New hymn – loosely based on Luke 13.10-17

Really struggled to find plenty of hymns for this Sunday’s gospel (the woman bent double, whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath).  So I tried to write one. Not sure if it’s pants or useful or a bit of both!  If you like it, you can have it!  It goes to the tune ‘Slane’ (Be thou my vision / Lord of all hopefulness), which I think most people in most churches probably know. 

Jesus, our Saviour, your life-giving breath
brought order from chaos, and life out of death;
You give us your Spirit, now help us impart
that gift to our neighbour­ as a gift from the heart.

Jesus, our healer, the touch of your hand
fills us with new confidence, helps us to stand;
Your strength in our weakness is power indeed
to stand up for others whatever their need.

Jesus, our brother, your love never ends:
makes slaves into children, helps strangers make friends,
may love be the lesson we learn and we teach,
may love be the motive for our actions and speech.

Jesus, inspirer and source of all good,
we stand here on earth as of old you once stood;
The Church is your body,  the task you begun
is ours to continue till the work here is done.

A sermony thing for Luke 7.36-8.3

The eyes and hands of Michaelangelo...

unfinished slave 1unfinished slave 2unfinished slave 4unfinished slave 3

The great sculptor Michaelangelo, who created some of the most beautiful figures ever to be carved from marble was once asked about his method.  He replied, “I simply work on the block of marble, removing all that is not part of the sculpture until only the sculpture remains.”

We can see this most profoundly in his unfinished ‘slave’ sculptures.  Michaelangelo was commissioned to create them in 1505 by Pope Julius, for the Pope’s own tomb – there were supposed to be thirty in total, but the Pope died soon after planning his own tomb, and the project was never completed.  If you ever go to see Michaelangelo’s famous and very perfect statue of David, as you walk through the gallery leading to it you will pass some of these unfinished slaves, exhibited precisely because in their unfinished state they seem to say something profound about humanity.

They seem to emerge from the rock, some gracefully, some full of struggle, seemingly desperate to gain their freedom.   And in them we can see Michaelangelo’s process at work.  His own expressed intention of freeing the figures that already exist within the stone is reflected in his technique. Almost all sculptors who work in stone tend to block out the main shapes of the whole sculpture roughly, and then gradually fill in the details. Michaelangelo, though, chiselled away at the stone, bringing individual parts of the sculpture to a perfect finish before moving on. That’s what makes the unfinished slaves seem to be freeing themselves from the rock that keeps them captive.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, because if we see a block of stone most of us will see simply that, a block of stone.  It takes a Michaelangelo to see a beautiful figure, waiting to be liberated.

If we see a sculpture that is part finished in the normal way, full of rough edges, we might only see its imperfections, all the ways that it fails to live up to what it should be. We might even say, that’s a bit rubbish. Every extraneous bit of stone that’s marring that perfection is condemned.  It’s not very neat, is it?  It’s not been carefully done.

It takes a Michaelangelo to see the truth: all that needs to happen is for all the stone that is not part of the true sculpture to be carefully removed.

In today’s gospel we see a woman viewed in two completely different ways.

The Pharisee looks at her and passes judgement based on how she’s kept the law – or how badly she’s broken it.  For him, her sin is what she is: “If Jesus really was a prophet he would have known what kind of woman she is: a sinner.”  If that woman were a statue, the Pharisee is judging her based on all the bits that aren’t right, all the rough edges.

Jesus looks at the same woman, and sees her capacity to be forgiven and to love. He is like Michaelangelo, seeing the true figure hidden in the block of marble, trapped by all the things that aren’t part of what that woman was called to be, created by God to be.

The Pharisee sees only the bits of the marble block that are stopping the figure from being true to who they were created to be.

Jesus sees the person as they were created to be and then helps them to strip away all the bits that are stopping them from being that person.

The two views could not be more different. To look on someone and see their sin, or to look one someone and see their capacity to be forgiven.  To look on someone and see only how they have fallen short, or to look at someone and see their potential to become who they were created to be.

Thank God we have a God who is like Michaelangelo, who can see inside all the stuff that clings to us and clogs us up and grinds us down – the weight of past sins, the regrets of things done or not done, said or not said, the resentments and wrongdoing, and then helps us gradually to free ourselves of all the stuff that isn’t part of who we truly are.

Will that be a gentle process?  Not always!  Sculpture does, after all, involves chisels and hammers.  Will it be quick?  No, I suspect it’s a life’s work, and is completed only at the point of our entry into heaven.  But God can make us beautiful – as beautiful as we always were to him, precisely because he can see through all the rubbish to what lies at the heart of us, and his forgiveness chips away at everything about us that isn’t what we should be.

May God give us eyes like Michaelangelo’s, able to see the beauty in one another, even if it’s hidden, able to forgive one another for all the stuff that gets in the way, and in so doing, help us to free one another from all the stuff that keeps us from being who God created us to be.




Loving the unlovely: sermon starter for Lent 2 (Luke 13.31-end)

The various run-ins between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees are some of the most unlovely encounters in the gospels, full of threats, traps, accusations, petty jealousy… But they’re only one element in a whole bunch of stuff that makes Jerusalem seem a very unlovely place.

With a very unlovely history.  Anyone who knows their Old Testament will remember the stories about prophets being, at best, ignored, and at worst, persecuted and killed for speaking the word of God.  Elijah being pursued by Jezebel is just the best known.  God’s most faithful servants and spokesmen always suffered for their calling.

