Sunday, 22 January 2017

Honesty, humility and hope

This a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral at Evensong 22nd January: the texts were Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 and 1 Peter 1:3-12. Reflecting on wisdom, vanity, a living hope and a new creation - in relation to Trump, Brexit and the kind of communities we want to shape.

From the front page of today’s Observer: ‘Trump, as bullishly self-confident as he is ignorant, will not be easily denied. And the crass nationalism that lay at the heart of Friday’s speech is a powerful force. It appeals to the darker side of human nature, bolstering the insidious claims of jealousy, envy, greed and hubris. It thrives on fear, chauvinism and not always subliminal notions of ethnic, racial and moral superiority. It is a product of our time’.

A product of our time. A time of disorder, fear, and anxiety. A time when we grapple with questions of human flourishing: debates about family life, gender and sexuality; changing patterns of work, longevity, technology and social care; advances in genetics, changes in the climate and sustainable food supplies; the power of the 1%, the dynamics of the market, the role and form of the state.

A product of our time. An unsettled time. A time when, to quote the theologian and ethicist Luke Bretherton, ‘the world is out of control [and] the absurd begins to feel like common sense’.  The rise of President Trump and the vote for Brexit can be read as attempts to make sense of fear and disorder; how can we ensure that  taking back control resists the idolatry of ‘me and mine’ at the expense of others?

A product of our time: a time when we have become sceptical and fearful in the face of seismic shifts; a time when voices of protest rise up in defiance; a time when, in the face of the fragility of goodness, we must pursue the life of the common good.

In this time Ecclesiastes encourages and challenges us. The teacher makes us confront the inevitability of death.  He begins by exposing our ‘vanity’ in seeking lasting fame and the pretentiousness of what we count as achievement or impact: ‘all is vanity and chasing after the wind’.

Yet, he is not a doom-monger; he finds hope in humility.  We are to be humble; to be earthed; to recognise that life is from God; to be enjoyed in ordinary pleasure; to be endured in hope. Like us, this teacher is aware of human limitations and of the complexity of the world; he knows of suffering, loss of control and the workings of principalities and powers - which might be indifferent at best and abusive at worst.

Where do we find meaning and moral security in a world such as this? Does our quest end in the oblivion of death - the great equaliser, even for those whose names are carved in stone?  When we face dislocation - nationally and globally - how can the church offer stability? If we cannot ‘convince’ what might we offer that is authentic and compelling?

Imitating the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, means humility, honesty and hope. We cannot dodge pain and sorrow; we must speak plainly. The teachers adopts a poetic and pithy style - worthy of the 140 character limit of Twitter!  On the one hand he explores the meaning of life, unfairness and death itself.  It is the recognition of life’s brevity which has implications for our conduct now.

The word which we translate as vanity is the Hebrew ‘hevel’ - a word which means ‘breath’. It can express absurdity; but it also speaks of frailty. And in speaking of frailty, it points us to what is most important.

Life as ‘hevel’ shapes our moral life, our choices and ways of being in relation to each other; it shapes our prayers for President Trump, for our government, our diplomats; for our local councillors and the European leaders; it increases our capacity we resist and name as evil those things which deny human dignity; it increases our vision for the things we strive for, not for me and mine, but for the common good. 

Life is short but full of meaning; how we live matters. Breath by breath, the Spirit is at work in us. We need to be wise and humble; not manipulative or selfish. We take on responsibilities for sake of others; living generously within our limitations. We endure, together; we rejoice, together.  

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes resonates with our point in human history; it’s very ‘earthiness’ and humble wisdom prepares us to hear afresh the good news of Jesus Christ because it takes seriously the realm of our daily living as the arena for God’s activity.

