Sunday, 25 June 2017

Prayer and Rage?

Recently it seems as if the lectionary is bowling me some challenging text: it's just the way the preaching rota falls, of course! Yet, combined with the undercurrents of protest, political uncertainty and powerful acts of compassion within communities, the complexity of Scripture in speaking into that is accurately evident. Today's readings at the Eucharist were: Jeremiah 20:7-13; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39.  As human beings, events provoke strong reactions in us - including anger at injustice and events which are cataclysmic. How do we pay attention to that rage in prayer, action and deeper engagement with our communities and structures. After all, there is no 'us' and 'them' but only us. 

This is a personal grappling - it's not a definitive homiletic answer. As I wrestle with this, I am very grateful to a post by Mike Higton which named the discomfort around prayer versus rage.

One of the things which puzzled me was Jesus talk of proclaiming what we hear whispered and telling things in the light. At the back of my mind as I wrote this sermon as a series of Facebook threads in response to posts by Linda Woodhead about the report 'An Abuses of Faith', produced by the Independent Peter Ball Review. It painfully sets out how far short we have fallen in our institutional faithfulness to the Gospel. When authority colludes with the abuser, we have failed to hear the cries of the most vulnerable. Prayer and rage are responses which become the impetus for change.

On Wednesday, the hottest day of the year, hundreds of protestors marched from west London to Downing Street to protest in support of Grenfell Tower survivors: an event billed as a ‘day of rage’.

On Wednesday, the hottest day of the year, an impromptu prayer meeting was held at Kensington Temple to intercede for a city rocked by terror attacks and fire: an event billed as a ‘day of prayer’.

Both events were motivated by the devastating consequences of a ravaging fire, by anger and compassion.

Both events expressed fierce emotions in cries of lament, cries for justice, for change, and yes, of rage. 

In discussions on social media - and face to face - there was much discussion about the relationship between the two - and the appropriateness of ‘rage’. Some Christians came down on the side of ‘day of prayer’.  Others felt that we should be angry - and that now was time of going beyond heavenward piety towards practicing righteous or prophetic anger 

Is it such a stark dichotomy - directing our emotions to God, perhaps, rather than expressing them in a march along our streets?  Or is it a delicate balancing of both/and - of us learning to lament well, learning to acknowledge, and harness, the depth of anger without tipping into hatred?

Do we channel our emotions into prayer, express them in protest or explore how they go together? 

As Christians we need to pay deep attention to our emotions and reaction, to that which is provoked in us. 

When we face heart-break and grief, we might cry in despair: we express those things before God - but we also seek to console and be consoled.

When we receive wonderful news, something wells up within us; we want to talk about it, celebrate it, relish it; but we also give thanks to God. 

When we are elated, hurting, exhausted, fearful or joyful, we do something with those emotions: we act on them - and as Christians we bring them to God in prayer. 

Our prayer is a response to tragedy, part of our public witness; it also enables us to align our actions with God’s  will and purposes for us and for creation.  

If our faith has everything to do with justice - and the structuring of our society - then there is more for us to do in exploring how prayer relates to anger, prophecy to action.  As a friend of mine put it: ‘it’s complex. Anger is not the opposite of peace or love’. 

Each of us will know that we fight against things which hurts those we love. Today’s readings invite us to grapple with what that might mean.  They are honest and raw; hopeful and inspiring; demanding and reassuring. They are difficult. But they are also about love - in prayer and protest.

The laments of the psalms reveal brutal honesty before God; the passionate voices of the prophets cry name abuse and neglect. Those voices teach us to challenge the ways of the world - and to seek a kingdom of peace and mercy for widow, refugee and orphan. Those voices are full of love, prayer and rage -  they name oppression, self-seeking and the neglect of the commandments.  

When Jeremiah laments, he is angry with God - he’s become a laughing stock; he’s derided and mocked for the cries of his rage against those who exploit the poor and needy. It’s not popular. Even his close friends seem to be waiting for him to stumble.

The Prophet Jeremiah is a painting by Michelangelo

Yet he perseveres knowing that those who are against will not prevail; that the unrighteous will face shame not success. He hands over judgement to God - who knows our hearts and minds. His rage becomes a prayer of praise to the Lord: ‘For he has delivered the life of the needed from the hands of the evildoers.’

