New hymn: you made a universe so full of wonder

Really delighted to have two hymns in the new collection from Jubilate, ‘Hymns for our contemporary world’, which aims to resource churches in responding to some urgent and critical themes in contemporary life but which are not widely addressed in traditional hymnody. The first one has just been released, and explores environmental themes from a political, social and economic perspective. It can be sung to ‘Finlandia’ but has also had a beautiful new tune written especially for it by Peter Burton.
You can watch the lyric video, download the words and sheet music on the Jubilate website.

You made a universe so full of wonder, 
gave us a world to cherish and to hold.
But we have treated it as ours to plunder:
what you gave freely, we have bought and sold.
What you made perfect, we have torn asunder:
do not, O Lord, your healing power withhold.

In generous love, the pattern of your caring,   
we have been blessed with more than we could need.
But we have hoarded what was meant for sharing,
corrupting what you gave as fruitful seed;
and still it is your poorest children bearing
the cost of all our selfishness and greed.

We hear the voice that calls our generation,
the urgent cry of beauty scarred by pain.
Our lives must change in this and every nation
so prayer and action shall not be in vain;
we pledge to live in ways of restoration
until your earth is whole and good again.

Copyright (c) Ally Barrett/Jubilate
(as with all my Jubilate hymns, this is covered by CCLI so will need to go on your annual return).

New hymn, to celebrate 100 years since (some) women were able to vote in the UK

The following words were written to the tune ‘Ewing’ (Jerusalem the golden), at the request of St Martin in the Fields, for a BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship broadcast in February 2018.  It would also go to pretty much any 77676D iambic tune, of which there are many.

There came a generation
Who rose to claim the hour.
They broke oppression’s silence
By speaking the truth to power.
Their courage met with conflict,
Yet still their hearts were stirred,
Their sole determination
To make all voices heard.

They claimed a shared vocation
As stewards of this earth,
Affirming all God’s people
In dignity and worth.
May all our children’s children
Take their intended place
In all that God has purposed:
One equal, human race.

O God, in whose great kingdom
The first and last shall meet,
With love and justice freeing
The mighty from their seat;
May all your kingdom-builders
Continue true and strong,
Creating, in our own day,
A place where all belong.

With a few amendments (as in the version below) this hymn might also be suitable for occasions reflecting on issues of social justice and equality more generally:

In every generation
Some rise to claim the hour
and break oppression’s silence
By speaking the truth to power.
When courage meets with conflict
Our hearts must still be stirred,
Our sole determination
To make all voices heard.

We claim a shared vocation
As stewards of this earth,
Affirming all God’s people
In dignity and worth.
May all our children’s children
Take their intended place
In all that God has purposed:
One equal, human race.

O God, in whose great kingdom
The first and last shall meet,
With love and justice freeing
The mighty from their seat;
May all your kingdom-builders
Continue true and strong,
Creating, in our own day,
A place where all belong.

I was delighted when the lovely @onehymnaweek chose to set these words – you can listen to it here:

John 5.1-9 Do you want to be healed?

A sermon for Sunday 5th May 2013

I wonder if any of you have an aspect of yourself that you wish was otherwise?  Some besetting sin, or some character trait that you perceive as a weakness, or some flaw that you feel defines you, though you wish it didn’t. Or something that’s been central to the way you explain yourself for so long that it’s become part apology, part excuse, and you’re no longer sure whether you want it to change, or whether it’s better simply to take refuge in it and let it keep defining you?

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then good for you!  But I certainly have a few of these things.  The easiest one for me to talk about is “I’m disorganised”.  You’ve probably all heard me say it.  It’s an apology, sure, but it’s also an excuse. And I know that for me, when I say it, I’m accepting something as inevitable, rather than working to grow beyond it.  Whenever I say “Sorry I’m so disorganised” I’m taking refuge in my own flaws and making it harder for me to be anything other than what I say I am.

Why am I telling you this?

If we leave aside for a moment the fact that the story of the man by the pool at Bethzatha was probably a true story, and that a real miracle of healing took place, we can treat it more like a parable and ask ourselves why that particular story was preserved in the gospels and what its deeper meanings might be.

When we do this it turns out that there are several: one concerns Jesus’ willingness to go round healing people on the Sabbath, even though he knows it will get him into trouble – there are other stories that do this, too, so I won’t go into that today.

The deeper meaning that struck a chord with me today is the question of what healing really meant for the man by the pool.  He’s spent 38 years lying in the same spot, always thinking that if he could only be first in the queue for the magic healing waters he would be well again, and always finding that someone else was faster than him, beating him to it.  38 years of trying the same thing, again and again, and still expecting the outcome to be different.

