Saturday, June 18, 2022

Trinity 1 C "Clothed and in his right mind"

One of the peculiar blessings of being here at the Cathedral is the sheer variety of people who find their ways through our doors...I think perhaps I never really understood the phrase “all sorts and conditions” before I came here. Often conversations with visitors are pure joy...So many people blown away by the beauty of our building or coming to reconnect with a precious memory of past visits and special people. Inspiring stories of the difference that reconciliation has made in their lives, and of the part that Coventry played in that. Moments of encounter with God in so very many ways. Other conversations, of course, can be more difficult – especially with those whose grip on what I’d see as reality seems to be on the loose side. Some visitors are clearly struggling with life, and this is reflected in behaviour that can be, at best, challenging. You may remember hearing of a visitor who arrived one Sunday evening during the 6.30 service clad only in an umbrella – but there are others, less dramatic, who don’t obviously fit into the gentle world of arts societies and choral evensong. I have to admit, I find those enounters uncomfortable. I would quite happily avoid them. Nonetheless, the demoniac in our gospel takes the phrase “challenging behaviour” to a whole new level. Small wonder that he is excluded from normal society. He's as frightening as he is frightened - not simply because of the shouting, the antisocial behaviour, the unnatural strength. His vulnerability is alarming too – a brutal reminder of our own frailty. When the chips are down, this is the truth of our existence….what Lear’s Fool describes as “unaccomodated man …a poor bare forked animal” We would prefer, I think, to clothe ourselves in more splendid garb, to imagine ourselves as more powerful, more sophisticated, with more agency in our own lives and our own destinies… We struggle with anything that challenges this, and so it’s much safer to turn away from those who might paint a different picture. Send them packing if you can. That’s what has happened to this man, driven out to live naked among the tombs, in a place of death and decay. He is at the mercy of the elements, as well as other less tangible forces beyond his control, beyond OUR control….and it is that lack of control that renders him most alarming. No wonder he is no longer welcome at home. He’s just too disruptive...the feelings he inspires just too big to accommodate. I cant help but wonder whether some of the more extreme views and behaviours that have gripped our country in recent years have a similar root. Quite often after listening to the news or reading an article on line I’ve thought “What has happened to us? Have we all gone quite mad?” … Is this our response to a feeling that we have lost control? That conflicting voices are goading us in different directions, that, like Elijah in the cave, we are taking shelter while earthquake, wind and fire rage around us... I guess that many of us may have been feeling overwhelmed by the rate of change even before the pandemic hit, with its insistent reminders that we are not, after all, in charge of our own lives, commanders of our own destinies, as we might have liked to believe. The past 2 years have made it very clear indeed that for all our startling brilliance, the stunning achievements of civilisation, nonetheless as the Collect puts it “through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing” And we don’t like hearing that. We don’t want to confront our own helplessness, our own neediness, our own nakedness. We’re in control, remember. So, when the evidence suggests otherwise, we take steps to distance ourselves We turn away from those who make us uncomfortable. We may choose to ignore inconvenient truths about our pwn reality or better still, we might cast out those who disturb us, to pretend that they and their problems do not exist. Maybe we could try shipping them off somewhere… If that’s sounding a bit political, can I remind you that there’s quite a political agenda present in the healing miracle we’re considering. The story is set on the other side of Lake Galillee, in the Decapolis, a part of occupied Palestine where the Romans are very much in evidence asserting their unwanted control. We are not intended to miss the implications, when the demons speak as Legion, and are cast out from their human host, straight into a herd of swine. Hard to think of a more appropriately insulting abode for them from the viewpoint of observant Jews...and when the swine charge into the lake, (remember the sea is synonymous with chaos in Jewish thought,) - well, you don’t have to look very hard between the lines