Monday, 31 October 2011

Sermon for All Souls

Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 22:1-6, 16-17
The other day my daughter said that she doesn’t think prayer works, because if prayer worked, people wouldn’t die.  It’s pretty hard to come back with a quick and satisfying response to that statement, suitable for a 15-year-old’s understanding.  Prayers for healing do work, sometimes in very mysterious ways, but still it is only temporary.  Death is part of life; we cannot deny the fact that death is inevitable. 
In the first scripture reading we heard this evening from Isaiah chapter 25, the poet-prophet imagines the earth having over it a shroud or sheet – a covering of death, weighed down by sadness, loss and mourning.  The world is held in the grip of death and has no power to shake it off.  But now, the poet prophesies, the Lord of life will bring an end to this crisis, the active power of death that crowds in on every chance for life.  The death of which this poet speaks is more than just the fact that we are all going to die.  Death encompasses every force that works against wholeness.  Death is all that diminishes well-being and prevents a right relationship with other people and with God.  That’s who death is, and we cannot by ourselves resist this culture of death.  But now the good news from the prophet-poet:  God will swallow death like a great sea monster attacking a smaller fish.  God will attack death in all its forms and crush it and eliminate it: ‘He will swallow up death forever’.  And then, verse 8 tells us, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.  This image is a comfort and expectation for the faithful.  We read of this promise again in the book of Revelation, written some 700 years after Isaiah, where it says:  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”. 

Both of the passages we’ve heard tonight from Isaiah and from Revelation 22 speak of a radical, complete transformation of reality as we now know it.  In Isaiah, God’s act of transformation includes removing “disgrace” from God’s people – the disgrace of being helpless, powerless, and exploited; the shame of not being able to resist the powers of death; the humiliation that we are ultimately inadequate.  Now all of that will be overcome, prophesies Isaiah.  What is old and spent will yield to God’s newness.  The old city of abuse is radically displaced by the new city ‘on this mountain’.  To move from the one city to the other is to move from the shrouded, sheeted desert of death to the abundant banquet of life. There is affirmation, too, from Jesus, of this very vision of God’s generous provision of hospitality, as he tells the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, and also as he comforts his disciples in John 14, when he says, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms; I am going there to prepare a place for you”.  These are promises on which the Christian hope rests.

The book of Revelation is partly a reminder to the Church that things are not as they should be in this world, but also a sign that things won’t continue this way forever.  There will be a fulfilment of the divine promise given in the Old and New Testaments, in which the separation between heaven and earth and God and humanity are overcome when God presence dwells with men and women in a transformed world. 

Revelation presents to us a vision, where we’re asked to suspend our judgment and submit ourselves to be informed by the shock of what is unusual, for the sake of a better understanding of reality.  Revelation poses some problems of language and symbolism – it doesn’t offer a view of things in any kind of literal way.  But we prefer things that are down-to-earth. We want to see things ‘as they really are’.  We like people to call a spade a spade and to be practical rather than airy-fairy about things. The accuracy of a photograph or a video – what we see or hear on the news - now, that’s reliable.  But is it really?  Can we capture reality by sight or hearing alone?  What we perceive as real may be far from the whole story.  Artists and poets have long recognised that photographs or prose can never do justice to the full dimension of human experience.  We must read Revelation as if we were reading poetry or looking at a painting.  Provided that we don’t demand a ‘photographic’ quality, we can find in Revelation the most ‘realistic’ insight and understanding of our relationships and the longing of our impoverished world. 

Revelation as a whole offers an account that resolves the contrast between heaven and earth, and good and evil, in the dwelling of God with men and women in a heaven on earth – what the bible calls ‘the New Jerusalem’.  And the event that brings about this resolution is that which lies at the centre of the Christian faith - the confession that the crucified Jesus is raised from the dead.  Resurrection from the dead transforms that which was destined to death into the shared life of a renewed world.  The vision in Revelation helps us to see the contrast between earth and heaven disappearing in the new creation, when God’s dwelling is no longer somewhere above us in heaven, but right here on earth. 

Heaven on earth is the fulfilment of God’s purposes, where God is immediate and manifest – very much as God was in the Paradise described in Genesis 3.  All the inhabitants of the new creation are God’s children and are identified with God’s character and enjoy the divine presence unmediated.  And as Paul reminds us in 2 Cor. 5, that new creation isn’t just something to look forward to, because already in Christ there is the possibility in the power of God’s Spirit of bringing about that new creation in individual lives and in communities. In Revelation the vision is of a city – it’s communal rather than individual. From first to last, biblical practice and hope is centred on the healing of relationships, between humanity and God and with one another.  In contrast to the destruction of nature and humanity in the middle chapters of Revelation, we now have the water of life and the fruit-bearing tree of life, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 

Placed as it is at the end of the Christian bible, Revelation offers to us the key to understanding the whole story, as it points to the fulfilment of God’s purposes for justice and reconciliation.  But looking forward in hope doesn’t mean we never look back, for remembering makes us present to life as it really is - there can be no healing unless we are present to the wound.  Remembrance is at the heart of healing and restoration.  There is transformational power in remembering, for only by remembering our loss and our grief are we able to embrace the journey into new beginnings.  Renewal is a work of remembrance... it is life out of death.  What is broken is reconnected. 

