Friday, 3 April 2015

Defined by the Eucharist - a Maundy Thursday Sermon

Last year I began the sermon for Maundy Thursday (yes, I check these things, just to make sure don’t repeat myself too much) with the words “At the blessing of the oils service this morning in the Cathedral, Bishop Logan reminded us….”

And though I don’t like to repeat myself, I want to start my thoughts this evening with these words “At the blessing of the oils service this morning in our Cathedral, Bishop Logan reminded us… “ that this most Holy meal that we share this evening defines who we are.  I seem to get a lot of food for thought from our Bishop's Maundy sermons!  

Bishop Logan spoke very personally of his experience of being a part of the ceremonies around the demolition of St Michael's residential school in Alert bay and talked of healing, he pointed to the Eucharist as a place of healing and reconciliation and how we are called to be people of healing.  There is so much more I could share with you on that theme - but it was that one phrase 'It is the Eucharist that defines us' that really stuck with me as I prepared these thoughts.  So I have gone in a slightly different direction - and here goes:

It is the Eucharist that forms us, our sharing in bread and wine that nourishes us, our Holy Communion that sustains us and builds us up in community.  That is why, on this most Holy Night, we remember the institution of Holy Communion.  We remember that before his death Jesus gathered his closest friends around him to share at table in the marking of the Passover and during that meal left a reminder of his self-offering that we call the Eucharist – a word from the Greek that means ‘Thanksgiving’.  Not only  that, but in doing so left us with the command “do this in remembrance of me”.  We are to continually offer thanksgiving and to share in this Holy Meal as we recall the death and resurrection of our loving, living Christ.

The Eucharist defines us – but how…? We will all have reasons why we find this sharing significant, and I am not trying to tell you what you have to believe about this sacred feast, but here are some ways in which we might recognise who we are called to be in the sharing of this sacrament.

Firstly, it reminds us to be people of gratitude.  It is in its very naming, as I said, a thanksgiving.  It calls us to remember the goodness we enjoy – to use an old-fashioned phrase – to ‘count our blessings’.  It calls us to be people whose attitude is turned not to seeing all that is bad and wrong with the world (though we should not ignore those things) but to seek the beauty and life of the God who is in all things, who is all in all.  To have hearts tuned to life and hope and truth and wonder. 

Next, it reminds us of our calling to be in community.  The name ‘Holy Communion’ which is still the name many refer to this service by, reminds us that we are in communion not only with the God who meets us here – but with the others who meet us here too.  One of the sadnesses, in my opinion, of our post enlightenment, individualistic culture – and of those religious expressions that focus on ‘me and my relationship with Jesus’ and major on personal salvation is that we have lost that sense of being the body of Christ, of being so intimately connected to one another that we are like parts of the body connected by ligament and muscle and flesh.

One of our sentences at the breaking of the bread – technically called ‘the Fraction’ for those who like to know these things – goes like this “Creator of all,
you gave us golden fields of wheat,
whose many grains we have gathered
and made into this one bread.
All So may your Church be gathered
from the ends of the earth
into your kingdom.
Says it all, really. It’s all about the together, folks!

This holy meal reminds us too of God’s offer of sustenance in our journey.  And of how God meets us where we are.  I love the fact that the Eucharist isn’t some kind of abstract celebration all about words and theory, but is earthy – the everyday things of food and drink, though ritualised, are offered to us as a reminder that God offers the sustenance our hearts and souls needs.  We are reminded also that God is not disembodied or disinterested but grounded in the reality of everyday life.   Another of the Fraction sentences says ““I am the bread of life,” says the Lord.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry;
whoever believes in me will never thirst.” “

Of course this isn’t just a fanciful idea, but one which we, as the people of God, are called to make a reality – that we point others to the reality of a God who slakes our spiritual thirst and feeds our spiritual hunger, but that we also work for a world where none hunger and thirst as we are reminded that this is the calling of the body of Christ, to meet the needs of the world around us as well as our own.

