Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Intergenerational Love Of God

When I was a kid, me and my friends loved to ‘play out.’ We lived in suburbia and one day we decided to play football in a cul-de-sac round the corner from us. We were boisterous, the 5 or 6 of us and we obviously annoyed one of the residents of the street who came down his drive and yelled at us, ‘Clear off or I’ll call the fuzz!’

It wasn’t the first time we were caught out by local residents, but many a time we made our way away from wherever we were followed by a call of ‘Remember, I know your folks!’

A few years ago, Hilary Clinton in part quoted a Nigerian proverb, when she said that she still believed that it took a whole village to raise a child. Many of us as adults here will remember ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ who played significant roles in our childhoods; adults looked out for children more generally. But nowadays many of us would be afraid, and I do mean that, to intervene if we saw a child out on their own at an odd time or in an unusual place, for fear of being reprimanded. It’s somehow no longer my responsibility.

Prior to the passage we hear as this morning’s Gospel, in characteristic detail, Luke records Jesus’ birth, and He is surrounded by a host of people influencing even His earliest days - Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, angels and shepherds as well as His parents. The child is born into occupied land & welcomed by those outside - socially and spiritually. He is welcomed as a child of Israel as he is circumcised and named at 8 days old and then is taken to the Temple in thanksgiving as was the custom.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord… and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Andy Murray was widely reported in recent days that he would leave the Australian open tennis championship to ensure that he could be with his wife Kim if she went into early labour. Given a chance you wouldn't want to wouldn't you, as the hopes and dreams we have for our children begin at precious moment one. And it’s not just parents - I can remember my parents and in-laws all waiting impatiently at our house for news of the arrival of Matthew.  Whilst focused on Jesus throughout, our Gospel reading also records the responses of the adults around him to the child and asks us some key questions about all children: What expectations and hopes do we have for our children as they grow toward adulthood? What responsibilities do all adults have for children, regardless of whether or not they are related to them by blood or marriage, to keep them safe and to help them learn our social and religious customs?

Then Simeon… said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed…

When my boys were small we had to find times in the liturgy for them to be able to come and see me and for me to be daddy. Many Sundays I would be praying for God’s blessing on us (with them making the sign of the cross too) or processing out with my children in tow. this became the norm for them and they did this with visiting priest and bishop alike. They were learning what it meant to be in church and how to worship and it was ok. But how is it ok for the Vicar’s children and not ok for others to come to the symbol of the presence of God here - the altar rail? Why is it not ok for them to dance to the music of our hymns as we praise God?

This child, Jesus, will be the falling and rising of many in Israel. But what of this child? Or this one?? And all too often, because of them, the inner thoughts of many will be revealed by a look that says - I wish they would be quiet; what are the parents playing at etc.  Jesus wont have been the only child in the temple on the day, in the midst of it’s hustle and bustle but when parents with their children are here in this temple, the church is filled with a joyful noise. When parents are here with their kids, the Body of Christ is more fully present. When parents with their kids are here, we are reminded that this worship thing we do isn't about bible study or personal, quiet contemplation but coming together to worship as an extended family where all are welcome, where we share in the Word and Sacrament together. When parents with their kids are here, I have hope that these pews won't be empty in 10 years when the kids are old enough to sit quietly and behave in worship. I know that they can learn how and why we worship now, before it's too late. They are learning that worship is important. Oh and let's not kid ourselves that the children are the church of tomorrow because the simple fact of the matter is that unless we care for and nurture our children in the faith and support and encourage their parents, there won't be a church of tomorrow! They are the church of today.

What is Jesus asking of us? Both Simeon and Anna saw the hope of God in this child, not just for the future, but in the now - cradled in their arms.  The church is one of the very last organisations where ages and stages and differing backgrounds all mix together.  It is our shared responsibility to help our children learn how to worship - parents that is perhaps by finding new places to sit so the children can see worship and not just staying down the back. It’s also about helping them understand the different things we do - stopping and being still in prayers, listening to the Bible as it is read. Adults it is about encouraging our children and supporting their parents with a kind word not a scowl or a moan to a Warden. The children only learn they are not wanted or loved that way.

