Saturday, May 28, 2022

That they might be one - thoughts for Easter 7 C at St Francis, Radford

If you ever find yourself talking to a priest about their job and ask them what aspect of their work they love most, the chances are you won’t wait long before they rather apologetically mention funerals.

I have to say, I’m another enthusiast for these opportunities to stand beside a family in the torrents of love and grief and honesty, and try and find ways to help them process all of light a candle of hope amid the offer a reminder of God’s love stronger than everything in creation. It’s holy ground and I’m always conscious of the privilege of walking there.Yet more precious are those times when I’ve been with a friend in the last stages of their journey, and together we have worked out the whole heart-breaking but hope-filled business of saying goodbye. Recently I’ve trodden that path through long months of decline with a beloved friend and priest, and together we found comfort in the worlds of Thomas More “Pray for me as I will for thee, that we may merrily meet in heaven”. Wendy loved prosecco and I opened bottle and raised a glass to her on her birthday, which fell just a few days after her death this month, as I reflected on the bubbles of resurrection joy she would now be experiencing til next we meet...

Equally, I’ll never forget the words that Pat, a dear lady in my last parish, left to me                    I'll see you later...” she said “Here or there”

In both cases, the words were a wonderful expression of the faith that had filled and shaped their lives and spilled out to touch the lives of others...and I paid special attention in those conversations because I was very conscious that we would not be chatting together on this earth for much longer.

Last words have a special power – and our gospel today is part of the the lengthy prayer that Jesus offers at the Last Supper in John's gospel – the wise words that are know as “The Farewell Discourse”

Last words of advice from our Lord himself…

Clearly we should all sit up and take notice.

We NEED to hear what Jesus is saying.

And what does he say?

Well, on one level, he says nothing to US at all.

We are eavesdroppers, listening in as he prays to his Father – but as so often in the gospels there is a sense that we are meant to hear just as elsewhere in John, Jesus says to God

You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me."

But this prayer is both an entreaty to God – to make things happen – and a declaration for us of the way things should be.

At this most crucial point in his earthly ministry Jesus asks God for one thing for us

That they may all be one”

Words that have troubled and burdened us ever since, as we deal with factions and disputes, as we take sides over theology and worship separately on the grounds of belief or simply of preference.

Words that can change how you feel in a matter of moments.

Let me explain. Some years ago, before I came to Coventry, I was at a training event – and sitting at the same table as my then Bishop. I wasn't very pleased with him that day. Not long before he had refused to publicly affirm something that mattered a great deal to me – and I was planning to air my disappointment with him in the course of the event. Only very early on, as an illustration of something (I can't remember what) we were asked to give something we valued to someone else around our table to look after for the rest of the day. And so it was that I found myself wearing Bishop Michael's episcopal ring for a few hours.

It was heavy on my hand – a man's signet ring with a dark stone...and around the stone I saw engraved “Ut unum sint” “That they might all be one” As I read those words and realised that for Bishop Michael they would be non-negotiably present whenever he caught sight of his hand, at any moment on any day, I understood just HOW heavy the ring really was – and how heavy the burden on our bishops to be a focus of unity within the church. Every day they are confronted with the need to make Jesus's high priestly prayer a reality – while the members of the churches they serve seem intent on ignoring it as much as possible. For a little while that day I was able to put aside my own anger and disappointment that +Michael had not fallen in with my particular agenda as I recognised his role in calling us back to the over-riding agenda that Jesus placed before us in his farewell discourse.

That they might all be one”

But oh, we seem so far from becoming the answer to that prayer.

There are divisions within our families, our churches, our nation.

A seemingly endless series of opposing pairs – male or female; rich or poor; gay or straight; Christian or Muslim; conservative or liberal; educated or uneducated; young or old; have or have not.

But those labels that we bandy about so liberally are attached not to issues but to people...real people, with names, lives, joys, sorrows, concerns, and needs just like our own. I think we sometimes forget or ignore this. It is easier to deal with an issue than a real keep our distance from the unfamiliar by drawing lines to exclude and to reassure ourselves that WE are right, approved of, accepted, in control. That’s why I believe that our Cathedral’s Litany of Reconciliation is important...It doesn’t pray “Father forgive THEM” as it catalogues the ways in which we harm one another and the planet. Instead it says “Father forgive” - recognising that there is no “them” and “us” - that we all alike mess up and need forgiveness. That life is not designed to be a contest, or an expression of a binary universe where if I am to win, someone must lose, if I’m to be included someone must be excluded…Both/and, rather than either/or, is the message, even as the divisions of our lives seem sharper and wider than ever.

But still Jesus prays “that they may be one”

He doesn't pray for tolerance, for smoother relations between factions...

He doesn't pray that differences would be eliminated.

He prays “That they may be he and the Father are one – so that OUR oneness might be a revelation of God's presence in the world.

That does not mean, however, that we will lose our identity or individuality. You are called to be YOU – not a bland copy of me...And I’m to be me, Kathryn, with all the joy and frustration that this entails.

This is unity, not uniformity.

Jesus does not stop being Jesus nor the Father stop being the Father because they are one.

Jesus and the Father are one because they love and give themselves to each other.

Their oneness – and the oneness to which we should aspire - is not about eliminating differences.

It is about love.

Love is the only thing that can ever overcomes division...for divisions are, ultimately, based on fear...and perfect Love (the love we meet in God) casts out fear.

In love there may be differences but there is no division.

God’s love knows no conditions and no boundaries.

God loves male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight.

God loves Christian and Muslim, conservative and liberal, educated and uneducated.

God loves young and old, introverts and extroverts, haves and have nots...all those on either side of the binary divisions we’ve created

All are loved fully, completely, and uniquely.

