Sunday, 3 March 2019

Living radiance

A sermon preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on the Sunday before Lent - a Sunday when we reflect on the transfiguration, radiance in the midst of darkness.  We're given a glimpse of the radiance of God's glory in Christ Jesus; we're called to live out that radiance in the power of the Spirit. Such living radiance is treasure in earthen vessels; it is courageous and vulnerable. The readings were Exodus 34: 29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9: 28-36

Last Saturday, Olivia Colman - star of Rev, Peep Show and Broadchurch - won an Oscar for her role  in The Favourite.

Beyond Colman’s tears, laughter and raspberry blowing; beyond the dazzling radiance of the red carpet, it has been a difficult few years for the Oscars.  Its reputation has been knocked by campaigns such as #MeToo and #OscarsTooWhite.  Viewing figures are declining; there are commercial pressures from Netflix; and our cinematic tastes are becoming more independent, international and diverse. 

But film itself remains compelling.

As the distinguished American critic Roger Ebert once wrote [What makes a masterpiece? The Guardian]: ‘We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. The allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters… but by seeing the world as another person sees it’.

In the collective safety of the cinema, we share something like an out of body experience. Characters engage us emotionally; their stories enlarge our imaginations; prejudices and assumptions are challenged. The unreality of the performance conveys something real.

During this years Oscars, Bradly Cooper and Lady Gaga left their seats - unannounced - to sing “Shallow”, their award-winning duet from A Star is Born. There followed faced days of speculation that they were actually in love. It was so real yet so unreal.

It’s what they do, as one critic put it [Rhik Samadder inThe Guardian]: ‘it’s acting. They are actors, acting at a ceremony that showcases the best acting’. It demands personal connection, technical discipline and an awareness of cameras. 

They embodied a transformative moment as they had done on set, repeatedly.

The intensity of their gaze embody lyrics and character; lyrics which embody the questions about our own human character:

Tell me something, girl / Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more? / Is there something else you're searching for?

Tell me something, boy / Aren't you tired tryin' to fill that void?
Or do you need more? / Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

Those questions aren’t confined to the movies: this modern world, is one of relationships, uncertainty, anxiety and opportunity, and we still ask - what are we searching for?  

We love and grieve; we find ourselves alone, together; trying to fill the void, we form habits and routines; but it’s hard to be self-reliant. Do we need something more?

Today’s Gospel is a quasi-cinematic moment: a window in space and time.

It is a moment of embodied transformation: which reframes all our questions, longings and fears. 

The veil is lifted. We see the dazzling glory of God.

A glimpse of glory to sustain us through the darkness; a glimpse of how things really are.

Here is grace and truth: made flesh.

Here is commandment and prophecy: fulfilled.

Here is love divine, all loves excelling.

Our first reading reminds us that this momentary glimpse of glory is rooted in a longer story. 

Moses is transfigured when he received the Law. Being in the presence of God transforms his appearance; his face shines so brightly that people are afraid. 

Yet the one who spoke with God is called to speak. 

By virtue of the gift of the commandments to love, his hearers are drawn into a new relationship: a covenant of promise and commitment. Personal transformation leads to transformation of a people; this transformed people are called to transform the world. 

Transformation by the light of God, is to radiate outwards as a blessing of love. But human beings tend to seek a less demanding or costly way. 

Our human hearts need to be reminded of love’s implications. Commandment is followed by prophetic challenge to love mercy and to seek the welfare of the most vulnerable. 

The transfiguration of Jesus echoes this earlier glimpse of God’s glory.The presence of Moses and Elijah remind us of the law of love and the prophetic cry for justice.

But this moment of transfiguration is more than a feint echo. It is excessive, abundant and intense. This light is no reflected glory. This light comes from within.

The light which calls all things into being has become flesh of our flesh.
The love that beats at the heart of all things, radiates from a human face. 

This moment of glory is not the end. 

Moses and Elijah are talking about “Jesus’ departure”. This new Exodus, this new act of liberation, will be accomplished in Jerusalem, in his body on the cross. 

This Exodus will be a moment of glory. 

Moses led a people from oppression and slavey to freedom.

Jesus liberates all people from all that wounds and diminishes, from all that controls or exploits. By his suffering, death and resurrection, Jesus breaks the power of sin. Through him, even death itself, that ultimate void, has now more power over us. 

We are recalled to this moment of transfiguration - of seeing Jesus as who is - on the cusp of our journey through Lent. 

Perhaps we can identify with Peter in his desire to hold onto this splendid and radiant vision. Perhaps we share his reluctance to descend to the mundane world; to avoid walking the way of the cross. 

