Sunday, June 11, 2017

All are welcome - a sermon for Coventry Pride Eucharist, 11th June 2017

I started writing this on Friday morning….the morning after a night of such surprises that its still hard to determine whether we should rejoice at the resurgance of a progressive hope, lament the depth of division that is clear in so many quarters of society, or simply stand like rabbits in car headlights too fearful to move as danger approaches. Tonight, as we celebrate God’s inclusive welcome, perhaps the best thing to do is to pray.
The General Election was not, though, the only historic vote last week.The synod of the Episcopal Church of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing same sex couples to marry in church, and I’m guessing we can celebrate that as unequivocally good news...and proof that it is always possible to change your mind.

And that, of course, is what tonight’s gospel reading is all about.
Tonight we are told that the unthinkable can happen.
That Jesus himself has to receive a lesson in the wildly inclusive love of God – and from a thoroughly unlikely source.
A woman.
And a woman on the fringes at that.
Someone he really shouldn’t be talking to, if he cares about his reputation.
Of course, we know that reputational risk is rarely a priority for him – and this periscope comes in a particular place in the gospel, as Jesus begins to live into the message of radical inclusion that we would want to claim as a dominant gospel theme.

But that’s not always easy, even for Jesus. Immediately before this encounter, 
he has gone out on a limb in challenging the rituals that had proscribed life for the Jews for centuries, as he begins to redefine purity as a state of being, rather than a state of diet.
For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person – not eating with unwashed hands”
We’re in interesting territory here, then both figuratively – the territory of larger hearts and more open minds – and geographically, as Jesus makes a move into Gentile country, close to the port of Tyre. This might be planned as a retreat, time to draw breath after his run-in with the Pharisees…but even here life catches up with him!
Here, where he might expect a break from the demands of ministry, real people with real needs just can’t be put on hold.
His space, his silence is disturbed by a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She will not hold her peace, demands a hearing,for she is intent on claiming the healing that she believes her daughter deserves.
Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus.
Kneeling at his feet she entreats his help.
And what happens?

For reasons that may become obvious, I’ve never tried to tell this story in a primary school assembly, but if I did, I know that the children’s answer to that question would be. What happens?
Jesus makes the child better”
That’s what we’d all expect.
Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely that’s the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado.

Except that he doesn’t.

Not at first.

First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs….and I don’t think we’re under any illusion that he meant much- loved and cherished pet spaniels.
He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human, and they’re therefore beyond the scope of his love, his healing.
It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”

It’s extraordinarily hard to hear this kind of language, especially if anything in your own experience of life in the church has made you feel that you too might not be recognised as fully human. To hear it from Jesus is painful…hard to take…We want to retain our soft focus image of him “Jesu, thou art all compassion…” and this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, this Gentile woman is made of stern stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
She, like many another, is determined to keep on wrestling for a blessing, and responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him.

We may be dogs, but surely you’re not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs.

She refuses to take No for an answer…
And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
Against his own expectations, as a result of their “shared conversation” he is forced into really seeing her, - seeing another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.
Jesus change his mind?
Surely not!
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, “there is no shadow of turning with thee”, right?
Well, maybe not.
For me, learning is part of what it means to be human. Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development – “day by day like us he grew”
So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationship…He learned, he grew, and sometimes he changed his mind.
There’s so much more going on here than just an exchange of banter, for surely Jesus is forced to rethink the scope of his mission, to enlarge its scope.
This should, I think, serve to correct our own tendency to arrogance, to hardness of heart. It’s so tempting to believe that we don’t need to listen to others, because we already know the truth, and our perspective is, of course, the right one..
In that respect, perhaps, it’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. In our society, and in our church, we can sadly identify behaviours that match theirs. We’ve all encountered insiders who guard their corners, and cannot believe in a God whose heart and vision are larger than they, or we, can imagine
But if we take Scripture seriously, our limited view is inevitably challenged.
In Scripture we meet a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love almost surprises himself.
In Scripture, we encounter a God who is changed by his relationships, a God who is moved by the prayers of his children, and acts in unexpected ways to answer them.
In Scripture, above all, we meet a God who is love, and cannot remain unmoved by the beloved.

