Sermon 13 09 20: Jazz and breath – International Music Festival

International Music Festival

Sermon pre-recorded and broadcast at and from St Asaph Cathedral

13th September 2020

Masks are disconcerting to those who see us wearing them. They conceal. I have failed to recognise people I know quite well. They make it hard to intuit mood, to hear – how much more lip-reading I must do than I ever realised. But they are also hard to wear.

I still haven’t learnt how to wear glasses with a mask and not steam up.

the first time I had to wear a mask for several hours I felt dizzy – perhaps  I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.

I have spent much of my adult life teaching people how to breathe. To have good posture, to show them the science lab lungs and explain that its the diaphragm that does the work not the lungs. I have urged people to raise their chins so as not to hamper their breathing, to open their chests out, shoulders back.

And now we do this thing of putting a mask on; deliberately hindering our breathing.

Musicians, and especially singers, know all about breathing and its importance. 

For most of us we are usually unaware of our breathing until we have difficulties, a cold, asthma, or find ourselves in a room full of smoke.

But one of my earliest memories is of breathing.

My favourite hymn is Breathe on me breath of God. Since this is a music festival perhaps I will upset a good proportion of you if I tell you my preferred tune. And it is a hymn text set to a remarkable number of different tunes. But for me  I will always associate the words with Charles Lockhart’s Carlisle.

I love this text because it reminds me of being a small child. I had fallen in the garden and my knee was bleeding. Running into the house my mother scooped me up and sat down with my on the sofa. As I sobbed my heart out I felt her breathing. Her warm breath on my head and her chest rising and falling. That moment has stayed with me for the whole of my life. Breathe on me breath of God. The breath that mothers me. The breath that brings me back to my true self. The breath that weathers storms external and internal.

Musicians know the importance of breathing.

But breathing is important to us all. It is important because it is literally life-giving. In the book Genesis God breathes into the dust, the earth, to give it life. In Hebrew the ruach the spirit is the wind and breath that bring life to dry bones. In the Greek of the new testament the spirit is pnuema, the breath, the air and for Christians the hagia pneuma the Holy Spirit is God. God who gives life and gifts.

Last summer my mother died and my brother and sister and I sat around her bed in the hospice where she died. Over her final hours we followed her every breath as they became shallower and shallower until finally she just stopped breathing.

Breathe on me breath of God.

learning how to breathe might sound like something we don’t need to do.

I teach breathing as part of teaching Mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness is very much in fashion these days. But Christians have been practising mindfulness throughout Christian history. One collection of texts in the Russian and Greek Orthodox tradition, the Philokalia teaches the combination of careful breathing with the word of the Jesus Prayer; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

But words are not necessary. Mindfulness of breathing, just being aware of our breathing wakes us up to awareness of so much more. We live in shadow, in twilight for much of our lives not noticing the miracles that surround us; that are us.

Noticing our breathing. Breathing in and knowing that I am breathing in. Breathing out and knowing that I am breathing out.

Music too can be like that. Taking the very ordinary, sounds. And arranging it in a way that helps us notice them.

I am a great fan of the jazz musician John Coltrane and I love this icon of him that has been painted. Carrying the saxophone with the fire of the Spirit showing in it the words on the scroll are a quote from him:

“God breathes through us so completely so gently we hardly feel it. yet it is our everything.”

Breathing is not just about what we do any more than music is just about what any of us does. Breathing connects us to something larger, something greater than just me.

The poet Don Paterson captures this beautifully in his series of sonnets on Orpheus. here is one called, simply Breath.

Breath

Breath, you invisible poem –

pure exchange, sister to silence,

being and its counterbalance,

rhythm wherein I become,

ocean I accumulate

by stealth, by the same slow wave;

thriftiest of seas … Thief

of the whole cosmos! What estates,

what vast space have already poured

through my lungs? The four winds

are like daughters to me.

So do you know me, air, that once sailed

   through me?

You, that were once the lead and rind

of my every word?

When we breathe we breathe in something that is not us and can recognise that we are dust that breathes. That this little breath that I breathe now is part of the air that inhabits the planet. 