This moment is no less real for being brief.

This is a glimpse of hope to sustain us in times of darkness. 

The echoes of that light and glory are reflected as we break bread and pour out wine.  Paul, when he writes to the Corinthians, speaks a lot about a community formed in this way; through acts of remembrance which shape our future, second by second. 

He speaks of freedom and of a refusal to lose heart. He speaks of being transformed and of letting go of that which is shameful.  He speaks of a ministry which is a living radiance. 

In this modern world, what are we searching for? 

Are we trying to fill a void, or do we need more? 

This Lent, consider what daily habits might be most fruitful for us in response to those questions: may they be things which make us more receptive to God’s love, in prayer and scripture; seeing ourselves in God’s light as penitent, restored and recalled.

May they be habits which make us more open to needs of the other in generosity and service; may we use our freedom to embody God’s radiant love by being courageous in our vulnerability and compassionate before the vulnerability of others.

As we partake of the gifts and hospitality of this table, we see afresh the radiance of God in the face of Jesus. 

Radiance in the wafer thin fragility of what we bless and break, take and eat. 

Radiance in the body of Christ: this is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.

Radiance as we perceive him; as we are strengthened to suffer with him; as we are changed into his likeness, from glory to glory.

Radiance as we who eat this bread are sent to reflect Christ’s risen life in word and deed; acting with boldness in the power of the Spirit.  Amen.

© Julie Gittoes 2019

Monday, 25 February 2019

Garden, sea and city

It was a delight to preach and preside at the Eucharist at Holy Trinity, Guildford yesterday. The texts were: Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-25, Revelation 4, Luke 8:22-25

Given the choice, where would you prefer to spend a day:
  1. in a garden, your own or Wisely perhaps or;
  2. by the sea, sitting in a deckchair or;
  3. at the heart of the city?
As a rural lass, with an urban heart and a sister who loves the sea, like many of us I end up inhabiting all three. 

But lacking the green fingers of my parents, and the proximity to the coast, the buzz of the city draws me moth like to it’s light.

Gardens: places of tranquility and seasonal beauty; a haven of privacy and place for conviviality; a glimpse of paradise and a place of labour.

The sea: the expanse of sand or shingle ridges and the hypnotic roar of waves; a place of ice-cream and fish and chips; a haven of peace, subject to nature’s unpredictable force.

City: the energy of people filling streets and theatres, platforms, hostels and galleries; the vendors, commuters, performers and consumers; a sleepless place of restless inequality.

Today’s readings straddle all this: a garden blessed and tended; a sea raging that is calmed; a city dazzling consumed by praise. 

In the garden, by the sea and amidst the city, we are caught up in the story of God’s ways with the world and the destiny of humanity.

In Genesis we see a world which is teaming with life in all its diversity: it is good and pleasing, generative and sustainable.

We are earth creatures, formed of clay; we are God’s creatures, breathed into life.

We are placed in a world of mutual interdependence. We are in a profound way bound together with the glorious goodness of the created order. It is not a world of our own making. God’s gift is one of interdependence. We are blessed by delight and entrusted with responsibility.

In this delicate eco-system, we are confronted with the reality that it is not good for this human to be alone. 

A fresh creative act of God brings forth a helpmate.

It is not good or right for this man, this one formed of earth, this adam, to be alone.

Like each one of us, this solitary human needs a helpmate. 

We need companionship. The wellbeing of one is not fulfilled by dependence on God or creation alone. 

Out of our creaturely flesh our most intimate other is formed: one who opens up what it is to be human - in relation to God and the world.

In the first instance this is not about hierarchy, complementarity or marriage. Rather it points to a fundamental goodness in being together.  There is the possibility of work and creativity as custodians of the earth. As we face one another, we learn compassion, generosity and joy. 

As Walter Brueggemann puts it: ‘The place of the garden is for this covenanted human community of solidarity, trust and well being. They are one! That is, in covenant. The garden exists as a context for the human community.’

This vision of generative human companionship and shared endeavour, is gifted to us freely. God’s loving purpose for us is based in freedom, not coercion. But such freedom is fraught with risk. 

Goodness is disrupted. Faithful obedience becomes an assertion of self-will. Life and knowledge are within our grasp. The prohibition will be scrutinised and misquoted and we seize the fruit of that tree for ourselves. 

And, as Genesis will tell it in the following scene, freedom, trust and calling are exchanged for autonomy, oppression and fragmentation

We know all too well the pain of what happens when we selfishly take the mysteries of life and knowledge into our own hands apart from God: freedom to act becomes the capacity to control. 

