Candlemas 2017: Looking for the Hope

Looking for the Hope

 

Simeon and Anna. The ones who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem, who recognised that hope in the baby brought to the Temple. Anna was an old woman by then. She had been a widow living in the Temple for a long time, recognised as a prophet. Yet she was still looking for a hope to come. Which is inspiring. Though perhaps still a little too far removed from us for us to really make a connection to it. What might Anna’s story be like if we heard it today?

I remember the war. I grew up during it, really. We were scared, sometimes. There was a lot to worry about. Not knowing if Dad was coming home. Or my brother. Not knowing what was going to happen. Would it end? When? How? It did, of course, but then before long it was all the Commies and the bomb. Were we all going to blow each other up? And it was hard to know what to think. Hard to really believe things would be ok. There’s always been something to worry about, something people think could wreck everything. That’s the easy thing to see. What’s wrong. What should we worry about? I’ve never needed much help with that. They jump out at you, the problems, the worries. It’s the other things that are harder to see, harder to hold on to. The things that say “It doesn’t have to be like that”, the chance that your worst fears might not ever come true. The idea that there’s something out there, something you can’t quite get a good look at, something good. Something better than you could imagine. You never see it full on, just catch a glimpse of it. It’s in the little things. A baby giggling. A coupe in love. That’s what I try to look out for. The hope. It’s there. Only you have to want to see it.

I lost my husband a long time ago. He was a lovely man. I expect I’ve taught myself to say that now, I’ve said it that many times. It was so long ago it seems almost like it was someone else’s life now. Seven years we had. There’s never been anyone else. We were happy, even without children. So long ago I’m the only one who remembers him, I think. It’s a long time on your own. When your friends’ children have children around you, and you feel like someone who’s stepped out of time somewhere and just watched it march on past you. You find your own family in the end, I suppose. Find your own way. It’s what brought me here, to the Cathedral. To be someone looking for that hope. To keep reminding people it’s there. Even when it seems like there’s nothing.

People are worried. You can see it in their faces, hear it in their voices. The way they pause when they’re talking. The tiredness in their eyes. The world seems knocked off balance. Spinning round, with no-one sure where it’s going to stop. Just worried it’ll be in the wrong place. A President talking about torture, and building walls, stoking up fears and lashing out at anyone who challenges him. A Brexit that seems more vague and threatening the longer our leaders avoid saying exactly what it means. The church tearing itself apart over sexuality. People scared about things out of their control that could destroy their lives, their country, their world. Children asking their parents if world war three is going to happen. We never need any help to see the things that scare us. We breathe those in without even noticing. It’s the other things we sometimes need help to see. The hope that can pass us by if we don’t look for it. The hope that’s in the little things. A couple in love. A baby giggling. That’s all it was, that morning. A young couple, bringing their baby to church. Didn’t seem like much. But somehow I knew. That that’s all it takes to change the world. In that baby’s laugh, there was a hope bigger than all the fears I carry.

As we celebrate Candlemas, we recall that the story of God is the story of the world, a story of suffering.   Suffering that God chose to inhabit.

Candlemas in 2017 is not disconnected from that first visit to the temple, it is a continuation of that story of God inhabiting this suffering world.  The challenge this year is how we help one another to see and experience hope.  For this story, this narrative is one that we are all caught up in, it is our world and our lives.  Some of us will be more passive in our search for and expression of hope, others more active and for many of us it will be a combination of the two.  I wonder if being here, being part of this Cathedral, once, occasionally, regularly – is part of your looking for hope?  Maybe it is part of your being reminded that hope is there. Perhaps there are other places and events in which you find hope.   The actor David Tenant, recently ended a TV program being asked to reassure people in his lovely voice that everything would be okay.  Amongst other things he said “we must be positively rebellious and rebelliously positive”.     Part of the vocation of the people of God is to hold out the hope of redemption from within a world of suffering, as Anna and Simeon did in their time. To be rebelliously positive that light overcomes darkness.

Today we begin to turn towards Easter and Lent, and so we also begin to enact the story of a suffering saviour, who took the sin and brokenness of the world with him to the cross, that it might be redeemed.  That we would be shown, that light conquers darkness, hope defeats fear and love overcomes hate. We remember that in the candles that we light today and week in, week out throughout the whole church year. We also commit week by week, in worship, to being sent out into the world, into its suffering, as disciples of Christ, people of hope.

Today we are called again to seek, find and proclaim the hope that Simeon and Anna found in the midst of the suffering world, to sing afresh the songs that declare hope.  The hope the defeats fear and the light that overcomes the darkness.  Amen.

Remembrance Day 2016

In this year, as we remember the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdu, Battle of Jutland, the Brusilov Offensive, the introduction of conscription, and the Somme during which the first tanks were used in Battle. We of course, continue to remember the lives laid down in all wars, particularly World Wars One and Two. Those fallen who names are known and those who remain unknown. We remember those who are on active duty today and the freedoms, people and communities they are seeking to protect. We remember those who have suffered life-changing injuries or mental health problems. We are also remembering the family and friends who live with bereavement and with servicemen and women who have been forever changed by the effects of war. We remember that almost everyday, somewhere in our news, people are fighting for causes they believe in.

This year we also find ourselves, in what feels like, new territory. Within our own nation the political landscape is changing as we look towards Brexit and the various constitutional issues that has raised.  Further afield in the United States, we have seen the election of a candidate who seemed most unlikely to the majority of the world. We might say that we now live in uncertain times, with a level of anxiety about the future. Some are even comparing our situation to the context of Europe in the 1930’s, when it seemed that darkness was on the move and it was unclear how to deal with it. In fact, eventually all that could be done was a second World War.