to see a bit of wish-fulfillment and a declaration of God’s power over all the forces of oppression, whether political or supernatural. That’s probably quite helpful for us. We may be slightly wary of the overtly supernatural – but nonetheless, we might still see ourselves, or our society, embodied in the struggling demoniac. Though we won’t use the language of possession, we cannot deny that many find themselves at the mercy of feelings, thoughts and patterns of behaviour that they would never have chosen...driven by addictions beyond their control..Fightings and fears, within, without… Things that strip away our disguise and leave us naked, our vulnerabilities exposed again. But in this place of fear and fragmentation we meet Jesus. We shouldn't be surprised to find him there. Others may have written the demoniac off – but not Jesus. He always pays particular attention to those excluded, literally and metaphorically -- those with nothing, beggars at the gate, lepers, bleeding women and dead children. He thinks nothing of engaging with the ritually unclean – and here he is in unclean Gentile territory, close to that herd of swine… Jesus is never choosy about the company he keeps -for he is intent on restoring not just the individual but the community as well....Again and again he confronts everything that stands in the way of wholeness, everything that divides us from one another, everything that prevents us from knowing the love of God in loving community. Here in this wasteland of death and destructive behaviour Jesus stands – and sees that within the alarming person of the demoniac is one of God's own precious children. The demoniac recognises Jesus too – asking him a crucial question “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the most high God” Naming is powerful. The demoniac no longer knows who he is. He has lost his own name, his own identity, and is at the mercy of so many voices, driving him every which way, intent on his destruction. But Jesus speaks into that maelstrom and brings healing. The inner storms cease. For all their volume, those were never really the important voices. At last the man can listen and in the sheer silence, he knows and is fully known, restored to the truth of himself and, in due course, to his community. You see, ultimately this is another story of reconciliation – our story, our song. So, I wonder where you would place yourself in this narrative. Are you the man tortured by so many conflicting voices, so many fightings and fears that you have lost track of yourself? Or perhaps you’re just off-stage, among the conscientious community that has driven him in to exile, as his rantings are just too disruptive, too disturbing, and you must preserve the peace? Or one of the swineherds, whose livelihood is destroyed by this unprecedented turn of events...for sometimes God’s works of mercy to some seem to come at a cost to others? Or a disciple, gasping in amazement at the company your Lord keeps almost more than at the wonders he performs? It can be hard to watch Jesus engaging so attentively with those whom we don’t understand at all, those who don’t look like us, speak like us, respond like us...We are striving to follow him, and yet he seems sometimes to prefer to focus on those who show no interest in him at all. I wonder where you are in the story. There may not be many parts that you’d LIKE to claim for yourself. But wherever you are, remember, there is hope. Jesus is here, healing what is broken, engaging with the powers of the world Yes, truly – Jesus is HERE. It’s easy, I think, for us to name some of the demons that drive our society mad...There’s poverty, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry… There’s self-interest, pride, hatred, greed, ...Just think of our Litany and you’ll find it easy to name the legion…Endless varieties of unkindness, couched in the most respectable, acceptable terms to exclude some and imprison others. A panoply of Powers that seek to divide us one from another, to prevent us from living as citizens of the Kingdom. But we’re not bound by them. We do not need to run naked, at the mercy of their tormenting, conflicting voices, nor do we have to protect ourselves with the garments of false self that preserve us from acknowledging our vulnerability. Be still Listen. Amid that clamour, there is someone speaking who knows the truth of who we are, each one of us, and better still the truth of who we could be. Listen. He calls you by name. He will clothe you and restore you to your right mind. The power of his love drives out demons and restores outcasts to their community, commissioning them, commissioning us, to declare to OUR families, OUR city just how much God has done for us.