We might also recognise something of the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard; Jesus certainly sees Jerusalem as, “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”

Nothing about Jerusalem in the gospels seems lovable.  And yet Jesus loves it and its people, feeling as a parent does about a wayward child – loving, frustrated, desperate even… Jesus’ love for Jerusalem is a love that takes him to the cross, but it is also a love that is ultimately stronger than death.

God’s love for that which seems unlovely is awe-inspiring. Loving that which seems unlovely is a hallmark of Godliness, and if we ourselves can learn to look around us and at one another through the eyes of God then we rejuvenate the divine image within us.

Thursday’s Love Life Live Lent action challenges us to love the unloveliest parts of our neighbourhood enough to tidy them up.  Like a God who came into one of the darkest, most difficult parts of the world in order to bring his light right into the heart of where it was needed.

Saturday’s action asks us whether we love our friends enough to put the emotional energy into keeping in touch, rather than relying on them to make the first move. The incarnation shows that God does not insist that we make the first move in keeping in touch with him, but is always more ready to listen than we are to pray.

Friday’s action demands that we love ourselves enough to dare to disrupt our habits and give ourselves the chance for new life and new experiences. 

Learning to pour love into places and people, and learning to love ourselves, is generous, and it is Godly.  This is a good challenge to rise to.  But for me, this reading overwhelmingly reassures me that even in my most unlovely moments, God is still my heavenly Father, and still longs to gather me, like a mother hen protecting her chicks.

Love Life Live Lent Week 2 – Thursday – awe and wonder!

Today’s action was probably my favourite so far.

The 1960s Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, theorised that human beings are created with an innate longing for that which is just beyond our reach – we strive (intellectually and spiritually) for something that is always just over the horizon, so that our existence is a constantly dynamic journey towards what turns out to be God – the ultimate ‘beyond the horizon’ and yet the creator who made us with the very yearning that makes us seek him….

Apologies to those who know far more about Rahner than I do for that rather brief generalisation. It’s rather hard to read Rahner, but at its simplest his God-centred anthropology and his view of life as a continuous journey rings true to many people.

Today’s action in Love Life Live Lent invites us to embrace that innate longing, to follow that desire for more understanding and for more questions.  It invites us to become more child-like, opening our eyes to see the universe afresh, it’s vastness, complexity, and beauty, and to expand our knowledge, our experience, or just our capacity to stop and stare at something amazing.

I did today’s action together with Holly, who is preparing for confirmation, and Daniel, my ever-curious son.  We looked at the very wonderful website to find out what the biggest and smallest things in the universe really are. We discovered some units of measurement that we didn’t even know existed, and we saw numbers with too many zeros to count (hence needed new units of measurement!). We learned why no matter how big a telescope we build, we’ll never be able to perceive the whole universe. And we contemplated the idea of a Planck Length – the smallest thing that makes any physical sense. We marvelled at both how big and how small we are, somewhere in the middle, as human beings.

Later I read Psalm 8 and was awed all over again.

I remember writing an essay in my finals Old Testament exam which asked about the relationship between maternal imagery for God and the development of monotheism. The best answer I could come up with then or now is that when you really need to affirm the idea that there is only one God and that God not only cares for you and your own nation, but created the entire universe in all its splendour and majesty and vastness, you also need to affirm that that same God is not so big and so mighty that she can’t also love you like a mother. It so happens that the Creator-God imagery brings both sides of this together.

And yes, when I think of that it does make me stop and think and wonder…

Love Life Live Lent Wednesday week 2: Tell someone you love them

I have a six year old son who tells me a gazillion times a day how much he loves me. And he means it. He is a child who feels things deeply, and wears his heart on his sleeve, and emotions for him are often played out in the world of the senses: “Here’s a strawberry for you mummy – I thought of you as I picked it so it’s got my love in it – eat it mummy and taste the love…”  Not surprisingly, Daniel loves the tactile prayers that we do in messy church, using cushions, blankets, soft things… the love of God can be felt in these, and is very real to him.

So, when he forgets to say please and thank you to me, and does what most six year olds do, which is to treat their mother like an omnipresent servant, I try and explain to him the loving someone also means treating them with respect, and that he can show me he loves me, as well as telling me, by treating me less like a slave and more like a fellow human being.

I am fairly confident that I’m not alone, as a mother, in this experience.  And yes, the please and thank you habits are important. And yes, treating others with respect is an important manifestation of our awareness that they are in fact human beings, let alone human beings for whom we have significant feelings.

But I’d be sorry for my son’s expressions of love to be reduced to politeness.  And I’d hate his declarations of undying love for me to become mere rote repetitions without the intensity of feeling behind them.

‘I love you’ is just three short words but it’s what they look like in real life that matters. I often get wedding couples to reflect on this. I show them the declarations and the vows and ask them,’what do these words look  like in your life? And how has the way that these words look in real life chanced over the course of your time as a couple?  And in particular, what does ‘cherishing’ look like in your lives?

Cherishing must be the part of the marriage vows that’s easiest to let slip; life gets in the way, busyness creeps in, there is no time and energy for cherishing any more, except perhaps for birthdays, anniversaries and Valentine’s day…  But cherishing can be not only the finishing touch of love lived out, it can also be part of the foundation of that love lived out.

If C S Lewis was right that we can become more generous by giving more, then we can probably become more loving by consciously cherishing those around us, particularly those who have been given to us to love.

So, do I wish that my son always remembered to say please and thank you? Of course I do.  I also wish I always remembered, too!  But I can also look at all the little ways that his love for me is expressed through small acts of cherishing that assure me that love isn’t just a word to him. As long as love is truly lived out in his life, and practiced every day it never will be just a word, for either of us.