In the gospel of Luke we hear Jesus speaking to those who live in anxious times. We often forget the degree of uncertainty and fear that was part of the daily life of the disciples. They lived under occupation by a foreign power and client kings known for their paranoia and their ruthless cruelty. They lived amidst religious enthusiasm of a kind most of us would find disturbingly un-British. Prophets declaring God’s judgement upon everyone drew huge crowds. Groups of ascetics in the wilderness prayed for the violent overthrow of society around them. Religious terrorists carried out atrocities that were countered by savage reprisals by the Romans. These were people used to living in anxious and uncertain times. And the times were to become even more uncertain.

Within the lifetimes of many of Jesus’ followers a huge revolt would be utterly crushed by the Romans, who would level the Temple, which in Jesus’ day was still being built. It would never be rebuilt. Jesus speaks to these people then: anxious people, people accustomed to seeing things in apocalyptic terms – to see tragedies and suffering as God’s judgement, to read a meaning into the chaos around them that often led them down dark and ever more extreme paths. It was as if the whole population was comprised of tabloid headline writers. Maybe we are not as far away from them as we might think.

Jesus speaks to these anxious people, and what he is trying to say to them is this: don’t read into things. Don’t see the apocalypse behind every fresh tragedy. Don’t give in to despair or hate. God is at work. But not in the way the doom-mongers imagine. There is a bigger picture behind all of this. There is a deeper story behind the stories in your newspapers, and the events that worry you. It’s a story where God leads us from suffering, and war and tragedy to a future of hope, healing and peace for us and for the whole world. Our part in that story is to remember who we are, that we are children of God. And to live lives of perseverance, hope, and trust.

It’s always struck me as appropriate that Remembrance falls when it does – in November, as we start to move towards the beginning of Advent, the season where we remember the entwining of the human story with God’s story. The season where we stand with prophets and others who, in the midst of their own struggles, looked forward to a better future. The promised future of God.

So, in the midst of so much that may make us anxious, we remember the many who have gone before us and stood in the face of suffering and fear and responded with perseverance, and hope, and trust. And we remember that we, like them, are children of God, called to live according to his will, as citizens of a better tomorrow. We must develop the resilience to both remember our painful history and to remain committed to that promised future of healing and peace, not just for us, but for the whole world. We must remember who we are, what we have been through, whose we are and the promised future we journey into and we must not forget.

A sermon for Trinity 17

Luke 6: 1-13

The gospel reading is one of the most confusing yet gripping stories Jesus tells. Confusing, because it’s hard to understand what he’s telling his disciples to do, gripping because it’s an entertaining story that we recognise: There’s a rich man who has a manager run all his finances. Only the manager gets greedy. He fiddles the books, steals the money, lives the high life. Until he gets found out. Until the moment he gets called in to see the boss, and told he’s fired. As he walks back to his office, his life in ruins, wondering what he can do to avoid ending up on the street, he realises that until the boss puts out an official announcement he’s the only one who knows he’s fired. So he picks up the phone and makes a few quick calls. Within half an hour, all the people who owe his boss money have had their debts slashed in half and know they’ve got him to thank for it. When the boss heard what he’d done, how he’d turned personal disaster into a chance for a new future in half an hour, he laughed his head off and offered him his job back. Anyone who could do that was the sort of person he wanted working for him.

We can understand what’s going on in this story very easily. The corrupt manager in his desperation, the ruthless way he turns even the worst situation to his advantage. The way that being under pressure pushes him to switch from extorting extra money from people for himself to giving away his master’s money to help the very people he’d been cheating. Even the way that the master, hearing about how his far-too-crafty manager managed to wiggle his way out of any punishment he’d tried to give him, changes his mind and congratulates him instead. It’s a funny story. I expect it got a bit of a laugh from the people who heard it.

But what are we supposed to make of Jesus saying now you all go and do the same thing as the dishonest manager: make friends for yourself with corrupt money, so that when it runs out you’ll be welcomed by them into heavenly homes?

I think the thing we need to bear in mind with this parable is that Jesus isn’t saying the manager is a good man. He’s very clear this is a bad man who finds himself in a tight spot, and the only way out is to do something he’d never normally consider doing. And that’s the point. This is a story about someone changing the way they do things. This is someone who has never tried to help people in their life. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to help himself at the expense of everyone else. But when that stops working, he’s got no choice but to help as many people as he can, as quickly as he can. The bad man has to act like a good man, because in the end it’s the only thing that will save his skin. When the chips are down, the dishonest manager realises something: all the scheming and cheating and swindling he’s done all these years have ended up getting him nowhere. He’s going to end up with nothing: with a choice between trying to get work as an unskilled labourer after years of sitting behind a desk or begging on the street. He has to change. When Jesus tells us to imitate him, this is what he’s asking us to imitate: someone who is changing the way they live completely.

 

I want to say three things about the sort of change we see in the parable. Three things that I think will help us understand what Jesus is asking us to do.

 

First, the parable is about change that happens in a place of vulnerability and opportunity. The parable is all about what happens when the manager is in a particular sort of place: a place where extreme vulnerability and extreme opportunity meet. This is a man with nothing, who has lost everything he has worked for, who is seriously seeing begging as one of the options he is weighing up. He is incredibly vulnerable, probably more vulnerable than he has even been before. But this is also a man presented with a moment of opportunity: the window he has between being told he’s fired and an announcement being made. To be clear: he has always been able to do the things he now does, but until he was in this place of vulnerability it never occurred to him what an opportunity he had. In this place, he has all the power he once wielded as the rich man’s manager, but he now has nothing to lose.

Jesus wants to talk about what happens to people in that place of vulnerability and opportunity because it’s the place we’re all called to be. It’s the place where we realise our need of God. The place where we realise we’re not coping. We haven’t got all our ducks in a row. We’re at the limit of our resources and we need to do more.

Realising how much we need God is something that I think most of us struggle with. It’s not very comfortable. It means being vulnerable: admitting that we are not sufficient in ourselves. But I’ve always found that that vulnerability brings with it an opportunity: the opportunity for God to work in and through us to bring change. My own experience of vulnerability [give example] is that I can be more fully who I am and do what I am called to do when I feel I am utterly dependent on God. This has come round many times in my ministry. I’m sure many clergy would say the same.

