Songs for the journey

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 80.

 

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood. 

That’s George Herbert’s poem, Prayer.  In it, he piles image on top of image to try to give an impression of all that prayer can be, might be, if we would give ourselves to it without reserve.  (I don’t understand all of the images, either; what does he mean by saying that prayer is “the land of spices”?  Does he mean we might discover both the bite of chilli and the sweetness of vanilla?)

But I did catch the mention of the “heart in pilgrimage;” the heart on a journey to some sacred place.  And perhaps because I’ve been thinking about change, which is a process of getting from here to there (wherever there is), and – at least in the church – change ought to be a pilgrimage of sorts, that image of prayer as “the heart in pilgrimage” seemed like it was worth spending some time on.

So between now and Christmas, I’ve decided to preach on the psalm each week.  And I’m thinking of that as a sermon series on “songs for the journey.”  I think that might help us to think about what we’re doing, on a number of levels.

Because of course, the idea of “being on a journey” can describe different things.  On one level, we’re journeying towards Christmas; with all the things – sacred and secular – which go into making Christmas special.  On another level, each of us is on the long journey of a lifetime, with its various seasons and themes.

There are other journeys too.  Every time we meet for worship, that’s a journey, of sorts; we’re supposed to walk out the church door not quite the same as we came in, having encountered God and one another in a way which will change our lives in some way.  And the psalms themselves are each a journey; they have a beginning, a middle, and an end; and the habit of praying them is supposed to move us along with the words so that we’re not unchanged.

So, many journeys; some long, some short, some individual and some shared; but all having this point of connection as we come together Sunday by Sunday for worship.  And all, hopefully, finding themselves as some expression of pilgrimage; all seeking something sacred.

And when we think about what sustains us on those journeys, what helps us to know who we are, gives us our ethical frameworks, and so on… a lot of that comes from the fabric of our culture.  From the stories we tell, the books we read, what we watch on TV, and – at least in church, still – the songs we sing together.

(I always try to remember that people will be humming a hymn from Sunday during the week, long after you’ve forgotten anything I said in the sermon.  Singing engages much more of the brain that just speaking and listening, and it helps embed things much more deeply in us).

And as part of all of this, we have the psalms; with all their requests, complaints and praises; all the breadth of human experience which they bring into our worship, and which help us to recognise and give voice to where we are in our various and shared pilgrimages.

And this morning, the repeated cry of the psalm is for God to “restore us.” To fix us; even, perhaps, to make us new.  There’s a cry from a heart in pilgrimage; journeying towards a sacred place of healing and wholeness, and praying that God would help us find it.

That’s what Christmas should be, of course; a sacred moment of healing and wholeness; but it isn’t that for everyone.  Domestic violence shelters get more calls close to Christmas time than other times of the year.  The strain of poverty is more keenly felt, as our society goes into its annual consumerist orgy.  And grief is sharp as people remember the faces who are missing from the family gatherings.  That’s part of why, a few days before Christmas, we’ll have a quiet service of evening prayer for people finding Christmas difficult; it doesn’t matter why it’s difficult, but even just being able to come, and be, without being expected to be all jolly and merry, can be a sacred encounter for people who are doing it tough.

The cry for God to “restore us” works at other levels too.  Every week we begin our worship with the prayer that God would “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts;” that whatever baggage we’ve picked up through the week, that’s weighed us down or distorted our love of God or one another, that we’d be relieved of that and, once again, be restored to love and worship as we ought.  That’s not trivial; it’s an important part of what Herbert called the “plummet sounding heav’n and earth;” taking soundings of what’s really going on in our hearts, and straightening what’s turned crooked.

Paul wrote about this pilgrimage of the heart, this journey towards the sacred, using a different image when he said that “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Well, bringing something to birth is also a journey of many months, and yet Paul seems to think that we’re at the interesting end of that; with ourselves and all creation gripped in labour pains which are soon going to bring to birth restoration of God’s good creation.

We might come back to that idea at Christmas.  But for now, here is the question for our hearts in pilgrimage, this week: what is it in our lives – in your life – that needs restoring?  What would make you feel, tomorrow, that God’s face is shining on you just a little brighter than it is today?  What do you dare hope for?

