Matthew 13.1-9,18-23

This last week I’ve mostly been at the clergy summer gathering – it was a little different to usual. Rather than a theme and different presentations within that, this year it was delivered by a team of external people, part of a course called leading your church in to growth.

This is kind of the follow up to the preparing the ground for growth sessions that we went to last summer. They told us that where vicars had been on this course and taken home and put in to practice ideas from it they were beginning to see some growth.

Growth is a funny word. It can be taken to mean and can be meant as one or more of a range of things. We’ve told you before that we often pray in chapel in the mornings for growth, in faith and hope and love, in generosity and in numbers.

Growth doesn’t just mean bums on seats or pews. It doesn’t just mean a healthier-looking bank balance. It is also about individual and corporate discipleship, seeking and achieving a closer walk with God, a deeper relationship with our saviour Jesus Christ. It is also about how we mature as a family, how we extend a warm and unconditional welcome to those who would like to join the family.

Growth is about us all growing, living, learning, learning more about ourselves, about each other and about God, and about all of those in the light of the other. It might be a bit scary, but it is in the direction of God. It is our natural trajectory – or it should be. Growth should be heard as a positive word.

But it isn’t always received as a positive thing. Growth can – perhaps often does – mean change. Change is often perceived to be negative. But growth – our natural trajectory toward God, individually and collectively, yes, probably means change.

Perhaps small subtle things, sometimes perhaps bigger or more substantial things. Sometimes we need to lay things aside to rejuvenate – caterpillars, for example. Sometimes it takes something to die in order to be resurrected – that is indeed at the heart of our Christian faith, is it not? It’s the theme of the readings I heard on Thursday, as I attended the funeral of a friend killed in a car crash – that seeds must die to enable growth. Our perishable bodies are laid aside in death for us to put on the imperishable clothing of eternal life. So yes, sometimes growth, renewal means the end of some things and the enabling thereby of the growth of something new.

At the close of the conference there was a sense that growth (in all the senses we pray for it) is acheivable and within our reach as parishes, if we want it to be. And that growth can come, in a small scale at least, from easily-achieved small changes. Changes we shouldn’t be frightened of or object to.

Some colleagues however, were a little sceptical about the effort required of us all to grow. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ said the speaker, but the first stone was certainly laid. The vineyard didn’t flourish in a day, but the first seeds were definitely sown…

As with preparing the ground for growth, which after all, was called preparing the ground for growth – the emphasis of LyCig was about making it a priority to sow some seeds, so it made me smile to see that this week’s lectionary reading was the parable of the sower.

Reading the parable again made me think about the sowing of the fields done at the summer gathering, how the seeds sown by the course leaders seemed to have been received, and I thought I would share some of those thoughts with you this morning.

Firstly, there were the people who went to the clergy gathering because they go to the clergy gathering, to gather with fellow clergy, not necessarily to pay attention to particular topics which don’t really interest them. I say this with the utmost respect for my fellows, because I’ve seen it here and I’ve seen it very often in my old life, and I think there’s a place for turning up and hanging out with friends without necessarily worrying about having to concentrate on something else – though in this case I think that would be a loss. These were the people who didn’t get it, or didn’t want to, the places where the seed fell on the path and was instantly gobbled up by the birds.

It benefitted the birds, and perhaps the gathering benefits the parishes of those clergy who come back a little renewed from a few days away, but the message of the growth imperative was lost.

Secondly, there were those who received the word and were very interested, who go away really enthusiastically to set up or set in motion quite a few of the ideas they’ve heard about. These colleagues could really see the benefits to the parish and could believe that it’s all such common sense that pretty instant results should be easily achievable.

Unfortunately for these keen folks, over-keen folks, they’re actually really quite busy when they get back into the parish and they struggle to keep the necessary momentum to implement the change and growth when day-to-day things inevitably take over. Here the seed fell onto shallow soil among the rocks, sprung up but could not be sustained and withered.

Thirdly, there were those who could see the potential and were encouraged to go home and try some things, but those things will not be received with enthusiasm my their churches, by congregations or committees who do not want to change at all or even, seemingly, to grow.

Problems or apathy contribute to choking ideas and hope in these places and, like thorns, prevent growth in an unattractive and painful way. To spend what time and effort and resource is available just on cutting away the weeds hinders healthy or effective growth.

Finally, there were the colleagues who went away inspired, the seeds sown by the LyCiG team taking good root and who will be received with joy on their return, by communities with excitement and expectation, communities who reflect on who they are and how they could be the body of Christ to, and share the gospel truth and freedom with, more people.

These are the communities which hear the word and understand it, the communities who will bear fruit and yield, perhaps thirty, perhaps sixty, perhaps a hundredfold.

Would we like to be that last kind of community? (That is, to a greater rather than lesser extent, a hypothetical question – to survive we must grow, else we shall, naturally, over time, die. Let anyone with ears, listen). So let’s perhaps assume we would.

Church growth research last year revealed that the churches which are intentional about growth, about developing the body of Christ in all its richness and diversity, in its depth and its understanding; these are the churches which flourish and which grow.

The LyCiG team at the clergy conference told us similarly. So rather than just the Vicar and me praying for growth, in hope and faith and love, in generosity and in numbers, could we pray today and regularly to be one of those last communities?

One of those communities where the seeds fall on fertile ground. Where inspiration and ideas meet prayer and prepared ground, and grow; where this means that the community, our community, God’s kingdom flourishes.

Let us pray:

God of Mission,
who alone brings growth to your Church,
send your Holy Spirit to give
vision to our planning,
wisdom to our actions,
and power to our witness.
Help our church to grow in numbers,
in spiritual commitment to you,
and in service to our local community,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
Amen

Category: Life  Tags: ,  Leave a Comment

Rather, the celebration was anything but random, but the thoughts are (as usual)

It’s been a hectic couple of weekends. These lovely guys:

cell group
are my cell group. Who I don’t get to see anywhere near enough, nor their partners.

This last two weekends I’ve done mad dashes around the country to be at Robin’s Church of England priesting, and at the national Methodist Conference to see Tom be received into full connexion and ordained presbyter (we’re ecumenical, we are). It’s been a whirl. Some things to remember before I lose them…mostly from yesterday, since it was further from my own experience/usual worship.

