Tuesday, 1 September 2015


There’s so much to Greenbelt, and yet it is over in the blink of an eye.  If you have never been, it is a Christian Arts festival, ‘where arts, faith and justice collide’.  It is a mixture of beauty and mud, of transcendence and joy rooted in the real world, and this year it was better than ever.  Last year was patchy with teething problems as the festival settled into its new home in the grounds of Boughton House.  This year it has found its way again.  It may seem strange to celebrate radical equality, freedom, justice and faith in the grounds of a top nob’s country house, but it works because the setting is so peaceful.  Towering trees are reflected in deep pools and green lawns stretch out to merge into fields and woodlands. A grass labyrinth suggests pathways to mystery and odd geometric hills take us a step beyond the simply rustic.

Photo: Jonathan Davis
Though we did not get perfect weather, this year things seemed to work smoothly.  There wasn’t so far to walk, the canopy-style venues were easy to wander into and the site was a joy to explore.  Some things are still wobbly – the Treehouse and Leaves talking venues were hopelessly small and set too close to the music venues – but the loos were cleaner, the queues were shorter and, most importantly, the content was thought-provoking, moving and full of surprises. I did not miss the old massive and overbearing mainstage.  The new covered central area was at once intimate and intense as it contained and reflected sounds back to the audience who were engaged, involved and delightfully dry.  I could do with more visual arts - the exhibitions in the Shed are always gone before there is a chance to see them - but Greenbelt still offers a rich variety of things to see, hear and do.

I have shaken the stowaway earwigs out of my bags, washed off the mud and tended my bruises (I always fall over at Greenbelt, not through alcohol but because everything is too interesting to bother watching where I’m going).  I am left with memories and a feeling of homesickness.  Greenbelt is the place when I feel I belong, the place where everyone belongs, the place where we have a sense of delighted wonder in the diversity of human beings.  It’s not heaven, but it is special.  At its best, Greenbelt gives us a peek through heaven’s veil.

Two entirely different shows woke new ideas and will stay in my heart.  Peterson Toscano and the Gender Outlaws of the Bible gave new perspectives on old stories.  Reading the bible through someone else’s eyes is startling.  I had never before been invited to consider the story behind the man carrying a pitcher of water, or the eunuchs in the court of Xerxes.  Peterson Toscano is a funny, gracious man who brings a breath of fresh air and fresh truth to all his performances.

But it was the last performance in the Playhouse that took my breath away.  Late on the Monday night, as the  festival wound down, Justin Butcher gave to a small and tired audience a shock of infernal brilliance in The Devil’s Passion, a faithful retelling of biblical story seen through a sharp new angle.  We sat spellbound as the Devil schemed to stop Jesus, fuming at the actions of this dangerous radical who threatens to upset the delicate balance of good and evil.  A captivated audience forgot cold feet and aching backs as we travelled to a terrifying cosmic battlefield.  Energy crackled in every line.  It was a privilege to see such a groundbreaking piece of drama.

I cried as I packed.  Greenbelt is my spiritual home, somewhere I am healed deep in my soul, somewhere I have met true friends.  I am awkward, geeky, socially inept and I cannot sing in tune.  At Greenbelt this just does not matter.  Nowhere else have I felt that I am loved for the person I am, not the person I try to be, and nowhere else have I been so inspired to take that love back out into the world.  It passes by so quickly, but it inspires me for a year.

Monday, 10 August 2015

On migration, when it was known as Exodus

A talk on the experience of migration, or Exodus, preached on Sunday 2nd August.

Exodus 16.2–4,9–15The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’ In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
I’m going away next week and my daughter is staying with friends, so there isn’t much food in my house, other than leftovers from when we had guests last week.  In the interests of research for this sermon, I had a look in my fridge last night.  It contained some harissa mayonnaise, some pesto, some cold meat, a diet milkshake, some vegetables and a piece of cheesecake.  The cheesecake looked a bit untidy, so I tidied it away.  I hid the diet milkshake behind the orange juice.

