Here I Am

Almost every year for almost two decades Maundy Thursday has seen me gathering with clergy colleagues at St Paul’s Cathedral to renew our ordination vows.

We come from parishes, chaplaincies, church plants, the cathedral itself – wherever God has sent us to live out the Gospel of love, challenge and healing.

We are a wonderfully varied bunch, though not nearly varied enough on some key measures. We come, as John Legend would say, with our ‘perfect imperfections’, to offer all that we are and all that we can be in the service of the One who holds nothing back in the pouring out of divine love in the world.

I have attended this service as a young curate, as an associate vicar, as a Mum with very young children in tow, as an advocate for female clergy, and now with that deeply disturbing label of ‘venerable’.

All that any of us can bring is the unique mixture of gifts, passions, scars, experiences and fragilities that makes us what we are. And that is what God asks of us. All of it. Received and held in Love.

Here I am.

The Fragrance of God

Preached at St Luke’s, West Kilburn on Passion Sunday

When I saw that this morning’s Gospel reading was the anointing of Jesus at Bethany my heart leapt because I love this story, and the two similar stories of a woman anointing Jesus which we find in Matthew and Luke. Some people think they all describe the same incident, some think they are separate occasions and different women. Either way the three stories hold various things in common.

In each of them a woman does something surprising and unexpected, something which comes straight from the heart. She does it with a passion and a certainty that this is the right thing to be doing. In each story the thing that the woman does is shocking to other people: to Judas, to all the disciples, and in Luke’s version to the Pharisee in whose house the anointing occurs. And in each story Jesus challenges those who judge the woman, putting them straight, pointing out what they could learn from what they have witnessed if only they would wake up what is really happening.

So what could they have learnt – and therefore what can we learn – from this woman and her encounter with Jesus?

Firstly, she is astonishingly vulnerable, trusting and open towards Jesus. As she pours the oil and wipes Jesus’s feet with her hair – and in Luke’s version even wets Jesus’s feet with her tears – she holds nothing back, hides nothing of what she feels.

Are we willing to open our lives and our whole selves to God as this woman did? Do we trust God enough to bring all that we are, all that we feel, all that we worry and care about to him? Or do we edit our prayers and our conversation with God, fooling ourselves that we can hide the parts of ourselves that might shame us from the One who made us and knows what is on our hearts even before we do?

The woman’s trust is not misplaced. She finds it matched by Jesus’s unquestioning acceptance of her gesture – and therefore of her. Here is God’s total and unconditional embrace of everything that we bring to him. It’s always worth the risk of coming before God naked and it seems that Mary knew that.

She also risked – and experienced – being criticised by other people who were present. But the risk of their disapproval didn’t stop her from making this very public gesture. From bringing all that she was into the room.

Are we willing to risk bringing all that we have and all that we are when we meet together as followers of Christ? Or do we hide the parts of ourselves that we think others will judge, dislike or just not understand?

We are all made uniquely in God’s image. We all reflect that image in the world differently. There is a part of God which will never be fully expressed in this community unless you bring it, because you each have your own gift to offer. If you hold back on sharing your experiences of life, your understanding of what it means to be human and to love God, your fragilities and questions as well as your strengths, then this community – and any other community of which you are a part – misses out on something that might speak to them of God.

The woman was wholly open to Jesus and wholly able to be herself in the presence of others and Jesus was able to use what she did to teach others something about God.

In Luke’s story of anointing Jesus teaches them about love and forgiveness. In John’s story, the one we heard this morning, the lesson is about priorities. Judas objects to what the woman does because the expensive perfume she has used to anoint Jesus could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Though in reality Judas’s first priority was not the poor at all, it was himself – he was the treasurer and used to help himself to what was in the money bag.

Jesus says to Judas: The poor will always be with you but I won’t. And it’s a response which shocks us at first. Jesus’s whole life expresses God’s deepest commitment to the poor and vulnerable: so it sounds almost selfish when he says: This is fine, this perfume was meant for me.

But the point is that he has some inkling of what is soon to come. The Pharisees are plotting to arrest him. Jesus has a sense of where this is all going. So the woman has anointed him in preparation for his death. At this moment in time to use the perfume for that purpose is the right thing to do.

This lesson about priorities speaks right into the complexities of our own lives here and now: who and what should we put first in any given moment of our day? Who or what in this particular season of our life should get our fullest attention? We find those questions hard because often there are equally important demands on our time and we just don’t know where to turn first.

Perhaps the lesson of this story is that in making decisions about who to love, how to respond to the needs of the world, where to focus our attention we must always stay close to Jesus. Because it is in his presence that the dilemmas about what we should be doing with our time, our money, our lives, begin to shake down and the answers become clearer. If, like the woman we can stay close to Jesus, consciously bringing our questions and dilemmas before God, we will know, as Mary did, that our deepest passions and instincts will lead us to the right decisions. We may be surprised sometimes, as the disciples were, by what Jesus tells us our priorities should be.

One of my favourite lines in John’s account of the anointing is when he tells us: ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’. When we live close to Jesus and with generosity and kindness the fragrance of our love and God’s love reaches surprisingly far. And it can be in the simplest of ways. One of the Mums I chat with in the school playground when we’re collecting our children works in a local coffee shop. Every time I go in there I am struck by the difference that woman makes to other people’s lives by the way that she serves them: her smile, her cheerfulness, her human warmth are the fragrance which fills that place.

