Rooted in living water – a reflection on Jeremiah 17.7-8

I wonder if you have ever had the experience of a particular piece of scripture seeming to keep on popping up in different places? It can feel a bit as if it’s following you around! That’s what happened to me with this passage from Jeremiah. And I think often that’s a sign that it’s something God wants to direct our attention to.

I first encountered this passage, with its striking image of the tree rooted by water, when I was on retreat at a convent. As I read the passage, several things struck me straight away:

  • It’s not that the tree doesn’t suffer from drought or heat – it’s that it has what it needs to survive, and even to grow through those adverse conditions, because it has its roots in living water.
  • The roots are rarely the most attractive part of a tree – they aren’t the parts that impress us with their beauty or fruitfulness – but they are essential. Any gardener will know that without healthy roots, you won’t have a healthy plant.
  • The rootedness of the tree by the stream is key. The relationship between the tree and the stream is permanent and intimate. The roots are constantly immersed in the water, not just dipping in and out. The tree will change and grow, but it remains rooted in the stream which gives it life.

Later on that retreat, I went out to the convent’s Water Garden, where there is a pond, with a stream flowing into it, and by the pond is a tree. In your packs this week you have a photo of the Water Garden. I couldn’t find one with the tree in, but if you look carefully you will see the shadow of the tree at the water’s edge. You can imagine standing where the photographer is, with the branches above you, the water in front of you, and the roots beneath your feet.

The Water Garden at the Community of St Mary the Virgin, in Wantage.

This is where I stood, as I reflected again on those words from Jeremiah. I noticed again the closeness of the tree and the stream, the physical connection between them through the roots by which the stream gives life to the tree. And I noticed too how different the tree’s relationship with the stream was from mine. I would pause a while, admire the stream, watch it, listen to it flowing, maybe even dip my hand into it, and then move on. But the tree remained, rooted and steadfast, its roots submerged deep in the water, providing stability, nourishment and growth, in every season.

What an image for our relationship with God! Rootedness, stability, nourishment, growth, living water… in season and out, sustaining us in the face of whatever droughts or storms may come our way. It is an image I have returned to again and again. And although I often feel a long way from that peaceful Water Garden, every time I see a tree root trying to break through the pavement, I am reminded of it.

So when I came here to Hodge Hill and at my first Church Meeting was given a paper with the picture of the ‘growing tree’ on it, of course this passage came to mind. The tree rooted by the stream, able to withstand adverse conditions, nourished and sustained by living water, seems to me to be an image of our church community here, as we continue to grow together, firmly rooted in the life-giving love of God’s.

Hodge Hill Church ‘growing tree’.

We need that rootedness now more than ever. We may be feeling buffeted from all sides, or dried out with heat and drought, but still the stream of God’s grace keeps on flowing, keeps on nourishing and sustaining us, sometimes in hidden ways. Still, in these strange times, we as a church community are a tree that is bearing fruit, though often in unexpected ways. Still there is life and growth.

I wonder where you are noticing growth at the moment – in yourself, in the church, among your neighbours? I wonder what is helping you in this season to stay rooted in Jesus, the Living Water?

“God is never alone” – Trinity Sunday reflection

Trinity Sunday.
God is never alone.
At the heart of God is relationship,
interdependence,
of Father, Son, Holy Spirit,
creator, redeemer, sustainer,
Source of all being, Eternal Word, Fire of Love,
three in one,
beyond words.
 
God is never alone,
and nor are we.
Jesus promises:
“I shall be with you always,
to the end of the age.”
And the promises of God are more trustworthy
than any human word.
Never alone.
At the heart of God is interdependence,
in the depths of being more powerful than death
is a vulnerability that says
“I can’t exist in isolation.”
And invites us to say the same,
to know that love of neighbour
is not pious sentimentality,
but a deep acknowledgement of dependence,
mutuality, interconnectedness.
The love of God invites us to say:
“I can’t live without you.”
To say it to our neighbours,
siblings, sisters, brothers,
to our enemies, and all the ‘others’
we would like to other,
but it turns out we can’t.
We need each other too much to turn away
from people who don’t look like us
don’t sound, think, live like us.
 
God knows,
we need each other.
God shows,
in God’s own interdependence,
that our need for one another,
our dependence on each other,
is itself an image of God.  
 
Behind locked doors
or on a mountain top,
in supermarket queues,
in lonely rooms,
Jesus says:
“I will be with you always.”
On hospital wards,
on streets erupting in violence,
in homes that are not safe,
in prison cells,
in all the places where decisions are made
that could mean life or death,
Jesus says:
“I will be with you always.”
 