Priestings are solemn and pomp-ous, full of you cannot do this in your own strength (which well we know). I was priested among 10, in a cathedral full of gold and red and finery (not a problem, my own sending church, so it was special for me), whilst Robin was amongst his congregation with guests, in his curacy church. This was special to be present, as a curiosity to observe a different church (which we don’t get to do nearly enough/at all) and the way it approaches our common liturgy; as a priest joining in with the laying on of hands in the making of a new priest, close enough to actually do so, rather than the superman move; as the only one of our cell who could actually make it, and thus carrying all our prayers into that space for Robin.

But yesterday, yesterday was different. Yesterday Andy and I met up in Birmingham, to be there for Tom (feeling vaguely guilty about not being at Robin’s first celebration of mass). It is true to say I never fully understood until yesterday – or this weekend, delighting in seeing the updates and photos of all those beginning new ministries who I know or trained with, delighting in the hope that there is for the church with so many new priests and deacons – but especially yesterday, what it means to recognise the anniversary of your own priesting. Given that Tom was at mine and I was there yesterday, I like that we will always share that.

I suppose over the day there were moments it was hard to separate the two. I had finished writing a piece for our parish mag on the experience of being at St Paul’s, which I suspect will long if not always mark my ministry, so I went with heart full. I am more sorry than ever that my vicar said ‘It’s not about you’ and my first mass was absolutely ordinary, save Tom preaching and having some say in the hymns. I didn’t argue because, technically, that’s true. But actually, I grieved for it not being about me, just a little bit. I was reminded of that over these last weeks as those to be priested this year have agonised over service sheets and readings and special music. I was reminded when I brought away copies of Robin’s service booklet to send to the others, that I have nothing to keep other than the memories to remind me of that incredible privilege. I was reminded as Andy made mental note of all the things he might like to ask about for his.

I’m in a place of low confidence and low energy right now, so what a joy to spend yesterday in celebration. It was the best way perhaps I will ever spend an anniversary of my priesting, and I was hugely conscious of both the commonalities (two years at Westcott in the Federation gave me that) and the differences (though I imagine your average tiny congregation in chapels up and down the country would be similarly envious). So in no particular order, some of the awesomeness of yesterday:

worshiping in a conference venue (no cross, noted Andy) slightly strange, but comfortable, well-lit, good sound system, good screens, access to facilities. It was, in fact, especially at this BbWorld time of year exceedingly peculiar for me in a bit of a blurred-lives moment – entirely at home in massive conference venues but not usually worshiping in them, or, not in quite the same way!

singing in a mass congregation – singing modern hymns and traditional hymns to a band with a beat, no Jesus is my boyfriend, proving there is a happy medium – mass enough that well known songs can lose the band for a verse and ring out a capella but a capella on speed

liturgical dance. yes, really. i was so captivated by the mass dirty dancing shoulder lift moment I couldn’t take a photo fast enough, but the troupe of young people who accompanied music during the offering was really moving and beautifully choreographed.

the Lord’s Prayer – to an easily sung tune, though not one I’m too familar with, and in harmony. again, pretty much unaccompanied and ringing out around a hall for 1000. stunning.

the photos of each ordinand coming up on screen with their name and location, so everyone could feel they were being introduced.

the incredible moment at the distribution of communion, where each new presbyter, rather than assisting, as the CofE do, gathered in a small semi-circle of their family and we all received together. really, really powerful.

catching up even briefly with some old friends and faces from the Cambridge Federation

the choice of hymns tied us together in an odd way for me – Tom’s service included both Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, traditional in Anglican ordinations, and I, the Lord of Sea and Sky, which Exeter Cathedral put in Andy’s deaconing service. It was the latter that reduced me finally to tears singing it on the exit from St Paul’s, and I kind of figured it might do the same yesterday. I had to listen to the first verse rather than sing, but it was a fitting end to an awesome day.

I love my tradition and I love my church. But, boy, it is glorious to worship in a big, enthusiastic, joyful crowd. I already know how it’s more attractive to many than turning up to a cold, formal Anglican church. But I had forgotten how great it is to have the opportunity to worship like that. Worth every single second of the travelling. (Frighteningly, I know US friends take that kind of round trip just to attend church each week…)

 

Category: Life  Tags:  Leave a Comment

This morning’s reading in morning prayer was the good samaritan. I was just reminded of it as I read this article. Please go and read it too. I apologise for where it’s located, though if its general readership read it, I’m glad.

Have you read it? Please do, I’ll wait. It’s really important that you do. Here’s the link again.

Do you know why it bothers me? Well, the whole spikes thing bothers me and thousands of others, yes. And the statistics of homeless bothers me, having studied it when training in Salford and seeing with my own eyes people who the statistics say don’t exist.

But mostly, right now, the bit that bothers me is at the end, where he gives the sleeping bag. I hope it made you cry. Can I tell you something? I have *no* idea how many people think that reporter reported an accurate view of life in our civilised/developed/insertyourown society today, but I do know that on Saturday evening I offered someone a second cupcake and he said, no, no, give them to the others first. I’ve had one.

Saturday is almost never a day off for me, and often it has work that gets done in the evening. But not working means the potential to go out with Making Winter Warmer into Newcastle.

(are you sure you read that article? you might need to go back here too, to save me repeating myself – please, you don’t want me to do that, I do it enough as it is).

I came home – as do all the others each week – both heartbroken and uplifted. For whatever the rhetoric the media or politics would like to spread – and yes, many have mental health and alcohol-related problems – so would you if you had to spend more than one night like that reporter did, it’s a bit chicken and egg… most people are ‘perfectly normal’, not to mention lovely.

There were many walking past, out on the toon in a lovely evening, ignoring us. A few curious ones asked what it was for. A couple of cheeky chaps tried to claim some food, then didn’t quite have the grace to successfully look sheepish when realising it was for the homeless. One young lady was really interested in the project. As a student who comes from a rural area, she confessed to being absolutely horrified by the level of homelessness she was seeing on the streets here. She went away having written down the project details and hopefully she will indeed spread the word around her friends and peers.