I was doing this research because I was looking at our Old Testament reading, which is about the people of Israel getting hungry in the wilderness – the desert – on their way from Egypt to the Promised land.  I was thinking how hard it is for us to relate to their pain – the pain of real hunger – if you are living on even a moderate income here in the West.  That’s not to say that people don’t go hungry in this country, but it is hard for us to relate to the fear and desperation of the Israelites, stuck in the desert between Egypt and Israel, not knowing when – or if – their next meal will be found. 

And so I think we need to work at this reading.  We need to understand the fear and despair of the people of Israel as they look back to Egypt, where they were at least fed, though they lived in slavery and oppression.  We need to remember that this kind of hunger is not just a matter of missing a meal, but of missing all your meals.  It’s a matter of long term deprivation of protein until your body literally starts to eat itself.  It can be a bit of a joke when we read the bible – the people of Israel are whingeing again – but the reality is that being hungry and thirsty in the desert is one of the worst experiences of a human life.  The people of Israel were getting desperate.

We need to work at this reading, to understand the people of Israel, because their situation is not just a bible story from the olden days.  There are people in that situation right now as I speak.  Refugees and migrants cross the Sahara desert regularly in a desperate attempt to find safety and security.  Many die on the way.  This has been going on for years, it’s just that they used to stop in Libya.  Now things are so bad in Libya they try to keep going and to reach Europe. 
I wonder if we would classify the people of Israel as refugees or economic migrants?  They were escaping slavery, they were looking for freedom and security. 
The people of Eritrea are escaping one of the worst totalitarian regimes in the world, a regime where you can be called up to join the army on minimal wages - £20 a month - from the age of fourteen and – here’s the catch – you are conscripted indefinitely.  It’s a regime with some of the worst human rights abuses in the whole of Africa.  That’s why 3% of the population is leaving. 
Syrian refugees are leaving a country torn apart by war – many cannot go home because home no longer exists.  Other refugees have been terrorised by Islamic state and lived in utter fear. 
Sudanese people leave behind war, desperate poverty and starvation. 
Most refugees are children and young people – worldwide, half of them are under eighteen.  Many are alone.  Most are sheltered in camps in countries near their point of origin.  86% of refugees are still in the developing world.  We only see a fraction here. 

The world is full of travelling people, hungry and thirsty in one desert or another.  We are frightened that they will take more than we have to give, and certainly we can’t take all the world’s refugees here in the UK – though in point of fact, nobody is asking us to.  A humane and decent response to this problem will be very hard to find.  What we must remember though, and what some of the scaremongering and frightening rhetoric of recent weeks forgets, is that these are real people, just like us.  They are all children of God, and we need to search our consciences and inform our minds before we respond.  I’ve heard some really stupid things said this week – “Put them on the next plane home”.  There are no flights to Libya or Syria, because they are in deadly chaos.  God’s children deserve a more thought-out response than that.

When we read about the children of Israel starving in the desert, we are not just reading about something that happened three thousand years ago, we are reading about God’s children today. The difference is that there is no promised land for these people.  Somehow we have to make the world a better place, somewhere people don’t live in fear for their lives.  Poverty should be history, but it isn’t.

I think we are frightened to think about this.  I don’t think we like to look at the world’s great problems, because we don’t have any easy solutions.  We don’t like to think about all those suffering men and women, or those terrified children.  We don’t like to believe the stories people tell of rape and torture and summary execution, because it shows us just how awful the world can be.  The documented evidence is there in the news, but it’s hidden away under World – that tab we don’t click too often. 

But part of being a Christian is being prepared to care, being prepared to listen, being prepared to understand.  We can only find the strength to do this if we, too, understand that we need the grace of God to survive.  The people of Israel received bread from heaven to meet their bodily needs.  In our gospel reading, Jesus also offers us bread – Jesus met people’s bodily needs too – but Jesus also offers us the bread of life.  Jesus offers us the love and the strength to keep on going, to keep on caring, even when the problems of the world seem overwhelming and we feel that we can’t do anything.

