‘Boom!’ A sermon preached at the ordination of deacons in Wakefield Cathedral, Petertide 2019.

1 Sam 3.1-10

2. Cor. 4.1-12

Matthew 25.31-46

A few years ago now, when we were living in Oxford, my husband Myles was applying for a PGCE course. He went into town to get some photocopies of his CV, and to run a few errands. He returned home with the shopping but minus the copies of his CV. We wondered about that for a few minutes but soon forgot about it, and moved on. There was however a niggling question about the whereabouts of the the CVs that was answered about 10 days later when a letter arrived from Boots.

‘Dear Mr Hartley, thank you very much for leaving us copies of your CV. We were pleased to receive them. We weren’t sure which position you were applying for, but we do have a number of openings in our Oxford branch’. Anyone who knows Myles knows that his CV pretty much announces in bold, capitals, largest possible font, underlined several times:

‘I am a musician’

and I don’t think Boots uses piano accompaniment to help us choose our toothpaste?

It’s not really the same of course, but I can sort of understand Samuel’s situation: the misheard call of God – it’s not Eli on the line, it’s actually God! Samuel doesn’t quite get it, but when he does, everything changes. We can (well I can, anyway) relate to that. Life’s journey is full of all sorts of stuff; sometimes the way ahead is clear, but most of the time it isn’t. But that’s the point. We don’t know what lies ahead, but we do have a hope that is grounded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, everything that preceded it, and its light that illumines our path in the present.

Ordination to the diaconate marks a point in your lives. What happens today is shaped and structured by the liturgy which includes the ordination vows, the oaths, the Eucharist, and the sending out.

As the Manager of Liverpool football club Jürgen Klopp once said in an answer to the question: ‘how does it feel to beat Manchester City?’, ‘The best word I can say to describe this is: “Boom!”’

Well you might not feel ‘boom’ at the point of the laying on of hands, but in a sense that is what is happening. The Holy Spirit is being invoked to enable you to take on the role of deacon, and there is plenty of form in the Biblical narrative that the result often was ‘boom’. But steady on, I hear you say, we are Anglican! Ok then, let’s have an ‘all things decently and in order’ sort of ‘boom’. But it is serious work; our Gospel reading makes that clear. We have to be confident that the message we proclaim is good news, and need to be able to explain how and why that is so.

Someone for whom the word ‘Boom’ would probably be appropriate is the author of our Epistle reading, St Paul: afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. But Paul doesn’t wallow in those feelings, he balances them: he is not crushed or forsaken or destroyed. He carries in his body the death of Jesus so that the life may also be manifested. It’s a profound image – death is at work in us, but life in you.

In chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians, Paul is responding to people who are denigrating his ministry by setting himself apart from his rivals, and the values of honour and shame frame the text. What gives shape to Paul’s answer is his theology of the cross: shame is transformed, as is weakness and humility. And it is into this that the beautiful image of treasure in clay jars is used. That I suggest is where the DNA of the ordained life is held. Those being ordained deacon today are being entrusted with a treasure in clay jars. It’s not yours or mine, it belongs to God; your fragile bodies hold it so that by it and by your vocation others might have life.

But how are we to understand this word ‘treasure’, and what are we to make of it?

One clue lies in the putting together of an understanding of the illumination of the human heart with the creation of light out of darkness. This is the glory by which we see God. Paul’s own Damascus Road meeting with Jesus is characterised by light – this for Paul is the experience of the Resurrection – being filled with the light of God.

It follows that the treasure is beyond price: the idea of a deposit that is always spending and expending itself, and is never depleted. This is the nature of light. So it is both a moral outworking (it matters what you do) and a formational infilling (the resurrected life of Jesus manifested in our mortal flesh) – the two go together.

Some of you might have heard the story of the artist Theaster Gates, who won the Cardiff-based Artes Mundi art prize in 2015. He was born and raised in Chicago, but on the South Side, which is a less attractive part of the city. He bought a single-storey house which had once been a sweet shop, and he converted one of its rooms into a pottery studio so he could follow his hobby of making clay jars. The art critic Will Gompertz writes that Theaster ‘was drawn to the craft because he liked the notion of taking the lowliest of materials, mud, and transforming it into something beautiful and valued.’ He took his jars and pots to local fairs but he found that he didn’t like people haggling over them, and so he decided to try something a bit different. In 2007 he mounted an exhibition of his pottery but he presented the work not as his own but by the legendary oriental ceramicist Shoji Yamaguchi, who, unbeknown to all, didn’t actually exist. He needed a back-story to convince people that the pots were made not by a local, middle-aged African-American man but by an exotic Japanese master. People liked the show, and they liked Shoji Yamaguchi, but when the truth was revealed people loved the artist! And so, Theaster Gates became a cultural entrepreneur in his own right: an artist using his position to improve the area where he lives. His artworks are constructed from the worthless materials he has found in the abandoned buildings in his run-down neighbourhood: broken floorboards, chipped concrete pillars and old fire-hoses. He is in a quite literal sense allowing his neighbourhood to breathe.