I found myself critically evaluating what’s really needed now – and apart from a location for storage and sorting, which is pretty critical in itself, but needs thinking about also in terms of where the project goes because that might affect the location or type of space (go read their page, for the irony of the homeless project being made homeless) – and basics still needed for the street friends which are the same basics they started out with  – rucksacks, tents, clean basic clothes, flasks, hygiene items – some of the other things are very simple and practical.

The suspended food scheme hasn’t totally worked out, and now volunteers try to make sandwiches to take away. ‘Sandwiches’ basically means a packed lunch type bag of stuff, including water and bananas >

go on, stop for a second and think about the absolute reality of living on the street, now public toilets are barely available, public baths have closed, and there aren’t exactly a vast number of freely available drinking water founts

> and some treats. When there’s more food than people, that’s great, it means people can take away a carrier of extras to keep them going into the following day. But actually there weren’t enough carriers on Saturday. Who cares if a lovely cupcake gets its icing a bit flattened being wrapped up in a serviette – it still tastes the same. Well yes, but I for one have a drawer full of carriers I get when I’ve used my forever bags and have something leftover, or I’ve needed to drop in for an unexpected shop – this doesn’t bother me overmuch as I use them for bin liners, since I get through so little rubbish. (It does bother me that it doesn’t set a good example to other people not to use forever bags, so mostly I only buy what I can carry!)

But I do get them, and lots of people give me things in carriers, and we have a load at church which people bring things for the foodbank trolley in. So they’re an easy addition to the donations.

Thermal mugs. I had a few when I was at work. I honestly haven’t the foggiest what happened to them. I had a stainless steel with a stainless steel inner, and a stainless steel with a plastic inner. I never figured out which was preferable. I think I probably donated them away a long time ago. I replaced them with a breakable one – not a great idea, but much better for taste – from Blackboard, carefully packaged and sent over for me by my friend Dan.

Anyway, a breakable one probably isn’t that great an idea when it’s difficult to be careful with it, but if you get given a hot drink on the streets, keeping it hot for as long as poss would be super. Flasks obviously also fulfil that purpose, but I’m reckoning that plenty of us have one of those thermal mugs lying around somewhere, which be honest, you never use. If you do, feel free to drop me a note, cos we could rehome them for you.

The chance to choose clothes – with a size and item request you can pull out stuff that will fit, but it might not be what someone would have chosen themselves. I hope I don’t hear you saying ‘they should be grateful’… Dignity is perhaps the biggest loss in life, however that takes form. If we have lots of donations in certain sizes, why shouldn’t someone get the choice – because I can tell you, you might not think twice about being able to browse a rail, whether it’s in Monsoon or in AgeUK, but when you have nothing, making some conscious controlled choice gives back a bit of humanity.

Treats -  Mrs M and another mum and I have discussed baking for these street friends – and more. We’ve talked about baking bread together and doing enough to keep and to give away – to Sanctuary, our local supper project, to the foodbank recipients, to MWW. When the request came in first for bananas, I began looking for recipes that – much as cupcakes are indeed a treat, and thus entirely justified as such – contain grains and fruit and don’t get trashed if they’re in a pocket for a while. Homemade granola/cereal-type bars. Flapjack. Chocolate content being in chips within rather than on the top where it melts sticky (did I point out wipes are on the request list, given that there’s little by way of washing facilities on the street…?)

I had mused on this ‘group’ being Bread of Life, and I feel like it’s getting closer. Catering packs of clingfilm, or – especially if sandwiches are being given out – tupperware sandwich holders? How do you best organise your belongings if everything you have fits in a small rucksack, or two carrier bags, which are getting a bit ripped?

Go on, you know you want to think about that one too.

Gents, those bulging pockets beyond phone, keys and wallet, and a dislike of manbags; ladies – doesn’t everything manage to collect all mangled in the bottom of your handbag – how does that happen? Now try and put your cupcake and your donated travel toothbrush into the mix. It’s not pretty, is it, but it’s all you’ve got.

If you did as I asked and read the back stories, you’d know that I have a dream. I’ve had a dream for a long time. I’m not totally sure going in to ministry is going to get me any nearer or any further away from it. I suspect, if anyone told me to dream away, I might have ended up with something not dissimilar from http://www.lighthousewoking.org/

So now I’m perhaps quietly wishing I had a parish within the town centre with a hall and a kitchen. Cooking burgers on a gas stove with a bbq picnic atmosphere in the sunshine is one thing, but developing the project further to face the next winter is something they are having to face now. There are already agencies which run inhouse homeless support and outreach, including hot food vans. MWW need to work out what their usp is, and how they work alongside not in competition with other agencies to extend and enhance. I know they’d love a hot food van, but I’m pretty certain there’s a whole heap of official stuff that comes with getting a van.

But what they do – what they do best – isn’t just about the food – indeed it didn’t start about the food.  While it would be mega-twee to say man does not live by bread alone, the greatest commandment of all is to love one another. Sure, that very definitely includes food. But more than that, it means loving people, hugging people, listening to people, laughing with people, looking people in the eye. At eye level. Not looking down on people, not passing by on the other side.

Very genuinely, statistics tell us that we really are only a single short crisis away from needing the foodbanks or becoming homeless ourselves. It is there but the grace. The people who gain most from an evening out on the streets with MWW? Close run thing. Honestly. I dunno.

I think it might have been me.

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

I have spent the last few sermons suggesting, or trying to, that we might want to think of Easter and the time leading up to Pentecost wondering (as did some of the bystanders in our first reading from Acts) what does this mean, what the point is.

Not as in, “the church is declining, what’s the point?” Not as in “nothing we can do can really make a difference, what’s the point?”

Not really even as in “we come here each week, what does it mean to us? Is it just habit? What is ‘being a Christian today’? What’s the point?”

But in a very serious and genuine way, what does Christ’s death and resurrection mean for us? Or let’s go further back. What does Christ’s incarnation, his life, his teaching, his love, his death, his resurrection mean for us? What is the point? Why are we here?

We are here because we believe that all that meant something.

Or we are here because something, we don’t quite know what, but something bigger than ourselves draws us to seek something, somewhere where we can be part of something bigger than ourselves, where we can ask big questions and search for answers while we work out what we do believe (and that’s completely ok, believing often isn’t the first part of church, often belonging is, and faith grows from there).

