Sunday, 30 July 2017

Educating the heart

The text preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on 30th July: I'm used to my sermon writing mind alighting on 'curious' connections, but yesterday I ended up re-reading sections of Mark Haddon's 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'. I vividly remembered the scene where Christopher goes to the Underground for the first time - the noise and wind and waiting for silence. 

Thinking about the Underground made me recall the 'thoughts for the day' posted on customer information white boards in ticket halls. So my train of thought went back to Solomon/wisdom, Paul/Holy Spirit and Jesus' parables - 'the kingdom of God is like...'. The texts were 1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8: 26-end; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

I could feel a strong wind and a roaring and I closed my eyes and the roaring got louder and I groaned really loudly but I couldn’t block it out of my ears… and the roaring turned into a clattering and a squealing and it got slowly quieter and then it stopped and I kept my eyes closed… and the train started moving and it roared again… and it went into the tunnel at the end of the little station and it was quiet again… and the people were all walking into the tunnels that went out of the little station. 

The London Underground: captured with the words of Christopher, the 15 year old narrator come detective at the heart of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

The Underground: overwhelming for Christopher who has Asperger’s Syndrome - who’s never gone further than the end of his road. 

The Tube: synonymous with heat, wind, noise, tunnels, escalators, interchanges, crowds, adverts, buskers,  pushchairs, suitcases, jostling, armpits, swaying, headphones, iPhones and the Evening Standard - read and then discarded.

Perhaps we’ve become immune to sensory and social overload as we navigate by instinct: the discomfort of forced intimacy; grimly avoiding eye contact; standing on the right; rushing by on the left. 

The beep of contactless payment or the frustration of ‘seek assistance’ and finally the thud and clunk of the barriers. 

And then, often in italicised script or in block capitals, we see thoughts for the day posted on customer information whiteboards from from Angel to the Oval, Earls Court to London Bridge.

The anonymous wisdom: Trust that every situation has seeds for growth and opportunity.

Or: The world is full of nice people, if you can’t find one, be one.

Words from John Constable: I never saw an ugly thing in my life… light, shade and perspective will make it beautiful.

Or Aristotle: Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all

After the roaring, rushing, clattering and squealing there’s space to reflect on human life and character. What do we want - or need? Is it time to shift our perspective or enlarge our vision? How do we live wisely?

We hear of Solomon’s musings on such questions, not in the din of rush hour but in the depths of his sleep. Prompted by God’s desire to bestow a gift on him, he examines the changes in his personal situation.

First he recognises the great and steadfast love of God; then he acknowledges the way in which his father sought to walk faithfully in obedience to God’s love.  

David may have stumbled and failed but he also repented and found forgiveness. His son is acutely aware the weight of mantel he’s taking on - of his youth, his inexperience and the enormity of the task ahead. 

He knows that wealth, longevity or revenge over his enemies aren’t the answer. Good governance depended on an understanding mind and the capacity to discern what is good.

And that is the beginning of wisdom - to know our limitations, to turn to the love of God and to reflect honestly on ourselves and our situation.  

Few are called upon to national leadership; each of us are called discern what is good. Whether it’s on Chapter or community committee; in family crises and budgeting priorities; in the mundane and the life changing; in the impression we make and the future we shape. 

Sometimes life can be overwhelming - like Christopher’s physical perception of being on the underground platform: we feel at the mercy of forces around us, unsure of what’ll happen next; listening, make sense, responding. Oftentimes, we bide our time - waiting for people and noise to ebb away. 

We understand the wind and roar of the tube; but it’s harder to know how to pray in the midst of weakness, adversity and indecision. Then we, like Christopher, groan audibly or inwardly; waiting for the quietness to descend. 

Like us, Paul groans in weakness - like him we do not lose hope because we trust in God’s loving purposes. Romans is, in part, a clarion call to live wisely - trusting in the power of reconciling love God in Christ and abiding in the Spirit.

God’s great and steadfast love has been made known among us in Jesus Christ. In him, humanity is destined to be conformed to his image. We are called and restored to right relationship with God and each other. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we are justified: that is, made right with God. We share in this glorious inheritance with a large family. 

