Sunday, 27 November 2016

The One who is to come

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on Advent Sunday. The texts were: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-end; Matthew 24:36-44. It was one of those sermons which didn't seem to settle... the more I grappled with it and as I pondered the texted, it felt more mysterious and paradoxical. Our meeting for lectio before the service helped hugely - and I owe to Donald and Canon Andrew insights about beginning at the end and the consummation of love. Reading texts together is a powerful gift of time, attention and meaning; a good habit of Advent! Ultimately, words of a prayer attributed to St Augustine acted as a pulse to the sermon - Jesus, the one who was and is and is to come.

Lord Jesus our Saviour, the One who is to come, we come to you now.

At this time of year, Black Friday has become a discomforting feature of retail trends.

Let’s name it as it is: something that plays to dark instincts of greed. It takes its place alongside other gloom-ridden, quasi-apocalyptic days.

Black Thursday: the first day of stock market crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression.

Black Wednesday: Britain’s departure for the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.

Black Friday: the US import marking a day of frenzied discounted consumption; unplanned spending and bargain hunting; marketing hype, impulse buys and debt.

Some independent bookstores have chosen to shun to Black Friday; instead they embraced Civilised Saturday. For bibliophiles, it promises a more restful shopping experience with the added value of knowledgeable staff and special events.

We too are to dispel the darkness of Black Friday.  At the dawning of a new year, we are to embrace a live giving alternative.

At Advent, we begin at the end: we begin with the consummation of a promise in love.

Because love wins, we are called to a pattern of life which expresses gratitude rather than greed.

To begin at the end demands a change of heart; a shift in our attention towards God.

In Advent are invited to be.

To be still. To watch. To wait.

Lord Jesus our Saviour, the One who is to come, we come to you now.

It would be understandable if on Advent Sunday we focused on political upheavals at home or abroad.  2016 has been marked by significant questions of truth, expertise, popularism and identity.

We live in times dominated by uprisings, terror, war, and rumours of war; we hear of famines, earthquakes and a changing climate. No wonder such events are read as ‘signs of the end times’.

To watch and wait might seem counter intuitive.

When events are alarming, unpredictable and destabilising, there is a time to lament and protest - our psalms and prayers give voice to that.  But Jesus calls us to a spirit of watchfulness which resists false expectations, which rests in the assurance that God will come.

Jesus urges us to be awake. To be attentive to God.

In the face of global disruption, we are challenged to look into our own hearts.

That’s why Advent is so alarming.

Are we ready? Have we prepared ourselves? Will we be caught unawares?

We confront the reality of the breaking in of God’s love: the Alpha and Omega, who was and is and is to come.

We pray with St Augustine:
Lord Jesus our Saviour, the One who is to come, we come to you now.

We come to Jesus in the hope that he’ll rouse us from sleep: that our hearts might be directed to God in worship; that the Spirit might kindle in our hearts the fire of love; that our wills and desires might be directed to ways of peace.

We know not the hour of our own death nor the time of Christ’s return. Yet Paul does not despair as if we are living in uncertainty. Rather it’s the opposite; life has a greater clarity and meaning and purpose.  Jesus came to us in humility; he will come again in glory. In baptism, are caught up in that process of transformation. Christ brings the ultimate regime change from darkness to light; from night to day.

If we are alert to the nearness of God, we live in his light. To live in light means that we lay aside the stuff of Black Friday: the need to gratify temporal desires; jealously, quarrelling and the revelling are distractions.

The alternative is to walk in the light of the Lord: the hope of the prophet Isaiah has been fulfilled; live that reality.

As we open doors on our Advent Calendar, we are intentionally making space for God. As we walk in the light, pray that we might act with wisdom, embody hope and be alert to love.  That is certainly the aim of our cathedral calendar - inviting us to hear and respond to God’s story as we wait.

We continue to pray:  Lord Jesus our Saviour, the One who is to come, we come to you now.

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel both alarm us and give us hope. The task of disciple is to live by faith - that means refusing to live by fear and embracing life lived in loving obedience to God. Just like Isaiah and Paul, we are in this for the long haul.  We are to embody the love of God. By witnessing, in the power of the Spirit, to that love made manifest in the humility of Jesus.

But what of Jesus’ words about division, separation and the brutal disruption of daily life?

Jesus uses dramatic and apocalyptic language to convey the urgency of the situation and the demands of the challenge he presents to us.  We are called to be ready and prepared; we do not know how much time is left to us here on earth. We are to use the time that we have to an active waiting on God, which makes hope possible.