This particular gospel story lies behind one of the most beloved of all prayers in the Anglican Prayer book, known as the Prayer of Humble Access
We do not presume to come to this your table O merciful Lord
Trusting in our own goodness, but in your manifold and great mercy
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table
But you are the same Lord, whose nature it is always to have mercy…”
We do not presume”
Well, thank God that sometimes we do.
Thank God for those who dare to challenge, to draw us into a landscape of larger hearts and wider compassion.
Thank God for this woman, the outsider, the second class citizen who refuses to go away but demands that Jesus recognise her right to engage with him.
Thank God that she stops him in his tracks, forcing him to see and recognise her humanity – and forcing him to own that manifold and great mercy which is always so much greater than our worst inadequacies, our most glaring failings and faults.
Here, as everywhere, love wins.
The mother’s love, a passion that drives her to take risks that she would probably never have contemplated for her own benefit.
The Father’s love, God’s love, that is stronger than anything in all creation…
Stronger than the divisions that scar society and church
Stronger than fear and hatred
Stronger even than death itself

Only ten verses later, we see Jesus practising what he has learned here, as he feeds not just one but 4000, almost certainly also Gentiles, on more than just crumbs…
It is as if he suddenly realises just what is possible, just how boundless the love and grace that is on offer.
And of course there are baskets left over.
That, surely, is the lesson the church most needs to hear.
There ARE no limits to be set on God’s love.
There is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with just crumbs from under the table. To affirm some need never mean denying others. Too often we behave as if we need to claim our ground at the expense of others, we create hierarchies to defend our own position at God’s table.
That’s certainly true in politics, - and the divisions that scar our country are the result of that way of thinking…that YOUR gain must mean my loss…
That the world can be divided into worthy insiders and unworthy outsiders
Us and them. Sadly, we behave as it those same rules must apply within our churches
But God never thinks in those stark binary terms.
God is God in community – and on this Trinity Sunday it is good to remember that in the famous Rublev icon, our God in three persons leaves space at the table for you and me...and his love – well, as the prayer puts it, his love compels us to come in, and we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome.

You see, God is not a God who draws lines to exclude but one who is continually enlarging the boundaries until we, each one of us, know for ourselves that we belong...that we are each one of us wanted, each one of us insiders, held in God's embrace….that nothing, - least of all any human divisions, will ever separate us from God’s love.







Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Open door policy?

Once upon a time I was a daily blogger - and honestly, if anything could entice me back into that indulgent discipline, it would surely be the roller-coaster that has been life so far in this year of grace 2017. My personal life has been both more challenging and more joyful than I would have imagined possible, my Cathedral life has been its usual mix of wonderful, challenging and frustrating...and the world, well, that would provide enough fuel for several blogs a day.

With two terrorist attacks in the UK just a few days apart, I've had lots to reflect on - not least the place of cathedrals in general, and ours in particular, at such times of crisis. This was brought into sharp relief when I learned that, as pretty much part of a crime-scene, Southwark Cathedral was unable to open for worship just when they must have been most longing to, on the day after the attack on Lambeth Bridge and Borough Market. It takes an awful lot for a church to close its doors on a Sunday. There's something in the DNA that dictates that, no matter what pattern of worship you might offer at other times, it matters to be doing something together on a Sunday...and there's a particular instinct to gather in the wake of awful events, so my heart went out to my colleagues at Southwark - with an added frisson of relief that on this particular weekend my son, who sometimes sings there, was safely with me in the Lake District.

I hate, of course, that I mind more about disasters when they are close to home...I want to live out those words of John Donne's "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind" - but the truth is that I'm substantially more involved with those who live just a couple of hours away than with those in other countries. That's not something to celebrate, but it's a truth that I have to face as I acknowledge that I'm very much a work in progress.

That's not what I want to focus on today, though. Today,it’s all about the challenge and delight of cathedrals as places of welcome and of sanctuary.  Having only worked here for three years, entrance charges have been part of my Coventry experience from day one. I’ve felt sad about them, of course. I’ve recognised that for the majority of our visitors it makes no sense that this huge and impressive building should not have resources to match. I’ve lamented the fact that those who come to be quiet, whether or not they are consciously seeking God, can only venture as far as the very public “prayer circle” by the West Screens without buying a ticket, and I’ve wondered about the many who might have popped in for ten minutes en route to a train, who will now never come through the doors.

