Saturday, September 30, 2017

Fish out of Water a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 1st October 2017

This week, I spent 3 days in the great city of Liverpool with 156 clergy colleagues, enjoying the first Coventry Clergy conference since 1967. I’m glad that I didn’t know that in advance. I was part of the organising group and the pressure to provide something that would be valuable to all, regardless of their theology or stage of ministry was quite sufficient as it was….I can’t bear to think how the group would have felt if we’d known that the last time the college of clergy got together like that was 50 years ago.
With that kind of lead time, how on earth could we have hoped to avoid disappointing almost everyone?

Fortunately, though, we were only told that it was 15 years since the last diocesan conference (which had included a wider group of people) and then left to prepare a programme that reflected the unlikely theme “Fish out of Water”.
Usually, of course, that phrase produces pictures of a gasping fish, close to death as it is taken from its natural element...and on a bad day, I guess clergy can sometimes feel a bit like that...After all, many of us were trained and equipped to serve a Church and a world that no longer seems to exist…we might have felt called to one style of ministry, only to find ourselves stepping up to do something quite different, without knowing for sure how that might fit into the over-arching call to serve God’s Church for the sake of the Kingdom.
Spending time away with others who share that same experience can be incredibly valuable – specially for those working on their own in a parish, where it can sometimes feel as if nobody understands what your priesthood is really all about.

That, though, was not the thinking behind the conference title. Instead it reflected a proverb, new to me when we began planning 2 years ago “If you want to understand water, don’t ask a fish”. In other words, don’t expect to really see things which are very close to you...you’ll take them for granted, brush up against them so regularly that you make allowance for their presence unthinkingly, stop noticing them altogether. If you want to actually examine something carefully, you’ll probably need to step back to get a better perspective – and our conference aimed to provide that opportunity. Liverpool is not Coventry. It’s similar – a multicultural city which saw considerable war-time damage...A city with not one but two new cathedrals...A city that has seen great changes, with one industry vanishing and a new reality invented as the home of 2 universities. We saw all this, registered the similarities and spent time wondering what we could learn from them...whether the Liverpool approach gave us confidence in our own responses to the challenges and opportunities of our context. Taken out of the water of our daily lives we were able to learn more about them.

But the context of ministry, and that of faith, is always more than the external surroundings, or even the way that our inner lives are shaped by them. For each one of us, our core element is our life in Christ – the one “in whom we live and move and have our being”….That is the substance of our 2nd reading tonight, - the categorical assurance that Christ and the Father are one, that to have seen Jesus is to have seen God…

I wonder...I wonder what that means for you...Here in this Cathedral where our view of Jesus is so shaped and conditioned by the great tapestry behind me of Christ in glory...
Does that speak to you...? There are other images too...of the crucified one hanging on the cross, in the lower part of that same tapestry, which you can only see from the Lady Chapel...or the vulnerable baby clasped in his mother's arms in the Stalingrad Madonna found in the Millennium Chapel....or the head crowned with thorns, the "Car Crash Christ" on the way into the Chapel of Unity.
Which speaks to you?
You don't have to choose, actually. It's not either/or. All aspects are always and eternally part of who Christ is - and thus of who GOD is. Suffering and glorified....vulnerable, helpless but saving the world...
Jesus....showing us God.
everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also.
That’s it, pure and simple.
An antidote to dodgy theology and confusing interpretation.
A test of orthodoxy and a reassurance in the face of life’s storms.

In the latter years of the twentieth century, David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, attacted much controversy and condemnation for some honest exploration of the details of faith – but once the media hype had settled what was left was his own personal creed
God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope”
He added, sometimes “You can’t keep a good God down. Even the CHURCH can’t keep a good God down”….and God – well, God is as he is in Jesus.
To me, that sounds like the ultimate in orthodox teaching. God shown to us in the life and teaching, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God both promising and demonstrating to us that nothing can stand in the way of self-giving love, that always, non-negotiably, love wins...that at the heart of everything, before everything and after everything has ceased to be, we can depend on God’s love

If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

Abide in him….for HE is our natural element...the only place to stay if we are to really flourish…
A fish out of water needs to be returned to water pretty swiftly, really...but if time outside helps us to see what our environment is really all about, then it has to be worthwhile.

