A Hymn for the Diamond Jubilee of Coventry Cathedral (May 2022)

This was written for Coventry Cathedral, as the final hymn of their diamond jubileee celebration service, on 25th May 2022. The first, second and final verse are suitable for any service on the general themes of reconciliation, forgiveness, diversity, and so on. The third verse is particularly suitable for the Cathedral, reflecting on the history of that specific building and how destruction paved the way for its ministry of reconciliation. Most of the scriptural, cultural and theological references are probably fairly obvious, but if anyone would like me to provide a short commentary, I’d be very happy to do so.

Be in our midst, and gather us together,
and let your loving-kindness be our guide,
Help us discern your image in each other,
and walk with humble footsteps by your side.
Send us to work, O Lord, Almighty Giver,
‘till all who thirst and hunger now are filled,
Let justice thunder like a mighty river,
And let the storms of strife and conflict now be stilled.

When all the world’s great sorrows overtake us,
and we are crushed by centuries of pain,
lend us your strength, and lovingly remake us
that by your grace we may be whole again.
And when the sins of passing generations
make all the wounds of hist’ry still feel raw,
send out your healing power among the nations,
and fill this broken earth with heaven’s peace once more.

*A verse for the Cathedral only  
And if the cross, the site of such destruction,
a sign of violence, suffering and sin,
can be redeemed to witness resurrection,
and be a place where life can still begin,
then iron and wood and stone can sing their stories:
‘Father, forgive’ these very walls have prayed,
that what was lost could birth still brighter glories,
and what was hurt can be transfigured and remade.

Grant us that peace beyond the mind’s discerning,
Help us to live the truth that sets us free.
And may the Spirit’s fire within us burning
help us become who we are called to be.
In eager longing for your new creation,
a world reshaped by love and hope and grace,
with Christ the Prince of Peace as our foundation,
we’ll build your kingdom now, in this and every place.

Tune: Londonderry Air (11.10.11.10.11.10.11.12)

The prodigal son

This is a way to tell the story of the prodigal son, using ribbons.
HEALTH WARNING: I’ve done this exercise with both with children and with adults, and it is quite powerful – essentially it’s psychodrama, and you should only do it if you’re confident about facilitating this kind of process. It’s always worth having people on standby for participants to talk to if it stirs up difficult emotions.
Begin with three people (representing the three characters in the story) standing in a triangle, each of them holding the end of a ribbon in their hands, so that the ribbons connect them to each other – ie the people are the corners of the triangle and the ribbons are the edges of the triangle.  I use really nice ribbon, and talk up how a loving relationship is something really precious and beautiful.
When we get to the bit about the younger son running off, I use a blunt pair of scissors to cut the ribbons connecting the younger son from the other two characters. I invite everyone to look at how the ends are raw and ragged, and how the father and the older son are left with the loose ends (and so is the younger son, though he is too busy having run to realise it!). When we get to the part about the younger son returning to his father, we hold up the two ends of the ribbon between those two characters, and look again at their frayed ends. We wonder about what it would take for them to be joined together, and how it looks like the ribbon will never be whole again – the ends are just too frayed. Then I point out that the son had walked home, and the father had run to meet him, and get the two people to take a step closer to each other – close enough that there is enough slack in the ribbon to tie the ends in a knot and then a bow. The ribbon is joined again, and it is more beautiful than before – and the father and son are closer than they had ever been. The son now knows the difference between being his father’s servant and being his father’s child.
Meanwhile, the older son is out in the fields. The ribbon between him and his brother is still in tatters. And when he refuses to come in, he is cutting himself off from them both – here, I cut the remaining ribbon, between the father and the older son. Now it’s the older one who is out on his own.  This is where Jesus ends the story, so that we can decide how to finish it. 
So we wonder together about how we want the story to end. We look at the sad, ragged ends of the ribbon, and the relationships that are still broken, and ask ourselves what it would take to mend all this in real life, not just in an illustration. We reflect that the older son still thinks of himself as a servant, and needs to realise, like his little brother eventually did, that he is his father’s child, and is loved beyond all measure.
Participants are usually desperate to tie up the remining ribbons, so we do that, in the same way, with the three people having to step closer to each other, so that there is enough ribbon for a nice bow on each side of the triangle. We see how the three characters are closer than ever, and we wonder whether that’s what happens with forgiveness – we each have to step towards each other, and the relationship at the end is truer and more beautiful than at the start. We tie the bows slowly to give us time to think about how we go about mending broken relationships in real life.
I end by giving everyone a small length of ribbon to take home – a reminder that sometimes we all have ‘loose ends’ and that forgiveness isn’t easy, but that they could trust God to help them hold the ragged ends, and help us find ways of mending things, but in ourselves and between ourselves and others.  We hold our ribbons as we pray in silence for a while, holding before God the things that are unresolved in our lives. We name silently the people we need to reconcile with, and the people who, for whatever reason, we can’t reconcile with, trusting God to hold their loose ends, too. 