38 years of telling passers-by, “It’s because I don’t have anyone to put me in the water” until that’s all there is.  He is the man who never gets healed, it has become what defines him.  It’s been so long that he can’t remember what it was like before he was ill, and he’s not sure what he’d do if he was ever made well again.  Yes, the man’s paralysis was real, but metaphorically he can stand for all of us who take refuge in something that’s been holding us back for years, unsure if we really want things to be different.

This is where I am that man, stuck saying “I’m disorganised” even though I know it doesn’t help.

So when I hear Jesus ask the man, “Don’t you want to be made well?” I hear him saying to me, “Don’t you want to be more organised?”  And I think to myself, “But if I didn’t have my constant refrain as an excuse, then I’d have to take more responsibility.   I wouldn’t be able to write off and explain away the many things that slip through my net, attributing them to some general sense of disorganisation, as if it were an illness that is beyond my control.

“Get up, take up your bed and walk” says Jesus.  And the man does. He receives healing without going anywhere near the magic healing waters, and he will have to find a new story to tell about himself, he’ll have to find a new way to define himself, because he’s no longer the man who never gets healed, no longer the man who can’t get to the water first.

So when Jesus says those same words to me, he says them through the people he’s sent to me to show me that just because I’ve been disorganised, doesn’t mean that that’s what I am and always have to be.  That I can actually change, be better, and rewrite my own story so that I’m no longer peddling a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is it simply about willpower?  No, it’s not. It’s about the way that God can act on our will and enable us to make choices that we wouldn’t have the strength to make on our own.  It’s about the power of God to show us how much of our healing and wholeness is not to do with making sure we get access to the magic water, but showing us that we can, in fact, through his grace, redefine ourselves and not be ruled by our flaws.

I’ve shared with you something of my own response to this story, confessed something of the way that I’ve let my flaws define me (and believe me, I have worse ones than disorganisation!).  And I do so as one whose process of healing and new life is still a work in progress.

If anything I’ve said has struck a chord with you, then consider that the words of todays gospel, on that same metaphorical level, can speak to any individual, or group, or organisation, or community, who is aware of a flaw, or negative tendancy, that they know is holding them back, but who has given up any hope of things being different.  Such groups have a choice: to wait around, hoping for some external solution which will probably never come, or always trying the same solutions, which have never worked and never will – or to hear Christ asking the question, “Don’t you want things to be different?” and respond not by repeating the same story that we’ve always told about ourselves or heard others use, but by really opening up the question honestly, and working out what it would mean for things to be otherwise.

But it’s not some magic water that makes change possible.  It’s Christ right here with us, asking us to look at ourselves and become what we might be, not get stuck with what we’ve always been.    It’s Christ right here with us, asking us why we’re letting our flaws hold us to ransom and offering us another way.  And it’s Christ looking at us, including our flaws, and unlike our own self-image, being able to see beyond them to what we could be.  And it’s Christ showing us that the power to be otherwise is within us, not because it’s all about our willpower, but because he, Jesus, is active within us, and has promised to work within us to make us whole and strong.

When we invite Christ to dwell within us we should expect to be changed. We should expect to lose our excuses and have to rewrite our stories. We should expect to be changed, to become more than we are.  The question is, are we ready for that kind of healing?  Some days I’m not sure I am, but by the grace of God I pray that when God next asks me to stand up and bundle up my excuses, I’ll find that I can.

Sermon for Lent 3: 1 Cor 10.1-13 & Luke 13.1-9

I was told the other day that I should make my sermons more challenging and less comforting.  Happily, today’s readings make it really easy to avoid being overly comforting. But then, it is Lent, and perhaps we should expect the lectionary to dwell upon the difficult stuff, just for a while? 

First, we have St Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.  Today’s passage is only three short chapters before the wonderful poem to love that is so often read at weddings.  And it’s only two chapters before the famous image of the church as the body of Christ, each member playing their own part in harmony. But chapter 10, today’s reading, on the face of it could not be more different from these two much more famous and inspiring passages.  It’s a little history lesson, dwelling on the less triumphant episodes in the history of God’s people – those moments during their forty years in the wilderness when they turned to idols because they’d lost their trust in God. What’s hard about this is that Paul uses their time of challenge and failure as an example – “don’t be like them,” he says, “but do learn from them – don’t make the same mistakes.”

George Santanaya said, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”  Our memories (whether collective or individual) really do shape who we are, and all individuals, communities and nations tell stories about themselves, to try and make sense of who they are and how they came to be where and how they are. The ancient Israelites were no different.  They constantly told and retold the story of their own salvation, and it was a story of their own failings, as well as of God’s mercy and patience. The way that they told that story, particularly the way they told the period from the exodus from slavery in Egypt to the conquest of the Promised Land formed their identity as a people and nation – later, their experience of Exile in Babylon would be added to that story, becoming almost as central to their identity as the Exodus.