But it took a day without charges to help me to fully understand how much the charges disable our mission, prevent us from really being God’s space at the heart of the city.

The morning after the Manchester bomb, the Dean made the decision that we should be free entry all day, and this was broadcast on BBC Cov & Warwickshire, so when we opened to the public at 10.00 it was no surprise to find a small gaggle of people already waiting. I was busy setting up prayer stations for “Thy Kingdom Come”, so had ample opportunity to be round and about the nave as the morning went on, and found myself having several significant conversations with visitors who had slipped in to light a candle, write in the condolence book, or simply sit quietly reflecting on the mess and muddle of these current days. When it came to the Litany of Reconciliation at noon, instead of the usual three or four people scattered about the nave, there were forty or more gathered clearly and explicitly to pray, and all through the day there was a buzz about the place, a sense of purpose and engagement that is often absent. Walking through the building in my cassock after the Litany, I was repeatedly drawn into conversation – and those prayer stations bore witness to more responses that first day alone than in the entire Ascension to Pentecost period last year.
In the past I’ve occasionally been asked by random visitors “Do you actually hold services here?” - the implication being that our building is simply a gallery for twentieth century art. On that Tuesday in May it was obvious to all comers that this was a house of prayer, a place of peace and sanctuary in a broken world. We were our real selves that day, and you can’t put a price on that

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Sermon for Easter 7 A

You will be my witnesses

My older son is half-way through his year of pupillage as a baby barrister...It’s something he has wanted to do all his life, and though the combination of a daily commute from Cambridge to London with the insomniac pleasures of new fatherhood is undoubtedly exhausting, on the whole I think he’s enjoying himself. He’s had a few issues with papers that arrive too late from a client’s solicitors to be admitted as evidence, but his witnesses have been a largely co-operative bunch so far...so I turned to him to help me understand exactly what Jesus was asking of his friends when he told them “You will be my witnesses”
It seemed kind of important, really.
You see, during these days of focussed prayer as we ask “Thy kingdom come” together with Christians all round the world, the stated hope of the initiative is not just that we will, as individuals, families and churches devote ourselves afresh to prayer, but also that we will be empowered finding new confidence to be witnesses for Jesus Christ.

You will be my witnesses
That’s a direct commission from Jesus, but the thing about witnesses, says Giles, is that they have to have had a direct experience, they have to have BEEN THERE. There is no value in calling a witness who has only hear-say evidence.
They need to speak of what they know.
And that’s true for us as well.
WE need to speak of what we know.
If we are to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, then we need first to have experienced the wonder of his love for ourselves. Knowing about is one thing….but to be witnesses, hearsay is never enough.

That’s heart of this season…

Like the disciples, we have to face up to the physical absence of Jesus from our world. When he left that little group on the slopes of Olivet, that was it. No reappearance to tumultuous applause.
Jesus had gone...leaving his friends gazing forlornly skywards.
But he left that one time and one place so that, through the power of the Spirit, he might be present in all time and all places…With us always, til the close of the age.

We do not need to fear, then, that our testimony is invalid.
No, we weren’t present for those world-changing events in and around Jerusalem 2000 years ago, but we can be witnesses nonetheless... – because God is still active, a living presence transforming hearts, minds, lives through the power of the Spirit.

If you’re a regular worshipper, think about what first brought you to faith – and what encourages you to return to worship, week by week.
My guess is that it will have little to do with head-knowledge – the records of others, the received wisdom of centuries…though that has a huge part in helping us to root ourselves in the great traditions of the Church.
Most of us, I imagine, will be here because we met with God – perhaps in a precious moment when we experienced directly the touch of his love, or perhaps when we saw it poured out in the lives of another person.
That’s part of the paradox here.
We, God’s people, are not just witnesses but evidence as well.

