We plough the fields…

A reflection for the Plough Sunday service in Ripon Cathedral.

January 13th, 2019.

Ecclesiasticus 38.25-34

1 Corinthians 9.6-14

‘Field of dreams: heartbreak and heroics at the World Ploughing Championships.’ So declared a newspaper article published in November of last year.

(The Guardian, 23rd November, 2018).

When I was a bishop in New Zealand, the region in which I was bishop was host to the largest annual agricultural show in the Southern Hemisphere: ‘Fieldays’. While I attended largely for the purposes of networking and perhaps the odd freebie (an episcopal purple cattle-prod was my best take-away item one year! I don’t use it (of course), but were I in Westminster this week I might be tempted to wave it in the direction of our politicians), it was the tractor-pull competition that was usually the sell-out ticket event. So the popularity of the world ploughing competition did not surprise me one bit.

Rather helpfully, the article said this:

‘Competitive ploughing is unquestionably a sport, in that it’s an organised physical activity with a governing body and strict rules, but it’s fair to say that the physique of a world-class ploughman doesn’t immediately call to mind a Novak Djokovic (he’s a tennis player just in case you are wondering). Ploughing – after sufficient immersion – can quietly thrill in its display of precision and technique, but is it not a pastime that requires fitness or even a healthy BMI. One recent winner of the annual British Ploughing Championship was 82 years old.’

The article ended this way:

‘Most ploughmen (and I assume there might be some ploughwomen too?) can’t imagine not ploughing. Why would they stop doing something they had always done? Ploughing isn’t the habit of a lifetime as the habit of all time, embedded in our language, our constellations, our yoga positions (!), our hymns. Plough the fields and scatter. God speed the plough. Plough on. For many farmers, it is the natural, ancient way to work the earth, a very hard habit to break. As ploughman once said to me: ‘The plough’s been here for far too long for it not to be right.’

Ancient wisdom is earthed in the ground and manifested in the heavens – God’s blessings (we pray) borne out through our creativity as we work the land, care for it and tend to it. And that in a deep sense is expressed through our two Bible readings, both of which mention the art of ploughing; and I use that word quite intentionally. My father once told me the story of going into a field after it had been ploughed and looking at the furrows seeing them as if the earth were improvising with itself through the work of the farmer: the rows of tilled soil, and the back and forth pattern which is similar but not repetitive. A kind of ‘ploughing as jazz!’ you might even suggest. While this might seem like a world away from art, it is significant that themes of innovation and creativity were very much to the fore at the recent Oxford Farming Conference that I attended; a defiant and inspiring stand against the anxiety of our current political and national climate.

In this continued Christmas and Epiphany season of birth, joy and opportunity, I invite us to consider how the truth of God made manifest in Jesus Christ might be a source of inspiration and hope for us: n the midst of all the uncertainty of Brexit, and for all the vulnerability of those who work to supply our food and nurture the earth. May this blessing of the plough today be a sign of God’s continued work in our midst and most importantly of our roles as co-creators with God in all that we do.

God speed the plough! Amen.


Small or far away? A reflection for new year’s eve.

Shared in Ripon Cathedral at the Watchnight Service, December 31st 2018.

Buried in all the recent news headlines (and you’d be forgiven for missing it) is a report from the world of science, and space exploration in particular. Tomorrow – 1st January, the US probe ‘New Horizons’ which has been travelling away from the sun at great speed for the past 13 years – will encounter ‘Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69’ (aka ‘Ultima Thule)’, and using its on-board instruments will analyse its every detail.

‘Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69’ is located four billion miles from Earth, at the dark edge of our solar system. Our sun is so remote from this place that it appears no brighter than a star. The belt is made up of rubble left over from the formation of the sun’s planets billions of years ago, fragments that are a fossil record of the solar system’s birth. For decades, researchers have dreamed of getting a close-up look at one but have been thwarted by the utter remoteness of the Kuiper belt. In the process MU69 will become the most distant object that has ever been explored remotely by human beings. A remarkable feat indeed! But, so what?

It’s all about perspective, and in a sense that’s one of the messages of the Christmas season (that we are still in): Jesus’ birth was and is meant to give us a different perspective on the world. You could even say that because Christians believe that God became human at Christmas that it was the beginning of God’s own unique perspective and experience. God sees things as we see them. God isn’t up there on a cloud looking down on us.