In Jesus Christ, God reaches out our broken and fragile world by dwelling with us. What we see in him is a refusal of revenge and the breaking of cycles of violence. And yet, we must be wary of smoothing out the challenge - the one who cast out the money changes and turned over tables - a radical and disruptive act - also breathed on his disciples at his resurrection, saying ‘peace be with you’.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes the cost of our witness to the love of God: a love which brings healing, and stands against injustice. It takes us to the heart of prayer and rage. We hear of fractured families, the reality of persecution and the challenge of being ‘like’ Christ Jesus our teacher in hostile conditions. And yet, in the midst of this prophetic lament, Jesus defuses our fear, saying: So have no fear of them; Do not fear; So do not be afraid.

Grappling with the text again this morning during our weekly time of Lectio Divina, drew out the complexity of a text full of challenge and paradox. What is it that we are called to proclaim and make known in the light? What does Jesus mean when he says, ‘I did not come to bring peace by a sword’?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer answers this by saying: ‘The cross is God’s sword on this earth. It creates division… all for the sake of God’s kingdom and its peace - that is the work of Christ on earth!’  Or as our opening hymn puts it:

Let in the light; all sin expose
to Christ, who life no darkness knows.
Before his cross for guidance kneel;
his light will judge and, judging heal.

On the cross, God’s love for people goes to the very depth of weakness, despair, sin and abandonment. Naming division, it destroys it; the challenge of the cross is that such peace demands a bigger vision.  

It is a love that shifts our focus from the priority of biological kinship to a more radical concern for the created order.  The Kingdom that has come near in Christ Jesus is one which challenges violence, abuse and exploitation - within church and society. 

It will cost us to love those who are broken-hearted, dispossessed and vulnerable as we work for a Kingdom where there is equity and dignity.  

It will cost us to love those who are in positions of power as we bring to the light abuses of authority; we proclaim a message of repentance, a radical change of heart and practice. 

It will cost us to articulate a vision for the NHS, taxation, Brexit and social care which protects the weak, fosters interdependence, encourages enterprise and condemns greed.

Prayer and rage can express this love: God’s love for all people is reflected in the cross and resurrection; it summons us to discipleship and life in its fullness - life not as possession, but as gift for our world.

Here in this Eucharist we are invited to name the things which assail us in the present, focusing our prayers and shaping our actions. Here we are drawn back to the memory of God’s faithfulness - recalling that we die and rise with Christ; knowing that we are no longer enslaved to sin - that we are to live in him.

When Paul writes to the Roman Christians in this way, this is both a powerful vision of the world being reconciled to Godself though his Son; it is also a compelling challenge to walk in newness of life.  Here in this Eucharist we glimpse God’s Kingdom and allow our future to be reimagined.

Do we stop praying and raging? No. For God’s love makes possible a confidence that drives out fear: the God who loves the sparrows - counts the hairs of our head. Sometimes confession our faith in Jesus will make us stand out; sometimes responding to the good news will disrupt our life.
The theologian Bill Cavanaugh writes: The church, as the body of Christ, is called to be an alternative to the atomisation of [US] society promoted by individualism, the market, and the state. As an alternative social body, the church realises the eucharistic imperative to be what we receive, to become the body of Christ and allow others to feed on us.’  

We are to be faithful to the task that God has given us - in prayers of raw lament, in acts of compassion, in understanding our rage and, in the power of the Spirit, directing it to build God’s Kingdom.

Awake and rise, like people renewed,
and with the Spirit’s power endued,
the light of life in us will glow,
and fruits of truth and goodness show.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Our beautiful world

I was preaching for Evensong at Guildford Cathedral this evening - 18 June. When I read the text last week, I wasn't sure what I could say. Since then, we've been confronted with the catastrophic fire in Kensington - and the desperate human need and the generosity of response. So often we try to be 'superhuman' in ways which are unrealistic - it's not for nothing that my sister has Franzmusik's 'Wonder Woman' as her ring tone for me - reminding us, quite bluntly, that 'your candle burns at both ends / and mostly in the middle... cause even Wonder Woman takes a break... and don't you know that it's OK / to take a rest some days'. The text were Samuel 21-1-15; Luke 11:14-28

I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place, but the closer you get the more you see the great darkness within.  

