Sunday, 19 March 2017

Water, love and witness

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday 19th March: the texts were Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42. The narrative about the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favourite stories - full of intrigue and vulnerability.  Approaching it in the light of "The Woman of Lockerbie" added another dimension - particularly when set alongside Moses' leadership and Paul's vision of redemption. Water, love and witness flowed through the texts.

Water flows through today’s readings.

Water and love.

Love that reconciles.

Water that witnesses.

Witnesses to a love that heals. 

Our first reading gives us a glimpse into what that looks like in a gritty way: it’s an all too human scenario. People are tired, thirsty, irritable and quick to pick a quarrel. 

They’d been journeying by stages: a familiar routine of walking for many miles, pitching camp; some lighting fires, others seeking a water source. 

On this occasion, patience was wearing thin; the people wanted water immediately and their complaints escalate.  

Quarrelling over practicalities quickly became an expression of testing God’s faithfulness. 

As a leader, Moses cries out to the Lord with brutal honesty. 

He names the rising tensions which made him feel threatened; and in the face of his frustrations he takes responsibility - what am I to do with this people? And all this is couched in prayer.

Moses was a reluctant leader: perhaps that heightens his sense of dependance on God and on others in the fulfilment of the task entrusted to him. 

The answer to Moses’ lament is full of assurance: he’s reminded of God’s faithfulness from the flight from Egypt onwards. God will be with him - and will act through him.  

This time, he isn’t enabling escape through water, but the provision of water. And in all this he does not ‘go it alone’; he goes with the elders, with a company of wise and trusted people. 

Water flows. 

Water witnesses to God’s faithful love.

Love which heals tensions.

But the naming of place doesn’t gloss over the difficulties. 
Massah and Meribah:  Is the Lord among us or not?

That question takes us to the heart of human suffering. Last night’s performance of “The Women of Lockerbie” at Christ Church gave voice to that cry. A cry into the void created by atrocity. 

The grieving father, Bill Livingstone says: ‘If there is a God… and sometimes when I lie in bed at night I think that there isn’t… but if there is, he is absent from the world and pays no attention to the needs of men’.

This is a wilderness of a different sort: set 7 years after the Pan Am Flight 103 was brought down by a terrorist bomb, we’re drawn into the lives of those most immediately affected. 

The text encompasses the emotional, physical and physic trauma of grief; to see it enacted means taking time to hear cries of hope, despair, agony and determination. 

We wait with them for one night on a Scottish hillside when:
‘faith is hanging by a thread
ready to break
How easily faith is broken’.

Any yet water flows here too.

Those words were spoken by Olive, the leader of the laundry project; a project that sought the release of the clothes found at the crash site with a fierce patience. The washed, ironed and folded clothes and returned them to relatives whose grief filled the air. Why? 

So that they could: 
‘… give love to those who have suffered. 
So evil will not triumph’. 

Water flows in love.

Love that witnesses.

A witness that turns evil into love.

A love in which they could trust. 

Love was their answer to the ‘hate that had exploded over their town’, wreaking havoc their lives with wreckage. Water flowed into suffering. Resilience flowed from the release of emotions. Hate is turned to healing; grief to witness; darkness to light.  

Water flows. 

‘Let the washing begin…’ they say.

‘Hatred will not have the last word in Lockerbie.’

Water witnesses.

Love that reconciles. 

Water wells up.

At an ancient well, in the glare of the midday sun, we hear of living water.

Water offered, received and welling up.

John draws us into an encounter which is full of depth and intensity; vulnerability and disclosure. 

The Samaritan woman is part of a minority group. She was seen as spiritually ‘other,  politically powerless, and socially marginalised. Her identity was marked by fragmented relationships; by rejection, failure and fragile self-image. Alone, she goes to the well.

She needs water.

She longs for love.

She becomes a witness. 

‘Give me a drink’, say Jesus. He thirsts. He thirsts for God’s people to come together. He reaches out across the multiple divisions named by the woman herself. 

He asks for water.

He embodies love.

He brings reconciliation. 

We hear a conversation unfold: a relationship is created which restores trust, goodness and esteem. Perhaps as Jesus holds her gaze, shame becomes dignity. 

The Water of Life - Stephen Broadbent

Water drawn with a bucket. Thirst is quenched in practical compassion.

This is not enough: out attention shifts towards a deeper well. The wellspring of living water. Water with the power to sustain us. It’s an expression of everlasting life. It cannot be contained. Through the power of the Spirit it wells up in us. 

Jesus reveals that if we drink from the fountain of God’s love and compassion, we too become a source of love and compassion. He offers living water. He reveals himself as God with us: ‘I am he’ he says; I am the one is was and is and is to come. I am: the creator of all things, the Word made flesh, the life giving Spirit. 
The moment is disrupted by the disciples blundering in with their own preoccupations and questions. The moment breaks into a fresh movement of witness. ‘Come and see’ says the woman.