The New Horizons probe journey deep into the far reaches of space shifts our perspective away from what preoccupies us in the here and now outwards and beyond any distance that we can possibly imagine. If our sun looks like a pinpoint of light from 4 billion miles away then what are we? Virtually nothing. Yet Jesus says in the Gospels, ‘…even the hairs of your head are all counted.’ The point is that God knows and loves each one of us, and that even if God can sometimes feel as far away as ‘Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69’ (and remember that’s 4 billion miles, which by my calculations is the equivalent of travelling from my home in Sharow to Ripon Cathedral and back 1111111111.11 times!) God never gives up on us, and is always close to us.

In the recent finale of the current Doctor Who series, the Doctor says this: ‘None of us know for sure what’s out there, that’s why we keep looking.’ How true that is.

May you continue in your exploration of faith, and may you know the love that God has for each and every one of you, and pass that love on to all whom you meet in the days ahead, and in the new year to come.

Happy (almost) New Year!


A home we build together?

A sermon preached on Christmas Day, 2018 at Ripon Cathedral.

Luke 2:1-20

I have experienced many unusual things since I became a bishop; on one particularly memorable occasion I found myself on all fours trying to fix Joseph’s head back on his body. I had my suspicions about the nativity scene in question when I first saw it: Jesus was disproportionately huge when compared to Mary and Joseph, and had such a startled look on his face that he looked like he should be in another genre, perhaps a zombie nativity? Mary, as I discovered was actually a statue with two individuals, the other head was covered in a blue cloth giving Mary a somewhat alternative sort of look with a mysterious bulge off to her left; but clearly with Joseph there was a major problem. I stood surveying the scene with Eric, church warden and local farmer, a man of choice words.

‘Hmm, Joseph doesn’t look too good’, I said,

‘yep’, replied Eric, ‘he’s lost his head’.

‘Yes’, I replied, ‘I wonder what’s happened there?’

‘I don’t blame him’, said Eric, ‘if I had gone through everything he had, I’d have lost my mind’.

‘Oh’, I replied, ‘well shall we have a look for his head?’

‘Yep’, said Eric, ‘I can’t get down there bishop because of my hip, but you go ahead’.

(Me, on all fours, sound muffled as I was by this stage rooting round in poor lighting underneath an altar.)

‘I think I’ve found it! Oh hang on, that’s the tea-towel…wait a minute, ah got it!’ And up I came victoriously holding Joseph’s head aloft!

‘Right’, said, Eric, ‘can you put it back on?’

‘I’ll try’, was my reply.

After a very careful balancing effort of head on shoulders with a strategically placed tea-towel, Joseph seemed ok, though his head maintained a very off-centre lean towards giant zombie baby Jesus.

‘Good as gold’, said Eric.

There is always something quite reassuring about depictions of the nativity, reassuring because you can almost always guarantee that something is not going to go quite to plan. I was at a carol service at Wetherby Young Offenders Prison a couple of weeks ago and the chaplain announced at the start that unfortunately the wise men had been taken away in a recent rubbish collection (they are hoping for replacements in time for Epiphany). Or the vicar trying to talk to a classroom of children about the true meaning of Christmas: and a small boy insisting that Jesus’ name was in fact Wayne because we all know the carol ‘A Wayne in a manger’, or slightly problematically with said carol, unfortunate rumours that someone has gone away with the major. On the other end of the spectrum are attempts to make Jesus’ birth ‘fit’ modern culture (however that may be construed). One of the more interesting depictions of Jesus’ birth that I saw recently was a nativity scene known as ‘Hipster Jesus’ featuring Joseph taking a selfie with Mary and Jesus (Mary incidentally looking like she had given birth in a private hospital and showing no signs of the reality of labour and birth), the wise men delivering amazon boxes on Segway scooters; and a cow feeding on gluten-free cattle feed. The reality is (and it bears repeating) that Jesus was born into the politically complex and messy world of the 1st century Roman occupied province of Judaea, and we might say, what has changed? How can this birth that we celebrate this night bring hope to the desperate and needy; to islands where natural disaster has created such pain and trauma; to anxiety and fear because of our own fraught political climate?

How can we truly say that Jesus’ birth is good news to a broken world?