All this is summed up in the imperative: keep awake!

The Eucharist in which we share, restores our hope in God’s kingdom. We hear of God’s work of creation and redemption; of love which patiently reaches out to us in love. Here we come to the one who is to come; here we lament and repent; here we are forgiven and sent out.

Here receive what we are, and become what we receive: the Body of Christ. And bodies live and move and breath and act in the world.  We are a body called to both hope and patience - in world which is often devoid of the former and which has no time for the latter.

As the Body of Christ, our lives are woven into the world in the ordinary and complex negotiations of our common life. Like the prophets, we are to be alert to the signs of the kingdom.

Living with hope and patience is to walk in the light: it is to keep our eyes fixed on God and to practice his acts of mercy. We are to show loving kindness and extend hospitality; in so doing we become a sign of God’s kingdom, walking in Jesus steps.

Lord Jesus our Saviour, the One who is to come, we come to you now.
Our hearts are cold; Lord, warm them by your selfless love.
Our hearts are sinful; cleanse them with your precious blood.
Our hearts are weak; strengthen them with your joyous Spirit.
Our hearts are empty; fill them with your divine presence.
Come, Emmanuel: enter our lives, possess them always and only for yourself.

© Julie  Gittoes 2016 

Monday, 14 November 2016

In turbulent times

This is a sermon preached at Evensong on Remembrance Sunday: the texts were Daniel 6 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.  As I thought about Daniel's faithfulness in prayer, I also called to mind words by Leonard Cohen: 'prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered'.  So much of that language we share with Daniel and with our Lord Jesus Christ in the words of the psalms. That thought resonated during Evensong, if if I didn't preach on it!  And, as Cohen so famously sang, 'And even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the lord of song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.'  

With a budget of £100 million, it's hardly surprising that the adjective 'lavish' is by almost every reviewer to describe The Crown: the New York Times describes the ten part series as 'an orgy of sumptuous scenes and rich performances'.

And yet, there's a fragility, edginess and humanity in every scene. Queen Mary bluntly tells her granddaughter: while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else. Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person. Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the Crown must win. Must always win'.

There are conflicts between instinct and impartiality; marriage vows and coronation oaths; promises made to a sister and commitment to the church; the business of government and ensuring good governance. It's a world where too much character, personality and knowledge are seen as dangerous.

An ordinary, modest young woman is anointed queen and is adorned as a goddess; or in the bitter words on the lips of the Duke of Windsor: 'we are half-people. Ripped from the pages of some bizarre mythology, the two sides within us, human and crown engaged in a fearful civil war, which never ends. And which blights our every human transaction as brother, husband, sister, wife, mother'.

As the director Stephen Daldry says: 'it's not just the story of a family, it's the story of post-War Britain'. The glamour and possibility of this new Elizabethan age is fraught with catastrophe. Hospitals are at breaking point as a result of the smog; rationing is ongoing; the impact of the abdication looms large; post-War becomes Cold War; the Suez Canal brings crisis and controversy; both Churchill and Eden face loss of power and loss of heath.

Untimely elevation to high office vies with thwarted personal ambition; devotion to public service tests other human loves and loyalties.  What we thought were stable political realities jolt and shift like tectonic plates. We talk of metropolitan elites and those left behind; of experts and popular opinion; the will of the people and parliamentary representation.

This isn't just the stuff of The Crown - in reality or in lavish drama. It's the world as we know and experience it, locally, nationally and internationally.

This isn't just the stuff of Brexit and President-elect Trump. It permeates the life of the church as we grapple with authority, influence and faith in the public square.

This isn't just the stuff of 1918, 1947 and 2016.  It's also the stuff of the Book of Daniel.

The story of the lions' den is more than a dramatic imaginative tale; it takes to the heart of the questions of our time. Questions for church, state and for each on of us as disciples of Christ.

How do we seek stability and God's peaceable kingdom in the mess and compromise of life?

How, in the responsibilities entrusted to us, do we live with integrity and faithfulness as people called by God?

Daniel's working within a system designed to ensure stability - and the security of the king. His service is distinguished by his excellent spirit. His brilliance was a threat to others; his promotion aroused suspicion of corruption. He led a life which was consistent and centred on God; that very steadfastness becomes a means to ensnare him.

An irrevocable ordinance signed by the king would not disrupt his pattern of prayer. When human authority was elevated to serve as an idol, he prayed. Regularly, openly and faithfully. In the mess of life, that is where we find mercy.

