Lent 4 – John Conway – 31/03/19

2Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

According to the Gospels (well, Mark, Luke and Matthew anyway), Jesus didn’t go in for sermons. It’s a fact that always puts a bit of a question mark next to this part of the service! Jesus did, however, tell stories. And we heard one of the most famous of them today.

So I could preach a sermon focusing on the prodigal son: the son who demands now, his share of the inheritance that belongs to him. He’s not prepared to wait, but then squanders that inheritance, is reduced to hiring himself out, a wreck of person, before coming to his senses, and traveling back home, expecting to beg for a servant’s lot, and then surprised by the welcome and forgiveness from his father. There are plenty of sermons that encourage us to identify with that journey – the journey to find ourselves back home, and not just home but greeted by the surprising welcome of our father – a feast thrown to welcome our return.

Or I could preach a sermon not so much focusing on the prodigal – for like the first hearers, isn’t the point that we aren’t always those who’ve wandered off and squandered everything. We perhaps more often identify with older son – looking askance at the behaviour of his brother, and the behaviour of his Father. That sermon might ask if the older son doesn’t have a point – articulating the truth that most parents know that spoiling a child is a potential path to ruin. It’s a sermon that might tease out the tension between justice (what is right and fair) and mercy, the act of gratuitous, unmerited forgiveness. That’s a real tension, and the story is open-ended, the reconciliation between the brothers (as well as the older son and the father) is incomplete – we’re left wondering how the older brother will react to the Father’s invitation to join the feast, and how we might react.

But perhaps the sermon would help us think more deeply about God (the Father). For surely the story implies that this is what God is like. God, the one whose mercy breaks down the walls of both our foolishness and our self-righteousness. The God whose overwhelming desire is to reconcile, to bring into the feast both the older and younger child, the foolhardy and the responsible. This is Jesus’ most sustained vision of what God is like.

And therefore the point is maybe that we are called to bethe father figure, enacting that reconciliation, which as Paul says is our epistle, is the ministry of us all. We need to find the strength to be vulnerable, like the Father who runs down the road to greet the younger son, and sweeps aside his apologies; find the strength to show the joy and mercy which breaks hearts and changes the patterns of our life together.

There so many ways to take this story. That’s without exploring how Jesus’ first hearers might have reacted to the parable, or the reading of this story by that great 20thcentury theologian, Karl Barth, for whom the Prodigal Son was Christ himself – making his journey into the far country; the journey of God into incarnated human living, in all its squalor and sinfulness; so that, as Christ becomes like us, so we may journey with him back into the arms of the welcoming Father: or as Paul puts: For our sake he made him sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The point is not only that we are all like the Prodigal, but that God chooses to make that journey too.

So many readings of one story. And perhaps that today is the point worth drawing out. That humans are story tellers; we are a species formed and shaped by our story telling. It’s the reason we still gather to hear this familiar story, in all its multi-faceted depth; just as we will shortly enact other stories: as Alannah is baptised, brought through the waters of Christ’s death that she may live his resurrection life; and as bread and wine is taken and shared, and the re-telling, in our presence, enables it to become the presence of Christ among us and in us. Our gospel story continues to challenge us to think about why forgiveness and reconciliation and justice matter; in a world of estrangement and squalor, and dubious choices; just as our communion will remind us in a world of brokenness, of the possibility of transformation and wholeness and community. And so the stories form us, as we are invited to see the world and God as they suggest – to see the possibility for forgiveness and reconciliation and feasting, where we thought there was none.

For if it is not this story, this account of the world and the One who holds all things in life, then some other story, some other account of the way things are and might be, will be forming and shaping us. That’s true on a personal level – as Christians our baptism describes and enacts that fundamental shape of dying to self, dying to a life lived simply for ourselves, so that we may rise into Christ’s resurrection life, into his Body, a community of people living not for themselves, but to bring life for all, And it’s true on a corporate level. Hearing, once again, this most powerful of Jesus’ parables, should make us ask: what are the foundational stories that animate and shape our public debate? Do those stories invite us to cherish every human life, as Alannah is cherished and valued today? And do they re-open our eyes to others so that reconciliation in our divided society is imagined and invited? Too many of our ways of looking at the world, the stories which shape us, simply reinforce what we already think, our prejudices and fears, so that the challenge to be more human that the best stories pose and enable, is lost. For by our stories, how they shape us and what they provoke us to, shall we be known. Amen.

