Sunday, 24 June 2018

What will this child become?

A sermon preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on the feast of the Birth of John the Baptist. In the light of how we treat children - and the images from the US border and boats crossing the Mediterranean - the question of what this child/these children become is acute. The parallels with reflections on Hamilton in relation to John were thought provoking. The texts were: Isaiah 40:1-11, Galatians 3:23-end and Luke 1:57-66, 80

Hamilton.  Alexander Hamilton.

First US Secretary of the Treasury.
Overlooked as the face on a ten dollar bill.
Brought to life in an exuberant mega-musical.
A score infused with hip-hop, rap, indie-rock and operetta.

Hamilton: praised on this side of the pond for its ‘political passion’ and ‘nimble wit’.
Alexander Hamilton: who lives, who dies, your tells your story?

This is about the independence of a nation: about revolution and government; interpreting the constitution and managing the economy.

It’s about American identity and European destiny; it’s about urban entrepreneurs and agricultural labourers.

It’s about opportunists and visionaries: the people in the room with power and immigrants getting the job done.

It’s about Alexander Hamilton, as the opening song puts it:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, 
dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, 
impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

It’s about us too - our history, legacy and identity; our cries for comfort, justice and unity.  

For something so historically engaged, Hamilton fizzes with contemporary challenge. 

From this week’s news headlines we are confronted by:  the orphan, the forgotten, the impoverished; the migrant, the president, the constitution; the negotiations behind closed doors, the concerns of business, public services and national debt. 

As we navigate these challenges as people of faith, we unite our cries with the voices of scripture. 

When we’re angry, bewildered and heart-broken, we ask who lives, who dies, who tells God’s story?

One who does just that is John the Baptist.

Today we celebrate his birth: 
How does an only child, son of barren woman and an old man, 
dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in Israel by providence,
with rejoicing, a sign of mercy grow up to be a prophet in the wilderness?

At the point at which Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up all hope of parenthood, they are promised a son. A son who will bring joy; who will be filled with the power of the Spirit. 

In the words of the angel, this child who will turn our hearts: moving us from disobedience to wisdom, bringing reconciliation to our households.  This child will make us ready, will prepare the way for the Lord.

Whist his father, was literally speechless, this child leapt in the womb as his mother, embraced Mary: the God bearer.

John’s birth is greeted with rejoicing. His name meaning God is gracious expresses something of paternal gratitude. But his name and calling will be challenging too.

What will this child become?
It’s a question which hovers on our lips when we see an infant: godchildren, nieces, grandson; the orphan, the longed for, the impoverished; the child wailing at the American border.  

What a child becomes depends on the stability, nurture and opportunities we provide. We give thanks for them, worry about them and rejoice in them before ultimately letting go of the children in our care. It’s the risk of teaching, parenting or mentoring.

This child, John, grew and became strong. He wasn’t to be the practical consolation in his parents’ old age. John was drawn to the wilderness and there is name and calling become one - declaring God’s name and inviting us to walk in God’s ways. 

Echoing Isaiah, he is a voice crying out in the wilderness. 

He lives, he dies, he tells God’s story.

Words which declare comfort to the afflicted; which speak tenderly of God’s love to the brokenhearted.

Words of comfort when we go astray and face the consequences of our selfishness and disobedience.

Words which remind us that whilst our human life is fragile and limited, God’s love endures forever. 

Words which speak of God’s glory being revealed: the vulnerable lifted up, the mighty brought down, a path made straight for us to walk in through the wilderness.

Elizabeth and Zechariah let John go: freeing him to speak truthfully to those in power; to challenge the complacent; to encourage the visionaries; and to bring compassion to the weak. 

His father’s words of praise - the Benedictus we say or sing at morning prayer - invites us to share in John’s prophetic message.

It’s a message which calls for repentance, an acknowledgement of all that hurts us and breaks our hearts; sins of negligence, weakness and our own deliberate fault.

It’s a message which proclaims forgiveness, the promise of healing, freedom, compassion and peace; being justified by faith.

We too are called to lift up our voices as heralds of this message of good tidings.

Like John, we are to point others to Jesus: declaring, here is your God!

The God who in Christ Jesus, rebukes and forgives, feeds and guides, lives and dies for us; who dies and lives for ever.

This proclamation includes a commitment to fulfil the promise of feeding, gathering, carrying and leading others. 