Because there is no manna going to fall in the desert today.  There are no quails for the hungry to have for dinner tonight.  It’s up to us.  We are lucky – our needs are met and we have somewhere to sleep tonight.  We have been given bread and it’s our job to make sure that the rest of the world has bread too, both the bread that feeds our bodies and the bread that feeds our souls.  Last time I spoke I talked about how Jesus responded to human need both on an earthly level and a spiritual level.  It’s left to us now to carry on that work, in this village, in this country and in this world.

So where do we start?  We start, as always, with an open heart.  We start by listening.  We seek to understand before we open our own mouths.  [If only I practiced what I preach, I hear you say]. We come in humility, not pretending we have easy answers, but we listen to the pain of the world and then we do what we can. 

And if you feel helpless in the face of the world’s pain, if you are frightened that maybe some of that pain will come to you, then take heart from our second reading.  Jesus said,
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

There are no limits to God’s love.  We do not need to fear.  There is hope for this world, broken and suffering though it is.  We meet together to share in the bread of life, trusting that there is enough to go around.  When we sing ‘Let us break bread together, we are one’ we mean it.  When we take holy communion, we take it alongside the poor of the world.  God’s blessings are not finite.  Love is not a limited resource.  Have faith, and be willing to share your bread with strangers.  

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

On women priests

This is my week.  I will take worship, leading a parish communion service and baptising a child in front of a packed church.  I will liaise with the musicians, the welcome team and the readers to ensure the service proceeds like clockwork (which it does, to my slight surprise).  I will light the Pentecost flame, which I have previously ordered, tested and risk assessed. I will ensure a competent person is in charge of the correct fire extinguisher and that nobody strays into its path.  I will preach the sermon I have written, after much thought, and the service will include singing words I have composed.  I will be greeter, listener, friend, leader and mentor and perhaps hate figure to some.  I will ensure there are copies of the liturgy in a clear, readable and accessible format, with large-print versions available for those who need them.  I will fill out the Baptism Register and certificates for godparents and the child.

I will attend an evening concert by a visiting choir and chat over supper afterwards.  If you are what you eat, I am 90% quiche.

I will make the tea and buy the biscuits and lead the bible study evening at my house, after a quick tidy up.

I will do all the work involved in supporting a family in grief and taking a funeral service.

I will teach the local primary school children about Holy Communion and present them with new concepts and new ideas about joy and thanksgiving, explaining some of the many layers of symbolism and the biblical narrative along the way.

I will visit someone who has not long for this world and offer all the support I can, leaving them with my blessing and my prayers.

I will attend a briefing on schools performance management.  I will handle a baptism records search, attend the Chapter meeting of local clergy and take communion to a housebound lady.  I will nip to the stationers to buy posh paper for the service orders and stickers for the children.  I will read the stuff about church politics and I will go through the lectionary identifying worship themes so we can draw up a rota.  I will fill in a grant application and answer a pile of emails.

That’s half my working week - I am "only part-time".  The other half is spent in chaplaincy at a local youth offending institution – demanding ministry indeed which draws on all my priestly skills.

And by the way, I will love and tend my family.  Oh, and the socking great Vicarage garden may get a little attention.  And my personal prayer and meditation will happen – somehow.

All this I do gladly.  I love my job and I have a sense, at last, of vocation fulfilled.  I know I burn the candle at both ends, and I have to manage my stress levels, but it is the most fulfilling work I have ever done.  If I were not called to do this work, I could not possibly do it.  I can do this because I am loved and supported by God, my church and my family.

How can anyone say I shouldn’t be doing this because I am a woman?  Where is the relevance?

How DARE anyone say that we are second-class priests, not fit to be bishops?

Monday, 1 April 2013

Metrical Gloria

Goes to the tune of 'Now the green blade riseth'

Glory praise and honour, Holy God of all
Peace to all the people who listen for your call.
Here in your house, your holy church on earth
We offer you our worship, all we have of worth.

Jesus Christ our Saviour, divine and full of grace
Redeeming Lord incarnate, we bow before your face.
You came to us, our human pain to share
As you reign in glory, hear our heartfelt prayer.