At the heart of our Gospel today is a child, young adults and the elderly all gathered in the presence of God in the Temple; family members and others together discovering the presence of God in their midst in this child. Simeon reminds us that the hopes of not just these parents but the hopes of the whole world are vested in this child.  In this child.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Grace For All At Cana

We have lost some of the greats in recent days - the artist David Bowie, the actor Alan Rickman are two.  I was never really a fan of Bowie’s music, and personally I think a 15 minute slot on the 10 o’ clock news was probably a bit extreme. Then I looked back and I noticed that he had eleased some of the most memorable popular music in the last 40 years.  I admire the way he has managed to reinvent himself musically and stylistically to appeal to a new generation. 

Alan Rickman similarly has never been one of my favourite film stars.  Yet whether it was Sense and Sensibility, Truly, Madly Deeply, Dogma or the Die Hard or Harry Potter franchises I recognise that stage and screen alike has lost someone very important.

The other great thing that we have lost, for now I believe, is the Church’s right to speak to a culture that needs the Gospel more than ever.  Jesus ministered to those on the margins of society in His day - lepers, women, the sick, Samaritans, tax collectors etc and He called His followers to do the same.  We have been reminded this week that as members of the Anglican Communion we have failed to be good news to the LBGT community, and we remain publicly unrepentant for the way we have corporately treated them.  Whilst it was highly unlikely that Anglican Primates were going to agree on issues of human sexuality, to see the Episcopal Church in the US effectively ostracised for three years to keep the Communion together seems like a heavy price to pay. An odd definition of Communion if there was ever one.

We all want Jesus to take our side and to act on our behalf not theirs. Even His mother tried to play that game according to what we hear in this morning’s Gospel - ‘…And Jesus responds to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’…’ The historical actions of slave traders and abolitionists, supporters of women’s rights and those wedded to traditional understandings of patriarchal headship alike can all be justified by the words of Scripture. Yet history shows us that what is considered culturally acceptable changes with time as does the Church's interpretation of Scripture.

The wedding at Cana is an odd story in a way - Jesus meets a human need with miraculous divine provision. But the need in this case is just that the hosts at a party have run out of wine. Compared with the needs of the desperately sick or seriously disabled, more wine for a party seems more like a luxury than a need. 

The mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ Christina McQuillan rented out her flat on New Year’s Eve via the website Air BnB. She was called by a neighbour back to her property after a party involving hundreds was clearly in full swing.  “It was horrific – me and my partner got to the property and there were hundreds of people on the streets… We entered the property and we told [the host] to shut it down immediately. This girl just laughed and said ‘no, I’m holding a party’.”

Running out of wine was a social faux pas: to entertain relatives and neighbours at a wedding was a major social obligation. To run out of wine would be a serious social disgrace and spoil the party. But this is evidently not a really poor family. Couldn't they have just sent out to buy more wine? In the end, by providing more wine we have to admit that Jesus isn't so much meeting a need as being rather extravagant. As Jesus' contribution to the party, if you like, he provides far more wine than they could possibly have drunk, even though such wedding celebrations traditionally went on for a whole week. And much better wine than they would normally have expected to be drinking. Luxury and extravagance are the words we have to use.

Jesus said, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ When the steward tasted the water that had become wine… the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’

Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th-century Danish philosopher, said: 'Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.’  Wine though wasn’t just a social lubricant at an event such as this.  It was a sign of the harvest, of God’s abundance, of joy and gladness and hospitality.  In performing this miracle Jesus provides for over a thousand bottles of the finest of wines.  And that, according to John, is what grace is like: an overflowing of joy, blessing, and the presence of God.

If Jesus’ call to us, as to his first disciples, remains the same, to model what he did and said in his earthly ministry bringing the grace and joy and blessing of the presence of God to the outsider, I wonder whether what the church does and says so often turns the wine of the kingdom into water? It certainly feels like that might be the case following the Primate’s meeting if you are a member of the gay community, but it will also feel like that every time we shush a child or glare at it’s parent who is trying their best to feel welcomed by Jesus and helping them grow in faith and yet we push them away from our Jesus.

We are the conduits of the extravagant grace of God to the whole of our community, not just those we like or who are like us, but to all that society and the church push to the margin.  Not demonstrating God’s grace to others in our words and deeds is more than a social faux pas. It silences the Gospel. We lose our right to speak.  Archbishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop in the TEC said this week: “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ…’ To paraphrase St Paul: There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, gay or straight adult or child, for all are one in Christ.’

