Sunday, February 20, 2022

Sermon for Westcott House and Coventry Cathedral, 2nd Sunday before Lent YrC Luke 8

It all started so beautifully…

Our Genesis reading and our gospel alike have the flavour of once upon a time. Of halcyon days when the earth was untouched by human hand, and God was at work planting a garden…or when the weather was so beautiful, the sea so calm that a boat trip with friends was the perfect opportunity for an exhausted Jesus to rest, lulled by the gentle waves.

As I say, it STARTED beautifully. Harmony of humanity and creation. Peaceful sleep. Nothing to trouble anyone – unless it might be that seed of a trial that God sows when he tells the man “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”. But that’s for later. For now, as the man sleeps, God creates the companion that he needed and the happy couple are left to explore the beauty of God’s garden, naked and unashamed.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to stay there?

Or, indeed, to find ourselves sharing a fishing trip with the disciples, quietly going about their business.

Nothing to trouble us. Nothing to trouble them. Everything just as it should be.

Maybe in the beginning life, and faith felt that way for you.

All about calm seas and prosperous voyages. God in his heaven, all right with the world. Ahh. Happy sigh.

But for most of us, it doesn’t stay that way.

Whether it's a fresh breeze or a veritable Eunice, something is bound to come along to disrupt things

It might be the moment when you find your faith shaken by something that feels like a positively unreasonable demand – from God or perhaps from God’s Church.

It might be the moment when a storm gets up, as you realise that simply being part of a Cathedral family won't be enough to keep your ship of faith afloat, when ill-health, money worries, rampant injustice in places of which you’d expected better,  maybe even a global pandemic, literally rock your world, and suddenly you’re being buffeted from every side.

I can pretty well guarantee, though, that if you’ve not been shaken a bit by now, it’s going to happen soon. And at that point, you will surely wonder why on earth you ever stepped aboard that small boat in such a vast sea.

You may try giving yourself a pep talk. 
You chose to be there because – well, because you wanted to be close to Jesus. 
You were utterly certain that was the best, the only, place to be

Except right now, just when you need him, he’s asleep.


How DARE he?

When terrible things are happening all around, we don’t need a sleeping Saviour do we. We need him awake, alert, making a difference. Unusually, Mark’s account of this event has more detail than Luke. It is he who adds a cushion for Jesus’ weary head, and who articulates the question that we’ve surely all lobbed heavenwards in times of crisis 

“Do you not CARE that we are perishing?”

Luke just gives us the bald facts. We ARE perishing. That’s it. There seems to be absolutely no escape.

For many, this kind of experience is the last straw for faltering faith. You’ll almost certainly hear some say “I used to go to church but after I watched mum struggle with her cancer…after I saw the devastation caused by that earthquake…after that little one was killed…I just couldn’t carry on believing. What use is a God who allows that kind of thing?”

If you're honest, you might even think that yourself

For truly it’s quite hard not to sympathise. It can seem outrageous that the God for whom nothing is impossible apparently chooses not to step in when we need help so badly.

Master, Master, we are perishing. DO SOMETHING!

But the thing is, Jesus is there all along.

There is not a single moment when he leaves us alone, whether we feel his presence or not.

But perhaps both these stories have something to do with coming of age. With stepping out of “once upon a time” into a world of harsh reality. 

A world where God is always with us but God’s presence does not guarantee a charmed life. A world where we have to take responsibility for many things we’d prefer to avoid.

A world where experience bears out the truth that psychiatrist and theologian James Finley once expressed: 

God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!

Did you catch that?

God’s love protects us from nothing.

We HAVE to engage with the same struggles, face the same challenges and disasters as everyone else. Knowing the truth of God’s love for you is never a talisman to protect you from pain or fear.

And yet…and yet…

Jesus, waking, asks “Where is your faith?”

And surely that is the central question for each of us – for it must be faith hand in hand with love,, that sustains us in the tough times.

Where is your faith?

It’s easy to hear the question as a criticism…as a “Could do better” in the same vein as the exclamation “Oh you of little faith”  

According to that reading, Jesus might place the emphasis thus

Where IS your faith? Honestly, did you think the storm would overpower this, of all boats…

And if you heard it thus, you’re probably looking at your shoes, shuffling uncomfortably,  whole you try to frame an apology. 

“Lord, I’m sorry. I’m just weak and useless. And seasick actually. I’m no good in a crisis. You know me…”

You know me.

Ah yes, indeed he does.