Her empty water jar is left behind because she is already living out of the deep well of living water. Her heart is full. She is desperate to share with others what she has received.

Water flows.

Love is revealed.

Witness wells up.

And what of us?

Like the people of Israel, we live with our own narratives of complaint: when projects take longer; when solutions aren’t obvious; when we lose sight of the original vision, or passion or motivation, when it feels as if disaster has struck. 

Yet like Moses, love must be expressed in personal prayer the wise leadership of a community.

Like the women of Lockerbie, we struggle with faith in suffering world: when grief makes its home with us; when the sudden disruption of death makes us howl; when hopelessness is met with kindness; when our love is wounded; when the intimate act of washing begins - of muddy kit, a soiled vest a much loved jumper. 

Yet for us too, hatred is denied the final word in creative and determined acts of trust and care.

Like the woman at the well, we experience hopes and concerns: when we feel excluded and ignored; when relationships are broken; when we get chance to explore the meaning of life and faith; when we discover our calling to love and witness. 

Yet each of us, as witnesses, become agents of reconciliation speaking joyfully of the life and forgiveness we’ve received. 

Water. Love. Witness. 

Like Paul, we are to speak of grace and faith; peace and glory. He speaks of suffering, endurance, character and hope - not to justify any form of human cruelty, hatred or violence, but to remind us that these to no have the last word. Love is the last word. Love revealed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; love which restores us, restores broken and sinful humanity.

Just as this sacred place is being transformed, may our lives also be transformed by the holy and healing Spirit. May we who’ve received new life in waters of baptism, witness to God restoring all things in Christ. May God bless our labours at home, amongst colleagues, in our communities.

Water flows through our readings today.

Water and love.

Reconciling love.

Loving witness.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Ten or 10,000 reasons

Matt Redman's song 10,000 Reasons occasionally becomes a bit of an ear worm for me: singing out words of blessing in response to God's love and goodness. Even on that day when our strength is failing - still our souls sings out ten thousand reasons to worship God's holy name.

Over recent weeks I've been pondering what makes the place where I worship day by day somewhere that speaks of blessing and song, goodness and love. This blog is 'a view from Stag Hill'; a view from a cathedral which looks out over a town; a cathedral on the level with The Mount; a cathedral looked down upon by the Surrey Hills.

It's a place rooted in the rhythm of daily prayer. The architect Sir Edward Maufe's design means that those prayers offered in a place of light and space, without ornamentation. Breath taking and awe inspiring; still generating a 'wow' factor despite the temporary scaffolding (which is itself a beautiful engineering feat!).  It is more than a light space; it is hub of activity. It's a place of prayer which hosts fosters relationship.

In 1963, the then Bishop of Guildford, George Reindorp, gave thanks that the newly consecrated cathedral had been 'prayed alive'; he gave thanks for the dignity, music and beauty of the worship. He also gave thanks because his hope for a cathedral as a lively centre of learning was being fulfilled. He talked about commuters and lectures, organ recitals and small group discussions.

He expressed a deep longing that the cathedral should belong to young and old, ordinand and bishop. He spoke of a mother church that was 'loving, warm, friendly and welcoming'. In the midst of his hopes fulfilled hopes and answered prayers, he spoke of not only human engagement, but also of being moved or touched by the Holy Spirit.


So, what of my hopes, prayers and aspiration? What are the things about my work here on Stag Hill which give me ten - or 10000 - reasons to praise God? Where are the blessings which reflect something of the love and goodness of God - both when our hearts are full of joy and when our strength is failing?

One: as a parish priest, I was moved by the way in which we gathered at times of celebration, grief and remembrance. My story was woven into the local stories, all held in the story of God's love for the world. At a cathedral, the same is true - albeit on a different scale. The cathedral is a place of commemoration on occasions such as the  WWI Vigil in 2014 as well as place where transition at achievement is rejoiced in - from university graduations to young enterprise awards.

Two: I am privileged to work with a team of exceptional musicians - our organists are amongst the best in the country - who teach and inspire young people. The choir has a repertoire which include the best of the choral tradition - from Bryd and Tallis to Herbert Howells and Tarik O'Regan.

Three: the cathedral stands next to the A3 - which might be a modern pilgrimage route! For some, it is a tourist destination as coaches turn off on route from London to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight; visitors enjoy tea, cake (a refreshment break!) and explore the building (and building restoration). For others, its a place of particular heritage interest - textiles, local history, archives and oral history.

Four: it is great fun to welcome hundreds of school children over the course of the year. Some will be taking part in season workshops during Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter - crafts, prayer and story telling. Others come for Sixth Form Question Time - to hear a panel of experts and leaders respond to their questions about ethics, politics and faith, and, in true QT style, to continue the conversation with their own views.