Don’t be shy to bring those things to God in prayer.  The psalmist wasn’t, and Paul wasn’t, and even Herbert the poet wasn’t; and we shouldn’t be either.  “Restore us” can definitely be a song for the journey, even as we look forward to what is coming.

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Resurrection and renewal

This is a sermon for Easter day, given in the “church next door.”  To my regular readers, I apologise for the delay in posting; I have had a small break, and it seems, was so exhausted after the Easter services that I didn’t even think to post my sermon on the day!

“This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.”  That’s what I just sang as part of the exsultet, the joyful and victorious proclamation of the resurrection.

It’s because we remember that – that intimate link between Jesus’ resurrection and our own being washed clean in God’s sight – that Easter is a time for renewing our baptismal promises, which we will come to in a moment.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, we were all baptised; we are part of the community of faith, and we are reminded of that as we gather week by week.  Do we really need to go through the process of saying these things again?

But I think that while need might be too strong a word, we can benefit from it.  It is very easy for our focus to drift in the Christian life; to treat church – at least subconsciously – as a social outlet or a bit of a club of the like minded, or even just the place where we come to leave behind the stresses and strains of the rest of life.

But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.

Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us.  Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.

Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Colossians: “so if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”  If you have been raised with Christ; this isn’t just an event in the past, which happened to someone else; it’s an intimate part of the life story of each one of us.  Seek the things which are above, where Christ is.

When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase.  We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.

We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good.  And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.

That’s what we recommit ourselves to this morning.  We seek the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in our lives; that God might be at work in our hearts from today, helping us to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how we might be of service to others.

These are not small things.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good people of all faith positions and none will seek to be good and moral people, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.

And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves.  In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.

(And I don’t mean “not here” just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning; but a broader sense of active participation).

This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification.  To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.

These are big things.  Sometimes they are hard things.  Sometimes they are costly.  But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.

And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith.  Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of.  They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity.  And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words.  Not just a feel good moment (although there is something of that).  But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.

This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope.  And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.

Passion

This is a reflection for Good Friday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 18 & 19.  During this service, the passion narrative was sung immediately before this reflection was given; it is not the usual practice to sing the gospel in this parish, and so for the people present it was an encounter in a new mode.

It’s very different hearing the gospel like that, isn’t it? It’s certainly very different for me, to sing it like that, rather than simply reading it out loud or silently to myself.

What I noticed the most – apart from just how long that reading really is – is the incredible complexity of emotion in it.  As I had to figure out how to breathe, where to put the emphasis, where to pause, and so on, it was the emotions in the story which came to life for me.

The passion narrative is, I think, too long and complex for us to take it all in, in one go.  But I think each of us is probably able to find one emotion which somehow resonates with us at this point in time.

So rather than give you a long sermon, today I’m simply going to encourage you to feel your way through the emotions of the story, and see where your own heart responds.

  • Is it at the gut wrenching betrayal of Judas, the betrayer, standing with the soldiers?
  • Is it at the frustration of Peter, so keen to do the right thing, but being told off for cutting off another man’s ear?
  • Is it with Peter’s fear of discovery, which leads him to lie three times?
  • Is it with the puzzlement of Pilate, faced with a situation – and a person – he simply cannot grasp?
  • Is it with the hot anger of the crowd, demanding the release of Barabbas?
  • Is it with the soldiers, agents of a brutal power caught up in something over which they have no control?
  • Is it with Mary, the mother of a suffering child?
  • Is it with Mary Magdalene, watching her hope die?
  • Is it with Joseph and Nicodemus, undertaking a last duty of care for a kinsman?
  • Is it with Jesus himself, enduring what must happen for the sake of something bigger?
  • Is it, perhaps with some other person in the story, often overlooked but significant for a reason that matters to you?

My encouragement to you today is to let your emotions be your guide to this story.  That’s the point of connection and relevance to your own life; that’s where it will come alive for you.

So find that point of emotional contact.  Carry it with you to Sunday morning.  Find a few quiet minutes to sit with it and talk to God about it.  And then come back here, to see how it’s answered in the new light and hope of the resurrection.   Because we’ll only know the full power of the new morning, when we’ve allowed ourselves to feel the weight of the darkness of this day.

Walk with us?

