“God delights in queer joy” – a sermon for Pride

A sermon preached at the Milton Keynes Pride Service, organised by Faithfully LGBTQIA+ MK, held at St Mary’s Shenley Church End on 25th September 2022.

Texts: 1 Corinthians 12.12-27 and John 15.1-11

“You are the body of Christ.” You. Yes, you. You are the body of Christ. Know that, and know it deeply. Many of us may have been told in various ways, by words or by actions, that because of who we are or who we love, we are not part of the body of Christ, that we cannot be full members of the church, that we cannot really be proper Christians. That is not true. And more than being not true it is dangerous theology, and it is idolatry. When we start picking and choosing who ‘counts’ as part of the body of Christ, then we are in danger of making the body of Christ – making Jesus, making God – smaller and tamer than God really is. We run the risk of worshiping not God, but our own narrow, safe idea of who God is.

We are the body of Christ in all our glorious God-given diversity. Diversity is and always has been a characteristic of the body of Christ, a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is essential, as Paul so humorously points out in his musings about feet and eyes and noses, that not all members of the body are the same. Each member of the body needs the full range of other diverse members of the body, in order to flourish together. As members of the body of Christ, we cannot say to one another: “I have no need of you.” When any member of the body of Christ is excluded the whole body is diminished, and the image of Christ which we present to the world is impaired.

This is why services like this, and events like Pride, and having an affirming Christian presence at Pride, really matter. It is not just about inclusion, it is about justice. Full inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ+ people and relationships is not just a kind thing for a nice church to do – it is essential to being the church we are called to be, striving to resemble more closely the perfect justice of God’s kingdom. But it is not just about justice either. It is about who we are, and who God is, and who we are in God.  It is as fundamental as that, and as radical – in its proper sense of being ‘at the root’ – as that.

We are called to be rooted in God, like branches in a vine, like vines in a vineyard. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” I wonder what it means for you to abide in Jesus? Abide is such a rich, resonant word. It has connotations of stability, of closeness, of intimacy, of steadfastness, of dependence, of deep relationship, of endurance, and so much more. We, in all our rich and beautiful diversity, are called to abide in God, to abide in God’s love. All that we are: our bodies, our lives, our loves, our relationships; the things we love about ourselves and the things we find hard to love; the things everyone knows about us and the things known only to us and to God; the whole of who we are is where God chooses to abide, full of grace and truth.

Our diversity as the people of God, as the body of Christ is a sign to the world of who God is: wild and free, expansive beyond our imaginings, longing to encompass and enfold all people and the whole creation in infinite love. And our diversity is a source of delight: delight for us, I hope, and for our loved ones, but also delight for God. God delights in us. “I have said these things to you,” Jesus says, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” God rejoices in us. God’s joy is in us – in our live and our loves. God delights in queer joy.

We don’t talk nearly enough about joy and delight in our conversations about the place of LGBTQ+ folks in the church. But I firmly believe that is how God see us. One of the reasons we celebrate and thank God for Pride is that it is such a site of joy – the joy that comes from being who we truly are, being known and seen and delighted over, being together. And doesn’t that sound to you like a place in which God abides? It does to me.

As we abide in God’s love, as we take our place as members together of the body of Christ, as we show to a weary world the full depth and height and breadth of God’s limitless love, may we know God’s joy in us – may you know God’s limitless delight and joy in you – today and always. Amen.

‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free’: longing for liberation

A sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

Texts: Acts 16.16–34; Revelation 22.12–14, 16,17,20,21; John 17.20–26.

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” sings the legendary Nina Simone, “I wish I could break all the chains holding me”.

Freedom, liberation, is the focus of our reading from Acts today, complete with broken chains. And what a story it is! Paul and Silas bound fast in jail, and then this dramatic, miraculous freedom – the earthquake, the unlocked doors. Literally “my chains fell off”.

But let’s go back a bit. Why are Paul and Silas in prison in the first place? They have cast out a spirit from a slave-girl, in the name of Jesus Christ. But that in itself is not what gets them into trouble.  The trouble comes when “her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone”. This is the story of a vulnerable young woman, exploited by men for money. And now, as a result of Paul’s intervention, that particular form of exploitation is at an end.  This woman, whose name we are not told,is set free by Jesus through Paul, released from the means of her oppression and exploitation.

