Sunday 10 March 2024

Accepted, Nourished and Rested

Holy God, Speaker, Word and Breath, may you breathe life into my words this morning. Amen.

I was quite upset a few years ago when my manager said to myself and my fellow sisters that we were not to “Mother” the newly qualified staff nurses. They’re adults and should be treated like adults. I was upset because I knew the comment was indirectly aimed at me.

I started in the department as a newly qualified 22-year-old who’d gone straight from school to university and was now undertaking the job that, yes, I’d trained 4 years for, but also was the most terrifying thing I’d ever done, until I started to stand up here that is. I felt completely out of my depth.

The leap from student to staff nurse is huge, any other medical professionals in the room will I’m sure agree. They’re support programs in place, but nothing beats care and nurture by a person who takes you by the hand, understands what you’re going through and walks beside you through it.

Enter Caroline. Caroline is one of the best nurses I’ve ever worked with: highly skilled clinically, compassionate but firm, completely professional, and one of life’s natural nurturers. She’s not that much older than me, but she was the work mum I needed, and as I grew in my career, she was the template for how I myself wished to nurture future new nurses.

We still work together now, though her role has changed and she works in a different department. Whenever we see each other there’s a hug and a catch up, she always makes me feel seen and cared for with the added dynamic of us now being equals in our roles. Even if we didn’t still see each other, I will never forget how her care helped form the practitioner I’ve become.

Fast forward to being told my providing this nurture to other staff was’nt OK. Last year we had about 15 new nurses join our team, the majority of who are newly qualified, 21–22-year-olds, straight out of uni. I know how they feel, and I want to support them in the way that feels most natural to me.

The good news is the management team now value our individual styles of supporting the team, whether it’s the feistier sisters who fiercely advocate for them, my male colleagues who have a more big-brotherly approach, or my gentle mothering and guiding.

Mothering comes in all guises and in many different areas of our lives. We may have an amazing relationship with our own mothers and yet still have other maternal figures – or we might have a tense or fractured relationship and have found that nurture elsewhere. 

 We might be a mother who mothers beyond our own family – my kids have a lot of LGBT and neurodivergent friends, they know they’ll always be accepted, fed, and given a bed at our house.

We might be a mother who has difficult relationships with our children, but have found we provide that parental role to someone else in our life.

You may have found maternal nurture from your father or another male role model, you may be a man who, like God, has been both father and mother when needed. Mothering Sunday can be joyful and it can be painful.

In today’s readings there's a mixture of blood families and found families. I’ve often wondered how Eli coped having a toddler left on his doorstep; he had to be mother, father and teacher to Samuel, and though Samuel maintained a relationship with Hannah it was Eli that was there day to day.

Paul is writing to a community who he has a difficult parental relationship with. In his previous letter he accused them of being children still fed on milk, not ready for solid food. Bridget Nichols writes that "in this 2nd letter Paul’s tone is maternal, echoing the voice that comforts the hurt and disappointed child, in consoling the children who have not grown up much since he admonished them in his earlier letter."

And then we have the achingly painful gospel reading. A few weeks ago, we heard Simeon’s prophetic words at Candlemas, which now come to fruition. He told Mary a sword will pierce your own heart, and here, with other women from her community, and the Beloved Disciple, she’s watching Jesus die, unable to do anything to stop it.

Jesus, enduring the pain of crucifixion, has the added agony of watching his mother watch his suffering. It’s so brutal, even with the knowledge of what follows on Easter Day, to read and reflect upon this. Mary is losing her son, which a few different choices could’ve prevented, but they both know it must be this way.

Amid his suffering Jesus provides consolation for his mother and his friend, telling them they’re now mother and son, a new family is being formed and emerging from all this pain. The literal translation is the beloved disciple received Mary "into his inner life-setting."

The gospel models for us a mother-child relationship borne out of circumstance and trauma, I’ve seen this in my professional life. Patients become friends, patient’s families become friends, and sometimes, in the circumstances where a patient dies, support comes from the only people who could possibly understand each other’s loss and pain.

The best churches, I think, are built upon relationship and I think it’s an amazing strength of our congregation. There’s an array of inter-generational friendships, some with that parent-child dynamic, right here among us. I’ve felt held, loved, and encouraged in a beautifully maternal way by so many of you. I hope as I grow in age and wisdom that others feel this care from me.

I would even say that inter-generational friendships are one of the biggest strengths of the church as a whole. As with the family-like communities which were built in the aftermath of the events of that first Easter, we hopefully continue to build communities where we actively ensure that each generation is nurtured, valued and encouraged to be an active participant in the life of the whole.

We know this isn’t always the case, it’s easy to make someone feel unwelcome or pushed away, yet it can take the smallest of kindnesses to make someone feel welcome, included and valued.

I also believe that healthy inter-generational relationships build empathy. Church congregations bring together people from so many different backgrounds and form friendships that encourage us to look at difference differently, an amazing thing in a world where the over-arching message is one of division.