It is a sign that we are connected to everything that is. 

This is why our pollution of the air is so frightening. We are polluting the stuff of our own lives. We are polluting ourselves.

It is a spiritual issue.

There is a wonderful book by Donald Miller the subtitle is “Non religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality” The book’s title is Blue Like Jazz and some of you may know the famous album by Miles Davis A Kind of Blue. That would probably be the album I would save if the waves took the remainder of my Desert Island choices.

In his introduction to his book Miller writes:

“I NEVER LIKED JAZZ MUSIC BECAUSE JAZZ MUSIC doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve.”

We live in an unresolved world. We live in unresolved times.

None of us can se ethe way ahead in this pandemic, or even know with certainty that we will be able to gather for this music festival in person next year or the year after.

Living with that unresolvedness is hard. It is stressful and creates anxiety.

But when we breathe we are always letting go. Our out breath matches our in breath. We might be able to hold our breath for a few seconds or even minutes but we can never hold on to our breath.

And as we let the breath go; if we wake up and recognise that God breathes through us, in us, that it it is the breath of God we will find a peace deeper and richer than we have ever guessed, we will  breathe the breath of God.

1 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

fill me with life anew, 

that I may love the way you love, 

and do what you would do. 

2 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

until my heart is pure, 

until my will is one with yours, 

to do and to endure. 

3 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

so shall I never die, 

but live with you the perfect life 

for all eternity. 

Sermon Christ Church Cathedral 13/09/20: Resentment, Fairness and Black Lives Matter

Sermon Trinity 13 2020

Christ Church Cathedral and Church At Home, Diocese of Oxford (on-line service)

Having worked in schools for much of my adult life I’ve heard the line “That’s not fair.” on multiple occasions.

Children and young people have a heightened awareness of fairness. At its best this can lead to the wonderful idealism that the young have and heroic works for justice in the way that Greta Thunberg has been doing.

At its worst an unrealistic expectation of fairness can lead to resentment.

Fairness is not a reward for good behaviour and is in short supply in the random-ness of disease, accidents and tragedies.

The two readings we have just heard are wonderful, but quite complicated.

The key to understanding them, it seems to me, is to remember that both Jesus and St Paul were not so much in the business of converting individuals as in creating a community. 

A community of the converted. 

A community of disciples.  

Paul’s letters to the first Christianity communities are almost all about that community-building and how those communities deal with the real, practical questions. 

In today’s first reading what it’s ok or not ok for Christians to eat and what christians should do, if anything, about keeping holy days.

Jesus’ public ministry was relatively short, probably just three years. But that is still quite a long time to be travelling with a group of people. 

The disciples were a very intense form of community. It’s not surprising therefore that a lot of what Jesus teaches us about is how to be community, and particularly how to deal with the intense feelings that arise when human beings live and work together.

One of the key themes of many of the sayings and stories of Jesus is resentment. Fairness and unfairness. 

I think Jesus profoundly understands the corrosive nature of resentment as one of the key poisons that can destroy communities and individuals. 

Over and over again there is a clear reflection on the causes of resentment:

The labourers who work an hour at the end of the day and get paid the same a those who have worked all day; 

the older son who has stayed faithfully at home but then has to watch while a party is laid on for his younger brother who has just squandered half the family assets; resentment about who is the greatest, the favourite, among the disciples.

Today’s story is also about fairness and therefore about resentment. 

And it refers to a pattern of resentment that I see over and over again, with colleagues, church communities and across human societies. 

When someone is treated generously – like the servant in today’s gospel – they resent it and go on to treat others badly.

Now there are, no doubt, in-depth psychological reasons for this way in which we human beings sometimes react to generosity. 

But I want to think very practically about an issue of our own time and how we react to it.

In the twenty first century Christians, for the most part don’t worry too much about what food we are permitted to eat, although the climate crisis might raise more questions than most of us face on this. 

And most Christians are pretty settled about how we observe Sunday as the Lord’s Day and when we are most likely to worship. Although changing work and leisure patterns might suggest that we need to question that more than we do.