In the face of uncertainty, our laments, petitions, and hopes are uttered on our knees; they rise like incense to our heavenly Father. As Daniel found, praying is the most risky thing we can do.  It changes us as we discern God's will and purpose for us; it changes the world as we, in Christ, commit ourselves afresh to love and service.

We hear of Daniel's fate through the words of a narrator attuned to the reaction of King Darius: he faces the implications of human attempts to manipulate and flatter.  Vanity turns to distress. As the ink dries on the page, his own signature leads to condemnation rather than rescue.  And yet, in fasting and sleeplessness he speaks of human faithfulness to God and of God's ability to deliver.  Against all the odds, the blameless is unharmed; the accusers are overpowered.

In turbulent times, we justice, peace and stability can seem like a mirage.
It is then that we need to be both steadfast and prophetic in making it real.

In turbulent times, prayer is the anchor of hope.
It is then, we need that anchor more than ever.

In turbulent times, we pray without ceasing.
It is then that our Remembrance is held in God .

President Obama has frequently quoted Martin Luther King's remark that 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice'. We speak of the arc of God's kingdom. A kingdom of justice and equity which we only glimpse in our fragile earthly polity.  In Jesus, that kingdom has come near; in his life, death and resurrection, he reveals the end of the story - that love wins. In his own teaching, he uses parables to explain how we are to live in the light of that truth.

So in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus isn't offering advice about how to sow seed effectively. Instead it is explained as a description of the impact of the proclamation of God's kingdom. We are good soil - we are in Christ. And yet, we too are subject to the cares of the world; the lure of prosperity chokes us; the cost of love disillusions us; the fear of lost status hardens authority.

Sower: Vincent van Gogh

In the face of those pressures, the Gospel is more than a story to give our lives meaning; it is to illumine our imaginations with new possibilities. In joy, sorrow or temptation, we are to seek God's mercy in prayer. Only then perhaps, we will act in the world as we should: for we cannot act on behalf of the marginalised if we ourselves are possessed by possessions; we cannot challenge the powerful if we ourselves are enslaved by a desire for power; we cannot serve the vulnerable if we ourselves mask of our own weakness.

For we are called to walk as disciples of Christ, the one in whom love divine  was made perfect in human weakness.

In a turbulent world we are to articulate a vision of God's loving mercy as we exercise the responsibilities entrusted to us. We do that, because in Jesus we see and hear God's 'yes' to us and all creation. May the Spirit strengthen us as we embody with integrity a narrative of fruitful, fearless and forgiving love. May God's radiance bright illumine our us and our world; may those bright beams refracted in us bring hope and joy; transforming church and transforming lives.

 © Julie  Gittoes 2016

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Walking with Mary, from Magdala

Selwyn College, Cambridge is marking the 40th anniversary of women being admitted to read for degrees - including a sermon series on hearing women's voices from Scripture, through the lens of female preachers. It was a delight to be back in a place which was so formative for me as an ordinand and research student; it gave me pause for thought too, as 1976 was also the year of my birth!  I took Mary Magdalene as my chosen woman - drawing on the texts 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 and John 20:1-2, 1-18. Who is this Mary? In liberating her from our preoccupations with power and sex, might we rediscover a courageous and passionate woman who walked with Jesus? Might we walk with her from Galilee to Jerusalem, cross to tomb - walking into a life and light, letting go and discovering our calling?

Jesus said to her, 'Mary!'

Mary Magdalene: a woman so explicitly called and known by name; and yet a woman whose identity has often been shaped by our own preoccupations with power and sexuality; a woman whose own story has been conflated with nameless women; yet we remember her. The fragrance of ointment; the outpouring of tears; penitence, faith and peace. She's more than a feminist icon; she is a witness to the good news of reconciling love. Yet, myth, fantasy and speculation obscure that calling.

In the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown reduces Mary Magdalene to the matriarch carrying Jesus' secret blood-line. In Scorese's film The Last Temptation of Christ, we see her as the embodiment of the power sexual desire.  In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, we glimpse a woman enthralled by Jesus; confused by the intensity of her passion and spiritual longing. She sings: I don't know how to love him... I've had so many men before.

Lady Gaga: Judas 

For Lady Gaga, Mary Magdalene is a woman in love with a man who betrayed her.  As the video for Judas opens, Jesus and the disciples roar into town on motorbikes; Gaga's Mary narrates her story: In the most biblical sense, I am beyond repentance, Fame hooker, prostitute wench... She's a holy fool. She wants to love Jesus. She's torn between her demons and her virtue.  And as waves break over her in slow motion, we hear the trickle of water poured over Jesus' feet, and over Judas' too.