We are here because the church is the place where the things that Christ taught us to do are still carried on. The place whose projects, mission, ministry and outreach mean that 22 million hours of voluntary service happens outside the church every month. That as governments and councils wilfully or regretfully withdraw funding for things, the church is the place that picks up education, care, activities, support for old and young alike. We are here because we believe in that?

Those volunteer hours aren’t for your CV. They aren’t to make you feel good, although these may be side-effects. They aren’t as payback in gratitude for things you have received (although that might be an impulse to honour).

We are here – and Christians in this country undertake that amount of voluntary service – because of what Jesus taught the disciples during his ministry, and reminded them of at his resurrection. Loving one’s neighbour, caring for those in need, feeding, clothing, sheltering any as though they were Christ himself; believing that we are a people worth more than petty hardships, that we have value in ourselves, made in the image of God, that we are ultimately saved and given eternal life by the sacrifice of the cross…

Jesus came among the disciples on the first day of the week and said peace be with you. As my father sent me, I send you. Not ‘as my father saved me’. We are sent.
At Pentecost we are sent. The disciples had those weeks of Easter, like we’ve had, wondering how on earth they were going to carry on the teaching and healing that they had witnessed, wondering how they would be any kind of light in the world when it was a world in which they locked their doors to meet together.

And they were reassured. Jesus would return to his father and send a ‘comforter’ (advocate, encourager, one to walk alongside). And so here we are. Jesus has ascended to his father and our father, and this morning the Spirit blows among us afresh – if we let it. The Spirit will comfort, enable, encourage, advocate and walk alongside us as we do what Christ told us to do. If we let it. If we set it free and let it set us free.

Christ sends us. Christ sends us out. Pentecost sends us out. The Spirit sends us out. We are equipped at Pentecost to go out and share the Christ we know, or we are getting to know. We are equipped for our language to be understood by others, because we are given the power to speak. In our case, that may not be in Cretan and Arabic and Egyptian and Roman, but in the human everyday language that we use in our ordinary life. In the daily conversations with others we meet at home, at work, on the bus, in the pub, at the Post Office.

In our day, it might seem a very small vision to dream of Pentecost equipping us to admit that we have this slightly off the wall, counter cultural irrational faith in a sky fairy. But from small things, great things can grow…

We believe that there is a God who is infinitely creative and loving, to the point of coming among us to show us how to be the people he created us to be, to the point of living our life and dying our death – more than our death, the death of a rejected, marginalised, tortured, dehumanised refugee (because that never happens anymore, right?);

We believe in a God who wanted us to learn – wants us to learn that there is more to life than the evil we can inflict on one another by greed or selfishness or indifference or hate;

We believe in a God who gave us the rich diversity of nature and the capacity to own it – and the sense, if only we would use it – to steward and nurture it to the benefit of all.

Apologetics is the term for our explaining and understanding of faith (often thought of as defending, or apologising for; better set alongside evangelism, the sharing of faith). The Spirit comes to empower us not to apologise, not to meet in hesitancy and embarrassment, but to meet in joy and in glorious enthusiasm for what we believe; what we are here for; for what the point is.

Pentecost, perhaps more than other times of year, and not least because of the reading from Acts, is the time we are given the opportunity, nay, instructed, to think bigger, think further, think beyond our own little group safe inside those doors, locked or otherwise (physically or metaphorically).

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

Pentecost is the time we can shake out our feathers and seek to be consumed by the wind and the fire and lifted to be full of the Spirit and full of the abundant life and energy given to us by the risen and ascended Christ.

Pentecost is the time we shall be brave enough to dream dreams, for God and for the church, and for this church. When we shall see visions, when – if – we allow ourselves to imagine what we could be, what we would long to be, who we would long to be. When we shall prophesy – when we shall stand up and speak truth, when we shall not ignore that women are being stoned to death for being Christian, that it’s not ok to hound out the homeless or the asylum seekers; that a living wage is not just compassionate but imperative, that foodbanks are a rosette on the lapel of many churches but an anathema to society…

What are your dreams and visions? If you let yourself free to dream dreams for God, what do you envision? What/Who do you want to see us being? What do you want to see us doing? Where do you long for, pray for the Spirit to renew our practice, worship, thought, activities, life…?

Would you like to write or draw something of your dream on the card you have. It doesn’t have to make sense. We’ll collect them up and offer them into the Pentecost display in the sanctuary, for us to pray with for the next few weeks.

Category: Life  Tags: ,  Comments off

I had a surreal experience on Friday. I was waiting to hand over donations of shoes and socks to be given out on homeless outreach last night. While I was waiting, I watched a man considering buying a car.

Personally, when it comes to cars, I just think wheel at each corner, gets me from a to b. This was not that sort of car. It was the sort that costs a lot more than many of the houses in this parish and across the northeast.

Not only did these cars cost more than houses, I mused, but they’d be rubbish cars to sleep in if that was the only shelter you had. I didn’t even like to think quite how many hot meals and drinks the amount of petrol one of those cars guzzles a week would buy…

 

This morning, the disciples are being prepared for Jesus’ leaving them, being prepared for Pentecost. Being prepared – re-commissioned to go out and share the teaching, the healing, the fellowship of Jesus with each other and with others. They are being reassured by the announcement of the arrival of the Spirit of truth to be with them for ever.

Our bible version, the NRSV, calls the Spirit ‘advocate’. Older versions call it (him/her) ‘comforter’. Other languages I read the bible in call the Spirit ‘spokesperson’ or ‘helper’. Or the one who will ‘animate’ us.

These variations show us the beauty of diversity, the richness of God’s world in language and image. They echo back through the ages to the tower of Babel, and they pre-empt the gift at Pentecost of the facility to be understood in many languages.

Let’s consider some of the different translations for the Spirit as it is promised to us in John’s Gospel today. I wonder what our own preferred word for the Spirit and the part it plays in our own lives might be.

Spirit as comforter. Everything we have learnt about God is that he is a loving father, a caring shepherd, a merciful judge. We have just heard that Jesus goes before us to prepare a place for us in his father’s house. We know that death has been destroyed by Easter and the resurrection, even if we don’t really understand how.

