Sunday, 30 March 2014

Annunciation Sermon

There’s something about Mary.

One of my favourite places in the Holy Land is Ein Karem, in Hebrew meaning literally ‘Springs of the vineyard’. It is an ancient village, in the hill country, where according to Christian tradition John the Baptism was born. This neighbourhood with a population of around 2000 now attracts 3 million visitors a year, yet the site on top of one of the hills is extra-ordinarily peaceful.

And in and around the churches there are some deeply moving and evocative sculptures and paintings of two women, Mary and Elizabeth – both pregnant, greeting one another and sharing with one another. I would have loved to have heard their conversations together, wouldn’t you? Where would they begin? The calling, the choices, the reality, the vocations advice, the future?

I am sure Mary was jolly relieved to have escaped to that hill country, away from the gossip at home, and to have the company of her elder cousin for advice and comfort. To talk through the message that she had been entrusted with, a message that turned her life upside down. God certainly interrupted this young girl’s life. 

Plans had been made, she was to marry Joseph and was no doubt thinking of her future with him when comes the angel Gabriel with that message. That God loves her, and has found favour with her, and when she reacts with fear, she’s told not to be afraid, but simply to listen. God is going to do something wonderful through her. She is going to have a son, he will be the promised king, the saviour, the Messiah.

Today we remember Mary’s ‘yes’ to God and I wonder if you can remember yours? Let’s take a moment to do that. Ein Karem, for me is a place where Mary’s ‘yes’ was affirmed and where I, when visiting, could affirm mine. Sometimes we need those moments, to think back to that time when we first said our ‘yes’, for it is often that first ‘yes’ to God, that carries us through all the difficult times, the struggling times, the times when God appears silent and the times when it all seems like too much.

I am sure Mary throughout her life kept coming back again and again to that first ‘yes’. Most probably, if she was like many of us, she sometimes wondered why she had said ‘yes’ in the first place, but I am sure it was that which kept her going as she watched Christ journey to the cross and experienced the power of the resurrection.

Mary would have been familiar with her history, she would have been told stories of her nations and her people’s past – and the expectation that, someday God would send someone to bring the kingdom to fruition. And now she was caught up in that story herself. Gabriel’s message brought the common response ‘How?’, But the angel persisted – the power of God will be at work.

I think that we have done a great disservice to Mary in some parts of the church and Christian history. Mary has been embellished, made rather god-like and far removed from real life. That’s not the Mary I read of in the pages of the gospels, I see here a real down to earth, humble young woman with no sense of any importance other than she was chosen by God. How else can we ever try to make sense of the incarnation, of God becoming flesh and blood, real life, human ?

‘How?’, ‘Who me?’, ‘Why me?’ have been natural responses for many of us in our vocational journey, as we have sensed our own inadequacy for the task that God sets before us. It is a reaction often heard by a DDO, or those listening to candidates at a Selection Conference, however Mary, helps us see that our ‘How?’ increases a sense of faith and dependence upon God, who answers our questions and calms our fears. I worry when we begin to lose the sense of wonder that it all comes down to God in the end; when we begin to rely on our own strength, or the power of our personality or the experiences we have had to get us through.

As ministers, we should not forget that our vulnerability can often be our strength.

Gabriel’s message spoke to Mary about favour and blessing. Two words the Church of England doesn’t like to use very much, but two words I am sure we in our humanness would love to hear. I wonder how many of us have looked at what is going on all around us, the circumstances of our lives and ministry and declare ourselves to be blessed or not? I am sure, if you are like me, you see blessing most often somewhere else! 

One of my favourite stories comes from Antony de Milo, and is that of a stone cutter, who is granted a wish; of course he wishes he was someone else, and when he becomes that person, he wishes he was somewhere else, and when he moves he wishes he were more powerful, and when he becomes more powerful, he wishes he was more rich, and when he becomes rich, he wishes he had more freedom. Finally when he wishes for more freedom he finds himself once again that stone cutter, who had no cares in the world than to sing all day and enjoy his work.

How often have you envied that growing church ? that larger rectory? That great music group? Those keen lay leaders? The church that pays its share in full and generous expenses? All of us, I suspect, want to know ourselves as being favoured and blessed by God as Mary was. However, I am not sure Mary always felt special. When she walked through town with her unwed pregnant belly the subject of stares and judgment, when Joseph planned to quietly leave her to avoid the scandal, when she gave birth on the ground amongst the animals of the manger, when soon after she and Joseph took Jesus and fled for their lives to Egypt. Did she feel favoured watching her son, the one to whom she gave life and her own flesh, be arrested, beaten, and killed?

God’s favour and blessing do not necessarily mean life and ministry is easy, or that we always get our wish, or that we live happily ever after. It is not God’s reward for right behaviour or right believing. It is rather a state, a condition, a way of being. Mary understands that her favouring and blessing by God are not dependent upon or determined by the circumstances of life. Her example teaches us to look and live more deeply; to look beyond the circumstance of life and see God within us.