Second, the parable is about change expressed in repentance. Repentance is about change not just for change’s sake, but change that aims to actively reject the way we did things in the past. To repent means to turn away from past mistakes. Clearly, this is not a story about traditional repentance: the dishonest manager doesn’t have a change of hear, he doesn’t stop being dishonest. But he has to act in a way that is opposed to all he has previously done. The dishonest manager is put in a position where he realises what his mistakes have cost him. He is made vulnerable, but with the opportunity not simply to lament his vulnerability, but to take action: to do things differently.

Repentance is something we do every Sunday. Every day that we say ‘forgive us our trespasses’. It’s second nature almost. But there’s a world of difference between saying the words and actually changing. The dishonest manager never gets to saying he’s sorry. But what he does demonstrates the repentance he doesn’t speak: he transforms the way he acts. I wonder if we sometimes do it the other way around? Do we say we’re sorry but never actually change? Do we just go through the motions? I wonder what it would mean if we were less concerned with looking sorry than we were about actually making the changes we need to reverse the harm we’ve caused? Would we be a better church if we acted more like Christians even if we seemed to speak less like them?

Thirdly, the parable is about change expressed in showing mercy to the needy. The parable goes into some detail about the state of the debtors. They owe a lot. Some owe more than they might be expected to pay back. Perhaps it was the dishonest manager himself who had piled their debts ever higher and higher, extorting more money out of the already vulnerable to line his own pockets. Perhaps not, but whether it was through his greed or his master’s harsh terms, these people were in great need, carrying debts that would take years to repay, or might lead to them and their families being sold into slavery in payment. And in this place of vulnerability and opportunity, the dishonest manager does the thing he’s been avoiding doing all this time: he shows mercy. He writes off debts instead of piling them on. He uses the skills and influence he’s got to make friends rather than enemies. I wonder how you’ve been treating the needy people around you? Are there people who over the years you have treated as a means to an end? People you’ve valued more for what they can do for you than for themselves? Who are the people you have sought to better yourself through? And what would it mean to try to make them better instead?

That’s the sort of change Jesus is trying to get us to imitate: change that comes from a place of vulnerability and opportunity, change that expresses itself in repentance and mercy to the needy. We might think it’s too late to try and change now. The dishonest manager has left it to the last minute to even try and change. But that’s all that’s needed. A few moments of showing mercy more than make up for a lifetime spent cheating people. The dishonest manager becomes a symbol of grace in action: the forgiveness of debts that turns enemies into friends. One moment of that grace outweighs a lifetime of sin.

So don’t think it’s too late. Not for you, or for others. And don’t think it’s too hard. Because in the end, what Jesus wants more than anything is for us to recognise our need of God. If we don’t do that we won’t be able recognise the needs of others.

A sermon for Trinity 15 2016.

Have you heard the phrase ‘loving someone or something to death’? Or ‘I can’t live without you or it’? The idea that something (a partner, a child, a house, a car, a job) is so important to us that we’d die without it. It’s extreme language. Because our families, our possessions, our roles in life, however important they are to us, are not really so vital that we’d die without them. They’re not like food, or drink, or oxygen. Or are they? Someone who suffers a great loss may still be here, but you might say ‘something in them died’. ‘It’d kill him if he lost that job’ we might say, not because he’d have a heart attack if he got fired, but because having the job makes him who he is. Loving things to death. The language is extreme, but that’s because it’s describing something extreme. You can love something to death – love it so much that you’d die without it.

Jesus uses some similarly extreme language in our reading today:

‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’

We’ve talked about loving to death. This is the opposite: hating something to life. This is the Jesus who talks about following him as the way to life, who now seems to be saying that the only way to that life is by hating things. Hating things so much that you’ll live without them. Jesus has a track record for saying things like this – he talks about cutting your hand off so you don’t sin – things that he obviously doesn’t mean literally, extreme language to make us wake up and pay attention. Just like with ‘loving things to death’ on one level it’s clearly not true. We can’t find the way to life by hating our families, hating our spouses and children, hating ourselves. But is there a truth hidden in there like there is in loving things to death? Maybe we can understand what he’s getting at by thinking more about these two ideas: loving things to death and hating them to life.

I think sometimes I’m in danger of loving my family to death. And there’s a huge problem with that. When we love something or someone so much that we couldn’t exist without it – we stop actually loving it. We need to possess it for our survival. That’s not love. That’s ownership. And where it leads is death. Loving to death is actually a form of hate.

 

Now let’s think about what the opposite of that looks like – hating to life, in Jesus’ words. The radical challenge in this passage is that Jesus is clear that there can be no compromise in how we love and follow him.  Perhaps we could think of this hate slightly differently – Rowan Williams in his book ‘Being Disciples’ says “Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”

So perhaps this challenge from Jesus is less about hate and more about love.  Maybe this hating that Jesus is teaching his disciples about is about trusting God for everything, allowing the wonderful gifts we have in our friends and family to be completely free, so that we love God enough to learn about love and life in all it’s fullness – in eternity, through death, resurrection and redemption.  Letting go of our own lives and of those we love most deeply, this hating that Jesus speaks of, paradoxically, brings life for us and for them.

Following Jesus, being a disciple is about making a choice, a choice with real costs and consequences. Perhaps, we could say, a choice between loving things to death and hating them to life.  Or if we were to take the language Rowan Williams uses- it’s a choice regarding how we love God and in turn therefore, how we love full stop.

We find Jesus’ words here difficult ‘hate your family, hate your life’ not just because ‘hate’ seems too harsh, too negative, but also because we all like to think that making the choice to follow Jesus shouldn’t have a real cost on our families or our lives. We don’t really want to think about the alternative: that those who follow Jesus are not always going to be making decisions based on “what’s best for me,” or even “what’s best for our marriage/ family/ children.” It may mean living more simply because our resources can be used better for others. It may mean making unpopular choices despite the protests of our family. Jesus asks us to count those costs carefully.   We need to, because otherwise we will domesticate the gospel. We will let the message of God’s love and care for all humanity become the story of how much Jesus loves us and our families.  We will love ourselves and our nearest and dearest – to death.

