Journey to joy

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Gaudete Sunday. Avent 3.

How do you get to joy when three days ago you buried a much loved pillar of the church and community, our churchwarden, Diana? How do you do the journey to joy in the tears, the the dark days and the loss?  The following is my sermon from this morning, as I tried to answer..

(The readings from this am were Isaiah 61.1-4,8-end 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24 and Gospel John 1: 6-8, 19-28)

Isaiah 61 (NRSV)

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[a] 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound[b] and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.              24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

You shall go out with joy.

We sang that through our tears on Thursday. It was Di’s favourite hymn and she would have loved it that we sung it as she left this place. Paul in writing to his beloved brothers and sisters in Thessalonica is for once in his life very succinct, in the passage we have today. You will be glad to hear that I intend to follow suit..

Paul fires off 8 imperatives in 7 short verses and they could sum up all of his many many words and teaching about the wholeness that is at the heart of our life of faith. Wholeness, because if you over emphasise one aspect without the others you can end up on the floor.

3 legged stool

 I made this stool in a woodwork class, some years back, from scratch. Turning the legs and cutting and shaping the seat. It is just a humble 3 legged stool. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. But I had to make sure that all the legs were exactly the same length and that I made 3 of them. A two legged stool is a much use as a chocolate tea pot! Like I said, you can end up on the floor.

God who loves each of us so much, so longs for wholeness in our lives. Longs to touch our spirits, souls and bodies with his Peace, his Spirit and his Joy.

Paul starts with Joy. The three legs of his stool are joy, prayer and thanksgiving.

He tells his friends to start with joy. Joy as the fire in the steam engine of their lives that drives the rest. Using that analogy. Perhaps the water is prayer and the coal needed to keep that fire burning is thanksgiving… I don’t know a lot about steam trains – but I do know that shovelling coal is hard work! It also needs to keep happening or the train will simply grind to a halt.

I have a thing about 3’s this am, and the Trinity are of course the most important. 3 legs of a stool. 3 initials that should be applied to any and every sermon (by the preacher) YBHYES, BUT HOW?

HOW do you rejoice when your heart is broken or heavy? When you are tired and there is simply too much too do, and no time or energy to do it all in? When your faith is wobbly, and you are not sure where you are going anymore?

HOW do you give thanks in all circumstances .. ALL circumstances? What planet are you on, Paul? You can’t mean that, surely.

HOW can you pray without ceasing when you can’t find the words, or they stick in your throat or you want to shout rather than pray?

If I want to stand on this stool, I have to make sure it is set on a firm foundation. Slide your eyes down to the last verse of our passage to the Thessalonians..

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

THAT is how. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootlaces and make ourselves joyful, prayerful or thankful. But we have a God of Peace who wants to ground the very depths of our being in his LOVE and Faithfulness. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.. (we sang this prior to the Gospel reading)Touch me with your holy fire and set me alight , spirit, soul and body. Paul tells us not to quench the Spirit, because he knows that it is ONLY through the Holy Spirit that we can have joy, peace and thankful hearts. The other name for the Holy Spirit is Comforter. Jesus said he would not leave us alone, but would send us a Comforter. The Bayeaux tapestry has a picture of King Harold poking a spear at one of his soldiers – with the heading Harold comforteth his troops” The old English meaning of the word – encompassing comfort, encouragement, enabling.. but it can often feel like anything but- like a poke with a sharp stick!

How do we give thanks in all circumstances .. only because we know that God can use and transform even the toughest of circumstances for good. The sharpest, most pointy things can be used by him for good. Please note that I AM NOT saying that God sends hard things for our good. I am saying that if we offer those hard things to him he can transform them and us. There is a saying that goes: Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react to that 10%.                                                                                       We can react with bitterness, the oh,so dangerously, slippery slope of self pity, or by walling ourselves off from God or other people. OR with the help of God’s Spirit we can come to him Just as we are.(Opening hymn) On any given day. UP, down or in between. Fearful, doubtful, tired. Just as we are. We come. We come to the one with nail pieced hands who comes in to the darkest of places and sits with us.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
  As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the Cross was broken,
  The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the broken-hearted,
  And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
  For yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is here.   (Closing Hymn)

We will sing those beautiful words at the end of our service this morning.                      ‘The Saviour of the world is here.’ 