This is our hope: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. All this has been accomplished. We are to live wisely by embodying the implications of the depth of this love, the scope of its embrace, the personal implications and the demands of being part of this new creation.

Wiliam Blake: sketch of the Trinity 

The Spirit helps us to pray: searching out all our fears, distress, vulnerability and hardship; knowing our hopes, loves, opportunities and our heart. The very groans of our hearts are accompanied by the sighs of the Spirit. 

Our groans are translated into most intimate language of God’s breath.

In the noise of our world, and in the sighs of our hearts, we are to have wise and discerning minds. We are to pay deep attention to God’s steadfast love and to the movement of God’s Spirit in our own situations. 

And then, perhaps, we will see something of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Like the thoughts on the underground, Jesus’ parables are brief, puzzling and memorable. No one image captures what the kingdom of heaven is like; each story educates our heart and shapes our character. Each scenario changes our perspective - enabling us to see beauty in light and shade.  Parables speak of growth and opportunity in every situation, however inauspicious. 

Jesus enlarges our vision through seeds, branches, yeast and flour: the insignificant things which harbour potential for growth, refuge, nourishment in and for the world.

He educates our hearts with a kingdom-vision of joy and delight; which demands our whole-hearted commitment, giving all that we have to make known the love of God. A love that will not let us go.

Jesus shifts our perspective: casting a net which reaps an abundant harvest; reminding us as Canon Andrew did last week of the difference between God’s merciful judgement and the limitations of our judgementalism. 

To be trained for this kingdom, means valuing the old and new; what is given and what is found in our pursuit of God’s loving wisdom.

In this Eucharist, let us pray ‘thy kingdom come: that in the noise we might find stillness, as the Spirit helps us in our weakness; that nothing will separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus; that we, his body, may grow in love, mercy and wisdom.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

He was called James

Last night I had the very great pleasure to preach at Evensong at the opening of the Endellion Summer Festival. This year it fell on the Feast of St James - so I was grappling with how we think about this example of being called by name to share good news, in the context of the a living community celebrating the gift of music.  Added to that, the texts were both complex and challenging in their different ways: first the stark warnings of a prophet (Jeremiah 26:1-15) and the immediacy of James’ response to Jesus (Mark 1:14-20).  In the end, calling and good news resonated through the text - and I managed to sneak in a reference to the other “James”… the indie rock band and their famous anthem ‘Sit Down’ releases  in 1989!

St Endellion Church

He saw James.
James, with his brother in their boat.
Sitting together mending the nets.

Mending nets demanded skill and patience: checking, untangling, knotting; nibble fingers handling needles; four hands holding the weight and tension.  It’s a scene which still plays out along our coastline. So mundane and time consuming we’d hardly notice it; we barely see.

And there Jesus saw him. 
Really saw him.
The fisherman: gazed upon;
by one who is God with us.

Guido Reni - Saint James the Great

He was called James.
James was called. 

He left his father and followed.
James listened, witnessed and asked a favour.
He questioned, doubted and was weighed down with sleep.
James believed, followed and fished for people.
Sharing life transforming good news made him apostle, martyr, saint.

If you Google “St James” you discover a boutique hotel, royal palace and a wealth management group; numerous schools, hospitals and a creative media company which, according to its website, injects a ‘thrill into a tailor made message’. St James’: a crown estate - a market like no other - food, fashion, lifestyle, art and events.

And in all these places, men, women, young and old, are engaged in tasks which demand skill and patience: planning lessons, cleaning offices, fulfilling ambitions, asking questions, making beds, welcoming diplomats, shaping campaigns, resisting sleep, cooking meals, managing wealth, suturing wounds, seeking work, creating art.

And God sees them; sees us.
We are seen with all our questions, passions, exhaustion and potential 
Like James, we are called by name.
By name we are called. 
Called to follow and listen, believe and share good news.
To see others as we are seen; and to see lives transformed by love. 

This is good news.

This news is, in the words of Rowan Williams, ‘a message about something that altered the climate in which people live, changing the politics and the possibilities; it transforms the landscape of social life’.  