We become fearful and mistrusting; our hearts turn inwards, away from the other; we are ashamed of our naked vulnerability and dependence. 

The tranquility of the garden paradise breaks; we find ourselves on stormy seas.

Our struggle to know how to live well with one another is met by the commandments to love God and neighbour as ourself.

Our struggle with how to live wisely in the world is bet by the prophets cry for justice and mercy.

Our struggle to know how to live is ultimately met with a new act of solidarity. By God refusing to refuse love; by God dwelling with us in Christ Jesus. 

Jesus understands our anxieties and fears; he knows our tendency to selfishness and self-protection; he knows our capacity to wound and be wounded; and also knows our desire to heal and be healed.

Jesus stepped into the boat: and he slept. As flesh of our flesh, he gives into his physical need for rest; as Word made flesh, he abides in trusting rest with God.

The storm arises: disruptive and ferocious. It stirs the chaos from the deep. It surges and threatens to overwhelm. It has mastery over the boat and over seasoned sailors.

And amidst the terror and looming disaster, Jesus sleeps.

The storm does not disturb him; but wakes to our cries.

And with a word of rebuke the Word brings calm: wind and waves are subdued. This sign of mastery over creation and is also a renewed breathing into us of God’s life.

Who then is this?

Here is perfect love casting out fear. 

Here God’s Word addresses us in the midst of the storm.

In the midst of those things which fill us with dread, heartache and trembling... God is. 

God is with us in the betrayals and losses; the anxiety and grief; in the things which break us down and when faith wavers.

God. is. with. us.

Loving us. 

The God who created us that we might be one, comes to us in flesh and blood. His body heals and teaches; is touched and anointed; is spat at and wept over; breaks bread and is broken for us.

And we God’s creatures are made one as we share in fragments of bread. Here we are moved beyond the ties of biological kinship and commitment of flesh and blood. Genesis speaks of being one and here, though we are many we are one body.

Here we are called by name and nourished with the bread of heaven: the covenant of love is renewed. 

Here we at this Eucharist we are led through stormy seas from creation to new creation. From the beauty and labour of our earthly garden, we are given a glimpse of a heavenly city. 

A city where, in the words of John Donne, there is no darkness nor dazzling but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music;  no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.

Here and now we unite our voices with the saints and angels singing ‘holy, holy, holy; Lord God almighty; who was and is and is to come.

As we praise our creator God, we are united with Christ in one body. But what we say and sing with our lips we are to live out in our lives: in the urban heart of Guildford and in our gardens; amidst personal storms and at work or school.

In a world of chaos, pain and noise, in the power of the Spirit, may we be one as a people whose hearts are turned outwards to the other. 

Breath by breath may we be compassionate, generous and peaceable companions on stormy seas.

Gesture by gesture, may we be creative and just in our commitment to the earth’s sustainability.

Word by word, may we walk in the light of Christ, seeking the equity and fearlessness of a heavenly city. 

© Julie Gittoes 2019

Monday, 11 February 2019

Here we are: send us!

The text of a sermon preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on 10 February. I was struck by the way in which Jesus seeks Peter's help; by the experienced fisherman seeing empty nets bursting full in inauspicious circumstances; by the glimpse of holiness in boat. Kenneth Bailey's work on seeking Jesus through middle eastern eyes is so evocative but the text also opened up a response to more contemporary concern for evangelism and what it means for us to tell the story of God's transforming love. The texts Isaiah 6:1-8; I Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Do you remember J. R. Hartley?

He is a fictional character, an elderly gentleman. It’s over 30 years since he captured our cultural imagination in an iconic advert for Yellow Pages.

We encountered him looking for a copy Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley.  He goes into one second-hand bookshop after another, asking the same question and receiving the same answer. It’s no where to be found.

He gets home. His daughter hands him the Yellow Pages. From the comfort of his arm chair, he continues his search by ringing around. Eventually he finds a shop which has a copy. The last words we hear are some of the most famous in advertising history: 
‘My name? Oh, yes, it’s J.R.Hartley.’

Fly Fishing still features in the top ten ads of all time alongside John Lewis, Levis and Coca Cola. A new generation of marketing experts and advertising creatives, are trying to reinvent or update the impact of the ad using the digital tools at their disposal.

For although Mr Hartley comes from a different age, that basic premise of searching for something remains the same. Instead of flicking through a hard copy of Yellow Pages, we rely on apps, search engines and social networks to track down a particular book, to find a gift or to replace a treasured item.

What are you looking for today?

What is it that we seek?