I wonder how many of us have a particular overarching story that we tell about ourselves – not an individual anecdote, but some sort of summary of our lives.  We, too, have a need to explain ourselves (to ourselves as well as to others!) – to provide some kind of narrative that makes sense of who we are and how we came to be the people we have become. Some people’s stories talk themselves up: the stories of the self-made men who overcame childhood poverty or disadvantage and made good, achieving success and fulfilment beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and often proving their detractors wrong.  Others talk themselves down: things that were done, or that were not done become the explanation for continuing failure.  Most of us have a story that they tell about our life which seeks to find patterns, to make connections, to work out why we are shaped the way that we are. Understanding our past is undoubtedly crucial to understanding our present. But there can be times when we need to turn a page in that story, to stop repeating the patterns that have governed our life thus far and dare to make the next chapter different.

In this passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul, a devout and highly knowledgeable Pharisee, draws on the story of his people, and makes explicit the need to go beyond merely repeating it, saying instead that the new Christians in Corinth must learn from it and undertake to write the next chapter differently.

He particularly wants them to be able to do this because they are in the midst of a time of huge challenge.  They are persecuted from outside the faith and face huge divisions and arguments within it. They have been through the mill and need some serious spiritual direction about how to redefine themselves.  This chapter invites them to take a look at where they’ve come from, while chapters 12 and 13 will go on to show them what Paul calls ‘A more excellent way’ for their future.

There are times for us, too, when we need to take one last look back at where we have been, and then consciously decide how far we are going to be defined by that story, and how else we might start to define ourselves.  What will be the values by which we live from now on?  Who are we, as individuals and as a community of faith, if we’re not any longer the people we’ve always been?

As I’ve said, Paul gives his own answers to some of those questions later in his letter. But we also see a hint of an answer in today’s gospel reading, particularly in the parable of the fig tree.

The image of the vine had long been used by God’s people about themselves, so Jesus’ first hearers would have immediately realised that the fig tree could well stand for them.  This is also not the first time that the vine, or the fig tree, has failed to do what it’s supposed to do; Isaiah 5 is the most famous ‘failed vine’ passage in the Old Testament.  In this parable, Jesus shows us a fig tree that’s been there, growing in the middle of the vineyard for years, and never really done much. The landowner thinks it’s had every chance, but the gardener wants to try one last time to see if he can coax it back into being fruitful.

For me, what’s really significant about this parable and what links it with what I’ve been saying about the other reading today, is that the gardener knows there are certain conditions which are necessary, or at least helpful, for the fig tree if it’s going to get its act together. It needs decent soil, that’s been dug through to let the moisture drain to the roots. It needs rain and sunshine, it needs care and attention, and pruning.  He’s convinced that if it gets everything it needs, it will yield a rich harvest of figs.

Here’s the thing.  We may or may now know what the ideal soil conditions are for growing fig trees.  I certainly don’t.  But do we know what the ideal conditions are for our own fruitfulness?  If we’re bearing rich fruit already, there’s a good chance that we have the right environmental conditions for our thriving.  But if we’re not, what would that manure, or sunlight, or rain, look like in real life?  And what would need to change in order for us to get what it is we need, so that we can then also bring forth what we’re being called to bring forth?

The figs grow out of the years of growing that the fig tree has done, and the sunshine and rain of past years, together with the relative attention or neglect of the gardener over those years do make a difference to what it can do.  But the main factor is what happens this year, this season.  If it’s never borne fruit before, why would the gardener keep on doing the same things?  But if he does something different?  If the fig tree gets some different attention, some different nourishment?  That’s a new chapter, or at least a new page in its story, and this is the year when the gardener does it.  It’s not sometime, it’s now.

So what does that look like in real life?  The answer will be different for each of us, I suspect, but if I can be very didactic for a moment I’d suggest that that combination of soil, weather and attention might well include prayer, scripture and fellowship with one another.  And if the way you’ve been doing those things has stopped feeling fruitful, it could be time to do it differently, or at least try it differently.

In January the open ministry and mission meeting ended up talking a lot about how this church works – how we create (or sometimes fail to create) an environment that enables people to grow in faith and in love for one another and for God. We talked particularly about the value of the small groups that exist within church: the Ground Floor Group, the Bible Study Group, the Sunday Lunch Group, and more.  These groups create safe environments in which we can discover who we really are, in which we can tell the stories that have formed us, and yet also move beyond them, growing and changing and developing, and in the process becoming more fruitful.

For this growth to happen there has to be a certain amount of input: honesty, trust, good humour, much drinking of tea and eating of cake usually, courage, emotional investment, and more.  These are the things that create an environment where people can grow – grow into their identity and grow beyond the historic identities that risk keeping us stuck in a fruitless cycle of doing what we’ve always done and always getting the same results.