Mary trusted God more than her life’s situation. She felt the movement of God within her, the kick of new life, and the growth of something holy. The favouring and blessing of God wasn’t around her. It was within her. It is who she is. That means trusting that God sees far more than we often see for ourselves. It means us looking deeper than the changing circumstances of our lives and trusting that even when we do not see it or understand it God is deep within us, working secretly, creating new life where we thought there could be none. It is about saying Ok, I don’t understand what’s going on and I know that my life isn’t going to end up looking like one I would choose out of a catalogue but I trust that God is at work in all of it.

This week I would encourage you to take some time to go deeper. That is not easy in the reality of day to day ministry; It is not easy to do in the round of worship, so often that we are leading ourselves. So having left that all behind can I encourage you all to use these few days to bring things back into perspective, to trust God’s favour and blessing within you, and sense that you are in God’s right place, even if it does not always feel like it.

There was a choice, but it was Mary’s ‘yes’ that released in her a tremendous joy, as she realised in a way that she perhaps never had before, that God was real; that his promises in the past would come true. Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and gave her joy, peace, hope and love. And joy because Mary realised that not just the promises of God are being fulfilled, but that it is happening through her. A humble, young, struggling ordinary woman. Hannah’s prayer of the Old Testament suddenly made sense because God did not choose the mighty and powerful, he did not pick those in authority, with great wealth or influence. It was a joy that overflowed, and probably gave Mary courage for the rest of her life.

When I look around sometimes at the state we are in as a Church the last thing I feel is joy. Even when, as was revealed in a survey last week, clergy are in the most fulfilling job! And I suppose it is because what I most want for the church is unbridled joy, that I find things around us, or decisions taken that bring unhappiness or anxiety or fear to many, so depressing. Somehow, as a church, we have a way of making ourselves unhappy – whether it be the 20 things we are not doing before breakfast, or our own prejudice or self-centredness. In a nutshell I do not see much joy around.

But on a good day, I hold onto that dream that if we really discover our worth in God, our pleasure in diversity, our creativity in our Creator, our faith in generosity, our joy in simply living then all will still be ok. There will be enough; the church will not fall down; everyone is welcome and there will be no divine retribution.

I think we each owe it to the God who loves us and calls us by name, to try to live in that joyful liberty. And I believe that is the only way many of us are going to make it to retirement and beyond, and to allow new life to blow into our churches and our church. To discover, like Mary, who we are and who’s we are and to live that life of freedom.

Mary pondered and treasured. Pondering and treasuring ask us to wait, to be quiet and listen, to be still and receptive, to be open and vulnerable to God’s life in our own. This is not passivity or giving up. It is actively participating in our own salvation. Mary opened herself up to true joy, declaring who she was and who God was. As we gather here this week the Annunciation to Mary is nothing less than God’s invitation for us to participate in God’s calling, affirmation, blessing, and freeing of our lives.

Yes, there’s something about Mary. There’s also something about us.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Diocesan Conference Poetry Workshop

This conference workshop gave us time
To ponder poetry and then write a quick rhyme.

Gathered for sharing and caring and bearing
Each other, by tearing, repairing and daring.

Still, without a smile, the speaker stood,
Ravishing our minds with Wells of God.
Shining of the seal of love in Solomonic strains
of the absent present, and the Spirit's reins.

Before, I thought I understood it
Baptism seemed so simple
Washing, drowning, rising, drying
Happy parents, baby crying
Sam wells complicated 'simple'
Made profoundly unifying mystery of it
Now I know that past is lost
and future's lost as fear of both
denies me present tense at all,
But I'm forgiven by divine cost
and riven Curtain, resurrection, both
give back my hope, my life my all.
 St Martin in the Fields gave us a
precious gift, we heard
a complex mystery unfold
in Dripping grace - simplicity

Creation cracked to let the light shine in
Beauty needs its flaw, salvation needs its sin

Don't let your thoughts go to sleep in your head
Your life's in your mind and without it - you're dead.
Let enough breeze whisper in through your ears
To blow round your brains and unleash your ideas.
Let enough moisture leak out through your eyes
To weep the compassion that falls from the skies.

My faith is so often comes and goes
and has the feel of silken hose:
It's good to know that God hangs in
Despite my waywardness and sin.

Imagination - a transformational thing
makes new transitions of the churches bling
Imagination de- construction
Guaranteed to cause a ruction.
Imagination running wild
At last to Holy Spirit reconciled.

Wet feet, trail from restless sea,
drip imprints of eternity,
all paved, and planted, like a kiss
A human breath, and God's caress.

I came here tired and thinking I was done
Tough shell but just cardboard inside, no cement
But memories reordered and reassessed condition
I go home full of re-enchantment.

 Together onwards we journey, aware of our needs
Of a God who challenges, moves,inspires and feeds.

 Many thanks to all the participants.