Refreshed. Thanks, Ethel.

This week, quite a lot of clergy, licensed lay ministers, ordinands and staff from the Diocese of Chelmsford met at the University of Essex for the first Diocesan conference in a long time.

Thanks, Ethel: the unknown person who left a legacy that enabled this to happen.

What did we do? We worshipped together using both the C of E’s liturgy and that shared by our Kenyan partners. We prayed. We talked. We talked to strangers and to old friends. I ran, as did three intrepid people, because it was too good a chance to miss to run along my favourite path. There was silent worship and there was noisy worship. I might have had a couple of beers. People watched films, heard poetry, tasted wine. We listened; and we asked questions of ourselves and our speakers. And some people tweeted.

So what now?

A few – those who perhaps struggle with the idea of lifelong learning, or the idea that being busy isn’t necessarily a badge of honour – will have gone home grumbling about the emails unanswered and phone calls to be made. That’s a shame.

I think that one after-effect will be an increase in the number of people using Malcolm Guite’s sonnets in sermons. Others will be continuing conversations begun in queues for lunch or coffee. Some will be reflecting on what impact the space and time given to the conference might have on their ministry and sense of self (that might just be me, but I hope it isn’t). Coming almost immediately after our priesting retreat with the theme of “on fire without burning out” there were many reinforcements of the message that it’s not a good idea for the priest to be the fuel for the fire…and that it’s imperative that we take care of ourselves and our spirituality.

In my previous life when I either organised or attended major conferences, I used to love the sense of temporary community. You get it at Greenbelt and other festivals – the common purpose bringing people together briefly before we disappear into our own lives again. Conferences and festivals act as an immunisation against losing ourselves in the routine…the time out resets, recharges, refreshes our souls. They remind us there are other ideas, people and ways of being than the one we’re in. They re-orient us to the God whom we are called to serve. They prod us to review, and move to forward. Or sideways. They strengthen weak friendship links and create new networks. Refresh did all these and I, for one, am grateful.

Thanks, Ethel.

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Bathers at Asnieres, and a bit of noticing.

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This is a picture I have known for a long time. There was a copy of it in the hall at my primary school. I’ve had a postcard of it in the ‘box of nice postcards’ for more years than I’d like to remember.

I hadn’t seen it for real, though, until a few weeks ago. I’d gone to the National Gallery on a cold and miserable day to see if the Australia’s Impressionists exhibition could lift my spirits a bit (it did).

The first thing was that I was surprised by its size. A picture I’d known in print and postcard is, in reality, BIG. And the second thing I noticed was that on the horizon wasn’t just the sky, as the reproductions seemed to show, but a factory.

This picture, that I had held up in my mind as painting of an idyllic spot, is actually part of the industrial landscape. It shows people relaxing and taking a break along the river from chimneys and smoke and less-than-idyllic workplaces.

And I was stopped in my tracks.

I’ve not found it easy living in Chingford. The traffic, the Edmonton incinerator chimney, and the unfriendliness of the landscape around the reservoirs have been hard to get used to. I have been frustrated that there is no easy (read: pleasant) path to the Lea Navigation, which is only about a mile from my house. I have nearly cried at seeing beautiful little wagtails hopping across bleak pavements, pecking at cigarette ends. Something about the way nature persists even in urban landscape sits uneasily with my soul.

Seeing the Bathers at Asnieres in all its detail had something of an effect on me.

At its simplest, it was the recognition that people and nature and relaxation have happened in industrial areas for a lot longer than I’ve lived in E4.

Yet there was also something a bit deeper – first steps, I think, in reconciling me to the environment. To be able to, for the first time, think about what it means to live in a place….to be incarnational in a place… because the struggle with the place has lessened.

A bit.

I don’t think I will ever stop wondering why people are so incapable of using bins, or public transport.

Chingford

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This is Chingford Mount. It is the shopping centre, the town centre if you like, of my parish. It’s where people meet; it’s where several bus routes terminate and originate. You can just about see the open space of Albert Crescent, overlooked by Aroma café.

There is also quite a lot of road. This is a busy junction. It is at the metaphorical – if not geographical – heart of the parish. And it is a place of anger, impatience and aggression. Almost every time I cross here, I see signs of this. I see the lights being jumped. I see cars aggressively overtaking. I hear horns blared at pedestrians who take longer to cross than their alloted moments allow. I hear unparliamentary language. I see unsavoury hand gestures. And I fairly often see litter jettisoned through car windows.

We have heard much lately about the absolute crisis of air pollution in London.

But what about the pollution of our souls, our psyche, as well as our lungs? What does it do to a community when this is what lies at its heart?

What is the effect of the daily diet of this negativity, this selfishness and this dominance of car over pedestrian?