Next, I believe the Eucharist defines us as broken people.  By which I mean that the brokenness we often experience personally, or the broken relationships in our lives, or the brokenness of the world is echoed in the breaking of bread that we have in the heart of our Eucharistic observance.  Those wonderful words from the resurrection appearance of Christ to two followers at Emmaus (and though it is holy week, we can’t really consider the Eucharist without considering the resurrection life it points towards) are in our Emmaus chapel window and, for me, define the core of our Communion. “They knew him in the breaking of the bread.”  Christ, body broken and yet somehow brought back to life, breaks bread again.  In that symbol of brokenness is so much to do with sharing, healing, and being connected to Christ – but also, for me, a recognition of the brokenness of the world in which somehow Christ is always present.  Christ is alive even in the darkest and most broken places, and meets us there.  Another Fraction sentence – this one which we have been using throughout Lent and Holy Week.

We break this bread,
Communion in Christ’s body once broken.

Let your Church be the wheat
which bears its fruit in dying.
If we have died with him,
we shall live with him;
if we hold firm,
we shall reign with him.

And that links to my next to last thought – that a number of people have expressed their distaste at the last part of that sentence, that reigning with Christ has echoes of dominance and royalty with which many of us – including myself – are uncomfortable with.  In every Eucharist we are reminded of a servant king whose role is not to dominate, but to unite – to bring people together in love and service.  When we talk of reigning with Christ we talk of being alongside Christ in that place and time when love, grace, peace, justice, mercy and wholeness are made manifest.

In this particular Eucharist we see this of course in the symbolic act of the washing of feet which Jane will be taking part in on behalf of all of us in ministry, indeed on behalf of all of us in the people of God for we are all ministers one to another.  This is the reign of Christ – offering to wash the feet of one another.

And lastly for my thoughts – though there is so much more that I could say but won’t – the Eucharist defines us as sent people.  Though we have been gathered and united at this feast, we are not called to stay huddled together for spiritual warmth in this comfortable place.  The Eucharist demands that we go forth – or as they say in the Catholic liturgy ‘The Mass is ended, go in peace’.  Our own prayer books offer a variety of sentences that finish our service with the dismissal, but my own favourite is – Go in love and peace to serve the Lord. 

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

"Get Out of The Temple!" or, more accurately, "Depart in peace."

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2015) Year B RCL Principal

This last Thursday we had a Clergy Day, one of our twice a year opportunities to meet up with colleagues from all the Islands of this Diocese, and to have some input and chat to and hear from our Bishop, Logan.  As part of the Bishop`s desire to make these days as much about being together and learning more of each other than about having lots of people speaking to, or sometimes at, us we were all asked to create a line around the room where we were meeting and sort ourselves into order of Ordination – stretching back to the 1960s, up to our most recent Diaconal Ordinations in 2014.  We then went around the room and were asked to call out when and where we were ordained, and the Bishop who ordained us.

It wasn`t until I found myself calling out `Petertide 1996, St Paul`s Cathedral, London, England by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres` that I realised how much I loved that memory.  Christopher Wren`s great Cathedral building filled with people – I remember the Bishop`s Chaplain saying to the twenty five of us being ordained “the Cathedral will be gloomy then the great West Doors will open and light will flood in and everyone will turn, thinking `who the hell is that?’ and it will be you!  Enjoy the moment.” And we did.

I remember my first visit to St Paul’s – a massive edifice, with wonderful artwork, grandiose in its scale and intricate in the carving and construction that makes it such an iconic part of London’s skyline.  I was wandering around looking at the cathedral when one of my colleagues said ‘It doesn’t do anything for me, this place, it’s like a religious railway station’.

I can see why she said that, it’s a well visited  place, and it’s iconic stature means it is on the list of pretty much every London Tour.  In its construction it is large and echoey and noisy and busy.  There are quiet spots, but it doesn’t feel a lot like a place of prayer – not like some of the other Anglican places of worship I have been fortunate enough to visit and minister in.  It is what it is.