When Paul casts out the “spirit of divination” – however we might understand that – he is speaking against something else too. He is speaking against the coercion and exploitation of this young woman at the hands of wealthy and powerful men – men powerful enough to get him thrown into prison. Perhaps it is not too far a stretch to suggest that Paul here is speaking against the coercion and exploitation of women more generally. Even that he is casting out a spirit of coercion, of exploitation, of patriarchy. And he is doing it in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m not suggesting that Paul is some great feminist ally but maybe, just for a moment, by the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit, he is participating in what feminist theologian Letty Russell terms “Jesus’ iconoclasm of patriarchy.”

When the men who have been exploiting this young woman bring their case against Paul and Silas before the magistrates, notice that they make no mention of their real motive, he loss of their profit at the expense of a vulnerable young woman. Instead they say “these men are disturbing our city”. This should come as no surprise. Movements of liberation are always resisted in favour of ‘order’ by those whom the prevailing order favours. Liberation is disruptive, the embodiment of the disruptive power of the Spirit who blows where she will.

The liberation in this story is three-fold: there is the liberation of the slave-girl. Then there is the obvious, dramatic liberation of Paul and Silas from their prison cell. And finally the liberating experience of the jailer, freed by Paul’s words from his guilt and shame at the prisoners escaping on his watch, and saved from death.

You just cannot keep the liberating Spirit of God down! Not with systems of patriarchal oppression, not with bars and chains, not with internalised guilt and shame. The liberating power of Jesus Christ cannot be contained or controlled.

And that liberation changes everything. The jailer knows that. Look at his reaction to seeing how God has freed Paul and Silas: “he fell down trembling”. This is a moment of recognition. Liberation is what God looks like, and the jailer recognises God in this moment of liberation, and is “baptised without delay”. We don’t know what happened next to the jailer, but it’s clear that this encounter with God who frees the captives from their chains is a turning point for him.

Back to Nina Simone: “I wish I could give all I’m longing to give / I wish I could live like I’m longing to live / I wish I could do all the things that I can do / Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew.”

In baptism, in receiving “the water of life as a gift”, as our reading from Revelation puts it, the jailer is starting anew. He, like the woman freed from her exploitation, like Paul himself a few chapters earlier on the road to Damascus, like each of us, is profoundly changed by encounter with the living and liberating Christ, and offered a new start.

And then there’s the longing: “I wish I could live like I’m longing to live”. I don’t know about you, but that resonates deeply with me. Transforming, liberating encounter with Jesus stirs something in us, as it stirred in Paul: a sort of holy restlessness, a profound longing for the perfect liberation which can only come from God. A desire to live more Jesus-shaped lives. A desire to live and work for a more kingdom-shaped world.

That longing, that desire, is not only ours but Jesus’ too. In our gospel reading, Jesus prays: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

Jesus desires for us to know God’s glory, to know it as he himself knows it, to know that we too are loved, loved by God, loved from before the foundation of the world. And in knowing God and that all-encompassing love of God, that we may “become completely one”.

The liberating movement of God’s Holy Spirit is always a shared enterprise, however imperfect we are at recognising our sharing in it. As Nina Simone sings: “I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart / Remove all the bars that keep us apart.” Our freedom is bound up in one another’s. To quote Maya Angelou: “the truth is no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”

This is not about you knowing Jesus, or me knowing Jesus. It is about the whole creation knowing in the very depths of its being the liberating, life-giving power and love of Jesus Christ.

We are not called to set creation free, that work is God’s and it has already been done. We are not called to save anyone, that is the work of Jesus on the cross and it is accomplished. But we are called to make real what is already true, to make real to our neighbour the truth of God’s liberating love for all, to make it so real that freedom tastes of reality in ways which speak tangibly of God.

What that looks, sounds, feels like will be different for each of us. Sometimes it may be as simple and profound as a quiet word or an unnoticed action which lightens someone’s burden. Sometimes, like Paul, we may find that our commitment to liberation gets us into “Gospel trouble” (to borrow a phrase from Bishop Gene Robinson), that our work is met with resistance, as the disruptive liberation of the Spirit always is. Always, whether we feel embroiled in struggle, or whether we are wondering if our efforts are enough, we need to hang on to the knowledge that we are all called and held by the liberating love of God.