What we’ve got right here is counter-cultural, it’s rebellious, it rejects the message that we should conform to particular ways of thinking and living. It’s proof that the best way of spreading the gospel message of rebellious hope, beyond these walls, is through building relationships which model our values in the wider world.

The message we have to share is that the mother church is just that, a mother, which sees the whole person, accepts the whole person, respects the dignity of each child of God and actively seeks ways to nurture them, and to walk with them through all life’s chances and changes.

So, as we recall today those who’ve mothered us and those we’ve mothered, let’s remember this community, this mother church is also mother to our whole parish family, those who walk through the doors and those who don’t. Let’s continue to spread the message that in this family they always be accepted, nourished, and find a place to rest. Amen.

Sunday 28 January 2024

Becoming Ourselves

Won't get the chance to preach this today as I'm isolating at home with Covid, but as it was written I thought I'd share it.

Well, today’s readings take us on quite a journey, and perhaps take us to places we’re not entirely comfortable with. 

In Deuteronomy we have a prophet promised, a text we might interpret as referring to Jesus, and then some uncomfortable reading about the fate of false-prophets. 

From Revelation we have mystical, mysterious and mythical verses. John’s writing in this book can never be taken at face value, but again our interpretation would be that this poetic birth refers to Jesus.

And then in the Gospel we have Jesus beginning his ministry, he’s been baptised, spent his time in the wilderness and now he’s ready to go public. Mark’s account of this, as we heard this morning, includes a demonic possession and exorcism, and whilst our contemporary interpretations with our modern, scientific minds would try and interpret demonic possession as something more worldly, we do a disservice to the gospel when we don’t acknowledge that the world we’re shown here is one that does believe in demons, there’s 4 exorcisms in Mark even though it's the shortest of the gospels. This probably leaves us, like those present in the synagogue, asking “what is this”.

But I’m not, you’ll hopefully be glad to hear, planning on analysing the nature of biblical possession this morning. I must admit when I read the texts for today I was thinking, like the synagogue congregation, “what is this” and more pressingly, what does this say to us today, on this final Sunday of Epiphany as we come to the end of the Christmas season? 

The mystery and joy of the Incarnation and of the Christmas story are intimately woven through these readings. We have Moses promising a prophet from amongst God’s own people, our very human Messiah, but then we have John’s poetic, mystical retelling of God being born of a human woman, a child who escapes evil and returns to God.

The Gospel reading brings these two things together and shows us the reality of what the incarnation means as Jesus stands up to publicly declare his ministry has begun, and is immediately confronted with something we’d interpret as evil. An evil which immediately identifies who Jesus is, and an evil which Jesus immediately overcomes.

The possessed man is restored to who he was or who he should be, which is what I think a relationship with Jesus, the incarnate God, does for us. We each have a concept of God the Father, or the creator, whichever language you find the most helpful, and for me that aspect of God is awesome and endless and everywhere, so vast and entwined in everything, for all time, that it can be hard to comprehend.

In Jesus God becomes knowable, relatable, and we have a person with whom it becomes more comprehendible that we can have relationship with them, a relationship God wants to have with us, the ultimate goal of which is for God to delight in us and for us to delight in God. It’s a relationship of healing and restoration where, as it deepens, we get closer to seeing ourselves as God sees us, and move closer to fulfilling our potential as the people the creator created us to be.

Jesus restored a demon-possessed man to his true self.  Our demons might not be quite so literal but this is God’s deepest desire and yearning for our lives. Whilst we might not believe in evil as it’s presented to us in today’s gospel there’s many things in the world and in our lives we would perhaps call evil.

There’s the big things like war in the Middle East, child soldiers, institutional racism and misogyny, human trafficking and climate destruction, all huge evils in our world, but what I’m reflecting upon today is more personal, more everyday. Things which touch us personally. What are the evils in our everyday life that interfere with our relationship with God? 

Each of us have to deal with things which can prevent us from fully leaning into our relationship with God. Things that are preventing us from being the “us” God knows we can become. Some are bigger than others, such as addiction or illness, chronic pain or mental health concerns. But there’s also the more mundane, the things we think are a barrier between us and God, and because we believe they are a barrier, they are.

Short tempers, bad parenting choices, bad financial choices, sexual shame. The evil in these things can be how our less than ideal choices make us feel about ourselves, or how we judge others we see exhibiting them. A bad choice doesn’t make us a bad person, but we can convince ourselves that we are, and that makes the barrier between us and God.

One of the things Huw wanted to instil in us when he arrived is that it’s ok to be vulnerable and it’s ok to make mistakes. It’s all part of being human, and in many cases it’s how we grow and learn. I can’t help thinking about how in today’s gospel Jesus expels evil from within a congregation, a community which probably had complexities, relationships and came together in ways not too dissimilar to our own.