Jesus is talking in extremes to get us to pay attention. The danger is that we feel like it’s an exaggeration so we ignore it. But we can’t afford to do that. No, Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anyone, and certainly doesn’t want us to hate our families or our own lives. But he wants us to wake up to the fact that the way we love people isn’t the way he loves.  The love of God is not a possessing love; it’s a gifting love. It’s a love not bent on ownership, but one that gives, even in the face of death. Hence the gift of life in the face of death – resurrection.

To know and have this kind of love is a choice, a choice to be more like the only person who can offer us it.  A choice to be a disciple.  A choice to be made with our eyes open. A choice we need to make and remake every day, aware of the cost.

“Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”

 

A tidy up and an update 2016

If you are still reading then I’m surprised but pleased.  I haven’t been very good at blogging for the last 5-6 years and really haven’t figured out how it fits into the explosion of social media.  I’m working on it.  It’s always a work in progress.  My blog will likely be more focussed this coming year….

Because the big news is that I have the sheer joy of being the next Canon Precentor of Wakefield Cathedral.  I always thought I might quite like to be a minor canon, on a fixed term, for a season – not too long you understand!   That never worked in my favour and I sort of ruled out ever working in a cathedral – in hindsight it wasn’t the will of God.  However, my little niggle about cathedrals (inherited from being a ‘Root’ at St Alban’s prior to ordination) has never really left me and I now find myself very much called to be a residentiary canon. Every cathedral is different and every role description is also different and this particular one just screamed ‘Leah’.

It is ‘northern’, in a former mining area, very down to earth, is a parish church cathedral, is in the market place and has excellent transport links to north and south for family.  It has been a community working hard both in what has been done in terms of ensuring the building is fit for purpose for the foreseeable future AND in the mission development that has taken place in recent years.  I also am thrilled that it has an excellent music department.  It seemed in fact, it was almost too good a fit to be true… you can imagine my utter surprise at actually being appointed.

So, I have decided to do a bit of a project of 365 grateful posts.  They might not arrive every day but I am determined that 365 will arrive.  Probably mostly in the form of photographs but also videos (as the cathedral use youtube lots – eeek!) and possibly bits of liturgy and music, of course. 

I am installed at the Cathedral on June the 5th (prayers very much welcome) and intend to begin this little project on the 1st of June.

I hope you might cheer me on as I endeavour to do justice to the privilege that is serving a city and diocese in and through a cathedral.

What does being a priest mean to me?

This is not a comprehensive reflection but rather a short one done as both a personal reflection of my experience and to facilitate very new priests to think about priesthood.

I have been a priest for 11 years and found it incredibly hard to write any reflection.  Much of the time I am so immersed in the day to day of being a parish priest that I don’t stop to reflect.  This was a really good opportunity!

The golden thread throughout my coming to faith, my emerging vocation and my ongoing priestly ministry is the Eucharist.   So it seemed natural for me to explore my sense of what being a priest means through it.

The Eucharist is lots of things but as the person who presides over it I feel it is especially for me an embodiment of God’s story and how we tell that story is vitally important as it directly connects to our understanding of our own stories, where we fit into the God story and how we believe God is present and active in our world.

It focuses around the body of Christ and the body of Christ in the Eucharist is the people.  We also talk about the bread on the table being the body of Christ.   The key thing for me, is that we are reminded in the Eucharist is that the 2 are the same.  They are both the body of Christ.   We are reminded also that God is seeking to do exactly the same thing with both expressions of body.  That is: Taking, blessing, breaking and sharing.

I am going to talk about these four areas as my framework for what it means for me to be a priest.

Taken

In my understanding of my vocation as a priest I am called to help the Church in my context to understand itself as taken for a special purpose.   I hope that people will understand themselves as belonging to and being called by God.  This belongs to us all from our Baptism.  Yes for some people that may express itself in a vocation to a recognised ministry, in being taken and set apart but it is actually even more important that the church as a whole collectively is called by God to do and be particular things.   As a priest in this context I feel my role is not to give the answers but to ask the right questions- which is what Jesus did! I provide space in the teaching and preaching for challenging questions, we remember that God has called people through history in scripture. The liturgy of the word is crucial- God’s word speaks, challenges and transforms as much today as it always has.

Blessed

In my understanding of my vocation as a priest I am called to help the Church in my context to understand itself as being blessed and being a blessing.   My hope and prayer is that I can enable the people gifted to me to understand themselves as Holy. As God’s beloved and holy children in their community.   My particular part in helping them to understand themselves as blessed on a very basic level is to tell them and to treat them as if they are indeed blessed.   Of course, it’s an important part of the Eucharistic service that you do say a blessing on the people, but it isn’t just at the end, it begins with proclaiming forgiveness, it is often in the scriptures, it is implicit in the peace, we call the Holy Spirit down on God’s people not just on the bread and wine and so on…. but as well as that I also want to be a priest who is telling people that they are blessed and helping them to see that.

Broken

In my understanding of my vocation as a priest I am called to help the Church in my context to understand itself as being broken. We are all broken – in that we are human. We make mistakes, we fail but also others fail and we suffer. Our brokenness is not all our personal fault.   Helping the church to recognise it’s brokenness is for me about honesty. It is about knowing who we are so that we can truly know who God is.   I hope that I hold this together tightly with the idea of being blessed- and being blessed means so much more when we are broken.   As a priest, I think that I model failure and brokenness pretty well (!). My role is to create a safe space in which brokenness can be expressed and acknowledged and forgiveness and healing can be offered (again assuring people they are blessed).   In the Eucharist this happens in confession, sometimes in intercession and we sometimes offer the laying on of hands and anointing.