Mark’s Gospel expresses possibility and transformation by with urgency: moments of amazement and ordinariness punctuated by the words kai euthys  ‘and immediately’. The universal scope of this good news is told in a series of intimate encounters. Today we glimpse James at the beginning of a journey. He spent the next days, months, years enfolded by good news. Good news he proclaimed. 

Good news that God’s beloved Son stood came to us in the midst of our longing, frailty and need for forgiveness. He taught with authority - revealing scope of God’s love in parables about sowers, seeds, lamps and yeast. He sought solitude as he prayed in a deserted place; he fed thousands on a hillside and taught thousands more on seashores and synagogues.  

Eugene Delacroix: Christ Calming the storm

Jesus stilled the storm and brought peace to the troubled mind.  Lepers, paralytics, the deaf, the blind and a woman with haemorrhages knew his healing power; he restored a little girl to life.  Fishermen, religious leaders, children, a tax collector and a Gentile women followed him in faith. 

He showed how God’s law of sabbath rest enabled human kind to flourish; he challenged the rich and ambitious, to serve God’s Kingdom; and treasured the widow’s mite. Jesus radically extended our understanding of kinship - all who love mercy are his mother, sister and brother.  

In him, love divine plumbs the depths of humanity.  

A close companion betrayed him; another denied him; a woman poured out lavish oil to anoint him. Bread is broken and wine is poured; tears, sleep, arrest and trial. Hosanna becomes crucify. At a moment of utter forsakenness a centurion sees God’s Son. And at an empty tomb risen life bursts forth. 

This is good news: God’s Kingdom breaks in, transforms and empowers; in our daily tasks, our journeys and our resting places. In all this is the love of God sees us as we are. Like James we are addressed by name and invited to turn and respond. Follow me!

New possibilities lie ahead; we are co-workers in this Kingdom. Transformation unfolds as we love God with all that we are; with every fibre of our being; voices, gestures, heart and mind; loving neighbour as ourself.  

The speed of James’ response is remarkable: can we imagine letting go of the equivalent of nets, family, boat and crew?  What could be so compelling that we leave familiar rhythms behind? 

And yet, we are here - we’ve stepped aside from our regular round of commitments and responsibilities to join with this living, festival community.

Do we recognise in the pull of this place of pilgrimage, something that James might have seen in Jesus? A longing for the opportunity to reconnect and reflect;  for encouragement, joy, renewed relationship and spiritual refreshment? 

Richard Hickox described the spirit of this place as something on which ‘we all feed’. He called it a ‘magnet’ as well as a ‘refuge’.  There is something magnetic and irresistible about Jesus too - but it’s not always easy or comfortable.  James found himself re-deploying his trade - a fisherman becoming a fisher of men. 

To be caught by the love of God - to draw others into that abundance - is to find our refuge, our place and our purpose. In creation God gave us freedom to follow or reject love; in Christ that rift is overcome; by the power of the Spirit’s guidance we bear the witness to the good news of that love, bringing healing and wholeness.  

To ‘catch’ people for this Kingdom is joyful and demanding. It means seeing people as they are - being with them as God was with us in Jesus. To take words from another “James”, this time the indie rock band, we are to ‘sit down’; to sit down ‘in sympathy’ with those ‘who feel the breath of sadness’, those ‘touched by madness’ or who ‘find themselves ridiculous’.

When we sit down in love: in the face of fear, or hate or tears, heaven touches earth.  To sit alongside others - to see them as God does - is prophetic. It makes hope and consolation known in the present. 

It’s not easy.

Some days, we’ll sympathise with the reluctant prophet Jeremiah. At a time of political and social upheaval he carries the lonely weight of continuing to speak of the demands of God’s love. Although he was shunned and ill-treated, he was not a defeatist. 

He was persistent in speaking truth to those in positions of authority; calling them to return to listen to God; to avoid the impending disaster by walking in the way of his law of love. 

Even in the darkest times of rebuke, mockery and condemnation, Jeremiah holds on to the hope that God will not abandon him. Nor would God abandon his people - but would touch every human heart. James saw that prophecy come to fulfilment - as Jesus brings a new covenant in his blood; as the Spirit brings new life to the law. 

