Sunday, July 17, 2022

One thing needed. Trinity 5C for Welcome to Sunday 17th July 2022

The duty of hospitality is something that Christianity shares with many world faiths...We know that it matters to be make space for all comers, - those we like on sight and those who make us nervous, those who are soul mates and those (sometimes including children) whose presence in our churches sometimes makes us wonder if we are losing our own precious sanctuaries. 

We know this – though we don't always find it easy.

Hospitality is written into our Christian DNA because we know that we are all recipients of God's boundless hospitality, his unconditional welcome that excludes nobody. NOBODY!

When St Benedict was writing his Rule – the template for monastic life that has influenced so much of the western church – he was clear that his brothers should welcome strangers as they would welcome Christ himself. That’s something we find ourselves wrestling with at the cathedral again and again when someone comes through our doors whose behaviour is best described as “Challenging”. To stand as a place of sanctuary means that our doors must be open without condition...After all, if we are welcoming strangers as it they were Christ, then actually the cathedral belongs not just as much but MORE to them than it does to we who find ourselves standing inside looking out.

That’s challenging – specially when behaviour that’s a bit different from our norm seems to threaten the very peace and beauty of worship which drew us there in the first place....How do we offer hospitality in equal measure to those whose needs are radically different? How do we balance the needs of those children who need to be themselves in their heavenly father’s house and those who have come to the cathedral because the presence of children in their parish church is too hard to bear in the wake of a bereavement?

How can we be fully inclusive of those who have been forced for too long to absent themselves from worship as they were made to feel unwelcome with those for whom the very word “Inclusive” is redolent of something that strikes at the heart of their understanding of Scripture?

How can we recognise the presence of Christ in ALL who present themselves?

I wonder how it played out among Benedict’s monks in the early years...How they created radical hospitality that really did have space and welcome for all...I'm confident that they didn't always find it easy, any more than we do today - but there really isn't any wiggle-room

We should welcome strangers as we would welcome Christ.

So – our gospel shows us two different approaches to the task of welcoming Christ himself....An honoured guest is treated to the best the house can offer and his hosts revere him as the one who brings God’s blessing. But hang on. This isn't simply a question of "Lovely to see you. Do come in". Cultural conventions are being flouted left right and centre, for Martha and Mary are women alone, householders in a society where lone women were generally beyond the pale. They risked their already compromised reputations in inviting a wandering rabbi and his disciples to eat with them and Jesus, of course, should not have accepted the invitation

But we know how little he cared for convention...How little he cares for it still.

He ALWAYS responds to our invitations, always comes to us if we are serious in inviting him, and so he comes to that house in Bethany and it's a red letter day. Martha longs to ensure that everything is just so...and bustles about, cleaning, cooking, doing all in her power to create a perfect occasion. She wants to make things right, - to show herself truly ready to welcome Jesus. To give him unmistakeable demonstrations of just how much she loves him, how much she longs to please him.

Mary just longs to be with Him show her love by spending every possible moment in his presence. Gazing on his face and feeling her heart and soul transformed by the loving gaze he offers in return.

Doesn't that sound wonderful.

But - Imagine a hot day like today.

Imagine that you’re with Martha, slaving away over a hot stove while everything in you longs to be sitting with your guest, hanging on his every word, treasuring the moment.

Small wonder that Martha is loudly resentful, unable to bear the way in which Mary is enjoying everything she longs for...She slams the pans down in the kitchen, emerges red-faced and angy...and oh, it must have been hard for her when Jesus appears to take Mary's part and points out what’s really going on – but I think that in fact he is offering her freedom.

You don't HAVE to do all that to please me. It's OK. Come and sit down. Let me love you

He offers that freedom to us as well.

The Christian life often seems very demanding. We've so much we could do, so many ways of serving God and his world. We could work at the food-bank or help with the flowers...we could visit the housebound or play games with the children...we could join a house group or enrol on a course. And obviously we could, and we do, create the great acts of worship that punctuate our cathedral year...the celebrations of festivals...the ordinations....the special events that bring hundreds of guests through our doors (and remember, we’re to welcome all of them as we would welcome Christ, who is both host and guest)...