I wonder if the Temple in Jerusalem was like that too.  We certainly get the feeling that it was busy, and that there were people in and out all of the time, praying, offering sacrifice, talking and debating.  Then there was the Temple market with its money trading and buying and selling of sacrificial animals.  I don’t get the feeling from Scripture that it was a quiet, contemplative space. At least not all of it.

But it was loved. It was a magnificent place – a place that was a spiritual home for a nation.  Kevin preached a few weeks back on Luke’s repeated references to the Temple, Luke – probably a gentile – who begins and ends his Gospel stories with stories relating to the Temple, and who repeatedly places encounters between God and others in the temple, Zechariah, Anna and Simeon in today’s story of the Presentation, the boy Jesus and the scribes, the disciples visiting the temple with Jesus, the final visit before the Ascension story. 

It’s interesting to me, though, how in Luke’s narrative the life of the temple is so often disrupted by the action of God – Zechariah is struck dumb whilst performing his priestly duties, Simeon’s powerful words (of which more in a moment) which are spoken into the lives of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, the young Jesus debating with the learned and impressing them despite his youth, Jesus being carried up to the top of the temple as part of the temptation stories, the parables of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the widow’s mite, the driving out of the moneychangers. All of these disturb an accepted way of thinking and doing – as if, dare I say, the presence of God was there!

And yet the Temple wasn’t the only place God was at!  As Luke holds in balance a love of the temple and a recognition of the challenge that Jesus brings to the life of the temple, a promise that God is here, but God is elsewhere too!

I’m pretty sure that’s what is going on with Simeon’s bold and disturbing proclamation here.  And I must admit the Nunc Dimittus brings out the Book of Common Prayer lover in me so I will use the 1662 translation:

“LORD, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen :
thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles :
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

I am sure many of us know the story – Simeon was waiting for this encounter with the Messiah, an encounter that he believed would mark the end of his life… And so he shares this song, and a word for Mary that ‘this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’ and ‘a sword will pierce your own heart also’.

But I want to take just the one line for us to consider today – the opening line of this song of Simeon – in modern translation ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace’.  It’s that sense of departing – that after encountering Christ in the temple Simeon departs.  The story suggests that he goes for a very long rest! But I want to suggest that we are being called to depart in peace too, not in the same way, but called to be people of peace, taking the peace of Christ with us – going out from the temple to be active in the cause of peace.

Thomas Merton, the great contemplative who –were he still alive - would have been 100 years old this week wrote in a collection of his writings called ‘Passion for Peace’:

"Christ our Lord did not come to bring peace as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. He brought to his disciples a vocation and a task: to struggle in the world of violence to establish His peace not only in their own hearts but in society itself."

Lord, now let your servants depart in peace - that peace which involves truly engaging with the world around – no longer considering, as Craig reminded us last week, that there is an ‘us and them’ but only an ‘us’. We are called to include all not just by welcoming people to come to a church meeting, but by being Church in the world.  As someone tweeted earlier this week: “God is not calling us to go to Church, God is calling us to go and be church”

So often our Churches contain the life and faith of the church, rather than liberate that life to shared abroad.  We are church not only when we gather together, we are the body of Christ when we serve beyond ourselves.  Our spiritual community is to be the springboard from which we leap into the world.  Though not all of us are necessarily built for leaping!  Yes we should value our sacred space, yes we have wonderful buildings – not least this warm and welcoming, prayer soaked building here – yes we are called to BE together.  But these things exist as resources for our journey out into our families and friendships, our places of work, our communities, the clubs, societies and activities we are a part of.  This is all the work of the church, the places where we are called, in work and word, to proclaim ‘God is here’.