But we can’t get away from facing up to the crucial justice issues of our own day. I am fascinated by reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept across not only American cities but around the world and very strongly here in the UK.

It’s a matter of justice that resonates deeply in my heart. Not only because we good Anglicans, are, of course, opposed to racism. But also because of my experience as a Head teacher in south east London where my school was a majority black school, and as a priest there at a church where the congregation was also majority black. Hearing the accounts that my friends, colleagues, pupils and their families shared about everyday racism shook me to the core. 

And noticing racism in action myself.

 When I was a school chaplain to a black Headteacher, if she and I were stood together or alone in a room when a visitor came in the assumption that I was the Head. This happened almost every week. 

Or taking a group of pupils on a school visit and people walking passed black colleagues to talk to me, the white man at the back of the line. This happened on almost every school visit I went on.

And these are minor examples. Casual racism. Every black person I know can tell much more horrifying stories, but those accounts belong to them not to me.

Of course as good Anglicans we are opposed to racism. 

But are we really?

In so many of the conversations I’ve heard about Black Lives Matter someone says, usually not very far into the conversation: 

‘But what we need to teach is that every life matters.’

That is a classic resentful response. Noticing someone else’s need and then switching to universalise it. 

As if there is some kind of shortage of mattering. As if there is something unfair in noticing someone else’s suffering.

An answer, a solution to this can be found in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we had as our first reading. It comes towards the end of the reading after Paul has laid out the presenting issues,  and then he comes in with a typical major statement:

“We do not live to ourselves,

and we do not die to ourselves.”

It’s the sort of sentence from Paul that we are so used to hearing that we hardly notice it.

And yet it’s the heart of the gospel. 

It’s the revolution that is fundamental to conversion. 

We are no longer the centre of our universe. 

Jesus is.

When we are resentful it is from a position of self-centredness; it is claiming I deserve that; that’s mine; don’t take it from me.

When we don’t live to ourselves; when Jesus is the centre of our universe we realise that we are connected in him with everyone; Black lives matter because there is no longer me and them; there is simply us.

So how do you feel about Black Lives Matter?

I want to suggest a practical thing that we could all do to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter in our churches. It isn’t a revolution; it may appear at first to be a very shallow thing. But doing it can have a powerful effect on us.

So in my sermon available to the whole diocese today online in the Church At Home material I am suggesting that we go into all our churches including this cathedral church

and list all the pictures of all the people that you can see.

Perhaps its the clergy team photos, or the PCC members, list them;

then go on to the pictures, in the stained glass windows, banners and other pictures. Then do the same for church websites.

Now add up the people of colour we can see. 

***

Because of my time working with so many black people I have a large number of pictures of black saints, black heroes, and images of Jesus, Mary and others as black people. here are two of my favourites. The first is based on a famous icon of the story of Genesis where Abraham meets three angels or lords. It is often called the Trinity and seen as an image of the way Christians understand God to be. here the artist Meg Wroe has painted a version with the faces of three people from the diocese of Southwark on it. The original is in Southwark Cathedral and is, I think rather beautiful.

Meg Wroe

The other two are by Yvonne Bell an artist who worships in our diocese at Winslow  in Buckinghamshire. Christ of the Flowers, and Mother of God of Clemency.

When I moved here to Christ Church a few weeks ago 

among the removal team were two young black men. 

As they packed my collection of pictures and icons they were beside themselves at all the black images. It sparked long conversations with them as we worked about race, Black Lives Matter, faith and their own experiences of racism and church. It was a very beautiful conversation.

For Christians, working for justice is not about fairness. It is about God revealing himself.

Right at the start of revelation in Genesis we are told that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Every human being is a revelation to us of God. Our reaction to every human being needs to be awe, wonder and reverence. 

We can depict Jesus as black, not because he was of African origin but because God reveals himself to us in every person.

Imagine if every church in our diocese had images of black and minority ethnic people in it. If every website included images of non-white people.

this is especially important in areas (like rural Staffordshire where I’ve been living for the last few years)

where no black people live.

I have been talking often in my first week about that little carving of the listener above the Sub Dean’s stall.  

