Transformed in God’s abundant grace

screen shot 2019-01-20 at 12.45.50There are some great magic tricks. The best ones leave us baffled as to how they do them. We know that they are illusions, tricks of hand and distraction, but when skillfully executed they draw us into a suspension of belief and take us into a world where strange things can happen. The magician who can put an assistant into a box, which we think we can see all the way round and yet with the wave of a wand, the box falls flat and the assistant has gone. Then, with no sign of moving, the assistant appears from the back of the audience. It’s impressive as a stage trick and we know deep down that there is something very clever at work, but nonetheless that no laws of nature have been bent really. It’s still fun to think they might just be able to collapse matter, transmit it and reassemble it somewhere else. And its more fun when you don’t know how it’s done.

We have no idea whether or not Jesus really did change water into wine at a badly prepared wedding reception, as described in that Gospel reading (John 2:1-11). Who runs out of wine at a wedding? To pull this off would make Jesus quite an impressive magician. Not only does the water change but it becomes really good wine at that. The best wine matures, is allowed to age in barrels, so this is even more remarkable. The quantities involved are enormous. Six jars, each holding 30 gallons, is the equivalent of around 1,000 bottles – red or white anyone? I don’t know how many people were at this reception, but that is likely to one massive hangover the next day – if you survive it. Chief Medical Officer health advice is that men drink no more than about 14 units a week and this is way beyond that. Is this a conjuring trick with grapes? Is this Jesus being able to manipulate the normal laws of nature so that the chemical structure of water becomes significantly more complex – H2O acquires something between 800 and 1000 more compounds, so complex that I can’t give you the chemical equation: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen elements in mind-bending bonds and polymers.

It does seem to stretch credibility quite a long way, but then so does the resurrection and creation for that matter, and life is pretty remarkable given the ingredients. So there is a miraculous aspect to existence and this story can highlight that. As ever, though, with John’s gospel there is a much deeper level to this than a mere conjuring trick with the Periodic Table. Wine is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of flourishing and rejoicing. It goes with good times and God’s favour being shown. So more is being said here than Jesus saving them a trip to the off licence. There are so many references to drinking wine in the kingdom in the bible, the famous phrase in Psalm 23 about cups overflowing and vineyards producing an abundant crop. These are a sign that God has redeemed his people. If we carry on with the section of Isaiah, from which the first reading was taken (Isaiah 62:1-5), down to verses 8 and 9, we find that their vindication is shown in being able to drink the produce of the vineyard. There will be sufficient stability and security that they will see their vines produce a decent harvest and then have time to mature into wine they can enjoy. God’s salvation is being announced in this amazing story.

And the quantity tells its own tale. This is wine in far greater abundance than they could possibly want or need for the party. Remember those 1,000 bottles. God is generous and provides from a bounty far more plentiful than we need, can imagine or comprehend. There is more than enough to go around. When Jesus is in charge of the catering no one goes hungry or remains thirsty. Five thousand are fed with meagre provisions and there is plenty left over. Do not worry about there being enough because with God we have more than we need, we just might need to think a little differently about how it is distributed and shared. In a world where many are hungry and some are over fed this story shames us into being hospitable, generous and making sure that everyone has enough. That may bring some sharp challenges, which brings us to the next aspect of this story.

The stone jars which were used for the water now wine are the ones for Jewish rites of purification, for ritual washing. By using these and showing God’s bounty through their transformation John has Jesus saying there is no longer any need for the old rites. Jesus is the one who makes us acceptable to stand before God. We don’t need to make ourselves pure, in fact we can’t. We need God’s generous, bountiful gift to bring us in his grace to that place where blessing brings life and hope. Jesus is showing in this story that he fulfills the hopes and aspirations of the ages. In him the better wine has come.

The miracle stories in John’s gospel are described as being signs. This is the first one and God’s glory in Jesus Christ is revealed through it. That is the point of miracles, marvelous occurrences, they are no mere magic tricks, but signs and moments of revelation where who Jesus is, is shown to us. They are visual aids that show the purpose and the point. God blesses in far greater abundance than we can ever hope or dream. Salvation is his gift and is here in Jesus Christ. And we are challenged to see that when we think there is not enough or no way out of a bind, God brings salvation to life.