Lady Gaga is a woman who has had tremendous success and courted controversy; her identity has been formed by Christian imagination and she talks about her fears of being ensnared by past choices; she's the epitome of re-invention, provocation and fluid self-expression, with an affinity to those who feel marginalised.  Why is she drawn to Mary, from a small village called Magdala? Is it because her story expresses a deeper longing for healing and hope?

In her words, the song, Judas is: 'a metaphor and an analogy about forgiveness and betrayal and things that haunt you in your life and how I believe that it's the darkness in your life that ultimately shines and illuminates the greater light that you have upon you... the song is about forgiving the demons from your past in order to move into the greatness of your future'.

Certainly, Mary Magdalene knows forgiveness. The greatness of her future refuses to be constrained by our interpretations.  When we reduce her to the archetype of dangerous seduction and sexual impropriety,  we discredit and disempower her.  Instead, her greatness, her future is in coming to the light of Christ and finding healing, wholeness and renewed purpose. 

Let's not elevate her to a role model of unobtainable piety or courage; for if we do, we miss the shadows of her fears and longing which echo ours.

It's her authenticity which is compelling: emotional intensity and faithfulness; mental anguish and deep conviction; a depth of love Jesus and a recognition of who he is, that in him God's love is made manifest. Yes, she sheds tears and pours out her heart; yes, she lets go of her own demons and allows forgiveness to fill her heart.

She walks. She walks with the one who is God with us - all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem.  And there she waits in agony at the cross and in sorrow at the tomb.   In exhaustion and grief, she has been utterly spent in love. 

 Mary Magdalene 
Chris Gollon

We can identify with Mary in a moment of heartbreak. Death wreaks havoc with our lives: the physical loss unleashes a rawness of emotion; grief silences us and yet cries out; relationships are disrupted; together we share stories; alone we crave intimacy.

Mary stands before an empty tomb and describes what she sees; what she fears and thinks she knows. Her words unleash in Peter and John fear and confusion - they run. They run away from her; they run to the tomb. There they find insight and bewilderment.

Mary doesn't run. She stands alone. Weeping

When questioned a second time, she repeats her conviction. This is death. This is emptiness.

Supposing her questioner to be a gardener, she meets his whys with her own ifs.

And into that space, that silence, is spoken one word:


Named. Found. Recognised. Known.


An instinct as powerful as grief overwhelms her.
In love she wants to reach out; to hold and be held.

It's such a human moment!

But the one she loves says: Do not cling on to me.

One of the reasons I think this story so affects me is that I recall hugging my father the night before major surgery and he said ‘dont hold on to me too tightly, Ju. And I thought how absurd because I wasnt. Not physically.

But perhaps he had a better grasp of letting go than I did.  His human fatherly love was intensely real. Yet in the face of mortality, he could let go. He trusted in love divine in which we live and move and have our being; which meant for him death was the beginning of life, not the ending of love.

Embracing new life means letting go. It's a something that we all need to learn; and perhaps Mary can teach us how.  More than that, she points us to the risen Lord who loves us from loss to life, sorrow to peace.

In her grief, she is called by name; in her letting go she is sent. 

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen (Noli me Tangere)
Graham Sutherland

She cannot cling on to her risen Lord; but she continues to walk in his light.

She is called to walk further than she imagined. To walk from despair to hope; to continue to love and live.  More abundantly; more intensely; more lightly.  It's a profoundly sacramental pattern of life; all that we are can become a means of grace and hope and good news to others.   She goes to her brothers to face their needs and expectations with  the words 'I have seen the Lord'. 

This woman, this Mary, is the passionate, committed, intense and faithful witness to resurrection. Her pain, tears, honesty and longing are gathered up in this moment. She shows us how to live, moment by moment. She embodies the conviction we hear in Corinthians: the love of Christ which urges us on; the death that overcomes death; risen life lived for others; the liberation of not being regarded from a human point of view.

We are a new creation. In the power of the Spirit, may we, like Mary, witness to the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus. Love that forgives the past; love that transforms the present; love that enlightens hearts, minds; love that brings the life that is life. 