And that can be rather a problem.
When we look at the world, we cannot say with confidence that humanity – even CHRISTIANITY as it lived out day by day – is an unmistakeable testimony to God’s power at work.
On Thursday we gathered to celebrate the reign of Christ – sang Joyously that the head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned in glory now – but we gathered in the ruins where we had stood in Vigil for the victims of the Manchester bomb just an hour before.
Eye-witness accounts in the media this week will have more to say about horror and fear at home and abroad in Istanbul and Jakarta, Minya and Manchester than about the visible signs of God’s kingdom of justice and joy.
How do we square that circle?
Where is the evidence of God’s just and gentle rule amid all the grief and terror?

As so often when we focus on the kingdom of God, we find ourselves in the territory of “now and not yet”.
Those of us who spend an unhealthy amount of time online will be very familiar with the words of one Mr Rogers, an American children’s tv presenter from the 1950s...They have been offered as reassurance to share with the children of today, who are struggling to make sense of what has happened this week – and they are good, wise words.
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers.
THERE is our evidence...but we are called to be part of it too.
There’s no escaping the responsibility. Each one of us needs to proclaim the truth of the words that we used a refrain at one point in Thursday’s Vigil “Good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death”.
We all believe it. I’m sure we do.
But we need to live so that it is clear in everything that we do and say and are.
That’s the only thing that can make a difference in these troubled and troubling times.
Living in the kingdom means living by the kingdom’s rules, as the vestry prayer puts it “Showing forth in our lives” those things which we proclaim with our lips.
Witnesses of and evidence for the Kingdom of God – you and me.
Wow!

But you know, if that fills you more with panic than with joy – you’re in good company.
Think of those disciples on the hillside again.
Baffled and Bereft perhaps, but also hopeful...Jesus has made them a promise
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” and it is with confidence in that promise that they pray constantly in the days that follow

And that’s where we come in, as we too are invited to pray constantly in this “in between” season


Last week, the Precentor helped us to engage with just what “comfort” might mean as we look towards Pentecost...and quoted today’s beautiful Collect, one of the jewels of the liturgical year. I was reminded then of a scene in the Bayeaux tapestesty, with its caption “Bishop Odo comforts a soldier”...The comfort is being delivered with the aid of a large club...and sometimes being encouraged to live as evidence of God’s kingdom may feel a bit like that.
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name...will you go where you don’t know and never be the same
That’s OK to sing…music can be great at helping us to evade some of the more demanding aspects of faith, I find….but the comforter is coming...bringing the strength and inspiration we most need.

And the Spirit can and WILL make all things new – within our lives, within the Church, and within this broken, struggling world.

If this week has left you baffled and bereft – or just plain terrified – can I encourage you to join in this great wave of prayer that God will act...will draw us all, one by one, into his work of transformation and renewal.
Let us join with our brothers and sisters far and near to pray “Thy Kingdom come”, so that we may be both evidence of God’s grace at work and witnesses to God’s power to transform the world into the likeness of God’s kingdom, that God’s name may be glorified.



Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Picking through the rubble

Today at noon I stood, as I often do, at the chancel steps and invited visitors to be still for a few moments, to join in a defining act of prayer, something that is part of our DNA here at Coventry Cathedral, our Litany of Reconciliation.
I told those present that the litany emerged as part of our response the morning after a dreadful event that had changed the city of Coventry forever, that it represented a hard, challenging choice to seek peace and reconciliation, even in the face of violence and anguish. I talked about how the medieval nails that had fallen from the roof of the burned cathedral were formed into a cross, and how that cross of nails became the symbol for all the work that has spread out from Coventry around the world, about the Community of the Cross of Nails, and the different ways in which its members seek paths of reconciliation in the face of real challenge, difficulty and even danger. I talked about Provost Howard's decision to have just two words written in the sanctuary of his ruined cathedral
"Father, forgive" - reflecting that he deliberately turned away from any partisan "them" and "us" response which might demonise any one group.
I dared to say that, as we all ponder the impact of last night's events in violence, which left children - children, Lord help us, - dead, wounded, traumatised, we have the same choice before us.
We can opt for anger, heap vitriole on the people of violence, increase the polarisation of society as we build ever higher walls to separate "them" and "us"....OR we can recognise that each of us carries within us the seeds of anger and cruelty that, left unchecked, can lead to such disaster and resolve to live by a better rule.
There IS a choice. Always.
"What we need to tell the world is this....that we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge....We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, more Christ-child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife"