So says Diana Prince a.k.a Wonder Woman at the opening of one of this summer’s blockbuster superhero movies.

Somewhere - in the recesses of my mind, if not the pages of our family photo album - is a vivid image of me pretending to be Wonder Woman. The lasso was a skipping rope - the famous headband and cuffs a careful cut out of a replica from the back of a Weetabix packet.  Childhood memories led to midlife nostalgia in watching this film.

Diana Prince joins a motley band of flawed characters; she falls in love - perhaps that most bewildering and complex expression of desire, power and sacrifice.  As every comic book and cinematic superhero has done before her, Wonder Woman reveals her identity in her crimson and navy warrior dress. She goes it along; exhibiting feats of inexplicable strength, resilience and agility.

Restoring the cosy conviviality of village life is not the peaceable ending we think.  A super-heroine vanquishes super-villain - but this fiction is not salvation.  Scripture doesn’t collude with dualisms of goodies and baddies, of superheroes and super-villains. It speaks of beauty, darkness and the triumph of love.

In our first lesson, we are plunged into a drama about two complex characters Saul and David - about two men who ruled over Israel.  When God’s people wanted a king - to be like other nations - Samuel anointed Saul. Not only is he caught up in skirmishes with the Philistines, but he’s also plagued by jealously, paranoia and dramatic mood swings.  

David takes centre stage - the child-hero who slays Goliath with a shepherd’s slingshot; the talented musician who can calm the unpredictable Saul; the poor boy who defies death to claim a royal bride; the likeable youth who is held in deep affection by the Saul’s son and heir Jonathan. Jonathan cannot bring reconciliation between father and friend: David flees from court. 

Reading 1 Samuel charts something of the ‘great darkness’ within our beautiful world:  there is revenge, violence and deception. But it also charts something hopeful within human lives - the capacity to show mercy, encouragement and comfort. Here the fugitive hero receives from a priest protection and help in the guise of food and a means of defence.  Fear drives him to feign madness as a disguise. 

It would be easy to place onto David a form of hero-typology - he’s brave, attractive, successful, loyal, courageous and impulsive - a leader who refuses to return hatred to Saul.  We know too that his faithfulness to God wavers - with dire consequences. 

When he has established his own royal palace and looks to the stability of his own dynasty, he pursues his own desires with aggressive entitlement. He seduces Bathsheba - leading to spiral of adultery, deception, abuse of power and a successful plot to murder her husband. 

This gifted leader sees how far he has fallen and repents: he lives with the tensions of kingdom, throne and family. He’s a flawed hero - whose tears remind us that in the world of suffering and forgiven sin, it is God who remains faithful. God who can save. 

God sent his Son in this beautiful world. In Jesus we see not a superhero but the Word made flesh. He is the light that shines in the darkness - and the darkness has not, cannot, will not overcome it. 

That does not mean that there is no darkness: but it does mean that the darkness is not the ultimate reality.   In our second lesson we heard a text which points us to the depths to which God’s love reaches out to us - but also the nature of the kingdom which we are called to seek, find and participate in. 

Jesus the one who is the Word of God restores speech to one who was mute: such an act arouses not only amazement but opposition. There were those who had their own ideas about what kind of dramatic and heroic deeds constituted a sign from heaven. Jesus won’t play that game.

Instead he names the problem - speaking of the way in which division drives division - jealousy, suspicion, greed and selfishness breaks our bonds of kinship.  We see the great darkness deep within a world rich in beauty and resources.   That is our human propensity to mess things up; but in that place, God meets us in his Son and reveals God’s propensity to love.

Jesus loves in standing with the one who was a stranger, an outcast, who who could not express his identity in eloquent speeches. Jesus went to that place of isolation - to the one who was voiceless - and spoke words of grace, dignity and mercy. 

That is the sign of God’s kingdom: that even in the face of our deepest fears, fragmentations and pain, there is restoration.   

