Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Sermon for Rosie's 1st Mass, St Eustachius, Tavistock, 26th September 2021


Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself,
and so bring us at last to your heavenly city
where we shall see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever

How did you get here today?

I don’t mean the literal journey, though for some of us, with petrol-shaped anxieties, that might be a tale worth hearing in itself… but what I REALLY want you to think about is why you’re part of a shrinking minority who chooses to spend a Sunday morning doing things that feel increasingly alien, hearing stories from two thousand years ago and receiving them as if they were the key to life itself. 

Actually, of course, we who are here today could surely put up a fairly robust argument to confirm that those stories are indeed just that – the key to life itself...but we have to accept, we’re not currently doing too well in persuading others.

So, yes – back to your own journey.

How did you get here?

What were the steps, who were the people whose influence edged you along the way of faith?

 Before I say any more, I’d invite you to just spend a moment answering that question in your heart and giving thanks for your own personal cloud of witnesses, the everyday saints whose prayers sustained you, whether you knew it or not. Parents, godparents, there might even be a priest or two who cheered you on.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it often takes a whole community, whether gathered or dispersed across space and time, to lead someone to faith. 

So – stop and thank God for each one of them.

Now, back to the journey. Perhaps you had a moment when it all suddenly made sense? Something you might identify as a “Conversion experience”, - to lapse into church jargon. That wasn’t how it worked for me. For me it was simply an ever deeper conviction that the words that I sang week by week as a chorister, the work of 17th century poet-priests that somehow touched places in me I hadn’t even acknowledged, were speaking of a greater reality than anything else in my life. That’s what I mean about saints dispersed across time. When I stand in glory, I’ll be looking out for George Herbert, John Donne, Johann Sebastian Bach because the beauty of their words pointed me to the beauty of a God beyond all language, all artistry...They showed me truth in ways with which I could not argue, and that truth has stayed with me day by day by day.

But that’s my story – and today I want you to engage with your own.

Because however you got here, by whatever route, it was the RIGHT ONE FOR YOU.

God never calls us to live someone else’s life, to follow every step of another Christian’s journey. 

Yes, we can be an inspiration and encouragement to one another – that’s a very important part of vocation – but there is no such thing as an identikit Christian, or, thank heavens, an identikit priest.

God calls us to be fully ourselves for God.

That’s something that Rosie, like each and every one of us, will continue to learn.

There are parts of ourselves that we may need to let go of, those parts that tend towards selfishness, and lack of love - but never in order to try and be someone else. 

You – yes YOU Rosie Illingworth, priest in the Church of God, are God’s Very Good Idea…

But so am I

and so is each one of us.

Because only you can sing the song God wrote for you, only you can do the work God has lined up for you…

Of course, recognising God’s call on our lives is not always a positive experience. If you’re one of those who found themselves at an identifiable turning point, I wonder how it felt. 

We know St Paul was knocked flying, and centuries later C S Lewis was a contented atheist who wrote of his own conversion with gritted teeth.

In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England 

Yup. C S Lewis. The man who gave us Aslan, whose Narnia stories have brought generations of children to "desire a better country"", whose Mere Christianity remains on best seller lists, whose “A Grief Observed” is one of the most helpful books ever written on bereavement.

He didn’t find it easy, coming to terms with the reality of God. - so a bit of struggle really is OK. 

And yet, and yet – he knew there was no point in taking evasive action.

God’s will is for all of us to know and love, even as we are ourselves are loved and known – and God’s will WILL ultimately hold sway...as God pours an immeasurable, unbounded tide of love into our hearts and draws us inexorably ever closer.

In our Collect today we’ve prayed for that to happen – and in that prayer our longing for God and God’s longing for us, meet so we know that our prayer will be answered

Back to here and now, and the course of our own journeys. Whatever route you took, it probably hasn’t been plain sailing but we are here, and we are together.

Isn’t that wonderful

And, of course, today is just another beginning.

