Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sermon for Open at Coventry Cathedral, 2nd Sunday before Lent, Yr A: Romans 8:16-25 & Matthew 6:25-34

With thanks to my good friend Claire Maxim, whose own sermon I extensively plundered for this, when the excitement of imminent grandparent-hood became altogether too much for me!

Over the past few days, as we waited for the arrival of a 1st grandchild our family has been doing a lot of hoping for what is not seen , - which Paul assures me is a GOOD thing...and (less good) a lot more worrying about tomorrow, and what it might bring...especially as we counted the long hours of a labour that seemed to stretch all the way from Wednesday night to Saturday morning. Do not worry about your life?

Hmmn….

I might just manage it for myself, but for my precious daughter in law? NO WAY!!

It’s fair to say that by the time I went to bed on Friday I had recast the entire family in one of those Victorian tear-jerkers where a beautiful young mother dies in child-birth, leaving a whole string of tragic orphans. Since this was Giles and Lizzie’s first baby, even a worst-case scenario would have been unlikely to lead to such a very bleak familial landscape...but since when has reality ever impacted on the possibility of a Really Good Worry.

And of course I WILL worry, even now their daughter is safely landed on the shores of time,about what sort of a world my lovely Eleanor Grace has been born into. A world where the extreme right seems to be enjoying an ascendency in previously liberal countries, where Trump is behaving like a greedy toddler high on e-numbers, where our own government seems to find it completely acceptable to leave hundreds of refugee children in a hostile environment, despite earlier promises of help and sanctuary.

It doesn’t take more than a few seconds of listening to the news to make you feel that worry is after all the most reasonable response to the current situation. Unfortunately,Jesus sees things differently (as he so often does) Our Gospel passage says pretty clearly

Don’t worry: you won’t achieve anything that way, not a second more of life, not an inch more of height…  

If only it were that easy.


Of course, there’s a risk of inhumanity inherent in not worrying – the same risk that the Romans passage presents:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed”                               says Paul...and on a bad day, this might just be interpreted as
“Put up with anything in the here and now because up ahead it’s all going to be wonderful! In such an interpretation, this teaching becomes a licence to ignore those who have less than we do, to ignore people who are hungry, to ignore those who cannot afford to clothe themselves and their families.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink...”
A careless reading might encourage you to decide to simply leave everything up to God...to absolve you from all responsibility
“your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things”...

But the crux of the matter lies in the next sentence:

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
So yes, God knows we need food and drink and shelter.               God understands that.

And we are told that if we seek God’s kingdom, and God’s righteousness, we will get the basics as well. 

As well, not instead of. 

What does that mean for us, in this time and this place?              What might a world where everyone is seeking God’s Kingdom look like?                                                                                                What does God’s righteousness really involve?

The quick answer is that such a world is obviously not at all like the United Kingdom in February 2017.   Yes, there are plenty of good people about here and now, plenty who seek God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness, but still and all, things go wrong for them. “All these things” don’t seem to be given to them in the way we might hope.

But I wonder why that might be?                                                  Could it be something to do with us?

In the world that Jesus describes, there is that core assumption that there is enough for everyone, that ample provision is made for all our basic needs, if only we weren’t seduced by greed, encouraged to demand more and better with every passing day. 

But still and all, there IS enough and to spare...if we can only let go of our relentless determination to accumulate more…

But we find that so very very hard.

We can’t quite take it on trust that there IS enough for all, that everyone can and will be  provided for.
And so we buy into the anxious spirit of the age. We are encouraged to worry about tomorrow, and next week, and next year. 
Who will look after us in our old age?
Will our pension be sufficient to live on?
Will our health break down, and if it does, do we have enough money to pay for our care?                                                                           Will we have to carry on working until we drop?                                 Can the over-stretched NHS give the care it should to everyone?
Worry upon worry upon worry….and they all seem utterly reasaonable to me – particularly at 3.00 am! And I'm one of the fortunate "haves"!
 

Try preaching “don’t worry about tomorrow” to someone who can’t cope with today.  As Christians, we claim that through God’s good grace we have the gift of eternal life, of bright hope for tomorrow.  But how to claim that for a mother whose children are hungry, a father whose son is disillusioned because he cannot find a job, a teenager trapped in the Jungle with his hope of a better future just a few miles away?