He knows when we are panicking and why. He knows when our resilience is exhausted, when we just need to fling ourselves into his arms and cry.

And I’m confident that Jesus never asks that, or any other question to make us squirm. So, let’s hear it another way, as an invitation to pause and consider seriously on what our hopes are founded. 

Where is your faith? 

If faith depends on neat theological packages, with a tidy answer to every question, ideally rooted in Scripture, and tied up with gold ribbon  – I suggest you may yet come unstuck.

If it’s based on a belief that the institutions of Church and state will always operate for the good of all…If it’s rooted in your own hard-won independence– well, you have probably found a few leaks in your boat already.

Where IS your faith? 

Take the question seriously and don’t simply slip into glib answers. While we all know the story of the child  who was so thoroughly indoctrinated  that when asked to name an animal with long ears, twitchy nose and a pompom tail his response was 
“I know it sounds like a rabbit, but really it must be Jesus”…we will know too that sometimes Jesus doesn't seem to be the immediate answer.

That's OK. Spend time with the question.

Spend time in the depths of your being and see what you find there.

Talk to your spiritual director, your clergy or a trusted friend. 

Sit in the dark with God and see what happens. 

Does that sound alarming? 

Please don’t panic. 

Lent is coming, and with it a genuine opportunity to plumb the depths…because you know, however deep you go, whatever the darkness you encounter, GOD WILL BE THERE.

Storms will still rage. You will not be able to stay, naked and unashamed, in your Eden, wherever it may be…BUT IT WILL BE ALRIGHT. 
I promise you that. 

You don’t need me to tell you that faith is never the same as certainty,  and I have to say that I’m increasingly drawn to the apophatic, to a recognition that God is often located, immortal, invisible, within my own cloud of unknowing – which may at times look very much like a storm cloud of my own grief and fear. 

But the anonymous medieval mystic who wrote of that Cloud of Unknowing wisely suggested a solution, to  “beat on that cloud with a dart of longing love” – and it’s with  that love that I want to leave you…conscious that it’s only love that will sustain our faith, only love that enables our life in Christ, together or apart. When the chips are down, it’s all we have. 

So for me, faith resides always in that experience of loving and being loved. Here’s James Finley again

“ If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love." 

That’s somewhere that I can put my faith, confident of its truth in calm and storm alike. 

God bless us now, to live it for others in the name of the Father….

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Every now and then, the experience of reading a Bible passage in order to prepare a sermon is DEEPLY unsettling, and makes me long for a positive Lateral Flow Test and a need to step away from ministry for a bit of a breather. Today is one of those days, as I've been confronted with Luke's version of the Beatitudes, and digested what they seem to  be saying to me at any rate.

Of course, they are familiar, appearing Matthew as well as Luke. In both gospels, we encounter Jesus describing a set of values that he expects his followers to adhere to, and they’re radically counter-cultural values. Sometimes, the poetry and the familiarity of the Beatitudes, the statements starting with “blessed are …” might lull us into a state of false security, like the crowd listening to this sermon Monty Python’s Life of Brian who, straining to hear from their position at the back end up leaving saying, “oh, that’s nice … blessed are the cheesemakers. They are such nice, hard-working fellows.”

Of course, Matthew gives us a rather different version, softening some of the declarations so that “Blessed are the poor” becomes there “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. That can be comforting, can encourage us to believe we might, after all, make the cut to be numbered among the blessed.

If you’re tending that way, I’m afraid the next part of Luke’s account will come as a harsh awakening. Listen to the woes…

Woe to you who are rich.

Oh – that doesn’t mean me. I mean, RICH means having so much money you don’t have to be careful, doesn’t it? Well, actually, no. It appears that I am, even on a stipend, one of the richest 3% of people in the world. I learned this by visiting a website – –which presents the facts with unmistakeable clarity. I may not FEEL rich, but believe you me, in comparison with 97% of those alive today, I really, truly am.

And, I suspect, even if you’re among those who are currently fearful you may have to choose between heating and eating, you’ll still be in disturbingly better off than a high percentage of humanity.

So, “WOE TO THE RICH” in today’s gospel almost certainly means US…

And that is deeply, deeply uncomfortable

But I think we need a jolt sometimes to shift us from those patterns we’re stuck in ,to a place where we can more fully experience God’s blessing.