Now being a deacon is not about passing off clay jars with an alternate back story, but it is about allowing the treasure in your clay jars to breathe fresh life into neighbourhoods. Paul’s presentation of the cross turned its shame on its head with an outrageous hope of resurrection glory. Paul’s role in all of that was to enable others to catch that vision of transformation to change a context and turn old cultural norms around. But he did that knowing that he couldn’t totally collapse the way society worked, only he could allow people to see things differently as he himself had been forced to see things differently: from one who imprisoned others to one put in prison for Christ Jesus, who in and through that experience and in the darkest of places to breath hope and light: resurrection itself.

‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

In other words: ‘Boom!’

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Is anybody out there?

A sermon preached at the service to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood. Ripon Cathedral, June 16th, 2019. Trinity Sunday.

Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31

John 20.11-18

In my study I have lots of objects: things that have been collected from various travels and adventures in life and ministry over the years. Amongst these objects are a broken pottery handle from a jug, and a TARDIS (not an actual life-size one I must add). Two of my interests are archaeology and astronomy – one involves delving in the dirt and the other, looking up into the beyondness of things. I don’t know quite why these endeavours fascinate me, but they have, from an early age. I have a strong memory of absolutely loving the first crop of Indiana Jones films in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of Dr Who.

In the mid 1990s, I had my opportunity to inhabit the role of Indiana Jones: spending a month on an archaeological dig at the ancient Israelite city of Megiddo. I reckoned this had extra exciting potential since in the New Testament, Megiddo is Armageddon: the site of the last battle in the book of Revelation. I was assigned a small square of an Area known simply as ‘J’ – some sort of domestic dwelling from the time of King Solomon. I had my hat, my boots, and a teeny tiny trowel; fame and fortune awaited, all accompanied by a full orchestra playing a soundtrack to accompany my discoveries.

Well of course, life’s not like that. We don’t live in an Indiana Jones film. I quickly learnt that archaeology is relentlessly tedious; in the baking heat I made painstakingly slow progress removing layer upon layer of dust and dirt. What did I find? Falafel wrappers: definitely not from the time of King Solomon (at least I don’t think Solomon and falafel are mentioned together in the Old Testament). A reminder that the ancient dwelling I was placed in happened to be located in a highly strategic position looking out over the Jezreel valley. Soldiers stationed there keeping watch, and eating a falafel.

Here’s what lasts’ (writes poet Jacob Polley),

the buckles and pins,

the arrowheads

but not the shafts,

piss-pots, urns and epitaphs,

false teeth; graffiti.

(Jacob Polley, in Little Gods, Picador, 2006, p.46).

When I look at the broken piece of pottery now which I took from a huge pile of discarded pottery at Megiddo, I wonder about the hands that made it, and the hands that once held it. I think about my own hands: hands used to bless and reconcile. The 12th century monk, Aelred wrote this advice to the members of his community: ‘So then, love those that God calls upon you to love. Reach out to take the hand that God reaches out for you to grasp; to cherish those that God calls upon you to cherish. A friend cleaving to friend, in the spirit of Christ’ (Mirror or Charity 1:98:114).

Whether we are delving in the messiness of life on the ground, or taken up in wonder to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, life is about discovering new things: about God, the world, and us. The priest points to that in their life: as both servant and friend (to use Aelred’s language, and with far more emphasis on friendship as being a companion, or a traveller with). But all of this only makes sense in a public ministry that is seen not as a right or a possession, but as that which belongs solely to God.

What, I wonder have we discovered in the last 25 years of women ordained as priests in the Church of England? And more to the point, does anybody really care? The answer of course, is a hopeful yes, but the reality is possibly less than that. If the only reason that we are here this afternoon is because in a statement of fact sense, we are still here (25 years on), then that’s not enough. The story we tell ourselves might not be the story others tell about us; and in any case: what exactly is the story we are seeking to share? Do we have the courage to proclaim it, and are we really prepared to be transformed by it?

Both our readings this afternoon delve deep into the realms of discovery: potential, as well as actual. What excites me about our Proverbs reading is buried in its rather complex manuscript history. If you open a Hebrew Bible (and the same goes for the Greek New Testament) you will see just from looking at it that the text is complex: the page open in front of you is full of detail about the history of the manuscript traditions that make up what we declare on a regular basis to be ‘the word of the Lord’; and it’s not all neat and tidy. We listened to a description of wisdom as a ‘master worker’; closer inspection tells us that there is a strong variant reading that describes wisdom as a ‘little child’. This makes better sense of the description of God that follows: of God delighting in God’s creation; there is a consistency with the witness in Genesis. We learn through play and creativity; through exploration and discovery. God the Creator is God the Creative One. A committee-based decision has effectively turned an image of delightful play into grown-up achievement.