One night last week we were offered the almost inevitable after-dinner quiz - which featured a round of acronyms. Sadly, it did not include one of my favourites...KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Keep it simple...God is as he is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon for Proper 18A, Trinity 13, 10th September 2017 at Coventry Cathedral


What is the Church?

 

That’s the kind of question that you find yourself answering a lot during theological training – but not often afterwards. Fom then on you’re usually far too busy working at being a public face for the Church, contending with her oddities, screaming (whether publicly or internally) at some of the institutional baggage she has collected through the centuries, worrying about her future, or quite simply living with her. For her clergy, the Church is simply the non-negotiable reality that shapes every single day...but that can make it hard to remember what she is really called to do and to be.

 

Today’s readings might help us reflect a little though...with their emphasis on relationship -for one thing is certain – you can’t be “the Church” on your own. So let’s start with the gospel – which makes it very clear that the Church is a community gathered around Jesus. That community might be large and impressive – a Cathedral crammed to the gunwhales for an ordination perhaps – or small and intimate – a handful offriends meeting in a former shop – but the fundamental point is that what brings these people together is their longing to get close to Jesus.  And Jesus honours that longing with his promise

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.

Such very familiar words – I wonder if you really heard them as Sarah read them just now.

 

Jesus promises that when we gather in his name – he is among us.

Right here and right now.

THAT’S what makes us Church.

Not our building (though it is, confusingly, what makes us a Cathedral)…

Not our entrance requirements – whether you see those in terms of baptismal status or of adherence to each and every clause of the Nicene Creed.

Not our success or failure in obeying his commandments

What makes us Church is that we meet around Jesus – and it his presence with us, - in his Word, in one another, and in the beaking of bread, that enables us to do and to be whatever else worthwhile we might attain.

It really IS all about him – so whatever your view of the tapestry, its presence in this building calls us back again and again to the reason we are here.

 

Though the NRSV translation which we heard this morning begins “If another member of the church sins...” the original Greek phrase is “If your brother...”. So, when we speak of the Church as family – we’re not saying anything new. The members of this community will share a family resemblance with one another. Leaving aside the optimistic use of the hypothetical “IF” (for we know full well that as the fallible people we are, we surely WILL hurt and distress one another along the way) Jesus encourages us to be honest about those hurts...Familes do not agree 24/7 – but if there is a healthy, trust-based relationship, its members can admit when they’ve hurt or been hurt by one another and seek healing together.

 

So – we need to be a community that reflects this. A community where we will not always agree with one another, but where damage and difference is acknowledged and reconciliation sought. The Church must never be a place where integrity is sacrificed to a superficial niceness: Jesus is very clear indeed about this – but it should, always, non-negotiably, be a place where love is practised. Again, and again and again.

 

And that’s where Paul comes in...distilling all the complexities of human relationships, all the duties and joys, into that fundamental

“Owe no one anything except to love one another…” “Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law”

Put like that it sounds so simple, - deceptively so, of course, because this thing called love is the work of both a moment and a lifetime, both a feeling and a decision...And that is as true for a church as it is for any other family.

 

But there’s a fair amount of confusion about that little word, love. We use it flippantly to describe a feeling of admiration and desire “I love those shoes”. “I love the carrot cake in Rising Cafe”..We use it to describe things that make us feel better “I love Bach...And poetry...and sunsets”...We use it  romantically, when what we really mean is “I’m hoping that in connecting with you, my own needs may be met”…

Love, then, might seem to be all about warm and fuzzy feelings.

 

But I’m reasonably confident that this is NOT what either Paul, or Jesus, is getting at.

The kind of love that we’re called to is of a different order.

It doesn’t even mean giving others what we ourselves would value, even though we’re told to love our neighbours as ourselves...just this week, I watched a really well-meaning attempt at love lead to near disaster in another community of which I’m part, thanks to an assumption that what would make one person feel better would have the same effect on another. Let me tell you, there were some very wobbly moments, with hurt experienced on both sides before that was resolved. Good intentions just aren’t enough, and we are so bad at setting aside self-interest, even when we try.