John Conway – Lent 2 – 17/03/19

(Genesis 15.1-12. 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35)

Our Old Testament reading today concerns our forebear in faith; that wellspring of all the faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that trace themselves back to this archetypal man, to Abraham’s faith. Whatever the hateful ideology of the perpetrators of violence might say – all Jews, Christians and Muslims share this common ancestry. In today’s reading, however, Abram – as he still is at this stage, before his re-naming – Abram is anxious about the future. He and Sarai are childless, unable to imagine how the promises of God might be fulfilled. The future looks grim, despite assurances from God not to be fearful. And then Abram is brought outside to gaze upon the stars: ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,’ he is told. ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And so the faith of Abram is re-kindled.

On Ash Wednesday I offered those of you at our services a poem: Lent by Jean Watt

Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than blackthorn in its winter sleep,
All unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting-up, the dressing-up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
Before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should see only the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars.

The poem invites us, in this season of stripping bare, taking down, to not forget that we do that in order to see the stars, the bigger picture, that which lies beyond the immediate, that which it is easy to miss. In this a week to make us all anxious, uncertain over the future, what might enable us to see the stars, enable the re-kindling of faith and hope?

Our epistle and Gospel offer some clues as to what that looking for the stars might mean, and that re-kindling of faith. For Paul, the contrast is with those whose ‘god is the belly’. Words which suggest the calling is about getting beyond our immediate desires and cravings and seeking to satisfy those; refusing also to fan the flames of those desires in anger and the insatiable need for more. Instead to see our citizenship, our final rootedness and identity, as in heaven, among the stars, the eternal.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus, like Abram, has every reason to be anxious. The ‘wise’ counsel him to leave, and avoid his pursuer, Herod. He is making a name for himself, and he would do better to lie low. Jesus, however, offers, in counter to Herod, the one he names as a fox, no desire to hide. He will continue to do what he is called to do, bring life and cures to those he meets. And not walk away from those centres of power which feel threatened and so threaten him, but walk ever toward Jerusalem. And he then offers this remarkable image to that city of power and broiling tension and death, where the fox resides.  Jesus offers himself, not as the Lion of Judah roaring a response, but as a mother hen, gathering her squabbling chicks into the shelter of her wings, if only they were willing. The hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill the hen first.

In Philippians, Paul urges his readers to imitate him – not in being Paul, but, in turn, in imitating Christ, our mother hen. Together, we are called into that imitation of Christ which opposes the fox not with bared fangs, but in the gesture of love that gathers to her bosom all the children of Jerusalem.

In the febrile atmosphere of this coming week, who is offering a glimpse of the stars? As we all woke to the terrible news from Christchurch, children across the globe were gathering in their thousands, striking from their studies, to ask the world to wake up to climate change and act. Those are the actions which re-kindle our faith in our future.

Abram, after staring at the stars, later still finds himself within a deep and terrifying darkness, standing amongst slaughter and death and destruction. But he holds on to the promise, arrives at an understanding of the promise given, moves forward with faith and hope. May we, in this season of Lent, and in the week ahead, do likewise. Amen.

John Conway – Sunday before Lent (Transfiguration) – 03/03/19

(Genesis 15, 1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 9.28-36)

‘Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.’

So begins our Gospel reading from Luke, that strange story of transfiguration, as it is usually described, when Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become white as the light.

It’s a story about prayer and about glory. That combination might suggest beginning this sermon with famous words from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil

That would suggest that we take this story of a mountaintop epiphany as an exemplar of a much more common phenomena: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The transfiguration is suggested as an example of those moments that many experience, when time stands still, when you glimpse the more, the God who works in and through all things. The fact that the transfiguration occurs on a mountaintop is no accident, we might say, for that is where many of us, in the exhilaration of a mountaintop, the world laid out below us, where many of us experience an overwhelming sense of God’s grandeur and glory. Or we could talk of those moments of transcendence and epiphany occurring when we witness an act of un-self-interested love, when our perception of friends, neighbours, strangers is suddenly altered by an act of grace.

That is one way to approach, seek to understand, this strange story of the Transfiguration – that it is a heightened example of an experience that many have fleetingly experienced. It is, in the case of the gospel story, centered on Jesus, but it is not particular to him. But I’m not sure it gets to the heart of what is being claimed, and presented here. This is not simply an example of a general phenomena, but an experience that brings into focus the very particular claim that the disciples would go on to make about this person, Jesus.

Edwin Muir, in his poem, The Transfiguration, enters the mind of the three disciples as they reflect on that mountaintop moment:

Was it a vision?