To look at it another way, still drawing on this imagery of going beyond the Temple – departing in peace - we were reminded by Rev’d Canon Dr Richard LeSueur at our Thursday Clergy Day, that by the time of Jesus, Israel had undergone a massive change in its thinking about the presence of God in the years following the exile.  Quoting the Theologian and Scholar Walter Bruggemann, Richard told us that the defining image for the church today is not the Temple, but the Exile. 

How might the exile be speaking to us? Bruggemann tells us that firstly, Years of peace were suddenly broken: the comfort of the temple and the king, a stable and reliable order no longer existed.  Likewise we in the Church find ourselves in a place where any privilege or prestige we may have had is gone.  We are so often seen as little enclaves of slightly odd people who gather apart from the rest of the world on a Sunday Morning.  An image, a perception we are called to challenge – I believe.

Secondly the exile of Israel that came following the destruction of the Second Temple between 586–537 BCE saw the worship of God take place no longer in a Centralized institution, the temple, but it went out to a growing network of synagogues, which can be translated as simple as assembly – interestingly the word used in the New Testament for Church ekklesia means exactly the same thing.  But the important message is that the encounter with God, the presence of God, is no longer considered restricted to one place, the temple, but the divine can be engaged with in diverse and dispersed ways.  A message for the Church today!

Thirdly, as we find the Privileges of Christendom have passed we can ask ourselves if this is liberation to a new apostolic age – a new age of being sent out to share the life of Christ with the world!  If you remember this time last year we had a number of folk standing up and calling out ‘God is here’ – and important reminder of the God who is in the midst of us – but our calling is to remember that we are called to carry that presence with us in all we do, as much beyond these walls as within.

Perhaps, as Richard told the Clergy, we are being called from settled life – and being a settler church has too many connotations for me to begin to address this morning - to being a nomadic, a travelling people.  A people recognising that Church is a waystation, not a destination.  We come here, as a desert dweller may come to an oasis, for refreshment and for strength for the journey.  We are gathered, in order to be sent out.  In the Latin Liturgy echoed in our contemporary services the deacon would call out or sing ‘Ite, missa est’ – Go, you are dismissed (or according to some scholars ‘Go, you are sent out’) Or, as became more usual  ‘Go forth, the mass is ended’. 

Further, in this theme of moving beyond the temple, of being in exile, strangers in a strange land, we find ourselves again having to engage with culture and discover our own distinctiveness – how can we be Christians in our everyday lives? How do we practise the presence of God in our society?  How do we share this good news, this life of Christ which are blessed with? I don’t have the answers to that, but I am committed to finding them, together, with all of you.

Perhaps as we engage further with our visioning, with the vision of our Diocese and our own parish as shared in the Quo Vadis report in which we are collecting the voices of our community, we can commit ourselves to seeking where our calling to do and be church is. How may we depart in peace?

Thanks be to God.

Monday, 26 January 2015

A Sermon on Conversion

The Conversion of St Paul (2015) Year B RCL Principal

To Be Converted, or continued, or both…

Today is, as you may have guessed, the festival of the Conversion of St Paul.  So I am going to begin by asking - as one should to an Anglican audience - "how many of you have been converted…?!??!"

No, not really.

I could tell you my conversion story, though… imagine a tubby little boy who looks just like me but without a beard, oh and mousey browny-blond hair.  This little lad is in a small chapel tent in a field of tents in a place called Polzeath (or Polzeth as many call it) and he’s chatting to a genial older chap who asks.  Do you want to give your heart to Jesus?  To which I replied yes.
So in that simple setting, having heard over the course of that week the message of faith in a new way, I committed myself to being a Christian.  It wasn’t spectacular, there were no lights or voices from the sky.  I just said a prayer.  And it was a beginning.  I called it my conversion. So did the Christian Community to which I belonged – it was a crucial part in my journey of faith.