Paying attention to Black Lives Matter, to the young in their yearning for justice is to show our love for them, show that we receive the image of God in them.

To make this building a home for all people is to make it a place where everyone can walk in and find themselves here, see themselves in the images, experience the divine in the holy women and holy men of the past, women and men of all races and nations.

Once we live God-centred lives we realise our true equality. As St Paul says at the very end of the first reading “We will all stand before the judgement seat of God.”

Thank fully God’s judgement is merciful and for that mercy “every tongue shall give praise to God.”

Because

“We do not live to ourselves,

and we do not die to ourselves.”

Canvas prints, commissions and cards of icons by Yvonne Bell cans be purchased via her website here.

Sermon: Bartlemas Chapel, Cowley, Oxford 23rd August 2020

St Bartlemas Chapel, Cowley

Vigil Mass 7:30pm Sunday 23 August

Isaiah 43: 8-13   Acts 5: 12-16.  Luke 22: 24-30

Three Scriptures:

You are my witnesses, says the Lord,

and my servant whom I have chosen,

so that you may know and believe me. 

Is 43:10

Many signs and wonders were done among the people

Acts 5:12

I am among you as one who serves.

You are those who have stood by me in my trials.

Lk 22: 26

When did you last hear the Lord speaking to you?

God longs to speak to us, with us, god longs for us to hear his voice.

And the first way in which he speaks to us, the fundamental place for us to go to hear him is in the words of Scripture. Which is why faithful, day by day reading of the bible is fundamental to Christian living. So perhaps this week you might want to spend time with the three beautiful Scriptures gifted to us on this feast of St Bartholomew apostle and martyr.

It is in three single verses, one from each reading that I believe the Lord spoke to me as I prepared to preach this evening.

You are my witnesses. The Lord say in Isaiah 43:10. 

We are all of us, by virtue of, that is the strength given us in baptism called to be witnesses. But we are not all called to be preachers and evangelists, this is what St Paul says in Ephesians 4 (11 ff) only some are called to evangelise.

For the writers of the New Testament the word for witnesses is the Greek word, martures; from which we get our word martyr. It was this word that the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that the the new testament writers knew, was used here in Isaiah.

God calls all of us, you and me, each of us here; every baptised person to be his martyrs. Now in a strange way I find that quite liberating.

If witnessing simply meant talking about Jesus, telling people about our faith and encouraging people to come to church; well, it is all a bit one -dimensional. In some of the literature on mission it can all be made to seem a bit too easy. “Bring a friend Sunday and we can double our congregations.”!

“You are my martyrs”; is a whole other ball-game. We are all called to die for Christ. Well, at one level, of course, that is true. We are certainly all going to die one day. But this call is a call to be martyrs to die for a purpose and that purpose is made clear by Isaiah, it is so that “you may know and believe me.” Not so that others may know God, but so that we may know God; when we are martyrs; when we die;  we know God better. This is important.

It is in today’s Gospel  that we move to doing things for others. “I am among you” Jesus says, “as one who serves”.  And then he immediately describes the service the disciples have given him, “you have stood by me in my trials.”

I think the teaching given in these two readings is profound and important. The martyrdom we are called to; which I have come to believe is the only, the single aim of the spiritual life is what Christian writers call abandonment; what the new testament describes as dying to self. The possible New Testament references I could give here would take most of the night, so you will be pleased to know that I am not going to suggest more than a few. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Jesus said “”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself …” (Lk 9:23), “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” (Jn 12:24 “whoever loses his life for my sake” (Mark 8:35) and so on.

This is the very heart of the gospel, and it is gospel, it is good news because it is profoundly liberating. 

When we are seeking to shore up our sense of self; when we are constantly seeking to affirm ourselves, even our identities; when we need possessions, or status, or qualifications, or power; or whatever it is that to make us feel like we exist; that we are real; the pursuit of all that is relentless; it is exhausting; and like any drug the more often we get it the weaker the effect and the more of it we need.