What would it look like
to live like that is true?
Let go of the temptation of self-sufficiency,
the desire for independence, power,
some way of asserting whatever little control
we fool ourselves we have.
Let go.
“Do not be afraid.”
Let go, let yourself go,
let yourself fall into the reality
of dependence on God,
who is always ready to catch you
and enfold you in love.
 
Ironically, this isolation
is a revelation
that we were never separate,
never self-made,
always connected, dependent,
reliant on our neighbour,
and our neighbour on us.
There is no-one
Who is not essential.
To love your neighbour as yourself
is to know your neighbour and yourself
to be equal participants
in the dance of God’s unending love.
 
“I will be with you always”
says Jesus,
and yet…
And yet people of peace are attacked in the streets
for daring to speak the truth that Black Lives Matter.
And yet the systems still exist
that keep the rich rich and the poor poor,
keep refugees out
keep women in their place.
And yet, there is so much fear and pain in the world
that sometimes we who have the luxury of choice
can hardly bear to look.
“I will be with you always”
is not the same as
“It’s all going to be ok.”
 
We are never alone,
with a God who is never alone,
who never promises easy fixes,
but only endless love.
We are the outworking of that love,
called to be the hands that live that love,
that give, receive,
hold placards, bind up wounds,
the ears that listen,
the lips that speak peace,
but only the kind of peace
that comes from justice.
By God and with God we are called
to make real what is already true:
we are all interdependent.
 
Am I my brother’s keeper?
The answer has always been ‘yes’.
Keeper of every sibling, every neighbour,
every key worker, every no-hoper,
every tree and rainforest and leaf and insect.
And they are my keeper too.
This has always been true.  
The hands that formed me
measured the waters of the deep.
The hands that formed my dearest friend
marked off the heavens with a span.
The hands that formed my worst enemy
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure.  
The eternal one from whom all wisdom,
understanding, justice comes
knows ever hair on your head.
 
There is nothing too vast
or too small,
nothing too joyful,
and nothing too hard,   
to be held in the holiness of God,
enfolded in the interdependent
never-ending embrace of the Trinity,
all bound up in the eternal movement of love,
held in the hand, in the heart,
of God who lives and moves in us,
and we in God.
 
Trinity Sunday.
God is never alone.
And nor are you.
Amen.
 

Wilderness, resistance, and unlikely superpowers – a sermon for Lent 1 (Year A)

Reading: Matthew 4.1-11

Here we have Jesus going out into the wilderness.
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word ‘wilderness’?
It’s often translated as ‘desert’,
and that’s the kind of wilderness Jesus would have known.
But wilderness can come in all sorts of varieties.

Wilderness.
A place not conformed to the will of humans, not designed for our comfort.
A place untouched by the pervasive sin of shaping our environment to ourselves which has led to such catastrophic damage.
A wild place.

I wonder if you’ve ever been to a place like that?
Or if you can imagine that sort of place?
Sometimes the vast, untamed wildness of it can make us feel small and insignificant.
But sometimes the feeling of connectedness with such a place can make us feel that we are caught up in something so much bigger than ourselves.

Jesus doesn’t just go into the wilderness.
He is led there – led by the Holy Spirit.
And the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for a purpose.
I love the way the Godly Play version of this story phrases it:
“Jesus went into the wilderness to find out more about who he was, and what his work was going to be.”

The story we have heard today is often called “The Temptation of Christ”
and it’s often been interpreted as a test of Jesus’ goodness,
or a battle between Jesus and the devil.
But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
This isn’t show of strength,
it isn’t about winning,
it isn’t about Jesus showing off how great he is
or how powerful he is.

In fact, in many ways it’s the opposite.
This is about Jesus being willingly led into an encounter with self and God
which will profoundly shape his life, and his death.
It is about Jesus coming to know more of who he is and what his work is going to be.
And in doing that, Jesus turns the whole idea of power upside down and inside out.

Each of the temptations Jesus faces in this story is in some way about power.
It seems like in each case he is being invited to exercise a sort of divine superpower:
to turn stones into bread;
to jump off the highest building in the city;
to become king of the whole world.
If this was a superhero film, those are exactly the sort of things you can imagine our hero doing.

But Jesus isn’t that sort of hero.
He makes a different choice, and in each case that choice reveals something important.

When Jesus chooses not to turn stones into bread to feed himself,
he is rejecting the idea that independence and self-sufficiency is the best way to live,
and pointing instead to a radical dependence:
on one another,
on our planet and our non-human neighbours,
and on God.