It wasn’t a Saint Paul moment – I didn’t have a dark and disturbing past to be set free from.  Unlike the stories I had heard back in my youth of Gangland conversions in the Bronx, or the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, or the miraculous changes of heart of tough guys from the East End of London my story was boring. Which was a bit of shame, I thought. 

In Frank McCourt’s autobiographical work ‘Angela’s Ashes’ he talks of how it was common for the young Catholic schoolboys taking their first confessions to make up things in order to feel that they actually HAD something to confess.  They were worried that if they didn’t have something juicy to say they would be punished for pride or for lying!  In my protestant world, you really wanted a good conversion story.  But it was not to be – I might have embellished stories of what I considered dreadful childhood sins, but they weren’t really substantial.  I was no St Paul. My conversion, such as it was, was significantly less dramatic.

In fact, the idea of Conversion as we have had it passed down to us has picked up some negative connotations, it shares a dodgy reputation with ideas like ‘Mission’, ‘Repent’, ‘Sin’ and even ‘Salvation’ – words whose meanings have baggage, weight, because of the ecclesial or local culture that has used them.  These words have been used to bludgeon the unwary and the unsuspecting, the cowed and the dominated, the colonised and the confused.  Repent or die – physically or spiritually… 

The language of conversion has been used to threaten and coerce, and that is heartbreakingly shown in a poem by J. Neil C. Garcia which talks of the metaphorical death by drowning of a transgender woman forced to choose to be a man by her traditional family. It’s a long poem so I won’t quote it all – the link is here   – but it talks from the perspective of a transgender woman forced to live a life as a heterosexual man by her family, and talks of the perpetuation of masculine violence bound up in this act of “conversion” and its aftermath and ends with the heartbreaking words.:

…Though nobody
Remembers, I sometimes think of the girl
Who drowned somewhere in a dream many dreams ago.
I see her at night with bubbles
Springing like flowers from her nose.
She is dying and before she sinks I try to touch
Her open face. But the water learns
To heal itself and closes around her like a wound.
I should feel sorry but I drown myself in gin before
I can. Better off dead, I say to myself
And my family that loves me for my bitter breath.
We die to rise to a better life.

Conversion does not have a good history.  

And yet today is a festival – a feast of conversion. We have little or no detail of the birth or death of St Paul, Apostle to Gentiles, so we celebrate this exceptional, miraculous event which turned him from being a persecutor of the Church to being a champion of Jesus Christ and an architect of the order of the Church.  His writings, rich in theology and practical advice, deeply rooted in his Jewish ancestry and contemporary culture, desperate to enliven a burgeoning Church with the life of the living Spirit of God in Christ are a substantial part of our Scriptures and his influence is strongly felt in the church today.

We celebrate his turning from one way to another, the radical diversion of his path on that road to Damascus and his realignment to following the way of Christ. This, we are told, is conversion – a fracturing of reality, often the result of a crisis moment, a moment of revelation, a moment which changes everything…

But that is how we have so often been told conversion works, the only way that conversion works! In many traditions within the Christian faith, this is what it means to be saved –  it is such a striking image that we we have the vivid account of it not only in today's reading from Acts 26, but in two other places in Acts, also in Galatians and a reference of Christ appearing to Paul alluded to in his account of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians chapter 15… Obviously this conversion was a dramatic, life changing – and according to the hyperbole of some commentators, world changing – event. 

That’s how it’s been portrayed in the stories passed down, in countless sermons, in artworks through the ages – two of which I copied for you to see and which, I hope were given out with our bulletin for today…  In the Caravaggio painting, one of at least two of Michelangelo Meris da Caravaggio’s portrayals of the Conversion of St Paul – Paul is so overwhelmed that he has fallen from his horse!
Which brings me to what I really want to say – like the horse in Caravaggio’s painting, or the Donkey in the nativity story, or the idea that there were three kings at the manger – there is so much layered on to what conversion is – and so much of the nuance, the variations, the different aspects of what the whole idea of conversion is and might be that it is hard to drop the baggage and consider again what this concept of Conversion might actually offer to us today!