Well, just listen again to the words of the angel in our Gospel:

‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

One of the many issues that has arisen consistently in the conversations I have had over the past few months since I became Bishop of Ripon is around housing: mostly new houses being built, and concerns around their affordability. Increased house building raises questions about what it means to make communities. A house alone doesn’t make a community; it needs more than a building. Our identity is bound up both with where we born but also where we live, and with a sense that both are expressed in an understanding of life as a journey or a pilgrimage.

In his book ‘The Home we Build Together’ the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks readers to imagine three different scenarios each involving the arrival of 100 strangers who have been wandering around the countryside looking for a place to stay. The first 100 are greeted warmly. Their host gives them empty rooms and tells them to stay as long as they wish. Everything is done for them, but they remain as guests in someone else’s home. The second 100 wanderers have plenty of money and they are welcomed at a hotel. Theirs is a purely contractual relationship with the hotel’s owner; but so long as they don’t disturb the other guests they are told they can stay for as long as they wish. The third 100 are welcomed by the mayor and civic leaders. There is no house or hotel available but the community does offer some land, building materials and help with the laboring. Their offer is: ‘Let us do this together.’ These three parables offer three different ways of thinking about society and identity. The first 2 lead to isolation, the third to integration and the sharing of gifts. Rabbi Sacks wrote this book in 2007, well before any crisis of displaced peoples and refugees seeking welcome and a place to call home; well before the chaos of Brexit; and well before the rapid rise of housing developments. The challenge for each of us is how might we encourage a more open and inclusive society that is genuinely interested in a sharing of gifts, with all the vulnerability that brings?

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born, Mary laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn. But a more accurate reading of that narrative is in fact that Jesus was born in a family home, albeit not in the usual guest accommodation (because that was full) but the room in the lower part of the house which would have been reserved for animals. The point is that Jesus was not born in isolation, but right in the middle of the messiness and complexity of family life. That puts the incarnation in our midst, and challenges us out of comfort and complacency into a profound recognition that our lives are bound up in the lives of others: the last, the least and the lost.

He is the Way writes WH Auden

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.

Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;

You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.

Love Him in the World of the Flesh;

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Happy Christmas!


Ripon Cathedral Founders and Benefactors 2018

Sermon preached at the Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors at Ripon Cathedral on October 14th 2018.

Ecclesiasticus 44.1-15; Matthew 5.13-16

If you travel three hours’ north from Suva on the Fijian island of Viti Levu, you will reach the turn-off that leads to the village of Maniava. This was a journey I took around about this time two years ago, with Archbishop Winston Halapua (the Archbishop of Polynesia) and forty young people from the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. When we arrived in Maniava, I for one was glad of the ceasing of the bumpy journey. The cool air conditioning of the car however was replaced by the intense heat and humidity of the mid-point of the day. It was clear to me, that we had arrived into what looked like a temporary place, there were no homes as such, rather tents and precarious looking tin-structures. It turned out that the tin that made up the homes was what was recovered scattered across the surrounding valley and hillsides. Maniava was virtually destroyed in 2015 by a cyclone. One of the effects of climate change is increased everything: increased heat, increased sea levels, increased intensity of tropical storms. The effects are real, and they are happening now. The people of Maniava were, in spite of their immense obvious struggles with a lack of adequate and safe shelter, filled with joy in their welcome; they sang praises to God; they even provided a chair for me so I didn’t have to sit on the ground (just one of so many examples of gracious hospitality that I found deeply humbling). Following our welcome, we left the relative comfort of the shade and headed outside and up a hill to the site where their new church was to be built. My task was to help Archbishop Winston dig the first soil for the foundations, and bless the land. The children from the village eagerly gathered round to help me, two of them spent the whole time clearing ants away from my feet, and some put their hands with mine and together we pushed the spade downwards into the dry and dusty soil. It was heavy and hot work.

All that of course, is a world away (quite literally) from North Yorkshire some two years on. So why mention this now, here? Well, as our Diocesan Bishop, Bishop Nick often says, we need sometimes to look through the eyes of another culture in order to understand our own. We have already listened to the language of the founders of this Cathedral church, the language of Anglo-Saxon. Our forebears in faith inhabited a world that of course was vastly different from the world we live in now, but as we listen to their language we are connected with them in ways that we cannot see but perhaps, if we consider it for a moment, we can sense. The first word of that Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is ‘Listen!’ And that too perhaps is the foundation word of discipleship – Listen. Of course Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf rendered that first word ‘So’ (and here I must defer to the Anglo-Saxon scholar Canon Professor Joyce Hill in our midst; I’d be keen to know her thoughts). But in a sense, whether ‘listen’ or ‘so’ – it is a call to attention: something is happening here, and we need to take note.