In our New Testament reading, it is Mary who makes an astonishing discovery: the risen Christ! What follows is not just a report that Mary gives but she herself in her very being becomes the ambassador; these are words, but words that bring about transformation. The conversation she has with Jesus, and how it changed her, itself colours and expresses both what she tells the disciples, and how she tells it.

The ordination of women to the priesthood surely takes us deeper than gender equality into how we model God. Wisdom as a master worker is an image that sees creativity as realising a shape within the material: a sort of ‘look, I made this’. But a little child at play is more about discovering: a process of our own becoming. Creativity engages with generosity and hospitality, and the way of forever learning by being open to the future in joining in with God. What has to be acknowledged is how much we have come to know through the ordination of women, and how much the Church would have otherwise missed, and of which we would all have been deprived. This may not a universal cause for celebration (that much is clear in some of the correspondence we have received about today’s service), but it should be acknowledged that we have all been changed by it; I may not like it, but (in the words of John Newton) ‘by the grace of God I am not what I was’. We learn of God by the nature of God: the one who invites us into discovery and exploration. And what better way to illustrate that than the Trinity itself. Try to explain it with smoke, water and ice, and you’ll commit a heresy; but be open to exploring and discovering it, and your life will be changed.

You may be aware that the arrival of the 13th Doctor was not wholly welcomed. When the actress Jodie Whittaker was revealed as the new Doctor, some were unhappy for no other reason than she was a woman. And Whittaker’s response? ‘“I went to what I thought was just a final audition and a chat with all the grownups,” she said. “I was being all steely and when they told me the part was mine, I just started crying. They started telling me lots of important things about the role and all I could think was, ‘I really want to WhatsApp someone’.”

Mary Magdalene didn’t WhatsApp anyone, as far as I know, but she did tell the disciples what she had seen, and in her seeing and in her telling she gave witness to the majesty and mystery of God revealed in the risen Jesus. It’s a leap I know, but maybe Mary would resonate with these words of the 13th Doctor: ‘None of us know for sure what’s out there. That’s why we keep looking. Keep your faith. Travel hopefully. The universe will surprise you. Constantly’.

An extravagant gesture

A sermon preached at Ripon Cathedral on April 7th, 2019 Lent 5.

Phil 3.4b-14

John 12.1-8

‘As ever, nothing is wasted; not a scene, not a line, not a beat. For every morsel of information gathered by the team and by the viewer, another turn reveals 100 hidden possibilities. It fits together flawlessly – you can imagine Mercurio sitting like a watchmaker at his table with the parts spread before him and fitting the loupe to his eye before assembling the whole thing and listening for its perfectly regulated tick. Good times await. OMG.’

Our Gospel this morning is only 7 verses long, but those verses contain a level of detail and sensory stimulation that perhaps only Jed Mercurio (the writer of the BBC Line of Duty series) could beat, as those words from a review of his latest series describe. OMG indeed, literally. Jesus is firmly in control of this narrative that at the same time casts its shadow backwards as well as forwards. We are only 6 days away from the Passover, and before that, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we know what happens after that: betrayal, a brutal death on the cross, and of course the resurrection. After that? Well that’s where we begin to get a bit more involved.

The Apostle Paul was of course a vital part of the picture of ‘what happened next’, and his own life story so frequently depicted in his letters would make him a worthy screen subject of Jed Mercurio’s magisterial dramatic crafting. In our first reading, Paul sets forth his credentials, writing as he does from his place of imprisonment to the community in Philippi. Paul would certainly approve of our Diocesan aim to grow ‘confident Christians,’ he himself was the very model of such; but we would do well to remember that Paul’s megaphone theology was balanced by immense and profound tenderness and soul-searching. Paul boasted from a position of weakness and vulnerability, not arrogance and victory.

What strikes me when I listen to both readings is the sheer scale of the story: the lives touched and transformed, and yet so many unanswered questions. The Gospel writer John, in an almost throw-away remark mentions that Jesus came to the house of Lazarus, ‘whom he had raised from the dead.’ Hang on a moment, ‘raised from the dead’? I wish we could listen in to the conversation around the dinner-table. Mary and Martha were there, and Lazarus, and Judas Iscariot whose deceitful betrayal is not only foretold but given character back-up; in other words, ‘he’s got form that one, we shouldn’t be too surprised.’