 © 2016 Julie Gittoes

In the course of preparing for this sermon, a friend mentioned the icon of Mary Magdalene at Grace Cathedral (in the image below):
You can read more about the artist's story and the legend behind the image here It's a story which recognises her social standing, her conviction about justice and her ongoing witness to the power of Jesus' risen life.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

A cinematic parable

A sermon preached at Mattins at Guildford Cathedral on 23 October, which marked the celebration of our Cathedral Singers' 30 anniversary.  Philip Moore composed a setting of Jubilate Deo for the occaision. The texts were Isaiah 59:9-20; Luke 14:1-14. Although this was a (rightly) joyous occaision, I couldn't overlook the parallels and challenges of Jesus' parables and Ken Loach's film I, Daniel Blake.

Today we gather in the house of the Lord with gladness: praising God, giving thanks for our Cathedral Singers, for the dedication and enthusiasm of successive generations of musicians; in their singing of the Te Deum, we hear praise the God of our redemption, and pray for grace and mercy; after this service we will celebrate with them in hospitality and fellowship. However, first we pay attention, together, to the parables of social life lived before God which Jesus sets before us.

Ken Loach has been described by the film critic Peter Bradshaw as 'the John Bunyan of cinema; a bringer of parables'.  In  I, Daniel Blake he returns to a narrative of 'social outrage'; a parable of power and kindness of bureaucracy and dignity. Daniel Blake is witty and wise; a respected tradesman, proud of his craft; he's honest and resilient, making no attempt to play the system.

A heart attack leaves Dan caught between following the advice of his consultant that he cannot return to work yet; and the judgements made by so-called 'medical practitioners' and the remote 'Decision Maker' which deem him fit for work. As walk with him, we too long for the justice and righteousness and truth which echoes throughout Isaiah's plea to God.

We watch Dan, who is 'pencil by default', navigate a world which is 'digital by default'.  Like Bunyan's pilgrim Christian, Dan faces his own 'Slough of Despond': doubts, fears, temptations and guilt and shame. He tries to maintain his dignity and honesty in the face of a system of punitive sanctions. When he's forced to sell furniture and carpets to pay a final electricity demand, he keeps his tools; he hopes he'll get back to his trade.

As with Pilgrim's Progress, Dan meets characters like Hopeful, Ignorance and Little Faith along the way: those who exploit and demean; those with entrepreneurial flare; those who reveal a depth of compassion in ordinary things: in libraries, supermarkets, job centres, food banks and building sites. We wonder if his appeal will be heard - a glimpse, perhaps, of the Celestial City on earth.

Loach paints dignity and shame and humanity in vivid colours: there's an uncompromising seriousness about what he wants to say.  Like the prophet, he rages against oppression and the uttering of falsehood: We roar all like bears, and mourn sore like doves. There are parallels with the way in which Luke recounts Jesus' parables. He tells us of crafty stewards, harsh masters, unjust judges and persistent widows; of proud religious leaders and humble tax collectors; of the rich man and Lazarus.

Today we are drawn into a set of socially subversive parables about community, conduct and generosity. Jesus is under scrutiny - those in positions of power are watching him. He goes to eat a meal - and in the face of the silence of his host and guests - he brings healing. He restores the marginalised to community. In that moment he reveals that we cannot add value to people; rather we are to treat them as being valuable. God made us with intrinsic worth.

God gives us value: yet worldly dynamics of power undercuts that with questions of who we count as the 'deserving' poor. Even within the realm of hospitality Jesus is aware of our human desire to 'get on' to be viewed in the 'right way'; of our pride and ambition; our concern for status and false humility.  Jesus' teaching recognises that our that fear of social embarrassment or disgrace can motivate us to do the right thing. If we raise ourselves up, we will be humbled; the humble will be honoured.

In these parables, he invites us to consider our conduct and to extend our vision of community.  Jesus breaks open the closed circles of reciprocal invitations which are as deeply engrained in our own social conventions as they were 2000 years ago. He shatters a pattern reliant on wealth, aspiration, obligations and the people we like.  If we affirm that relationships of mutual affection and friendship are part of our common life; here, Jesus is taking what we know, value and understand and inviting us to stretch our habits of hospitality.

At our public lecture on Thursday night, Dr Margaret Adam reminded us that food and meals can become the means of powerful ethical choices. It's precisely the ordinariness of eating that enables it to be a conduit of grace. Those moments exist when we invite those who cannot or would not offer us what the Authorised Version calls recompense, what we might call payment, by inviting us back.

Those moments exist, when we offer a sandwich to a person who is hungry; when our donation to a food bank enables others to be fed, or allows them the dignity of sanitary products; those moments exist when we sit with someone on the fringes, when we take risks in relationship: welcoming the one who is not yet a friend, but who is our kin, valued by God. That circle is kept open, deliberately, when children who've endured more than we can imagine arrive to take refuge.