The life Jesus models for us – the life the Trinity models for us – is one of community. We’re not just called to be vulnerable and break down the walls between ourselves and God, but also with each other. To grow as God intends is to grow personally but also communally. 

Growing together is how we work towards a world where those bigger evils simply cannot exist, to model a way of living and being in the world that rejects evil by accepting each other, with our flaws and idiosyncrasies, knowing that with Jesus as our companion through life we’re standing with the source of all love and all power, we stand with a God who chose to come and stand here, with us, and share our lives, to live as we live.

As these last few days of the Christmas season pass by and we head so quickly this year into Lent, we go from Jesus standing by us in our wilderness, negotiating day-to-day life, to us standing by him in his wilderness, along with all the evil he was confronted by. This is what it means to be in relationship, to journey together, to share the highs, lows, sadness and celebrations, and as we live and grow, with Jesus and each other, we move ever closer to that revelation of hopefully seeing ourselves, and each other, as God sees us, fully ourselves, fully loved by God and knowing there is no evil that in that relationship, the eternal dance of love, cannot be silenced and cast out.

Sunday 22 October 2023

The Things That are God's

In today’s gospel we see two usually opposed groups come together to try and trick Jesus. On one side we have the Pharisees, with influence over the Jewish community and on the other the Herodians, supporters of the puppet king with an allegiance to Rome. Jesus can’t win this argument- if he says “pay taxes” the already subjugated Jewish people will turn against him, if he say’s “don’t pay taxes” the Herodians will report back to the Romans, through whom Herod maintains his power.

Jesus has no interest in winning or losing arguments and won’t be caught in their trap, but he does need to satisfy his hearers. This is such a famous passage that even now it’s repeated like a proverb “render unto Caesar”, or as we heard in this translation “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”. This has been manipulated many times over the centuries to support all kinds of economic policy and government legislation, often divorced from the final part of what Jesus said, which is actually the important bit:

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The coin is a symbol of The Roman Empire, the oppressor and coloniser. The coin belongs to Caeser because it bears his likeness. If the same theory is applied to what Jesus is telling us belongs to God, it’s that which bears God’s likeness, which of course is us, and all God’s people. All people.

The combined forces of the Pharisees and Herodians tried to trap Jesus in a man-made power system, but throughout the gospels we see Jesus subverting where man thinks power lies to demonstrate where power actually lies, where God’s power lies.

We have God made flesh, made as vulnerable as a newborn baby, born not in the royal palace where the Magi went to look for him but in an out-house where the animals sheltered. 

And now to further disrupt the status quo, Jesus explains that as the emperor’s wealth is in the thing that bear’s his image, God’s wealth is in the thing that bears God’s image. God’s greatest asset is us, the people who bear that image and whose wish is to grow more in that likeness, and give back to God what is God’s. 

Now I know there’s a lot of proud, patriotic people here, and I must admit I’ve been cheering on the England Rugby team in the world cup and enjoying our wins, but patriotism can be toxic, in sport fandom it has, at times, lead to violence and at it’s worst we’ve seen many unjust wars fought throughout the world and centuries. Jesus reminds us today that at the our very core we belong to God, not state, or government, or nation. We may love our country but do we believe God feels the same? 

So many have taken lives or lost lives for believing God was on their side more than that of another nation, but at God’s table, God’s alter, there are no nations. 
Every member of the human race is created in God’s likeness, no matter nationality, ethnicity, culture or religion.

I swore to myself that the one thing I wouldn’t do this week was talk about the Isarel/Palestine conflict. Even those with a deep knowledge about the history of the situation, and great gifts of writing and speaking, can fail to strike the right balance or tone when explaining how we got to where we are now.

My knowledge is very limited but as I read around this week’s gospel I was drawn further and further towards thoughts of the awful events we’ve seen unfold. I think one thing which really struck me is the knowledge that ourselves, the Jewish people of Israel and Palestinian Muslims all have a culture rooted in the creation story in the book of Genesis. We all hold the belief that we’re made in God’s image.

If a day every comes where there are no kingdoms or empires, governments or currencies, God will still be God, and we will still be God’s children.

And yet, despite our commonality the narrative around the atrocities committed on both sides are painfully divisive and many people feel they can’t comment without appearing to be antisemitic, supporting terrorism or defending acts of ethnic cleansing. 

I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little about Gaza and indigenous Palestinians until I started to attend Greenbelt festival a few years ago. 

They partner with an organisation called the Amos Trust and other charities who work in Palestine. Having grown up in the 80s all I knew were the stories of the PLO, Hamas and acts of extreme violence. 

I know there will most likely be very strong feelings in this room about what’s happened and what’s continuing to happen, but the situation isn’t black and white, it’s incredibly messed up but I feel there’s some facts of the situation it may be helpful to understand. 

Recently I came across historian John Bradley-Lestrange, who has a popular social media presence. His area of expertise is Genocide Studies and his channel is called the History Wizard. I’m going to share his attempt to explain the facts of the situation, but before I do if we have disagreements on what I’m about to share, remember that we are brothers and sisters in Christ and I feel we can discern how to disagree well.