In the passage we heard this evening, the basic physical - and emotional - rhythms of our live are set out: birth, death, hate, love, harm and healing. Our social world is named - war and peace, uprooting and planting, breaking down and building up. Reading though the BBC news feed, all of human life is there; just as the teacher of Ecclesiastes sets it out. And we must decide how we respond. How do we inhabit these rhythms of life for the common good?  We must resist futility and despair; dare we discern the pattern of God at work in our lives - and in our world - and strive for the good?

The first step, according to the teacher of Ecclesiastes, is to be attentive: longing for the past and fear of the future can prevent us from trusting God - from finding out what God has done from the beginning to the end. It’s the light of God which gives hope, clarity and purpose; our love of God calls us to be people of light; shining in darkness, resisting evil; turning the shadow of death into morning. Luke Bretherton makes this plea: ‘I beg those who consider themselves Christians to take up forms of politics oriented to faith, hope and love, yet alive to the fragility of ourselves, others and the world around us and to ignore the siren calls of the politics of nostalgia’.

And we can and must do this because the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ compels us to. In him, God reaches out to seek and save the lost; in him time is redeemed; in him nothing of value is lost or forgotten. And by the power of the Spirit at work in us,  new kinds of ways of relating are made possible and a peaceable common life can be nurtured.

It is that vision which is expressed in our second reading: we have a new birth into a living hope. In baptism we are caught up in the new creation. A creation which sows seeds of compassion, hope, kindness. Our inheritance is entrusted to us now - a legacy of light in the face of darkness, truth in the face of lies, humility in the face of the abuse of power.

The letters of Peter, are honest about the suffering and trials of this world; but also secure in the hope of salvation. The power of God is at work in us - in faith, hope and love. We are to be witnesses to a new reality - ambassadors of peace, justice and reconciliation. If President Trump and others play to people’s fears, how can we within the church give voice to people’s hopes? In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have a role in fostering community and continuing to tell the story of God across Europe and with our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic.

The Roman Catholic theologian Anna Rowlands wrote both of the loss of community in Sunderland and of its aspiration to be a place of real neighbourliness: if a binary question posed in a referendum in June has revealed 'painful fault lines' in our national life, we must pray, struggle and act in such a way that resentments do not become hatreds. How might this cathedral, our schools, our networks be places of 'open-hearted dialogue' - offering space for civic, social and cultural encounter; a community which forms bonds of affection as Rowlands hopes create ‘a sense of shared life across different classes, ethnicity and faiths?’

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

La la Land!

This evening I was at St Catherine's, Bramley: having seen La La Land last night, that seemed an interesting starting point for a reflection on the nature of 'enduring love'. It's a joyous film on so many levels - the sort of escapism many of us seek in the midst of seismic shifts in the political sphere. However, despite the colour, energy and optimism, this is a film which shifts gear in a profoundly honest and moving way. Human beings live with memories as well as hopes; we carry many stories with us - rooted in the truth of our experiences. Sometimes the intensity of our emotions mean we visual 'what ifs' and 'may bes'. How do we treasure lost loves, live with attention to the present and look towards the future with assurance? Exploring that would have been beyond the realms of a 5 minute homily! Watch the film and see where it takes you - to la-la land or into reality.

La La Land: it’s magnificent spectacle and unashamedly joyous: a movie offering us escapism.

This is a spoiler free zone: but the thing about such fabulous cinematic story telling is that it makes think afresh about love, dreams, sacrifice and purpose.

From the amazing opening sequence to the final scenes, it’s more than a clever homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age. There’s energy, song, dance, fantasy and poignant questions about priorities, choices and relationships. Is there a love that can endure?

It held together by one musical theme: a haunting phrase which draws Mia into a jazz bar. She’s captivated. 

Seb, the pianist, had carefully rehearsed that piece: he listens to it on vinyl - the needle careful lowed only to be raised after a few bars. He sits at piano and plays it back; he listens again; repeats the phrase. That night, he chose to ditch the set playlist of cheesy Christmas music and he plays the jazz he loves tentatively and with increasing confidence and delight.... 