The insidious, daily drip-drip-drip of the worst side of people. Dripping into the toddlers that wait patiently for the green man. Dripping into the schoolchildren who dash for buses. Dripping into the elderly and infirm whose right to walk at their pace is negated by the countdown beeps hurrying them out of the way of the cars.

The heart of the parish is given over to the car. Everyone else’s mode of transport and way of being is secondary.

Yes, I drive when I have to, and I no longer have a stressful commute to work, like some of the drivers I encounter. Cars themselves are a useful tool. And I am sure that those people driving aggressively across my patch pay their taxes, call their Mums regularly, parent their children well. But it saddens me to see so much anger, aggression and self-centredness on a daily basis.

Love your neighbour, says Jesus. Perhaps this might be a place to start.

I don’t have an answer to this. Well, not a practical one, since turfing over the junction and planting trees wouldn’t work. I think I just want people to think about what it is that might be at the heart of the parish, and the effect that has on us all whether we are conscious of it or not.

Sermon for Harvest Festival 2016

My tweet is probably the TL;DR version!

Harvest Festival 25 September 2016 Year C
John 6:25-35 | Deuteronomy 26:1 -11 | Philippians 4:4-9

When originally delivered, this sermon was interspersed with stories from users of the local foodbank. I’ve taken them out, in case anyone was accidentally identified, but left the gist of the reasons. Eat or Heat are our local foodbank.

Today we celebrate our harvest festival.

We give thanks for those who provide the food to sustain us. We are t2016-09-27 08.22.06.jpghinking about those who do not have enough. We are going to hear the stories of people that have used the food bank we support. And we are going to think about why Jesus said he was the bread of life.

But first, let’s hear from P. [benefit withdrawal due to mistake by DWP]

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”

In many places bread is a staple food.
Can we name different kinds of bread? (White sliced, brown with bits, naan, pitta, flatbread. Bread rolls. Bloomer. Cob)

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Just before this, he’s performed a miracle.
He’s fed five thousand people.

I am going to read a bit here.

One of Jesus’s disciples, Andrew, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’… so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

Geoff’s harvest loaf here reminds us very clearly of that miracle of abundance.2016-09-27-08-23-08

Deuteronomy, a book all about laws, tells the people of God what they should do when they reach the land that has been promised to them. After forty years of wandering in the desert, they should celebrate with the first fruits once they are settled. That’s got to be the first harvest festival.
So we have heard about saying thank you to God for the harvest.

And we are reminded of Jesus miraculously feeding people.

And we have abundance.

We have 24hr supermarkets. Internet delivery. Great British Bake Off.

B said [fighting a work capability assessment]

Food is such an important part of life. We have birthday cakes, mince pies, Christmas puddings. If we can afford it, we go out for meals for special celebrations. We invite friends over to share our food. We share in the Eucharist together, meeting Jesus in the bread we eat.
But when we’re skint, money for food can often be the only thing we can vary. Rent, or debt, or fares to work can’t be changed. But what you spend on food can. So good, healthy, nutritious meals become a thing of the past. If you’ve got very basic cooking equipment – or only a kettle – then your options are limited.
A said [low paid work and homelessness]

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”
Jesus can be the staple on which we build our spiritual lives. The essential, for everyone.
Let’s just think about those five thousand people that were fed. Perhaps compassionate provision went to some ‘wrong’ people. The ones at the back, making jokes about cheesemakers.

Jesus didn’t check whether everyone in the crowd was properly hungry, or deserving of lunch. He didn’t suggest that handing out short term provision would make people dependent on handouts.

He didn’t separate people into ‘them,’ and ‘us.’
He didn’t judge people for not having the foresight to bring extra provisions.
He didn’t assume that because one person had the opportunity to bring lunch, all the crowd should have also have done.

So, as we bring our offerings for the food bank to God, let us ask ourselves what assumptions we might be making.

K said [working for low pay and facing large expenses]

Do we assume it could never happen to us, because we are not like them?
Do we judge people’s choices and circumstances without knowing their story?
Do we listen to accusations of fraud, or the foodbank being a soft touch, and assume everyone is on the make?

Do we live with guilt and shame knowing we can’t make ends meet ourselves?
Do we forget that everyone is a loved, and chosen, child of God?

If we enforce ever harsher restrictions on who can be helped by our social security, we hurt those who are vulnerable even more. It seems to be that at best, benefit sanctions or work capability assessments create a dehumanising regime designed around the assumption that all claims are frauds. And at worst, they destroy lives.

Jesus is the bread of life.

Life is more than just existing, getting by, being treated as less than a person because you haven’t got a job.

A full life – an abundant life – doesn’t require great riches.