If we are truly seeking God’s Kingdom, truly seeking God’s righteousness, we will care about the poor, the vulnerable, the voiceless.  We will care about those for whom this is an unjust society, we will speak out for those who are at the margins.  We will care that the whole creation groans in labour pains...and not only the creation but we ourselves.

We know things are broken but we know too that we have a Saviour who came to heal...who spent his time with those on the edge, with those who have no hope

And we have a Spirit who is alive in us today, who calls us to seek God’s Kingdom, to collaborate with God in making it real here and now.

So don’t worry….but don’t bury your head in the sand either.

There’s work to be done, for you and for me.

This isn’t some academic call to an unseen Utopia, though we look for it with hope. 
It’s a call to the deepest reality, to change right here and  right now.

There is enough, if we share; there is justice for all, if we care.
And if we act,God’s Kingdom is here.  Amen. Let it be so.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

On being "Rubbish at the Bible"

Once upon a time the Dean, God bless him, sagely remarked                                                                   "The Canon Pastor is RUBBISH at the Bible. Great on the Sacraments but rubbish at the Bible!" *      He clearly knows me much too well – and so the task of talking about a Bible passage that has been important in my life played straight into all my personal anxieties about not being the “right sort of Christian”…because, you see, when I look back at my faith journey, God has generally spoken to me far more through music, poetry or other works of literature than through Scripture...though I have the sort of memory that holds on to huge chunks of beautiful words, including Bible passages, and can probably tell you when and where I was first conscious of them . I had an instinctive sense of ritual and can remember creating domestic liturgy (with which my parents generously went along) that involved my 6’+ father lighting the Christmas tree candles while I recited John’s Prologue – which I had somehow learned without trying (I blame "Carols from Kings") well before my 7th birthday.                                                                                                                                                                            "The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not."                                         But I pretty much SANG my way to faith, catching glimpses of God in the beauty of South Coast Anglo Catholicism in my childhood, but becoming certain of God’s reality in singing the Et Resurrexit from Bach’s B Minor Mass in Kings Chapel in my 2nd year at Cambridge. By then, of course, I’d been singing in churches, college chapels and the like for a good 10 years. I loved the business of worship, the feeling that we were always on the edge of something bigger and more beautiful than anyone dared to imagine, that we could be caught up in it at any moment. I’d had a very powerful experience of God through a John Donne poem that was part of my A level revision the day my father died….but it was Bach who sealed the contract. Against that backdrop, though, I was being reeled in subversively through a web of non co-incidences. In my first term, I was set an essay on Lancelot Andrewes. I LOVED his words…the play of light and shade on the page…the sheer cleverness that was always undergirded with a genuine longing to draw us in to the text…oh, and of course, that text was the Bible – for these were sermons. 350 years old, but sermons nonetheless….I loved them so much that I wrote my Part 1 dissertation on Andrewes – who was, of course, Chair of the Committee that compiled the Kings James AV. To write about Andrewes was to spend weeks up to my ears in “his” Bible, and when the dissertation was submitted, it went in with a title that referenced both Andrewes himself, George Herbert (who was to become my lifelong companion in faith) and, inevitably, Scripture too.                                                                                                               “Thy WORD is all, if we could spell”                                                                                                                 So, truly, "In the beginning was the Word" for me…A God who communicated in every possible way…who refused to leave my head or my heart but resided there with such discretion and grace that I took a while to realise that it was God at all. So – my passage remains John’s Prologue….which does the same thing in words as the pillars of Durham Cathedral do in stone…putting roots down into the deepest truths that there are…which offers us the heart-rending sense of God’s vulnerability “He came unto his own, and his own received him not”….which takes us back to the dawn of time but proclaims God’s constant unswerving involvement with humanity  “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.
Later, with my call to priesthood, came the specific instruction to bear witness to the light, to hold the light for others so that they too could be warmed by the certainty that it will never, ever be put out.
 
*This was both so true and so funny, even at the time, that it has become a family saying, and is in no way a cause for distress

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist on "Green Communion Sunday", 5th February 2017

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
 
Today, as we celebrate Green Communion Sunday, our gospel takes us back to basics.

Salt and light.

We know what they are.

No thorny theological concepts here for they are both part of nature, both quite ordinary in many ways….we encounter them daily and don’t even think about them….but also quite extraordinary, since in different ways they impact on everything around them.