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Test Tube Baptism and Blessing

We're in the season of Epiphany and next week we keep the Festival of the Baptism of Christ in one of our churches at least.

A few years ago I ordered some test tubes in the days before the Festal Eucharist.  During the liturgy (which you'll find on page 170 of this document) re asked God to bless water in the font, we sought the forgiveness of God and rededicated ourselves to living out our Baptismal vows.

At the end of the service I gave everyone who wanted to the opportunity to take home a test tube filled with holy water and to use the water to bless their home. 

I wrote the following prayer to be used with it:

As you mark the door of your home with the sign of the cross with the Holy Water, say the following prayer:
May Christ always be here with us
May He share our joys
and comfort us in our sadness.
May He inspire and help us
to make our home a place where His love is shared. Amen.

(© Simon Cutmore, 2013. Feel free to use it, but please acknowledge me as the source.)

It was well received and I'm blogging it here basically for my own benefit, but if you would like to do this/use the prayer/adapt this idea then please do so but could you simply let me know what you did and how it went?

Sunday, December 06, 2015

I Don't Want to Survive. I Want To Live!

‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ 

On Friday night we watched the harrowing but very important film ’12 Years A Slave’ from which that quote comes. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner, he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changes Solomon's life forever.

‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ That cry from the guts of one oppressed, taps into the longings of many - of the displaced Syrian mother, the bankrupt father, the abused daughter, the addicted son. It resonates with the community grieving in San Bernadino, in Paris, in Chad and in Nigeria. God knows things could be different; should be different. Yes he does.

The book of Baruch does not feature in the Hebrew version of the Bible but does feature in the Septuagint which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The book also features in the scriptures that the Roman Catholic, some Anglican and some Orthodox churches use today. It was probably written at a time when when Jews were scattered - some deported to Babylon and some dispersed around the Mediterranean sea. Earlier in the book, the writer, traditionally understood to be Baruch, the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe, states that the reason for the exile is to do with disobedience to the ways of God. For more that 12 years corporately they have cried, ’I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ God hears the cry of his people. Things are about to change.

Addressing Jerusalem and the exiles God says, ‘...Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of
the glory of the Everlasting... For God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory...’

’...It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency... America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing...’ So ran yesterday’s editorial of the New York Times.

Israel has been surviving in exile but now God calls her to live! To take of, literally and metaphorically the funeral attire and be clothed as a priest, with a robe and mitre like Aaron, with faith in Him. From now on Jerusalem will be a place from which God’s peace and glory will be seen - hence the new name. But that’s not the only change that God is bringing about - He will give the word and the exiles will return from where they
have scattered and to ease their passage - God will change the physical landscape - so that He and His people may dwell together again.

In the face of yet another mass shooting, the US has yet to see this sort of substantive change. In fact it and our own nation’s history and present are littered with moral abhorations. As we sit in a moral desert, in some senses it is fine to pray for the victims, but unless those prayers lead to action then the words are empty. Baruch reminds us that
substantive change comes, not only by longing, but by action - in this case the action of God.

‘...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...’

Following the debate and decision in Parliament this week to deploy aircraft to bomb ISIS targets in Syria, a forces charity - Combat Stress - has called for urgent extra funding to support veterans suffering with post traumatic stress - the inner injuries of war that no one initially sees and can take years to surface. In the last year, referrals to the charity went up 25% and they expect them only to rise.

Luke is keen to locate the story he tells in this morning’s Gospel, with the accuracy of a surgical strike. He lists places and people as the cross hairs of history. And in those sights is John, in the wilderness as the Jews were back in Baruch’s day, hearing again a call not just to survive but to live! Luke uses words from the prophet Isaiah which resonate with those of Baruch about God changing the landscape - preparing the way - but not just so people can return to God, but so that He can come to them.

The coming of God is unseen because it involves changing the landscape, not of the physical world, but of the core of our being - the place from where we cry out ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins - Jews of his day will have known of 2 baptisms (ritual washing and Gentile conversions to Judaism) but this was new. Literally a baptism of a reorientated heart and life. A baptism that symbolised a change in the places other cannot initially see - the landscape of our hearts - brought about not by us, but by the God who comes to us... still.
Are we wanting to take our baptisms seriously? Do we want to survive or do we
want to live? Did we rally mean it in the waters of our own baptism that we wanted a reorientated heart and life? 