I don’t know where you are with Brexit – bored, frustrated, despairing, longing for… well, who knows what. There doesn’t seem to be a clear way forward that has agreement, despite the cries of ‘the people have spoken’. Actually they haven’t, at least not with a clear voice. If they had parliament would be able to say this is the will and this is what we should deliver. On Question Time on BBC1 on Thursday the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, spelt out just how parliament is split and the majority is unclear what they want. I suspect this is how the nation is split too – some wanting a second referendum and some for Brexit to be scrapped. Some wanting the hard option and not being bothered about a deal at all. Some, having voted for the deal that was on the table, possibly wanting that, but now it’s collapsed who knows. And the larger group not declaring where they are or what they want. Without some agreement we are in a party where the wine has run out. It’s easy to despair and for tempers to flare.

Our calling as Christians together in this city is to be people of hope, people who trust in God’s abundance and salvation. Our cup is neither half full nor half empty, but overflowing with God’s goodness. There are differences of focus and style between us, that is why our different churches exist. But the direction of travel over the last few decades has been one much more focused on the more we have in common than that which divides us, our sharing in the name of Jesus Christ and the hope we have in him. This gift is something that can make us generous to a world deeply divided by so many conflicts and different approaches. In our own country, which is deeply divided at the moment, we can remind in how we live and in what we say that our hope lies in delighting in the rich blessing and diversity of God. And I think we are going to need to be people of hope for our city, for our communities and for our nation.

So today Jesus brings salvation, generosity and hope to a wedding feast. As well as the wine, a wedding is also a sign of God’s kingdom, bringing two together into a covenant. Life is gift and in God’s grace it is transformed with an abundance beyond our comprehension.

Sermon for Christian Unity Week at Westgate New Church, Sunday 20th January 2019

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Jesus’ Baptism: time to sit up and take notice

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Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church

This period of Christmas through Epiphany to Candlemas provides us with an opportunity to reflect more fully on what it means for Jesus to be God among us, the heart of the the Christmas message. This is known as the ‘Incarnation’: the mystery of God coming into human life and sharing that life so that we may come to share in the divine life. It is mind bending, but then when we consider the wonder of the universe and all creation, so is the fact that there is anything rather than nothing. From that perspective the incarnation, God among us in human life, becomes a deeply profound statement about that nature of existence and everything. Rather than sitting outside of the created sphere, keeping distance and being remote, there is a deep presence at the heart of life, of existence, and that means nothing is outside of God’s concern. Everything we do, everything which touches human living and our impact on others, is brought directly into the presence of God. God interferes and makes our business his business and so should we. Faith and life go together at a deep level.

So as we move from the magi to think about God being present and making that presence known in Jesus’ baptism we have to let him grow up. Today we have an adult Jesus being baptized (Luke 3:15-22) and Luke helpfully pins this down as taking place at around the age of 30. Our awe and wonder has to move beyond the cute and star-lit, quaint crib scene. Jesus can walk into the desert, to the riverbank and find John. There has been a tendency over recent years to keep the crib scene on display in churches for this period, but I’m actually keen that we remove it precisely because we need to think about the incarnation beyond the safety of a baby’s gurgles and swaddled slumbers. We need to let Jesus grow up and with that deal with things as an adult.

There are three great themes for Epiphany, when we think about Jesus being made known as God present among us. They are the first ways the three gospel traditions present this and they are not the same. For Matthew it is the coming of the Magi – the wise men and their gifts. We thought about that last week. For John it is the changing of the Water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. That is next week’s gospel. Today it is how Mark and Luke present it, with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. This is the beginning of his ministry and it is his great entry on the scene in those gospels (though Luke has already given him a bit of a starring role when wandering off at the age of 12 and after causing his parents grief being found debating with the scholars in the temple; an early indication of promise, but not a full making known). The hymn ‘Songs of Thankfulness and Praise’ sets out these three ways of Jesus being made known, being manifest.

There are many layers to Jesus’ baptism. It takes place at the Jordan, the place the ancient people of Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land. By taking place there, we are taken back to the title deeds of what it means to be chosen people, people of God, people who live in a covenant relationship with God. That means, people who belong to God and whose identity is bound up with this relationship with God. A new covenant is being brought about and it comes through Jesus Christ, through his life, his ministry, his death and resurrection. Entering into the waters of the river, being almost drowned in them, means that symbolically he passes through death and brings new life. Later on the cross and through the resurrection he will do this for real.