It does require understanding that we are a loved and chosen child of God.

And so is that user of the foodbank. Or that person struggling to find a job.

The crowds following Jesus around demanded signs. They wanted proof of who he said he was. What would be the proof of who we say we are? What do we do, that proves we are followers of Jesus?

Filling a carrier bag with tins can create a lifeline for some. And we should give thanks for our ability to do that…and recognise that for some, contributing to a food bank represents sacrificial giving. 150 people have been helped so far this year; and the foodbank needs more resources – food, time, volunteers. When I visited last week, one of the things they’d like to be able to do is offer a cuppa to those using the service. Tea, a chat, a chance to be treated like a human being. Like a loved and chosen child of God.

I want us to support our foodbank, because it is a practical demonstration of Jesus’ love for all people. But. There is a danger that we can be happy to lovingly help people out of a river, but not investigate why they are there in the first place. Who is up-river, pushing people in for us to rescue? We need to be in both places.

We need to ask ourselves the hard questions.

Questions about WHY the foodbank is needed. About WHY rent is so high, and housing so scarce. I want us to know if whether the businesses we give our money to make people work for free. I want us to question the assumptions behind headlines, advertising, the pressure to borrow and to spend. I want to challenge the decisions made by politicians for whom £20 is a cab fare home, not a week’s supermarket shop.

Are we tacitly supporting of benefit sanctions, because we believe the ways newspapers and television present poverty? That people are poor because they’re lazy?

Do we think that refugees are having the time of their lives, on five pounds a day?
Are we the sort that think, “they can’t be that desperate, they have a smartphone?” whilst taking for granted our access to the internet?

So. To finish.

We give thanks today for the food we have available. We give thanks in the Eucharist – that’s what the word means. So as we approach the altar to receive bread and wine, let us be sustained by that bread of life. Let us take strength in that encounter with Jesus, here, this morning, in the abundance of his presence. Let us celebrate our abundance, and the gifts we can make to the foodbank.

And let us question why we permit a society that forgets that all are loved by God and equal in his sight.

Sunday 4 September: All-age sermon

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Image source: http://www.ycf.net/images/products/scourers/scourerspongesmall.jpg

Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25:33

First time preaching at our main Eucharist here at St Edmund’s, and it was an all-age service. Each person was given a pan scrubber as they came in. I set the children (and any interested adults) to building a tower with them in the middle of the aisle. Using pan scrubbers as building blocks is an idea I discovered during our children’s week earlier in the summer. Current record is 42 for a freestanding tower. I digress. Here’s the rest of the talk.

Jesus uses the example of someone building a tower to try to explain that following him is hard. He says that there is a cost to what he asks.

Jesus says we should hate our families and give away all of our possessions.

I don’t think we need to take this literally today. Wouldn’t it be silly to give our house away, and have nowhere to live? Or give all our clothes away and have nothing to wear?

But

How seriously do we take our discipleship?

Jesus is telling us that those who want to be his disciples must make counter cultural changes. Counter cultural means not doing what everyone else does. And sometimes that’s hard.

September is a time of change for many. Our little ones start school or nursery; older children perhaps moving school or starting the year without a best friend. We want to fit in, find friends, and be liked.

In a world where bullies seize on differences, and can make lives truly horrible, seeking to stand out can be hard. That holds true for work as well as school.
Now, if you had given all your clothes away and were going into work or school wearing nothing but a smile, you would definitely stand out.

I wouldn’t recommend it.

But what if you decide to spend a bit less, and are teased for wearing something that’s not the right label? What if you are at school, and you make a choice that goes against your friends? Or you stand up for a colleague at work? Or call out someone being dishonest? Or walk away from malicious gossip at the school gate?

Those times can be hard.

Is taking up your cross being willing to be a doormat and be bullied?

No.

It’s not about being deliberately, openly, proudly making ourselves a victim.

Jesus asks us to think carefully about our priorities. He tells us that following him will be hard. But the cross he asks us to take up can be a cross of comfort, not just pain and difficulty. The cross shows us that God loves us. The cross gives us hope of resurrection and new life. The cross shows us that change is possible even in very difficult times.

Jesus asks us to be prepared to be different from the crowd.

In our epistle, we see a demonstration of exactly what that looks like.

Paul is asking Philemon to be different from the crowd.

Now, let’s be clear that whilst slave owning is something we find abhorrent. Being a slave means a complete loss of individual humanity. But in Paul’s time, it was an accepted part of society.

Yet the story tells us something important about discipleship.

Onesimus was a slave. And he had run away from his owner, Philemon. Philemon was a follower of Jesus, Paul reminds him at the start of the letter how pleased he is with Philemon’s work. Paul is, essentially, buttering Philemon up, because he’s about to ask him something really hard.