Advent is a time to look again at the things that others don't directly see - to slow down and stop - where are we - in a prosperous place or a moral wilderness; to take a examine at our motives and our day to day decisions and ask what drives them; if we are wanting change are we willing to act by allowing God to act in us to reshape our hearts and our lives? 

Paris - a sermon based on Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18]19-25 and Mark 13.1-8

Ahh my much maligned blog. There will now be a flurry of posts, just to catch some ideas and sermons as much as anything else...


I have stood in the crowd at the Bataclan theatre on more than one occasion. I love the bustle of 11e bounded by the Places des Vosges and the the Bastille and Pere Lechaise cemetery at the other. Paris was the backdrop to 2 important years of my life - years of faith, friendships, music, culture and where my vocation was tested. My heart breaks, all of our hearts break, recalling the unspeakable tragedy on those streets in the last 24 hours. They are attacks on music lovers and gig goers like me; culture vultures like me; tourists like me; ordinary people of every walk and way of life like me, like you. And in so many ways there are no words.

And yet into unspeakable tragedy words do eventually come - boiling to the surface of our lives, spat in rage and frustration. But this reaction in the face of grief and injustice is more than a toddler griping that they didn't get their own way. This is a railing from our very core - that signs and symbols of our enduring values and the supposed certainties of life - political freedom, justice, tolerance - have been challenged, levelled, and lives obliterated.

The Temple - the sign of the presence of God in the Israelite community where heaven and earth united - was originally built by King Solomon to house the Ark of the Covenant and it was supposed to, like God, endure forever. Yet it was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE.

This enduring symbol was rebuilt during the reign of King Darius by Nehemiah in
516BCE. This 2nd Temple was added to by Herod the Great but the building was decimated in the years after Jesus after a 4 year Jewish revolt against the Romans.

Levelling the Temple, decimated the Israelites’ identity and values, their sure faith and hope in the presence and power of the God who had called them to be His people, lay in piles of crushed rubble. Jesus talking of the levelling of the Temple will have sent his hearers sense of national identity, underlying values and faith in God crashing to the ground.

In Hebrews it says: ‘... And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds...’ This is a passage brimming with a confidence mentioned in vs 19 - confidence that consciences are cleansed, confident of the forgiveness of God and wanting to encourage one another therefore to love and good works. Confidence is frankness, outspoken speech, openness to public scrutiny, courage, boldness, fearlessness,
and joy. It is a characteristic of free citizens who may hold their heads up without shame or fear, looking others directly in the eye. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise such boldness; it belonged to the free members of the household.

Did you watch this series of The Apprentice? It’s been a big earner for the BBC. I wonder what do we love about this show - is it Is it the wonderful opportunity that is on offer? Could it be the Lord Sugar put-downs? The mind-bending tasks perhaps? How about the
boardroom battles ending in the pointy finger and those immortal words “you’re fired.” No, what we like is listening to the absolute ego driven, self-aggrandising statement these people come up with. “I am the Swiss army knife of business skills” or I’m the Godfather of the business and I’m going to make Lord Sugar an offer he cannot refuse” oh dear. Oh and please remember these ‘business people’ made £1.87 in profit in the first show. Business people? Nah!

The ego is an amazing thing; it tricks us into believing so much about ourselves to the point where we only hear our own voice. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us we need confidence not based on who we are or our perceived abilities but whose we are, namely God’s.

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ We all do love the bigger, the better, the faster, the bolder. We are all attracted to splendour, grandeur and the external look. That which is true for films - the bigger the budget the better - can be true of our churches in terms of Sunday attendance, the number of home groups and so on. What large stones, yes, but what’s the story behind them?

I watched 'Imagine', the arts programme recently, on which there was a retrospective of the artist Anthony Gormley. It was intensely moving. Raised a Roman Catholic but now staunchly atheistic, Gormley’s work, so often based around the human form. It became clear over the documentary, that whether creating ‘little Gorms’ our of Indian clay six inches high, or the Angel of the North with a wing span of a jumbo - Gormley was interested in exploring not our outer form as people - but what goes on inside of us when we close our eyes. His works ask us not to look at them - as spellbinding and untraditionally beautiful as many of them are, but to look into ourselves - to our inner,
eternal world of drives and motives. Jesus is not focussed external values of numbers or size, or even the endurance of a culture and it’s systems, but eternal values of faithfulness and trust.