Emmanuel. God with us. In it all. The hard bits, the good bits, the boring drudgery bits and the rest.

Emanuel. God with us -spirit, soul and body.  Touching our weary spirits with his peace, lifting our heavy souls and carrying us, in his faithfulness, fuelling our flagging bodies with his joy.

1 Thessalonians 5 (The Message) 

23-24 May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!

Amen.

personroots

Called by name

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Somewhere, under those very many, outstretched hands, is me.

It is a picture of the moment of my ordination as a priest in the Anglican Church. Under those hands, I was trembling like a leaf. A precious, holy moment, that I will never forget for the rest of my life. It still makes me tremble to look at the photo and remember. I hope it always does.

The next day, I was given another awe-filled, humbling privilege. I presided at the Eucharist for the very first time in the church in which I serve. It was an immensely moving occasion. I had been given leave to put the liturgy, readings and music together, and friends and family all took part. My husband, who is a Reader, preached. His words last Sunday morning, are what follows.

eucharist

“The gifts he gives are that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers, (why?) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11

A few years ago the driving test had an additional part added to the theory test, referred to as hazard perception, the skill to look ahead and see what might happen in order to take avoiding action…

I think I may fail this test.
A few years ago now, I married a gorgeous nurse, who became a midwife, and then a mother, and then a palliative care nurse, but (as we have sometimes joked with each other,) we certainly didn’t see this one coming all those years ago!

And yet, it has always been the desire of both of us, to serve God in whatever way He wanted us to do. It can be quite scary to abandon ourselves completely to God’s will.

Yesterday Ruth reached a mile stone on the journey. A most significant moment in time- the end of a long journey, the fulfilment of a calling, but just the beginning of another journey, whose route and course has yet to be revealed. However, we do know that He who has called, is faithful and true, and will see this through to completion.

Today we celebrate with her, as she for the first time, stands as God’s representative to consecrate bread and wine into Holy Gifts of Christ’s body and blood, and shares these spiritual gifts with us. She will then stand as his representative in calling God’s blessing onto us.

Ruth choose the readings today very carefully, as they reflect her journey, and as you can see there is a clear link and theme between them.

Jeremiah 1: 4-9

Jeremiah’s Call and Commission

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,

‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.

Psalm 139 : 13-18

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.
Ephesians 4: 11-16

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Mark 9: 33-37

Who Is the Greatest?

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

But as we look at these more closely, I want us all to realise and take on board that what I am about to say applies to us all. Some have been called to the priesthood, some to a whole variety of other things. It is important for each of us to seek and know, that we are fulfilling that to which we have been called, as ALL HAVE BEEN CALLED.

The first two readings could be summarised in the following words;
known, formed, called, consecrated, (set apart), prepared, anointed (equipped).

Ruth has shared with me the sense she has of knowing this was what she was meant to be. God has known this, and of course known her, from before she came into being. Her life to this point has been a time of preparation, walking along a prepared path, right and fulfilling , but points on a road, and not the destination.

path-2

Like any journey, some bits are easy going and some are very tough, and we want to give up, we get major set backs, we doubt, we want to turn back to safety and security.
What is important for us to know, is that this journey for any of us is not unaccompanied. God is with us, beside us and like that poem ‘Footsteps,’ sometimes we are carried, but don’t know it.

The calling of Jeremiah, also shows us how none of us can do anything without the anointing and empowering of God the Holy Spirit, any of us who preach will tell you that almost every time we get up to preach we ask
“What am I doing? Who am I, to be standing before God’s people and preaching?