We may be comforted by the eternal presence of the Spirit when Do not be afraid is what we need to hear. When life is at its lowest ebb, when hearts are broken, when one is lost and in pain or distress, when the going is tough. We are reminded that the Spirit will be with us forever, the truth the ever-presence of God at our side in our need, before us, behind us, under our feet, at our elbow.

We are comforted, consoled, reassured of this most fundamental truth, that we are loved. And because we are loved, we are free to love in our turn. Indeed we are commanded to do so. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. Under the new covenant, to love one another as I have loved you.

Those of us who know the presence of the comforter, do we fulfil the great commandment by offering comfort to others? A gentle touch to a lonely widow, a kindly word to a sad soul, a prayer for healing for those in turmoil? Food to those who are hungry, clothes to those who are naked, shelter where we can, to those who have none?

Where Jesus walked ahead of his disciples, now he is to be no longer there. We are his eyes and ears, his hands, his feet, his voice. The Spirit lifts us up to be able to be the followers Christ called us to be, to be able to be redeemed sinners who share that grace with others, to heal, to teach, to minister ouselves. The Spirit comforts us, and we are strengthened to live into the life we are offered.

Some bible translations use ‘helper’. We can receive help, and we can help. When we say ‘our help is in the Name of the Lord’ we might hear it as comfort (the help that we receive), but we might also hear helper as something more active – the gift of the Spirit enabling us to fulfil Jesus’ commandments, to bring glory to our father and to bring about the kingdom on earth.

What about advocate – the term used by our Gospel version – is most commonly known as someone who takes one’s side, who speaks for someone who cannot or is not able to stand for themselves.

It is a term from the legal world – the courtroom lawyer on our behalf, but has a wider representative function. Spokesperson broadens the image still further. Either can be heard as a defensive or an offensive position. They might be a figure to better express what you cannot or to intervene in situations you are not equipped for; they might be a prophetic voice to call out injustice and inequality.

There are many instances of and opportunities for advocacy in today’s world. Again, if the Spirit of truth walks alongside us, who are we freed to speak for intercede for, walk alongside in our turn?

When the Bible calls us to honour the orphan and the alien and the widow, it calls on us still to seek out those who are on the edges of our society, those who have no voice, those who would have been the first sought out by Christ.

Spirit as animateur. As in life-giver or puppeteer? Both and, perhaps?

Paracletos, the one who Jesus will petition the Father to send us, is the one called to our side. The Spirit will be one who consoles or comforts, one who intercedes on our behalf, will be one who encourages or uplifts, hence refreshes. This encompasses the two way sense of being loved and loving God, and of loving others.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. We are not solely consoled and uplifted, encouraged and refreshed, to bask in the love of God. We are refreshed to do his will, encouraged to do his work, uplifted to be the comforter and advocate of others, those who Jesus loved, and called us to love. We are given life, life in abundance, and we are called to live it.

Over 80 people sleep rough on the streets of Newcastle-Gateshead. They have no car to shelter in. They have only the clothes they stand up in. Those clothes, certainly this weekend, are mostly soaked through and there is nowhere to dry off or change into clean dry clothes. Who is their comfort?

Over 1000 people have received food parcels since the Gateshead Foodbank was set up last year. Regardless of what media and politics might like you to believe, those people are desperate to give in to asking for help. Where is their advocate?

The Holy Spirit we wait for comes not only to encourage us, but to encourage us. Not only to speak for us, but to us and through us. Not only to heal us, but to send us out to heal. To breathe life through us that sets us on our feet and opens our eyes to the lives around us that we can touch with the love of God.

The Holy Spirit comes to form us and empower us as church, not just to come to church but to be church. What does that mean for us? How will the Spirit of truth animate our lives? As we wait for the one called to our side, let us pray.

Father, our reading from Acts told us that

30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,

Send your Spirit into our lives, that we may give thanks for our comforts and let go of those things we do not need. Refresh and encourage us to keep your commandments, to love one another as you have loved us. Raise us up to speak for others, to find time to care for those in need. Walk alongside us and give us life, guiding us that we might live it rightly to your glory.

Category: Life  Tags: ,  Comments off

Matthew 28:1-10

On Easter Day, we heard the resurrection account of Mary’s visit to the tomb from John. It’s quite nice for us today to hear the passage from Matthew’s account, being, as it is, the lectionary year of Matthew.

Last weekend I talked about reassurance and challenge. On Sunday morning Margaret spoke of reassurance, and on Sunday evening I wondered still whether there was challenge within the reassurance.

This morning, they’re back again. I would like just to give you two very brief things to think about this morning.

Firstly, the / the first resurrection appearance is not to Peter, appointed ‘rock’, primus inter pares of the apostles, chief among the disciples even if he didn’t always act it – indeed one might say that his denial in the courtyard denied his chance to be first to meet the resurrected Lord, until one remembers that at least he followed into the courtyard when the others ran away.

It is not to Peter, on whom the church will be built, that Jesus appears and gives the first resurrection commandment. It is not to the power of the church which falls the whole or the main responsibility for the sharing of the gospel. It is not only to those who have been chosen, set apart, trained, prepared for the task.

No, it is to the women. The women who have had faith all along, who have followed Jesus and supported him, who have done all their society let them do and be – and more. It was the women who professed faith, who anointed, who walked the way to the cross, who kept vigil at the foot of it, who came to prepare for burial.

My first encouragement to you this morning, my first reassurance and challenge to you, is not that they were women, per se, but that it was the ‘ordinary followers’ to whom Jesus entrusted these first precious moments, not the hieracrchy. This underlines all that he teaches us – about the beatitudes, about loving others as yourself, about valuing others as equals.

Those who follow Jesus as part of the body of Christ, mostly un-named, un-tasked, are those to whom the glory of the Angel of the Lord appears; those to whom the Lord appears. Those whom the Lord reassures – Do not be afraid – and whom he challenges – go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee.

Does the Lord in his resurrection both reassure and challenge you? There is no monopoly on faith in the hierarchy of our church, no monopoly on ministry or on mission. We are all equipped at Pentecost and sent out, but we do not have to wait for Pentecost. Here in Matthew, in his account of the resurrection appearance to Mary and Mary, we are encouraged that the body of Christ has the most important part to play in the sharing of the Gospel. How do you share it?