What is Jesus asking of us? In these days of violence, when our confidence, culture and values are all violently challenged and in Paris have come crashing down, it would be all to easy to answer it with more violence. Instead perhaps, we should answer it with love. Not just love for the victims who died in Paris or continue to die in Syria or the Lebanon; but more challengingly with love even for our enemies, for those who perpetrated the atrocities.
That does not mean that we must ‘grin and bear it’; no, love requires that we must sometimes do hard things to reject sin and evil. But our love must strive to heal differences, to address the pain of historical events that continues to divide us. And, we must learn to live side by side in love, despite our fears, accepting each other as we are.

We must do this, not because we are forced to do so by our rulers, rather because we believe God loves us: from a heart that freely and willingly chooses to love, to accept, to nurture and to care, knowing that others may not be able to respond in a like fashion.

As Dag Hammerskjöld, the United Nations Secretary General, who died in an unexplained plane crash in Zambia in 1961, wrote, ‘It is only when I can give without expecting a response that the other can receive and be grateful’. Our love must be open to all, given without the price ticket of reciprocal love. And that means that we leave ourselves open to the possibility, even the probability or the certainty, of pain and loss. If that seems a price too great to pay, we must remember that it was exactly that price which was paid by Jesus to redeem us from our sins.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Art of Ai Weiwei and Edith Cavell

High in the Troödos Montains on the beautiful island of Cyprus nestles the Kykkos monastery. The monastery is famous because the first President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III started his ecclesiastical career there as a monk in 1926, and his tomb lies reasonably close by.

But the other reason that the monastery is famous is because it is custodian of an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The icon is rarely looked at, and the majority of the time it is hidden away behind a solid silver covering which in turn is an accurate representation (it is said) of what lies beneath.  The icon is worth a mention today because tradition says was written by St Luke.

St Luke, who many know as a doctor from what little we know of him in the New Testament, tradition says was also the first icon writer. In both what he wrote in the Gospel that bears his name and his second book, Acts, and in the icons he traditionally has attributed to him, Luke’s purpose is clearly to paint picture of what God has done in and through Jesus.

Art is a very subjective thing. Many of us like this or that picture because it is beautiful, but for many of the greatest artists, art is not about beauty but about stirring something within us, eliciting a response, drawing us into a conversation about ourselves, our culture, our world and it’s values. I was at the Royal Academy of Friday to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition there. One piece, simply called ‘Straight’ commemorates an earthquake in his native China where 5000 women, men and children all died because of the flimsy nature of many buildings. The artwork is a 90 tonne carpet of steel rods of varying heights made of the buildings that were destroyed plus the names of the dead written in Cantonese on large panels. Some might argue that it’s not traditionally beautiful, but it is deeply moving and even though steel is strong, it reminds us of life’s fragility.


Jesus said, ‘…Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you…’ Since His birth, the ministry of Jesus has been about bringing the authority, power, presence and love of God near to the unlikely and to the often supposedly undeserving, and seeing lives transformed, reordered, and healed.  But what is clear from what we hear this morning - that task was never destined to be his alone, but something he called others to share in too.

Last week the church and our nation remembered the life of Edith Cavell a British nurse and committed Anglican Christian, who during WW1 helped care for both German and Allied casualties alike, but who was ultimately shot for aiding nearly 200 Allied troops to escape occupied Belgium. She understood the duel call in this morning’s Gospel to heal the sick but also to see the nearness of the kingdom of God to all when she said, ‘…Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone…’ - a rejection of patriotic hatred which so often can fuel war, instead her compassionate faith shining through.  She was given a State funeral and was subsequently buried outside Norwich Cathedral in 1919.

As we remember St Luke today, and seek healing in our own lives, how do we share that which we have received with others and our wider community?  How are we to record, write and paint the life of Christ in our own lives so that others, as Luke says, ‘… may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed…’?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Stop. Look. Listen.

So I am away on retreat. In my head at least these days are supposed to full of stillness, holiness and engagement with Scripture. In reality, my experience over the last couple of days is that that couldn't be further from the truth.

One of my friends posted on Twitter that they thought I was at a spa. In fairness I am surrounded by beautiful countryside, there is a jacuzzi on site and I did have a massage and I have been filled with an array of homegrown and home cooked produce. But there is no champagne or spray tan in sight.