It is the coming of the Holy Spirit, descending like a dove, that makes this known, makes known who he is. There is the voice that proclaims him as being God’s Son. The dove image may take us to another water story, the dove which returned with the olive branch to Noah on his floating zoo. The olive branch was a sign of there being dry land and a new start opened up. Here in baptism we have a new start with God, with hope. The purpose of life is found in God and we are saved from the ultimate threat that there is to us, that of futility and life just being accidental, some kind of biologically conscious illusion. It is possible that there is nothing beyond death and to be honest it’s not much of a threat. We know the end will come, so if it does just run out of sand then there is nothing we can do about it. The amazing message of Jesus, of God being made known in him, is that there is a bonus. Beyond this life there is a new one on offer to us, held for us, and this one is blessed with so much more value. Being made, being alive, is itself a gift and in that gifting there is a purpose and a point that has a trajectory way beyond our imagining, even if we could travel to the farthest corner of the universe.

The dove moving therefore also takes us to the movement of the Spirit of God over the waters at creation. The origins of everything that there is, in this mythical story, lies in and with God. So Luke is making it clear that in Jesus this purpose is both present and to be taken notice of. He is the beloved and so by implication we are to listen to him. At the Transfiguration a voice is heard again and this time it spells this out quite directly: we are to listen to the beloved. What is made known in Jesus is not just some kind of high-level tourist, but God on a mission with a purpose. He is made known as being present so we are to sit up and take notice.

There is so much that we are to pay attention to and it takes a life-time, probably longer, to fully grasp this. But there is hope: life is not futile and so matters. That means everyone’s life matters and so is to be respected and honoured as such. We’ve reminded of this recently with appeals to ‘play nice’ over Brexit and when we disagree. We are to honour lives so that we behave with justice and there are some significant social policy challenges at the moment. I don’t think those who have created the universal credits mess actually understand how the poorest live. There seems to be no understanding of what it means to be without a financial cushion of savings to cover fluctuations in income, to be expected to manage money on a monthly budget when you are used and only have the resources to think weekly or even daily, to take account of changes when income fluctuates, to cope when you can’t cope and so a loan is really not the solution. There is more to this than just teething troubles and The briefing room on Radio 4 on Thursday spelt this out in the clearest way my simple brain has heard. The High Court has agreed.

The more I think about those who are sleeping rough on our streets, the more I think there is a perfect storm of a number of factors coming together which have made this crisis. They fall under the headlines of benefits challenges, mental health issues, landlords and housing, drug and alcohol dependency, people just not being able to access or entitled to certain things and therefore falling off the edge. It is highly complex but I think there is a collection of conditions that have made this crisis worse. I would really like to find a way to test this out, but this is how it is sounding to me talking with those in this area. A faith which is rooted in a child in a manger, in God who comes among us and is made known to us in the thick of life, makes tackling this crisis an obligation. We have to struggle with it and keep going until we get to the heart of it. It should disturb us because God is present in this and honours all lives equally. The challenge is laid before us.

Today we remember Jesus being baptized. He is made known in the waters of baptism as the beloved, in the Spirit coming upon him and we are to sit up and take notice, and we are to sit up and take notice. Human life, all creation, has its origin in the purpose of God. Faith and life go together at a deep level. When we are disturbed by the cry for justice, we touch and are touched by the presence of God, who is made known in the thick of life.

Sermon for Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th January 2019

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Epiphany: finding God in the world

img_6679I was listening to a podcast of a programme on Radio 5 Live the other day called ‘Losing my religion’. It featured Irish TV presenter and model Laura Whitmore. She grew up a Roman Catholic but has been questioning the faith of her childhood. The title was as much a question as a statement. Had she already lost her religion, how much persisted and what shape was her evident spirituality taking today? As the programme went on, I was left with a sense that what she was really experiencing was a coming of age, where she wanted a faith that fitted contemporary understandings, that could cope with complexity and uncertainty. Narrow and simplistic answers were just not doing it for her, and they don’t do it for me either. I couldn’t help thinking that if she came in here she would find a ready home of enquiring and thoughtful faith, one which takes the 21st century seriously with a spirituality and faith that can cope with, even embrace wholeheartedly, science, philosophy and the honest presence of uncertainty where some questions don’t get fully answered. Here the spiritual is expressed in language which doesn’t confine, but rather expresses for us glimpses of the vastness and greater scope of a creator. The mystery is bigger.