Shared

This leads me on to the final of my four key things to being a priest. Sharing. This flows out of being taken, blessed and broken. If the people of God are the embodiment of Christ, taken, blessed and broken then they like him are to be shared out for the world. It is not only about the sharing of their own lives with others but also about the sharing of their lives within God’s story and then enabling others to begin to understand their lives in the context of God’s story.   In this way the church can be a blessing through one another throughout the wider community. This is evangelism and mission. Sharing the good news. As a priest I hope that I equip people with the skills, language, confidence to share their beliefs and experiences of how God works in their lives and in scripture.   In the Eucharist they are reminded that they are to share at the peace, at communion and in the dismissal- however, in my particular context we regularly use sermon and intercession slots to discuss our experience of God, share with one another and pray for one another (though I haven’t got them praying out loud for one another yet!).

So- Taken, Blessed, Broken and Shared. Actually a lot of what I have mentioned, you could place under different types of headings (i.e. preaching ministry or pastoral ministry).   Reflecting together with colleagues today we were all keen to emphasise that many of the things we do also belong to the priesthood of all believers BUT in discussion we were clear that those called to be part of this priesthood need priests who embody what it means to be part of that priesthood to learn alongside.  The important thing for me is the fact that all of these things that capture priesthood, the things I am doing as a priest, throughout the week, all flow out of the Eucharist. I embody all that I do, in all of my ministry, in what I do at the Eucharist. In presiding at the Eucharist, I am once more called and challenged by God to take up those roles – no matter how hard it might have been to do them in the last week.

Some weeks, especially around particularly difficult events, I arrive at church and I do not feel it. I would rather be anywhere else but there.   However, once the liturgy starts I am reminded again that I am taken, blessed, broken and shared and I am called to help God’s people to understand themselves as taken, blessed, broken and shared.

To stand at the altar and celebrate the intertwining of our stories with God’s story is to stand at a place where heaven meets earth. It is where I feel at home, where I am most challenged and where I belong, it is where I am reminded that I am part of the body of Christ.  It’s where I learn, again and again, how to be a priest.

Trinity 12 RCL Year B: Jesus and Junk Food.

This is not an exact word for word sermon as I rarely preach them in that way and it was a little long and could be more concise but it was timely and right today.

Children’s Message: I have got 2 lunchboxes. Who would like to come and help me investigate what is in them?

One is a ‘Junk’ lunchbox. Biscuits, Crisps, fruit shoot, coke, chocolate and sweets.  This stuff is stuff we really like, yes? Who would like to have this one? What would happen if we ate lunches like this all of the time?   What other stuff is there that we like in our lives, that makes us feel comfortable and is easy but might not really be all that good for us? What is there in our church life that makes us feel comfortable and safe, reassures us, but might not be all that good for us?

One is a ‘Healthy lunchbox’.  Fruit and water. This is stuff that can feel a lot harder to eat. What would happen if we ate the stuff in this lunchbox all of the time? What things are there in our faith that we need more of? What things in our lives help us to be fitter and ready to be the best people we can be? The same of a follower of Jesus…?

Children’s Task. A picture of 2 lunch boxes. If you are under 7 I want 2 foody lunchboxes. If you are over 7 I want 2 lunchboxes of things that help us follow Jesus and things that don’t. At the end of the service we’ll share them with the congregation!

 

Carrying on:

In todays readings Jesus compares 2 types of food. He talks about the food that Moses, our ancestor, fed the people in the Passover, the bread that they had learnt to eat when they were slaves in Egypt and he compares that to the food that Jesus feeds us that is his own body.   It sounded a bit gruesome but he was getting them ready for when we he was going to die and they would have food a bit like we do at a communion meal, to remember him. He wanted them to be realistic and understand the reality of being a follower of Jesus, a disciple or as we might say today a ‘Christian’.

When Jesus compared these 2 foods, his followers were really offended- how could he say that this old food, this bread that they had been using to celebrate God’s goodness, God saving them from being slaves in Eygpt? How could he say that was Junk?!?! Jesus did though and some people said ‘We can’t take this! How can this bread be more powerful or meaningful? We can’t change! We don’t believe this gruesome stuff! What is he going on about?’ .

They left him and stopped following him.   Some of the disciples stayed though and when Jesus asked them ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Peter said ‘Where would we go?! You, Jesus, you are the one we need, you have the things that will feed us, the words of eternal life’.

Sometimes it is easier to eat Junk food but Jesus calls us not to. He calls us to health, fitness and readiness to be like him. To do God’s work.

So I want to be a bit more explicit with you about what Junk food is.

You’ve heard me explain that Jesus was challenging his followers about their traditions, their practices and their believes.

He was saying some of the stuff they depended on was Junk. Junk is still food and you can survive on it. In fact you might feel better for eating it when you are hungry. It is the long term effect of this junk that is the problem. You are not going to be fit and healthy if you eat too much junk food.

I wonder what makes you feel comfortable about church? What are the thinks you like and appreciate about church…. the things that worry you if they are missing or if they are not there?

Some examples of churchy junk might be: It has to be quiet for me receive.   Children should be seen and not heard. I have to know all the hymns.   I have to sit in the same place. I have to know everybody. Things that are good for us but might make it extremely hard for others.

Talk to someone who sits near you for a few moments about what makes you comfortable in church, what your comfort food might be? Remember comfort food feeds us and it might taste nice.

……….

I wonder how much of that, that you were just talking about was junk food? I wonder which things we are just eating too much of? So what makes something good food for us?   Good food is not so immediately attractive. It is probably not packaged as flashily. It may not taste so nice straight away- we may have to get used to it a little.   However, if we want to live long, healthy and fit lives then this good food is what we need to eat. When we think about our faith life though it is important to remember that Jesus doesn’t just want us to survive, he wants us to live and flourish. When he challenges his disciples in this gospel passage today he is trying to broaden their vision. It is a bit like this: their vision is that they might manage to walk a mile, whilst his visions is that they’re marathon runners. I think the reading from Ephesians also helps us. The armour of God is not protection.   It’s hard when we have a military example and often this passage is preached in that way but today I want to suggest something slightly different.