I am at a Christian retreat centre - there is opportunity to pray should I wish to several times a day. I have been invited to partake in workshops on focussing and dreams, using words and simple massage, and I have had 1:1 sessions with a member of the community.

I have largely avoided prayer so far. My life is bounded by the rhythm and formality of it every day. I came, in these days, minded just to be. To see how it felt to opt out, to take a back seat, to slowly disappear. This is quite a novelty. Taking a back seat and disappearing are not phrases in the ordinal used to describe both the deaconal and priestly ministry I have been called to. But I came to retreat from it all. And it feels weird, and I feel guilty. I should be praying shouldn't I! Shouldn't it?

Instead I have eaten and been satisfied, walked in the verdant countryside, listened to the drama of the rain, and watched the best part of a whole TV series. I have engaged in conversation sparingly and lightly. But I haven't slept well or found any sense of peace. In fact the opposite - I feel anxious.

Is the anxiety me unhappy about my time wisdom whilst here thus far? Have I used this gift well? Or is there something more? The experienced retreatant would suggest that perhaps this me settling into new rhythms and letting go whilst I am here and that I will feel better tomorrow.

But I just don't know.

I came with some questions to ask myself and to ask God whilst was here and it is these that, reflecting on them, that are causing my sense of uncertainty and unease. They are 'where', 'when', 'who' and 'how' type questions. They don't just affect me but others. Like so many questions' answers - their impact will ripple across lives, communities and time. That makes these questions sound very dramatic and quite final. In a way they are and in many ways they aren't. I just could do with some peace to try to listen to the questions and to listen to myself and to God in seeking the answers.

I've walked. Just me and the countryside. I've realised a few things as I traversed twinkling streams and passed velvet moss covered trees - all this around me was here before I arrived and will be here after I leave. What impact will my presence here make? How will things flourish (or not) because of my feet and the route I have chosen to take? I am just part of the landscape today and the next day. I'm just passing through.

Similarly, life at home goes on without me - school runs, meals, homework but also life in the parish. Am I just passing through those landscapes too? What footprint am I leaving? What impact is my presence, and the presence of God, making?

I have realised though that my anxiety is probably centred in the realisation that, whilst disappearing is perhaps desirable, I have left a footprint where I have been - on lives, loves and communities - to which  I am accountable and for which I am responsible. Disappearing is all too easy in a way - slipping out, letting go of responsibilities, walking away.

The other source of my anxiety is reflected in my walking whilst here. When I arrived in my current post I had clear ideas and a very definite direction of travel, but now a few years in, we have travelled well and made good time and distance but I'm not sure where we are to go next. This may seem to be an odd thing for a church leader to admit, but I don't. I haven't lost the plot or stopped believing in God or any of that sort of stuff. But from here, I can't see the road and I do not know where the next path is. This is made all the more hard when people are looking to you to provide that lead - well you are the Vicar after all...

Seeking new direction and fresh vision is hard. It's something I'm constantly striving to do & some time was spent with others discerning some of that last weekend. Consciously putting stuff down is hard. This is something that I have not done yet whilst I am have been away yet.

Holding on to much, especially parish based stuff, I think is part of what's made me anxious. It's the emotional residue of a costly few weeks, months and years. I need to consciously place all of it - people and places - into the hands of God.

So how am I going to live differently after I return from this week? I have loved the silence and solitude I have created whilst here. I walked locally today in a copse - there were no others people there, just trees & foliage, wildlife and me. As I walked I became aware of myself and of how I was feeling. That self awareness in that landscape where I had to concentrate on my footsteps for my own safety, led me ultimately to prayer which was simultaneously a gift and a surprise. 'You should not be surprised by this! Prayer is not a new thing for you!' I hear you cry. And indeed it's not. What was new though was the context and how it welled up in me as a response to my inner and outer landscapes. I need to make more opportunities to self-reflect like that.

I also need to make time to meet me and my spiritual director. Meeting me will be allowing time to recreate - music and art especially do need to feature more often. They are life affirming for me. As I journey on, I need also to sit and talk and listen with my spiritual director more as I discern paths.

All of this means that there is less time to 'do'. But in so doing, maybe I will discover more about how to be, to be me, and to me with thee under God.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Celebration and Harvest

It is wonderful to be here today together as a parish, as we give thanks to God for 170 years of faithful worship and witness in and from this church building to the people of West Hyde and Maple Cross. I would like to express my personal thanks to all those who have worked tirelessly to make this weekend happen and to make this place look so beautiful inside and those who have worked tirelessly to make this place look so beautiful on the outside having now finally completed the much longed for and needed restorative building works.