I suspect Desmond Tutu may have a better grasp of this than many.

Listen

Perfect love is not an emotion; it is not how we feel. It is what we do. Perfect love is action that is not wrapped up in self-regard, and it has no concern with deserving. Instead, perfect love is love poured out. It is self-offering made out of the joy of giving. It requires no prompting. It seeks no response and no reward...”

 

Action not wrapped up in self regard...Love poured out….That self-less drive to serve the other person, to care for them, to seek their best...sounds impossibly, immeasurably costly...the kind of love that leads to the cross, indeed.

 

And that’s what we owe one another.

I’m beginning to wish we could find another way to define and to be Church. This feels way too demanding – but Paul says that this must be the only transaction between us as disciples of Christ

“Owe no one anything except to love one another”

Owe?

That language brought me up short, for debts are rarely something to celebrate...and even if you consult a thesaurus and substitute “obligation” there’s a sense of being weighed down by duty. Is that what Paul is about? Are we asked to pay our debt to Christ by our love for one another? That surely cannot be.

God’s love is unconditional, asking nothing in return...though God’s love for me stirs up my love for God, and inspires me to WANT to love other people…

But which other people?

Those sitting around us this morning?

Those whose company we cherish day by day?

That might be manageable….but I’m afraid it’s not enough.

If love is a way of paying our neighbours their dues, of offering what they are owed – then, actually, ALL are due love. Jesus is very clear about that, casting the net wide, reminding us to love our enemies, to bless and pray for those who persecute us. Those with whom we have nothing in common. Those whom we struggle to like.. Those whom we are afraid of.

Yes, even those world leaders whose actions terrify us...those groups and individuals whom we suspect are bent on our own destruction…

 

We owe a debt of love even to them.

 

Goodness, this business of living as Church is hard. I’m not sure if I’d have joined if I had really understood it. I’m absolutely certain that I can’t actually manage it, because I’m small and human and fallible and badly, oh so badly, in need of God’s grace.

I can’t pay my debt of love – and so I will never fulfill the law.

 

Which takes me, thankfully, back to where I started.

The Church is a group of people gathered around the person of Jesus Christ.

He is here, in the midst of us. In the midst of our longings to love and our failure to do so.

Jesus Christ, Love alive in human form...love calling us onward to be more than we had ever imagined possible...love giving of love’s self again and again and again, and helping us to learn to do the same.

 

Can we, dare we, try and be Church together?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Evensong Trinity 11 Psalm 90

Lord,  thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another

Words for our time
Words for all time, coming first from the mouth of Moses, - so that the truth they offer does indeed come from many many generations past. Some 3000 years.Words which have lasted because they speak directly into the human condition, for we are a people often living in the shadow of terror and crisis and needing a safe place in life to call our own. While the default response to disaster in our day and age is no longer to gather in huge numbers in places of worship, there’s still a real need for communities to share in collective lament. This week, you’ll find it expressed in well-nigh every corner of the internet, as different groups rail against the words and actions of others, demonise those whose view differs from their own, and wail “What is the world coming to”.

In common with other psalms of lament, psalm 90 takes us on a journey..
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place for all generations.”  says one translation of the Hebrew, and we need to note that when Moses speaks of the Lord as our dwelling place, he’s talking about a relationship, not a particular location. Not even a cathedral. That may be surprising...We tend to think in terms of concrete structures with physical addresses... And yet, where you dwell is not necessarily the same as where you live. It’s where your heart is, where your passions lie – which may be something altogether different. You may remember those car stickers that were popular a while back, saying  “I’d rather be … singing … reading… skiing … swimming … walking the dog,”  They recognise that our hearts aren’t always exactly where we find ourselves. You may be working at a desk or stuck in a traffic jam, but your heart is high atop a mountain peak or still beside a quiet stream. That’s where you’d rather be. Where your treasure is….Where you dwell.
And Moses presents God as the place where we might choose to dwell, you and I...for that dwelling with God had been the defining experience of God’s people, as they spent their forty years in the wilderness. It wasn’t the landscape that mattered. It wasnt the pleasure of water from the rock or manna and quail to meet their needs unlooked for. It wasn’t the collective memory of the fleshpots of Egypt but God’s presence with them that reminded them that they were chosen...people with a purpose...people travelling through life with God. One writer defines that experience beautifully
“They walked by faith for so long that walking by faith became their way of life. What difference did it make where they were? All that mattered was that God was with them, leading the way.”
THIS is what is at the heart of Moses opening gambit, as the psalm follows a familiar path, from certainty, orientation, through disorientation and lament and back again to firm ground.