Or did we see that day the unseeable

One glory of the everlasting world

Perpetually at work, though never seen

Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere

And nowhere?

The story of the Transfiguration is about the seeing of the unseeable; the undoing of that locking of the gate of Eden that is everywhere and nowhere – the way back, and forward, to Paradise. Not an example of a general phenomena, but a revealing of the particular truth of this person, Jesus. This is shown explicitly in icons of the transfiguration where Jesus does not simply reflect light from another source, but is the light source itself, it is from Jesus that glory shines forth and causes those around – the three disciples in most icons, to cast shadows from that light emanating from Jesus himself. He does not simply reflect the light and glory of God – he is the light and glory.

The context of our gospel reading is important: it comes after Jesus has talked to his disciples  about the way of the cross, and the suffering to which his path commits him, and his disciples. And then he goes, on this eighth day, up a mountain, to pray, to seek after God’s presence in prayer. There is a symbolic importance to that eighth day, the day beyond the seventh day, the day of Sabbath rest – the eight day is the day of resurrection, the day of new creation. We are used to days 1 to 7, here is the eighth day, the day beyond and outside our normal pattern and practices. We enter something transcendent here. Moses and Elijah are part of that eternity of God’s dealings with humanity – Jesus is seen as linked to those depths. And for Peter and James and John this experience of prayer, this seeing of Christ in a new light, asa new light, ends with the command: ‘This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.’ Listen to him: shape our lives around this one from whom glory radiates. This is God – in this human life of prayer and suffering and love.

The other context for our Gospel reading is the context provided by today, the Sunday before Lent, and also by it being Fairtrade Sunday. We are encouraged, in prayer, before we enter the self-reflection and disciplines of Lent, to see that unseeable one glory which Christ embodies, and to invite it to shape us.

For Fairtrade Sunday we are particularly thinking about chocolate, and the producers of cocoa who sustain our consumption. In the Ivory Coast, 4 million people grow cocoa, much of which comes to the UK. More than 60% of those cocoa farmers live below the United Nations poverty line of £1.47 per day. In the light of the glory emanating from the one who comes to save all humanity, in that light, and listening to him, are those cocoa farmers simply to be exploited for all that we can get? Or does that opening of the gate into another reality, suggest we too might shape our relations with one another not on the basis of economic power and muscle, but on relationship and mutuality. It is that relationship and mutuality, restored again and again by Jesus in the healings he provokes as he walks the way of the cross; relationship and mutuality that are at the heart of Fairtrade, that we are called to embody, be shaped by, in the light of that one glory which Christ embodies.

Up on the mountain top, Peter famously wants to preserve the moment – ‘let us make three dwellings’ he says. This peak experience needs to be captured, memorialized. But that is not to be – rather this moment, this timeless, transcendent moment, is bound to everything else, this glory perpetually at work. This moment of prayer leads to what follows – Jesus plunging down the mountain – into a round of healing and binding up, and suffering. And so on to Jerusalem and another time when Jesus will take Peter, John and James with him to pray – in the garden of Gethsemane. Pray, not so that Jesus is transfigured with light, but in agony – Father, let this cup of suffering pass. This is our Lenten journey, to walk and pray with Christ in moments of transfiguration and glory, and to walk and pray in moments of agony and darkness. And at all times, to listen to him. Amen.

Epiphany 6 – Paul Foster – 17/02/19

1 Cor 15.12-20 and Lk 6.17-26

If I were to ask you what is the most important or central belief in the Christian faith, I wonder what you would answer? In many ways it is an impossible question, and it would almost certainly misrepresent the Christian faith to reduce it to a single belief. However, if I was to allow you three or four statements I would hazard a guess that the name Jesus would feature prominently, and that there would be references to his incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians focuses on the resurrection, but not just the resurrection of Jesus – it makes clear that belief in the resurrection of Christ is the basis for the assurance that followers of Jesus will likewise be raised from the dead and be partakers in that resurrection life that Christ inaugurates.