This is a sermon for Palm Sunday, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scriptures it references are Matthew 21:1-11, and Matthew 26:14-27:66.

Each year I find myself thinking that Palm Sunday is the one occasion in the year that the church really “does” irony.  This morning’s tradition, of carrying palms in procession, goes back to the very early church in Jerusalem, who would walk into and through the city gates at the beginning of Holy Week, strengthening their sense of personal connection with the events they were about to remember in worship.

Half a world away, and centuries later, at the beginning of Holy Week, we also come to strengthen our sense of personal connection in worship.  We place ourselves with Jesus before the gates of a city. We place ourselves among the adoring crowds at the triumphal entry, but we don’t share their innocence.  We know, with a sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs, that all too soon it will go wrong, and end so utterly badly.

We know that once we have entered we shall be swept up in events that we cannot control and that will bring us to the very edge of what we can bear, as we walk with him to Calvary and the tomb. This week tells us that God is able to change everything about us; our fear, our sin, our guilt, our untruthfulness. But to actually live out that change, to make it concrete and personal, asks so much of all of us that we often shy away from it, using whatever distraction is available; even, sometimes, using religion as a shield between us and the demands of a holy God.

As human beings, we live, metaphorically, at the gates of a city; we each look out from our own personal bubbles into a bigger system of things, what Augustine would have called the “earthly city;” a city where so many innocents suffer, and where all manner of evils are hidden under a cloak of self-justifying, selfish, posturing words. We know that in this earthly city, trying to live by faith, hope and love leaves us looking pretty helpless. And we also know in our hearts that so much of what fuels the horrors in our world is in ourselves too: the passionate longing never to be a victim, the hunger for security expressed in the ownership, the near-mindless fury that bursts out and brings destruction to so many. We know the urge to defend what can’t be defended because we can’t lose face. We are, by our human nature, citizens of this worldly city.

Yet, that worldly city – that system which puts refugees in concentration camps, which allows systems of slavery to flourish to produce its consumer goods, which spends its wealth on weapons of war rather than investing in human flourishing – that city of which we are citizens is also the place where, if we are willing, God works transformation. Jesus does not steer us away from the bustle of power and commerce, to send us back into the holy silence of the desert or the peace of the countryside. He plunges himself, and us with him, on triumphal procession into the heart of it all; and he tells us that the entry point into the systems of human evil are also the gates of heaven. If we recognise our involvement, our complicity in human systems, and despite that shock of recognition, find the courage and honesty to walk with Jesus into the heart of that system, to the cross and the tomb, the path takes us to unexpected joys, because it is God himself who walks with us. We stand not just at the gates of the earthly city, the great city where the Lord was crucified, but also at the entrance to the heavenly city, the city of God.   At the end of this week’s story is the garden of resurrection, where all of our systems of evil are shown for the sham they are.

Are we willing to move towards that garden, learning the mind of Christ? It will ask a quiet costliness from us.  A succession of small gestures, each of which defies the systems of evil by treating others as valuable; tiny personal admissions that we cannot live forever in isolation, pride or unforgiveness.  It is those actions – everything we do, no matter how small, which acknowledges the worth and dignity of another human being – which will finally bridge the gap between vision and reality, letting us experience God’s heavenly city in the midst of our worldly one.  It’s that insistence on refusing to compromise the regard in which we hold one another, because we have come to see the depth of the regard in which God holds each of us, which will finally bring reconciliation and healing.

It’s worth noting that in the story of Jesus’ arrest, two of his disciples betray him; both Judas and Peter, each in their different ways, betrayed Jesus profoundly.  But only one of them saw the resurrection.  The difference between a Judas and a Peter isn’t in the surrender to temptation; it’s in the openness to see that our worst moments need never be the ones which define us.

Standing here this morning, we can see the possibilities. By faith we know that we can enter with Jesus and walk with him, to and beyond the cross, to the beginnings of new life. But that sick feeling in our stomachs at the fickleness of the crowds reminds us of another set of possibilities; our own potential for cowardice, for self-interest, for weakness.  We know that we could find ourselves caught up in the murderous crowds, and, at the end of it all, find ourselves with empty and even blood stained hands.