St Luke’s Day 2015

A sermon based on Luke 10.1-9

When I read this gospel reading today, the thing that struck me (and that had never particularly occurred to me any of the other probably hundreds of times I’d read it) was the peculiar way that Luke talks about peace: ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.’  It almost makes it sound as if the peace is a tangible object, something you could hold in your hand and offer to someone.  For Luke, peace isn’t an abstract noun, a concept, an ideal, it’s something very real indeed.  With this thought in mind, I wondered how this tangible kind of peace might draw together some of the big themes in Luke’s gospel, and indeed, with St Luke himself.

The first thing people probably think of when asked about St Luke is that he was a physician, a doctor. One who laid down the tools that would heal the body in favour of those that heal the soul.  So the first thing I wondered about was how this tangible peace relates to healing, to wholeness, to restoration, within the human being. I don’t know your names, let alone your stories. I don’t know what hurts you carry with you from the past or the present, the scars that come from your own mistakes and sins, or from the sins of others. I don’t know your doubts and uncertainties or fears about the future. But I do know that in the Eucharist, Jesus comes among us offering us each something tangible – a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that is about forgiveness, about the healing of old wounds.  I do know that when Jesus comes to meet us, he comes bearing that gift and he stays here, holding it out to us, giving us as long as we need to work out how to take that tangible peace in our hands and into our hearts. Luke the physician is intimately concerned with the healing not just of the body but of the whole person, and locates a person’s encounter with Christ at the centre of that process. As we celebrate Luke the physician today, we have another chance to take into our hearts and hands that tangible peace and let it work in us.

The second thing people might think of when they consider Luke’s gospel as a whole is his concern for the gap between the rich and the poor – he writes more about this than any of the other gospels – and his particular focus on the outsider, the outcast, the people who don’t fit in. Jesus’ ministry is seen by Luke as one of integration, that brings the outsiders into the centre of the community, breaks down boundaries and restores communities to wholeness.  This tangible peace, then, is not just about the healing and wholeness of individuals, it is for the healing of communities, it is for the building of communion in places of deep division. And Jesus does this sometimes with the skill of a surgeon – he cuts through the trickery and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day and their obsession with boundaries and pecking orders, so that the people themselves can finally heal – be reconciled with one another, despite their differences, and with the God who made them all and loves them all.  So as we celebrate St Luke’s concern for the poor, the sinner, the outcast, and his desire to show what reconciliation looks like in real life, we have a chance to look at the tangible peace that is offered to this church community, to this village, and beyond. We have a chance to ask ourselves, where are the divisions here? Who finds it hard to fit in? How do we already welcome the stranger and the outcast, and how can we do more, in Jesus’ name?  When we take this gift of tangible peace, we take it not just for our own healing, but for the wholeness of those around us, and for the gradual mending of relationships, for the melting of old grudges, for the possibility of diversity in unity.

The third thing people might know about the gospel of Luke is that, of all the gospel writers, he is most concerned to root the story of Jesus in history – we can see this most easily by the sheer number of difficult to pronounce names (of people and places) in Luke’s gospel – he talks about who’s who, he mentions the names of the places Jesus went, and the names of all the Roman Governors, and the High Priests.  This is partly because one of Luke’s concerns was to establish that Jesus wasn’t a myth, an idea, he was a real person, and everything in the gospels actually happened. But more profoundly, rooting Jesus’ story in political history shows that this tangible peace is not something limited to the individual, nor even just to the local community, but is a gift to the nations, and to the whole world, given to real places and real times. And it’s offered to our own time and our own place, just as it was offered to Jesus’ time and place.  Throughout the last two thousand years, there have been glorious moments when, by the grace of God, our own nation, and even the world has grasped this peace with both hands, often at great cost, and taken the peace of God into the heart of our national and international relations. And we know all too well that there have been even more times when Jesus has patiently held peace out to us and, as a species, we have failed to grasp it.  As we celebrate St Luke, we celebrate someone who understood that the grace of God can work not just within individuals, or local communities, but in the political sphere. And so we think beyond the village, beyond the places where we ourselves live and work, and pray earnestly for that peace which the world cannot give to be given now to the world, and for the leaders of the nations and all who hold the future of this planet in their hands to be given the wisdom, humility and courage to reach out and grasp what God most desires to give us. And we think about our own role in enabling that kind of tangible peace – our democratic right to vote, our spending power, our engagement with current affairs are just some of the ways in which we can contribute to the peace of God taking root and growing here and now.

So today, keep in your minds that image of Jesus’ disciples, sent out by him to take a tangible gift of peace. And then realise that he sends us out today to do the same, he gives us that same peace, for ourselves, for the people we meet and for the wider world. Whether it’s in our own hearts, in our relationships, in our community, at work, in our dealings with people face to face or online, our interaction through commerce and comment with people we’ll never meet, let us bring that tangible peace with us, and may we let it be the very first thing we offer, wherever we are, and whatever we do.