Salt, of course, works in a way that is hidden. When you add it to a recipe, you don’t SEE the salt at work...and you can’t remove it again no matter how hard you try (we’ve all heard tales of unfortunate souls who substituted salt for sugar with less than tasty results)…

Used well, it enhances other natural flavours, changing everything for the better.

Just think of salt and shake crisps!

When we describe someone as the salt of the earth, we’re saying something particular about them.
Yes, they are people of good principles, people who absolute integrity we can rely on – but they may not always be that easy to spend time with.
You see, they are people who don’t compromise…who carry on holding the line no matter what…Their taste is wholesome but unmissable.
On the other hand, Jesus is very clear about how he feels about those who don’t stay true to themselves – who become like salt that has lost its flavour, through exposure to damp so that it is no longer really salt at all.
That “unsalty salt” was often mixed with gypsum as a drying material in the surface of Roman roads...most emphatically destined to be trampled underfoot, for it had lost its real purpose.

Jesus doesn’t mince his words here.

In the same way, Christians that adapt so completely to the secular word that there’s no way to distinguish them from their neighbours have let go of something essential.

We have a calling, you and I….a calling to make a difference by living in a different kind of way.

That is something we let go of at our peril….and it’s something to remember on this day when we focus on our relationship to and mistreatment of creation.

More of that later.

We can be secret salt – flavouring things for the better.

Light, on the other hand, works quite differently.

You are the light of the world

Interestingly, the Greek word that is used here for world is kosmon (the root of “cosmos”)  – so we are to stand as light not just for humanity but for the whole of created order (this is the same word used in John 3:16 – God so loved the KOSMON..)

Ours is no narrowly human calling but something bigger, brighter, with an impact beyond what we might dare to expect.

If it is dark and you light a lamp – everything changes.

That’s the whole point of a lamp - to make a visible difference….

We need light in order to make sense of our surroundings, to stay safe, to do our work, to recognise our friends.

Again, Jesus is anything but obscure in his teaching – and is not preaching obscurity to his disciples either.

“You must be like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view” - outstanding, unmissable.

Illuminating everything through a confident proclamation that Jesus is Lord – and demonstrating his Lordship by the way we live.

In other words, we have a God-given responsibility to BE different and to MAKE a difference – and on this Green Communion Sunday there’s no doubt that we must use it.

The problem is real and pressing.

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it – but we treat it as if it were a giant super-market full of infinite resources for us to plunder at will.

Instead of regarding the world as a sacramental sign of God’s loving involvement with every single created atom and cell, we behave as if we are the rightful inheritors of all things, but are spending our inheritance as fast as we can as if we’re determined to leave nothing behind for our children.
We believe that progress means more of everything – and we don’t seem to care about the cost.

That’s probably because we are not yet asked to pay it.

Again and again it is the poorest communities that are suffering first and worst from the consequences of climate change, and yet they are least to blame for causing it. They are the ones who are losing their land to the sea, whose low-lying islands are disappearing below the waves, whose crops are failing and who are more vulnerable to diseases such as malaria. In the low-lying islands of the Pacific and in the coastal areas of Bangladesh, rising sea levels are forcing families from their homes and villages as their land is lost to the sea, entire harvests are being destroyed by floods, and the increased salinity of the soil means some traditional staple crops no longer flourish.  In Malawi, changing weather patterns mean farmers cannot produce enough food to support their families, and whole communities are struggling to survive.

And we do nothing.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind…

Listen…
“Is not THIS the fast that I choose.
To loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?”

And we all know that, while it is clearly imperative to feed the hungry, it would be even better to act to prevent their hunger. This IS Kingdom business, and so it is our business too.

Quite simply, if we stay silent and inactive in the face of this, then we are become exactly those whom God berates, speaking through Isaiah
“Look, you serve your own interest...”
To which I can only respond “Guilty as charged”
And yes, I’m speaking of myself here…
I’ve bought into the “more is better” drive of our consumer society. While I wear FairTrade clothes, - I’m not so worried about shoes. Yes, I now own a “FairPhone” - designed to avoid built in obsolence and made in a factory where the workers receive a fair wage for their labour BUT I enjoy using other electronic devices with less ethical pedigrees too.
I almost ALWAYS leave it too late to walk to work, so I drive,  and I flew cheerfully to India and to Denmark last year – and back again too – and absolutely loved the experience – but have yet to engage with one of the programmes that enables me to off-set the impact of those flights by investing in tree planting.