He says the following, some of which is paraphrased for clarity:
The average person simply isn’t capable of discussing it without being either wildly antisemitic or supporting the ethnic cleansing that the Israeli government is committing against the Palestinian people. There are some basic facts:

Judaism is an ethno-religion, both a religion and an ethnicity and ethnically Jewish people are indigenous to the lands of Israel. Ethnically Arabic populations are also indigenous to the lands that are currently Israel and Palestine.

There’s a historic and moral necessity for a Jewish homeland because throughout history pretty much every single nation they’ve lived in has tried to eliminate them and because the governments of those nations fail or refuse to take any substrative measure to prevent antisemitism and antisemitic violence there needs to be a place where Jewish people can feel safe without being the victims of genocide. 

The government of Israel has been committing an ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people basically since the nation of Israel reemerged under British mandate in the 1940s.

You can accept the historic necessity for a Jewish homeland whilst also condemning the actions of the Israeli government, you can condemn the actions of the Israeli government without being antisemitic.

Israel has tried to take more land, beyond what was granted in the original mandate, displacing innocent Palestinian people, many of whom have been living on the land for 100s and 100s of years.

Violence in this situation begets more violence, such as Hamas’ massacre of innocent people at a music festival. And kidnapping innocent Jewish people. They are a terrorist organisation. 

There’s fault on both sides, victims on both sides. The lion’s share of the fault is with the Israeli government due to the massive power imbalances involved.

People are angry and scared and rightfully so, but there is no simple solution to such a complicated problem.
It breaks my heart to know we are all one people and yet so divided, that the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are brother and sister and yet this situation seems unsolvable.

My encouragement for you, for us all, in the light of todays gospel and the knowledge that each and every person involved in this conflict is a beloved child of God, is to resist the dualistic thinking that saturates our news cycles and print media. To look at the situation with nuance, love and hope. I want to leave the last word today to Palestinian Christians. Even though this statement was issued in 2014 it remains painfully relevant:

“We at Bethlehem Bible College consistently called for a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. We always sought a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. As Christians committed to nonviolence, we do not and cannot endorse Hamas’ ideology. However, we believe that the people of Gaza have the right to live in freedom and dignity. This means that the siege over Gaza should be lifted and the borders should be open. The people of Gaza need a chance to live. We oppose Hamas launching rockets at Israeli towns and cities. At the same time, we are shocked by the disproportional and inhuman response by the Israeli military and the disregard of civilian life and especially innocent women and children.

We are grieved by the mounting hate, bigotry and racism in our communities today, and the consequent violence. We are especially grieved when Christians are contributing to the culture of hatred and division, rather than allowing Christ to use them as instruments of peace and reconciliation.

In the face of this, we affirm that we are against killing children and innocent people. We support love not hatred, justice not oppression, equality not bigotry, peaceful solutions not military solutions. Violence will only beget wars, it will bring more pain and destruction for all the nations of the region. Peace-making rooted in justice is the best path forward. Therefore, we commit ourselves to spread a culture of love, peace, and justice in the face of violence, hatred, and oppression.”


Sunday 25 June 2023

Where's the good news?!

I had the absolute honour of not only preaching at St Michael’s this morning but also at the South Manchester Open Table service at St Luke's Wythenshawe this evening. Sermon based on Romans 6:1b-11 and Matthew 10:24-39

That made for cheerful listening didn’t it? Did you hear the Good News in today’s gospel? Were you comforted by what Jesus had to say? There is part of the liturgy we can use at a communion service called “The comfortable words” but what we heard just now is absolutely not part of it.

This is a more difficult gospel passage, like almost everything contained within the bible it can’t be taken at face value. I was once told that scripture is like a multi-faceted diamond which we must examine from every angle to truly appreciate it’s depth and beauty.

I think it’s really important to acknowledge the more difficult parts of scripture, and to acknowledge there are many facets to Jesus and his teaching, which reveals to us the complex and intricate nature of God.

To put things into the context of where we find ourselves in Matthew Chapter 10, Jesus has called and assembled his disciples and is now preparing them for life on the road with him. At the start of the chapter he gives them the authority to heal, preach, teach and reconcile in his name; he tells them to tell everyone they meet about the Good News we’re seeking in this account today, because he then goes on to prepare them for how hard that’s going to be.

One of the most difficult things I have to deal with as a chaplain is journeying alongside someone who feels God has abandoned them because they’re suffering through something undeniably awful- God must be letting the bad stuff like illness, pain, sepsis and depression happen as they have prayed and they have been faithful but no amount of prayer or faithfulness is alleviating their suffering.

It's hard because seeing someone in physical and psychological distress never gets easier and also how do you explain to someone in spiritual anguish that we haven’t been promised a life free of difficulty, in fact what Jesus is saying here is quite the opposite, we might suffer more for our beliefs, even to the point where our families and communities become divided.