Jesus saw James.
Like James we are called by name.
By name we are called.
Called to follow and listen, believe and share good news.
To see others as we are seen; and to see lives transformed by love. 
Your music gives voice to that vision with joyful song.

Over the coming days, may you glimpse a new heaven and a new earth. 
May you hear and respond to the heavenly voice declaring that God dwells with us.
Over the coming days, may you find refuge, encouragement, joy and delight.
May the Holy Spirit equip you return home embracing new possibilities.

This is good news.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The smell of rain

This is the text of a sermon preaching at the Cathedral Eucharist on 16th July 2017. The texts were: Isaiah 55:10-13, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.  I read and mull over the readings early on in my sermon prep - just sitting with the language and narrative - and before I'd even reached for a commentary, I found myself obsessed (for want of a better word) with the falling rain. Rain led me to smell. Smell to soil. Suddenly Isaiah 55 had opened up a new reading of the famous and familiar parable of the sower. We think we know what it means - them and us, those who whither away and those who remain faithful. Suddenly the challenge of soil management and the grace of rain subverted all that. So here are musings... musings on the smell of rain (time wise, paragraphs in italics I cut as I preached). 

The smell of rain.

That, sweet earthy fragrance as rain falls; as rain falls on parched soil after a long period of warm dry weather.  The scent of rain falling drop by drop; lightly, persistently, building towards a summer storm.

It evokes memories of hazy, lazy days: the intensity of unbearable heat broken by refreshing rains; the patter of water droplets on the picnic hamper, skyward glances, is that rain? Plants thirsting for every drop; sandals splashing through puddles; lawns recovering their verdant hew. 

The smell of rain. It has a name. 


‘Petrichor’ is derived from ‘petra' meaning stone and ‘ichor’, the life blood of the gods in Greek mythology.  Water on soil is rich in life. That evocative aroma is the combination of plant oils and chemical compounds released from the soil when it rains. 

Recent research using high speed cameras show hows petichor, the fruitful fragrance of rain, gets into the air.  As raindrops hit the soil, they capture tiny bubbles of air; these ‘bubbles’ shoot upwards, erupting into a fizz, releasing fine droplets; they remain suspended in the air as ‘aerosols of scent’.

The smell of rain: a scent which fills the air evoking perhaps a primal sense of dependence. Raindrops which stave off fear of drought; summer showers signalling the potential for growth, fruitfulness and harvest.  The smell of rain signals survival; ‘the smell of rain is rich with life’.

In India, the monsoon rains have an impact on psychological, agricultural, political and economic life. In the UK, Isaiah’s imagery of rain watering the earth giving seed and bread still resonates for farmers, gardeners, retailers and shoppers effected by yield and price. 

What is true of rain, is true of God’s word and purposes. Isaiah’s vision of life, hope, joy and peace is expressed in the extraordinary vibrancy of the natural world: song breaks forth and we are invited to imagine the rapturous applause of creation. 

The smell of rain brings life. 

The sound of creation’s praise signals a new thing.

If the smell of the rain is a sign of God’s kingdom, might the distinctive nature of discipleship carry its own fragrance? Might the trees of Isaiah’s vision give us a clue?

Residents of Cathedral Close know that brambles grow with particular vigour; and whilst we delight in plucking the fruit and making blackberry jam, thorn and brier colonise a garden.  Here in Isaiah, those plants give way to the fragrance of the myrtle and the strength of the cypress.  

Like trees, lives transformed by fulfilling God’s purposes, will have have distinctive form and shape.  Unlike thorns, we aren’t to colonise or chock. Yet we are rooted and visible within our public space. 

There will be vitality in our deeds which have the ‘fragrance’ of healing the broken, concern for the vulnerable and an infectious joy; there will be strength in standing up against abuse or neglect, and standing for justice, mercy and peace. 

Isaiah associates God’s word with rain, watering the earth; Jesus’ parable orients us towards the soil itself - inviting us not to solve a riddle, but simply to listen. To let words surprise, challenge, inspire and shape our posture - the body language of the church if you like; what we reveal of God’s love.