With a new urgency I begged those gathered (a larger crowd than usual, as people came in to be quiet, to light candles, to pray and process all that happened last night) to choose, in their turn, to be people of peace. Then we kept silence for a minute, before I prayed the words that came to me early this morning as I read the first accounts of last night's violence and terror
Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.                                                                                                                      Be with all who cry out to you today:                                                           the weeping, the wounded, the angry, the terrified,
And, in your mercy, receive all the departed into the light and peace of your kingdom,
For we ask this in Jesus's name.

Then together we prayed the Litany - as we do every day.
Precious, holy words that offer a better way of being.
Words that make space for reflection before over-hasty reactions escalate violence.
Words that are a gift in time of trouble

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
FATHER FORGIVE
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
FATHER FORGIVE
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
FATHER FORGIVE
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
FATHER FORGIVE
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
FATHER FORGIVE
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
FATHER FORGIVE
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
FATHER FORGIVE
Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


 

Praying for Manchester

Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.

Be with all who cry out to you today;

The weeping, the wounded, the angry, the terrified;

And in your mercy receive all the departed into the light of your kingdom,

For we ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Thoughts for Open Easter 5 14th May 2017 John 14 1-14

Lord, we do not know where we are going. How can we know the way?

It has been truly said that while you live life forward, you understand it backwards...and that on the whole we don’t get a map to show us the way our lives will work out. I remember once at vicar school spending an evening discussing with fellow-students whether the - or Bible might be such a map, or whether it was more a guide-book, pointing out the main features that we might expect to run across, without actually prescribing a route from here to there….

Not that I’m great with maps, actually. Before the advent of sat navs, if setting out on a long car journey I had to write out a list of land-mark towns as the pressure of trying to work out where I might be on a map at a motorway service station was simply too much for me. So last week when a small group of us elected to do an independent cross-country journey across Iona, disliking the idea of being herded along in the official pilgrimage that stuck to metalled roads, I was very much NOT in charge. There were five of us that day, 2 younger and fitter, 3 of us substantially less so, and friendships were made or strengthened as we adjusted to one another’s needs, for space, for silence, for time to breathe though the challenges and delights of the day.
I learned a lot.
About myself – how knowing that there ARE people who will help when I’m feeling stuck often means that I don’t need to ask for help at all; and that there is sometimes more kindness in not jumping in to assist than there is in hasty intervention; that actually, given time, I can do things that seemed well beyond me to start with.
I learned that we all tackle challenges in different ways and that for me sometimes it’s easiest to negotiate obstacles (specifically steep descents on boggy ground) on my bottom, or (if going uphill) on my knees.
That might have made a nice little parable, if I hadn’t found myself kneeling in the very bog that I’d been trying to avoid slipping into...because appearances are deceptive, and it’s not just the obvious muddy patches that turn out to be squelchy and unreliable.

We climbed Iona’s one serious hill, Duni, early on...and that path to the summit was the only obvious route of the day. Once we left the hill-top cairn behind us, it was by no means clear which way to go, as the whole hillside was criss-crossed with sheep tracks – and, as we learned early on, just because a sheep can get down somewhere, it doesn’t follow that 5 middle-aged clergywomen can follow them. Lots of paths – but which one was THE WAY?

My US clergy friends were peculiarly fascinated by shaggy Hebridean sheep, so there were a fair few jokes about lost sheep and about good-enough shepherds as the day went on….the latter, of course, referring to the brave soul who undertook to be our pioneer, striding ahead and exploring the territory for we who came after.

For all the joking, actually she reminded me of some important truths.
That a good leader knows where you are actually aiming for, and has a sense of the overall course of the journey….
That she isn’t too proud to admit mistakes – and to use her own experience as a learning point – DONT put your foot on that stone, it’s so wobbly I’ve just landed up to my knees in muddy water.
That she will not only have an eye to immediate hazards, but an overview of the wider terrain (so easy to lose the path when you’re simply intent on taking the next step safely), and will sometimes forge ahead simply to encourage from the hill-top
The view from here is incredible”.