The alternative; letting go of whatever props us up may seem scary at first, perhaps even impossible to do but it sets us free. It releases us and allows us to see what is really important. Perhaps, in these Covid days of lockdown and strangeness you have seen how you can live without something that you once thought was vital to your life and well-being? Perhaps, you have found this in standing with someone in their trials?

I suggest one way in which we can both work on our dying to self, our martyrdom and in which we can measure our progress on this journey which is really, of course, a lifetime’s journey.

It is the extent of our capacity to pay attention to another person; to another human being. To be truly present to them.

To encounter them in a way which honours them, which recognises them as a revelation of the image and likeness of God.

There are some people who seem to have this gift naturally. Who, to meet is a pleasure and joy because they are not constantly thinking of the next thing to say, of what their response is going to be or even of somewhere else they would rather be; or someone else they would rather be talking to.

These people have the gift of being really present to us. Giving us their full attention.

My suggestion is that the scandal of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not that God is present; but that we are not.

This is captured beautifully by one of my favourite poets, Denise Levertov in her poem Flickering Mind. I will read it and it is also on the cards I have handed out.

Lord, not you,

it is I who am absent.

At first

belief was a joy I kept in secret,

stealing alone

into sacred places;

a quick glance, and away – and back,

circling.

I have long since uttered your name

but now

I elude your presence.

I stop

to think about you, and my mind

at once

like a minnow darts away,

darts

into the shadows, into gleams that fret

unceasing over

the river’s purling and passing.

Not for one second

will my self hold still, but wanders

anywhere,

everywhere it can turn. Not you,

it is I am absent.

You are the stream, the fish, the light,

the pulsing shadow,

you the unchanging presence, in whom all 

moves and changes.

How can I focus my flickering, perceive

at the fountain’s heart

the sapphire I know is there?

In our second reading tonight, from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told of the signs and wonders that were done among the people. It was this; not talking about the faith, not bring a friend Sunday that,  grew the church; it was the power of faith acting in the lives of the disciples that so struck those they met that they wanted to be a part of it.

When we meet someone who pays attention to us it is compelling. The poet Rilke says that to pay attention to is the best definition of love. I would call it holiness.

And we can learn to do it by spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. By bringing even our absence; even our flickering mind, to be present with Jesus. Just sitting there without expecting a spiritual experience, a revelation, without thinking about what to say. Just our own, ordinary, simple, straightforward presence. To be with Jesus in the way that Bartholomew was who he described as being without guile. To be guilelessly present to Jesus just as he is guilelessly present to us.

When we do that, rather than something for ourselves; when we do that, rather than accumulate something that builds up our ego. Then we are entering into abandonment; then we are becoming present to the Real Presence and then we will do signs and wonders; then we will stand by others in their trials; then we shall be martyrs, witnesses, that God is real; that God is true.

You are the stream, the fish, the light,

the pulsing shadow,

you the unchanging presence, in whom all 

moves and changes.

How can I focus my flickering, perceive

at the fountain’s heart

the sapphire I know is there?

“The aroma of love” – Guest post from the Bishop of Warrington

Monday in Holy Week is the day when the Diocese of Liverpool gathers at the Cathedral for the blessing of oils and the Renewal of Commitment to Ministry. In this time of pandemic the diocesan communications team prepared a video service. The Bishop of Warrington, The Rt. Rev’d. Bev Mason, offered a reflection on the powerful gospel reading John 12:1-11. It is a profound and deep meditation that moved me greatly. I am grateful to Bishop Bev for allowing me to post her words below. You can watch the service here:

In our reading, Jesus is back in Bethany. It’s after the raising of Lazarus so you can imagine his celebrity status there, and the cult following he’s attracting.  It’s also just 6 days before the crucifixion, and he’s having dinner with Lazarus and his friends.

Wouldn’t you have just loved to have been there, listening and participating in the conversations. Undoubtedly, he was preparing them, as well as himself, for his formal entry into Jerusalem as the Messiah. (We’d have celebrated this, from our places of confinement, yesterday on Palm Sunday).

Well! Suddenly the conversations are interrupted by Mary – she’ the one, remember, who would sit with the disciples at Jesus’ feet as they’re being apprenticed.  I don’t know that anyone would’ve noticed her getting up …. But they’d certainly have noticed what happened next! She quietly fetches some nard oil … she goes back to Jesus,  she kneels down and she pours the oil over His feet.  