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Welcome to Sunday - Pentecost 2022

 When the day of Pentecost had come, the people of Coventry Cathedral were all gathered together in one place when suddenly………..  How would you carry on with the story? After all, those words from Joel draw each one of us into the dreaming of dreams and the seeing of visions. What would your dream, your vision be for this church family on this day of Pentecost? Does it feel to you as if the coming of the Holy Spirit might surprise us all at any moment, or do the events we’ve been hearing about have a flavour of unreality, of long ago and far away that can have little impact on Coventry in 2022? Sometimes it’s easy to be trapped by our own weariness, - the pandemic has taken its toll on all of us, whether we fell ill or not, and it’s not impossible that we might really never be the same again.. Personally, I’ve found it very temptingto simply focus on keeping going without daring to lift my eyes to see God’s bigger picture, to allow sheer exhaustion to divorce me from the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit… If you’ve ever felt like that, imagine how it must have been for the disciples…They had lived through the emotional upheaval of the first Holy Week and Easter…the grief and despair of Good Friday, the confused excitement of the Resurrection, the joyful reunions with a Jesus who was both the same and also unutterably different. They had heard him promise to be with them always – but seen him vanish from their sight. Now they were faced with getting on with things by themselves– and perhaps his promise to send them a comforter seemed less than helpful. They didn’t want comfort. They wanted Jesus, with them at every stage…Without him they had no sense of the big picture, no inkling of where God might be leading them, certainly no courage to dream. Does that sound at all familiar? I’m pretty certain that the disciples, waiting obediently because they had no idea what else they could do, had no inkling of what was about to happen. So the impact of the Spirit’s coming upon them is the more amazing. Suddenly, there is courage and conviction. Suddenly there is complete understanding of just what God has been doing (would Peter the fisherman of old have launched into this sort of sermon? Clearly not) Where there was weariness and despair, suddenly everything becomes new and exciting. History has reached a turning point. Through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence became real once again for the disciples. Through God’s gift of the Spirit, God’s presence is real for us - with us, in us and even working through us. The word for Spirit in both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) also means ‘breath’ – and breath, of course, is synonymous with life. It INSPIRES us…bringing new life to the world, to each individual and each community, near and far, past, present and future. New life…for weary churches, for battered communities, for a hurting world. Perhaps that’s how we should carry on with the story… “When the day of Pentecost had come, the people of Coventry Cathedral were all gathered together in one place when suddenly everyone realised that they could make a difference…that they had a specific and important role to play in changing the world for the sake of the Kingdom. So they began to pray.. and to work together to affirm life in all its fullness” I think that might be one happy ending that would make God smile…but there are others too, for the Holy Spirit does not just bring new life…the Holy Spirit empowers people so that they can empower others... Those confused and defeated men found themselves transformed into radical preachers of a dynamic message, full of confidence, longing to share their gospel in all directions. They knew at first hand what a difference God could make in the lives of the most ordinary, unexceptional people…and they wanted their friends, their neighbours, and the strangers from across the world to experience that same transformation. Might that be the end of the story? “the people of Coventry Cathedral were so thrilled by the reality of God’s presence that they, that WE, could no longer keep quiet but simply had to go out and tell the world, - better yet, show the world, that things had changed. We’re not just called to be a gathering of good, well-meaning people but a sign of God’s new creation! These actions of the Spirit show the changes God wants to bring about in the world. And the message of Pentecost is that God calls and equips us, as transformed people, to play our part in this mission. We are called to live in a new way. Through the Holy Spirit we can see things differently, recognise the truths that lie beneath the surface of our own lives, the comfortable excuses we make to ourselves about our own lifestyles, and see the injustices around us. Through the Holy Spirit we can have courage to “speak truth to power” - to call out corruption and dishonesty, greed and selfishness, no matter where we encounter them. From the upper room, the disciples went out to prophesy and testify on the streets of Jerusalem. They told the truth about what had happened in recent weeks, and about where it would lead the world. Many joined their number as a result. As followers of Christ, we are also called to proclaim God’s love, and the justice he requires. We are challenged to speak and to act where there is injustice and abuse in our world, and of our world…to be a voice for the poor and the marginalised…and a voice for the planet itself, the fragile earth whose balance human greed has threatened. So, another ending to the story “The people of Coventry Cathedral pledged themselves to respond to the needs of the world around them by living lives based on God’s justice…by working to make trade fair…by befriending the planet….” Big words, big concepts – but we are all ordinary people, living largely insignificant lives in unimportant places…and yet, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit unites people in purpose and mission. “When the day of Pentecost had come, the people of Coventry Cathedral knew themselves important in God’s great plan. They recognised that the Holy Spirit is already with them, giving them the gifts they need to bring about God’s dream for this place…and they dared to look ahead, to see God’s bigger picture, and to weave their own dreams to collaborate in the coming of the Kingdom” So - will you pray with me?  God of the rushing wind, sweep through our indifference.  God of the fiery flames, ignite our compassion.  God of the many voices, open our mouths to speak out against injustice. That through your Spirit and our actions this world may be transformed. Amen.