This story of the anointing at Bethany is, as one commentator describes a ‘fascinating example of a loose unit of tradition which serves different purposes in different Gospels.’ As it is, the story doesn’t make a lot of sense: placing ointment on the head was a ceremonial custom, anointing the feet only serves to make them sticky and gather more dust. So what has probably happened here is that John has taken a tradition which is more effectively placed in Mark, Matthew and Luke and made it his own, only it doesn’t entirely work. The resultant image is messy, yet at the same time incredibly powerful in its impact on our senses. Moreover, the emphasis in Mary’s gesture is one of gratitude far more than anything to do with Jesus’ forthcoming burial. Jesus mentions it, yes, but surely the point is that Mary uses it up and doesn’t keep it. Jesus’ feet are covered in ointment and will soon gather dirt and dust. Perhaps that is the point: Jesus’ body carries the mess of the world and his death becomes the means to renewal and new life free from guilt and shame.

When I listen to this story of foot-washing, two narratives from my own life come to mind, one thousands of miles away, the other more local.

One of the impacts of climate change are more extreme weather events. In 2015, tropical cyclone Winston had a devastating impact on the islands in the South Pacific region, destroying many villages and communities in its wake. One such village was Maniava, situated about 3 hours’ drive north from Fiji’s capital city, Suva. This was a journey I took by road one extremely hot day in 2016. I was with the Archbishop of Polynesia who also happens to be called Winston (nothing to do with the cyclone!), and we were with a group of young people from the Anglican Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. In the Pacific the young people in particular are taking a lead in matters of climate change, so much so that they call it ‘Climate Action’ – we know it’s happening so we need to something about it. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by songs of welcome. We were ushered into a canopied tent for the obligatory welcome kava ceremony, and then we ventured up the hill to a flattened area of land. When I looked around and down on the area of the surrounding village I was struck by the number of temporary dwelling places, with pieces of tin holding up thinly-stretched tarpaulin. None of the homes had survived the cyclone, yet here we stood on ground that was being prepared for the building of a new church. Our task was the bless the ground, and dig the first turns of soil. It’s hard to convey the impact of the heat and humidity. All I knew is that I needed water. I managed to prop myself up on the spade that I was given, and around about me children excitedly spent the whole time clearing ants away from my feet. There was a pointless to the exercise because the ants were pretty determined that my feet was their destination of choice, but the children persisted, all the while smiling and giggling with joy. It was you might say an extravagant gesture of love and hospitality.

Closer to home, a few days before my installation as Bishop of Ripon, I ventured with one of our Area Deans to a farm not far from here. Accompanied by a BBC Look North film crew, I was to get up close and personal with the farm’s robotic milking system, a very impressive facility which meant that the cows could decide when they needed to be milked, and in doing so receive a bit of spa treatment on their udders. I wore my wellies (yes, the purple ones) and of course as you would expect they got rather muddy. By the time it came to leave, I was beginning to worry about the impact on the Area Dean’s car, but just before we left the farmer offered to hose them down for me. It was, you might say a very modern and agricultural example of foot-washing; a preparation for my journey home. The farmer certainly didn’t need to do that; water is a precious thing so in some ways this too was a gesture of extravagance, not least because obviously the whole point of wellies is that they will get muddy. Wash them clean and it isn’t long before you wonder why you bothered in the first place.

But we do bother, time and time again. Whether we like it or not our lives are bound to that of our neighbour, near and far. Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin in the Fields in London writes how the word ‘with’ is the most important word in our vocabulary as disciples. God with us, us with our neighbour.

Re-read the Gospel through the lens of being ‘with’ and the connections of intimacy become clearer, more than that, so do the reasons.

I can put it no clearer that these words by Malcolm Guite taken from the end of his sonnet on this Gospel narrative:

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses

With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,

The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,

Here at the very centre of all things,

Here at the meeting place of love and loss

We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

Amen.

On Prayer

A sermon preached during Choral Evensong at St John’s College, Cambridge. Part of their Lent term series ‘Difficulties of Belief.’

1 Sam. 3.1-14

Matt. 14.22-31

I once had a conversation with a woman who was facing some difficult life questions, and had been discussing possible options with her 8 year-old son. He suggested to her: ‘mummy you need to get one of those hats and talk to God.’ Initially puzzled by this response, she quickly realised that he was speaking about his uncle’s recent Confirmation service, and the hat in question was in fact my mitre! We laughed together about this, as if it somehow provided a direct antenna to divine wisdom. Perhaps only in Dr Who!

I’m much more at home with these words of Mary Oliver, at the beginning of her poem ‘I happened to be standing’:

I don’t know where prayers go,

or what they do.