‘Let us now sing the praises of famous men…’ so our reading from Ecclesiasticus entreats us – again, listen, take note. All this is because of what they did, those founders and benefactors. Those whose vision gave us all this; which we are called to guard, nurture and gift on to generations to come. We might however want to say, ‘let us now sing the praises of famous men and women…’ History is written from the point of view of the victor, and those whose voices are the loudest. None of this, none of it would have happened without the women! Someone asked me on Friday, the feast of Wilfrid what he might have made of a woman as a bishop in this area. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess, was my reply. But I doubt it would be fair to ask Wilfrid that question; because we live in different times. What links us is Jesus’ command in our Gospel reading to be salt and light.

My friend and former colleague Nick King, who has produced the most wonderful translation of the New Testament reflects that ‘as Christians we can get our mission wrong in two ways. We can either see our task as lecturing the rest of the world on their errors; or we can think that no one will listen and keep quietly to ourselves.’ These images of salt and light, offer a middle way (isn’t that so classically Church of England?!). He continues to reflect that ‘we have to be gentle, merciful peacemakers; but we have to add ‘bite’ and illumination to the world.’ Jesus is telling a joke here; we are meant to laugh – ‘no one puts a light under a bucket do they?’ But there’s a lesson to be learnt here too: we have no cause to be shy about the Gospel message; we are called to be confident in our faith so that others might be curious and enquire what it is that gives us this confidence. And please note I am talking about confidence here, not arrogance. There’s a big difference!

In a little while we will listen to the names of those individuals who gave salt and light to the witness of this Cathedral church; individuals whose life stories are every bit as colourful and complex as their names: Eata, Cuthbert, Wilfrid, Eadhead (which if you google of course thinks what you are really after is advice on how to deadhead your roses in this autumn season!), Ceolfrith, Willibrord, Athelstan, and many many others, down to this present day: the Dean and Chapter, musicians, vergers, guides, welcomers, stone-masons, each and every person whose story is woven into the very fabric of this place. Cathedrals, this Cathedral speaks powerfully of the story of God in this city and region, but it also speaks of wider connections across borders and seas. Many (if not most) of the names just mentioned had strong connections with the countries of mainland Europe. One of the great tragedies and ironies of our current political climate is that we are so foolish and deluded and indeed arrogant to think that we are better and stronger if we go it alone. To be connected isn’t about all thinking exactly the same thing. In the somewhat irreverent but at times painfully accurate Monty Python film The Life of Brian, which tells the story of a man whose life parallels that of Jesus, Brian says to the crowd at one point: ‘You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!’ The crowd replies in unison, ‘Yes! We’re all individuals!’; Brian replies, ‘You’re all different!’ to which the crowd replies, ‘Yes, we’re all different!’. Then a lone man in the crowd shouts, ‘I’m not…’ to which the crowd says ‘Shhh!’

Earlier this year in his sermon during the consecration and dedication of the new church in the village of Maniava, the church whose foundations I had helped dig in that intense heat, Archbishop Winston drew a parallel between Jesus’ life and the Fijian concept of hospitality, often used at feast time: Help yourself! enjoy yourself – don’t stop! There’s plenty – take some home! (in Church of England terms just think lots and lots and lots of cake). Jesus’s life, death and resurrection showed that “the love of God is no longer locked up in Heaven,” he said. “It’s now on planet earth, never to stop. It’s overflowing. It keeps going, keeps coming, it embraces us and there’s no end.” And that love of God, said Archbishop Winston, had been demonstrated by the generosity of God’s people who had enabled the transformation of Maniava.

It is a world away, and yet it is right here with us, in this place and we I think are in that tiny Fijian church too – connected. God’s overflowing generosity in the Kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate.

So…let us now sing the praises of famous people; those written about, those whose names remain unknown, undocumented. Our ancestors in their generations. May their names be etched in our hearts; and may these ancient stones echo the wonder of your eternal name O God to whom all honour and praise is due now and for all eternity.


Be doers of the word…

A sermon preached at St Paul and St Margaret, Nidd in the Diocese of Leeds. Sunday September 2nd, 2018.