Spirit of all goodness, comforter and friend
Glorious and eternal, the love that does not end
You stand alone, the One who makes us free.
The Speaker and the Spoken, life in One and Three.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Lent Series (3): Sacrifice

Third and final Lent sermon - warning, long post!  Based on the story of Mary anointing Jesus with oil and wiping his feet with her hair..

When Jesus came to Bethany, he came to stay with friends.  I think, in this context, ‘friends’ means people he could relax with, people who welcomed him unreservedly.  We don’t know how many people were there: this story appears in all the gospels, but the details vary.  In some places the woman is described as a sinner, but here in John she is named Mary and it is likely that she was the sister of Martha, Mary the student who sat at Jesus feet and learned.  Certainly in this gospel Martha is still stuck in the kitchen, while Mary is utterly focused on Jesus.
It appears, then, that Martha is behaving properly, while Mary is behaving really rather improperly.  She anoints Jesus feet with perfume and wipes his feet with her hair – an intimate act, a brave act, an act which leads to protest from the disciples. I can hear them talking now. It’s emotional, unreasonable, poorly thought out, not the kind of behaviour we expect around here.  Jesus is our teacher, our rabbi, our respected leader. 
Mary breaks through to Jesus the human being.  Mary responds to Jesus as a friend.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t mind a bit.  Jesus responds to the spirit of the gift.  Mary has spent a small fortune on this ointment, and perhaps she was saving it for Jesus’s burial, but she decides to give the gift while she can.  When Judas turns on her and accuses her of squandering the money, Jesus defends her.  Jesus will not let Mary be bullied to make Judas feel better.

It’s not a very Anglican scene.  When we anoint, we are quite restrained in our use of oil.  Just like in our baptisms, when we use just a little bit of water, we use just a little bit of oil.  We don’t pour it out so the whole room is scented with costly perfume.  There is a lavish abandon in Mary’s behaviour, a generous statement – Look, Jesus is worth all this and more.

Jesus is fine with it.  One thing is clear in the gospels – Jesus really wasn’t anxious about other people’s reactions.  Jesus loves Mary, loves her for her grief and fear for his life, loves her for her generosity and her outpouring of emotion.  In other stories she is described as wiping her tears off Jesus’ feet.  As it says in our prayers of confession,

The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit;
 a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.

Jesus responds with compassion and gratitude – it is Judas who despises Mary.  It is interesting that Judas is so negative about this act of generosity – clearly it has stirred something deep inside him.  We are told that Judas liked money, would take money from the common purse, and that he resents this apparent waste. The fact that it is Mary’s money does not seem to occur to him.  Judas wants to control money, to spend it how he sees fit.  Perhaps he is jealous of Mary, perhaps he wishes he’d done something similar himself, perhaps he just has no time for this feminine emotional outpouring.  Judas does not want to give, he wants to take.  Judas has missed the point entirely.

This is the third and final sermon in my little Lent series, though it’s been a whole month since the last one.  I have spoken about repentance, and obedience, and sacrifice is the last of the three.  As a theme it fits perfectly with today’s reading, for Mary shows us everything about the sacrifice entailed in loving Jesus.  We see her open up her home to Jesus and his assorted followers, even Judas who clearly despises her.  We see her give up her emotional security to embrace Jesus and follow him to his death.  She sacrifices far more than money.

Because sacrifice sits at the heart of the Christian gospel. Jesus said, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’  Jesus comes to us as the redeeming sacrifice of God, the one who saves us not by winning but by losing, by allowing violence to destroy him – except it doesn’t, but that’s the Easter story.  Now, as we approach the passion, we see the sacrifice being prepared.  Mary is anointing him for death.

And how can we respond?  We look at Mary and see generosity, self-sacrifice, giving to the point where it hurts. Trying to analyse Mary’s beautiful gesture is like trying to deconstruct the Mona Lisa – I am overawed. 