And the answer is always very clear.
“Because I have called you and anointed you to preach my words, I have put my words in your mouth”

The problem of calling is that we all have choice. we can choose to accept that calling, but of course we can say also say no. The ‘no’ maybe for all sorts of reasons- we only need to look at Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah to name but three, who wriggled and wrestled said “I can’t do that, sent someone else”
There can be a host of reasons why any of us may turn away from our true calling and purpose.

Lets go back to preparation, what I referred to previously as ‘the journey’. This can be long, hard and frustrating. I promised to not to say how old Ruth is, but the journey has been..shall we say, a while…
Was the time before this, wasted? Absolutely not. It was all part of preparation and all part of the priest that is now with us.
I was struck forcibly by the screamingly obvious point, that Jesus, the Son of God waited for thirty years before his ministry started.

What was going on in his life during those years? We know very little, other than a few glimpses- a twelve year old in the temple, for example, but we can be sure he was being prepared for the right time, of what was to be a very short ministry. Clergy often say how brief a curacy is, ‘what can you do in three years?’
Well, Jesus did quite a lot!
Known….formed…..set apart(consecrated)….called(choice)……prepared…..anointed (equipped)

Then comes two more highly significant points. The disciples were arguing about who was the greatest.. you know the sort of thing.. “Is it the Rector, or the Archdeacon or ..perhaps the Bishop? ”

Jesus makes this profound statement, which was the foundation of the Kingdom, an upside down principle of power and authority.

Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all, and the servant of all.
The servant King who was the Son of God, yet  he washed his disciples feet, the job of the lowliest servant.

The call to service in God’s kingdom must surely be that of being the servant of all.    The greatest is the least.

baby hand

To come back to where I started, in the reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus…

As a doctor I have always loved Paul’s illustration of the body. We all, as individuals makes up the body of Christ, and like the human body all the different bits have different functions, but all are important for the health and function of the body.

I have always had a little chuckle at the arrogance of doctors, I was taught at medical school that the tonsils had no function, along with adenoids and appendixes for that matter, yet we now know they serve an invaluable role in teaching the immune systems to respond to a raft of infections, and the body, whilst it can function without them, is not quite as good as it was with them.

I have realised every bit of the human body is important, however small and seemingly insignificant, and if we don’t know what it does, it’s only because we haven’t found out yet. So it is with the church.

Every bit of the body has a function and purpose, and plays a part in the whole, and it is no good trying to be a different part of the body. Imagine if the ears suddenly thought ‘we would like to be toes’. We would have a lot of trouble walking, let alone trying to hear when we had shoes and socks on!

So, God has given that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers. This list is,of course, for illustration and is not exhaustive.

As we celebrate Ruth reaching this fulfilment of calling, and the beginning of the next part of the journey, let us all ask ourselves and ask God:

For what purpose have I been known, formed, set apart, called, prepared and equipped? And where on that journey am I ? Do I have no idea why I have been formed? Do I think so little of myself that I can’t see God has any purpose for me?
Have I been called, but not responded?

What I am sure of, is all have been called, not all have responded, and all of us are still a ‘work in progress’ .

Are we ready to seek God, for our calling? Are we ready to be called off the road we are on, onto a completely different one? Or are we ready to stay on the road we are on, even if we don’t want to be on it?

The body has many parts, some seem to be more prominent and important than others but ALL parts are essential for health and proper function of the body of Christ.

As Paul says, this calling is to equip the saints for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Today we celebrate Ruth’s journey from beginning to now, watched over throughout by her (and our) loving Heavenly Father. We commit her to God, continuing that journey with her, knowing He is faithful and true.

Let us also pause and consider our own journeys and our own calling, and listen together as a body, the body of Christ.

‘It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are, the privilege of a lifetime is being who you really are.’ E.E. Cummings

I pray that our prayer today would be;

Lord here I am, wholly available to you. Take me and use me as you choose, for your purpose and for building up your kingdom, as I find and function in my place as a part of the whole body.
Let me always be a servant of all.