Mark 7.1-8, 15, 15, 21-23

James 1.17-end

‘You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.’

There is a strong case to be made for letting our readings this morning speak for themselves! Both these words from the letter of James and our Gospel reading reflect the theme of what sort of character we need to have in order to be a disciple. It’s an invitation to each of us perhaps to stand in front of the mirror and ask ourselves the question, ‘do you like what you see’ and even more challenging, ‘do you think God likes what God sees in you?’!

On Friday night, Myles and I had dinner with Bishop John Pritchard and his wife Wendy, and Bishop John commented to me that one of the hymns that had transformed his faith was ‘there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty. There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven. There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.’

If, when you look in the mirror, and you aren’t sure, remember those words. I have lost count of the number of times I traversed the Pacific Ocean in recent years, flying between the UK and New Zealand, but when I think of that hymn I recall the vastness of that ocean. If that is the expanse of God’s mercy, then how truly awesome is our God who knows and cherishes each one of us, even the very hairs on our heads (or lack thereof depending on how follicly challenged you might be!).

Yesterday morning I received news from New Zealand of the death of a retired Archdeacon in the Diocese where I was Bishop. A Maori priest, Archdeacon Tiki Raumati was a force to be reckoned with. He was not an easy man to listen to, or indeed to encounter. In an email I send to the Archbishop of New Zealand yesterday I remarked that my own relationship with Tiki reflected something of the complexity I often felt being a white, foreign woman in leadership. It’s very difficult for me to convey to you an understanding of what that means, but suffice to say that there was a break-through when Tiki allowed me to sit on the front row during the welcome ceremony on a marae before an ordination took place. Women you see are not usually allowed to sit on the front row on a marae (a Maori meeting ground), but in church contexts, protocol demands that women in leadership roles must be afforded equal status with their male counterparts. Tiki put up a fight on that point, but he had to concede defeat. I sat on the front row, and we stared one another down. But I also said in my email to the Archbishop: Tiki was a robust and challenging speaker, never afraid to speak truth to power and to lay bare the ravages of a colonial history that had inflicted great harm upon Maori. He also stood for a deep sense of reconciliation however, a reconciliation that was not about simply covering over the cracks, but forcing them open so that the deeper layers of our common humanity could be exposed. For that, I in a small way, give thanks and rightly acknowledge a life of faith lived in love and service of his people. May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

All of us have our weak points; things that can trigger our emotions. Jesus knew that, as did the author of this letter of James. Nicholas King, a former colleague of mine who has wonderfully translated the New Testament, writes that ‘it is impossible to recreate with any confidence the original purpose of this letter, but many scholars think that its author may have been that ‘James, the brother of the Lord,’ who became such an important figure in the early Church, and who was martyred in AD 61. If this was so, it may be that somebody else subsequently revised the letter…For our author, religion is more than just sitting in church; it needs to be tested by what happens in real life, the link between what we claim and what we do. That includes restraint in what we say (Donald Trump take note!), a distance from ‘the world’ and difficult things like showing love for the marginalised and the poor.’

That is really why this letter speaks for itself. If you do one thing this coming week, read this passage again and again and ask yourself: how can I show love and care towards others? How can I ensure that my words are spoken in love, not a naïve love but a love that acknowledges the sheer humanity of the one in front of me; the one made in the image of God who stands as Christ to me, as I stand as Christ to them? I have to say, that is one huge challenge!

But that is the whole point of being a disciple: that as our character is forged over time, we have edges that are knocked off, rough bits that are made smooth; arrogance that is perhaps transformed by humility. Jesus invites us to have a relationship with him, a personal encounter that ought to be front and centre of every part of our day, except it so often isn’t! And I wonder if what keeps us back sometimes is fear? I watched a YouTube talk recently by Eve Poole who is the 3rd Church Estate’s Commissioner; she lectures and writes on the topic of ‘leadersmithing’, because, she suggests leadership sounds a bit static; to think of leadersmithing suggests that we are crafted over time. She quotes from the 2001 film ‘The Princess Diaries’ that ‘courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.’

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.

What is that? Love. Love of God, love of self, love of neighbour. The love that compels us to care for one another. The love that challenges and provokes, but which represents that wideness of God’s mercy that knows no bounds. That is good news for each of us, and for all whom we will meet this coming week.

Thanks be to God.


Child’s play? The Trinity: a reflection

A reflection given as part of Choral Evening Prayer at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. May 30th, 2018.