... and as we watch Mia and Seb fall in love, it becomes their theme - the soundtrack to their life; their memories, hopes and feelings

Seb is gifted: he wants to open a jazz club; but he’s so reluctant to compromise on the purity of the tradition that he risks killing the very thing he loves.

Mia is a barista who wants to be actress; or an actress doing a few shifts in a cafe: she goes to audition after audition and wonders if it’s time to abandon her dream.

City of the stars, they sing, are you shining just for me.

City of the stars, just one thing everybody wants.

And that one thing? Love from someone else.

Dreams, disappointment, ambition, hard work, opportunity, compromise, success: that’s all in the mix. But as the song goes on, beyond the dances and rush of romance, we long for a voice that says:  I'll be here; and you'll be alright.

Mia and Seb find in each other someone who understands them: they offer encouragement, stability and reassurance to each other as their seek to achieve their personal goals.  

Their human love is stretched by circumstances, geography and the fulfilment of what they want to achieve. That’s a difficult truth. The love we receive from others - romantically, in families, in friendships and in this community - is precious. It changes us; we want it to last for the long haul; but it is valuable even when life takes us in different directions, and we let go. 

At it’s very best our human love reflects something of God’s love. And that’s the point of our reading.  We love because it is a gift of God. It's a love that endures. 

Not only that, but God loved in a way that we could recognise: in sending his Son Jesus, we learn what love looks like. God loves in being with us. 

In Jesus, love reaches out to us in the depths of failure, frustration and hurt; and to the heights of enjoyment, fulfilment and energy. It’s a love that forgives us when hurt others; a love that heals us when we feel broken; a love that gives us courage to stand up for what is right; a love that strengthens us to be who we’re called to be. 

God is love. 

God is with us. 

God’s love is in us! 

God’s Spirit helps us to express love in kindness, patience and generosity. What might endured in g look like here. And when people see our love for each other - they aren’t in la la land; they glimpse the reality of God’s love. A love that is more real. A love that endures.  A love perfected in us.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Monday, 9 January 2017

Looking beyond the stars

This is the text of a sermon preached on Epiphany at Guildford Cathedral exploring revelation and incarnation; worship and joy; our ongoing journey of faith. The texts were Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Later this month, you’ll have the opportunity to become an amateur star gazer for the evening.  The external lighting will be turned off as Cathedral becomes home to a pop up observatory. Volunteers from our local astronomical society will be on hand to help you use telescopes to explore the night sky.

For a moment, the wonder, curiosity and expertise of the magi might be ours. The depth of space, of time, of light… it is the same sky that they observed.

They watched and calculated and scrutinised not for one night, but for a lifetime. They notice some thing new. A brighter light. A comet, a supernova or a conjunction of the planets?

This cosmic sign revealed to them the birth of the one who is the morning star: the splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness; the love that said ‘let there be light’ is the love birthed in a stable; the love that is all in all, rest in a mother's arms, turning a house into hallowed ground.

The light has come - our light has come - in the midst of darkness: the darkness of the shadow of death, the darkness covering the earth, the thick darkness over the peoples.

This light dawns in the midst of political crisis and the brutal reality of human violence. Jesus’ birth takes place in time. In the time of King Herod. In the time of occupation, empire, threat and displacement; in the time when ruling by fear reveals fragility and creates instability.

It is in a world such as this that Herod finds himself acting as a catalyst. Those who’ve been guided by hope need help. In their desire to worship a new born king,  magi come to a palace, to the place we think power resides. In his desire to retain control of his own kingship, Herod consults experts and points the mysterious strangers beyond the stars to a a place. To a place where the child was.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Stefan Lochner, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440, Cathedral, Cologne

This light dawns in the midst of political crisis and the brutal reality of human violence. Jesus’ birth in time, is the still point in a transforms the world for all time. In our time, with its violence, instability and displacement of people; in our time, God continues to reveal to us his patient and loving response to our impatience and fear.