I’m grateful for Jesus’ difficult sayings – for things like the woes in today’s gospel – because sometimes, especially in a culture in which sound bites and enticements and warnings are flying at us constantly, we need something pretty shocking to get our attention. Jesus isn’t just trying to get us to change our diet or ask our doctors about a new medication. He’s trying to get those of us who are rich, full, and respected to change our whole approach to life, he wants to free us from entrenched patterns of relationship so that we can reorder society in ways that will be life-giving, for us and for the world.

We NEED to be poor, empty, grieving – because those needs will cast us fairly and squarely into God’s arms.

I think it helps a great deal in seeking to understand what Jesus is saying here if we clarify the meaning of three key words in this passage.

The first word is makaros, translated here as “blessed,” which doesn’t quite convey the full meaning . Some translations say, “happy,” which is even worse. This isn’t about an internal emotional state, and it’s not nearly as abstract or religious as the word “blessed” sounds. Makaros is more like “honoured” or “respected”; as a statement of community values, it’s like saying “we salute.”

On this racial justice Sunday, it might give us something to ponder if I stopped right there. Just think for a moment.Who is honoured in our society? Who is honoured in our church? Who holds the power, without even noticing the accumulated privilege they enjoy?

It’s NOT the poor, nor the hungry (though we will donate to a foodbank to help them) ….It’s not, on the whole, the people from BAME backgrounds who, we know, have suffered disproportionately in the pandemic

Perhaps you’re feeling as uncomfortable as I am now. I rather hope so, honestly. Because discomfort is often the work of the Holy Spirit, calling us back to our right minds, restoring our sense of the values to which Jesus calls us.

The Spirit spoke to me through this paraphrase, written by a remarkable American theologian, Sarah Dylan Breuer, who looked at the emphases of the media as she watched tv, and received the carefully tailored online advertising that floods social media.

Here’s what she wrote

We salute the pure of breath, clear of skin, and white of tooth, for they will have dates on Valentine’s Day.
We salute those low in body fat; their six-pack abs will win them love.
We salute the rich, for they are our major donors.
We salute the achievers, for we hope we’ll become what we envy.
We salute the winners, for they can reward our loyalty.
We salute the strong, for they can determine their own destiny.

We scorn the poor, for they can’t provide for their families.
We scorn the hungry, for we fear they will disrupt our lunch to beg. We scorn the disabled, the clinically vulnerable, for caring for them will delay our economic recovery.
We scorn those who weep, for they remind us of vulnerabilities we prefer to hurry on from.
We scorn those the world scorns, for this demonstrates that we, unlike them. are insiders.

That’s NOT the world that Jesus calls us to. That’s not what Jesus salutes. But, there’s a health warning in the final beatitude, a reminder that following Jesus is NOT the route by which to win friends and influence people.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

That’s hard, isnt it. I LIKE to be liked and approved of. I’m actively afraid of being shouted at and defamed, and so I don’t speak or act decisively to challenge the many things that are wrong in our society, contenting myself with muttering behind closed doors…

So this morning I’m asking for the gift of courage that I may live into this calling. There is so much to do in this broken society, where wounds run deep

I’d love you to join me.

Epiphany 2C Praying with Mary at Cana


Three years ago I was away from the Cathedral for much of this Epiphany season, immersing myself in that fifth gospel that is a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I found myself renewing my baptismal vows in the Jordan on the very day that the Church recalled the Baptism of Christ, and just a couple of days later I stood beside one of the absolutely ENORMOUS water jars that are strategically placed around the possible site of today’s gospel story. Each one has the capacity of a wheelie bin -

We might think a bit more about those jars later, but in the meantime Id like you to join me in one of the countless shops selling olive wood statues, icons, rosaries...Do you want help in reflecting on Jesus and his mother? There’s a practically endless array of holy art designed to help you to so.

The Christmas-card images of a child snuggled safely in loving arms

The scenes of the crucifixion where that same mother, desperate and desolate, stands at the foot of the cross…

You’d imagine, looking at them, that Mary and Jesus were always bound together, that they remained as intimately connected throughout his earthly life as they were when she carried him in her womb.

And certainly, when I pray the rosary, when I consciously invite Mary to pray with me, inviting her intercession, that’s because she seems to have that intense connection that surely means she can speak directly into his ear…

But if we actually look at the gospels, we meet a rather different picture in the years between Bethlehem and Calvary.

Luke, whose text suggests that someone, somewhere had actually interviewed Mary, gives us not only the infancy narratives, all those extraordinary events which offered so much for her to ponder in her heart, but also that heart-stopping day when Jesus lingered in Jerusalem to “be about his Father’s business”…

Any parent who has mislaid a child will know how terrifying that experience can be.