[Mary Oliver ‘I happened to be standing’ in A Thousand Mornings, Corsair, 2018, p. 3]

She goes on to ask whether sleeping cats pray, or sunflowers, or an old black oak tree that grows older every year? Is prayer a gift, or a petition, or does it matter? she muses.

I usually start my day by joining the community of Ripon Cathedral to say morning prayer. There’s a danger in my role of not being rooted in any community, and so an intentional choosing to be part of the rhythm of prayer in the Cathedral helps me discipline myself to pray. If truth be told I’d rather be out and about praying as I go, on the move; rather than in a formal liturgy. But I have learned over the years that the daily office is a great gift, and when I find it hard to pray, it carries me along whether I like or appreciate it, or not.

What I have noticed with my morning prayer routine however is less the detail of the pattern of words, rather more what is happening around me. The gentle hum of the Cathedral’s heating system; the scraping of the kneelers on the floor of the quire; the reading that gets repeated from the previous day; the stumbling over responses perhaps dependent on how much caffeine has been imbibed to assist early morning alertness. It’s the little things, you might say. Prayer just happens. These noises and human traits cannot I think be piously dismissed as distractions that need to be erased from our consciousness, because they are just as much a part of prayer as the words or indeed the music. Who hasn’t listened to a broadcast of choral evensong on Radio 3 and wished the person with the cough would either leave or drink some water?!

Denise Levertov’s words give this some poetic beauty:

Birds afloat in air’s current,

sacred breath? No, not breath of God,

it seems, but God

the air enveloping the whole

globe of being.

[Denise Levertov ‘In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being’ in The Stream and the Sapphire, New Directions, 1997. p. 27]

Of course (and I must say this here) it is St Augustine who allegedly said that ‘he who sings, prays twice.’ The choir is well ahead of any of us in that regard!

What is the point of prayer? ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the family at this difficult time’; so what? ‘Let me pray for you’; no thanks! Shall we pray? What can we say? It’s all too easy to sound trite and patronising. And it’s all too easy sometimes to be manipulated or worse still to be the one doing the manipulating. God doesn’t need a shopping list, and God doesn’t need to know the background detail; it’s not a news bulletin. We might pray for someone to recover from illness, and they don’t. Does God answer prayer? Oswald Chambers writes: ‘the meaning of prayer is that we get hold of God, not of the answer’ (quoted by John Pritchard in Beginning Again, p. 46).

It all depends what we mean by prayer. ‘If the only prayer you say in your whole life is thank you,’ wrote Meister Eckhart, ‘that would suffice.’ Former Dean of Westminster Abbey Michael Mayne quotes this in the introduction to his 1998 Lenten book Pray, Love, Remember (DLT, p. xvii). The title takes words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Ophelia stands before Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes with herbs and flowers: ‘There’s rosemary,’ she says, ‘that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember’ (p. 20). Michael Mayne goes on to say: ‘How we pray, indeed whether we pray, depends first and last on our understanding of God; and in particular on whether we understand two things: that God has been revealed as Christ-like; and that we cannot remove ourselves from the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being (which incidentally is the title of the Levertov poem I quoted a moment ago) any more than we can from the air that surrounds us and fills our lungs. By the very fact that I exist I am in the presence of God: if I was not, I should cease to be a human being. It is as simple as that’ (p. 23).

But it never really is that simple is it, because we are human. The LORD tries to contact Samuel three times, and Samuel thinks it is Eli that is calling him. Peter full of bravado sets out on the water towards Jesus, but becomes frightened and full of self-doubt, and starts to sink beneath the waves. The disciples don’t get off lightly, with sharp criticism from Jesus about their lack of faith. Before any of this, Jesus goes up the mountain to pray but seemingly keeps one eye on the disciples just in case something goes wrong. I have a picture in my mind of Jesus praying with one eye open and one eye closed; a state of inner calm yet ready to spring into action. I suppose that as he is God we can marvel at such capacity for divine multi-tasking!

I think what I have so often failed at is to simply let prayer be; by that I mean that I am a creature created to be in relationship with God, and with the creation that I inhabit. I don’t pray to fix things; I pray because that is a creaturely thing for me to do. What God makes of my prayer is up to God, and dare I say the fruits of that prayer are revealed in the coming about of God’s purposes in the life I live; not that it always works out in the way I (or indeed because of my failings, God) intended, but rather that persistence in prayer deepens the connection with God and makes me more aware of what I do and how I live day by day. One of my very favourite lines of prayer comes from the Night Prayer liturgy in the New Zealand Prayer Book: ‘what has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.’ Three simple words: of release and relinquishment to God; let it be.

Samuel and Peter are full of restless energy, what God does with it is to direct it towards a confidence as yet seen or indeed fully understood. The LORD doesn’t give up on Samuel; Jesus doesn’t let Peter drown. God doesn’t give up us, but rather longs for us to enter his gaze and direct our thoughts in the ways of God. And how might we do that?