‘Dead people do not rise from the dead.’ It is a statement I have heard many times when discussing the Christian faith with people – and to be honest I understand exactly why people make that statement. We are not talking about resuscitations, those medical marvels where people who have been pronounced clinically dead are brought back to life a matter of minutes or sometimes even hours later. We all know those events happen and that they have been documented. What people reject is the belief that somebody who had been laid in tomb for the best part of three days, after being crucified, could come back to life again. In fact, like my questioning interlocutors, I do not buy the so-called “swoon theories” – that is the idea that Jesus was not really dead and that rest in a cold tomb was a period of recovery. I would rather bank on the fact that the Romans actually knew how to kill somebody so that they were really dead. I also readily confess that I have not met anybody who has been genuinely dead for several days and then returned to life. So I can understand that scepticism around this most central of Christian claims – the belief in the resurrection from the dead. Yet despite the difficulty due to the fact that resurrection appears to transcend our natural expectations, the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the belief of the future resurrection of believers remains a central claim of the Christian faith.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, after having laid out a list of post-resurrection appearances to Peter, then to the twelve, then James and all the apostles, and lastly to Paul himself, Paul turns to a theological problem that appears to be plaguing the Corinthian community – some in the community appear to be saying there is no resurrection, at least not for believers in the future. Paul asks the rhetorical question, how is it that if Christ is proclaimed as having been raised from the dead that some believers in Corinth state ‘there is no resurrection of the dead?’ For Paul, such logic is incomprehensible. He goes so far as to say if the Corinthians have no hope in a future resurrection for believers, then the implication is that they are really denying the resurrection of Jesus. I am not sure what led some early believers in Corinth to that position. Last summer, for the first time I visited the site of ancient Corinth. Apart from the warmth and the wonderful views over the glistening Corinthian Gulf, the thing I remember was how small the city-site was. This small band of early believers lived cheek-by-jowl with their neighbours who held to majority pagan religious practices. I suspect with their new found faith the Corinthian Christians must have seemed weird. Not only had they given up traditional beliefs in a pantheon of gods in exchange for exclusive faith in one God, yet even stranger was the fact that the new faith centred on a person who had been crucified at the hands of the Romans. Nonetheless, this crucified Messiah was claimed to have come back to life again. At the beginning of his later, Paul goes so far as to state ‘we preach Christ crucified … to Gentiles foolishness.’ It is easy to imagine the ridicule and mockery the Corinthians experienced for this belief in a crucified messiah. So maybe it was more comfortable for some of those Corinthian believers to say they followed the teachings and ethics of the man from Nazareth, and simply or not acknowledge or to reject that central faith claim: that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that believers also would become partakers in this resurrection life.

In response to this type of thinking Paul drives the logic of his argument home. He states again, ‘if the dead are not raised then Christ has not been raised’. Some might have said what is the problem with that, but Paul anticipates such thinking. He responds that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.’ Be under no misapprehension, according to Paul, it is the resurrection of Christ that is the guarantee of the genuineness of faith. So let me put the uncomfortable logic of Paul before each of us today, do we believe in the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of believers, or (as Paul would put it) is our faith worthless? Paul’s logic offers a stark and binary set of alternatives. He presses his argument hope with the following statement, ‘if we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ In essence, Paul is stating that without the resurrection of Jesus, the Christian faith is a pitiful delusions. I wonder if you agree with that assessment?

I was at a memorial service in this cathedral some little time ago. The person being remembered was without doubt a faithful and believing Christian, but the service struck me as being strange at many levels. Above all, the thing that disquieted me the most was the complete and utter lack of any reference to future Christian hope. I spoke to one of my dear colleagues afterwards, who had not only noticed the same thing but shared with me that our very perceptive organist had said that it felt like a secular crematorium service. Ten out of ten to the organist for his wonderful theological sense. The problem was there was no reference to Christian hope in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and the hope of a future resurrection for believers. When it comes my turn to shuffle of this mortal coil – in my case burial not cremation please(!), I want somebody to read the words of Jesus that he is the resurrection and the life, and then to declare in the words of the prayer book that the mortal body is being buried ‘in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ I cannot scientifically prove to you that resurrection from the dead is possible, I will never quell the doubts of the sceptics, but I simply trust that the same God who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, will – through the sacrificial love of Christ – have forgiven my sins (which are many), and that God will raise both you and I to a new and transformed life to be one with Christ for ever.