Looking back, first, at God’s steadfastness through many generations, then confronting the contrasting brevity of human life, the psalmist celebrates God’s presence with God’s people as strong defender then dares to magine seeing the world from God’s perspective, taking the long view. A thousand years in God’s sight are but as yesterday. Even a troubled and troubling week like the one we have just experienced is not, really, of such huge significance in the grand scheme of things. We get so embroiled, you and I, in our own lives, our own times – but in the history of the world, and from the perspective of eternity, we are only here for nano-seconds. And actually, that’s OK.
It may not seem to be very helpful at first. It  may well make you feel insignificant, yet more fearful in a week when nightmares threatened to become reality – but actually, if God IS our refuge, the place where our treasure is, then that offers comfort even as we recognise our own frailty. Though the psalmist seems to spiral down into depression and despair, dwelling for a time on the evidence of God’s anger and frustration, and the futility of those three score years and ten, yet even he reaches a turning point and finds hope.
“Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom”.
In other words – use your time well and wisely because it is finite and you CAN make a difference if you choose to. Apply your heart to wisdom. Not to fear. Not to revenge, Not to outraged denunciation of “the other” which seems to threaten your peace of mind for the moment. Apply your heart to wisdom, and recognise that the best wisdom is to be found when we are rooted in God’s love, dwelling above all in our relationship with our creator, who holds all our times securely in his hands.
That is the best defence against feelings of fear or futility...And it’s something to practise when life seems clouded by terrors beyond our control...to practise by consciously giving thanks for that gift of time as each day begins...to practise by celebrating blessings, - food, friends, family...to practise by looking for God’s presence in the beauty of the day and in the faces of those whom you meet…
“Show thy servants thy work”
It’s something to practise, too, in the hard times – turning to God for direction for the path ahead, taking the hand of another suffering person and forgetting your own agenda as you focus on theirs…
The great hymn writer Isaac Watts paraphrased psalm 90 in words that have become an essential part of Remembrance Sunday services. He too focusses on the frailty of human life and the wonder of divine permanence – but somehow does so without a trace of anger or lament. Perhaps he had learned the lesson of the psalm, and so could recognise the brevity and frailty to our lives and yet treasure each moment as the moment of encounter with the God who is our true dwelling
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come
Be thou our God while troubles last and our eternal home”.


Homily for Proper 15 Matthew 15:10-28

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. There are what defile a person.”
Sometimes the synergy between the appointed lections and current events is breathtaking.
It’s been quite a week in the news, as the events of Charlotteville, more than dreadful enough in themselves, have produced wave after wave of horrible responses….
A clergy eye-witness wrote powerfully of her experience last Saturday as she knelt with many others praying for peace.
As more Neo-Nazis passed the clergy line, they verbally abused us one by one over the course of a few hours. One man screamed that Jesus hates us. Another screamed that we hate the white race and are contributing to white genocide….”
Out of the heart come evil intentions indeed.
And that’s before we even think about Friday’s events in Spain….
Lord, have mercy.

It’s hard, very hard, to understand where such hatred has its roots, tempting to just rejoice that we DONT understand – but then that runs the risk of relapsing into self-righteousness…
And, of course, we’re falling into the “them and us” trap immediately. And that is something today’s gospel reminds us is not good news at all.
It’s maybe comforting that Jesus himself seems to need to be taught this.
The beginning of the passage sees him turning away from the natural heart-land of the observant Jew, speaking against those purity laws that have been part of a nation’s identity for centuries...Then he heads into foreign territory, breaking more barriers – and when he arrives, finds himself challenged once again, jolted into a fresh recognition of common humanity by that woman who simply won’t take “No” for an answer.