Mary Oliver’s poem with which I began these reflections concludes in this way:

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing

just outside my door, with my notebook open,

which is the way I begin every morning.

Then a wren in the privet began to sing.

He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,

I don’t know why. And yet, why not.

I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe

or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.

But I thought, if the wren’s singing, what could this be

if it isn’t a prayer?

So I just listened, my pen in the air.

Light!

A sermon for Candlemas preached in HMYOI Deerbolt, February 3rd, 2019.

Luke 2.22-40

A couple of days ago there was an item in the news about the fact that the definition of ‘treasure’ is going to be redefined under new plans by the government to prevent dozens of valuable artefacts being ‘lost’ to private collections (article from The Telegraph).

While the detail of this quickly lost relevance to me it brought me back to an experience I had nearly 25 years ago in Israel. I was taking part in an archaeological dig in an ancient city site called Megiddo. I was supposed to be carefully excavating a domestic dwelling from the time of King Solomon (roughly the 10th century BC), and I had high hopes (largely fuelled by Indiana Jones films) of uncovering great treasures. Instead I found myself finding more contemporary objects. I think it was when I uncovered a falafel wrapper that I really thought ‘this isn’t supposed to be happening’; it turned out I was digging in a rubbish tip. The site where I was located was certainly a strategic fortress in the time of King Solomon; and its surrounding landscape hadn’t changed much. So in the midst of the many wars that the land has seen, clearly my particular square had been occupied by Israeli troops looking out over the valley below, and having falafel for lunch.

Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley reflects in his poem called History –

Here’s what lasts:

the buckles and pins,

the arrowheads

but not the shafts,

piss-pots, urns and epitaphs,

false teeth; graffiti.

(Jacob Polley, in Little Gods, Picador, 2006, p.46).

One person’s rubbish is someone else’s treasure, in other words.

Today we celebrate Candlemas, sometimes known as the returning of the light. It’s a story from Jesus’ early life which is all about finding treasure in unexpected people and in unplanned places. Jesus’ parents (and of course there’s a story there because Joseph isn’t Jesus’ biological father) bring their young son to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfil what is required of them in Law. Already there is an elderly man called Simeon who is waiting for death. But it is Simeon whom the Holy Spirit guides to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. He sings a song of farewell that has remained part of the Church’s service pattern ever since. Then as if that wasn’t sufficient, we hear of 84-year old Anna, who likewise sings God’s praises because of her recognition of who Jesus is.

When you remove the detail and focus on the characters, it all seems quite unlikely; that God should be revealed in the most vulnerable: a baby, and recognised by the most unlikely: an elderly man approaching death, and a widow. Yet it is in and through these individuals that the treasure of God’s love is both located and revealed.

When I became a bishop nearly 5 years ago in New Zealand, I was given this cross by the indigenous people of those islands, the Māori. The cross is made of a green stone which is found in the South Island, and called Pounamu. Pounamu is found in rivers and at first glance looks like an ordinary stone, albeit quite a large one. It’s hard to identify them as pounamu without cutting them open. Māori describe pounamu as being as elusive as it is beautiful. Māori describe the carver being drawn to the greenstone – of a connection forged with the greater landscape as the journey is undertaken. No two pieces of pounamu are the same; each is distinct and has its own qualities. When held up to the light, the detail can be seen in a way that reveals the intricacy and beauty of each piece.

(more information at https://www.ngaitahupounamu.com)

When I was given this cross, it was explained to me that carving it was a process that involved a lot of waste. The cross is carefully shaped, and much of the stone from which it came is discarded. What remains is the treasure, hidden within but now revealed. The cross for Christians is a symbol of God’s love; Jesus suffered and died; death a waste of life. Yet from the cross emerged the beauty of resurrection; of new life, of new promise and of a new hope.

Simeon’s song gives voice to this hope:

‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

This is not an empty naïve hope; this is not saying ‘I hope things get better’; it is a bold statement based on a narrative of God’s dealings with the world that stretch back into the dawn of time. As one commentator on this passage puts it: ‘In the final song of the infancy narratives, he [Simeon] makes what for Luke’s gospel is the climactic declaration of the wide embrace of redemption to be worked out through Jesus…Jesus is proclaimed as having a significance for ‘all peoples’. He is a ‘light’ to reveal God to the nations. God’s glory which is to be made known to them is to be seen in the child he holds in his arms whose birth in a manger causes the expectations of the earlier songs to be realized in an unexpected way. The salvation of God is to be achieved, not through naked power, but in the surrender of his Son. That salvation will make for the ‘glory’ of Israel. Her glory will be real but it will come about only as her expectations are confronted and re-formed’ (Eric Franklin in The Oxford Bible Commentary, OUP, 2001, p. 930).