At this point my thinking strayed, and I began to wonder if the claims of Paul were actually normative for Christianity. First, I considered the words of the creed which we recite each week. It is a short statement, but together we declare that ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead.’ Then I wondered what other churches believe today. Turning to the Roman Catholic catechism, paragraph 655 for the swots among you, states ‘Christ’s resurrection and the risen Christ himself is the principle and source of our future resurrection.’ The Greek Orthodox church states of God that ‘You deigned that your only begotten son should become man, to be crucified, to die as man, to be resurrected and to become the first born from the dead, and to make possible our resurrection.’ Admittedly, these are quite historic churches, so I wondered if more recent churches might deviate. So from the statement of faith from a Southern Baptist seminary: ‘Jesus bodily resurrection is also the guarantee of a future resurrection life for all believers.’ Then from our more Pentecostally-minded fellow believers in Destiny church in Edinburgh we have ‘we believe that only because of Jesus’ death and resurrection people can be forgiven and have eternal life.’ It seems to me that if your three or four statements about the centre of the Christian faith does not include reference to the resurrection of Christ – it is time for you to consider a redraft.

The problem with all this talk of future resurrection, is that if it is not accompanied by reflection on contemporary Christian discipleship, then (to cite the cliché), it can be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. If today’s epistle presented us with a core item of the Christian faith, then our gospel reading gives us an equally core aspect of the teachings of Jesus. Our reading from Luke gives us the sermon on the plain, with Luke’s shorter, more earthly-minded set of beatitudes. For Luke, unlike Matthew, writes blessed are the poor – not the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst – not for righteousness as in Matthew, but those who actually hunger and thirst. The poor, the hungry, and them that mourn – these are the people to whom the Lukan Jesus assigns a special blessing and privilege in the kingdom. For as much as Christians share certain beliefs, those beliefs are not an end in themselves. Belief in the resurrected Jesus, must leads us to transforming the world in the here and now for the destitute, the down-trodden, and the despised. In effect, we are called to make that resurrection life, that time when every tear will be wiped away, a reality – at least in part – in the present world in which we live. Writing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul still affirms the transformative power of the risen Christ, he states ‘that if anyone is in Christ that person is a new creature, the old things have passed away, new things have come.’ However, this is not all for the future, as if we could sit back and do nothing now. Paul continues by saying that God has reconciled us in Christ ‘and so gave us the ministry of reconciliation.’

Christ’s resurrection is indeed the promise of our future resurrection, but it is also the pattern for our transformation in this life. We are to continue the work of Jesus, by binding the broken, healing the hurt, loving the loveless, and reconciling the rejected. That is resurrection life in the here and now. So with the broken, with the reject, with the hunger, we gather here today. We ask Christ to forgive us, to begin to transform us in this life, and to raise us to new life with him in the world to come. With the hungry we gather at this place of feeding, a wooden table reminding us of a wooden cross. Ye this is also a place of hope and healing, in fact a place of resurrection. So, come today as those who share in Christ’s risen life, as those prepared to share in his ministry of reconciliation. And together with all those whom Christ loves – the poor, the hungry, and them that mourn – we will offer our praise to the risen Lord, the one raised from the dead by the power of God, for to him belongs all wisdom, might, honour, dominion and glory, both now in our broken world and in that glorious resurrection life that is to come. Amen.

John Conway – Epiphany 5 – 10/02/19

Epiphany 5

(Isaiah 6.1-13; 1Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11)

In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.

‘As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’

That sparse and direct account is the version of Peter’s call from Mark’s Gospel. In Luke’s account that we just heard, there is a certain expansion, elaboration on the story. Indulge me, as I take that expansion as the template for something similar – if a little more extended – an invitation to enter for yourself this most redolent of stories. To revisit, in its light, your own call and invitation, your encounter with Christ.

And Simon Peter said:

We had been at work all night – a long fruitless night with no catch to show for the hours of back-breaking toil in the darkness – no catch to sell, no money to take home. A long, fruitless dark night. But now, as the sun rose, and the warmth of the day took hold, we were cast up on the seashore, in the solitude of tending our nets – the endless repetitive work of making everything secure and right – washing them free from the debris of the night – wondering as I did so if it was all worth it, this endless cycle with often nothing to show for it. But after all, I thought, it’s all I know, all I’ve been brought up to do – fish, fish like my father, and his father. It runs in the family this fishing and somehow we get by.

And then suddenly all this quiet thinking, this tidying up and setting right was interrupted – crowds appeared – people running for the best view, pressing in some chap who was in the thick of it – surrounded by people, shouting to him, and at him, oblivious to others, they were. And he, well he wasn’t panicked by all the attention – he moved amongst them with quiet grace and determination. Saw our boats, in fact, and made a beeline for us. Oh, what’s going on here I thought – not what I need at the end of a long night’s fishing – to be overtaken by the latest ‘sensation’, the latest know-it-all from Jerusalem, or rabble-rouser from the sticks. The kind who whips up a crowd, starts a riot and then disappears. Not what I need, not right now. And there he is making straight for our boats – as if they were his, as if the whole world were his. And without a by your leave he’s stepping into my boat, and asking me to push off. Well with the crowd pressing in, it seemed a fairly sensible move – but I wasn’t best pleased – to find myself bobbing along the seashore, trapped in my own boat, having to hear the man’s sermon, when I wanted my bed!