All of those things may be right and good – part of our loving response to the love that we've received.And it's true enough that when we look into our inmost souls, when we stand in silence before God there will be much that we long to change...much that needs cleansing, restoring, renewing – but that's not something we can do for there's no point in tying ourselves in knots in our endeavour to be READY to welcome Jesus.

So- stop and listen to him now. These words are for each of us...for we've come here today because we want to spend time with Jesus, to make him welcome in our hearts and in our lives. These are his words to us.

You’re busy with many things, but only one thing is needed. We are here because you wanted to spend time with why not do that? Come, be with me – there's no need of special preparations or elaborate menus. Just come close. Let me welcome you as you want to welcome me....

That one thing needed is to be open and hospitable to come close to him so that he can come close to you. You don't have to be anyone special. You don't have to DO anything special. Just choose the one thing that is needed....Choose to be as close to Jesus as you can, and trust him to do the rest.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Sermon for the 1st Mass of the Revd Su McClellan, Coventry Cathedral, 10th July 2022.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, our Dean was involved in training a group of clergy, myself among them, to act as peer reviewers. There was a lot of good input that day but the thing that I carried with me and have returned to again and again was a poem, Priestly Duties, by Stewart Henderson. It’s way too long to share in its entirety (though it’s easy to find online), but its opening questions return to me regularly and seem apt today as we give thanks for this new chapter in Su’s ministry and share in the joy of this first Eucharist. 

It begins by asking “What should a priest be” and goes on to question “What should a priest do”, providing a series of answers that are both astute and comic, reflecting the complex expectations that we have of ourselves, as well as those projected by others. Many of these are contradictory 

 What should a priest be? 
All things to all – 
male, female and genderless ….. 

What should a priest be? 
accessible and incorruptible 
abstemious, yet full of celebration,
informed, but not threateningly so, 

Others are just terrifyingly unrealistic or utterly bonkers. 
Keep an eye open to spot times when miracles are expected of very ordinary, flawed and feeble might, once in a while, find you are falling prey to them yourself... 
What should a priest be? 
all-round family person 
counsellor, but not officially because of the recent changes in legislation,
teacher, expositor, confessor, 
entertainer, juggler, 
good with children, 
and possibly sea-lions, 

And so it continues – the kind of catalogue that has most clergy ruefully nodding in recognition of tropes that are all too familiar...though its final section comes very close to nailing some of my own longings and aspirations 

What does a priest do?
 tends the flock through time, oil and incense, 
would secretly like each PCC 
to commence with a mud-pie making contest 
sometimes falls asleep when praying 
yearns, like us, for heart-rushing deliverance 

What does a priest do? 
has rows with their family 
wants to inhale Heaven 
stares at bluebells 
attempts to convey the mad love of God 
would like to ice-skate with crocodiles 
and hear the roses when they pray. 

Of course none of this may resonate with you at all, so It’s a blessing, then, that Su and those ordained beside her last Sunday have another explicit agenda provided by the Ordinal. Those who were present will have heard Bishop Christopher sharing it – and again, do look on line if you can’t remember all the details. Once more, the list is distinctly demanding and generations of priests, having heard those words, have fallen on their knees thankful that in ordination we explicitly invite the Holy Spirit to come down upon the candidates, as there’s simply no chance we could ever manage what is asked of us alone. 