A good-enough shepherd indeed, as all of her flock made it home safely., but as I wobbled across the slough of despond on the stepping stones of uncertainty, some other words were echoing in my thoughts – words drawn from the reading we have just shared and used, as it happened, in the Iona Community’s own liturgy for Communion.
Then, just as we think we’ve got it right as to where we should go and what we should do;
Just when we’re ready to take on the world you come, like a beggar to our back door saying “This is the way. I am the way.” and offering us bread and wine….

I am the way – he says.
A way we can rely on, without wobbly stepping stones or unexpected mud baths.
A way that may challenge us, draw more out of us than we had believed possible but will lead us to see unexpected beauty – the view from here is incredible.
A way that stretches out clearly in front of us, unmistakeable...leading each of us safely home to our Father’s house where there are so many many dwelling places….

But what does that mean in practice?
No-one comes to the Father except through me”..seems pretty clear and non-negotiable, so much so that sometimes Christians have behaved as if they thought of Jesus more as a road-block than a route to wholeness and happiness with God.
Of course it is true that the only way that we will get home safely is by taking the route that Jesus forged for us on the cross, the route of self-giving love that is stronger than death.
That is what it means for us to be fully human,
I don’t think, though, that this means that only card-carrying Christians can expect a welcome home.
The Jesus-event – life, death, resurrection – is indeed once for all but it IS truly for all – and in those many dwelling places of our Father’s house there is surely room for everyone who lives according to his law of love.

When it comes down to it, I cannot believe that the God whose love is without limits will intentionally exclude anyone….and nor can I believe that those who seem to be turning their backs on his gracious invitation in this life will do so when they see for themselves that beauty of God that is beyond all words.
I’m pretty certain that those who seem to reject Christianity in the here and now are rejecting not the truth in all its beauty but the broken partial way in which all too often, we, the Church, present it…

But fortunately it doesn’t matter how I see things...what matters is how God sees things, and we can be confident that his perspective is wide and generous beyond our widest and wildest dreams….because, you see, that is how Jesus is….pure, unbounded love….
And he and the Father are one. To see Jesus is to see God. To walk the Jesus way in open-hearted love is to find ourselves on the road safe home, to the place where we all of us belong.

Here is the way. I am the way, Walk in it.



Saturday, May 13, 2017

"Who is the funeral for?"

That's an oft-set essay question during training for ministry, but really you'd think that I would know the answer 14 years after ordination, having conducted on average one a week for 11 of those years.
500 funerals and I still don't know!
Really?!?

My theology suggests that an all-loving, all-forgiving God is not going to rethink his plans about anyone's eternal destiny on the basis of a Requiem Mass, no matter how well-attended, how beautifully conceived and offered. God's will is that none shall be lost, and so though it makes perfect sense to continue a loving prayerful relationship with those who are gone from us, I don't on the whole expect that prayers for the departed will materially affect them, though in God's providence perhaps those prayers, expressions of our on-going love, may be diverted to that time when they are most needed.

So it makes sense for me to pray - and to celebrate the Eucharist too, because that is where we can once more eat together, as we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where all find their place. But I don't really imagine that the funeral is actually for the departed and, while I'm certain that God rejoices to see loving relationships wherever they are expressed, I don't think that we gather for God's benefit either.
Common Worship says that we are there to remember and to give thanks, to commend, commit and seek comfort - and that is what I tell my families too. "We're here" , I suggest,  "to say thank you to God for X and to X for all they have been and all they have done, to ask God to care for them til you are together again, and to care for you, because this is hard and it hurts, and we're here for your friends to do what they can to show love and care as well. "
That sounds OK - even convincing - and for the most part my funeral families seem to go away having received the comfort and strength that they need, for the moment at least.