But, dear Lord, that’s hard for me this week.
I want to put an unscaleable barrier between myself and the far-right, whose harsh words are reinforced by frightening actions.
I want to keep all my friends and family safely away from “people like them”.
But that’s not the Jesus way.

The one who healed the Canaanite's daughter, and who also opened the eyes of the man born blind can deliver anyone --there are no barriers for Jesus, not even those I’ve erected inside my own head and my own heart.
Time, then, to revisit our own Coventry litany, with its two word refrain that resists the urge to divide humanity into “them” and “us”.
ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God….
We know that when we hear the news
We know that when we look hard into ourselves.
The hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class, Father forgive”.
Amen, amen, amen.



Saturday, August 19, 2017

Trinity 5 Evensong We cannot keep from speaking...

For we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.

Last week a Facebook friend shared a rather alarming statistic.
Apparently members of the United Methodist Church in the States invite someone to come to church with them on average once every 38 years.
Once every 38 years.
Isn’t that staggering.
I’m trying to get my head round a mindset that means that you care enough about your faith to give up time for worship week on week, but without any impetus to share
They feel that it’s worth giving up a chunk of their time week on week to attend worship but they aren’t excited enough about what happens there to suggest that any of their friends or family join them!
I find that really hard to deal with.
I can grasp that when it comes to God I might be more enthusiastic than many – it would be a bit of a problem were that NOT so, really, given my calling – but even so….Either those faithful United Methodists in the States are just turning up at church week by week because it’s a habit or something has gone rather wrong with their sense that they (and WE) have good news to share.

I’m sure that the average for Coventry Cathedral congregation would be MUCH better than once every 38 years. At least, I hope so…
I know that some 2000 years have elapsed since Peter proclaimed his faith in front of the authorities – but we are here on this Sunday afternoon in Coventry because we believe that we’re onto something worth attending to.
Admittedly, things may not be quite as exciting here and now as the experiences of the early church.
Peter and John have got into trouble because they presumed to heal...to tell a paralysed man who was stationed daily by the Beautiful Gate to the Temple
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth get up and walk”….and, scandal of scandals, the man followed instructions.
He rose and walked.
Healed.
Restored.
Transformed.we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.
Just like that.

And Peter is full of it – and full of the Holy Spirit too – and can no more keep silence than a child on their birthday.
And so, using the experience of the paralysed man as a launch-pad, he embarks on a compelling narrative of salvation, a challenge to the old order and to those who represented it.
And at the heart of that challenge is Peter’s declaration
We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard”.

So, it struck me that perhaps one reason that some are more reticent in speaking of faith ourselves is because they’ve forgotten to expect to see and hear salvation stories playing out day by day. They’ve got used to thinking that the golden days are gone...that while God still holds the earth secure in God’s love, the action is over for the moment. Their faith is more to do with dogged hope than with the experience of transforming power. And that does not make it the less admirable (think about Jesus telling Thomas “Blessed are they who have NOT seen, and yet believe) but it does make it harder work…and if your faith is mostly a matter of wistful longing then it is going to be that much harder to work yourself up to share it with others.

During the past few weeks some of us have enjoyed a series of talks by the Dean, “The Holy Spirit and the People of God”. As we explored the ways in which the Spirit was active in the Old Testament as in the New, and traced her work in the present too, it was noticeable that there were periods of church history when you might have been forgiven for thinking that the work of the Spirit was simply to bring the Church to birth – and then leave us to get on with the work of being God’s people. I’m confident that this is NOT the case…but I also have tremendous sympathy with those who feel that somehow the Spirit has mostly passed them by, that faith is a matter of head-knowledge rather than the inspiring heart knowledge that is the unmistakeable fruit of a direct experience of God at work.
But you know, while we may not have seen a dramatic healing or an incontrivertible miracle, there’s still so much evidence of God’s power at work...It’s simply a question of looking with expectancy.