I, Daniel Blake takes us to the heart of graced hospitality. When Dan meets Katie, he sees beyond his own circumstances to befriend her in vulnerability; to become to her children Daisy and Dylan reassuring quasi-grandfather. When she's sanctioned, he buys some food. He dignifies her by eating what she offers, knowing the cost of that to her.

He walks with her to the food bank; he comforts her and gives value when her desperation is humiliating. He cooks for the family knowing they can't afford to entertain him. There is no recompenses or repayment; but there is relationship and mutual love, value and dignity; in his isolation and illness, it's the ten year old Daisy who hammers at the door, who won't walk away; who brings him couscous she's made.

At the end of his review, Bradshaw quotes a line from Dickens' Bleak House: 'what the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God'.  If Loach's cinematic parable has expanded that knowledge, then our worship restores of vision of God's will for us and what is demanded of us.

Our longing for God's kingdom resounds through all that we say and sing and pray; we rejoice in God's forgiveness and loving-kindness; we come into the house of the Lord with gladness; we seek after peace and plenteousness. In the words of the Jubilate Deo, composed by Philip Moore for this occasion: 'the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth from generation to generation'. In that mercy, grace and truth  we are sent out in his Spirit, to witness to and embody God's love made manifest in Jesus Christ.

© Julie Gittoes 2016

Monday, 17 October 2016

Grant justice

A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on justice and prayer. The texts were 2 Tim 3:14-4:5 and Luke 18:1-8. Parables open up an imaginative space which can disrupt our assumptions and deepen our understanding about what it is to follow Christ. The parable that Jesus tells about an unjust judge and a persistent widow says something about prayer - but perhaps it also challenges us to think about how we enact the call to justice in our lives.

Grant me justice against my opponent.

The widow in the parable that Jesus tells, takes us to the heart of human longing for justice.

That desire was played out in The Archers: when after three years of increasing tension, Helen Tichener received the not guilty verdict we'd been waiting for.  Whether you're a fan or not, the nation was gripped by a story which highlighted the with chilling accuracy the impact of domestic abuse and coercive on control real life Helens.  

There was a feeling of sheer relief that the judge and jury recognised Helen as a survivor of serious and sustained abuse at the hands of a manipulative man who chipped away at her self-esteem, undermining her identity and free agency as a human being, subjecting her to physical harm.

Grant me justice, said the widow.

That desire was played out in a powerful speech by the First Lady of the United States. Michelle Obama is a skilled orator with a passion for justice. In a week where a powerful man defended his attitude towards women as banter, she recounted the experience of girls facing obstacles to attend school; knowing some had jeopardized their personal safety and freedom, that others faced rejection by families and communities, she wanted to tell them that they were valuable and precious.

Her words went viral. She said: 'I wanted them to understand that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls. And I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and that they should make their voices heard in the world'.
Grant me justice, said the widow; grant justice for the weakest and the most vulnerable; grant justice to those who aren't accorded human dignity because of their age, gender, health, capacity, sexuality, ethnicity or socio-economic status.

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?

Justice is at the heart of this quirky parable framed on by our need to persevere in prayer; and on the other, by a challenging question about finding faith on earth.

It might seem that it is simply a call to a sort of spiritual 'pester power' in relation to God.

We're told that the judge has no respect for people; that he has no fear or love of God either. He has no sense of responsibility to those on the biblical 'at risk' register if you like: the widows, orphans and others who have a special claim to justice and protection because of they are without security or patronage in society.

We aren't told the nature of the widow's case: her relentless perseverance and determination perhaps belying a desperate need for a wrong to be put right; for justice to transform her material situation and place in society.

If a terrible judge can do what is right to rid himself of person he sees as a nuisance and irritant a waste of his time, how much more will God hear the pleas of those who cry out. So is this parable in part an encouragement to persevere in prayer - for ourselves, for others, for our world - to be relentless is our pursuit of justice? Is it a call to prayer that is urgent, passionate and focused on those who are marginalized?
And yet, there's a niggle which might make this parable even more challenging to us as disciples. 

In our gathering for lectio divina this morning, something of the fresh insight broke in:  finding assurance in offering the cries of our heart to God, however inarticulate or hesitant;  waiting on God and discerning his will for us.  What is Jesus saying to us today? What is he revealing of his love and justice?