Five: cathedrals are places of solace; places where we can explore our curiosity. Guildford is no different. It's open every day: candles are lit; prayers offered; messages left. Some might want to sit quietly - valuing the serenity and anonymity; others might want to ask questions of the guides or join in the worship.

Six: The view from Stag Hill is a wonderful vantage point; the view from the tower (on a clear day) gives us a glimpse of London!  As I drive up the A31, walk up the hill or step off the train, the cathedral - with its golden angel - is also a marker of returning home. Perhaps I'm not alone in that - appreciating a regional 'marker' and a place of 'belonging'.

Seven:  Since arriving five years ago, the cathedral has embraced the arts. It's hosted an amazing range of concerts: from local choral societies to male voice choirs; orchestral work which has raised the roof;  children taking part in Surrey Get Vocal. The bright space and clear sight lines enables the cathedral to be an unique place to exhibit large scale art exhibitions. Chris Gollon told the story of the incarnation and women in the Bible afresh; or the bold canvases of Catherine Clancy took us on an spiritual journey from the dark night to resurrection hope. Local artists exhibiting their work here is a celebration of human creativity.

Eight: Cathedrals contribute to the local economy as an employer and by hosting a range of commercial events. That's true in Guildford too - from festivals to open air cinema, conferences and vintage fayres. It offers opportunities for volunteering as a guide or shop assistant for example. However, its contribution to social capital is also extensive - through a range of civic gatherings involving those of all faiths and beliefs.

Nine: Bishop Reindorp's vision of a cathedral as a place of learning is still true. That does include Lent Talks - this year's series is on 'Creation and New Creation' - but it also involves offering space for debate and learning on a range of issues in the public square. Over recent years, I've had the pleasure of hosting lectures on surveillance, human rights and freedom of speech; sustainable development, ethical decision making and care for farmed animals. 

Ten: The events that take place here whether in the Cathedral or in our marquee (aka 'canvas cathedral'), enable us to extend a welcome to all generations. Those in residential and nursing care come to enjoy a rich programme of coffee concerts; listening to jazz, arias, songs from musicals, classical music or rock choirs. Those who care for younger children enjoy family activity days - such as the forthcoming 'Mothering Saturday' event with the opportunity for crafts and creativity, card making and spiritual reflection. 

As the Theos Report Spiritual Capital puts it:

The present and future of English cathedrals lies particularly in their ability to enable and sustain a range of connections – between the tourist and the pilgrim; between people and the traditions from which modern life cuts them off; between the diverse organisations and communities that share the same social and physical space and infrastructure yet never meet; and between a people who may be less Christian than their parents but are no less spiritual, and the God who made, sustains, loves and hopes for them to join Him at His table [p. 62]. 

So, that's my 10 (or 10,000) reasons: what are yours?

© Julie Gittoes 2017 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Act faithfully

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday 12th February. The texts were: Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37. It was one of those sermons which involved struggle and hesitancy before the text - and in relation to life and witness of the church in our own generation. 

Having written a chapter for the collection of essays entitled Thinking Again About Marriage theology of marriage has been much on my mind. In view of discussions about marriage and sexuality in the run up to General Synod, what Jesus says about the nature of relationships is felt even more acutely. 

As we think about the 'goods of marriage' - and how we bless commitment and faithfulness - we must also have the courage to name and resist any form of abuse; to walk with the vulnerable and broken-hearted. What follows is concerned with recognising the challenge of an ethic rooted in who Jesus is - which is oriented towards fidelity and flourishing. This is mainly wrestling with text - and the cries our hearts. 

The musical She Loves Me has enjoyed an acclaimed revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory. In many ways, it is as sweet as the venue suggests: delightful witty and full of tender romance and old-school elegance.

Set in a parfumerie, it is a play that weaves together three separate love stories: George and Amalia moving from loathing, liking to loving - unaware that they are each others anonymous lonely hearts admirers; the beautiful and skittish Illona who’s seduced and betrayed time and time again; the faithful romantic, Mr Maraczek whose own marital misfortunes takes us beyond comedy to a place of crushing despair.

We can identify with these characters: loneliness, sexual attraction and the longing for companionship; disappointment, misunderstanding, betrayal; errors of judgement, moments of vulnerability, new beginnings.

All the risks and joys of being in relationship - as a couple, business partners, colleagues and friends - are revealed: there are moments of renewed resolved and changes of heart; words of truth are spoken and gestures of forgiveness embraced.  In this seemingly frivolous world of perfume, face cream and fancy soap - it seems that a seriousness about faithfulness and integrity triumphs over infidelity.