Now Nard was an exotic oil –  it comes from the Himalayas and so imagine how costly this was.  And she doesn’t just take a few drops – she takes a pound of Nard. She gently massages it into his feet. And then letting down her hair, she wipes his feet with it. 

It’s so intimate, that it almost feels intrusive that anyone else should be present:   In this most tender and beautiful expression of love,  the oil is soaked up from one body to the other … and the aroma of love, fills the room.

Usually when hear of incense and aroma in the Bible, they’re associated with priestly offerings and sacrifice.  Mary would have known this – as I’m sure, she’d have known the teaching from Hosea, where God says, 

“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, 

the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. ESV Hos 6.6

In this ritual Mary is participating in Jesus’ death. 

I wonder if she knows that in doing so, she’s participating, too, in his risen life.  

Mary was a disciple of Jesus. She’d listened and watched and prayed and learned from Him. 

She knew that had Jesus been present when her brother was ill, he would’t have died. 

She saw him raise her brother from the grave.   

Through Jesus’ proximity to her and her, what we call,  teachable spirit, her asking and searching …. and desire to learn, Mary grew in the knowledge of God.  

Did she know she was in the presence of God?

At Jesus’ trial, just a week later, the Chief Priest will ask Jesus outright:  “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Son of God’… .  News that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead had spread and this was clearly what people were claiming on the streets of Bethany and in Jerusalem.  

Is this what Mary believed?  

I suspect so!  And I suspect it’s the knowledge of this and the fear of how this was all going to unfold, that brought her to her knees before him.  

This is a woman before the Messiah, the Son of God,  giving herself to him.

Today in this (Not the Chrism Mass!), from our places of isolation, we recall and we shall renew our commitment to God’s call upon our lives …  and the promises we’ve made to :

give ourselves to Him; 

and to follow and to serve him ….. in the good times and in the challenging times.  

We are each called in different, yet life-changing ways 

and each tasked with particular vocations and responsibilities.  

Friends,  I believe Mary teaches us so much about the Christian vocation.  

She sets before us a model of humility and service … 

She dares to buck stereotyping; 

In a room of men, she lets down her hair and exposes herself to rebuke – even though she’s about the service of Christ.  

She pre-figures the footwashing by Jesus of his disciples, in the Upper Room.  (I wonder if Jesus recalled this moment, as he washed his disciples’ feet!  

Mary embraces the drama of the anointing …. without explanation or commentary …  and in no small measure she pours out the costly oil, which speaks of the immeasurable love Christ pours upon us; and WE, in turn are to pour out upon others.

One of the immense challenges for each of us in these days of Coronavirus, is understanding what vocation means when things are unfamiliar. When we can’t minister in the tried and tested ways and when we mustbe distanced from people.    Mary draws us back to LOVE which is the essence of our being, our thinking, our actions, our service.  I think it’s this that Jesus was driving at, when he said, ‘I no longer call you servants. You are my friends.’

God calls us friends as he calls us to minister to him, and through him, to the world.   

And at the heart of calling and service is love.

This is exactly what we’ve been seeing in these present trials:

Friends, Bishop Paul and I are so very deeply touched and profoundly humbled by the faithful, creative and imaginative ways colleagues have adapted to the Corona crisis and how you’ve endeavoured to support, encourage, pray, lead praise, and provide pastoral care and bereavement support.  This is happening in parishes, hospitals, schools, prisons and very many other work places. Each in your way, and under very challenging circumstances, are pouring out the NARD of blessing of your calling – we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your inspirational ministries!  

For some Colleagues, confinement is something of a gift of time to pray and  read and learn. I encourage you all to make time to  attend to and build up your inner life.   

And as we journey, each in our way, through Holy Week, to the Cross and the Empty Tomb, 

may the life and joy of the resurrection touch and bless each of us, making us   ready for the new morning – and the world beyond isolation.    

God fill your heart with love.  God keep you safe and bless you.  Amen