Often when I'm baptising I tell the family “Baptism will change nothing on God's part. God already loves your child so much that if she was the only person every born, Jesus would still have come into the world for her.”

I don't often unpack what that total love means...

God's love has NO boundaries...not even between Jesus and you...or me.

Shall I say that again?

God loves you as much as he loves Jesus.

God loves your neighbour as much as he loves Jesus.

God loves your enemy as much as he loves Jesus.

No difference, no distinction.

Absolute love for each and every one.

If that is how God loves how can we be content to do less?

For far too long we have dealt with each other through our boundaries, differences, and divisions. See where that's lead! It's not very pretty

Though Jesus is praying to the Father you and I will in large part be the ones to answer his prayer.

We can collaborate with Him – or go our own way, clinging to those divisions wrought from fear and suspicion.

Let's begin, every day, to choose Love.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

One stitch at a time

 I'm doing a tapestry, - have been doing so for some time.

That's because whenever I sit down at home, a dog or cat arrives on my knee within seconds, so basically it's a tapestry I only ever work at on retreat or at On Fire.

I really like it and I enjoy working on it . One day it will be something beautiful (I hope I'll finish it myself,  though my first tapestry project was completing one my mother started, several years after her you never know!)

And this year at On Fire I realised it was a pretty accurate parable of my spiritual life.

 There are seasons when it grows appreciably, when I might even get a sense of what the picture is supposed to be....but there are also months on end when the whole knotty mess is stuffed in a bag and ignored. And it is when I am away on retreat or at On Fire that a few more stitches are added, that appreciable progress happens.

So, what have I learned about myself and God this year,  as I returned thankfully to the beloved community where I have more space to be myself, and experience what it means to be loved by God than anywhere else on the planet?

For me, the big thing is around vocation.

Of all the glorious, heavy, life-changing aspirations of the Ordinal, I find most resonant for me the demand: "[priests] are to tell the story of God's love".

This is the heart of my priesthood, enacted whenever I preside at the Eucharist of course, but made real too in the joys of ministry as a Spiritual Director, and for three beautiful, intense days in my role as conference chaplain at On Fire. It is beyond precious to walk on holy ground with my siblings here, to remind them just how loved they are, sometimes to hold hard things with them or for them. They are always generous in their response to our conversations and, though I don't for a moment imagine it's all about me, I do know that working with the grain of myself enables me to be a better, less tangled Kathryn. 

"Vocation", said Frederick Buechner, is "the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet," and certainly my experience is that this is a season of the deepest gladness. And my hope is that if, year on year, I keep on practising being the person I am meant to be,  that practice will gradually transform aspiration into reality.

Like the tapestry, it can be achingly slow progress, but the journey itself is precious and beautiful.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Sermon for Evensong Easter 6: Zephaniah 3 & Matthew 28

There’s an awful lot of joy about in today’s Evensong

Our introit reminded us “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it”

Psalm 126 reminds us of the joy of God’s restoration

those who sow in tears shall reap in joy”

and our Old Testament reading from Zephaniah is so flooded with jubilation that it touches both God and God’s people with equal delight.

Let me remind you:

Sing aloud O daughter Zion….Rejoice and exalt with all your heart”…

God has done it again!

Removing judgement, God too is swept up in the fact, God looks at God’s people and SINGS FOR JOY

He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exalt over you with loud singing, as on the day of festival”

It’s as well that this is where our readings point us, as I’m distinctly joyful myself. Indeed, I’m in that rather irritating state of bursting into song at random moments, wandering round with a silly grin just because.

You see, I’m just back from our first in person gathering of OFM after the pandmic break.

On Fire is the Catholic Charismatic conference whose blend of word and sacrament, of catholic spirituality and spirit- filled worship never fails to restore my soul and renew ME in God’s love. It’s always an extraordinary time, as a community forms around the person of Christ, full of expectation that God will be present, active, transformative… And because we are all expectant, all on the look-out , the Holy Spirit is very much in evidence, doing her thing pretty much wherever we turn.

Sometimes, of course, the work of the Spirit is to enthuse, inspire, set hearts and minds ablaze with the wonder of love and the power of grace. It’s not altogether unknown to find yourself unexpectedly dancing for joy (in a very well-behaved, Anglican way, of course!)

Sometimes she is more about persuading us out of our comfort zones, to take on the world for the sake of God’s Kingdom

Sometimes, as was my experience last week as Conference Chaplain, she is all about confirming our calling, inviting us into the place where our deepest joy and the needs of the world meet, so that we find ourselves living the best version of ourselves with heart and soul and work all in perfect alignment.

Sometimes, before any of that can happen, there is a great work of healing to be done.

Last week, again and again, I found myself listening to beautiful, broken, beloved children of God who had been persuaded by the words and attitudes of some in the Church that they were somehow not good enough, not wanted, not really part of the family.

They told me precious stories, replete with holiness, that tapered off into tears, because, of course, for some of them rejection by the Church was equated with rejection by God as well.

And I, with the privilege of listening as hard as I could, with one ear to them and the other tuned to the voice of the Spirit, found myself saying

God looked at all God had made and it was very good.”

You are fearfully and wonderfully made”

and, again and again,

God rejoices over you with loud singing.

So, can I say it once more to you tonight.

If anyone or anything has ever made you wonder if you really belong

If anyone has spoken words that diminish you and wound your soul.

If you have every doubted for a moment that God’s overwhelming, boundless love is there for you,

you are invited to joy.

Stop here and now and listen.

Listen to hear that song of God’s love for you – not a tentative, quiet song, that you might be able to miss, but a loud, unmistakeable descant of joy.

God looks at you and sings for joy.

How beautiful is that!

Let it renew you in love and call forth joy in your own heart too, for surely you DO belong, you ARE at home, and in Jesus, God has promised to stay with you to the close of the age.