I'm not sure that my own experience altogether matches those expectations, though that may be as much to do with the one-size-fits-all impersonality of the Book of Common Prayer service for the Burial of the Dead which marked my parents' passings. No eloquent tributes, indeed, no opportunity to even name the departed - and precious little comfort, beyond the reference to that "sure and certain hope" at the committal. The modern Roman rite is no cosier, nor does it allow any scope to celebrate all that has been at this moment of farewell....and yet it would never occur to me to suggest, even for a moment, that the funeral was somehow unnecessary. 

It is hugely important that those who are left behind can consciously, deliberately, hand over the departed into those open, everlasting arms, and ask for the help they so badly need with the onward journey.

Interestingly, it seems even more important if you are on the periphery - mourning, right enough, but not part of the inner circle. 
So I found it deeply painful and distressing that I could not be with my Gloucester diocesan family when, together, they said Goodbye to Bishop Michael. To be absent, even on beautiful Iona, felt, in anticipation, like an act of colossal ingratitude, a failure to "pay respects", a with-holding of the one gift that I could still offer, which was so very much +Michael's due.
But there was no getting round it. 
I had promises to keep and I knew in my heart of hearts that +Michael would not for a moment have approved of one of his priests failing to honour an existing commitment....and after all, I would only have been there for my sake, really.


So, I found rituals of my own to mark that day.
I re-read his final letter, with its emphasis on the Communion of Saints, as I prepared to celebrate the Eucharist.
I consciously carried him in my heart, my prayers and my thoughts, and heard his voice joined with the multitude whom no-one can number at the Sanctus - and later, in the beautiful brokenness of the Nunnery ruins, I prayed aloud the Commendation, as I knew others were doing in the Cathedral I loved.

And those rituals, that conscious letting go, was by God's grace, enough. 
I discovered for myself that when you ask, you do receive "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow".
Alleluia!
Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Easter 3 A

Today, with our Cathedral's AGM taking place early this afternoon, it’s perhaps a good time to think about what we stand for...so I spent a bit of time yesterday exploring the far flung corners of the internet, to seeing what others believed we were about.
Thus I read that that “cathedrals and churches architecturally prepare our souls for the beauty of the Eucharist” - a line that made me think instantly of the journey from West Screens to High Altar which is so integral to the very shape of our building. If you're visiting this morning and have yet to make that journey - we really do recommend it.
I read too that they are “Flagships of the Spirit”, (presumably because the bishop whose seat gives a cathedral its name, is the nearest thing to an admiral that a diocese has…In a landlocked diocese like ours, make of that what you will! )Finally, in a wonderful essay by the Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, I was reminded that cathedrals, like those very bishops who sit on their “cathedra”,must be apostolic, prophetic and prayerful

So let’s consider what that might mean for us.

Are we apostolic?
The word itself might make you anxious, suggesting a focus on looking over the shoulder to confirm that our line of succession is just as it should be, - but actually, that’s not heart of the matter at all. To be apostolic is to be always on the move, to be SENT. Think of those weary men running – (yes, I know Luke doesn't actually say so, but somehow there's no doubt ..)RUNNING back to Jerusalem to share the news of their encounter with the risen Christ.
That’s what it is to be apostolic!
Cathedrals, no less than parish churches, are always on a mission…less an institution, more a movement...despite the fact that there is no getting away from the building, with all its beauty and all its demands. Whereas as a parish priest I could say to visitors "I'm sorry. I can show you the building, but the church is out and about - at school, in the shops, walking the dogs, working in Sainsbury's", here there is no escaping the fact that the cathedral IS the building....though of course it needs your presence if it is to be anything beyond a rather imposing shell.
It is a building where we gather as people on a mission...apostolic people...
Using the model that is currently part of our diocesan DNA, this part of our calling is to “Need oriented evangelism” - because, like it or not, we do have good news to share.
We may not feel ourselves fired up like Peter preaching at Pentecost, but just think for a moment about what brought you here, here to this particular place rather than any other
Many of you, I’m sure, were drawn by all that this cathedral represents...the very fabric demonstrating to the post-war world that international peace and co-operation was a serious option, that reconciliation was worth striving for, committing to as a way of being every single day.
You came to stand in the apostolic tradition, to live into the truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and has entrusted us with the ministry of reconcilition.
And that calling is no less real, no less immediate now than it was in 1962.
We have a gospel to proclaim….