And then, at the moment of reunion, instead of flinging himself into his parents’ arms, Jesus seems to push them away.

How would his words have sounded to Joseph? To me they seem full of teenage unkindess

Then, there’s that awful day when Mary and her other children turn up, concerned that Jesus seems intent on starving himself, and are rebuffed

Who ARE my mother and brothers...”

Honestly, how COULD he?

Whatever the larger point, however pressing the claims of the kingdom, here is the woman who brought his divinely human body into the world, yet he turns away from all that family affection, relentlessly pursuing his vocation…

It must have felt like a slap to the face.

I’ve always imagined that Mary went home in tears…

It’s really not easy to mother the Son of God, and to hold on to the promise of heaven breaking in, if your child pushes you away and deliberately excludes you from his emerging ministry.

But in today’s gospel it sounds, at first, as if Jesus is actively trying to postpone that ministry


Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come...

WOMAN - that’s hardly brimming over with filial affection. In fact, Mary is never named in John’s gospel…she is only, ever “the mother of Jesus”, her own identity utterly subsumed in her role.

Later, of course, when his hour HAS come he will speak to her as “Woman” again, but in kinder vein

Woman, behold your son. Son, here is your mother”

John bookends Jesus’s ministry with these moments – spotlights mother and son not in the soft focus of a nativity scene but with the full glare of God’s glory to be revealed in and through him.

My hour is not yet come

I am not yet heading towards the cross

Just leave me be…I’m enjoying the party...

Yet, there is something too important going on for Mary to simply give up and sit back down among the women…

A wedding should be replete with joy, flowing over to include the whole community...yet shame and ignominy are about to descend upon the hapless couple and their families.

No wine.

Social disaster.

How did Mary find out?

Was it a family affair? A niece or nephew trembling on the edge of disgrace?

Was she someone who always paid attention to those in the background, the servants looking at one another with incredulous anxiety?

We can’t know – but for me it matters tremendously that she was there, at that wedding, that she noticed, that she alerted her son to the pressing need

They have no wine”

Oh my goodness! How often as we read the room, read the world, might those words be ours.

WE are surrounded by so much screaming need

They have no money.”

She has no cure.”

He has no justice”

They have no home

I have no strength.”

They have nothing.

I Have nothing

No way to help…

My faith seems simply a matter of empty words.

God is on a long lunch break.

They have no wine

And all I can do is tell God this truth that God already knows...and wait in Mary waited that day.

The hope might have felt forlorn, as Jesus pushed her away – and yet she is confident that she has told the right person, that despite his unpromising words, Jesus will act.Though John’s gospel gives us none of the back-story, the angelic annunciation, the babe in the manger, the prophetic words and portentous stars, nonetheless Mary KNOWS HER SON...and knows he can help.

She brings her distress for others to him then, as she does, as we all do, whenever we pray, confident that he can, that he WILL make a difference.

Do whatever he tells you

Even if it makes no sense

Even if it’s hard (filling a thirty gallon jar is no mean undertaking)

Even if you’re pretty sure you’ll end up looking utterly stupid.

Do whatever he tells you

Interestingly, these are the last words Mary speaks in John’s gospel…

Her intervention has been a catalyst.

She has propelled her son into action…

She has no idea how he might act to transform the situation, but believes that he will do so

And this is because she has been attentive…

Attentive to the needy world and attentive to her extraordinary, baffling, beloved son


In the face of his apparent refusal, she persists in faith, speaking to the servants on t he strength of her long-standing trust in Jesus’s loving, generous character. and invites the servants to practice that obedience which enables faith to become action. Her quiet conviction persuades them to follow her advice

They DO what he says

After all, they’re up against it

They need a miracle and as God says to Bruce, in the film Bruce Almighty

If you want to make a miracle, BE ONE”

Their obedience, of course, unleashes God’s abundance

As our liturgy will remind us, in the Eucharistic preface for this season

In the water made wine the new creation was revealed at the wedding feast.Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.

The glory of God is revealed in the wine outpoured and the party continues unabated...and will continue into eternity.

But for now, too often it feels as if all that we have is water. We may TALK about God’s abundance, but we are surrounded by scarcity, loss and need...We face the reality of loss and grief, of financial trouble, political corruption, institutional injustice...We struggle to believe that there WILL be enough to go round, that God’s love and God’s grace will encompass all…

So, what can we do?