 

Secondly, it is to the women. This month across the country numerous services have been held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood. For many who had worked quietly for the Lord for many years before 94 and have done so since, there has never been an opportunity to rejoice in their calling and in their work.

It is rather appropriate that this anniversary is in Matthew’s lectionary year (although sad we chose John at Easter, so I’m glad we have this further chance today) where the men are not present at the tomb, just the women, and it is very definitely the women reassured and sent to the other disciples – Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles, and yet that role refused by so many for so long in recent times.

It is – if Colin and Philip and Michael will allow us – so often the women that have upheld the church of England, the church in England. At every level. When you look around the church across the land today, its demographic is remarkably similar. Women in the congregation outnumber men perhaps by 3 to 1.

Women clergy numbers have risen from none to that 1000 priests in 94, to today where half of the ordinands in training are women and we are approaching 50% in clergy. Last summer when the diocese of Newcastle ordained its deacons, every single one of them was a woman – and, encouragingly, majoritively under 40.

But it is not just clergy who count. The women at the tomb were not the disciples the gospel compilers identified. Even living in the presence and commandments of Christ those first and second century writers struggled to forefront the women. It is so much more powerful to hear today’s resurrection account when remembering that the status of women in that society meant you might as well today send the angel of the Lord to a homeless drunk, who seeks his shelter in a church doorway because he hopes and prays that ‘someone up there’ will watch over him.

The women of then were some of those on the margins. It was to these Jesus first appeared. These whom Jesus wanted to reassure that everything he said was true. These he challenged to take the message to the others.

How often do we today, forget the message Jesus taught? How often do we, not unlike James and John, argue about who sits where, who’s in the seat I think is mine? How often do we, not unlike Peter, shrug off with an embarrassed smile that on Sundays (or Tuesdays) we still do that unfashionable thing of going to church?

How often do we, with roofs over our heads and food on our tables, give honest and unadulterated thanks when we break bread, and commit ourselves anew to sharing it not just with others around the table, but with all?

How often do we go out and wash the feet of those whose feet are dirty from having worn through the one pair of shoes and socks they own, whilst spending their days being moved on, hoping to find some shelter from the cold, from the weather, from abuse, from indifference (worse than abuse), from life?

We do. We do serve. We have people here who are so very generous with time, with prayers, with donations to the foodbank and to clothing and to toiletries for those in need. Thankyou.

But as we remember Jesus appearing first to those who were among the last, we remember that we must always remember the last first. Galilee, today, is right around the corner, right before our eyes. It is here that we will see Jesus, and here we must remember that he challenges us to see him in others.

Category: Life  Tags: ,  Comments off

Acts 2.42-47
John 10.1-10

Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. … I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

There is something hugely reassuring about Jesus as shepherd – that great shepherd of the sheep. He is the shepherd who goes looking for each of his lost sheep. He leaves the 99 and sets off in search of the one. He carries the lost one home when he has found it, and all rejoice.

So does it reassure you, the gospel passage today, or does it challenge you? Does it make you feel safe, or does it leave you with itchy feet?

Safe, because the shepherd is always watching, always ready to come and lead us back to the security of the sheepfold? We know that he is the way to safety, that he is the gate, not to follow anyone else.

But we do not only follow him in. We must also follow him out. Yes, the sheep are safe, in the sheepfold, but is that where life abundant is to be found?

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

Will come in and go out and find pasture. Sheep – a bit, perhaps, like hens – are meant to be free-range. One reason sheep often need shepherds is because they’re off clambering over rocky bits or exploring round behind that tree, or because they munched their way along a nice set of daisies that led them off the path, or because they just got carried away with watching that butterfly and forgot to keep going along with the others.

The shepherd is around always, within sight or within calling distance. The sheep follow him, because they know his voice.

When we pray, when we listen for God, we are not out of his sight or out of his calling distance. We are never out of his sight or out of his calling distance, even when we do not pray, or do not listen for him. We recognise his voice, but do we always follow him?

The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Today’s gospel passage is a powerful missional passage. We are on the way, on the journey to Pentecost. That journey is a journey which started with being gathered – in Jerusalem, and will be underlined at Pentecost when we are challenged, when we are sent to share the gospel with all people.

Our first reading from Acts is quite reassuring. It’s a home-based text, a sheep-fold text – where we hear of the people devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread together and common prayer and praise.

But though they spent much time together in the temple and at home, they still were looking out. They ministered to others in need, they were seeing signs and wonders being done. The Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sheep are being called, and brought in to fellowship. They are being saved and brought into Christ. They are being gathered. But being gathered is only half of the story. We gather in order to go back out, in order to minister to others in need, in order to share the wonders of faith with others, in order to still today offer the joy and reassurance of being saved to others.

Jesus, post-resurrection, reassures and challenges. His own sheep do recognise his voice – as he calls their names. Mary – go to my brothers, and she does. He sets about rounding up his sheep who have scattered. On the road to Emmaus, despite being late and tired, Cleopas and his companion, having had the scriptures opened to them on the way, having recognised Jesus (finally) in the breaking of the bread, do not rest the night, but set off again to share the news of the risen Lord.

They are reassured. They are challenged. They go. He calls them by name and leads them out. Not alone, uncertain, in danger, because he is with them – he goes ahead of them­ – but definitely out. The gatekeeper opens the gate and he leads them out.

We have come in, we have heard his voice and we have followed him in. We are saved. For that, alleluia and thank God. But the shepherd has not finished with us. Where is the sweet pasture? Where is this life in abundance? It isn’t only in the sheepfold. It is ‘out’ too.

We devote ourselves to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers. We rejoice in this, in the glory of Easter. But we are still on a journey – do we have itchy feet for it? We have these Easter weeks to ponder the resurrection and what it means; that death is beaten, that love wins, that we are saved. To be reassured that all we believe is true. But also to ponder what that means for us as we approach the reminder not only of being gathered, but of being sent.

Pentecost will challenge us anew to carry the mission of God out. Will encourage us to think of ebb and flow. The journey that is faith, and life. We gather, are refreshed together, and then the shepherd leads us out, goes ahead of us, drawing us out into open pasture and encouraging us to live abundantly in him. When I read the beatitudes, and of Jesus’ care for those on the margins, I am reassured; when I read how many sleep on the streets of Newcastle and Gateshead I am challenged.