The call to act faithfully is at the heart of our worship: it is more than a moment of theatrical escapism.  In this place, we bring all that we are before God - our shortcomings and hurts, the things we’re thankful for and the burdens that weigh us down.

Honesty about our human nature - expressed in our collect as unruly wills and passions - is met  in worship with honesty about the nature of God. The one who created all things, identifies with us in Jesus Christ.

From infancy to his sermon on the mount, from the feeding of the 5000 to his entry into Jerusalem, from his death on the cross to the new life bursting from the tomb, we see the abundant love of God. We are to fix our hearts on this love - which sustains, challenges, heals and consoles.

That love still reaches out to us as we move through the acts and scenes of our liturgy - of gathering, confessing and being forgiven; of hearing and responding to God’s word; the cries of our hearts and our world are offered in prayer and the gift of peace is shared; broken bread and outpoured wine draw us into deeper communion. A communion of faithfulness.

In this drama, we are in Christ.  We are his body which is blessed and sent out - dispersed in into our homes, workplaces and communities in the power of the Spirit.

Through the lens of worship we hear Jesus’ teaching as good news.  For here, we receive grace to act faithfully - to love what God commands and to desire his promises.

Command and promise aren’t lived out it isolation - we live it together both in our worship and in our lives. We are to act faithfully in accord to a person; not a principle.  All that Jesus says is about relationships.

Relationships between friends and colleagues; about relationships of faithfulness and intimacy. The form of repetition stresses again and again that to love what God commands is a matter for the heart not just action.

Jesus sayings are hard. His illustrations sound extreme and bizarre. He stretches language, subverts complacency, reveals the demands of following him. He is describing a way of life, rooted in him; he invites us to take responsibility not just for our actions, but for our motivations. He is describing a community of hope and healing; humility and forgiveness.

As we confront the loving mercy of God in worship, we increase our capacity to reflect on our own emotional responses; to recognise and address our own anger and jealousy before it spills over to impact on others. If we are to be agents of reconciliation, let us seek to resolve grievances we have with others. Jesus deepens our understanding of these obligations.

Our calling as disciples is profoundly relational, not merely about dignity of our outward duties.  Our relationships ought to be means of honouring one another in the promises we make. There is a fundamental level of integrity which we are called to uphold - epitomised in truthful speech which does not need to hide behind oaths, but which is about keeping our word.

Jesus is primarily concerned with wholesome and flourishing human relationships - he’s alert to the impact of infidelity in the most intimate of relationships. But, says Jesus, look into your hearts: like anger, lust as a reaction, motivation or intent is also something to be kept in check. It opens us to exploitation, manipulation and potentially reduces others to objects of our unruly wills and passions.

In relation to marriage and divorce, Jesus words are about protecting the vulnerable and giving dignity to the dependent. Setting aside differences in social context, life expectancy and legal understandings of marriage, Jesus is being more radical than it sounds to our ears.

He is restoring - or introducing - a balance of power with the marriage relationship. He’s challenging the practice of dismissing wives lightly. Instead he allows space for the couple to enter into a mutual relationship between helpmates or companions. It's the calling of the church to extend this circle of blessing.

The goods of marriage - fidelity, shared endeavour, fruitfulness, stability, kindness, and care - are a cause of blessing; and a microcosm of the goods of life in Christ. Jesus’ words enable us to appropriately grieve for relationships which break down under the pressure of circumstances or disagreement, and to walk with the broken-hearted, extending hope of new life; his words call us to name exploitation, abuse and bullying - to have the courage to end such cycles and bring release; in him, we are to console the anxious and traumatised.

Jesus teaching flowing from the beatitudes calls us to a pattern of life:  together we learn to be a place of blessing - in worship, relationships and tasks. We share all that we are in a diverse community. Regardless of class, health or education, economic or relational status, gender, age or sexuality we are to act faithfully - choosing to fix our hearts on the call to love. As the body of Christ we affirm and encourage one another in that pattern of life.

Paul brings us back to the pragmatic working out of this: he asserts that we are to be guided by the Holy Spirit rather than living by the standards of the world.  And yet, the Corinthians, like us, get caught up in their own quarrels and jealousies; they follow their human inclinations in asserting rival loyalties.

We are to heed his advice too: recognising that we are all servants of God, with particular responsibilities within a common purpose. Paul doesn’t invoke personal authority or individual talent; there is no manipulation or coercion of others. Instead he speaks of nourishing one another - recognising that we work together with the free agency of others in love; trusting God for our growth.

May we choose to keep the commandments of love; may we desire God’s promises; in the drama of our lives, may we be serious about faithfulness and integrity.  Receiving the bread of life in this Eucharist, we are nourished in faith and love by Christ; we receive his grace that we might be Spirit led, breath by breath, as people of blessing and healing.  Amen.

© Julie Gittoes 2017