Me, I think I’ll try to pray with Mary, and model my prayer on hers.

I’ll be honest to God about what I see – the pain of a dear friend close to death, the heartbreak of exclusion, even from God’s Church, the terror that drives refugees to risk their lives in tiny boats on perilous seas – and I will keep on naming those needs in the face of my own helplessness and I’ll try not to be deflected.

And, if it seems that I have nothing to offer that might change the situation, I’ll ask to have the courage to offer it anyway Perhaps if I dare to pour out the pathetically inadequate resources I seem to have available, God’s grace will intervene so that I , even I, can be enough to answer my own prayers.

Our Collect puts is it outlines the possibility that we too can be part of the miracle,

Pray it with me once again

Almighty God,

in Christ you make all things new:

transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,

and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory

Lenses on Vocation - on the 70th anniversary of the Accession of Elizabeth II,

 What an extraordinary day…

Elizabeth 2nd has been our Queen for 70 years – so long that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in her place – yet today is the one on which we remember that moment of transition, when even as she received the news of her beloved father’s death, she was at the same moment handed all the weight of the crown.

No opportunity to consider whether she wanted the job

No chance to say “Thank you, but I’m not sure I’m quite what you need”

On that day, the young princess responded the call of her country because she heard God’s voice too

Whom shall I send and who will go for me

And she responded wholeheartedly, even amid her grief

Here I am, send me”

5 years before, on her 21st birthday, the Princess had proclaimed

I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

The Empire may have gone, but that promise of devoted service has been lived out every single day since then and we know, though she would never shout about it, that our Queen has depended on God at every twist and turn of the way.

Vocation lived out in the service of others.

Whatever your views on the monarchy, that’s inspiring I think…

But what does it say to us?

Thankfully, I don’t imagine that anybody is ever going to call you, or me, to take up a weight like that. So can we just sit tight and ignore all this grandiose talk about vocation?

When God asks “Whom shall I send?” surely God has something in mind altogether more exalted or demanding than we could possibly aspire to…

After all, the whole of our reading emphasises the huge contrast between the glory of God seated on God’s throne– the Christ on our tapestry in the Cathedral, if you like – and the tiny, insignificant human figure of the prophet – as diminutive as the human figure between Christ’s feet.

When God asks “Who will go for me?” it can be very tempting to look at those around us, intent on spotting someone more obviously qualified, someone with spectacular gifts, - honestly, someone ELSE. Isaiah feels pretty inadequate

Woe is me...”

I’m not up to the job, whatever that job might be…

It’s just not going to work

You need someone special, Lord…

But that’s never been the way God works. Our NT reading confirms this..

As Jesus gathers his team around him, that group who would listen and learn and in the fulness of time and the power of the Spirit ultimately set out to change the world, he doesn’t hold out for powerful orators or learned rabbis. He calls those who are available, in all their run of the mill ordinariness.

Fishermen were ten a penny on the shores of Galilee – and THEY were those whom Christ called.

Over the last few days the Cathedral has been hosting performances of the “Symphony of Us” a new work for orchestra and six speakers (the “people” section, as they were dubbed)...Each of them would class themselves as really ordinary – one, indeed, made much of her self image as “utterly boring”- but each of them has responded to a call to live as the best version of themselves. So we met Nor, who cultivates her garden and brings people together to welcome the stranger; Duncan, a gay teacher who uses his free time to offer young people the support he himself needed growing up; Sam, a bereavement midwife, who offers love and care to families dealing with the deep grief of baby loss;...and I could go on. Each ordinary, extraordinary person is changing the world by singing the unique song that God has put in their hearts and on their lips.

One of my favourite vocation stories turns up in several different contexts in slightly different forms. It concerns Rabbi Zusya, a Chasidic master who lived in the 1700s who clearly had a clear understanding of the heart of vocation.“When I get to the heavenly court,” he said “God will not ask me, Why weren’t you Moses?, Why weren’t you Elijah?” Rather he will ask me, “Why were you not Zusya?”

Responding to that call to be fully ourselves for God, and to allow God to do with us whatever God might choose, if pretty much the work of a lifetime...but it’s never too late to begin.

It may not be a call to do anything that seems extraordinary, but to do the ordinary with as much love as you can muster.

So, today, give thanks that God has made you YOU

Give thanks for the tangle of gifts and struggles, of lived experience, joy and pain that has shaped you

And listen...listen with open mind and heart, asking for the grace that you need to respond “Here I am, send me” when God calls.