Feeding, gathering, carrying and leading our children: those who’re anxious about exams or ensnared by debt; those whose relationships falter or who face addiction; those whose ideas challenge and inspire; the revolutionaries and visionaries; those fleeing across the Mediterranean to seek refuge.

What will these children become?

Feeding, gathering, carrying and leading our children: those who slip through the net of social security; those abused within the church; those whose lives are shaped by our immigration control; those who will graduate in this cathedral to be lawyers, politicians, scientists, musicians, financiers and nurses.

What will these children become?

We like them, are called by name; we raise our voices in praise and protest, tenderness and hope; we like them are children. 

By the power of the Spirit, in union with Christ, we are all children of God: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

We are called by name not simply to tell our story but to take our part in proclaiming God’s story; not to make a name for ourselves, but to speak tenderly to God’s people; our legacy in life and death is to prepare a way for Jesus our Lord; being Spirit led and seeking God’s Kingdom.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

For Hamilton, it was his wife Eliza. She was proud to set up an orphanage - a legacy which showed responsibility for enabling others to take their place in society.  

Who tells God’s story?

We who break bread together are to be heralds of good news - tidings of repentance, forgiveness and peace. In every gesture, every task, every donation, every conversation, every vote, every petition, every act of compassion and every legacy: we live to tell God’s story.

© Julie Gittoes 2018

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Sing praise!

Having enjoyed singing 'alleluias' from the tower of Guildford Cathedral at midday, this is the text of a sermon preached at the Ascension Day Eucharist: the texts were Daniel 7:9-14, Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
and the anthem 'God is gone up' (Finzi).

The view from the the top of the tower!

God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding trumpets’ melodies:
Sing praise, sing praise, sing praise, sing praises out.

In a little while we will hear Finzi’s sitting of those awesome words (here sung by Wells Cathedral Choir)

From the organ’s dramatic fanfare, this anthem is thrilling in its magnificence: songs of praise resound, echoing the trumpets’ melody.  With every breath they take, our choir sing praises out. 

We hear these heart-cramping notes which echo heavens rapturous melody.  Sing praise. 

Their words blend with the organ’s voice more to enravish, as they this tune sing. Sing praises out.

Sing praise.
God is gone up with a triumphant shout. 
Sing praises out.

Finzi holds us in the intensity of rapturous praise as our lips acknowledge God’s glory. He calls us back to song.

But Edward Taylor, the poet who wrote the text, invites to stand alongside the disciples; to ponder another question. The question which was perhaps on their minds as they stood gazing upwards:

Art thou ascended up on high, my Lord,
And must I be without thee here below?

But the point of today’s celebration is that we are not left without: as our risen Lord ascends to the heaven in order that we might be united with him always.

Over the last forty days, we have recalled the resurrection appearances: moments when Jesus was in a particular place, with some of his followers for a finite period of time.  As Luke records, Jesus had opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

This is reality: The one who suffered and rose from the dead has power over death itself.  He has called disciples by name, broken bread with them, invited their touch, spoken words of peace and blessing.  

And now, as they were watching he is lifted up; hidden from their sight. 

How great the temptation to stand looking up; to see this spectacular moment as an ending or as a loss.
Rather it is both the fulfilment and expansion of love.

The one who this day ascends to heaven, is Lord of time and space.  In the words of Daniel - to him is given dominion, glory and kingship.  

This heavenly reign reveals scope of God’s love across all dimensions of the cosmos: it doesn’t undermine our agency as human creatures; but it does relativise the exercise of our freedom and authority.  

Our creaturely vulnerability and competitiveness is drawn into a new reality:  an expanding circle of blessing of merciful judgement and reconciling love. 

Our risen and ascended is Lord is now present to all people, in all places, forever.

Today, we assured that Jesus will pray for us at the right hand of God. We also receive a promise. Jesus promised his disciples that the power of God will be poured out on them through the Spirit. 

They and we, are called to be witnesses: they will tell the story of this man Jesus, the one who is flesh of our flesh; they will tell the story of this man Jesus, the one in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.

They and we, are witnesses to one who revealed love divine from birth to life; from life to death; from death to risen life.   And now as we rejoice in Jesus journey heavenwards, we like those first disciples are sent to the ends of the earth. 