Yesterday, for example, I was talking to a visitor from Canada, who happened to be in the nave just in time for the Litany and Eucharist. Talking to visitors is almost always good for my faith, I find, because their appreciation of the Coventry story and their response to our cathedrals, both old and new, reminds me of quite how remarkable this place is. Just in case you’re struggling with end of term exhaustion, shall I remind you?
Of the way that Provost Howard lived his faith through his determination to reject human patterns of behaviour, centred on revenge and retribution...of the power of forgiveness, co-operation ahd hope that is built into every inch of the new cathedral that exists to remind us that while we all carry scars, but that wounds can be healed, and peace built even in the face of death and destruction...of the worldwide family that is the Community of the Cross of Nails, - hundreds of people in many and varied situations, united by their determination to choose peace…
That’s evidence of a kind, I’d say...God at work even amid the pain and devestation of war… The Holy Spirit inspiring God’s people with a fresh vision of the world as God’s love would have it be….
Things that WE – you and I – have seen and heard...Things to share with joy...

Or if you prefer to look elsewhere, tonight’s psalm is full of suggestions
Come and see the works of God
The psalmist invites God’s people to look back at their history and see God’s hand at work...He encourages them to rejoice in the past – and as he catalogues the wonders of yesteryear he inspires himself afresh to join in the chorus of praise
Come and hear, all you who fear God,
    and I will tell what he has done for me.
17 I cried aloud to him,
    and he was extolled with my tongue….
And that act of praising created a virtuous circle, so that the psalmist found himself carried forward on a tide of rejoicing that enables him to recognise just how active God is in his own life...Not just the God of history but the God of his life...the God who listens and responds when he prays

That’s the God who is active in the work of transformation right here and right now.
My piece of evidence might make you smile. You see, I can’t manage even the simplest piece of decorating without getting paint everywhere. But the smurf-like shade of my fingernails last night is a sign of something rather wonderful...the emergence of a new church community in the unlikely setting of the former cathedral shop. Yesterday a whole group of friends gathered from far and wide to join in a painting party that in itself set the tone for what St Clare’s hopes to be...friendly and flexible, created by its members, bringing people together from a huge variety of contexts to live out the great commandments to love God and neighbour.
It’s exciting to witness God doing a new thing among us...and I’ve found myself sharing that excitement with all sorts of people in the past weeks and months.

There’s lots of evidence if you view the world with expectant hope.
The God at work in the wisdom of Solomon, the faith of the psalmist, the passion of Peter is at work here and now...If you’re in any doubt, look at those around you...Each life a tapestry of joy and struggle, pain and blessing...shaped by the overarching love of God.

we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard


Let’s be brave and share our stories...and share, too, in God’s work of transformation here and now.

Come to me Homily Trinity 10A

One of the hardest things in life for many of us is admitting when we need help.
I’ve found myself playing games around the question with some really silly things
“”No – it’s fine – I can MANAGE”….through gritted teeth just a few seconds before dropping a bit of furniture that only misses my toes by inches…
I’ve caught myself in the same games around more important things too. When my parents died just as I left school, I didn’t let on to anyone that I didn’t have enough money to survive while their back account was frozen as the solicitors did their thing. I know now, as the parent of adult children, that my parents friends would have been devastated to know I was struggling and hadn’t asked for help...but for me, it was really important to be seen to be coping. Even if I wasn’t. Even if that was a lie. It’s fine. I can manage.

I like to claim that its because I “don’t want to be a bother” - which sonds kind of well-mannered and self-effacing...but in reality I suspect there’s more than a grain of arrogant independence involved. And that’smy choice, but it’s a choice that may have an impact on my daily life and my relationship with friends, colleagues and family. What would have happened if Abraham’s servant had been too busy being independent to accept the offer of water from Rebekah…? Would he ever have found the bride he had gone to seek?
We don’t know.

What we DO know is that when we try the “go it alone” approach in our relationship with God, it’s positively dangerous. God made us for relationship with God...and since all that is good and wonderful comes as God’s gift, we condemn ourselves to a deprivatation that is both unnecessary and terribly terribly painful if we turn away “It’s alright. I can manage”