But there I was, and the strange thing was I found my resentment giving way to attention – for he spoke like no-one else I had heard. His words made sense – at least, they made you think, and think that somehow he must know you. What he said didn’t build him up – make you think what he clever chap he is – they made you think about yourself – made you think that you mattered, mattered in ways that you hadn’t thought possible. Well that was a bit of a shock – sat there in my boat.

And then he finished, with no great flourish, but somehow the crowd had had enough and quietly dispersed, broke up to share food and talk I suppose, but he turned to me and my companions, and asked us to put out into the deeper water. Well if he’d asked an hour earlier he’d have got an earful about our night’s fruitless fishing, but now – well I did tell him we were a bit tired – but he was the kind of man it’s hard to refuse, and actually I don’t usually need a second invitation to head out onto the lake. To put out into the deep is what keeps me a fisherman – that journey out away from the hubbub of the shore, out into the deep waters. Those deep waters have a mystery, an allure, all their own – the sense of floating on all that water and who knows quite what else. The occasional glimmer of fish, and the possibility of so much more. The deep waters – and so we did put out, once more – in response to that strange summons. And let out our nets, once more. Did this man even know anything about fishing?

That wasn’t a question we contemplated for long. For suddenly the nets bulged – we were in the midst of a shoal of fish the like of which you never did see. It threatened to capsize us, the nets heaved so – we had to shout for the other boat to join us – it was all hands needed, and even then, there was such a flurry of activity, of shouting orders, and heaving, and making sure we didn’t tip over, and exclaiming at the fish, the fish – everywhere. Too much, too much.

And in the midst of all this – this excitement and bewilderment and frenzy – he, he just laughed and delighted in it all. But me, I was suddenly struck dumb, and it hit me – this was no ordinary Tuesday morning in February. My world was threatening to turn upside down – and he, he was the cause of it. All things flowed from him – I was in the presence of something incredible, something both fascinating and fearful; of the holy, I suppose. Holiness – not something I thought about much – except when those smug types – the Holy Joes – appeared to tell us how to live – making us feel inadequate so that they could feel good about themselves – but this was very different. This was like nothing I had met, and yet he was just like you and me. He seemed to know and see stuff, and yet he talked with such simplicity and directness. And now, well I was overwhelmed, there in that boat surrounded by fish, and him laughing and me gaping, and thinking ‘this can’t be real, this is like something out of the pages of the bible – like I’m Isaiah in the temple overwhelmed by God – it was all too much, too much. And so I fell to my knees – I could no longer look him in the eye. And I begged him to leave; to not disturb my settled world. For this, this holiness, asked too much of me. It was like I was plunged into those deep waters I was used to navigating. Suddenly up to my neck in the mystery of it all, with who knows what fish swimming about me. I felt afraid and unprepared and not up to it – not worthy, not worthy to be in this man’s presence and company. I, I was a fisherman, what had I to do with this man, with his talk of God, and his healings and the press of the crowds. “Go away”, I cried, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” You are you and I am me and we are not the same. I cannot, I cannot do this.

And from him – no words of condemnation – he understood, and somehow knew all that my heart dared not say. “Do not be afraid,” he said, lifting me from my knees, and staring into my eyes. Not to judge and find wanting, but to fill me with strange courage and faith and hope. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” You areyou, he seemed to say, a fisherman born and bred – and that is enough. Enough to fish in the mysterious deep waters that I will show you – the deep waters of the lives of others. Not to judge them and find wanting but to fill them with courage and faith and hope.

And so when we reached the shore I left everything and followed him. For I had been found. And that was enough – more than enough. I left everything and gained – the world. For this was just the beginning.

John Conway – Epiphany 2 (Week of Prayer for Christian Unity) – 20/01/19

It is wonderful to welcome members of Palmerston Place Church to St Mary’s in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is good to be together once again – a visible sign and foretaste of that unity for which we all long. Not just unity between and for ourselves, but that unity, that reaching out across difference, which our world desperately needs. Our readings today suggest something of what that being together, or more accurately, our following of Jesus together, might look like.