My God goes before me and leads me out to do something, which is why I am choosing to get more involved with the Making Winter Warmer campaign. When my heart breaks for those who suffer, I am challenged, and when I return I find solace in that the shepherd watches over each of them and counts them and longs to round them up too into a safe sheepfold where food and shelter are available and shared.

We recognise the voice of the shepherd. We know that he is the way to safety, that he is the gate, not to follow anyone else. If we hesitated in Lent, if we abandoned him in his Passion, if we grieved at the tomb, if we rejoiced at the resurrection, today we remember that we gather to share and worship, to spend time in fellowship and learning and in breaking bread together.

But today John reminds us too that we do not only follow him in. The shepherd calls us by name and goes ahead of us, leading us out. Do we follow him then too…?

Category: Life  Tags: ,  Comments off

Midweek Mass, 6th May
1 Corinthians 15.12-22 John 15.1-8
7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Some of you know that I spent the weekend away in London. I was asked to speak at St Paul’s, at the national service to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood. It was a frankly phenomenal experience, humbling and euphoric at the same time. Inspiring and joyous and yet conscious of the cost that has been paid and is still paid by those whose callings are denied, by a church which still is not fully inclusive, a church which is still struggling to accept the ministry of all who God calls and offers it, a church which needs to do more to encourage everyone to engage in all types of ministry.

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached, and in his sermon he said pretty much that – he apologised to the 700 women sitting in front of him who had been ordained priest in ’94 for the struggles they had endured; he acknowledged that there is still much work to be done; and he called on all to be open to the spirit’s guidance in the calling out of vocations – not only to the ordained orders.

Men and women, he said, are “equally icons, witnesses, vessels of Christ for the world”

“In God’s grace our very humanity is the material through which God’s divinity is revealed. Male or female, it matters not, so long as in our beings, through our clay, in a willingness to risk everything and stop at nothing, we offer ourselves to Christ and for Christ. Then we may in his grace and love be made like Christ, who emptied himself and took the form of a servant, for the sake of the world. In our very weakness, we may be the instruments of God’s transforming power for the world.”

Our gospel reading this morning encourages us to risk and to trust in God, to live our lives in him that we might bear fruit. What kind of fruit is not specified, only that if we abide in God, we shall bear fruit. That if we abide in God and trust that he will answer our prayers, great things might happen.

Most people, embarking on a journey to find out what that niggling sense of ‘should be doing something’, don’t know where it leads, only that in prayerful risk -taking and trusting, paths and directions will become clear.

As we celebrated on a grand scale on Saturday, we celebrated also on a human level, at the individual reality of over 2000 lives, and though I think all those there (with the possible exception of the international press photographers or tv crews) had already committed their lives to Christ in one way or another, there are few more awesome things than seeing inspiring people around you wherever you look.

It is easy to believe the media stories that the church is declining. It is easy to see in empty pews the shadow of previous generations when they were full. But it is easy also to forget to abide in that faithful prayer and risk-taking and trusting that God still calls. It is easy to tune out calls to ministry.

You may sit here today thinking that you’ve had your time and worked your share. You might sit here and think that there’s nothing you can do these days. But the branches do not bear fruit alone, they bear fruit by abiding in the vine, abiding in the Father.

The Vicar and I often pray, here in the mornings, for growth, in hope and faith and love, in generosity and in numbers. I commend this month the article the Vicar has written in the church magazine about ministry, and our need to pray for and to listen to the prompting of the spirit in the calling out of disciples into a range of ministries.

So I ask you to join us in our prayers. As the Archbishop calls us to remember that we are all equally ‘icons, witnesses, vessels of Christ for the world’, let us make our prayers to be for that deeper abiding in Christ for all of us, that we might grow as disciples, that we might grow more disciples, that we ‘may be the instruments of God’s transforming power for the world’, that we might glorify God and bear much fruit. Amen.

Category: Life  Tags: ,  Comments off

Some months ago, I had a phone message from our adviser for women in ministry. Would I mind my name being put forward to speak briefly at a service in London, for the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood? I agreed, without thinking too much about it, and heard nothing further. After a few months, one of the organisers got in touch and apologised for the gap (perhaps wilfully, I’d almost forgotten, and presumed they’d got someone else). I had a very brief brief, and forgot about it again.

The size and scale of the gig only began to hit home last week, as the internet warmed up. But only travelling down to London and heading in for the mic check didn’t really ready me for the remembrance of the breath-taking beauty of the inside of St Paul’s. Not in nerves for speaking, per se, I’ve done plenty of big gigs in my time.

We went out to see the end of the procession arriving from Westminster Abbey. Seeing that trail of people snaking back as far as you could see was suddenly emotional. When I’d taken my alb to the robing room there were so many others already on the rail – I’d still not realised each of those women ordained in ’94 would be robed.

The sun shone, and the sheer number of collars looked amazing. I’ve never seen so many women priests in one place either. The tourists looked on as they arrived at St Paul’s with some wonderment. Applause broke out. It was indeed, strangely emotional.

We had to robe. We knew the queue for the loos would be ridiculous. It was. The queue to robe was pretty big too. The 700 women set off to be photographed with ++Justin on the steps, and we huddled as the main liturgical procession in St Dunstan’s chapel for briefing. We were still corralled in there when the women began to process in, three batches. 700 people. As the stream of white began, the congregation rose. Applause began. The acoustic of St Paul’s is something else, and even stuck in our little chapel, it was thunderous. And it went on. And on. And on. And on. And still they came. A glorious line of white. The applause didn’t diminish. It went on for over 10 minutes. And these were just the women ordained in ’94.

I would be privileged to be able to see them, from the platform, arrayed before me. I would be privileged to distribute communion to these faithful women, so many of whom stepped up to me full of tears, but full of joy and recognition.

womenpriests20

I will, God willing, be privileged soon to see inspiring and wonderful women be consecrated bishop, and I will be grateful for having met some of them on Saturday. Joining that procession was the most humbling experience. Standing on the platform of St Paul’s as a once in a lifetime opportunity, surrounded by such amazing priestly witness, looking out. Recognising each person’s journey up to ’94 reflected in their faces as they came to receive. Seeing so many faces I knew from numerous generations, across the dioceses, across traditions – quite incredible.