Illness is not, of course, a choice, it’s something which for most people at some point is an inevitability. The most remarkable spiritual encounters I’ve had are with those very few, quite remarkable people who look at their illness and ask themselves “what can I learn about myself or God from this today”.

Faith isn’t a magic bullet to cure all ills or heal all divisions, rather it’s what connects us to the divine thread flowing through all creation, to help us know that when we suffer we aren’t alone and which helps us to recognise the injustice around us and gives us a framework for how we deal with that injustice. 

Because what Jesus is preparing the disciples for here is not how to keep faith through the things we experience that we can’t change, but the choices we have to make, the things we must say and do, to remain true to God and to ourselves, which may have consequences for the peace and happiness of our lives

Some of us here today may have suffered separation within their families through sticking by their beliefs, or may have left communities we once belonged to because we had to be true to ourselves. 

Jesus knew when sending his disciples out into the world that they would be at odds with the world around them, and even with their own people. 

Jesus reminds us here what we’ve seen so many times through the centuries- sometimes what is right, what is of God, needs to be fought for; woman’s liberation, civil rights, the rights of LGBTQ+ people, worker’s rights, voting rights, the list goes on. 

Believing in the rightness or even righteousness of these causes has set many families and communities against each other and continues to do so as we see the arguments used 40 years ago to vilify gay men and women now used against trans people and drag queens. We’ve seen this on our patch this week with the vitriol thrown at Rachel Mann’s appointment as the first transgender archdeacon in the church of England. 

What has given me hope are the number of people celebrating, affirming and supporting Rachel. 

There are fundamental values which I hold, which I believe to align with God’s values as communicated to us through Jesus that I could never compromise on, no matter the cost.

And I will continue to reject the things which I identify as unequal, exclusive or fear-based if I’m to stay true to the work I believe God has given to me. 

These values will look different for each of us as the work God has given you, using your skills in the places and communities in which you find yourselves, is yours to own and develop and to follow where God is leading you.

But we have this warning from Jesus that to follow where God is leading us may not always be a comfortable, peaceful place. And yet, we also have his consolation – the words repeated again and again; “do not fear”, “do not be afraid”. 

Paul reminds us that our baptism links us forever to Jesus, that we share his death and resurrection, and as such we can never, ever be separated from God’s love. There’s no going back. And in baptism we’re invited into a new family- the church family, a chosen family, who may still disagree and fight but who are bound together by God’s care and tenderness.

Jesus may be informing the disciples of the rough times ahead but here is also the reminder that if we belong to God we belong to the one who loves us so completely they know how many hairs are on our head, who we see explicitly in the care of creation, knowing God’s care for us is even greater.

So there is amazing, life giving, spirit lifting Good News to be found in this passage; the promise of God’s faithfulness. No matter what trials and chances come upon us, if we follow where God is leading, we can never, ever be separated from God’s love and care.

Sunday 28 May 2023

Harmony & Disruption

I don’t know if any of you have ever had to do a Myers Briggs test? This is a sort of personality or trait test. Some Businesses like to do it and in ministry training they like us to see what boxes we vaguely fit it. Huw and I had to do it together when he became my training incumbent and it might surprise no one to hear our results were polar opposites- now this isn’t a bad thing as we actually complement each other really well I think, and this speaks to our Body of Christ model of church where it takes many people with many differences to make the whole thing work and do God’s work in the world.

Now I’m not actually a massive fan of Myers Briggs but there is another system I could talk about for hours, although I promise I won’t! It’s something called the Enneagram, ministers usually love or loathe it, but I’ve actually found it really helpful in understanding how I tick and also understanding the people around me in my life.

I won’t go into too much detail, but honestly I really could, if you have any interest in this just ask me later, but essentially of the 9 types I’m a 9, the Peacemaker. This means my strongest desires are for peace and harmony, for inner stability and peace of mind. This underpins how I instinctively behave, this can mean I avoid change or conflict at all costs and like to stick my head in the sand, but it can manifest in good ways, as I want harmony in my life I actively encourage that in the situations I find myself in.

This brings me to the day of Pentecost, and the purpose of the Holy Spirit.

Now you have to really feel for the disciples at this point. The last few weeks have been quite a ride, they’ve been through Jesus laying some incredible teaching on them as he prepared them for his death, the trauma of his arrest and execution, the confusion, joy and scariness of his coming back to them, more teaching, and then, after telling them not to worry because someone else is on their way, he literally vanishes from their sight.

Now I don’t know how the last 50 or so days have been for you, but thankfully for me it’s been a bit less dramatic.

They’re confused and afraid, not as much as after Jesus’ death, but this is a lot to process. In both the accounts we heard this morning- from John and the Book of Acts, the disciples are back in the upper room, clueless of what will happen next, and whatever did happen next in that room, which had become their sanctuary, each of them was filled with the Holy Spirit, and emboldened to head out into the world, each equipped for the individual ministries and paths where God was sending them next.