To be fireman you need heat protective clothing, boots, a helmet and so on but you shouldn’t think that because you are wearing that protective clothing you are not going to get hot and often firemen bear the scars of their work on their skin. In the same way when Paul, in Ephesians talks about us putting on the armour of God he is not saying ‘this is the stuff that keeps you safe and your never going to get hurt or feel uncomfortable’ what he is saying is ‘ you are going to be a soldier, you are going to go out there and do the job of a soldier, so you need to dress the part’.   It is more like an essential need, like food, but in this passage is being described as clothing.   In order to be who we are called by Jesus to be we need: (look at the things listed in that list from Ephesians during communion maybe) This is our health food. Everything else is junk, it’s nice, it can help but too much of it will make us lazy, fat and poorly.

The image of God’s armour brings in a new dimension though: This is not just about our well being. Yes, God does want us to run the marathon but ultimately God’s plan is that the whole world will be saved and he needs us to play our part in it.

We don’t just eat healthily because it is good for us we eat healthily because that gives us the energy and fitness to help others.

Church is not a diet club for the fat, unfit and unhealthy it is basic training. The food here will not always be nice but it will be good for you, it will change and transform your bodies, minds and souls. It will prepare you to go the distance for God, beyond what you felt you could ever do.

So good food… What do you think good food really is? The Eucharist. The Bible. That list from Ephesians. I want also to give you some examples of how we might experience a church that is fit, healthy and ready to God’s work in the world:

  1. A church that is ready on EVERY Sunday to engage with everyone- no matter how often they come, no matter why they come, no matter how old they are.
  2. A Church that recognizes every member ministry- that does not rely on the vicar but works with the vicar to reach people beyond the congregation.
  3. A church that is not just about what happens on a Sunday or a Thursday morning but rather a church where praying, studying and serving out in the community beyond the walls of the building is flourishing.

Did you know that people can tell how fit you are by looking at you. They can tell how healthy you are by what you say, by your attitudes.  I hear so often: “they aren’t very Christian those Christians…!”

Jesus could tell this of his disciples by the questions they asked and the objections they raised and so he challenged them. Forget the Junk, he says. Follow me, I have power in my flesh and blood beyond your dreams. I say again to you his disciples on earth, in Harworth today. Forget the Junk. Jesus has everything you need and in him you can do far more than if you rely on the easy and comfortable things. I make no apology if this offends you as it did those first disciples.   Life with God is about transformation.   Through faith, belief and trust we become fitter, we are equipped with the right gifts, armour, physique to help God save others.   Without this transformation Church becomes something less important, something we can easily walk away from, it becomes a club, a hobby.

When we prefer our Junk food to the goodness Jesus offers us, well, to be honest we don’t look all that attractive or good. We’re easy to walk away from.   When we believe that the things Jesus offers, when we trust that the good stuff (even when it seems unpalatable!) when we are able to feast on that stuff, well, we have power to be a church beyond our wildest dreams. When we are a church whose faith, trust and walk with Jesus is the most visible thing about us, when we are transformed into his flesh and blood by feasting on that good stuff- will it be so easy for anyone to walk away? Would we not have queues of people wanting that transformation too?

So what do you want to eat? The bread of our ancestors, the comfort foods that have become habit, practice, the food that has become easy or do you want the flesh and blood of God, the harder diet, the one that requires some will power and some hard work. Do you want transformation? Do you want Jesus?

So just as Jesus asked his disciples, I ask you know, as his voice, his representative amongst you: Do you also wish to go away?

 

Let us pray.

Lord, where else would we go? You have everything we need.  Help us to take our comfort foods and our junk in moderation and help us to feast on the goodness you offer even when we find it difficult and unpalatable. Make us fit enough to do your work, transform us into your flesh and blood here on earth. In your precious name we pray.  Amen.

A Toddler’s Perspective: Going to Church

This was written for a teaching session on Toddlers and Sacramental Worship for the ‘Why Under 5’s Count?’ day organised by the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales.  Harry is a completely made up little boy and bears resemblances to lots of the little boys and girls (including my own children) that have been going to church with various adults throughout my ministry.

I’m Harry, I’m 4. My Mum takes me to church sometimes with Grandma. When we go to church, we have to get ready really early. Mum needs me to eat breakfast very quickly but not make any mess, because I’ve got my nice top on. It’s really important I don’t make any mess on my nice top, because everyone will see, and God will see too. God likes nice tops with no mess. I don’t like my nice top. I like my Spiderman top. When I’ve had my breakfast very quickly with no mess I have to brush my teeth and brush my hair and then we have to go very quickly to church, and I have to choose just one book and one toy to take with me, and the toy has to be a quiet one and not too big, because you can’t have noisy toys in church. I choose my book about tractors and my red car because the toy tractor is a noisy toy and I looked for my blue car but I couldn’t find it and then we had to go, and Mum said that Grandma likes the blue car anyway.

We got to church when the door was still open with the people smiling and giving people books, which is good because Mum doesn’t like it when we get there and the door is closed because people look at us when we go in. Then we found Grandma’s pew and we sat down. I showed Grandma my blue car, and she said it was very good. I got my book out and looked at the pictures of tractors, and Mum and Grandma looked at their books and bits of paper. Sometimes they stood up and sang some songs, but I didn’t know them. When I finished looking at tractors I played with the blue car for a bit. But then it went a bit too far and hit the man’s foot in front of us. The man was nice and he gave it back to me and smiled, and Mum said sorry and thank you, but she was a bit cross and I had to stop playing with the blue car. It was one of those quiet bits in church where everyone is listening to someone talking, and you’re not supposed to say anything or be noisy at all. I tried to be really quiet, but it was very hard, and I knew I couldn’t play with the car and I’d finished reading my book. Mum was still a bit cross about the car, so I asked Grandma if the man who was talking was an angel, because he was wearing angel clothes like they have in the church windows, but I couldn’t see any wings. Grandma said no, so I asked why he was wearing funny clothes, and she said it was what vicars wear. I wanted to ask why angels dress like vicars, but the lady in front of us turned round and looked at Mum, and Mum told me to be quiet. Then I decided maybe I needed to go to the toilet. Mum asked me if I could hold on, but I said no, so we got out of the pew and walked right through the church while everyone was listening to the man in angel’s clothes, until we got to the toilet, which is through the little room at the side with all the boxes and chairs in it. I went to the toilet and I asked Mum about angels and vicars and windows. She didn’t know, but she said that she thought vicars and angels both wore old fashioned clothes. So I asked if God liked old fashioned clothes, and she said maybe he did. I think maybe spider man tops aren’t old fashioned either.