So, as we prepare to celebrate at Pentecost the coming of the disruptive, liberating Holy Spirit, and as we prepare today to meet in bread and wine the Christ who comes to free us and the whole creation from every chain that binds us, let us pray:

O God in whom is perfect freedom, may you so fill us with longing for the liberation of all people and the whole creation, that we are ready to work and to struggle, to be changed and transformed, until that day when at last our restless hearts find rest and we see God face to face, when “we’ll sing ‘cos we’ll know how it feels to be free”. Amen.  

‘God alone is enough’ – a talk for #SpaceToBreathe

Some years ago – quite a lot of years ago – when I was a student dipping my toe into the water of vocational exploration for the first time (a full 15 years before I was ordained) a wise friend wrote these words of Theresa of Avila on a card for me:

“Let nothing trouble you
Let nothing make you afraid
All things pass away 
God never changes 
Patience obtains everything 
God alone is enough.” 

They have been hard words to hold onto in the last couple of years. We have been troubled. We have been afraid. It has been very hard to be patient.

And I don’t know about you, but one of the things I have felt as a minister in this time – and in my case as someone stepping out into ministry as a newly ordained curate, in circumstances which are locally less than ideal as well as compounded by the bigger picture disruptions of the pandemic – is a deep awareness of my own inadequacy. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t do or be what people need me to do and be.

And that is a hard thing to admit, and a hard thing to hear one another admit. We want to rush to say “it’s ok, you’re doing fine, you’re doing your best, it’s enough.” We want to be able to reassure one another, and ourselves, and the people we serve. That’s a very human reaction. But is important not to gloss over that feeling of insufficiency, not to hurry past it to reach for reassurances which can ring hollow.

We’re not perfect, of course, but we want to be able to say we are enough, our best is good enough. Many of us may have come across the concept of “good enough ministry”, based on the concept of “good enough parenting”.

And yet often, I think, in the last couple of years, we have felt like what we are doing and being and offering has not been ‘good enough’. When we have received angry messages from parishioners about not being able to receive communion during lockdown. When we have stood at gravesides with too few people for too short a time. When we have tried to handle sensitive pastoral situations over the phone or a dodgy zoom connection. Often we have felt like we are failing, like what we are doing is nowhere near enough. Like we are not enough.  

Let’s sit with that sense of failure for a moment. We have tried our best, we are trying our best, and often it is not enough.

So where do we go with that?

Back, I suggest, to Theresa of Avila: “God alone is enough”. Of course we are not enough. Only God is enough. We know this really.

“My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12.9)

 God’s grace is sufficient. God is enough. God is enough, so I don’t have to be.

I hope that realisation can be – even as it is painful – also liberating. We do not have to be enough. We do not have to have it all sorted. We do not have to strive after being something we can’t be. That is not God’s calling or desire for us or for our churches.

God alone is enough. So I don’t have to be.

For me, that has been a liberating realisation. It has freed me – is freeing me, still very much a work in progress – from the tyranny of thinking that if I just worked a bit harder, did a bit more, was a bit of a different sort of minister, I somehow could be enough. It has freed me to accept my limitations and to be who I am, rather than striving to be something more or something different. And I hope – I think – that liberation has started to work its way into my preaching, into my interactions with other people, into the way we do things here.

We are, first and foremost, creatures, those who are created, and one of the hallmarks of creaturehood is that we are dependent: dependent on one another, and on God. We are not supposed to be self-sufficient. We are not supposed to be – on our own – enough.

Amy Plantinga Pauw in her wonderful book “Church In Ordinary Time” points to this – the acknowledgement of our own creaturely dependence – as the bedrock of healthy ecclesiology. We can only understand ourselves as church in right relationship from a starting point of acknowledging our own insufficiency. And embracing our own insufficiency, our own incompleteness, maybe even our own inadequacy, points us and those we encounter towards the perfect sufficiency of God.

Pauw identifies “provisionality” as one of the characteristics of a church which knows its own creatureliness. We are not complete. And she speaks – I think really helpfully – of the marks of the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” as being “marks of longing”. Not descriptors of the church as it is, or as it could be if only we tried a bit harder and did things a bit differently. Not targets to be strived for. But “marks of longing” which orient our desires towards the desire of God for God’s church and point us beyond ourselves to our total reliance on God.