And it looks like a child with his mother. This is God with us. In the midst of us.

And we pay him homage: this child calls forth joy, yes; but as God’s very self, this child causes us to kneel and to worship.

And treasure-chests are opened.

Gold is offered a sign of Jesus’ kingship, yes; but also placing all of our resources as the disposal of a different kingdom; a setting aside of our desire to control and embracing instead love.

Frankincense is offered as a sign of Jesus’ divinity, yes; an act of putting first the call to prayer and worship; a placing at the heart of our lives the deep attentiveness to God.

Myrrh is offered as a sign of Jesus’ reconciling the world, yes; and this healing means confronting pain, sorrow and despair; here, we glimpse cross, death and resurrection.

The light has come. It shines in darkness. The darkness does not overcome it.

The wise men’s journey continues on another road:  they go, resisting fear and abuse of power; they return, witnesses to love, light and glory.

The Christ child’s journey continues on another road: he goes with Mary and Joseph, and seeks refuge in another land;  he will return, to set us free, revealing God’s love, light and glory.

King Herod’s journey continues on yet another road: his fear turns to fury, fury to violence; his violence becomes lamentation and death.

And yet, love wins.  Still the light shines. In our world.

It is not overcome. It reveals truth to us. We have to decide.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

We need to take heart from the diligence and joy of the wise; but perhaps we need to embrace their courage too.   For their quest throws up the deepest questions of identity: of who we are, who this child is and how we are to live in the world.

Day by day, we pray that the Holy Spirit might kindle in us the desire to seek and to find; to worship and to rejoice. In the light of the Christ child, not only do we see but we become radiant; our hearts over flow.  In the light of the Christ child, we experience something of God’s grace. The outworking of that grace is challenging; our imaginations our stretched, we live differently embodying God's wisdom in whatever we're doing this time tomorrow.

Such grace is, in the words of Rowan Williams, ‘the mysterious capacity to look in the face the destructive effects of human ignorance’. In saying this, he was reflecting on Shakespeare’s improvisation on the revelation which we celebrate this Epiphany; it’s a reflection on grace in Twelfth Night.

In a play which hovers between comedy and tragedy, we see the a journey of attentiveness and courage; an emotional journey of learning to make acquaintance with storms in order to love.

Shakespeare places us in the tumult of a ship wreck - drawing us into the lives of a rescued twin and a lost brother. He confronts us with the chaos of misrule, the delusion of self love, the cruelty of mockery; intoxicating passions and suffocating grief are played out in a whirlwind of mistaken identities.

The person who knowingly puts on a disguise, is the one person who effectively navigates the complex pathways of love. Viola’s is a love that serves and attends to the other; it is a love which is vulnerable and resilient; a love which is rooted in the assurance of faith and hope; a love which is neither defensive nor manipulative, but utterly authentic. Her maturity brings life, healing; it enables other to let go of their delusions and to interact more truthfully.

The resulting epiphany is of restored relationship as Sebastian looks on his disguised sister and says: Of charity, what kin are you to me? 
What countryman? What name? What parentage?

The revelation we glimpse today answers those same questions too: the mystery of Christ which has been revealed is about our kinship. Because he is God with us - living, dying and rising for us - we are children of God. As Paul puts it, we, the Gentiles, have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

If we are to seek wisdom like the magi and to love like Viola, we do so by entering into a drama which reveals our identity as members of Christ’s body.

The drama we enact today, names the shipwrecks and storms of our human condition: in the Eucharist, our fears, frustrations and desires, our griefs, betrayals and hopes are expressed.

The drama we enact today, names the patient and generous love of God which continues to reach out to us: in the Eucharist, we touch and taste and see grace that does not look away, light that continues to shine, hope that dispels fear and love that increases our capacity to love.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Our journey continues on another road: step by step, may the Spirit equip us to witness with boldness to the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Julie Gittoes © 2017