Some of what we search out reflects basic human need for stability: a living-wage, satisfying work, a regular pension, a place to call home, food and warmth. But our material needs are woven together with our quest for relationship and meaningful intimacy; for emotional support, for people to care about us; for meaning, value, dignity and purpose.

What are you looking for today?

It’s quite possible that we don’t quite know what it is that we seek; and sometimes we don’t realise what it is until we discover it in the unexpected. 

Peter’s experience as recounted by Luke is a bit like that: it brings to the surface all sorts of practical needs and reveals a deeper purpose.

Luke sets the scene: it isn’t the patience and tranquility of a riverbank, which might be at the heart of Fly Fishing. Rather we are drawn to a busy and crowded lakeside. There’s a sense of expectation - people want to listen to Jesus, to hear the word of God. But there’s also a sense of tiredness and frustration - Peter and his colleagues are exhausted after a fruitless night’s work and they want to get on with cleaning and mending nets. 

Jesus looks to Peter for help. He needs his boat to use as a makeshift platform from which to teach; but he also needs his particular skill as an oarsman to manoeuvre the boat and prevent it from drifting too far from shore. 

It’s from this place of confidence within his own world of work that Peter was able to listen to Jesus; in the familiarity and intimacy of his own boat he is caught up in a life-transforming encounter. 

Having taught the crowds, Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to row the boat back to the shore. Instead he tells him to go into the deep water and let down the nets. Given that fish hide rather than feed during the day, this sounded preposterous.  It’s quite possible that, having worked all night, Peter had a few choice words to say about that request. 

Kenneth Bailey, a scholar who invites us to see the Gospels through middle-eastern eyes puts it like this: ‘The very idea that a landlubber from the highlands of Nazareth, who has never wet a line should presume to tell a seasoned fishing captain what to do is preposterous… the order to launch into the deeps in broad daylight is ridiculous!’

Peter's Catch of Fish - Eric de Saussure

Yet, even in his grumpy exhaustion, Peter sets aside his professional opinion and obeys. The result is astonishing. The scale of the catch is indeed miraculous. It is economically lucrative too. All that Peter looks for as a fisherman is fulfilled. As Bailey puts it: ‘This net-tearing, boat-swamping catch can greatly enrich him and his team. At last he has hit the jackpot!’.

Yet, Peter doesn’t look at Jesus as a potential business partner: he responds at a deeper level. There is something here of more value than material gain, commercial success and profit margins.

Peter falls to his knees.

Having addressed his teacher with bravado, he now addresses his Lord with humility.

In the confined space of the boat, with the nets and fish, with the familiar noise and smells, Peter senses that he is in the presence of holiness. 

It is a far cry from the splendour and majesty of the Temple. The whole earth is indeed full of God’s glory; glory revealed in Jesus Christ. 

Peter’s works echo those of Isaiah as he acknowledges his unworthiness. He is not only seeing Jesus as who he really is, but he is also being seen. As Jeffrey John puts it: ‘Peter’s words… are the authentic response of someone feeling himself, unbearably, exposed to the glare of this vast, unconditional love. He can’t bear it, he wants to run and hid; yet having known it, he could never let it go. He will give up everything to follow it’.

Jesus reaches out to Peter and to James and John too.  Amazement and fear become the place of invitation into a new partnership; his skills are to be deployed in a new venture.  Jesus takes them from the material world of catching fish to the world of catching people; of drawing them to the new and abundant life found in Jesus.

This is the heart of the good news proclaimed to us and received by us: that in his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ defeats the power sin and death and sets us free to be more fully who we are. 

As Paul reminds us, we come to know this good news because someone passed it on to us: by telling us the story or caring for us; by listening to our fears and hopes; by the way they embodied the attractiveness of God’s love in their own lives; by the way they sought forgiveness and justice, compassion and healing.

This is the very heart of evangelism: to know and show and tell of God’s love. This happens in the middle of our lives - in the places which are as familiar to us as Peter’s boat was to him; in lecture halls and offices, in hospital waiting rooms and our own homes.

Here in broken bread and outpoured wine, the good news of God’s transforming love is retold. In the power of the Spirit we are sent out to tell others of what we’ve known and to see lives transformed.

To be a witness is to understand what others are looking for - hope, comfort or challenge; support, dignity or freedom. It is to respond to that search with a love that turns empty nets into abundant life.

To be an evangelist is tell of what we have experience of God’s love; and each of us is sent in the power of the Spirit to live lives and speak words which tell of that goodness. 

Whom shall I send?

Here we are; send us.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that all might come within reach of your saving embrace. So clothe us in your spirit, that we reach gin forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for your own love and mercy’s sake. Amen. 

© Julie Gittoes 2019