That determination to be independent is one of the greatest barriers that prevents us from accepting all that God offers...I think that’s part of why Jesus so often uses children to remind us of how we’re to live in God’s kingdom. Children may be gradually learning the ways of independence, but to start with at least they simply can’t survive if left alone. And though they do have that survival instinct that makes them insist on “me first “ til they’ve learned better, they don’t on the whole worry about how they look to others...they aren’t worried about being judged weak or inadequate if they accept whatever help is on offer.
They don’t trip over their own egos whenever they try to take a step towards God.
And we are, famously, invited to become like a child...to set aside anything that prevents us from recognising and rejoicing in our dependence on God.
Listen to the invitation Jesus offers
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
That’s what is SAYS –But when I picture Jesus carrying a burden, what I actually SEE in my mind’s eye is Jesus carrying the cross itself...struggling, falling….So it’s hard to understand this invitation to share the weight of his burden, when he seems to call it LIGHT
And yet, even though I don’t understand it, nonetheless Jesus insists “Carry my burden instead of yours. It’s easier”…

So – what are my burdens, if the cross itself would be lighter? What things weary me week by week? What wearies you?
I thought about that for a bit, and came to realise that many of the burdens I carry are weights I place on myself. Nobody out there expects me to be a kind of super-priest and super-mum, available 24/7 in an immaculate home offering wonderful hospitality and comfort to all in need...but every now and then I behave as if that’s what God has asked of me – and get really ratty when I realise how far short I’m falling.
You’ll have different burdens that weary you – but it’s worth thinking about whether any of them are self imposed and self created...Do you just ask too much of yourself, and then beat yourself up when you fail?
That’s never God’s way. God doesn’t want you to be perfect. God wants you to be real.

Then, besides our self inflicted burdens, Society burdens us too…
There are expectations that we’ll all aspire to particular ways of living…that we’ll want to model our family lives on the glossy illusions offered us by the media…that our children will be miserable if they don’t have the latest must-have toy, that we’re all complete failures if we don’t manage a week in the sun on holiday every year

Those kind of aspirations have a cost in both financial and human terms…they weigh heavy…If you succeed, there is pressure to continue to be successful. If you fail, that failure is a weight of its own.
Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden…
we need not carry those burdens…they don’t really belong to us unless we choose to adopt them. We can put them down and walk away.
Of course, there ARE other burdens that are ours…burdens that we need to carry. Responsibilities for our loved ones, responsibility to live well, to use the potential that God has given us. Burdens created by a society that doesn’t always do its best for those who might be struggling...burdens of poverty, or ill health. Those weigh very heavy indeed – and I’m afraid that Jesus does not say that he’ll take these burdens from us, but he suggests a better way to bear them.
My yoke is easy
'The underlying Greek word means 'kind.'
My yoke is kind.
A kind yoke is one that is carefully shaped so that there will be a minimum of chafing.
Jesus' yoke will be kind to our shoulders…will enable us to bear our loads without struggle.
I’m told that in Jewish rabbinic tradition, to learn from a particular rabbi was described as “bearing his yoke”…It meant that the pupil would be constantly beside his teacher, walking where he walked, seeing the same views sharing his insights, learning almost to think his thoughts….to live according to his rule of life.
Some rabbis set very demanding targets…a long list of dos and don’ts that wore down their disciples...Their yoke was hard to bear, and their disciples stumbled and fell.
The yoke that Jesus offers, the one he bears himself, is very different.
In place of rules that we might fail to keep, we are given grace in abundance…More, Jesus invites us to become his yoke mates, joined in a team with him.
We can learn how to pull our load by working beside him and watching how he does it. The heavy labour will seem lighter…
Yoked with Christ, we are enabled to choose the good and to refrain from the evil and we discover that there is no freedom greater than that of walking each day beside our servant King.

Nobody needs to go it alone!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Do not be afraid sermon for Proper 7A at Coventry Cathedral, 25th June 2017