Seeing a bundle of bishops, each with their adviser for women in ministry or equivalent, that was pretty impressive too. No pointy hats. No sticks, except with +London, which is fair enough, it is his church, and who was jolly gracious, given that he doesn’t ordain women and so St Paul’s does not turn out priests onto those steps in the sunshine each summer.

The archbishop, acting as deacon. Beautiful gesture. For some of those bishops, the eucharist being celebrated by a woman must have been difficult. But they were there, even if they didn’t receive. For those women who were told not to rejoice 20 years ago, there was a tangible sense of spirit in the cathedral as they were enabled to do so this weekend. For many, there were memories of friends who passed away in those 20 years, for some, memories of those who passed away as deaconesses and never received the church’s blessing on their priestly calls.

stpauls2

Some among the congregation were husbands and families, other male clergy who have supported throughout. Some among the congregation were my peers, from Westcott and Ridley, from other dioceses. Some among the congregation were ordinands, and even a few in discernment – seems dioceses applied their own judgement to the allocation of tickets. Given the emotions that eventually overwhelmed me, I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be an evangelical candidate, in the body of the church as those women pioneers filed past.

The cathedral was full. Live streaming the service to the adjoining square meant that others could participate too, and what a beautiful day for it. As you see in ordination photographs, people lingered on the steps and in the square afterwards, drinking in the full sense of joy.

I thought what I was a part of hit home when the final hymn began, and from standing on the platform of St Paul’s, behind the gold-bedecked altar, under that stunning dome, looking out at those row after row after row of women to whom the church and today’s female priests owe so much, and behind them, the hundreds who showed their gratitude to them, looking out and seeing the great west doors begin to swing open, the sun stream in and the people of God stream out, rejoicing, to get back to living and proclaiming the gospel.

But no, reality only began to hit when I saw all those women arrayed on the steps in the photographs across the global news. It hasn’t been a totally smooth run for me as a woman in ministry, and the sight of so many reinforced that God calls women too and that women should rejoice in that call, and the church rejoice in them.

class of '94 (photo Church Times)

And it only really hit last night, when Bishop Paul came to confirm in our deanery. People starting out on their walk to find out what God calls them to. We rejoiced with them too. And as the accompanist began that same hymn – I, the Lord of sea and sky – I found myself in tears.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be there with the class of 94 and all the others called into servant leadership since. I am so humbled to join an incredible inheritance. I rejoice in the ministry of my sisters recognised this weekend, as I rejoice in the shared ministry of my brothers (some of whom I’m sorry felt left out on Saturday). There is, as the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his sermon, much work left to be done, but as the final hymn rejoiced with us, ‘Here, I am, Lord’, I pray that there are many out there who watched Saturday’s rejoicing and felt their hearts warmed, that the quiet callings they have not yet given voice to might grow to the thundering echo of a St Paul’s Alleluia.

from my text:

klb womenpriests20

When I was an undergraduate, my local church noticeboard displayed a poster declaiming: This parish plays no part in the apostasy of women.
Truthfully, I had never questioned why I’d never seen a female vicar.
Truthfully, I knew nothing of the debates that raged.
Truthfully, I had to look up ‘apostasy’.
Truthfully, I would have laughed at the idea of my being a priest.

Fifteen years in academia, leadership and change management didn’t erase that poster from memory.

When people asked ‘why?’ to my going into ministry, I usually said: ‘I can’t see any greater privilege, than to be able to spend your life loving people.’

Today, I could laugh at the idea of doing or being anything else.

Today I give thanks for those men and women who prayed, dreamt, strove and believed, that today I may encourage men and women to pray, dream, strive and believe. That I might bless and absolve them, and call them to God’s table.

Today I give thanks that I may bring my gifts, my passion, my life & work experience, to love and serve those whom God loves, inside and outside the church.

Every day I am grateful for the opportunity to be who God calls me to be, full of hope and expectation. There is much work still to be done, the fields are white. But we are willing labourers, so come holy Ghost, continue to inspire us.

 

Category: Life  Tags:  2 Comments

Multi- media & mental streams filling my Bank Holiday today. Live video from the HTB leadership conference, which is on “Equipping leaders for the evangelisation of the nations and transformation of society.”

when I tuned in, Nicky Gumbel was saying how people say you shouldn’t be friends with your church/parishioners (as a leader) and how that didn’t leave many people to be friends with. We are all trying, he said, to be ‘friendly churches’, whilst actually we need to be churches of friends, where people can make friends.

Friendship, he said, is the key to evangelisation, the key to the transformation of society. Reminded us how deep the wounds of loneliness in our society are right now.

Reminded me how the twofold activity of Making Winter Warmer shows the equal importance of meeting material need AND befriending. Reminded me of a couple of things I read a while ago and wanted to blog: loneliness and a response to it by Janet Henderson (with a link to an earlier post). Reminded me how important U3As are today. Reminded me of an article I read about Euan Ferguson struggling having a stroke while living alone.

Reminded me also to look up some research – presumbly of some socio-anthro ilk – on friendship, that Judy Hirst mentioned to me when we were talking about welcome training last month. Research about the difference in ‘friendship’ in different demographics. We talked about the kind of friendship you might meet attending church in Durham City versus that you might in the close-knit familial communities outside; about how these present quite different challenges and opportunities, and how that might really make a difference in how you approach welcome, discipling, fellowship, church-building in different places. It’s a lens that you don’t often find suggested, never mind applied, in growth and mission resources.

Listenting to stories about how someone was invited to alpha and encountered cheezus on it and so came back to the next class with four friends, one of whom then invited the person sitting next to them on a plane to another course… Round here, people just don’t do that kind of thing. But it does gratify me that some of the things I’m trying to build round here is about friendship. Let’s hope it works. I certainly don’t have enough friends… :-)

Friendship may well be the key to evangelisation, but I’m happy that I’m sure it is the key to the transformation of society, evangelisation or not.

Category: Life  Tags: ,  Comments off