We have 2 very distinct but very clear images of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament; there is the Dove which rested above Jesus at his baptism; the symbol of peace, gentleness and harmony. 

Then we have the symbolism of 2 often destructive elements- wind and flame, telling us of the Spirit’s disruption in our lives: Harmony and Disruption. 

And you might guess from what I shared about my personality type I’m a bit more comfortable with the harmony than the disruption. Although I would also like to throw out there that maybe each one of here is far more comfortable with the peace, wisdom and harmony the Spirit brings to our life and faith than with the disruption and pushing us outside of what we feel comfortable with.

But this is why Jesus sent us the Spirit in the first place, he knew we would need comfort and solace, but he knew we needed guidance, gentle pushing, and sometimes even a bit of a rocket up our bum!

The Day of Pentecost is a day to particularly invoke the Spirit of God to fall afresh upon us and renew us, but do we know what we’re really asking?

Veni Sancte Spiritus
Come, Holy Spirit,
and send down from heaven
the ray of your light.
Come, father of the poor,
come, giver of gifts,
come, light of the hearts.
Best consoler,
sweet host of the soul,
sweet refresher.
Rest in work,
cooling in heat,
comfort in crying.
O most blessed light,
fill the innermost hearts
of your faithful.
Without your power
nothing is in humankind,
nothing innocent.
Clean what is dirty,
water what is dry,
heal what is wounded.
Bend what is rigid,
heat what is cold,
lead what has gone astray.
Grant to your faithful
who trust in you,
your sevenfold holy gift.
Grant us the reward of virtue,
grant us final salvation,
grant us eternal joy.

Words of comfort and harmony in this updated translation of the traditional plain-song chant. But then we remember what invoking the Holy Spirit might cost us, after all when the spirit fell upon Jesus he spent 40 days in the wilderness and in the wilderness we come face to face with ourself as we truly are. 

We want the Spirit to transform our hearts and minds but with that comes the disruption, the move away from peace before the harmony can be found, because harmony equals equality, harmony means we have to see where the problems are, the injustice, the prejudice, the misuse of church, money, power and politics. 

The Holy Spirit compels us, like the Disciples, to leave behind the familiar and comfortable and to seek out where God it at work, and to jump in with both feet to help.

And even me, with my need for inner peace knows this disruption must happen, so I welcome it, because the only way for me to have peace in my heart and the harmony the spirit brings is for that to be available to all God’s people. We find peace on the other side of the disruption- the still voice of calm after the earthquake, wind and fire.

Edwina Gateley sums up our longing to say yes to the disruption of the Spirit in her poem Called to Say Yes.

We are called to say yes
So that rich and poor embrace
And become equal in their poverty
Through the silent tears that fall.

We are called to say yes
That the whisper of our God
Might be heard through our sirens
And the screams of our bombs.

We are called to say yes
To a God who still holds fast
To the vision of the Kingdom
For a trembling world of pain.

We are called to say yes
To this God who reaches out
And asks us to share
His crazy dream of love.

Deon Johnson follows this with: We are called to say “yes” to allow the Spirit of the Living God to fall afresh on us and unlock the doors that keep us from loving our neighbours. God’s crazy dream of love calls us to stand with and work for the homeless, the working poor, the outcast, the refugee, the persecuted, the put-down and the putout. Our sisters and brothers, Jesus in disguise, can no longer be simply petitions in our prayers but persons deserving of dignity, justice, and love.

So I invite you today to say yes. Like the disciples we have no idea what that will mean or where it will take us, but it’s central to Gods purpose for our lives. Maybe our eyes will be opened to something we can’t ignore, but wherever it takes us, we can be certain that the Spirit goes with us. Amen.

Sunday 12 March 2023

The Theologian at the Well- rethinking biblical women

Fun fact! Today’s gospel reading contains the longest conversation that Jesus has recorded with anyone, and it so happens that it’s with a woman, and it’s a theological chat! And it’s not in Luke, who’s our usual commentator when it comes to Jesus interacting with women. 

It feels entirely appropriate to have a woman front and centre this week when we marked International Women’s Day on the 8th March. This is often a day when women-led faith-based organisations lead services celebrating women of faith all over the world. 

65% of our Church of England congregations are female, yet only 28% of our paid clergy are now women and just 23% of senior leadership positions are held by us. When you look at the numbers of self-supporting ministers like myself and Caroline this figure jumps to around 50%.

Change we know is slow, and in the church of England it can at times be glacial. Attitudes to women for centuries have been shaped through the eyes and men, in particular the shaping of our ideas around who and what the women we encounter in the bible are. 

Whilst it might be surprising that Jesus’ longest theological conversation is with a woman, it may be less surprising that centuries of theologians and commentators have told us she’s an immoral women. They’ve been way more interested in her five husbands than Jesus ever was, but it fits the traditional narrative perfectly, and particularly in Lent where the focus is on penitence.