In my experience, there’s nothing quite like being told not to do something to make it almost impossible to avoid it…A month ago, at a wedding, the preacher threw in an apparently random line about not thinking about blue elephants, and I’m pretty confident that for the next couple of minutes nobody except the bride and groom managed to think about anything else at all. Apologies if you are now all busily pondering the same thing...May I call you back, for a minute or two at least?
You see, though the Bible famously reminds us not to be afraid 365 times, once for every day of the year, I must confess that much of the time I seem to be stuck on an recurrent leap day, the 366th , a day on which some degree of alarm is at least permissible. Over the past twelve months I’ve encountered similar feelings in more and more people, in a variety of contexts. Suddenly it seems that we have become a fearful society, aware of divisions and distress in our own communities, dreading terrorist action at home and abroad
Don’t mistake me.
Knowledge is good. There is nothing whatever to be gained by retreating, ostrich-like, to some sort of spurious safety in a world where everyone behaves beautifully and thinks exactly the same as we do. We may not be happier knowing how some of our neighbours feel about life in this country, with how much passionate intensity a handful of people seem to hate western values and lifestyles...but it is better, surely, to know. Even if it makes us fearful for a while.
The question is, then, whether fear is actually the enemy of faith, or a natural part of the human condition in a world which is often precarious and where suddenly there seems, to my mind at least, to be a critical shortage of wise, compassionate adults in charge. We’re told, of course, that perfect love casts out fear...but it doesn’t take more than a second to examine our own hearts and recognise that we’re a long long way from reaching that particular milestone. My love is partial, sometimes conditional, lacking that self-giving heart that would show that I am making some headway as a disciple of Christ. Honestly, there’s lots of room for fear to creep in
So, is Jesus being reasonable when he says THREE TIMES in just five verses “Have no fear” “Do not fear” “Do not be afraid”?
His outlne of what will lie ahead for the Christian community is far from reassuring. Listen.
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother….ones foes will be members of ones own household.
This isn't about Jews versus Christians. It's not about strangers betraying strangers. It's "all in the family," and far too close to home. And this is not, after all, surprising, because Jesus challenged his disciples – and STILL challenges US, to live into a new world order. It’s no longer families first (so perhaps it’s high time we renamed our Cathedral Children’s Church)…
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me
That’s kind of uncompromising, isn’t it. It suggests that actually we might need to risk upsetting people quite often, if we’re intent on being true to the gospel. As someone who’d cheerfully walk barefoot to Edinburgh to avoid conflict that’s something ELSE to be afraid of…
Frustratingly, being a disciple is not about being popular, even within our own famiies. Even within our own CHURCH family. It’s about justice and joy, challenge and choice. About courage and hopes and dreams and sacrifice..It’s not about keeping people happy. it’s about putting Christ first...loving Him beyond all….being willing to take all kinds of risks for his sake.
And it’s not that we have to put Jesus first to WIN his love...it’s important to be clear about that. God loves each one of us without condition and without reserve (it’s that perfect love that casts out fear again). But by putting Jesus first we open ourselves to RECEIVE that love which is constantly available...setting aside all the alternative treasures, the other sources of security that might seem, for a while at least, more appealing.
And he doesn’t promise us security in their place. Sometimes, indeed, things will seem to go utterly, hopelessly wrong. Our Old Testament reading gives us a glimpse of this. We find ourselves with Hagar and Ishmael, exiled through no fault of their own, - caught up in the mess and muddle and questionable relationships of Abraham, father of a great nation...Here’s an excellent example of a family at odds – despite Abraham’s regular conversations with God and his obedience to follow wherever God leads. Sarah has played the “lawful wedded wife” card and had Hagar and Ishmael banished so their presence won’t compromise the future for her precious Isaac. So we see mother and son at the very end of their resources, gazing at death…
And then God speaks and says it again. Those four little words which echo throughout Scripture...those words God whispers in our ear, if we can only calm ourselves enough to listen
Do not be afraid”.
And God provides for them, in the midst of disaster. God meets their immediate need (there is water in the desert) and their existential need, too, for a lasting significance in the history of God’s people. God GETS what is important for them, and honours that...He does that for us too.
I love the last verses of the passage
God was with the boy and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness”
God is with US as well, and invites us into mature, grown-up discipleship., calls us to be not greater than the teacher, but as like him as we can manage. And, whatever our own wilderness experiences of worry and doubt, of inadequacy and failure, of fear and more fear God is with us in that too.
We can’t predict where our discipleship may take us, though we can be pretty certain that it will not always be along pleasant paths. But we CAN predict that the God who keeps loving count of the flight and fall of the sparrow will be with us on every step of the journey, leading us all to everlasting life.

Do not be afraid. You are loved and God is with you.