This week, if we enter into it fully, will take us on a guided tour of all of this.  We will see and hear things we don’t want to, and at the end be surprised that apparently, despite it all, God hasn’t given up on us.  The challenge to us is to not let the irony of Palm Sunday turn into cynicism, but to let it help us develop a kind of double vision; one which always sees God’s possibilities overlaid on human realities.

Or we can stay at the gates, at the edge, looking in but unwilling to commit ourselves because we know that as soon as we enter there will be trial and suffering; but if we stay there, we shall never reach the resurrection. How much do we want to be there, where God walks with us again?

As we enter Holy Week, we reaffirm our desire to walk with God, whatever the cost. We pray that God will raise up communities whose vision of this is clear, who look to One who has cleared the way for us. We stand at the gates, and they stand open. Let us walk with Jesus this week, with him to his cross and his resurrection.

Wash me throughly

This is a sermon for Ash Wednesday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 51:2.

Here we are at the start of Lent.  A time to seek God’s mercy; a time when we set aside our noise and bustle to hear the still small voice of the Spirit; a time, not to put too fine a point on it, when we pay attention to the reality of sin, and invite God to do something about it.

As I was thinking about how to do that, I’ve been drawn to the verse from the psalm, which asks God to “wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.”

And I wonder whether the imagery is really all that helpful to us.  Because the way the psalmist puts it, it sounds as if sin is a substance, a dirt which clings to us and can be washed away, leaving us bright and clean.  But I’m not so sure that’s right.

Here’s what I mean.  I don’t think sin is so much a thing in its own right, as an absence of something; an absence of love.  St. Paul described sin as “lawlessness;” and we know that the law can be summed up in two commands; love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.

Julian of Norwich, in her visions, was assured of much the same thing; sin is not a “thing,” a substance, but a quality we experience when grace is not yet complete.

So all of this made me think that I really prefer the old-fashioned English of this verse of the psalm, which, instead of “wash me thoroughly,” asks God to “wash me throughly.”

What’s the difference?  Instead of being washed thoroughly, so that all evil might be removed, I imagine being washed through with God’s grace; with the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love into my heart until it overflows through every part of my being, leaving none of me untouched or still darkened.  Ebbing into all wounds and brokennesses of my humanity and healing them; flooding into all my pride and humbling it; pouring into my unrealised potential and enlivening it.

It’s why, next to this verse in the “thoughtful spot,”* for Lent, I have a picture of Jesus’ baptism; a man immersed in water, and the Spirit hovering over him in light; it seemed to me to capture so very well what it might mean to be washed throughly, and points us back to our own baptism as the place where this process of being loved into wholeness begins.

But of course the process continues from there: and this Lent we have a time to focus on it.  So here is the challenge of Lent, as it presents itself to me this year: what can I do in that process?  How can I put myself in the best possible situation to be washed through by God’s love?

And this is where the traditional disciplines of Lent might be useful; whether it’s time for prayer or meditation, whether it’s fasting, whether it’s seeking the help and wise counsel of others, or indeed coming to confession; all of those things are tools available to you, and I encourage you to consider how best you might use them.  And there are several study group options too; and if you haven’t looked at the leaflet setting them out, I do recommend having a look and seeing whether any of them might speak to where you’re at.

But none of these things are the point; they are means to an end, and that end is to know God’s love for us more fully, and to respond to God in love, more fully.  And to be so filled with those loves that the no-thing, the lovelessness, of sin has no space left to claim in us.

As you came in this evening, I had some music playing, which was a song written by Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century abbess.  In it, she recalls how at the beginning of time all creatures grew and blossomed before their creator; but now, she says, she and her “little ones” – by which I gather she means the nuns under her care – are tired and failing; a mockery of what they were supposed to be.  But, she says, she knows that the work of God is not complete until our bodies are in fullness of health and arrayed in jewels; so she brings her wounds to the father so that he may stretch out his hand to them, and she implores all of us to do likewise.

It’s a complex poem and my summary doesn’t really do it justice, but that image of bringing our wounds, our vulnerabilities, to the outstretched hand of our loving father, to be restored to health and garbed in dignity, is one worth holding onto; and I encourage you to enter into Lent in that spirit.

 

*The “thoughtful spot” is a shelf in the narthex of the church, which houses a rotating display of quotes, pictures, and other prompts to reflection.