Our lives can be messy and complex; Candlemas and the return of the light reminds us that there is treasure within. When you take away the layers of stuff that happens, then beauty can be revealed. When you respond to confrontation with re-formation, that’s when God is at work. What is discarded might seem wasteful, and it is not without pain. But it comes from a deep desire to understand that the revelation of hope is contained in the reality of God’s love that is open to each person. No life is beyond the reach of God. No life is such that it cannot hold beauty.

The Australian poet Clive James was asked about the process of writing poetry. He said this: ‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.’

May God keep turning my life, and all our lives so that we catch the light, and bear it to all whom we meet.

Amen.

Let there be light!

A sermon preached at a service of blessing and rededication of the restored stained glass windows at Mickley church (Fountains Benefice) in the Diocese of Leeds.

Genesis 1.1-5

Matthew 5.13-16

‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.’

Wisdom from Australian writer, poet and essayist with a very dry sense of humour, Clive James. Living with a terminal illness, James was asked about the process of writing poetry, and that was part of his answer.

‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.’

If we apply it to stained glass then we might something like this: turning the stories and images of the Bible to catch the light, and illumine fresh perspective.

Today we give thanks for the renewal of the east-end windows and one of the windows on the south side, and dedicate them for the generations to come. Windows tell stories: and here we can see depicted the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, and Christ the Saviour of the World; stories that are made clear by the arrival of the light each day renewing and sustaining the face of the earth.

Our first reading this afternoon tells of a more ancient narrative, that of creation itself: God turning atoms in such a way as to create light: the first element of creation. Out of nothingness came light and darkness. That’s an important point, light and darkness were both created out of the void. Both part of the story of creation. When the sun goes down, we will no longer see the stories behind us. But they remain, waiting for the light to give colour and life once more.

When we first moved to New Zealand at the beginning of 2012, one thing I quickly became aware of was the light, particularly its abundance! From the winter of the northern hemisphere, we arrived in the summer of the southern hemisphere. Days that were short became days that were long. The light seemed endless, different, part of the process of adjusting to living in an entirely new and different context. I became acutely aware of the process whereby the earth tilts on its axis to create the seasons; and this has remained as we have readjusted to being in the north again. We never really got used to BBQs on Christmas Day so it was with great rejoicing that we hosted our first proper northern hemisphere Christmas Day meal with family travelling to join us. Wonderful!

Our second reading is from Matthew’s Gospel, and as one commentator puts it: ‘concludes and illumines (note that word!) the meaning of the Beatitudes.’ If you’re not familiar with those, they are the sayings of Jesus which tell us that certain groups are blessed: the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and so on. The commentator continues: ‘the Beatitudes describe for us what it means to be the earth’s salt and the world’s light. Here are the kind of people who give savour to the earth and who illumine the world’s darkness. Without these the earth grows dull and the world stays dark’. (David Bartlett The Fourfold Gospel Commentary, SPCK, 2006).

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.’ 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’ (in The New Testament, freshly translated, Kevin Mayhew). And please note we are talking about confidence here, not arrogance. There’s a big difference!

In preparation for today’s service I was kindly sent a copy of the 2015 ‘Condition Report’ which contained the recommendations that have led to the present restoration. What struck me as I read it was the level of detail both in the windows themselves, and in the notes that described their condition. There is something of a parable here: of light, colour and beauty, all of which are crafted and held over a great deal of time. That’s very powerful in our current context of extreme political uncertainty and a crisis of national identity. These windows speak of a deeper and more ancient wisdom, that we would do well to pay heed to.

I went to a Church of England Primary school in Sunderland; it was dedicated to Benedict Biscop who founded a monastery ‘in two places’ in Wearmouth and Jarrow. The Venerable Bede, who was a monk at Jarrow in the early 700s wrote that in the year 675 Abbot Biscop went to France to find glaziers to fill the windows of his new church, St Peter’s, which he founded the previous year. It is thought (according to one online source I found) that the glaziers recruited by Biscop were from Normandy. Scientific analysis of the glass has shown that it was manufactured from a combination of recycled glass and bits of new glass which had been imported from present-day Lebanon and Syria. The glass was cut into pieces, assembled and held together in iron and lead frameworks. Bits of glass and framework were dug up during excavations at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. One of the windows, which is very small indeed, which still exists appears on the website of the British Museum as a tool called ‘teaching history with 100 objects.’ What a remarkable heritage, which we today honour and keep alive through these windows we bless and rededicate.