Isa. 6.1-8

John 3.1-10, 14-16

Last Sunday, while I was preaching in a village church near Harrogate I noticed that a junior member of the congregation was working hard with some Lego (much more fun, I thought that listening to a sermon!) When it got to the part of the service where we exchange the peace I went to have a closer look. It turned out that young Noah was building a car which was part of a box containing bricks that could be used to make three different objects with the same combination of bricks. In bold print on the top right-hand corner of the box was the phrase ‘3 in 1’! This seemed thoroughly appropriate for Trinity Sunday. While I was attempting theological gymnastics in the pulpit, there was Noah wrestling with the same concepts in the form of plastic bricks! It would be unwise to rush to a conclusion in saying that the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t mere child’s play, because it is, just a bit.

Understanding the Trinity brings together two themes: mystery and revelation. God is mysterious and unattainable, yet at the same time God is revealed in Jesus Christ and active in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Children have a natural capacity for wonder, you only have to watch a baby’s face and eyes to see its response to everyday objects we take for granted. Even as adults, our facial expressions can be transformed when we witness something amazing, or find ourselves in a landscape that is truly beautiful. Perhaps you can think of a place you have been when you have had that reaction, when there are no words to express what we see, when words aren’t even necessary or possible. John Berger in his book ‘Seeing Things’ writes that ‘it is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’

And so we have revelation. Those moments when things do make sense; when the penny drops and we finally understand. Such moments fuel University life: in the lecture hall, the tutorial room, the lab, the library, the practice room; in all number of places. But revelation and mystery are intertwined, not separate. There’s a well-known saying ‘the more you learn, the less you know’! This doesn’t mean that learning itself is fruitless, but that we should never be so arrogant to think we know it all. We don’t, and we never will.

This theme of mystery and revelation lies at the heart of the Gospel, and of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. It is present too in that strange and terrifying reading from Isaiah.

Both speak of human capacity to be touched by mystery and transformed with fresh understanding through a revelation: lightbulb moments! Things that seem unreal and unworldly in fact exist and emerge in the mundane: God over us in creation; God in us through incarnation; God with us through the Holy Spirit.

From his series of poems Squarings, Seamus Heaney offers these words which seem (to me at least) to capture perfectly that experience of mystery and revelation that exists at the heart of human experience, and at the heart of the mystery and the certainly that is God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,

Convert to things foreknown;

And how what’s come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.

Seventh heaven may be

The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.

At any rate, when light breaks over me

The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine

Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried

And silver-lamé shivered on the Bann

Out in mid-channel between the painted poles,

That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.

Gifted? A sermon for Pentecost

University Sermon preached at Matins in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

May 20th, 2018.

Isaiah 11.1-9

1 Cor. 12.4-13

Some ask for the world

and are diminished

in the receiving

of it. You gave me

only this small pool

that the more I drink

from, the more overflows

me with sourceless light.

The words of RS Thomas’ poem Gift give us a lens through which to view both our readings this morning, and this feast Pentecost that we celebrate today. The coming of the Holy Spirit marked a new and dramatic season for the early church. We tend to think of this event in ways that are characterised by noise and colour: a great celebration akin to the scenes witnessed yesterday during the Royal Wedding. But even in that most wonderful of celebrations, there was a stillness, a mystery and the beauty of love, a moment when time stood still and we all got a sense of the mystery that surrounds us. When Sir Peter Maxwell Davies composed his 8th symphony entitled The Antarctic Symphony he travelled to that vast icy continent and noted an ‘extraordinary sound experience…(a) gentle avalanche of snow from cliffs towering high on either side of the narrow channel through which the ship was passing – the chilling powder enveloped us all on the deck, with a whisper and hiss that paradoxically seemed to be more profoundly quiet than the previous silence; no-one could speak for minutes afterwards.’ It was this experience among others that in his words ‘determined there and then that I use a Pentecost plainsong, associated with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, in this palpably most un-Christian symphony.’ Less noise, more silence.