And of course, that calling to Reconciliation, is also prophetic, speaking truth to power, offering challenge, modelling another way for a world that is all too quick to jump from posturing to action.
So far, so good then.

What about being prayerful? On one level, that’s peculiarly easy for us. Maintaining the tradition that has been part of this place since Leofric and Godiva established the Benedictine community of St Mary’s, we live each day within the bookends provided by the Daily Office, Morning and Evening Prayer, which holds together all that we do and all that we are. You might argue that it’s sometimes a rather vicarious exercise. It’s relatively rare for any members of the cathedral community to join us, unless they are already on duty as stewards...but vicarious faith has long been part of the mission of the Church of England and certainly that structure of daily prayer and worship provides the trellis on which faith and ministry can grow in this place.

But – is it growing? That’s maybe a question we’d prefer not to engage with, on a day when we want to be able to celebrate all that has been good in our shared life over the past year. Certainly I don’t want to draw us down to wallow in a slough of despond...but I wonder if you found yourself wistful, maybe even envious, as you listened to this morning’s readings, with stories of lives transformed in an instant.

Time for my favourite question, then.
I wonder where you are in the story?

Do you feel excited or guilt ridden listening to Peter’s preaching. He’s truly on fire for God, in a way that might make the rest of us feel just a little inadequate. But don’t forget – this is the same man who denied his Lord three times, and who was so haunted by his own fears that he couldn’t even bring himself to stand at the foot of the cross. Perhaps his inadequacies might, after all, match our own – but here, at last, is his moment of transformation.
Finally – FINALLY – Peter has become the rock that Jesus always knew he could be. He is ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, and so he sets out his stall in unmistakeable, uncompromising terms. No beating about the bush.
He is offering eternal truths and wants there to be no room for confusion.
Therefore let the whole house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified”

What about it? Are you among those swayed by his preaching – one of the three thousand whose lives were changed then and there...or are you still asking questions on the edge of the crowd? I wonder where you are in the story.

Perhaps you simply feel weary, like those dis-spirited travellers who were making their way out of Jerusalem, desperate to put the scenes of the recent horror behind them, to get right away from the hostile crowds, the soldiers on street corners and their own all-embracing disappointment
We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel”
So many hopes, dashed on Good Friday. 
"They stood still, looking sad". What else could they do? Where could they go? It seemed their exciting adventure had ended at a brick wall. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, and those unsettling rumours of missing bodies and unexpected angels just seemed to make everything worse.
More questions than answers, that’s for sure...and now the company of a stranger who is so out of the loop that he doesn’t appear to have heard anything at all about all that you’ve been through.
The road to Emmaus seems longer, more tiring than ever before – except that somehow this man’s impromptu lesson in faith and history is strangely engaging, even energising.
Despite yourself, you feel more alive than you’ve done since that last meal in the Upper Room.
Perhaps, like those travellers, you are waiting for a moment of clarity – for Jesus to make himself known to you unmistakeably...to satisfy the hunger you can barely articulate….
You are longing to encounter your Lord, unexpectedly, waiting your energy and your faith to be restored in an instant as you meet him in the breaking of the bread.
Is that where you are in the story?

Or is it just too far off and long ago for you to place yourself in the story at all?
Is a God of broken body and broken bread not quite what you were hoping for?
Though we know here, better than most, the unexpected strength and transforming hope that can emerge from brokenness, it may still seem too long since our hearts burned within us as we came to worship.
Are we disappointed with God, wanting to ask him “Is this it? There must be more, surely”

Time, then, to listen again to Peter’s sermon...to hear these words and claim them for our own...
You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him”
This, surely, is the answer to our inadequacies and our weariness, the key to that “passionate spirituality” which is one of the hall marks of a healthy growing church.
It’s not something we can do for ourselves, not something that demands further efforts, an outlay of time or commitment that we struggle to muster.
It’s a gift...a gift waiting to be claimed...a gift that brings with it all the extraordinary life-giving power of God.
This promise is for you and for your children
For we who are part of the Coventry Cathedral story here and now, and those who will come after
A gift from the one who makes all things new.