I’m a mass of good intentions, which I don’t really follow through.
So I’m not pretending it’s easy.
But, you know, to shy away from the issues is not simply irresponsible.
I think it’s sinful too.
“Look, you serve your own interest”

And we are called to stand apart from the spirit of the age, when that spirit is one of greed and selfishness.
It may seem that environmental concern is a luxury we cannot afford in a world whose politics are teetering on the brink of madness – but that could not be further from the case.
The environment IS political – but it is also, undeniably, a matter that impacts on our faith.

From  the creation account in Genesis through to Revelation, there is a thread that binds the world and humanity together in a relationship of respect and protection. The Church is called to shout out for justice, seeking and demanding peace and righteousness where it is lacking, daring to be voice for the voiceless.

And we can do this because we have hope….hope that the way things are is not the way things will always be….hope that change IS possible...hope that in face of death and defeat, God has other, wonderful plans. The evidence of Easter is on our side there!
Hope emerging from despair, again and again and again.

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly;
Your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.”

Transformation and hope – cornerstones of the Christian world-view.
Can we, shall we be part of the new thing God is doing – as disciples, in this Cathedral, and in our world.?
Our task of reconciliation stretches out beyond human conflict to the reconciliation of our whole wounded planet.
We are called to leave behind the old ways, to set aside old habits that hurt other people, and to nurture new habits of life that will make a real difference.
We are called to make our longing for healing and reconciliation visible by the way we live, by the choices we make.

So – what should we do? What can we do, when we feel small and helpless at the enormity of the task.
First, I’d ask you to think and to pray with this really simple question. Ask God!
Then, have a look at some of the ideas on the back page of your service booklet…and, whatever your usual practice, on this of all days PLEASE take that booklet home with you as you consider small lifestyle changes that you might make to reduce your own global footprint, ways to step outside the prevalent culture, to reduce consumption and invest instead in a culture of compassion and community, to live simply that others may simply live.
Then, perhaps, it might be time to write to your MP, to make clear that you aren’t content for taxpayers’ money to be spent on dirty energy,  or to call on the Church Commissioners to disinvest in fossil fuels and focus on renewable energy.
Together, we can take seriously the need to become an “Eco church” - to look at the recommendations and address those areas where we fall short--because we are more visible together than apart.

We need not lose our savour – our distinctive understanding of the world, and of life, as a gift of love from a recklessly generous Creator – and nor must we ever take that gift for granted.
For the sake of God’s glory, for the sake of the poor, for the sake of all humanity, let’s invest in the future of the earth -
“Then your light shall rise in darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…
You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail”.

Amen. Let it be so. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, 2nd Sunday of Epiphany, 15th January 2017

If you look at the front of your service booklet, you’ll see what has become known as the “Coventry Welcome” , words which I was sent in a slightly different form a long time before I came here, and which I rewrote slightly to include in a sermon 2 summers ago. They were well received, the Precentor decided to use them as one of our front covers – and then someone posted a photo on Facebook the world went slightly mad. At one point I was getting up to 100 emails enquiries per week about the text, and it was providing a conversation starter with people who had very little idea of what a cathedral might be for, or why they should even consider that they might WANT to visit. Oddly enough, after a bit of a lull, it has recently generated vast interest once again – so much so that I spent a bit of time yesterday recording an interview for the American radio station npr….It’s all rather exciting for middle-aged cleric on a dull day in January!

The thing is that, while I’m not sure we actually manage to live up to it ALL the time, that welcome statement is surely a reflection of where we ought to be going as a Church community. We are here because we believe that we’re onto something rather wonderful – something too good to keep to ourselves….and that must surely mean that we are committed to sharing that with any and every one, no matter who they are, where they come from, what they look like.

So – let’s take that as a given.
We WANT people to join us for worship.
We WANT them to know there is space for them here, come what may.

But what next?

What do we do for those who’ve made it over the threshold, who’ve coped with the strange but beautiful patterns of word and music that make up our liturgy, who’ve possibly even dared to stay for coffee?
How do we take them on the journey from curious vistor to frequent attender to engaged community member?
If you have, how did you make that journey yourself?
Can you remember?