Any reflection on gifts and giftedness is entirely appropriate in a University setting such as this. Universities in many ways both thrive and survive on gifts: gifts of financial endowment, gifts of intellect and wisdom, gifts of achievement and success (albeit hard-earned; I have met very few people who haven’t described academic work as easy). But those gifts can be a burden too. I speak from this Cathedral pulpit located in a place of power, privilege, and immense wealth; a world away from the people and places I encounter in the Yorkshire Dales on a daily basis. It has been a long and hard winter for farmers. The ‘chocolate-box’ exteriors of rural villages belie the experience of anxiety and poverty, the lack of affordable housing, the challenge of small schools and even in places the lack of connectedness through poor broadband coverage. It is what you do with wealth that matters, and uniquely being both College and Cathedral this building and its witness stands for more than just riches and privilege, and thank God for that!

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul provides a summary of the spiritual gifts, a kind of shopping list of what is available. When you read it you have to wonder about its ordering. It has the potential for chaos. Nicholas King asks, in the context of these verses: ‘how do you prioritise the gifts, and how do you prevent the Christian liturgy from becoming a zoo, if all these gifts are on offer?’ Certainly if Isaiah is anything to go by, with a wolf living with a lamb, a leopard lying down with a kid, and a calf, lion and falling together all being led by a little child, this is a very interesting zoo indeed! But nature of course with all its rawness, hardship and violence, can also be a wise and gentle teacher. Both our readings show capacity for human beings to dream of a better world, one in which both the work restoration and the proclamation of hope are abiding principles to govern how we live. Paul’s response to potential liturgical confusion is to return to the Spirit, the source of all gifts and the driver of unity in the Christian Church. This is the same Spirit that Isaiah speaks of: the Spirit that can sustain and enliven in the most desperate of circumstances, a people in exile. But it is also a warning that both the Spirit and the gifts it provides often come from the most unlikeliest of places, and in the most surprising of circumstances.

It’s easy sometimes to see church as yet another consumerist activity; we can (in theory at least) choose where to go; we can offer various services, gatherings, Bible study groups, and whatever else we can think of. We can also choose to leave and branch out on our own in the belief that that will be better, but Christ’s body is wounded in fragmentation. The list on offer can be endless, and there is pressure on churches to market themselves, and find creative ways of using space to appeal to the apparent ‘popular market’.

But the danger is that in all of this, we forget not just who we are but whose we are. The drive to consumerism even when it promises to help a worthy cause is, as a friend pointed out to me recently really just about buying more stuff; it doesn’t save the planet or removing global poverty! We are the Body of Christ and in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body, so writes Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. In the drama of Acts, at the time of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Paul had yet to realise that, we know those words and yet so often we forget them. Not just who we are, but whose we are. Innovation, by all means, but introspective navel gazing by all means not! When we remember whose we are, then we can respond in humility and not arrogance.

Through the Holy Spirit, by proclaiming the Gospel, as one commentator observes, we still attend to the words of Jesus; in the church and in the world, we still attend to the acts of Jesus in his body. We attend to the word of God that calls upon us still; but to do any of that effectively, we need to be able to notice the things that surround us, and do that, we also need to slow down sometimes…and that…is not easy. For all its exuberance and obvious energy, the Holy Spirit isn’t about a trolley dash through the aisles, it’s about attending to the still small voice, and noticing the signs on the road. Too often the church becomes fixed on its own glory and ignores the profound reality that following Jesus was not, is not, and never shall be about power and glory; quite the opposite.

Last week, I visited one of the church schools in the Anglican Diocese of Leeds. I met a young woman who is taking her GCSEs. I listened into a conversation she was having with a career’s advisor about a work placement that she wants to do after her exams are over: at a local radio station. She will have responsibility for producing her own programme, and she was very excited at the prospect this would offer her of enlivening and growing her gifts in the world of media studies. The fact that she is confined to a wheelchair following a freak accident as a 5 year-old would not prevent her from fulfilling her dreams. I was deeply humbled by my encounter with her, by her positivity and joy in a life that some would no doubt find unbearable and without hope.

Our lives are far more about navigating our way through mist than they are about enjoying the views from the top of the mountain. Whereas other revelations of God take place at height, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes in a down-to-earth level place where the followers of Jesus were gathered together. ‘I sought to hear the voice of God and climbed the topmost steeple’ (so writes John Henry Newman), ‘but God declared: Go down again – I dwell among the people.’ God became one of us, dwelt among us, died on the cross for us, and rose again. We don’t spend all our days on mountain tops, we need to come down and when we do, we might indeed discover that the small pools from which we sometimes drink offer us the overflowing and sourceless light of God’s wisdom, grace and mercy.