We are here today to talk about the gift of small churches. And one of the gifts I think small churches bring is that we have less to hide behind. We cannot so easily fall for the illusion that who we are or what we do is enough, or kid ourselves that we can be self-sufficient. Our vulnerability points us to the truth of our fragile creatureliness, and that truth will set us free.

We exist within a wider church culture beset with institutional anxiety. About numbers, about money, about the place of faith in public life, about all sorts of things but – in the end – anxiety about whether we are enough. It is easy to be drawn into that anxiety.

I want to suggest that the antidote to that anxiety is not proving our worth, but knowing that we do not need to; knowing that we are imperfect and beloved creatures of our creator, and trusting that our insufficiency points to the perfect sufficiency of God.

We are not enough, and that is good news. “God alone is enough”.

“Remember you are dust” – a short sermon for Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18

Ash Wednesday is a call to remember who we are:
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 
It is a call to remembrance and to repentance, to turning again:
“turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. 
Again and again we are called to turn and re-turn 
to the knowledge of who we are in relation to God. 

Ash Wednesday is not about pretending 
that we are less than we are, 
or that we are more than we are. 
It is not, as our gospel reminds us, 
about “practising piety in order to be seen”. 
It is above all about honesty. 
We are dust. 
Which is not to say we are nothing. 
Not at all. 
God makes beautiful things out of dust. 

God who breathes life into dust and earth and ashes, 
with the promise of resurrection hope, 
knows already and has always known what we today admit: 
that we are fallible, fragile, frail creatures; 
that we mess up and we cannot always put things right; 
that we are utterly, totally dependant on God. 
And God, seeing us for who we truly are, 
meets us with infinite mercy, love and grace. 

We turn today to the season of Lent, 
in which the traditional disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving 
are designed to call us back to who we are, 
in relation to God, to our neighbour, and to ourselves. 

As we watch with horror the unfolding invasion of Ukraine, 
as we allow ourselves to be disturbed – as we should be – 
by wars and rumours of wars,
as we bring that disturbance before God in prayer
for peace and for justice,
we need more than ever this Lent 
to find and hold fast to those things
which draw us into that turn towards God. 

And as we turn, we see already on the horizon the cross, 
symbol of the worst that humans can do to one another, 
of pain and suffering and death, 
of sin writ large on the body of the sinless Christ. 
And beyond that, the far-off glimpse of Easter dawn, 
radiant light which still overcomes the darkness. 

All that is to come. 
But for now, we stand at this turning point, 
this moment when we accept the call 
to remember who we are before the holiness of God. 

In repentance, 
in turning again to God who knows us and loves us, 
in confessing the sins which God already knows 
and is always ready to forgive, 
we come before God honestly and without shame to say: 
this is who we are. 
Dust. 
Beloved stardust stuff. 
And God meets us in the dust, 
in the ashes, 
and in the ordinary stuff of bread and wine, 
with deep and transforming grace. 

Followed by Jan Richardson’s poem, Blessing the Dust: https://paintedprayerbook.com/2013/02/08/ash-wednesday-blessing-the-dust/

#AdventBookClub day 21: The glorified Christ

How do we see God glorified? St Iranaeus says: “the glory of God is a human being, fully alive.” I wonder where we have seen that living glory? I wonder how we have helped others to encounter that living glory in our own lives?

God’s glory is not the same as majesty. Glory is not about the trappings of kingship, or the spleandour of the unapproachable divine. The glory of God is found in everywhere that we sense life. Trauma theologian Shelly Rambo talks about the resurrection in these terms – as existing in all the ways in which – even in the midst of death – we sense life.

Sometimes that sensing life feels tenuous and delicate, and barely perceptible. But still, unseen, hidden, unexpected or unnoticed, God’s glory is present. May we catch glimpses of it where and when we can.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 20: The abiding Christ

I rather like the work ‘abide’. There’s a depth and a permanence to it. The one abides is not just ‘with us’ in a passing way, but in a lasting way. The one who abides remains with us always. The abiding Christ is among us always, seen or unseen, the presence of and testament to the steadfastness of God.