For those of us who’ve travelled with Rosie on this journey to priesthood, it’s tempting to think that we might have arrived. After all she IS, by God’s grace, now a priest, and today she comes home to herself in a new way as she celebrates Holy Communion for the first time. Family, Church family, friends – we can all permit ourselves a bit of wild celebration. This weekend MATTERS. God’s Church has been blessed and changed forever by this new priest – who, wonderfully, gloriously, is the Rosie whom we love and we are excited and delighted to see what she and God will get up to together in this new phase.

Because, of course, the journey continues.

That restlessness that Augustine identified centuries ago when he first wrote “Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless til they find their rest in you” is the hall-mark of the human condition. You see it wherever you look, as people try desperately to find ways to satisfy that yearning, that sense that something is missing. It’s there in the relentless consumerism that fuels so much of contemporary culture; in the feverish determination to get abroad somehow, as if landing on a sun soaked beach is, overnight, the answer to all life’s ills; even in the elevation of family from one of life’s great gifts to the Be All and End All. 

When humanity forgets to look for God, their need for God remains.

And that’s what makes today so important.

You see, today we don’t just hear ABOUT God – or even just about Rosie’s journey with God.  Please do ask her about it sometime... give her a chance to obey the command of the ordinal,  that as a priest she is TO TELL THE STORY OF GOD’S LOVE and tell her yours as well

To do that is pure joy – and yet, today, there is more.

Today, and every Sunday as we gather for worship, those stories become real, lived experience  and we get to meet with God.

We meet with God in one another – made in God’s image, sharing God’s love.

We meet with God in God’s Word, to challenge and change us.

Though we know that the Church never has the monopoly of God’s love and grace we can tend to stay where we feel safe and comfortable, and behave as if ours is the only way that God will draw people to himself – so there’s our challenge this morning.

“Whoever is not against us is for us” 

That’s a clear call, to keep us seeking people of good will with whom to serve the world for the sake of the Kingdom, remembering that

God is always bigger, more generous, and more present – even, or perhaps especially, in unexpected places.

Are you excited now?

Was the journey worth it?

But there’s yet more!

Today above all, we meet with God in the bread of Communion. 

As Rosie speaks those precious words of blessing and consecration for the first time, we know that Jesus will honour his promise to be here with us in the breaking of bread.

I expect we all have very different ideas about how that promise is kept,  but I’m absolutely certain that however we got here this morning, whatever tangles and traumas may make up our lives today, as we open our hands and our hearts, whether we feel his presence or not,  Jesus will come to us.

Receive that precious gift  from the hands of your new priest, for it is a fragment of God’s life and love offered to us in a morsel of bread. Such a small thing, yet all the food that we need to continue on our way, until in due time we come at last to the heavenly city, where we will see God face to face and know God’s love for all eternity.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Proper 19 Trinity 15 Year B James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38

 May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I pray that, or a variation on it, practically every time I preach.

Words and thoughts go together, not just in the pulpit – and may honour or dishonour God as they leave our mouths and begin to set up the reverberations that can continue beyond any expectation, or any desire.

Of course, words can be slippery creatures, their power magnified in this age of instant communication. As one who tends to over-communicate, I have to remind myself that when I tweet “That was the WORST DAY EVER!”, actually meaning “Things went a bit wrong for a while this afternoon...” there will be people who assume that a Serious Disaster has struck...As one who thinks aloud, I need to preface some responses with “I’ll know what I think when I hear what I say” - and that’s just when dealing with well-intentioned, day to day conversations.

This week guidelines issued to candidates standing for General Synod from a particular tradition in the Church of England, suggested careful phrases behind which to disguise their views, and likely voting preferences on some of the bigger issues that divide the Church today. That anyone should seek to win votes IN THE CHURCH on the basis of a clever deception seems deeply troubling….giving away something about the inner reality of those who suggested this behaviour.

You see words, even words intended to deceive, may reveal more than we plan…

James’s insistence that you should not be able to truly praise God and curse our neighbour underlines this. Our words will often show others more of the truth of who we are than we would ever choose, for good or ill.