We came back in when everyone was standing up and saying something together, which was good, because you can get back to your pew quickly without worrying about being noisy. Then we had another quiet bit, when everyone sat with their eyes closed when someone said something. Grandma told me to close my eyes too because we were praying. So I sat and held Grandma’s hand and prayed for God to look after everyone in my family, because that’s what you do when you pray (only I did it quietly in my head because everyone was listening to the man). When I had finished everyone was still praying. I asked Mum really quietly if I could have my car again yet, but she said no, and told me to shush. So I played with the cushions under the pew. Then everyone sang again, and I sang a bit too, only I had to think of words to sing because I didn’t know the ones everyone else was singing, but I liked the music. Part way through, Grandma gave me a coin to put in a bag. Then I played with the cushions a bit more.

After the singing was finished, everyone sat and listened to the man again, and I asked Mum if it was over yet, because after church we get juice and a biscuit, and I like that, but Mum said no, and I needed to be quiet because this was the really important bit of the service. I turned round to look, but I couldn’t see much, so I got on the pew, but Grandma said I couldn’t stand on it. I sat on Grandma’s lap and she gave me a cuddle. The man was holding a plate at the front. I asked what he was doing, and Grandma said it was a special meal and we had to be quiet. The man at the front put the plate down and picked up a cup and talked some more then he picked up both of them. Everyone said amen and joined in saying something. Then we went up to the front. Mum and Grandma were given something to eat and had a bit to drink from the cup. The man didn’t give me anything, but said a special prayer for me. Then we went back. I asked Grandma if it was time for juice and a biscuit yet, and she said it nearly was. Then we sang another song, and then all the people at the front walked down to the back and then it was over and we could have juice and a biscuit. I got some orange squash and a chocolate biscuit and I had to put the cup down somewhere safe so I didn’t spill any. I got my blue car back too, and I played for a bit. I played with some other children too. Milly and Josh were there too and we had our juice and biscuits together and then we played with cars. Then we went back home and Grandma stayed for lunch. And that was what happened when we went to church.

The call of Samuel

I wrote about a series of posts on vocation and this is the next in this series.  The first was about Jonah.

Summary of the context and passage (Samuel 3)

Samuel is at birth given to the priests in the temple to care for him, because he was an answer to pray, he is presented in gratitude to the tabernacle, to God.  The high priest at this time is Eli.  Eli’s sons are corrupt and they demand payment from people for coming into the Tabernacle.  They take a large part of the offering to God for themselves.  Eli does nothing to stop them doing this. By the time we get to chapter 3, God has already sent a prophet to tell Eli that because of his sons judgement is coming on him and his house.

Samuel has grown up serving with Eli in the tabernacle and we can assume that Samuel say Eli as a father figure.  On this particular night Samuel seems to be sleeping by the arc of the covenant and there is a reference to a light that hasn’t gone it- it is possible that part of his task was to keep the light going.   Eli at this point is quite elderly and has gone blind and he is sleeping in his own room. Samuel hears a voice calling him and he thinks it is Eli, so he goes to his room and asks him what he wants.  Eli says that it isn’t him and sends Samuel away.  This happens 3 times but on the third time Eli realises that the voice is God’s voice and that God is calling Samuel.   Eli tells Samuel how to respond if he hears the voice again.  So the next time the voice comes Samuel says ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening’ and then God gives him a message of final judgement on Eli and his household.

In the morning Samuel takes his time and eventually Eli calls him and asks him what God had wanted.  Samuel is reluctant and Eli has to actually threaten him.  The phrasing that Eli uses when he rebukes Samuel seems to suggest that Eli knows what God has said to Samuel.  So Samuel tells him and Eli’s response is an exemplary response.  He accepts it and God’s sovereignty and that God is right to judge him.  There is however no repentance or desire to change in order to avoid God’s judgement.

This is a fairly traumatic event in their relationship but the book suggests that things carry on.  Eli still teaches and nurtures Samuel as he prodigy in the temple and as he matures Samuel is increasingly seen as a ‘trustworthy prophet of the Lord’.

Reflection

Samuel’s whole ministry will be about challenging the most powerful people with their faults and failings.  He is called to talk about God’s judgement and to be the conscience of the people.  This, it seems, is the first time he is called to do this and it occurs with someone he is extremely close to.  Samuel has to talk about God’s judgement with his Father figure, someone he loves.  Samuel had to realise at some point that there is something terribly wrong with Eli and the way Eli is following God.  It was never going to be easy.  We see in Samuel a young prophet who struggles to find the words, who perhaps tries to delay completing the task God set for him.