This is never about change for change’s sake; it’s about being honest about the parts of ourselves individually and the parts of this community that are not being all they could be. The parts that are stuck retelling the same story all the time, never able to move beyond it. The parts that are simply not bearing fruit. And it’s about asking ourselves serious questions about what might make our next chapter better, more alive.  As a church, we need to ask that question together.  And hopefully what we do together will create some of that safe space for us to ask the question of ourselves, too.

Ash Wednesday – a Love-Life-Live-Lent-flavoured sermon

It’s not mess…

There was an advert a few years ago for Persil automatic.  It was on TV and on billboards everywhere, so most of you will probably have seen it.  It features a film of children happily painting a wall in splashes of multicoloured paint.  Inevitably, more of the paint gets on their clothes, their hands and faces, and on each other, than on the wall.  The captions read “It’s not mess, it’s creativity, it’s not mess it’s learning,” and so on.

An Ash Wednesday service is a messy one: it involves marking our foreheads with the sign of the cross in a very messy mixture of ash and oil.  This service is messy because we are: sin is a messy business, and the ash reminds us of all the mess that we make of our own lives, of other people’s lives and of this world.  If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, then the ash cross is the reverse: an outwards and visible sign of an inward and invisible lack of grace. We sign ourselves with this messy mix of ash and oil because all of us are in a mess.  It helps us be honest about the disparity between what we appear to be and what we feel we are.  Many of us may sometimes feel uncomfortable with the respect that people give us – that we don’t quite match up to the person people think we are – the person we want to be.  When people praise us we may feel, ‘if only they knew…’   So the cross of ash helps us reconcile the person we feel we are with the person that others see.  It helps us remember that God sees us as we are – the good stuff and the not so good stuff – and he still loves us, even having seen the truth. Lent is a time for us to learn to see ourselves just as God does: as beloved sinners.

But the washing powder  advert puts an altogether more positive slant on mess, which is worth exploring.

One of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s creativity’.

When we receive the ash cross on our forehead, we hear the words, ‘remember that you are dust’.  And so with the ash perhaps we can recall that wonderful picture of God’s creativity in Genesis 2, lovingly molding the earth into human beings, and breathing life into what was dry and lifeless.  And so as we receive the ash on our foreheads we can give thanks that God can still breathe new life into us even in the dirt and dust and deathliness of our sin.

One of the key themes of Love Life Live Lent is being creative and imaginative – whether that’s making cakes and sharing them or trying something you’ve never done before: when we do so, we reflect something of our creator God, and we give a little bit of life to the world as well as becoming a little more alive ourselves.

Another of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s pride’. Pride is perhaps not quite the right word.  But the sign of the cross that we carry is certainly not something that we are ashamed of.  At our baptism, Christ claimed us as his own, and so we are glad to be marked with his sign of the cross.  Because Jesus took the shame of death on a cross and transformed it into hope and victory, he can also transform the shame of our sinfulness into the triumph over it.

Many of the Love Live Live Lent actions are also about our own identity as human beings and as beloved children of God; learning to be ourselves, making the most of who we are, and giving thanks for the way that we have been blessed – even if it’s just for the food we eat.

The TV advert ends with one of the children accidentally on purpose painting another’s nose – at first she looks cross, but then starts to smile.  The caption reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s forgiveness’.  When we have the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we are a walking testimony to the fact that everyone can be forgiven.

Again, within Love Life Live Lent there are actions that bring real peace and reconciliation – between us and other people, and between humanity and the earth.  Ash Wednesday’s action is to say sorry for something we have done wrong: it may be enough simply to say sorry to God, or it may be that there are others who need to hear it too, and we may also need to acknowledge and repent of the harm we’ve done to ourselves, for sin has a habit of harming the sinner, too.

We are messy people.  The messes we make in our lives are real messes.  They are dark and dirty, and if left unchecked they will be the death of us.  And God does not condone our mess.  It is not that God does not mind about sin – on the contrary, it grieves him that we hurt and abuse ourselves and others, that we deface and corrupt the very air, water and land of this world he has given us. We take heart, and take courage, because we believe in a God who already knows the secrets of our hearts.

Guilt is a prison with sin as the bars, trapping us inside our past mistakes, but true repentance allows us to receive the forgiveness that God always offers, and it may even start to rebuild relationships that we had given up on.  Forgiveness is just as real as sin – and indeed is stronger. Life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness, and love is stronger than hate.

The actions in LLLL are all about the triumph of life over death, of light over darkness, of love over hatred.  Just as sin harms the sinner, so random acts of kindness, creativity and love can help repair the wounds on the soul.  This Lent, let us ask God to breathe life into our dust, that we may live lives of love, for our own sake, for each other’s sake, and for the sake of God’s world.