She even tells Jesus “erm, you know you shouldn’t be talking to me…right?” She’s a Samaritan, we know the Jews of this time aren’t fans. She’s a woman, we know a single man shouldn’t be talking to a lone women, and particularly at a well, that old testament meeting place which so often resulted in marriage.

Famously that happened at this well- and it’s still there, where Jacob met Rachel and love blossomed. 

So she’s a Samaritan, she’s out alone, she’s had five husbands – she must be immoral. It makes a much better story as we see her redemption after meeting Jesus.
History loves to make biblical women immoral, we hear that rather than being the mother of nations, Eve is Adam’s downfall, and rather than the likelihood of Mary Magdalene being one of Jesus’ monied benefactors, she’s a prostitute – with no biblical basis, because if a woman has sinned it has to come back to sexual sin. 

I think there’s something far more interesting going on in this story, remember this is the longest conversation Jesus has recorded in the Bible. Like so many of the men Jesus interacts with this woman is an outsider, that’s likely because of the circumstances around her multiple marriages but it’s highly unlikely that this situation was of her own making.

Husbands could abandon their wives for very tenuous reasons, women had no agency and no control. The only way for them to survive after abandonment was to have another man take responsibility for them. This woman is more likely a survivor of abandonment and widowhood. The fact that she’s visiting the well at the hottest part of the day, when most people are indoors or under shelter, means she’s actively avoiding meeting others. She’s been labelled and stigmatised but is just trying to go about her day with as little fuss as possible.

Alice Connor in her book about remarkable biblical women called Fierce describes the encounter like this:

She was the outcast and sometime theologian, proud, put together, and with the sheen of intelligence and sadness in her eyes.

He said to her, as men had said to women for centuries, “give me a drink” and he meant both “I’m thirsty” and “I know the old stories of Jacob and Moses at the well, and I know that question means marriage sometimes, but I really don’t mean that. Mostly.” And he meant “I know you have questions. Quench my thirst and I’ll quench yours.”

She jokes with him- how can you quench my thirst when you don’t even have a bucket? But she’s completely open with him and recognises he’s something special. She wants to get closer to God and asks about worship, Jesus tells her not to worry, worship is going to be blown wide open. 

The place won’t matter because the worship will be spirit-led and for all people, not just the chosen.

She’s amazed, the things he’s saying sound like the Messiah the prophet’s describe. Yeah, says Jesus…about that….

She’s amazed by him. He’s seen her. Really seen her, maybe for the first time in her life, and now, without the fear of being the outcast, forgetting she was there at midday to avoid everyone, she goes back to the town and tells them about the amazing rabbi she’s met, who maybe…just maybe…could be the Messiah. 

Now this is the miracle. They listen. They listen to the outcast, the woman, the five times married woman. Her passion and testimony makes them want to meet this man, and when they do, they too believe. How many of us can say our telling others about Jesus has brought others to Jesus and helped them to experience him for themselves? 

Now I’m not saying this as a criticism or to make us feel bad but maybe looking at this encounter with fresh eyes, not looking at the woman as a sinner in need of redemption, the story we’ve so often been fed, but as an amazing evangelist and disciple-maker. Maybe as part of our journey through Lent we can reflect upon Paul’s words and see how we can be more boastful in our faith.

Like the Hebrew people in the desert and the women at the well our world is thirsty for something that quenches more than momentary thirst. 

What is the good news we have to share about our faith? What keeps you coming here? 

I’m not expecting you to go and start shouting about Jesus in the middle of Urmston, but I think it would help us all to reflect upon why we’re here this morning. What keeps us being Christians, what is it about Jesus? Does he satisfy that thirst in us we’ve not been able to find anywhere else?

Why should we still come? I love Jesus, but I also love this community. When I first started coming here there were two things which kept me coming; strong female leadership and the importance and prominence of women within this parish. I have never once, as a member of the congregation or in ministry, within this community been made to feel I was ever less than because of my gender. 

The inter-generational support and bonds and work of the women within this community, alongside our brothers, you matter too guys, kept me coming. I could name so many of you but I won’t embarrass you, you know who you are, and there are as well the sisters who are no longer with us. Like the woman at the well you have shared your faith with me and inspired me to seek Jesus for myself.

So it's my job, our job, sisters and brothers, to keep that going, to share our passion and love for Jesus, to remember what quenched our thirst, and to keep being the woman at the well for the next generation. Amen.

Sunday 11 December 2022

Gaudete! Rejoice!

3rd Sunday of Advent, based upon readings: Isaiah 35.1-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11

Gaudete, gaudete Christos est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary: rejoice!