When Jesus chooses not to jump from the tower of the temple,
he is rejecting the idea that being strong and protected from everything is the most important thing,
and pointing instead to a radical vulnerability,
to an openness which realises that the capacity for pain
is the price we pay for the capacity for love.

When Jesus chooses not to take the power offered to him of ruling the whole world,
he is rejecting the idea that being in power, in control, is worth any cost, to ourselves and others,
and pointing instead to a radical humility,
which brings with it the freedom of not having to have everything under control.

Self-sufficiency, strength, control.
These are the kinds of power that characterise many of the superpowers we see in cartoons and films.
But they aren’t the kind of power Jesus chooses.

Humility, vulnerability, dependence.
These are the unlikely superpowers Jesus models.
These are the kind of superpowers God embraces in choosing to become human.

Lent is a time when we too are invited to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
to make choices about what sort of power, what sort of way of living,
we will embrace, and what we will reject and resist.

Lent shouldn’t be a test,
or a competition,
or a demonstration of our own righteousness.
It should be a wilderness space in which we can hone those unlikely superpowers:
humility, vulnerability, dependence on God.

And whatever we give up or take up
should be done with the aim of leading us further into that wild place
to find out more about who God is
and who we are
and what our work is going to be.

Wilderness can be an uncomfortable place to be.
Lent can be an uncomfortable place to inhabit.
That’s ok – stick with it.
This wild place, this place not made for our comfort,
is where we encounter the wild God.
CS Lewis, in the Narnia stories, expresses something of that wildness when he has Mr Beaver say of Aslan:
“Of course he isn’t safe, but he’s good.”
Our God is not a tame lion.

The great temptation which Jesus faces in the wilderness,
and which we all face in all sorts of ways,
is to prize safety over goodness,
to seek the sort of power which we hope will keep us safe and in control,
although in truth it never does.

But Jesus calls us to live a different way,
to choose those unlikely superpowers of humility, vulnerability and dependence,
which acknowledge the truth that we do nothing in our own strength,
but rely on God for everything.
And that truth will set us free.

Jesus offers us a radically different way to live:
A way which does not conform to the power structures, the economy, the expectations of the world.
And at our best we, the church, offer that radically different way of life
to our community and to the world.

In this season of Lent we are called to repentance,
to turning away from the temptations of power and control,
from the temptation to shape our environment to our own comfort,
which has led us to this point of climate catastrophe.

In this wilderness season, God calls us – as individuals and as the church –
to allow ourselves to be re-wilded.
The Spirit calls us to find new ways to resist being tamed by the lure of power.
Jesus calls us to follow him into the wilderness,
to allow our wild God
to remake us in her image,
wild and free.

#AdventBookClub – day 24 “Christmas Eve”

Again we are with the paradoxes of the season: darkness and light, cold and heat, old and new, high and low. I love the emphasis on the nearness of opposites – the “dazzling darkness”, the Christ who “delights and terrifies us”, the unsettling disruption in which there also great beauty.

Only in the tension of these impossible, nonsensical juxtapositions can we come close to the enormity of the mystery which we celebrate tonight. A dazzling darkness of a chilly heat are nothing compared to a human God who is both eternal and newborn. This, the incarnation, is a mystery too great to fully grasp. We can only hover in the space between such opposites, and wonder at the God who meets us there.

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This year for #AdventBookClub a group of us are reading “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Rachel Mann. Join us on Facebook or Twitter for daily reflections and discussions. We are also raising money for the Trussell Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/adventbookclub2019.

#AdventBookClub – day 23 “A Hope Carol”

I love the way the rhythm and structure of this poem bring us around again and again to a sense of hopeful yearning, a longing that will be fulfilled… but not yet.

This is very much my experience of faith. Perhaps it is this that draws me so much to Advent (it is my favourite liturgical season). Watching and waiting and longing and hoping are very much where I know God, even as I long to know God more.

This is not the hopeless yearning of unrequited love. It is love which has been requited since before time itself, and which will – surely will – be brought at last to fulfillment. But not yet. This is the hopeful yearning of a promise that will certainly be kept, that has already been kept, that is even now unfolding.

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This year for #AdventBookClub a group of us are reading “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Rachel Mann. Join us on Facebook or Twitter for daily reflections and discussions. We are also raising money for the Trussell Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/adventbookclub2019.

#AdventBookClub – day 22 “Advent (1885/6)”

Here it is again, that strange paradox that is at the heart of Advent, and indeed at the heart of the Christian faith: new and old, life and death, fire and cold… As we prepare to tip over from Advent into Christmas it seems a good moment to keep hold of the paradoxical nature of faith in every season. It is part and parcel of the God who is coming soon yet already with us, whose kingdom is now and yet to come.