During the programme Laura Whitmore spoke to an alternative spiritual guide who talked about a spiritual pathway to help with climbing the ladder to reach the divine. The implication was that we have to go in search of God and it is through our efforts, through climbing spiritual ladders, that we find God, as if God is playing a game of hide and seek, sitting in an out of the way mountainside, high above. If these practices and methods are followed God, the divine, comes into view and within reach. We need to know the right techniques and hit the right buttons to know how to ascend the spiritual ladder. There are many people in the spiritual market place offering programmes and techniques to deepen our awareness and help us rise up the mystical ladder. This idea of a ladder to climb is the opposite of what Christianity teaches.

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. This is when the wise men called by with their gifts for the infant Jesus. The wise travellers had set out on an incredible journey, guided by a star which made them wonder. They set off to find, but the God they searched for had already made himself known. Far from hiding, far from being up high, he was there in the child in the manger. And just in case they couldn’t work out where he was, there was a great big star in the sky; the equivalent of a flashing arrow pointing down over where the Christ-child was waiting for them. Today with them we open our treasure boxes and lay the symbols of life before the Christ-child, the divine coming close to us, rather than expecting us to get close to him. Today and indeed over the whole of this Christmas to Candlemas season, when we particularly reflect on all of this, the Christian faith says something very different to the spiritual ladder guides about how we find God. It is not down to our efforts, to follow clues if we can just decipher them to find the right practices to open up the mystery. God is not playing hide and seek, not making it hard for us to find him. Quite the contrary, this season gives us a story where God comes to us, breaks open the heavens and turns out to be much closer than we thought.

This goes much deeper. The presence of God in the midst of life means that we don’t find spiritual fulfillment in escaping the world. In fact we will find that the deeper we go into real living the more we find God present and made known to us. The world is God’s creation and so there is something profoundly spiritual and divine in the material, in the substance of matter. Because we know that everything has a finite time to it, then for God to bother with this means that there is something of the inner purpose of God in the world and in the created-nature of the world. This is a deep expression of what John’s Gospel refers to as ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The Word that was in the beginning, and through whom everything that there is came into being, the product of this is a deep expression of the heart of God (John 1). This is mind-blowing and yet at the same time this is the only kind of God worth bothering with and who has anything worth hearing to say to us in the midst of life. Epiphany shines a light on the divine within the material, where we are now, present and not hiding.

So when we want to find God, we don’t go digging on other planets, seeking what we can see beyond the stars, but we look more deeply at where we are and who we are. A great former Archbishop of Canterbury, and author of the welfare state, William Temple described Christianity as being the most materialistic of all religions because God is in the midst of us, the spiritual comes close. He is made known to us and ‘making known’ is the meaning of the word Epiphany.

Some of this came home to me when astrophysicist and theologian David Wilkinson gave a talk in the Cathedral last year on science and faith. The vastness of the cosmos, the fragility and transitory-ness of life and the universe – it has a beginning and will have an end – this raised the very natural question of why the divine would bother with something time bound when God is eternal. Big questions arise when following stars. The far side of the moon is being explored and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has flown past Ultima Thule, a lump of rock 4 billion miles away. As we reflect on these mind-expanding missions, that God bothers with our planet and human life, is a wonder. There is something about our transitory existence that reveals something very deep about the purposes and passion of God.

The wise men capture this in their journey, in their worship, in their gifts. Gold is a precious metal, valued and it has been the basis of trading for millennia. It brings our striving, our planning, our creativity and the business of getting on with life to the crib, to be laid before the origin and purpose of this activity. Frankincense, a sweet smelling resin, is burnt to freshen the air, rise as a symbol of prayer and give a sense of mystery to worship. It raises our aspirations beyond the mundane and in the ordinary invites us to look so much deeper in order to find there the presence and purpose of God. Myrrh is a compound with wide-ranging healing properties. It is for embalming, it is for curing, it is an anesthetic. So with myrrh we bring the pain and passion, the very things that make us human and not just robots or biological accidents. This is what separates us from artificial intelligence and leads to so much creativity, sense of urgency and ultimate sense of dependency on God.