Hildegard’s Procession from ‘Ordo virtutum’ may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyqUOYdxYJM

lent-image

Steadfast love

We did something a bit different instead of a straight sermon this morning.  I wanted to reflect on the part of Psalm 40:10 which says “I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.”

Rather than me spending ten minutes or so telling the congregation why sharing their experiences of God’s love is a good thing to do, I decided to engage in a bit of experiential learning by getting them to share those experiences in the service.  As people spoke, I wrote what they had to say on butcher’s paper, which we placed on the altar for the Great Thanksgiving.  Now, the pieces of paper are on display in the narthex for further reflection and discussion.

Here’s the list of what came out as we talked:

  • Accidents avoided (safety)
  • Answered prayer
  • A place to live (divine providence)
  • Nature (especially birdsong, and sunrises and sunsets)
  • Music and singing
  • A supportive community in the parish
  • Family togetherness
  • Children
  • The joy of loving
  • Dependable presence – an awareness of God – (especially in meditation) – a sense of immanence
  • Strength when feeling low
  • Blessings coming out of life’s difficulties
  • Guidance in understanding
  • Right paths in life (being able to come back after a wrong path)
  • Guidance and blessings
  • Comfort in grief
  • Ongoing forgiveness

By the time we’d got all of that on paper, we were really just getting warmed up!  But I didn’t want to let it go for much longer than a sermon typically would.

But what an awesome God we have, that we should have all these things for which to give thanks and praise together!

The Year of Change

When I was in college, I remember having a guest lecturer once who was famous for having been dean of a Cathedral during a time when its interior furnishings were completely changed and the worship life of the place renewed, with the result of transformed encounters with the people of the local community.  This dean, then, had come to talk to us about the question of leading a faith community through a time of change (and when, I ask you, is a faith community not in a time of change?)

Anyway.  One piece of advice that he gave us was that in order to help people become willing to engage with the challenge of change, you had to spend at least a year telling those people at every opportunity that the gospel is all about change.  That the gospel should change us, change our relationships, change our churches and our world, and that we should not be satisfied with the status quo when we know how far it falls short of God’s will for our world.  But it took a year, he said, for that message to begin to sink in and be internalised into people’s understanding of how things are.

Well.  I came to the two parishes where I am currently ministering just a little over a year ago, at a time for them of very great, and in some ways very unwelcome change.  I remembered this advice from college, and set myself a challenge; that for a year, I would try to preach, at every opportunity, about change.  That I would scour the readings set in the lectionary and ask myself, “What does this have to tell us about God’s heart for change?” and use that as a reference point in my preaching.

It’s been a very interesting exercise.  I was concerned, when I started, that it would be boring; that after a week or two I would find myself repeating the same basic points over and over again.  In fact it has been positively eye-opening, for me as much as for those listening to me.  And I have explored in depth some texts that otherwise I might have glossed over without paying much attention.

Because I don’t preach every week, and on some occasions my “change agenda” had to be interrupted for other important themes, over the year I preached 30 sermons which came out of this concern to build a theology and spirituality of change.  In reviewing those sermons I see 13 on the gospels, 6 on the epistles, 4 on the psalms, and 7 on the prophets.  Now, partly that’s a function of what the lectionary has given us this year, but I found the prophetic texts particularly interesting.  (Maybe in hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised; who has more of a heart for change than a prophet?)

I’ve never done something like this before; usually my approach has been to look at the readings week by week and focus on whatever seemed right at the time.  But I certainly found a longer-term focus enriching and challenging for me.  I’m not sure how the congregations found it; whether they quite realised what I was doing, and whether they found it helpful.  I will admit, though, that by now I feel ready to leave this theme behind (change will always be a challenge to a church community, but hopefully by now we are a little better equipped to reflect on that challenge).

(And I wonder how you, the readers of my blog, found it, too?  Did you recognise the theme or see some consistency in topics addressed?  Did you find it helpful?  All comments welcome!)

So what next?  I am wondering whether to choose another focus for another long stretch or go back to my previous pattern.  I found the experience this time valuable enough to ponder whether it’s worth experimenting with further.  But then, what’s the next priority, I wonder?