Soil is a complex mix of minerals, organic matter, base material and water - with varying qualities acidity, drainage, fertility. Soil is in some way ‘managed’. 

The Environment Agency and Gardeners’ Question Time offer advice on soil types and appropriate plants. 

On Surrey clay and chalky Downs, the smell of rain means it is rich with life: but we also have some input in cultivating good soil.  

Perhaps Jesus is pointing us to the need to cultivate receptive soil - preparing different types for sowing, rainfall and harvest. Listen!

That soil isn’t just out there in the world; soil is our inner life too. Stanley Hauerwas is a theologian alert to the challenge of discipleship. We are to proclaim the Gospel afresh in a world which is asking questions about identity, authority, hope and fear. Society may be shaped by Gospel values in our judicial or health care system - but is it ready to hear anew? Are we? What’s the soil like? Has it rained lately?

The Sower with Setting Sun, 1888
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

In his commentary on Matthew, he writes of being ‘possessed by possessions’ and our desire to act in the world and serve the poor without losing them.  He speaks of the lure of wealth and cares to the world which ‘darken and choke our imaginations’ which reduces the Gospel to a sentimental ‘formula for “giving our lives meaning” without judgement’.  He also challenges the strategies we adopt as a church to ‘recover lost status and/or membership’ without facing the demands of being a disciple.

Canon Andrew, Neil Vigers and I have been discussing his engagement with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who challenged the shallowness of what he called ‘cheap grace’. He argued for the increased visibility of the church - a church were the soil is being prepared for deep roots to be established and where we embody the fragrance of the joy and peace proclaimed by Isaiah. 

Hauerwise writes:  ‘What Bonhoeffer gives those in the ministry to do is imagine how the social significance of the everyday ministerial tasks such as preaching, presiding at the Eucharist, and caring for the dying are practices for the formation of a people who are capable of being a political alternative to the world.’

To speak of being an alternative is about cultivating an imaginative, social and ethical common life - which is a sign of God’s Kingdom. Our body language is shaped by practices which speak both of the truth of our human condition in all its frailty; and of the truth of God’s love which binds up the broken. In a complex world, we are to name signs of God’s Kingdom in mutual care and ecological concern and to challenge the toxicity of selfish desires to possess and consume.

Last week, we heard Paul grappling with these recognisable existential realities of tension, choice and struggling to do the good that he wills - for the soil of his life to be fruitful. Today, we hear him express the ultimate reality of his hope in Christ: there is no condemnation. Through his death and resurrection, sin and death are defeated;  the power and richness of resurrection life breaks in. Despite human weakness and distress, grace, joy, blessing bubbles us within us. The Spirit brings life and peace to our mortal bodies.

We share with Paul, Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas  practices which call for humility and repentance, joy and self-giving.  In word, sacrament and care we do taste, touch, see, hear and even ‘smell’ the rain of God’s Kingdom. Our practices embody and express with an intimacy and patience the blessing of God - enabling us to be a blessing to the world, that the world might clap and sing in praise. 

These practices they are rooted in the love of God which is spoken in the word of creation and the Word made flesh dwelling with us; it is a word we still hear in the cries, murmurs and songs of the Holy Spirit. 

In this Eucharist, the sower’s seed becomes bread for the eater; Christ the grain that dies, multiplies and feeds with heavenly food. Here we become alert to the signs of God’s Kingdom in our world - to the smell of the rain as God’s word touches the soil of our lives. We also need to cultivate the soil of our hearts; in prayer, God’s refreshing word rains down on us.

Whether we take a psalm, a favourite hymn, the Lord’s Prayer, or a line from Scripture; whether we use an app to pray the daily office or re-appropriate the monastic hours in our daily life, or pause as the kettle boils, as we walk from the station or sit beside another in compassionate, companionable silence. 

The rhythm of life is made holy; the soil is prepared; the seed is sown.
We smell the rain; it is rich with life.
May our lives carry the fragrance of life-giving, self-giving love.

© Julie Gittoes 2017