But I’ll have a go…

Mary is generous, generous beyond normal limits.  She gives to the point where it hurts.  Sacrificial giving is giving to the point where a space is left behind, and that space is important.  We give things up for Lent, because in giving something up we create a space. 
It is important to give, not just because of what can be done with what we give, but because the act of giving, the act of sacrifice, is in itself important. 
Giving creates a space, giving creates space for God. 
Jesus often tells people to give something up, and it’s not always the same thing.  He tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor, for this young man is in love with money.  He tells other people to leave their families and friends and safe, predictable lives and to follow him.  He tells the Pharisees that they must give up their obsession with rules and human perfection, and learn to love God again.  He tells other people that they must give up dissolute lifestyles and learn to care for each other. Some sick people are told that they must give up their dependence, before they can be made well.  Hard lessons in sacrifice, but whatever stands between you and God is what you must learn to do without. 
Someone asked me once what I missed about my old job, before I trained for the ministry.  It was a useful question.  I missed a few things, but, if I’m honest, the thing I missed most was having definable success.  I loved being able to say ‘I did that, I hit that deadline, I made that difference in the numbers.’ 
I was all about success.  I wanted the big corner office.  I wanted to have ‘made it’.  But what is success in ministry?  How do you measure it?  I promised to serve my congregation and say my prayers.  Measure that. 
The space left by my pursuit of success has made a space for me to look towards the Kingdom of God. I have no idea if I would have been successful, whether I would have got that corner office.  This is God’s way of reminding me that it really doesn’t matter.  Success or failure, God loves you and values you. 
And Mary’s gift is tangible, a gift of service.  She kneels down and anoints Jesus’s feet, just as Jesus will kneel and wash the disciples feet.  Her love is expressed in care and in service.

And just like Mary, at some point we will need to get down there and meet people, get involved, hear their pain and wash their feet.  Church is all about action, not words. A church which is not alive in the community is not alive at all, it is a religious club.  We serve our community in all sorts of ways in this church, and that service is mirrored in churches up and down the land.  The church is by far the biggest provider of voluntary service in the country, because so many of you are willing to sacrifice your time to care for each other.  ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’

And Mary makes herself vulnerable.  She knows that she will be given a hard time by the disciples.  I am sure this is not the first time Judas has had a go at Mary.  There is a familiarity in the way Jesus says ‘Leave her alone.’  It’s not that she doesn’t care – Mary is not someone with a thick skin – but she bears Judas’ insults as the price for being with Jesus.  Sacrifice does make you vulnerable.  We are all vulnerable here, because we all care. 

That’s why divisions in church are so painful – because we are passionate about our faith, we have opened our hearts to God and to each other.  If you don’t feel that other people respect your sacrifice, it hurts. Part of being a healthy church is understanding our differences, our disagreements, and staying together.  If we can’t do that, we turn into a sect, we fragment every time we disagree over a point of doctrine or practice.  There are times when church will make you feel uncomfortable, angry, sad, misunderstood.  You can choose how you respond to that.  You can see it as a time to grow in love, to learn more about each other, to love each other more, or you can close yourself off.  You can share the peace with each other, learn to live together in love, and all shall be well, for it is Christ we serve, and in Christ we are all reconciled.  Believe me, I know it is not easy.

Sacrifice, the voluntary giving up of that which we hold dear, is our way of becoming Christ-like.  We see in the life and death of Jesus the extent of his sacrifice, a ministry of service followed by a cruel death, and we see in his resurrection the power that sacrifice has.  It is in giving that we receive, in the self-emptying act of sacrifice that we open ourselves to God and become truly fulfilled.  The post-communion prayer reads,
Through him
[through Christ]
we offer you our souls and bodies
          to be a living sacrifice.
It is a demanding prayer to say.  To be a living sacrifice, to renounce all you hold dear if the Lord commands, it is not an easy prayer to make.  None of us would be able to make it, were it not for the next line.
Send us out
          in the power of your Spirit
          to live and work
          to your praise and glory.

Repentance, obedience and sacrifice.  The way of Christ is not easy,  But we are not alone in our journey.  The power of the Holy Spirit walks with us as we head along the road to Easter and beyond.