Sometimes we do not recognise Christ who abides, often quietly and hidden. Sometimes we do not hear the voice of Christ behind the conversations we have, or see the face of Christ behind the face of those we meet. Sometimes we catch glimpses which make us yearn more for the abiding knowledge of Christ’s presence.

Underhill’s prayer seems apt as we seek the abiding presence of Christ in all the changing and challenging circumstances of this season: “Lord, teach me to be more alert, humble, expectant than I have been in the past, ever ready to encounter you in quiet, homely ways.”

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 19: The suffering Christ

As with servanthood (see day 18) suffering is one of the (many!) areas of life in which we need to remember that we are not Jesus. Being called to be Christ-like, being called to model our own lives after the pattern of Jesus, involves acknowledging too the ways in which we are different from Jesus. We are not God. We are not the saviour, and a ‘saviour complex’ is if anything an impediment to living a life orientated towards Christ, because it denies the singularity of Jesus’ saving love.

It should be possible to acknowledge that there is something in some sense salvific in Jesus’ suffering (though quite what that is and how it works is open to debate) without suggesting that our own suffering is salvific. So much of the human suffering in the world – and the suffering of our other-than human neighbours, come to that – seems pointless. And romanticising suffering as something noble, heroic, or even Christ-like is a deeply damaging and dangerous thing to do. It is essential that we find ways to speak about Christ’s suffering in ways which do not impose suffering on others – or ourselves.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 18: The servant Christ

There is a distinction between service and servility. It is not, I think, a distinction which Underhill draws particularly well. It would be easy to read some of her work and think that we are called to give of ourselves until there is nothing left of us, to give everything and expect nothing. That is not necessarily a healthy model of Christian service, and indeed has done considerable harm.

But there are hints in Underhill’s work that might draw us in a different direction. She emphasises Jesus’ servanthood, his willingness to lay down his life for others. But we are not Jesus. I am not Jesus and you are not Jesus. But together we are the body of Christ. That collective identity might point us towards something important: the idea of mutual service. Not conditional service – “I’ll do that for you if you do this for me” – but a relationship of mutuality and love which enables us not only to serve others willingly, but also to make ourselves vulnerable enough to be served.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub Day 17: The costly Christ

I really appreciated Underhill’s attentiveness to the particularity of the cost of following Christ in today’s reading. What is costly for one may not be so for another. And what one person is called to give up as a distraction from the life of faith, may be the very means through which another encounters God. A good reminder that we can never judge one another’s spiritual lives from the outside.

I appreciated too Underhill’s emphasis on “God’s ceaseless, inconspicuous invitations and suggestions to our souls”. This is not God who berates or cajoles, or coerces us into paying a high price. This is God who is ever-present, ever-patient, always inviting us to set down what weighs us down and holds us back, so that we can more easily join the endless dance of Love.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 16: The transfigured Christ

As I read Underhill’s description of the transfiguration as disclosing the light which changes the landscape of our lives, I remembered something which happened to me a few years ago, which had something of that quality.

A colleague and I were leading a Quiet Day. It was a beautiful crisp, freezing winter’s day. We decided to send everyone else for an awareness walk – walking slowly and becoming aware of their surroundings and God’s presence with them. And we invited everyone to bring something back which reminded them of God’s presence to share at our closing Eucharist.

So out I went into the winter sunshine. And as I walked, I suddenly saw the most beautiful patch of glimmering, glittering stuff, reflecting a multitude of shimmering colours. It was so stunning, it brought me to an abrupt halt, and I stared at it for a long time, suddenly aware of the shining presence of the unseen God reflected. When I looked more closely, I saw that it was on the surface of a log – quite a big log – so I carried it back for our Eucharist, and popped it in front of the radiator.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed the punchline! By the time we came to share our finds, what I had was one very soggy log. The stunning, shimmering stuff had melted away. And I was so disappointed! It had been such a powerful encounter, I hadn’t even realised that what I was looking at was frost.

I laughed it off, but for some reason I still carried the log home with me, and kept it outside my front door for years until it slowly disintegrated. Perhaps like Peter, James and John at the transfiguration I was trying to hold onto something too transcendent to be caught and contained. But every time I passed that unremarkable old log, I remembered that one moment of strange, dazzling glory.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.