Monday, July 17, 2023

Final Sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral 16th July 2023


Forgive me this afternoon if my main object seems to be to preach, quite literally, to the choir.

I hope my words may have some relevance elsewhere too, but let’s start with the singers. Oh my goodness.If you were intent on reducing your Canon for Worship to helpless tears, congratulations. “I was glad…” presses pretty much every emotional button I have available – from the wedding of a dear friend here, to our Diamond Jubilee service – not to mention the many many times I’ve sung it myself in different choirs and different contexts. And, always, of course, it does what it says on the jar – so that I was and a I AM glad that we have come here together into the house of the Lord….

Glad – but sad as well. In other words, a bit flayed, ….raw, vulnerable, open to whatever God might want to do in this final Evensong of our time together.

And, of course, that is often what music does for us. It bypasses our defences – of logic, of busyness, of simple inattention – and forces us to be present and open in the moment.

And the moment is, most often, where we find that we can meet with God.

That’s why this service of Evensong is so important to me, and why each and every voice in our choirs is doing something that matters even beyond excellence in performance. St Augustine said that those who sing pray twice…On a bad day, it may be that we find ourselves substituting singing for any other kind of engagement in prayer, - but on a good day, music builds bridges to God like nothing else and expresses the truth of God in ways that words can simply never aspire to.

And what is true for you as you sing is true for those who listen as well.

We can’t always do faith with our understanding – though that’s not an invitation to switch your brain off the moment you come in to worship. But if you don’t see yourself as a person of faith, or if the readings leave you cold, or with far more questions than answers, the invitation is simply to let the music take over and do what it does best, transforming the moment as it opens a window onto eternity.

Yes, our worship will always be inadequate. How could it not be, when you consider the greatness of a God beyond all words, beyond all telling?  The spiritual writer and mystic Evelyn Underhill knew this when she wrote

"If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped"

The hymn we will sing very soon recognises that too, with its opening question

“How shall I sing that majesty…” highlighting the gulf between us, in our human frailty, and the God who has drawn us here

But when we worship, when we turn hearts and minds to God, however much we may struggle with the process, we will find ourselves carried, if we’re only willing to allow it. Just that tiniest movement towards God “Where heaven is but once begun”…sweeps us up in the song of praise that started as the world began, and will continue even beyond its end.

And, you know, the notes that we have sung together in this place will resound in God’s heart forever, for God delights in every movement of the heart towards him. Wherever we are, whatever comes next in our lives, in this place where prayer has been valid for centuries we have begun the work that is ours for ever, to magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Saviour.

So, let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God!

Farewell sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Sunday 16th July 2023

 Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you                                                            such good things as pass our understanding:                                                                              pour into our hearts such love toward you                                                                                  that we, loving you in all things and above all things,                                                                    may obtain your promises,                                                                                                    which exceed all that we can desire;                                                                                      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.

Loving you in all things and above all things.

Really, I think that this is what it is all about…the Eucharist, the Cathedral, ordained ministry, the whole Church in all its wild wonder and terrible pain. It’s why we are here – not just here in the cathedral this morning, but why we were created in the first place. That we might learn to recognise God wherever we turn, and recognising, love with all our hearts

And put like that, it sounds so deceptively easy…not least because the Collect frames that love in terms of aspiration to a reward – because, of course, that’s how humanity functions. The need for future promises is never part of God’s identity. God’s love does not depend on our response, - not for one moment., - and as we reflect on this morning’s gospel, it’s probably good to remember that.

You see, I suspect I’m not the only one who has spent anxious hours (perhaps not at a stretch – I’m not that pious) wondering what kind of soil I might be. Usually, I land myself somewhere midway between the rocky and thorny ground, conscious that many a promising beginning in my journey of faith has been curtailed because I’ve been just too preoccupied with other things – sometimes, even with doing things FOR GOD as a priest in God’s Church. Then there’s time for a bit of self-recrimination, wailing and gnashing of teeth (I'm good at that) before I am gently reminded that maybe Jesus didn’t intent this parable as a motivational tool, but simply a reminder of how God is.

Here’s the thing. The sower keeps on sowing. Wildly profligate, flinging the seed- that message of reconciling love – recklessly far and wide, regardless of the success or otherwise of the process…It’s bonkers by any human standard. Such a waste! And yet, God keeps on doing it…because it’s part of who God is. Not just love but outrageous EXTRAVAGANT love.

 Let anyone with ears listen…

You see each seed is always, without fail, a sign of hope.

That something so small should carry within it such potential is never less than miraculous, even when our focus is the relatively ordinary…And yet time and again, despite the inherent risk of sending, perhaps, a dandelion blowing every which way on the breeze, that potential is eventually realised. Maybe not in the way we expected, or where we had planned – but nonetheless, realised as something new comes into being.

We’ve all watched seeds of hope flourish here in this place…The hope that Provost Howard voiced in that extraordinary Christmas message – that his community, shocked, battered, grieving, - would TRY to banish all thought of vengeance from their hearts and set out to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world. Who would have guessed we would still be telling that story 83 years on? Or what kinds of reconciliation plant would grow from his vision. Clearly he had both heard and received God’s seeds of love…

But there have been times, too, when we’ve felt the disappointment of a world and a church that seems largely oblivious to the words we share day by day, as years have passed without us being noticeably different from any other community that aspires to much but falls over its own feet repeatedly. We long to be a reconciled and reconciling people – but sometimes its hard even to be reconciled to ourselves.

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted…”

We know that the plant of kindness doesn’t always grow as well as it might in our own hearts and souls. Does that mean that we need to return to that cycle of self-doubt and recrimination which can sometimes trap us?

Surely we can trust that the seeds that have been planted will come to fruition, because they are not ours but God’s…There’s so much inevitability in our first reading. God speaks…

My word shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

It’s not down to us, not dependent on our efforts, our determination to transform ourselves into more fertile, more productive ground. It’s all going to happen, as surely as the cycle of the seasons.

During that first spring of the pandemic, when I’d imagine most of us spent at least some time contemplating our mortality, I found the sheer beauty of life returning to our city, the sunshine, the birdsong, the hawthorn blossom, deeply reassuring. It helped me to remember that while my time here had always been limited, that was exactly how it should be, that I was only the tiniest part of the great cycle of creation in which we could recognise God, and that God’s self-revelation in everything had begun long before humanity and would continue beyond us, in every corner of the universe, and beyond the farthest star. That’s the promise we hear expressed in Isaiah…

12 For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.


An everlasting sign.

God in all things – there for us to recognise, there for us to love, - in all things and above all things.

Over my years here, there have been so many moments of recognition for me – yes in our worship, the alchemy of word and music that transforms again and again;  in the beauty of our building and its power to surprise and subvert…But even more in the stories of fragile hopes and broken lives entrusted to me along the way…in random acts of kindness from friends and strangers…in shared moments of silence when we knew beyond doubt that God was close…

I’m so very grateful for all those glimpses – and for your part in them, as God’s beloved people here. Long long ago, Augustine wrote “Life is for love…Time is only that we may find God” – so let’s pray that Collect once more today, but try to live it every day, to the glory of God’s name.


Merciful God,
you have prepared for those who love you
such good things as pass our understanding:
pour into our hearts such love toward you
that we, loving you in all things and above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
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.