I won’t attempt the rest of the Latin but it translates as:

The time of grace has come, This that we have desired;
Verses of joy, Let us devoutly return.
God has become man, Nature marvelling;
The world has been renewed, By the reigning Christ.
The closed gate of Ezekiel is passed through;
Whence the light is born, Salvation is found.
Therefore let our gathering, ow sing in brightness
Let it give praise to the Lord: Greeting to our King.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the day we light a rose candle and not a more sombre purple one. It’s a counterpart to Laetare Sunday in Lent which you might have heard called Refreshment Sunday, or maybe more commonly Mothering Sunday. The Latin names come form the entrances which would have been sung on those Sundays at the start of the roman catholic mass. 

In Lent it’s a day where the fasting is relaxed, the same is true in Advent, and I guess would have made a lot more sense in to our forebears who would have celebrated a 40 day Advent, beginning after St Martin’s day on the 11th November. Our Orthodox siblings still observe this tradition, with Advent being marked from the 15th November. 

And I’m a big fan of a 40 day Advent, I think the 3 and a bit to 4 weeks that has become our tradition just isn’t enough to get your teeth into. And of course our Advent looks very different to how it would have been when these traditions first evolved. 

40 days to prepare our hearts and minds, 40 days of penitence and prayer. In the deep depths of winter. Cold, dark and austere. There really would have been a need for Gaudete; for the reminder of hope and promise of light and salvation, so close now, as we draw towards Christmas Day.

Our readings this morning are centred around this hope. When I first started to do work with the hospital chaplaincy, I was told the most important books of the bible when it comes to caring for people are Matthew and James, and we have both of those this morning, I’m always excited when that happens. Let’s start with the gospel; John the Baptist is locked in prison and after hearing reports of what Jesus has been up to, he asks the question I’m sure we must all ask when we experience difficulties in our lives, or see the suffering of others: “Are you the one who is to come”. 

Jesus is there, John has met and baptised him, been witness to the Spirit descending and the divine voice "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased". Jesus’ reply has echoes of Isaiah as he tells John: the things that were promised would reflect the coming of God’s kingdom are happening. 
Jesus gives hope to John’s disciples, telling them that even though no one greater than John has ever existed, in God’s kingdom everyone will be even greater. 

In the reading from James, the community are being advised to be patient, and are told what good waiting looks like; they’re reminded that waiting is not time wasted. When we’re waiting for Christmas or Easter we almost double down on our efforts, any extra focus we have on God through these seasons isn’t to merely pass the time, it’s to work on ourselves and our relationship with God. 

It’s the kind of waiting that helps us to look both inwards at the inner work we need to do but also outwards, to see how the changes in ourselves effect the way we see and interact with the world, hopefully leading to positive changes which benefit every part of our lives and help shape the communities we’re part of. This is the patient waiting James encourages, one which deepens our faith.

Finally, as the ultimate promise of hope, we have the Isaiah reading; a promise of what the kingdom of God on earth will look like. There’s that very jarring line “your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution” which frankly sounds terrifying, but then it’s followed by “he will come to save you” and we hear that divine retribution is so far beyond our human understanding; When God’s kingdom comes, the whole of creation will be healed and made holy. 

Our Advent is generally not as austere and penitential as in the past, there may not be the same need for Gaudete Sunday as a pause from Advent, but as we look around us there is still, I believe, a need to have days dedicated to joy and hope, and to remind us that just as God came to earth, God’s kingdom will come and heal all things, but also to remind us of the joy we have in waiting for that, because our job is to reflect the spirit and hope of the kingdom here and now. 

It's worth pointing out that the Isaiah reading is completely out of place with everything around it in the book of the prophet. The chapters either side are doom laden, filled with despair and devastation. The world is in a difficult place right now, and you or people you love may be suffering as a result; the cost of living is so high, there’s a war in a country not too far away and not too different from our own, and far right ideology is rising, you may feel there’s more hate than hope evident. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop of despair…but our work, as we patiently long for better days, is to stick out, like the Isaiah passage, to be the hope, healing and holiness rising above the despair.

Leonard Zander Vee writes:
Sometimes, like John, we wonder if the crucified Jesus is the one.
We thought maybe he’d make our lives easy, but he calls us to live more deeply.
We thought he’d erase our suffering, but we discovered him next to us in our pain.
We thought he’d put us on top, but he tells us to identify with those on the bottom.
We thought he’d make us strong, but he calls us to learn strength through our weakness.
We thought he’d destroy our enemies, but he asks us to love them.
We thought he’d make us leaders, but he invites us to be servants
Our God turns everything on its head, inverting all we think we know as humankind. What other narratives are there where God has been born defenceless, as one of God’s own people? Stories of god’s and divine beings are usually about strength and power, not weakness and vulnerability. But we believe in a God whose idea of vengeance is to heal all things and take away our pain.

The translation of the Gaudete I read earlier was from the popular song often sung in Advent or at Christmas. The entrance to the Latin mass would be more accurately be:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. 

If we believe in God, and in the Christ who came amongst us, and in the Spirit who resides within us there is always a spark of joy and hope to be found somewhere. So as we focus on that spark of hope, the flickering of our rose candle, Gaudete! Rejoice! Amen!