She is Muslim and has a strong faith – and to me it seems that what she offers in such a simple but profound way is the hospitality of God. How can we offer what comes straight from our heart in a way that will be a fragrant gift to others and to God?

The final lesson we might take from this story is the importance of encouraging one another. By his words to Judas, Jesus makes it clear that Mary has done the right thing. How often do we tell one another: You have done the right thing? When someone has made a difficult choice and is struggling with the reaction of other people do we have the sensitivity and courage to say: You have done the right thing?

By our encouragement we can make all the difference to one another as we try to stay close to Jesus, to bring the whole of ourselves to him in honesty and vulnerability, to reflect his image in the world in the way that only each one of us can, to make our choices according to our God-given priorities and passions, and to fill our world with the fragrance of God’s love.

When thou tookest upon thee

Sermon for Evensong at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London

28th February 2016

I’ve been asked to preach tonight on a verse from the canticle known as the Te Deum: ‘When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the virgin’s womb’. As a teenager I had a somewhat difficult relationship with these words. I was incensed by the thought that wombs – and by implication women – were something that God would even consider abhorring, or ‘shrinking from in horror’ as the Latin word can be translated.

However, I hope that my theological understanding is a little more sophisticated and nuanced than it was back then, and that I may have a bit more to offer you than just my adolescent outrage. The Te Deum is a text written by one of the bishops and theologians of the Early Church – possibly Ambrose, possibly Augustine, possibly Nicetas. That goes some way to explaining the particular phraseology of this verse: it has to be said that the Early Church Fathers did have some odd ideas about women, many of which of course can be put down to their cultural context and understanding.

But I don’t think, actually, that the writer was making a point – either positive or negative – about women. At least not deliberately or directly. I think what he’s saying is that when God chose to ‘deliver humanity’ the way that God chose to do it was to become fully human in every way: no compromise, no cheating, no pretence, no avoidance of the risk of childbirth and the sheer vulnerability of coming among us as one of us in every way.

Melanie Marshall, Chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford, writes in The Church Times that when, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, God wasn’t ‘fixing’ human nature, as though the essence of human nature is somehow wrong in itself. Rather, God was ‘reconciling human nature to divine nature, showing us that the two are not distinct like apples and pears, but wholly compatible’ (The Church Times 26th February 2016).

That’s a hard idea to get our heads around, perhaps because we have absorbed some questionable theology which teaches us that humanity itself is somehow intrinsically bad, rather than emphasising the essential human goodness which, yes, we struggle to inhabit fully without God’s grace, but is the fabric with which God made us and chooses to work.

Just as Jesus’s humanity and divinity cannot be separated out as apples and pears, neither can our embodied life – as people set in a particular time and place with particular responsibilities and commitments – be divided from our life in God. By inhabiting a human life, God said to us in Jesus: this human life that you lead is holy. Every aspect of it. Your relationships, your work, your joys and tragedies and questioning and fragility and gifts and experiences – all of it is sacred.

Our lives are not secular in parts and sacred in parts. They are of one piece and every bit of it is infused with God. The theologian Barbara Brown Taylor tells us a story from when she was a child. A preacher she knew made a connection: between the way he had seen her care for the wildlife in her garden, and God’s care of creation. After hearing that sermon, she tells us, ‘I walked out into a God-enchanted world, where I could not wait to find further clues to heaven on earth … I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow’. Tracks which I believe are as evident in the God-given creativity and human community of the city as they are in the natural world.

So if I were able to have a conversation with my teenage self about this verse from the Te Deum I would say: See past the rather archaic language to the shock of the remarkable news. The news that God chose freely and fully and deliberately to participate in that most risky of miracles that is childbirth, in order to show that human life is indeed pregnant with holiness and fertile with moments in which we might experience his presence.

I would also tell my younger self that although whoever wrote the Te Deum was not intentionally addressing the status of women, he unintentionally points us to the truth that the sacred dwells in all of us, male and female, leaving us in no doubt that both women and men are bearers of the sacred.

I want to finish with a poem from Malcolm Guite’s collection, Sounding the Seasons. In it he uses the metaphor of the game of hide and seek to describe God’s determination to seek us out – that determination expressed most fully in God come among us in flesh and blood.

Ready or not, you tell me, here I come!

And so I know I’m hiding, and I know

My hiding-place is useless. You will come

And find me. You are searching high and low.

Today I’m hiding low, down here, below,

Below the sunlit surface others see.

Oh find me quickly, quickly come to me.

And here you come and here I come to you.

I come to you because you come to me.

You know my hiding places. I know you,

I reach you through your hiding-places too;

Touching the slender thread, but now I see –

Even in darkness I can see you shine,

Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.

God’s determination to connect with us in the physicality and tangibility of bread and wine. God’s persistence in seeking us out when we try to hide ‘below the sunlit surface others see’. And God’s extraordinary decision to be nurtured in the womb of a young woman and brought to birth in love to show the full glory of humanity infused with the grace of God.