Only by the Grace

I read a quote in a recent tweet that said ‘Writing is easy. Sit down at a keyboard and open a vein ..’  it hit an instant chord, as I have often known the truth of that, but never more than with this blog post. Writing does sometimes feel like giving your life blood. The 1st of August- one month exactly since I was ordained, and although I have tried before, it has taken me until now to be able to stand back from that day enough to put some elements of it into words. A day like no other in my life to date, which I am still absorbing.

I woke early, with a feeling not dissimilar to the morning I got married. Butterflies of excitement, tinged with nerves. Such a big day, on so many levels.

It was a beautiful morning, and I stepped outside for a few moments of solitude, with just the sheep for company. The retreat house is situated in a very rural setting, in a beautiful secluded valley. The pastoral imagery of sheep/shepherd and the dual call to lead and yet always to follow, had been a very present one over the course of the retreat.  In the silence following morning prayer, the only sound was the distant bleat of lambs.

Know that the Lord is God. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture”                        ” Feed my sheep” Psalm 100 

A smooth 40 minute drive to the cathedral. I don’t remember much of what I was thinking, apart from being conscious of being in public in my collar, for the first time.  My emotions were very close to the surface, so it was much more about feeling, than thinking.

Some waiting, and then the solemn legal parts of the process, prior to lining up to process from the Bishop’s Palace to the Cathedral. The last few steps of a long, long journey, I would be stepping out of the cathedral at the start of the next.  The congregation were mostly a blur of faces, although I caught sight of a friend and her little girl as I started to process up the aisle, which delighted me, and grounded what was happening in the context of lots of dear people I love and who have shared this journey with me, being here to cheer me on.

I didn’t know where my family were seated (they had ticketed seats in a reserved row) but it was only about ten minutes into the service that I spotted them. Another jolt of emotion.

The service is a solemn one with a variety of symbolic components to it.  We were called forward by name. Presented by our Archdeacons commending us to be ordained. In my case the Archdeacon had been my attachment incumbent of most of my training, and a good friend, adding an extra dimension to the process. I had done a placement in the cathedral the previous year, and loved every minute of it, falling in love with the ancient building, and making lasting friendships amongst the whole variety of people who make up the cathedral’s staff. It had become a ‘home from home’, and being ordained in this second spiritual home was a deep joy.

The sermon was given by Revd Dr Alison Morgan, author of The Wild Gospel and A Word on The Wind: Renewing Confidence in the Gospel, who had led our retreat. She did an excellent job explaining to our families and friends something of this crazy calling God was asking of us.

Then the moment itself. Called forward again to be charged with the solemn task and role to which we were called, and asked to make a series of vows, to which we answered ” By the help of God, I will” . Something echoed by the Bishop in his next words :

In the name of our Lord, we bid you remember the greatness of the the trust in which you are now to share: the ministry of Christ itself, who for our sake took the form of a servant.. You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God.

Words that need to be kept constantly in mind, as I step out on this new journey.

We then knelt  around the altar for about ten minutes of prayers, sung and said, before the Bishop came to each of us to lay his hand on our heads and confer ordination as Deacons upon  us.  Although kneeling in public, for those ten minutes it was just God and me, I was largely oblivious of anyone else.  The Bishop’s hands felt very heavy on my head as he prayed for the Holy Spirit to equip me for the work He was calling me to do.  Our incumbents stepped forwards to vest us in our stoles across our Left shoulders symbolic of our Deacon status, as servants of God and His Church.

The Ordination service is set within the context of a Eucharist and during the sharing of The Peace we had the first opportunity to greet family and friends. A deeply moving moment accompanied by many tearful hugs.

Coming out of the service was a surge of joy, greeting so many lovely folk who had come from far and wide to support me. It was overwhelming, and the day continued in a similar way as we gathered in my sending church for a celebration lunch. I couldn’t stop smiling. After all the solemn intensity, I felt like I was floating on air, with a heart brimful of thankfulness.

As a tiny child I sang an old chorus, picking up the words of a psalm, ‘ My cup is full and running over’ ,  little did I know then how full my cup would be filled, or why.