Sometimes, this is a lovely surprise, as I discovered a week ago, as it was getting dark. I was walking down Hill Top, ...and saw a group of youths coming towards me who looked, if I’m honest, really rather scary.

There was no diversions possible so I pressed on, with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and one hand clutching my keys firmly, just in case.

As we passed one another, one lad, seeing my cross and collar, called

“God bless you, Mother” - a joyful blessing revealing a kind heart that was at odds with his tough guy exterior, and reminding me that words can be a window onto our true selves.

The words of our mouths, the thoughts of our hearts – and of course, the direction of our lives.

Things we simply MUST take seriously, aligning them as best we can with the way of the Kingdom, the way of the Cross.

You see, no matter who we are can get things disastrously wrong…

Enter, Peter who in one short reading swings from trimphant epiphany as he recognises the truth of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, to missing the point entirely, and finding himself equated with Satan.

It’s easy to imagine how it happened. Try putting yourself in his place just for a minute.

Imagine, you have enjoyed the daily companionship of Jesus…have listened to his teachings…broken bread with him…watched him transform the lives of men, women and children by his presence as much as his miracles.
You have gladly given up everything for the sake of his company – just to be with him, to be known as one of his followers.
I would guess that each of us is here because at some level we’ve made the same choices as Simon…

But what if we had to take Jesus out of the equation…if we had to imagine life without him. I’m sure that is what prompted Peter to take him to one side and try to persuade him to see sense.
The very clarity of vision which had enabled him to recognise the Messiah meant that he was horribly clear what life would be like for him if Jesus went to his death.
He was very sure that he understood how a Messiah should behave – and “suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes and being killed” simply wasn’t on the agenda.
Of course, there was this baffling line about being raised on the third day – but that just didn’t make any sort of sense…it certainly wasn’t something to rely upon.
No…Peter was adamant.
Death should not touch his Messiah.
Full stop.
No argument.
God forbid!

would we be without Peter?
So often, he models
faults that we too struggle with…and, once again, his words are a dead give-away of the fightings and fears within that I recognise only too well.
Here he has decisively proved that one can proclaim Christ as Lord without really grasping what that means in real life. Peter is convinced that his Messiah will triumph through strength…He’s completely floored by the way of the Kingdom.

And then Jesus tells him what it means to line up words and deeds in perfect accord…To actually LIVE the gospel...right through to death and beyond.
If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will gain it”
It’s all a bit Alice in Wonderland isn’t it?
If we pursue our goal, we will never reach it…but if we focus instead on a different way – why then all, all will be ours.

Dear Peter!
He knew the right words, but the living reality was altogether too much for him.

He wanted to keep his version of Jesus safely confined in a box tailor made for the purpose. That can be a problem for us too. We don't fully understand God and so we try to fit God, in all his greatness, into our understanding. We baulk at the effort of expanding our views to encompass God..., rand whether we want to or not, our words will probably demonstrate this.

Yes. Your words as much as mine.

Whether you’re setting out to teach or not.

Take this seriously. PLEASE.

The words of our mouths, the thoughts of our hearts, the course of our lives...need to line up.

That the old “sticks and stones” adage is often dreadfully, catastrophically, WRONG. Wounds left by words can hurt far more, and may never fully heal.

Each of us carries a potentially deadly weapon around with us, every single day, and sometimes it seems so much easier to blame than to praise, though we all know from experience the disproportionate power of criticism, which stays with the recipient long after affirmation has been dismissed. That’s a strange bit of human wiring – but one we need to recognise and attend to all the time. While St Francis encouraged his followers to practice “Custody of the eyes”, our readings today remind us that we alone can keep custody of the tongue – and it’s important that we do so.

How will you use your gift of speech to encourage, what kind words will you share this week?

Remember, our words reveal the truth of our being, and the complex reality of our life as citizens of the Kingdom.

May all that we speak be to the glory of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.