Some of the charge is directed at all those present, including the calling that most resonates with me “with all God’s people priests are to tell the story of God’s love” 
What an utterly wonderful responsibility – and one that is absolutely at the heart of today’s Gospel, when you come to think of it. Our parable shows us a love that transcends any boundaries we might choose to create. Of course, Jesus told the story in response to two pressing and pertinent questions “What must I do to obtain eternal life” and the supplementary “Who is my neighbour”. There are undoubtedly stock answers available for these, but the answers weren’t really the point.... The whole exchange is intended to catch Jesus out.. We don’t know what kind of lawyer is speaking to him...if a Pharisee, then eternal life is very much part of the theological deal...if a Saducee, then it absolutely is not, so by even asking the question there’s a covert intention to force Jesus to declare himself for one side or the other… Instead Jesus sidesteps the whole thing by inviting a lawyer to give a legal opinion, - “how do YOU interpret the law?” He is meeting the lawyer on his home ground, before bringing the question swiftly from the abstract to the specific...from theory to practice. 
 DO this and you shall live. 
DO this. 
 That’s a bit demanding isn’t it. Like the lawyer, we’d often prefer to celebrate theory rather than get involved in the mess and muddle of practice…and so the lawyer makes another attempt to protect himself, at least. Who IS my neighbour? 
Surely there must be ways in which I can limit this troublesome command to love...boundaries that can be confirmed, to protect me from anything too radical. 
 And so Jesus plunges into this beloved, familiar , challenging story...of neighbourly love neglected and then revealed in the most unlikely place. Of course we have no idea what prevented those insiders, the priest and Levite, who you might expect to be first on the scene to offer support, from actually doing anything for the unhappy traveller. We might imagine that it was the strict purity laws that intervened, but the truth is that the obligation to help someone in need would always trump those – so the likeliest explanation for their inaction is fear, pure and simple. To this day, that road from Jerusalem to Jericho remains rocky, desolate and dangerous and the fate of the traveller has already confirmed that there are unsavoury types about. We’ve all seen tv dramas where a driver stops in the dark in a response to an appeal for help, only to be ambushed himself – and this is that kind of situation. I doubt if I would have had the courage to stop...Fear often gets in the way of kindness...Maybe not fear of physical danger – but there are other threats – to reputation or self-image...The fear of rocking the boat...of standing out from the crowd...of finding oneself committed to something that after all seems far too demanding. I wonder if fear has ever stifled compassion for you? It’s a question worth asking. 

Of course, the point of the parable is that compassion is found in the outsider, the Samaritan...the one who was LEAST likely to tell the story of God’s love in any way that Jewish hearers could recognise. He showed it so clearly that even the lawyer, unable to actually articulate the word “Samaritan” nonetheless knows the answer to the final question from Jesus “Who do you think was a neighbour” The words may stick in his throat but he cannot deny...“The one who showed him mercy”… The one who actually did something to help. 

You see – that’s the point. 
hat command to do bookends the parable. 
Do this and you shall live. 
Go and do likewise 
A command to us all...that transcends the restrictions of race or tribe or religious institution. 
Love is a doing word that is so much more than warm fuzzy feelings. 
Tell the story of God’s love by the way we live each day, by the ways in which we demonstrate active compassion, by the ways we reach out beyond our comfort zones to ensure that EVERYONE is included, everyone welcomed, everyone embraced just as they are. 

And if you are unsure quite how you might achieve that, or what it might look like for you– well, we’re going to model that right here and right now. 
We’re going to hear Su speak those words in just a few minutes time. 
DO THIS in remembrance of me The Eucharist over which she presides for us today is itself both a living reality, Christ’s once for all sacrifice made real and present for this time and place AND a parable, a story into which we can enter to learn more about life in God’s kingdom…It is the story of God’s love retold by countless priests standing at countless altars around the world, day after day after day...
It is a story that Su has been preparing to tell in this way over all the years of discernment, the story that shapes our faith and enables us to share that faith with others. In the Eucharist, the story of God’s love is demonstrated as bread is broken and wine outpoured…. We are given an insight into the self-giving love at the heart of everything, we see it made real as we enter once again into the miracle that transforms the brokenness we bring so that it becomes the very life of God, here to be received by us all That is the story we are gathered to tell, the story that shapes and defines us, the story with the power to change the world. 
Never mind all the other demands and expectations, the aspirations, failures and regrets Never mind the priestly duties that can so occupy our time, our thoughts, our energy Together with all God’s people, priests are to tell the story of God’s love Su does this in many ways, by who she is and by what she does Today she does it in a new way as she gathers the hopes and dreams, the fears and failings, the prayers and longings of THIS community in an offertory that has always been about so much more than material gifts, of money , bread or wine. She takes our stories and brings them before God, who receives them and retells them in the language of a love that is stronger than everything in creation, stronger even than death. 
So – as we rejoice in our new priest let us hold on to our shared calling to tell that story...with our words, of course, but so much more with our lives…. How will we tell the story of God’s love here in Coventry Cathedral? How will you tell it in your daily life? It’s a calling for us all, an exercise in show and tell that gives us hope and purpose now, and beyond that the promise of life everlasting.