As the one theologian and preacher, Willie Jennings, puts it: Jesus ascends not only to establish presence through absence, but he also draws his body into the real journeys of his disciples into the world. He goes to heaven ahead of us. He goes with and ahead of his disciples into the real places of this world.

The span of our journeys will vary. From our homes we are sent out into real places, places that are particular to us: to the places of work and service, of tribulation and rejoicing; of struggle and refreshment; of waiting and praying; of family and stranger; of excitement and loss. 

We are sent to places we do not expect and perhaps cannot imagine; sent even those places where we fear to tread.  And there we are to witness, bless and sing praises; sing praises out.

Finzi captures the lyricism of Taylor’s devotional poem - fusing words and music into a compelling glimpse of heaven. But the decision to set it as our communion motet roots that vision the most ordinary and intimate of all the real places in this world: in food and fellowship.

For here in bread and wine Jesus gives himself to us. The king of glory enters in. Our risen and ascended Lord makes our bodies the site of his visitation. We become what we touch and taste and see: the body of Christ.  

Today we begin ten days of waiting - a novena of prayer before Pentecost. Let us pray for the Spirit to renew, refresh, empower and equip us that we might witness to God’s love on real journeys and real places.

God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding trumpets’ melodies:
Sing praise, sing praise, sing praise, sing praises out.


© Julie Gittoes 2018

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Love's risen body

The text of a sermon preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Easter.  As i was preparing to preach, I came across a news story on the BBC website entitled Can you be spiritual if you don't believe in God?  More than half of the British population identify as having no religion. The sociologist Linda Woodhead describes them ‘nones’ - rejecting the categories of secular or religious, but still affirming a spiritual side to life. In this context, the BBC asks people to explain what spirituality means to them. 

In the article above, Barbara describes her spiritual life as enabling her to move away from hatred towards compassion, forgiveness and love.  Ziad names the pressure of individualism and self-indulgence; seeing in all religions expressions of the one truth, the divine spark in us. Hugh talks about being an orphan from infancy and discovering that he had a Father who was God.  Reverend Bonnie talks about the way in which doubt and questions have shaped her personal development. She says ‘certainty closes doors. Doubt deepens faith’. 

It's the final comment which feels pertinent when preaching about Thomas' response to being absent when the disciples encounter their risen Lord behind closed doors. It's become a truism to say that faith and doubt aren't opposites; questioning and conviction often go hand in hand. What we see in Thomas a deep desire to be assured of the extent of transformation brought about by resurrection - it is the wounded Jesus who is risen, defeating death. 

I begin with another Thomas: R. S. Thomas whose own ministry grapples with the nature of presence and absence, and persistence in the way of faith.

Alleluia: Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed: alleluia!

Lines from the welsh priest-poet R. S. Thomas [The Answer]:

There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

Like the Thomas of today’s Gospel, his witness to ‘love’s risen body’ flows from the intersection between certainty and doubt, sight and insight. 

They walk with us - these faithful Thomases - as old questions resolve in faith: in silence and waiting, in seeking and hoping, in absence and presence, and in kneeling to pray, 

Belief flows from the defeat of death itself. 

In the days following the resurrection event, Jesus’ disciples have been grappling with the reality of an empty tomb and rumours of encounter with the one who was their lord, teacher and friend.

As they gathered behind closed doors, did the beloved disciple share the experience of sudden realisation as he saw grave clothes piled up in a tomb? Did he describe the way in which that absence awakened in him an ever present love?

Did Mary Magdalene take the risk of seeking them out, her heart pounding as she hammered at a locked door? As the bolt slides back, she rushes in; her breathless declaration ‘I have seen the Lord’ flowing from a faith which lets go and embraces new life.

They talked about these things: these moments of recognition and these transformed lives. Their old questions shifted to make space for new ways of thinking, giving way to new life.  

A stone rolled back; piled grave clothes; love’s risen body.

The very person who was crucified is risen.

They see his wounded side.

And Jesus speaks words of peace.

They see the marks of death.

Their fear is turned to joy.

And Jesus repeats the promise, the gift, the truth, the hope: Peace be with you.

This moment of encounter is an awakening of a new community: a community which is breathed into existence. 

Those who are gathered together in a room are sent into the world. 

Jesus’ death and resurrection have changed the world: this is the ultimate reality of the power of God’s love to create, heal, forgive and bless. 

