had been saving for something special was opened and enjoyed. Again, reserves were built up, sufficient for the autumn and winter when as infection rates soared, restrictions were tightened anda fresh lock-down was announced, just as I fell victim to the virus myself. I barely noticed this second lock-down, to be honest. Though I was by no means seriously ill, November passed in a kind of sleepy half-life, in which days blurred as I snoozed on the sofa with a kitten or two curled up in my lap and the dogs close by. I emerged in time for Advent - but an Advent without singing turned out to be unimaginably hard. The words we proclaimed were still true - but it was so much more difficult to feel their reality without the music Ithat gave them life and beauty. And Christmas was even harder A lifetime of singing, decades of candle-lit carols at home as much as church, and now - silence. Of course it was wonderful to awake on Christmas morning when Miss E arrived in my bed for a snuggle even before she went downstairs to retrieve her stocking. It was joyous to have the house filled with excited giggles and triumphant squeals, to enjoy M's teetering first steps and the snuggly delight of sharing The Mousehole Cat and Christmas at Exeter Street with Miss E. It was all very lovely and happy - but really not quite Christmas with only 2 services, no Midnight Mass, and no moment of starlit wonder on the way home. Now, with some relief, we change our calendars and embrace a new year. It's arbitrary, of course. Neither the virus nor the weather is aware that we've passed a man-made boundary, and are looking for a new narrative with hope that is close to desperation. But 2020 was not all loss, though I am horribly aware of those families for whom things fell out very differently. 2020 reminded me more than I would ever have chosen that we are not in control, not the brave, self-reliant species we might wish to be. I was confronted in a new way with my own vulnerability and the vulernability of humanity. But it taught me, too, that I have so much that I need here in myself and in my life at home, that home is a place of contentment, even when it doesnt contain the people I love most, whom I would have always beside me. It prompted me to considerthe fact of mortality without fear, as I exulted in the wonders of that long and perfect spring, knowing that spring would continue, its wonders be cherished and celebrated long after I have ceased to be. That realisation was, and remains,oddly consoling. I am very weary, like almost everyone I know, particularly clergy who feel themselves responsible for the well-being of their communities as much in emotional and even physical as spiritual terms. I'm wrung out by the ups and downs of a coronacoaster that has turned us all upside down again and again and I will be heartily glad when the vaccine has changed our status so much that we can go about without fear, can hug and be hugged, decide to do something without wading through the labyrinths of risk-assessment. I have high hopes of 2021 - but no plans. I was always plan-resistant - and thanks to 2020 I think I'll stay that way.