The Pulitzer prize-winning poet Mary Oliver died on Thursday last week. From her collection House of Light are these words, with which I conclude:

“Still, what I want in my life

is to be willing

to be dazzled—

to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even

to float a little

above this difficult world.

I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.

I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—

that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum

of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.”

May God grant us the wisdom to gaze upon the story of our redemption anew; may God bless and prosper the handiwork that has restored these windows. May God grant to each of us fresh perspective and patience as we go from this place as his disciples to proclaim the good news.

Amen.

Do not worry about your life?

A sermon preached for the blessing of the plough at Winksley, Fountains Benefice in the Diocese of Leeds.

2 Cor. 9.6-15

Matthew 6.25-34

‘Do not worry about your life.’

At the beginning of January, I attended the Oxford Farming Conference. In its 73rd year, the conference brings together nearly 700 people all of whom in one way or another work in agriculture: farmers, land-owners, supermarket executives, researchers, government ministers and MPs, National Farmers’ Union representatives, and this year 1 bishop! Held in Oxford over 2 days it includes lectures, panel discussions and debates, and opportunities for networking aplenty. My PA Judith had kindly booked me into various fringe events: I went to the tenant farmers’ forum, and sat through a very detailed presentation on an internet-based animal and cereal auction mart. ‘Ah, but what about face to face community?’ I said to the chap sitting next to me; ‘you’re right,’ he nodded in agreement. I marvelled as I listened to a short presentation about the development of a floating dairy farm in the port of Rotterdam, and how one farmer has put the equivalent of a fit-bit (health tracker device) on his cows to monitor all sorts of things. The title of this year’s conference was ‘A world of opportunity,’ perhaps intentionally chosen because there was one word on everyone’s lips:

Brexit.

‘Do not worry about your life.’

Well ok Jesus, but really?

I don’t need to rehearse the debates or the political machinations of recent weeks. You are all well aware of them, I’m sure. What I do know is that there is a huge amount of anxiety out there, and particularly so amongst those who work in agriculture. I’m a trustee of the Farming Community Network which provides practical support and advice to farmers, and I know from the 400 or so volunteers that deal with between 100 and 150 enquiries every month that people are dealing with all sorts of uncertainties, which can have a knock-on effect on many aspects of life. As I said in an interview for local radio after the Farming Conference, farming is not a job, it’s a way of life.

‘Do not worry about your life.’

This passage from Matthew’s Gospel strikes an optimistic tone, rather along the lines of the Oxford Farming Conference title. One commentator notes that: ‘the verses of our reading are best understood as an example of Jewish Wisdom literature (and there’s a lot of it in our Bible: particularly in the Old Testament – take the book of Proverbs, for example). As one commentator puts it: ‘Wisdom literature is literature that encourages us to look at the world as it really is and to see in ordinary consequences the hand of God…the heart of the passage is a kind of argument common to Jewish teachers of Jesus’ time – ‘how much more?’ If God feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, how much more will God clothe the people God loves? Logically the indicative precedes the imperative: this is the kind of God we have , therefore do not worry about your life’ (David Bartlett p. 28 in The Fourfold Gospel Commentary, SPCK, 2006).

It’s about pushing away our anxieties to the very opposite of that: trust.

‘Do not worry about your life.’

I still need convincing!

How about some consideration of one of the images in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel then: the birds of the air?

When we lived in New Zealand, on two occasions I visited the Albatross colony at Taiaroa Head near Dunedin on the South Island. In fact it’s the only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony in the world, and visitors have the opportunity to see the birds in flight, and to watch them from a safe distance in a specially designed hut. Royal albatrosses are truly remarkable creatures: they live 85 per cent of their lives at sea. When a chick fledges it will spend between 4 and 10 years at sea before returning to the place where it was born to breed. Seeing one in flight is probably one of the most amazing things I have seen: their wing-span is 3 metres! They soar in the air, masters of all they survey!

If you go to the website there is a web-cam, and if you have a spare 5 minutes with a cup of tea in hand, and you click on the link (usually in our evening, bearing in mind the time difference!) you will see at the moment an albatross incubating an egg which is due to hatch in the coming days. Now when I look at that albatross then Jesus’ words begin to make sense. There is, in the unspoken-ness of that slow process of bringing something new into creation an articulation (to me anyway) of trust in partnership with God. Of course the albatross doesn’t know that (not in a human understanding anyway) but nonetheless it imparts wisdom in the bearing with the process and the patience required to make it happen. It almost looks unbearingly boring, but in a few months’ time when a new chick fledges and takes to the skies, then it will all somehow make sense again. If you can, take a look. Keep watch with the albatross, and learn from it! (https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/albatrosses/royal-albatross-toroa/royal-cam/)

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 speak about the art of sowing, reaping, and gathering; 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.

In this continued 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, in 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.