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This year for #AdventBookClub a group of us are reading “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Rachel Mann. Join us on Facebook or Twitter for daily reflections and discussions. We are also raising money for the Trussell Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/adventbookclub2019.

#AdventBookClub – day 21 “Winter: My Secret”

I love the rhythm of this poem, which feels to me something like the wind, buffeting the poet and the reader in all directions. Which, for me, has a connection to the theme of wearing different masks, picked up in the commentary.

At this time of year I often feel pulled in many directions – church, family, friends, ministry, shopping and cooking, sermon writing, wrapping, laundry, liturgy… I’m sure the feeling is familiar to many. And sometimes that leads to me swapping between different ‘masks’ – of home and church, guest and host, partner, daughter, auntie, cousin, sister, friend… Not that I am trying to hide anything, but I know I am a quite different version of myself with different people. Not only with family vs parishioners, but also with my Mum’s side of the family vs my Dad’s, with my cousins and siblings vs our parents’ generation, with friends and chosen family vs my birth family or in-laws.

All of us have so many different ‘masks’ we wear, and I no longer think (as I once might have) that to do so is any failure or lack of integrity. Rather, it is one of the ways in which we respond to different people and situations with care, attention and sensitivity. But it is so important that we take time to know – and always to remember that God knows – who we are under all the masks.

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This year for #AdventBookClub a group of us are reading “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Rachel Mann. Join us on Facebook or Twitter for daily reflections and discussions. We are also raising money for the Trussell Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/adventbookclub2019.

#AdventBookClub – day 20 “Lay Up For Yourselves Treasures In Heaven”

Reading this poem today, of all days, has made me startlingly aware of some of the contradictions within myself. I do not think of myself as a very materialistic person. I am not particularly interested in money or gadgets or clothes or ‘stuff’ and am generally content to hold lightly to earthly treasures. (Although I do have a sneaking sympathy with St Jerome, heading into the desert to live the life of a hermit, taking nothing… except his vast library!) And yet…

Today I received a gift which I will cherish. It is not expensive or valuable in the conventional sense of ‘treasure’. It is a Christmas present from my Mum – a set of 7 metal pastry cutters, the exact double of the ones my Mum inherited from my beloved Granny. And I will cherish them not because of what they are, but what they represent – the sense of being known and loved enough for someone to know this is exactly the right gift for me, and why; the sense of being entrusted with the keeping of family traditions which bind together the people I love most; the sense of standing in a long line of strong women who make good pastry (and everything else that goes with that inheritance).

Perhaps the moral of the story is this: hold lightly to the pastry cutters, but hold tightly to the love they represent, which is the true treasure of heaven, made real and concrete on earth.

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This year for #AdventBookClub a group of us are reading “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Rachel Mann. Join us on Facebook or Twitter for daily reflections and discussions. We are also raising money for the Trussell Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/adventbookclub2019.

#AdventBookClub – day 19 “He Cannot Deny Himself”

“Love still is Love.” That’s exactly what I needed to hear today. And every day, to be honest. Come what may, love still is love, God still is God, God still is love. In these troubled times, the steadfast, unchanging love of God is something to cling to. Sometimes it’s the only thing left to cling to. And then we find that this Love is no mere feeling, no ephemeral idea. It is the most real thing there is, the very bedrock of life. And it is enough.

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This year for #AdventBookClub a group of us are reading “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Rachel Mann. Join us on Facebook or Twitter for daily reflections and discussions. We are also raising money for the Trussell Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/adventbookclub2019.

#AdventBookClub – day 18 “Of Him That Was Ready To Perish”

The imagery in today’s poem of darkness and light brought to mind a favouite Taize chant: “Our darkness is never darkness in your sight; the deepest night is clear as the daylight”.

Though we may yearn for the clarity of the noonday experience of faith, and long to recapture the brightness, it is not the only, or perhaps in the long term the most rewarding, way to live with God. The God who lurks in the shadows, of whom we catch glimpses, who meets us in the darkest corners of our lives, is the God who will sustain us through all those times when all we can do is cry out “how long, O Lord, how long?” God who is as much (if not more) in silence and darkness, as in answers or in light, will be with us when there are no easy answers, and we can no longer see where we are going.

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This year for #AdventBookClub a group of us are reading “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Rachel Mann. Join us on Facebook or Twitter for daily reflections and discussions. We are also raising money for the Trussell Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/adventbookclub2019.