Perhaps it started with another question – though probably not one you were asked directly.
It’s the question from our gospel reading
What are you looking for?”
If that was the very first thing that was said to you here, it might seem rather abrupt. I suspect that mid-week visitors to the Cathedral are sometimes confronted with a rather similar question, enough to make the uncertain turn and flee.
Nevertheless it’s a question that needs answering.
What are you looking for, that brings you here week by week.
Is it inspiring worship or engaging teaching? Is it a community of like-minded people? Or is maybe, just maybe, a sense of the presence of the Living God.
What are you looking for?

In John's gospel that's the beginning of everything for these, the first of Christ's disciples.

They've been looking for something for a while.
Following John, listening to his words - and when he speaks about Jesus with such confidence, they are fired up by his words
"Here is the Lamb of God !"
What, here? Now?
They set off to find out more.
Lacking the confidence to approach Jesus directly, they walk a few paces behind him, playing follow my leader wherever he goes.
Already it seems that he is not so much lamb as shepherd.
Sooner or later, he spots them, turns, holds their gaze.
They are stopped in their tracks as he asks
What are you looking for?"

It’s a straightforward question, perfectly reasonable.
If two complete strangers were dogging your every step,you'd want to know why.
But, of course it is also a question with a host of deeper meanings.
One of the biggest questions of faith

What are they looking for?

There's a song by the rock group U2 that might have been written for today's gospel.It's the story of a quest - climbing the highest mountains, scaling city walls - only to conclude
"But I still haven't found  what I’m looking for”
These men have been with John for long enough to be classified as his disciples.
They have responded to his fiery message of repentance – it has touched something in them.
But it isn’t enough.
They still haven't found what they're looking for.
John himself has pointed them towards Jesus.
They are hungry, like so many others, - but hungry for what?
Hungry for healing?
Hungry for reassurance?
Hungry for change?
Hungry for justice…?
Hungry to belong?
Who knows -they certainly don’t.
All they know is that something is wrong with their world and it needs to be set right, that they still haven’t found what they seek.
What are you looking for?” asks Jesus, and to this crucial question they really have no answer.

So often the questions of our faith are not the obvious tidy ones…the ones that can be addressed by a catechism or an Alpha course.
We find ourselves here - drawn to church, to faith, by an unnameable, inexplicable longing….the restlessness that Augustine noted when he wrote
God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”
We wrestle with doubts.
We will not always like the church, or feel certain of our faith.
We may go through patches when, like T S Eliot’s Magi, we are convinced that “this was all folly”, but somehow we keep coming back, almost despite ourselves.
What are you looking for?”
It’s a question that could open the door onto all sorts of undreamed of worlds…a question that just might force us to confront the needs and longings that we try to stifle…a question worth asking yourself, I'm sure.

As a priest, it’s a question I don't think I ask enough - though I often try to explore it when parents come to discuss their child's baptism.
In my anxiety to welcome all comers, I sometimes miss out on the need to challenge them. I may know in the depths of my heart that in Christ every human need and longing is met, every anxious question answered - but if I don't explore exactly what it is that brings people through our doors, how can I help to serve them?
I’d love to know of your own hopes, fears and expectations...to spend time exploring together What are you looking for?”

And the way the disciples respond - isn't it classic!
The sort of trivial remark I too tend to blurt out when confronted by a situation that suddenly seems to be rather more intense, more serious that I had bargained for…I need something to fill the gap, to cover my embarrassment, so I witter away…
Ummm….(Thinking wildly) .......Where are you staying?”

Jesus’ answer is a simple but wonderful invitation.
Come and see!”

Some years ago, I was given this passage to pray with on retreat.
I was asked to place myself somewhere in the story, and so in my imagination, I found myself accompanying the disciples along the river bank , never letting Jesus out of my sight.
Like them I blushed and stuttered as he turned and spoke to me directly…and like them I was unable to resist the invitation to “Come and see”

And that day, as I imagined a small dark room in a sugar cube house (based in my mind’s eye entirely on the line drawings that illustrated the Good News Bible), Jesus invited me to spend the day with him…and at lunch time he took bread, broke it and placed some in my hand.

And then I realised that what I was looking for, the place where he was staying was right there…right here…Jesus in you…Jesus in me…Jesus in bread and wine….

Come and see.