Saturday, June 04, 2022

No Words – just Jesus


This was the final slide at the final Mass of this year’s On Fire Mission conference, there to convey the information that, though we weren’t going to attempt to take the Blessed Sacrament for a walk in the grounds our final blessing would come not through human words but through the Benediction of the Sacrament.

But for me, this was also a short-hand for a series of beautiful, precious encounters that I had with Christ in the Sacrament during that wonderful season at On Fire. - and indeed, a lifetime of graced moments which have ensured that my theology of Eucharist is incontrovertibly that of Real Presence.

I don’t think I ever really doubted it. I grew up amid the incense-laden heights of Sussex Anglo-Catholicism. Even my beloved honorary mother, who self-identified as a heathen, was very clear indeed that she was “HIGH heathen” and all my early experiences of worship were full of awe, wonder, and multi-sensory delight. I’m not sure that my Confirmation and 1st Communion, aged 13, were remarkable in themselves, but I do know that I had a real sense of Jesus slipping his hand into mine at some of the trickiest moments of my teens, and I recognised that those experiences of his closeness were in some way tied to the whole business of Communion.

It wasn’t, though, til I joined the choir of St John the Divine, Kennington, when I landed in London after university, that I really began to grasp what was going on. Once a month the choir sang Evensong with Benediction at the chapel at St Gabriel’s college down the road, and though Evensong had been my spiritual life-line during my student days, college chapels offered glorious music but not in my experience Eucharistic devotion, so I had less than no idea what to expect.

The choir sat at the back of the chapel, I’m short-sighted and anyway, and that first Sunday evening I didn’t really know that I SHOULD be looking out for anything in particular as the liturgy moved from the familiar territory of Evensong into something completely different, completely wonderful.

I’ve no idea at what point it was that I found myself completely bowled over by a wave of love that brought me to my knees, and left me there, head bowed, for the rest of the service. I just know that suddenly that reassuring hand was back in mine, that I knew without question that I was utterly beloved and that, no matter what life looked like, everything at the deepest level really was alright.

And….it has been that way ever since.

No words – just Jesus.

Just Jesus in the Sacrament, offering, quietly, to hear my confession as I waited close to the tabernacle for an available priest at On Fire 3 years ago…

Jesus flooding the space with light and beauty and love and peace as I knelt this year in a once soul-less conference room that was suddenly the best, the only place to stay and sing, and experienced the glorious blend of Compline and Benediction.

Jesus, wonderfully, being taken from the tabernacle to join worshippers at a Forest Church experience just as I (this time properly equipped with a fellow priest ready to hear my confession) had said “I’d LIKE to meet for Sacrament of Reconciliation close to Jesus but I rather think that the meeting room is in use” that I was able to kneel close by, under a tree, so very conscious of his presence that it was absolutely as the hymn has it

and in his ear all trustingly, I told my tale of misery...”

No. It makes no sense at all – but all the same, for me it is deeply, wonderfully, true.

I’m not sure why I’m writing, really. I guess so that when I hit one of those times when God feels a little more distant, I have a little altar in the wilderness to remind me of precious encounters.

But really, I should heed that wise advice

No words – just Jesus”.