Perhaps we can go beyond seeing God as a bigger, better more just judge. For surprisingly,  Jesus puts the word of justice on the lips of a widow. She isn't naming a specific cause - for an inheritance to be restored to her; for a family dispute to be resolved; for a fraud to be put right.

Her claim is to justice; she expresses something intrinsic to God's very nature. She seeks and names the ways of God - and she speaks out for it constantly and consistently.

The widow addresses the judge in a prophetic way: in doing so, she also challenges us.  Is she speaking a word of God in the face of our human tendency to be slow to act when things don't directly effect us? Are we the ones being challenged in this parable - that we might make decisions out of a sense of God's love and mercy; that we might respond to others out of generosity not expediency?

The paradox of our human condition is that we are created in love and for love; created in goodness, freedom and beauty; and yet we are also flawed. We get drawn away from the light of God by the glittering prizes of this world. We can be easily dazzled by power and status; by what we can possess and control. We can be impatient to fulfill our desires; we sometimes fail to act as an advocate for others when they are vulnerable.

But that is not the end of the story, for in all this,  God doesn't stop loving us. He never forgets us; and knows our innermost longings. God doesn't stop calling us back to justice and compassion.  God doesn't simply call us; he comes to be with us. In Jesus, God reveals his way, his truth and his life.  In him we see justice not as abstract principle; rather it's embodied in human flesh. In our human weakness, God's love is made manifest. In all that Jesus did and said, in his death and resurrection, we see the fullness of healing and reconciling love.

And by the power of God's Spirit, God's cries for justice become ours; our cries are his. Prayer is the most risky, dangerous, transformative thing that we can do.  In the words of John Donne, it's in prayer that God approaches us relentlessly. He wrote:
Batter my heart, three person'd God;
for you as yet but knock, breathe, shein and seeke to mend;
that I may rise, and stand, o'erthorow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

In prayer, God works away at us - with a patient, persistent love. God acts on us, in us and through us with the careful force of a chisel on stone; a waterfall carving our rock.  Our heats melt; we are shaped and made new. Last week, some of us heard Archbishop Justin talking about prayer - praying not only thy kingdom come but also thy will be done. He quoted something Pope Frances had said to him: that 'when we pray we make room in our hearts for mercy and grace'.

In prayer, the Spirit breaths new life into us: our cries are God's cries; our lives become channels of grace and mercy. Breath by breath, and moment by moment.  Often that will entail wrestling with the responsibilities that we face.  In our homes and in our work places, where are the cries for justice, for encouragement? In what we do, can we build others up with dignity, in a world so quick to demean based on superficial judgements.

May our hearts be set on fire with love for Jesus. He is God with us - answering our fears, uncertainties, hopes and desires.  Like Timothy, we are urged to proclaim the message of God's just and peaceable Kingdom: encouraging others in prayer; convincing them of the transformative power of God's love. Today we eat the bread and drink the wine of God's Kingdom - as people of faith on earth, in the power of the Spirit, cry out for, pray for and embody God's loving justice, which restores all things.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

It's a long road....

It wa a tremendous priviledge to preach at the Eucharist at the start of the Affirming Catholicism (Ireland) theology seminar. I was apt to gather as we commemorated St Teresa of Avila - and to consider our friendship with God in discipleship, worship and mission. 

It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way. If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday.

Words not from Teresa of Avila - though perhaps they do echo something of her longing for God; the intimacy and intensity of sustained awareness of abiding in the movement of God's love towards us in Jesus.  

No they are lyrics from Bob Dylan's 2012 album Tempest.

I came late to Dylan. A friend's obsession sparked my curiosity; if Bob was the soundtrack to his life, it was a gapping hole in my musical repertoire. 

Listening was a revelation. It familiar: known by me; making me known to myself. The melodies and chord structures; the images, characters and turns of phrase, sung in that recognisable husky drawl. Like Shakespeare or the authorised version of the bible, his language has shaped our imaginations; his songs responding to cultural shifts and personal upheavals; a universal biographer, describing what we think or feel or fear. He's more than a commentator on loves, betrayals and breakups; for he's been a sharp tongued critic of power, alienation and our desire to consume. The marks of a Nobel Laureate indeed!
It's a long road...

Dylan himself was shaped by the Judaeo-Christian tradition: it's truths reinterpreted it through his own lens; its ways refracted in the prism of our works; the questions rubbing up against the experiences of his own life. In Desolation Row he journeys with an eclectic band: Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Ophelia, Einstein and a jealous monk.