I was really struck, again, this week by the ministry of Pope Francis and he is rapidly becoming a spiritual hero of mine and of many millions of others. As he made his first official visit to the USA. Earlier in the week, in a speech to Congress he chastised the US Government for not accepting the reality of climate change and it’s impact on the most vulnerable, to make that point more thoroughly, he snubbed the opportunity for a state banquet as it were, to go and eat with some of those most vulnerable at a homeless project in Washington DC. One man who has been supported by homeless charities over 3 years said during the visit that the Pope’s presence there made him realise that he is not alone.

Loneliness and rejection by others, feeling like we are forgotten and don’t matter are probably deep down some of our greatest fears. They surface in our youngest years as we lose sight of our mother in the supermarket, but they reappear regularly and determinedly throughout adulthood especially into our latter years.  This church building has been used to champion the worth and value of all - especially those on the margins of our communities throughout its history whether as a soup kitchen or as a site of a food bank because as Christians we acknowledge that this place’s beauty and the worth and value of all people is to do with the love and presence of God Himself.

Our two readings today bring us back to the heart of what we celebrate today. Firstly Jacob, who has been fleeing for his life from his brother Esau, and en route he has an extraordinary dream which challenges and changes his life which reveals the hidden yet active presence of God in the world. And secondly Jesus speaks directly to our very human need for clothing, shelter and food and without downplaying those needs, encourages us to trust in God’s provision.

Jacob said, ‘…Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven…’ On Friday nights we tend to watch a film as a family and eat pizza. Friday just gone we did the same  as usual and settled down to watch a Harry Potter film. For those of you that know the story, one of the things I’d love is an invisibility cloak like Harry has. Wouldn’t that be great? You could sneak into all sorts of places unnoticed including late into church - or out again if the sermon was dull. Apparently scientists are a step closer to making that fictional item an actual item and it works apparently by fooling our eyes because of the way we see light.

For Jacob, God wasn’t wearing a cloak of invisibility up to the point where he encounters him and then whips it off - surprise Jacob! Throughout the book of Genesis, God breaks the rules and reveals Himself not to priests or royalty but to a terrified refugee in the run. Jacob’s vision of the ladder to heaven is awe inspiring but God is present there not because of His majesty, but because He longed to re-establish a relationship with Jacob. God has, is, and will be encountered in *this* place not in its beauty or majesty but in the worship and the lives of God’s people here over the last 170 years. Like Jacob found, God is here because He longs to continue to have a relationship with ordinary people like us.

Jesus said ‘…Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Earlier in the year, your will remember the shocking stories on the news about the Ebola outbreak. Now a teenager from Connecticut, Olivia Hallisey, having seen the need, has invented a test for the disease which takes 30 minutes to process and costs about £20. She was inspired to act having seen the same coverage and was encouraged by her science teacher. She hopes what she has done will make a difference but also inspire other girls to do the same.

Jesus is not downplaying simple human needs and wants for shelter, food and clothing, but he is challenging us not to worry about their provision. Instead we should turn our energies to seeking what God wants - loving our neighbour and loving Him - and in so doing we will receive what we need in return as well. This is as challenging to hear today as it will have been when Jesus first said it - of course we worry about how we will pay the next bill, where the money is coming from! Over the last 170 years many people whose worship has filled this place have used their gifts and talents to be a blessing to others - sometimes that work is seen: the very construction of this place required the talents of local people! But much of that talent use is unseen and unsung through a visit, a kind word, an assurance of prayer. This harvest the produce we bring and the money we give will be a blessing to others. The challenge for us to consider is how the money we give and the talents and gifts we have can continue to be a transformative blessing to our communities tomorrow and the next day.

Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel reorientated the rest of his life. As we celebrate 170 years of worship in this place, will you allow yourself to encounter that same God as we worship today, and will you let Him build a relationship with you that will utterly transform your life?  This Harvest, as we thank God for bounty and blessing, gifts and grace, Jesus expects us to put our energy into things that give meaning to life.  How will you strive to discern how God is working in the world and in our community and join in - and allow God to deal with the rest of our need?