Quentin Blake, the famous author and illustrator of children’s books, wrote his first illustrated children’s book, more than fifty years ago. It’s a book called Patrick – some of you may know it.

It concerns a young man called Patrick, who, on something of a whim, spends his last pennies on a dusty old violin from a market trader. Having blown the dust off, he proceeds to play it as he walks along. You really need Quentin Blake’s exuberant illustrations at this point to bring the action to life, but unexpected things begin to happen behind Patrick as he walks along, in the wake of the music. A couple of scruffy, down at heel children, suddenly find their old shoe laces turning into resplendent blue and red bows. As they turn and follow Patrick through an orchard, the trees don’t just sprout apples and pears but cakes, hot dripping buttered toast, jelly and ice cream. My children always made me pause at that page to relish the moment, choosing what they would pick and eat. The birds in the trees sprout glorious plumage, and are joined in the sky by the fish leaping from the local pond. Patrick walks on with his violin, almost oblivious to the mayhem behind him, the glorious procession now joined by a herd of cows, their black and white hides suddenly sporting a profusion of colours and patterns. This glorious and strange procession, winding its way through the countryside, finally meets an old tinker and his wife. The procession stops, and the tinker’s wife pours out her woes – her husband is sick, pale and wan; they have no chance of reaching the town in time for nightfall, and she is worried. Patrick’s only response is to play his violin – the tinker perks up, colour returns to his cheeks, his skinny body plumps out; the procession begins again, wending it’s way to town, fireworks erupting from the pipe of the old tramp they also pick up on the way.

It’s a glorious tale, and worth recalling any time, but it came to mind particularly as I read today’s gospel, that familiar but strange tale of the wedding at Cana, the reluctant and almost unintended miracle of abundant wine. As Austin Farrer dryly observed, this a wedding where our Lord did not preach to the happy couple their Christian duty in marriage, rather ‘he saw to the supply of wine.’

Like all good jokes, that has a degree of perceptive truth about it. Unexpected, glorious, abundant things happen in Jesus’ wake. ‘Seeing to the supply of wine’ is, we are told, the first of Jesus’ ‘signs’, signs that will structure John’s Gospel. After the first chapter of his gospel concludes with the calling of the first disciples, John then presents this first public sign. John doesn’t want you to read too much into it – hence that strange exchange between Jesus and Mary about the hour being not yet here. That hour will come later, on the cross, the greatest sign of all – the crucifixion of the Son that reveals the limitless love of God in all its vulnerable glory. And yet, in this first sign the disciples see enough, this seeing to the supply of wine shows that they are in the company of someone who makes things happen; they are in the procession of someone around whom extravagant, exuberant, abundant things happen, they believe as Jesus ensures that the guests at a wedding can party on. ‘Seeing to the supply of wine’ is important and revealing.

On the face of it that importance is odd, however – Jesus appears reluctant; and this is a miracle of provision where the need is not exactly great. There might be some embarrassment for the steward as the wine runs out – but this relieving of a domestic crisis is small beer, if you’ll pardon the phrase, it hardly compares with restoring a blind man’s sight or raising a dead man in full view of his family, friends and neighbours – the signs that will come later in the gospel. Things begin in understated fashion, behind the scenes, with only servants as witnesses – those who can give no admissible testimony in a court of law at that time. It is only the disciples, we are told, who begin to see what being in Jesus’ company might mean.

In our OT reading we heard that wonderful intimate image of salvation being like the marriage of God and his bride Israel. John revels in the paradox that it is Jesus who, at this wedding feast, is the true, but unknown, bridegroom – God coming to restore salvation. And this bridegroom ensures that the necessary wine for a wedding feast does not run out – in fact, he doesn’t just replenish it but produces an overabundance of new wine – 120 gallons of the stuff. This is how Good News starts – not with Jesus drawing attention to himself, but by ensuring that the feast goes on; not with heavy pronouncements on the doctrine of marriage, but in a gratuitous, over the top supplying of new wine. Perhaps churches have something to learn from that.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul is urging his readers to notice the gifts, the abundance of gifts that are all around them, the Spirit of God at work in each person to build up the common good of all. So this is where Christian Good News starts, in having our eyes opened to God’s abundant providing – not worrying overmuch where it comes from, but delighting in the provision, in the abundant gifts present in ourselves and those around us, whose company we share.