 Einstein and the Jealous Monk - Chris Gollon 2004

A long and narrow way: with a deep longing at its heart. Recognising the frailty of our human nature; our struggles within and without. If we can't work up to God, God will  surely have to work down to  us. Someday.  Is Dylan reframing our deep desire for God; naming the necessity of incarnation? Is he challenging us to make known that in Christ, God is with us? Is he provoking us to witness not to a past event, but an enduring reality? 

Wherever we place Dylan on that trajectory of desiring and naming God; his words reveal some of what Teresa was seeking to express. In her as a theologian and sister in Christ, we see a model of life as friendship with God; a God who comes down to us without status or dignity; save the status and dignity of our creatureliness, in order that we might be redeemed. 

It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way. 

This journey into the heart of God's love is the very essence of discipleship. Church of England papers describe discipleship as being rooted in prayer; sustained by worship and community life;  coming to maturity in faith; knowing the love of God in Jesus and, in the power of the Spirit, witnessing to that love in the world.

The language is of following, learning, obeying and growing; the dynamics are upward, inward and outward; paying deep attention to God, to our human nature and to the world.  Teresa's vivid language is a gift to us; revealing something of way, truth and life of God.  Today we pray that her teaching might awaken in us a longing for holiness.   What is kindled in us is not only a desire for God, but a process of being caught up into the crucible of refining love. 

As we learn from her, we are challenged that to love God is to love the world ever more deeply; to long for holiness is to desire the well being for the other. This way, this truth, this life in Christ is not an escape; it's not philosophical abstraction; its profoundly practical. As Teresa herself said: 'accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul’.

Teresa's pattern of following Christ is particular to her: her social context, nationality ancestry, gifts. Her discipleship was shaped by her experience of illness, the wisdom of others and the reality of a troubled Europe. In that, we have much in common with her. What unites us is that, in baptism, we are drawn into a sustained awareness of living in the movement of God's love; a movement which pours out into creation; is made manifest in Jesus's life, death and resurrection; and which wells up within us as the first fruits of the Spirit.

Like us, Teresa knew physical frailty, sickness and convalescence. Like us, she went through periods when her pray life felt arid or lax. Like us, she was frustrated by some of the attitudes within the church's institutional life. Amidst all of this, she showed discipline in habits of devotion and had an awareness of the presence of God which was so intense she underwent a profound spiritual awakening. 

That might feel quite unlike our discipleship: and yet, why are we not alienated by her? Perhaps it's because she does more than chronicle her visions or heightened states of consciousness. Rather than stand apart from us, her experience of God's holiness is directed towards drawing others into an understanding of Christian life as friendship with God.

Yes, she was a challenging and not always popular reformer and founder of religious houses. Yes, she was a unique spiritual writer, influencing Spanish literature as well as theological writing. It's an impressive legacy. But it pales into insignificance alongside the deep desire to know Jesus and her commitment to point others to the God who is with us. The one who, to return to Dylan, came down to us. She draws us back to the compelling fire of love divine.

In his book on Teresa, Rowan Williams says: 'what is perhaps most striking about her is her ability to preserve intact a simple and coherent sense of the requirements of the Christian gospel through all the complexities of her life in the Church, through all the wearing negotiation with secular and ecclesiastical authorities that occupied her almost to her last breath.'

Her writing in Life, expresses struggle and conflict. Victory is brought about by God's grace in disciplines of prayer; the shaping of Christian lives in friendship, sacraments and conversation in a culture concerned with status. She established her spiritual authority; she begins to describe the experience of union with God in relation to human growth. In The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle she continues to develop how the incarnate Christ is to be communicated to the world in our human lives; she explores how we keep God at the centre - witnessing to the joy of that sense of belonging. 

It's a long road... but God's come down to us.

Way. Truth. Life. All found in Jesus, the incarnate Word, drawing us into the Father's love; bringing reconciliation to troubled world by his cross. 

Way. Truth. Life. All flowing from the Spirit as we wait for redemption; as we pray in our weakness; breathing through us in hope. 

Jean Vanier wrote of Jesus: 'his body is the body of God and gives meaning to the body of each person'. In this Eucharist we encounter Christ - his broken body touching our weakness; enabling us to be his body bringing joy, dignity, forgiveness and hope to others.

For Teresa awareness of this movement of God's love is dependent on what she called the 'living book' of lives lived in prayer and compassion. In the power of the Spirit may we who eat the bread and drink the wine of the kingdom be such a living book; reflecting God's love breath by breath. 

©  Julie Gittoes 2016