What we see Jesus in this episode expresses love on the margins, challenging power. It foreshadows his being with broken humanity as on the cross we hear his cries of forgiveness from the depths of agony; in the tomb, that love goes to the cold and silent depths of sin death; in resurrection the power of God’s life is uncontainable. 

Jesus presents us with a choice: to be with him, and to gather; or to be against him and to scatter?  Our choice is to fix our eyes on the light - and to participate in the ongoing transformation of the world. Then we bring light - we see the beauty and we push the darkness back.  

We saw that in One Love Manchester: when Justin Bieber, who has more Twitter followers than Justin Welby, said said I’m not letting go of hope, or love, or God.  We saw it when the Bishop of Southwark led a liturgy or re-hallowing or re-claiming the space of Borough Market. 

We see that when Britain remembers Jo Cox in neighbourhood get togethers which reflect that we have more in common than divides us. We see it when we refuse to allow poor public services to become public services for the poor. We will see it when 9 year old Alfie tells Graham,  Bishop of Kensington that he’s saved his pocket money for the people in Grenfell Tower. 

We will participate in it when we persist in responding to tragedy by running towards it rather walking away.  In gathering together, we scatter that darkness. God’s Kingdom is not brought near by superhero intervention; it is brought near my ordinary, courageous, compassionate and costly acts of love.  

It comes near when the voiceless find a voice; when power is dispersed in mutual service; when the vision for our community is bigger than the vision we have for ourselves. May the Holy Spirit stir up in us a passion to be with others as God in Christ Jesus was with us. 

God has saved our beautiful world.
Love dwelt with us, and the darkness did not over come it. 
The closer you get, the more you see light deep within.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Come, eat my bread

A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on the feast of Corpus Christi: Genesis 14:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 6 51-58.  The refrain ‘Come, eat my bread’ is a translation of Homo quidam by Thomas Tallis. Preaching on the Eucharist in the light of bread - what we waste, buy, lack and give - is particularly poignant in the light of the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower. 

Come, eat my bread - because everything is ready!

Toasted, it’s a breakfast staple. It’s the main component in a sandwich lunch.

Garlic bread, ciabatta, sourdough, rye: taken, broken and shared over dinner, perhaps with a word of grace.

Bread is the epitome of ordinary. But, from the days of Melchizedek, when combined with a glass of wine, bread is an expression of blessing, celebration, conviviality, peace and fellowship. 

Yet, in the face of this abundance,  32% of bread purchased in the UK is thrown away. That’s 4.4 million tonnes of edible food wasted as1000s queue at food banks. 

Bread is the stuff of painful paradoxes: we buy too much because we fear running out; but a cheap commodity is easily discarded.   The factory “white-sliced” competes with the artisan or homemade loaf for time, cost, energy, skill and taste.   

Is it that we’ve lost touch with the process of making bread? 

Have we lost respect for this ordinary, life-sustaining food?  

Do we squander this gift of creation and work of human hands?

Everything is ready.  Come,  eat my bread.

The bread we break tonight - this fusion of flour, kneading, resting and baking - is a sacred mystery.  We take ordinary bread so seriously, that through the power of the Spirit it becomes more than. More than material stuff - a gift of grace, of Christ’s presence with us - and in us.

Yes, this bread is blessed, broken and shared by human hands; Yes, this bread is placed into human hands to be touched, taken and eaten.  And yet, in this wonderful sacrament the King of kings has given himself to us for heavenly food.

On Maundy Thursday, we entered into the solemnity of betrayal, denial and death; tonight we enter with thanksgiving into the deep joy of Christ’s nearness to us and his promise to be with us for evermore.  

Every Eucharist is a repetition - but it’s never the same.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians reminding them of what he had received and passed on to them: that Jesus took the blessing and breaking of bread, and imbued it with a new reality. 

Even before those words were written down, Christians - followers of the way - had broken bread together. It’s not only a command ‘do this’ - it is relationship ‘this is my body, my blood’. It’s more than memorial, it’s proclamation. It’s not just what we hear, it’s who we are: ‘The body of Christ’.

Come, eat my bread and drink the wine I have mixed for you.