In Paul’s time, a slave who ran away could be killed as punishment. Philemon as a slave owner would not want to lose face, to be seen to be lenient with Onesimus. Otherwise where would it all end?

You let one slave go free, you encourage the others to run away.

Philemon would have to be persuaded to be compassionate.
Philemon would have to be persuaded to bear the cost of discipleship.

We don’t know for sure what he did, and whether he was persuaded by Paul’s appeals. There are reports of various Onesimuses in the history of the early church,

But we can see that from the very beginnings, to live as a follower of Jesus has asked people to be different.

You let one slave go free, you encourage the others.

You let one refugee in, you encourage the others.

You start one food bank, you encourage people to shop for free.

You give one person debt counselling, you encourage poor choices.

Those are all objections I have heard to actions that churches have taken. But aren’t they exactly what Paul was asking?

He’s asking Philemon to value the person, not the status.
He’s asking Philemon to think differently about the values he has inherited from his upbringing.
He’s asking Philemon to give Onesimus his humanity back.

Can Philemon think in terms of love and reconciliation instead of rights and punishment? Can Philemon see Onesimus as a person, beloved of God, a brother in Christ – not just as a useless slave?

Let’s remember that in our Gospel reading Jesus asks us to count the cost; to put him first above our family, security and possessions.

Often it’s hard to do the different, Christian thing.

It’s hard to bite our tongue, and back down in an argument.
It’s hard to find more money to support more charities to help more refugees.
It’s hard to be teased for believing something different, or for believing something at all.

But remember, the cross we are asked to bear is a sign of hope in the darkest times.
Was anything worth having ever gained easily? We built fun towers with sponges…but real foundations and real building takes effort.Perhaps you can take a pan scrubber home, and when you’re using it to do a bit of cleaning, remember that God is with us in the ordinary, and have a bit of a pray about what’s on your mind.

We all have a role to play as disciples. We all have different gifts, talents, personalities and ideas. As we all brought our individual scrubbers to be part of a tower, we all bring our own selves to build the community of the church.

Our parents and carers with a vocation to parenthood know well the personal cost and sacrifice of bringing up children, and grandchildren. But we know there is great joy sometimes – making the cost worthwhile.

If we want to nurture a society that is guided by love, compassion, reconciliation and respect, we’re going to have to work at it.

That means that to fulfil our role as disciple, we need to be prepared for it to be bumpy along the way. And we can’t say that we weren’t warned, for Jesus sets out his terms and conditions very clearly.

So let me leave you with some questions.

Jesus asked us to give up everything to follow him. What might we be unwilling to let go of, and why?

Paul asked Philemon to do something that might make him look strange in the eyes of his society. Are we willing to respond to that challenge today?

Are we willing to accept the cost of discipleship?

Safety Collar.

Churches need bouncers, says the Telegraph. Western churches next likely target, says the Mirror. Vicars shouldn’t wear clerical collars in public, says the Mail.

Interesting times.

Headlines in response to Home Office guidance issued after the death of Fr Hamel. Yesterday, I showed the Met Police adviser around church – listening to his recommendations, discussing likely threats.

Sobering times.

We might need to think a little bit more about our “bouncers” (aka sidespeople and churchwardens) and how they keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour, as recommended.

And then: invite those people in. That was the comedy part of the conversation yesterday, as the Met’s idea of keeping out the undesirables met the church’s idea of loving the undesirables. Aren’t we concerned with the troubled, the lonely, the ill? Those who act differently, because their lives are different? If we start filtering people at the door because they’re Not Like Us, we are in real trouble.

One recommendation was for a ‘sanctuary room’. A place to where those targeted – those up front, in clericals (and likely, the Servers, too, as they’re robed) could flee. Whilst, presumably, the rest of the congregations flees outside.

The conversation had shifted from a general chat about security, to recognising that in the Home Office’s eyes, my uniform is a target for hate. I mean, I knew not everyone loved the church…most are ambivalent at best…But the realisation slowly dawned that we were not talking about a general incident, like a fire, where we’d be concerned about getting everyone out. Instead, we were looking at a specific scenario. Someone intent on causing harm to clergy.

I’ve had general safety worries before, about things like parking and security lighting at home. I’ve spent years running alone, constantly wary of those around me, planning routes that are well-lit and dull, instead of interesting footpaths. (Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to be suspicious of everyone?)

Somehow, this was different. This was a shift in thinking I wasn’t really prepared for.

The idea that the uniform I wear, worn in part to remind people that God has a presence everywhere, the collar that I so looked forward to being able to wear: that makes me a different kind of target.

And you know what?

There’s no way I’m taking it off.