In the Church, as a fellowship of blessed mourners, we somehow experience peace.  At the Lord’s Table, we experience comfort and healing, as we believe in the communion of saints – those who are with us together with those who have died.  And our hope lies in Christ, in his Resurrection and in his promise to remember us in his Kingdom.  As we remember his story, we hope and pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it already is in heaven.  And until then, may our thoughts, words and deeds reflect that time when sorrow and sighing will flee away, and each person will be recognised as equally stamped with the name of our God; and then we shall see God face to face. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Uplifting things

Sally over at RevGalBlogPals posts this question for the 'Friday Five':

Over the last few weeks I have been struggling with depression, I know that from reading other folks blogs that I am not alone in this, and from time to time if not suffering from depression that everyone feels down. With that in mind I wonder what lifts you? So I'd like you to share 5 things:

1. A Scripture- it might be a verse or a whole book!

2. A piece of music.

3. A place.

4. A person/ group of people

5. Something you do...
Here are my answers, subject to change...:

1.  Scripture:  Most recently it has been the book of Revelation - and Christopher Rowland's commentary on it. It acknowledges the reality of everything that is wrong in the world yet lifts us up to the future for the world to come when God's kingdom is here in its fullness, and how wonderful that will be.

2.  Music:  I'm a rocker - anything by Switchfoot lifts me, but the song 'Where I belong' from the album Vice Verses has been it lately.  It sounds kind of melancholy but there's a lot of hope in there. 

3.  Place:  California.  Can't make my mind up as far as ocean versus mountains, but California.   If I can't get there, then being in a peaceful church alone is good, too. 

4:  Person(s):  my kids.

5:  Something I do:  exercise; walking. 

Thanks for asking the question, Sally, because just remembering what lifts me, actually lifts me.

What is wrong with this picture?

An article on the BBC news website tells me that FTSE 100 company director's pay increased by 50% over the past year.  CEO's pay increased by 43%.  Congratulations to them.
Base salaries for UK employees rose by 3.2%.  Hard luck.
UK Inflation is at 5.2%.  Unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds is at 21.3%.

The Church Times this week tells how the Vatican is speaking out against the "idoloatry of the market".  It's heating up, too, in the Church of England, where Canon Giles Fraser has resigned from his post as the Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral in London, presumably to stand up for the protestors over and above the worldly concerns of health and safety and income from tourists.  Something tells me Jesus would do the same.  It's very sad that the 'Occupy Wall Street' and 'Occupy London' protests will most likely have no effect on these economic injustices. I have no answers. I just know this is not right. 

Christina Weller, economist at CAFOD, says "G20 leaders have not thrown out the old failed orthodoxy of minimal government intervention in markets, and have not embraced their responsibility to re-orient economies to broader objectives of social and envirnomental well-being.  As a result, they have not carried out the reforms needed to tackle the deficiencies of global markets... [and] will continue to deal with crisis after crisis, and the lessons of the global downturn will be lost."

Friday, 7 October 2011

One week

On Sunday we had our annual Lifeboat service, which I led, and the vicar preached (an excellent sermon).  You can read about our local Lifeboat station and see some photo's of the service here (click here).  I really enjoyed talking to the Lifeboat crewmembers after the service over coffee, because all those I spoke with were amazing guys - so humble and down-to-earth and yet what they do is so giving and sacrificial and really a gift to the community. 

On Monday I had the pleasure of meeting for lunch and discussion with many other women clergy from our archdeaconry, our Dean of Women in Ministry, our Archdeacon and our Suffragan Bishop.  I really enjoyed meeting with other women clergy, especially those I had not yet met.  I love hearing other people's stories of ministry challenges.  In our group discussion we mainly talked about the Church of England's draft legislation on women bishops, particularly the debates that have been happening in local deaneries.  Later on Monday I hosted a ministry team meeting at my house, which I always enjoy because we do talk about things that really matter in the parish, i.e. mission and ministry. 

On Tuesday I conducted a funeral for a baby that lived for just under an hour after being born at 23 weeks gestation.  I had seen the baby's photograph and handprints and footprints, which were just precious.  The mother and father, of course, were devastated.  It was very intense conducting this funeral, compared with how it feels to conduct the funeral of someone in their 90's.  Tuesday evening I attended the Sea Cadets unit where I am chaplain (or Padre).  After colours and prayers I sat in on the Meteorology class, all about clouds and their names and characteristics.  I enjoy getting to know the cadets and having a laugh with them, and the staff are great. 

On Wednesday morning I worked on my two sermons for Sunday.  In the afternoon I got a phonecall from my training incumbent asking if I would go see a parishioner in hospital who, he had been informed, was dying.  This woman was 93 years old and I had visited her at home several times.  At hospital I found her unconscious and breathing was shallow.  The nurse said that she had been alright the night before, but took a turn in the night for the worse.  The woman's two closest friends were there, as she has no family.  I held her hand and prayed with her, the last rites, and read from the psalms and other parts of the bible.  A couple hours after I returned home, I was told that she passed away.  What a deep mystery death is - she passed very peacefully, but I'm sure she heard me, and her friends, while we were there. 

Today, Thursday, in the morning I made sandwiches for the new Lunch Club that was launched today.  Our Lay Reader publicised this lunch club to several establishments around our community where there are people who have mental illnesses, inviting them to come for lunch on the first Thursday of each month.  We had a turn-out of 10 guests, which I thought was super.  It was an immense privilege being involved in this today, and I look forward to the next one.  These people were good to be with.  Then, in the afternoon, I went with one of my parishioners to the opening of the Wirral Food Bank warehouse, and to meet with the guy whose running it.  My car boot was full of food donations, from our Harvest Festival, so it was wonderful to off-load that.  We are considering whether our church might be able to be a distributor for the food, for people in our area.  It's very exciting!

Usually we have music group practice on a Thursday night, but thankfully it was cancelled tonight.  Tomorrow is my day off.  Saturday, well, I still have to finish the two sermons for Sunday, don't I!  A week in the life of a curate.