So we gather in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as disciples, at the beginning of something, to find our stocks replenished, our joy rekindled, to feast with one another and in the company of Jesus. For we are wedding guests – invited along with all humanity – and the marriage feast is before us. This is where it starts and who knows what signs we might discover, what bursts of exuberant, abundant life might unexpectedly bloom as we learn to travel together in the company of Jesus. Amen.

John Conway – Advent Sunday – 02/12/18

In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.

Today is about new beginnings: as you walked in the West door, perhaps many of you were somewhat startled to see a new arrival above your heads. On closer inspection, no doubt you identified it as a star, pointing east, pointing beyond itself, a herald of things to come. Mike Appleby’s wooden installation marks the start of Advent, the beginning of our church year: it announces the coming of God – God’s advent. Look ahead, something is coming, prepare.

After we had finished pulling the ropes into place yesterday, and we contemplated the star dangling above our heads, I noted to Mike that it doesn’t point straight down the nave, the star is slightly off line, pointing askew. He assured me that that was deliberate, that he didn’t think it should simply point straight down the Cathedral at the High Altar. And the more I thought about that, the more I could see his point. For this is the season when things are out of kilter, askew, not quite how we expect them.

It starts with this beginning, this new church year itself. Why does the church’s year start now, out of sync with our ordinary notions of time – the new year, after all, isn’t for another month. At that new year we will celebrate and mark the passing of time, note another year passing, and welcome the next. But at the start of this new church year, we do something different – Advent does not mark time passing, but time being interrupted. The church’s calendar is not in competition with ordinary time, but marks the interruption into our ordinary time of God’s insistent presence and call. At Advent, God – the alpha and the omega of time – breaks through the clutter of our lives to announce to us that God’s Presence is very near, irrupting into our midst, holy, alive, and real. And the assumption at the beginning of each liturgical year is that we are half asleep, our ears dulled, lulled into viewing time as simply that which passes, of no great significance. We who are inclined to settle for less need are summoned into joy by the One who loves us.

Our Old Testament reading proclaims that promise of God – the promise that justice and righteousness shall characterize our future. Time doesn’t just pass, empty of ultimate meaning, it is underpinned by God’s promise – that all are made in God’s image, part of a creation destined for God’s glory, fully alive and real, called to righteousness. And in 1 Thessalonians, Paul characterizes the Christian community as those who have laid claim to that promise – not as something merely for the future – but as a present reality, seen, as Paul puts it in abounding mutual love; Christ has come among us, the incarnation of God’s promise, and we respond in lives of mutual love.

Our Gospel reading, however, indicates that this new beginning, the interruption of passing time by God’s promise, is no straightforward matter. Like any birth, the arrival of a new thing, it is accompanied by a mixture of fear and courage. We all know something of that fear and courage that attends the start of something new – whether the birth of a child, or a challenging venture into the unknown, a new job, or a different way of doing something that previously has been familiar. Fear always attends such moments and can threaten to engulf us. This is what new birth looks and feels like: courage to overcome the fears. And such courage, in the face of political upheaval, of climate change, of hate-filled speech, such courage rooted in God’s promise of righteousness, such courage feels needed more than ever. The apocalyptic language of our gospel can take on a strange appropriateness in our fear-filled context. But the danger is that apocalyptic can be heard to be all about our fear, and not about our faith and courage. In popular culture the apocalyptic is indeed a short hand for overwhelming disaster; our fears of nuclear annihilation, or disastrous climate change get played out in apocalyptic films and books. The fear is real and vital, but apocalyptic as a biblical genre isn’t simply about our human fears projected large. It’s about encountering God in the midst of those fears – it’s about how, in facing our fears, God is unveiled, revealed. The root of the word Apocalypse is revelation.

And beyond all the apocalyptic language in our gospel reading is the exhortation not to get caught up in the fear and anxieties of this and every time; that in the midst of all that assails us, and threatens to overwhelm us, to stand up, raise our heads, and see our redemption drawing near.

And as we raise our heads, so we will see the star, the herald of promise, pointing us toward Bethlehem. Not toward Jerusalem, the city of power and influence and conflict, but off to one side; to lowly Bethlehem; to a manger full of straw and a crying babe. For this is how God interrupts our passing time, calls us out of fear, and into worship. As the cross that also runs through the star hanging above our heads indicates, we will journey with this babe to Jerusalem – into the heart of our fears and conflicts; but that journey takes us first to Bethlehem, that he and we may walk to Jerusalem on the way of cross and suffering, and so into resurrection joy. Amen.