Eli is an extremely gifted and yet very flawed man. Eli does everything that God would want him to do.  In his responses to all that happens, the advice he issues Samuel and in his reaction to God upon hearing the prophecy against him and his family.  Eli is accepting and obedient towards God.  In many of the stories of prophets sent to prophecy against people in the Bible, the thing that follows is a change of heart.  Usually those condemned by God make some sort of effort to redeem themselves.  Eli does not do this. Perhaps Eli felt he was so complicit in the sins of his children, in not intervening in their activities, and so dependent on them in his elderly age that it was impossible to repent and return to the Lord.  There was an obvious solution under his nose too.  The solution of Samuel, whom was like a son to him, who would honour him as a father should be honoured.   It occurs to me that Eli’s apparent refusal to change may also be about vocation.    Eli’s vocation was to care for Samuel and help him come to the point where he could take on the roles and responsibilities he is called to. Eli would not jeopardise that key focus of his life. Eli seems determined to help Samuel get through that in the best way possible.   Eli coaches him through this experience and then affirms him following it. Whilst Eli taught Samuel how to listen to God and how say difficult things in love, he did not show him how people would change in response to God.

We often experience vocation as an individual thing and are not always good at doing discernment for corporate vocation.  Yet, even when do individual discernment it does not take long for us to come across other people and realise our impact on them and them on us.   Sometimes a clash is experienced between vocations and perhaps Eli and Samuel demonstrate how God’s will can be done amidst the most difficult relationships and tasks. They also show how relationships can go through trauma and continue to be lifegiving.  As someone who has been a team leader I see gifts in both Samuel and Eli’s stories that enable the other to flourish and be true to their God given vocation but not without challenge.  There is value in asking the question: If we are all responding to God’s call then how might we be ministering to one another in this relationship/context etc?

In terms of being the church vocationally, this passage is a rich resource for understanding and reflecting on vocation and change.   In many of the experiences of realising vocation that I have witnessed, I have often seen a change in people and communities.   The person of Eli prompts me to reflect though: It is possible that in not changing some churches as well as individuals are doing something very important in ministry and in God’s will?

I suspect if the answer is no, then there are certainly big problems. Yes or No, it is not okay to deny the need for change and transformation, it is not okay that Eli doesn’t change.  Judgement will still come about. The place of Samuel would have been a constant reminder to Eli of the Judgement which is coming.  Samuel is a reminder of the coming change, for he will bring about huge change, he will call many to return to the Lord and many will listen to him.

Who are the Samuel’s in our church?  The people who need encouragement but might say difficult things.  The people who will be our successors.  The people who will enable the change needed to happen in the future.

Who are the Eli’s in our church?  The people who will do and say exactly the right thing in response to God, who will nurture others to do God’s will bring about change that even they cannnot possibly manage or cope with?

One final note:  these things are not always age bound.  One of the greatest drivers of change in my experience was an older woman.  She was good at it, she knew the right words, the right timing and was rooted in her listening to God.  I would have loved to have met her Eli.

 

This is written with gratitude to my husband, whose conversations on 1 Samuel 3 pushed me to think more deeply about Eli. 

 

 

 

 

The call of Jonah

This is the first in my series of reflections on the nature of vocation and discernment.

jonah

The story of Jonah (paraphrased)

God says ‘Go to Ninevah (your enemies) and tell them “you are wrong and I am going to destroy you”‘.   Jonah responds by running away in the opposite direction (to Tarshish). God has to send a storm to wreck the ship he is on and then send a whale to rescue him, keep him alive in th belly of the whale and finally have the whale vomit him onto the beach to get him to the place He (God) wants him (Jonah) to go. Then when Jonah gets to that place God wants him to be he does what he is told, takes delight in sharing the news of the coming destruction with his enemies.  Actually, to Jonah’s surprise they all listen to him and take him seriously.  The people of Ninevah put on the biggest and best display of public repentance in the Old Testament, even the cows go round in sackcloth and ashes.  Seeing their repentance God says  ‘oh alright, I can see you are sorry, I won’t destroy you after all’.  In response Jonah throws a huge strop and says ‘see this is why I didn’t want to come in the first place. Now it is my fault that our enemies are no longer our enemies’. The high point of this tantrum leads Jonah to say ‘kill me now I don’t want to live’ and he sits down in sun to starve himself.  God sends a plant to grow over him and give him shade, Jonah appreciates the plant.   Then God makes the plant die and Jonah gets cross.  God says to Jonah ‘Why are you upset about the death of a single plant but not about a whole city of people?’.

Reflection 

It isn’t often that we  hear the voice of God quite so clearly as Jonah may have done.  I think the experience of knowing that God is asking you to do something that might not have been an obvious course of action for you is one that many people experience in their faith and vocational journey.  Sometimes this is because the Gospel contradicts and turns contemporary cultural expectations on their head.  So naturally the way we have been conducting our lives can mean us being called into a completely new and unexpected direction.  Jonah’s life choices were challenged by God, and he was called to deal with his enemies, travelling in a different direction to that which he preferred.

Like Jonah, our first instinct can be to run in the opposite direction and to feel like that God is utterly mad, or even joking.  Isn’t it often true though, that in the medium of humour and joke there is some element of truth?  Isn’t that often what makes something so funny?  I guess, like Jonah, we may live out the humorous story with God, pretending it’s all a big Joke, when the reality is that we have a pretty shrewd idea what God wants of us.   Sometimes God even has to go to pretty big lengths to bring us back around to a point in our lives where we can once again step up to the task He has called us to.

It seems even more ridiculous that, as Jonah finds, we are then successful at doing the most crazy life choices and acts of faith imaginable.  We often struggle to accept such success, we bargain and debate with God and fail to see the bigger picture of God’s plan for us or those around us.

I love the final part of the passage where God, persistent as God is, sends something Jonah will appreciate, a blessing, a gift a moment of encouragement only to then steal it away from Jonah.   To enable Jonah to actually learn the lesson and grow the faith and love that he was supposed to in the first place.   I wonder how many other people feel that have been given multiple opportunities to learn a key lesson on their path… and it was a bit like ‘Oh, Duh’ *lightbulb*.

Just after I started drafting this post, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber posted this on twitter ‘youth events are my Nineveh. I only want to be a speaker in Tarshish. Yet I keeping finding myself spit up on the shores of a Youth event’.

I wonder what your Nineveh is?

How much do you associate with Jonah?

What might God be trying to teach you?