Though I am glad for the influence of good, Christian folk, who brought me to a very deliberate start of my own pilgrimage of faith, I realise that this moment was just that – the start.  I was consciously making a commitment to my journey. I turned from one way to another, but I know that God was at work long before that moment, making Godself known to me through scripture, through the people who shared my life, through the traditions and worship of the Church community that gave me a sense of belonging.

But that wasn’t my only conversion, it was a part of my ongoing conversion.  Or perhaps a better word would be ‘metanoia’ – the Greek word which appears throughout the New Testament and is often translated repentance, but might best be understood as ‘turning’.  I’ve used this illustration before but the word ‘repent’ is one of those wonderful English words which the Church seems to have hijacked – it crops up much more in the kind of English novel that says something like ‘Mr Smithers repented of his intention to visit Miss Lambert and instead found himself heading in the opposite direction to a nearby hostelry’.  It simply means a change in direction.

Conversion too easily becomes seen as ‘flicking a switch’ – and both the Author of Acts – commonly thought to be Luke the Evangelist – and Paul himself in today’s reading are keen to stress the break between one part of Paul’s life and another.  “once I was very bad now, through God’s grace and the work of Christ, I am good’, ‘once I persecuted the Church, now I am persecuted because I serve Christ’.  This kind of dramatic break in the life narrative of Paul serves to show the wonder and the power of Christ.  It is what the Church needed to hear in its early days, the powerful and rapid transformation which Christ affects.  It’s a very black/white, light/dark, good/bad thing and easily slips into the simplistic, dualistic (as Richard Rohr might say) way of thinking that we are so inclined to veer towards.

But we all know that faith, and indeed life, are much more complex than that.  Take this poem by a Theologian and writer called Scott Cairns which I found on the Theology and Literature website

Adventures in New Testament Greek: Metanoia

Repentance, to be sure,
but of a species far
less likely to oblige
sheepish repetition.

Repentance, you’ll observe,
glibly bears the bent
of thought revisited,
and mind’s familiar stamp

–a quaint, half-hearted
doubleness that couples
all compunction with a pledge
of recurrent screw-up.

The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.
Scott Cairns

Conversion, metanoia, repentance – whatever we wish to call it, is a lifelong activity. Turning not so much away, as towards – towards Christ, towards Christlikeness.  It is a discipline and a grace – something that comes from our openness to the spirit of God and from a longing to know and feel the life of Christ within us.

It comes partly from spiritual practice, and I have said repeatedly from this pulpit and in many groups and conversations that I believe we are being challenged to be a spiritual community in the broadest sense – a community that in word and deed turns to the way of the spirit and seeks to live by the faith to which we are called, to which we are drawn.

But conversion is, to my mind, summed up well by thinking on what it means to turn towards Christ.  For me every act of compassion is a turning to Christ.  Every prayer, every attempt to still the many voices of the world and open ourselves to the life of faith is a turning to Christ. Everytime we open a newspaper, or the browser or our computer and see news which disturbs us and we pray about it, and seek to act in response to it with justice and love we are turning to Christ. Every time we seek to care for those in need we are turning to Christ. Every time we open ourselves to truly listen to another human being, are willing to change and learn and grow, we are turning to Christ.  Every time we speak out against injustice and challenge systems of oppression and marginalisation we are turning to Christ.  Every time we come to worship, alone or together, in silence, or in liturgy and song we are turning to Christ. 

This is conversion.  Not that we become a Christian, but that we seek through all of our pilgrimage to turn to Christ.  It is summed up well, I think in the part of the Baptismal liturgy that I copied along with the Michelangelo and Caravaggio paintings for you. It’s all good stuff! But I find challenge in those last lines which ask ‘
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God's creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?

May we continue to learn, grown and know that conversion, that metanoia, to which Christ continues to call us.  Amen.