‘Was ever another command do obeyed?’, wrote the liturgist Gregory Dix. 

Today, in prisons, parishes, homes, hospitals, universities and refugee camps; at weddings and confirmations, at a death bed in hours of darkness and as rays of light breakthrough our Lady Chapel window. 

Over centuries in trenches, monasteries, slums, portacabins and palaces; in the face of persecution and influence, on the edges of the known world.  And Sunday by Sunday by unremarkable Sunday from Melbourne to Cairo, Beijing to Oslo, Guildford to Mexico City. 

Come, eat my bread.

This pattern of ‘non-identical repetition’ is like the continuity and difference in a Bach fugue or Jazz improvisation. The liturgical repetition ‘do this’ is just the beginning. This great feast of Corpus Christi directs our attention to Christ with us so that we might be sent out to be his body. 

Our communion with God and one another is renewed in this wonderful sacrament.  Heaven and earth touch; divisions cease; we glimpse the peace of God’s Kingdom. For a moment our alleluias resound with saints and angels.

This night we extend the moment of communion - my seconds, by minutes -  to ponder with reverence, praise and wonder ‘for with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to earth descended, our full homage to demand’.  But what we see, what we honour, is who we are. The Body of Christ.  

As we process with beauty and honour, with music and song, with rose petals and footsteps, we remember that Christ is with us - reigning over heaven and earth. That is our ultimate reality.  We reverence Christ’s nearness in ordinary bread, on steps looking out over the community. There we are challenged and inspired to walk in his steps, on this earth, as a pilgrim people. 

Yes, the profound mystery and wondrous reality is that ‘Word-made-flesh, true bread he taketh by his word his flesh to be’. But the equally profound and wondrous reality is that we have been grafted into Christ. By the power of his Spirit we are to both know within us and also show forth in our lives, the fruits of redemption. 

What that looks like has been demonstrated by St Clement's Church - and others - which have opened their doors in response to the fire at Grenfell Tower.  To those who have no bread, they said ‘come’.  ‘Come’ find refuge, breakfast, consolation; ‘come’ bring toiletries, clothes and food; ‘come’ pray, rest and know that you are not alone - in the immediate catastrophe and in the long term. 

In the power of the Spirit, may we too show forth God’d healing and reconciling love; may we too be with others as Christ is with us: in the mundane and in the crisis; in celebration and sorrow; in abundance and in need.

Jesus said, ‘I am the living bread’. The bread that he gave for the life of the world was his flesh.   

Come, eat that bread.
Everything is ready.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Sunday, 21 May 2017


A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral Evensong on  21 May: the readings were Zechariah 8:1-13 and Revelation 21:22-22:5.

Alleluia: Christ is risen!

Frocks and flowers; vintage cars and a village church; a designer dress for a society wedding; locals, journalists, celebrities and royalty: it seems that on the topic of #PippasWedding, both social and print media were in sync.

Wedding feasts feature in our scriptures as an image of God’s Kingdom - of the peaceable and joyful unity of earth and heaven, creation and Creator.  The excitement surrounding ‘the day’ touches on our human longing for faithfulness, intimacy, love; it delights in the orientation of our lives towards a future of blessing.

Blessing which is not just about ‘a couple’ or ‘their children’; but the stability of a household which enables generous hospitality. A wedding celebrates a marriage - a union of both radical exclusivity in fidelity and radical inclusivity in strengthen bonds of society.

We know, of course, that our human relationships are complex and fragile: we live amidst disagreement, the compulsions of self-interest, failing health; we face demands of work, the experience of loneliness, the harm done by coercion and abuse.

Being human embraces the tenderness of care for others - and the challenges, cost and strain of those acts of love. Being human embraces the reality of being cared for by others and the need for dignity in holding the memory of who we are.

If we scroll past photos of #PippasWedding and read beyond the front page of the newspaper, we confront the things which preoccupy editors and readers alike; the news weaves our individual cares and concerns into the uncertainty of our national life and global context.

We read of concerns for the wellbeing of the elderly and social care; concerns for the welfare of children in terms of nutrition and education.  There are stories about media bias and alternative facts; climate change, missile testing, asylum seekers and knife crime.