But the world is changed through them, through their witness; it is changed through us, through our witness that love wins.

In an act of recreation, love’s wounded and risen body gives to them the gift of the Spirit: a gift which continues to seek reconciliation; a gift which bequeaths mercy and justice; a gift which pursues forgiveness; a gift which dares to hope. 

The church is a wounded body; a body which dares to speak of love’s risen power.  Walking in the step of Jesus demands humility and courage; compassion and patience.  Small acts which resist the toxicity of hatred; repeated gestures which build peace; dogged perseverance that things can change.

In the complexity of our lives and the uncertainty of our world, that can sound naively optimistic, but there are glimpses of realistic hope.

Watching the BBC’s My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me last week offers one such glimpse (quotations from the Irish Times).  It’s a searching and disarming documentary by comedian Patrick Kielty: his father was killed in the troubles; his family resisted revenge. Twenty years after after the Good Friday Agreement, he continues to search out fresh perspectives on the way forward - remanning equally open minded when interviewing the DUP’s Arlene Foster of Sinn Féin’s Emma Rogan.  

Today Stormont is deserted and Brexit presents new obstacles. The experience of violence and mistrust are grievances which way heavily. And yet. And yet transformation is possible. The peace campaigner blinded by a British soldier’s bullet speaks of the way forgiveness brings freedom; it ‘allows us [you] to let go’. Those Kielty meets in schools and comedy clubs, on the Belfast streets and in his home town hold onto the hope expressed my Mo Mowlam: ‘it may take a wee while but we’re going to make it’.

We’re going to make it. God’s Kingdom will come near in small steps amounting to unimaginable change.

Reconciliation takes time.  It is a glimpse of love’s risen body transforming wounds. As Kielty puts it: ‘where there’s peace, there’ll always be a wee bit of hope’.

This is the hope of forgiveness that love’s risen, still wounded body, breathes into us: forgiveness is a process; there is no coercion; each of us can chose moment by moment to accept that gift and be embraced by it; to refuse it or withhold it.

Thomas stands with us - like us - in that place of hesitation.  He has heard his friends talk about the peace of love’s risen body.

Rather than seeing him as the doubter or the skeptic, the pragmatist who wants to see for himself; perhaps he is just like every other disciple, then and now, grappling with loss and the most profound grief.

He hesitates with his tears and questioning; he’s seen some run away from the cross and others waiting at the tomb.

He, like us, waits for the old questions to answered; for fears to be rolled back like the stone. He needs to know that the horror and scandal of death - of the death of his Lord - to be overcome.

As the poet and writer John Gardener puts it:  ‘For [Thomas] to believe, death itself - and those specific wounds - would need to be overcome. It would have to be transformed, all of it… Thomas would have to see the very thing that had crippled him and broken his spirit undone’ [John in the Company of Poets]. 

Jesus speaks peace to his anxious heart.

Jesus tells him: what you most fear has been turned into life.

Death has been overcome by love’s risen body.

And Thomas declares the truth of his heart; the reality of his experience; the meaning of the Gospel.

My Lord and my God!

My Lord and my God!

Thomas rejoices that in Jesus God is with us. His death restores life to our frail, wounded, suffering and mortal bodies.

Jesus is God himself, in the fullness of our humanity, overcoming the enemy of death. He is love’s risen body.

Here at this Eucharist, our fears are dispelled by the peace we share; in broken bread and wine outpoured, we rejoice at transformed wounds and restored life.

We are called by name as witnesses to a new reality: like Thomas, belief is rooted in recognising this new life in love’s risen body.  

Such life is not an abstract ideal or unobtainable ideal. It is found in a person.  Because Jesus lives and overcame death, we too live.

We are united with as members of his body: love’s risen body.

We are to communicate that love in our body language:

Dare we have the confidence of Moses: encouraging others to stand firm, to not be afraid, to trust that God will guide us?

Dare we have the boldness of Thomas: naming our hurts, declaring our faith and having the courage to place our trust in the risen Lord?

Dare we follow the example of the early church: witnessing to our faith with grace and passion and striving to deepen our fellowship with each other?

To be members of love’s risen body is to be willing to put all that we have - and all that we are - at the disposal of God, in the service of others - in words of peace and in generosity, in acts of trust and in a movement towards forgiveness.

Alleluia: Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed: alleluia!

© Julie Gittoes 2018