Words like 'tension', 'uproar', 'chaos', 'opportunism', 'feuds' and 'crisis' dominate headlines. Yet we also glimpse joy as some of the girls held captive in Nigeria are reunited with their families; and hope for reform in Iran as Rouhani wins a second term in an unexpected landslide.

How do we live wisely as disciples of Christ in the midst of uncertainty? Our readings offer us prophetic visions - words of hope and expectation of a world which will be renewed.  These are more than snappy slogans or dreams to anaesthetise us in the face of painful realities.

Both texts emerge in response to situations of great upheaval. For Zechariah it was return from exile, and the longing to rebuild the Temple; for John, it was the terror of persecution and a longing for heaven, when our Temple will be Godself.

The most used words in the main political parties’ 2017 manifestos suggest that they will ‘ensure’ that in ‘government’ they will ‘work’ to do ‘new’ things to ‘support’ the ‘people’. 

The words resonating through our texts, speak of that which is faithful and holy; of salvation, strength and peace; of blessing, light and life; of humanity sharing in love divine. The new thing for which we long - and which God will fulfil - is the healing of the nations.

Neither Zechariah nor Revelation tell us how to vote - whose manifesto to support.  But they do give us a set of measures to hold each and every earthly power and authority to account.  They do not speak of GDP or taxation - but they do express signs of a flourishing social order within the abundance of creation.  They do not speak of policy - but they do hold a vision of joy, peace, justice and flourishing by which policies can be judged.

For Zechariah, there is a deep longing for the centrality of worship of God: for us too, worship is time and space set apart to offer our petitions and thanksgivings, to seek forgiveness and receive blessing.  Worship redirects our attention to the light and love of God - restoring our vision for right relationship with others.

Can we enable old and young to live together in safety? Might we honour the wisdom of age and cherish the joyful playfulness of youth?  This drawing together of all peoples might seem impossible for us - with our competing loyalties and priorities, but it is not impossible for God.

But to be God’s people in faithfulness and righteousness strengthens us to work hard. It is a recalling to rebuild the place of worship on firm foundations; it is calling to ensure reward for labour, safety and harmony. This vision of the good life is reflected in the the fruitfulness of agricultural land. People are blessed to be a blessing to others - we cannot possess this goodness, rather it flows ever outwards and onwards.

Zechariah’s prophetic measures are vital for us: vital as we seek to establish interdependence between the generations, deploying our social and economic capital with equity; vital as we renew our bonds of culture, trade and diplomacy across Europe; vital as we seek a fruitful sustainability in agriculture, industry and environmental policy across our regions.

I will save you, says our Lord; I will bless you. Do not be afraid but let your hands be strong.

The Revelations of John stretch our imaginations with colour, sound, metaphor and symbol. He wants us to be inspired by the dazzling glory of God’s reconciling love.  William Harris gives musical voice to this imagining in setting the words of Edmund Spenser: For Faire is the heaven... how then can mortal tongue hope to express the image of such endlesse perfectnesse? We glimpse that love through a glass darkly - yet God is with us in Christ Jesus, breaking bonds of sin and death; God continues to abide with us by the power of the Spirit, breathing upon us the blessing of peace.

There is no temple in the heavenly city for then we will see God face to face: God dwells with us and we with God. God who creates, redeems and sustains us, gathers all the nations into this renewed creation. This is a vision of all being made new. All our longings are satisfied; all our griefs are healed.

We walk by the light of God - bringing with us all that reflects the divine honour and glory in us. The waters of life - bright as crystal - wash away all that is false. The tree of life is fruitful; its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

This is less a prediction that a hope made real; a hope which we are being exhorted to reflect in the world which we inhabit.  If God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, may we be a blessing to the world in which we live and move and have our being.

Blessing in how we treat employees, care for carers and the benefit we bring to our communities, and the careers we pursue. Blessing - by engaging with our MPs and in the choices we make about food, fuel and waste. Blessing - in all that this week holds. We are a new creation - in the power of the Spirit, may we reveal the light and love of God as Christ’s body here on earth.

© Julie Gittoes 2017