So today we join with the magi, as they gather at the infant Jesus, offer their gifts, and with them rejoice that God comes close to us, we find God by looking more deeply where we are, rather than through special techniques. God is made known by God making God-self known, not by our efforts and questing. The wonder of mystery may call us to go looking, but only because God has already come close, indeed the created universe is the product of this coming close. The spiritual quest is not to find a hidden God but to get us into a place where we can notice what is at our feet all along. So if you want to find God or grow spiritually, you will do this by looking deeply into where you are, into life as it is and be surprised by the star light shining, because God is already present and waiting for us.

Sermon for Epiphany, preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 6th January 2019

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A rich story with a real birth at its heart

IMG_7340So, what do you make of Christmas Day? More specially, of the stories that we retell each year? Is this a day that you suspend critical faculties? Or a day of children’s stories, with the glow of familiarity? There are different ways of reading the stories and as we grow older we find we approach them with more sophistication. Actually this is vital if they are to mean anything to us.

One approach seems to be to treat them as almost news reports. A heavily pregnant woman on a long journey of 80 miles to satisfy a peculiar Roman census, as if this made any sense at all. It would have been an administrative and logistical nightmare – just too many people on the move. And how far were they expected to travel to satisfy this bit of faceless bureaucracy? Some of those in the gospels are hundreds of miles from home. Then inhospitable hoteliers or a crowded house means the only space was with the animals, so the feeding trough becomes the only bed available. The Holy Family are migrants. Shepherds receive an angelic visitation and go to see something wonderful. There are clearly human connections, but just how much of this is really to be taken literally? Such a simplistic approach can leave most of us cold. We need to go deeper.

At the other extreme is the approach that just treats the whole story as being just that, a form of religious writing that sets its message in a drama. It should really sit alongside Shrek, Mary Poppins and other holiday favourites. So much of it is written with callbacks to Old Testament references, that it is just a construct from these to express deeper truths. It is the meaning, not the detail that matters. This is highly symbolic writing. So forget the tea towels for shepherds, leave that to primary schools as young children learn the story through play. This story requires us to decode it and understand its backstory. We need to know it so that we can understand it and reflect on its profound inner meanings.

I have a lot of sympathy with that view, but I think there is a third approach which makes more sense to me and it is a bit of a hybrid between the other two. Yes, much of the detail is written up to connect with the tradition and Old Testament allusions. But behind all of this, or more to the point, in the centre of all of this, there is a real birth. The evidence for Jesus having existed is greater than it is for Julius Caesar and no one doubts his existence. So a real man was born. A real man grew up and taught us to love God and one another. A real man was crucified, died and buried. And then the story becomes extra ordinary. It is because of the resurrection, Easter Day, that this birth is more than just a Happy Birthday story of ‘once upon a time a man was born’. Through the eyes of Easter, Christmas enters a much deeper story. And the first gospel writers organized their tale of this extra ordinary man in such a way to get over their central point: in him God was active and showed up into the reality and complexity of real life.

From this the story expands, rather like the universe expands from a big bang leading to stars and planets in their orbits so that one of them, earth, can team with life, and intelligent life at that. It expends with so much allusion and we can make the connections. Connections are another important way we understand this story.

We draw connections between the details of the story and our own lives, with the human story. So a holy family embarking on a long journey connects with migrants and homeless people on our streets. The Christ who comes to us, comes in those we least expect and some artists have chosen to depict the crib scene in these terms. He isn’t found in the palaces – that’s for rulers and the Magi had to learn that the hard way. Not in temples and churches, where everything is organized carefully and with liturgy and structure. No, this is an untidy arrival, when no one knows what to do and they are given a bit of make-do shelter with animals. Scratchy straw for warmth, but protected from it by the swaddling. So when we feel excluded, or are, when life is untidy, we have a place in this story. When others approach us in this untidiness, look deeply because in it God’s blessing has come by.

And look deeply into the manger, in your imagination or reflect on a crib scene. There you see a human life, all human life, precious and vulnerable, loved and loving. This incredible gift of life, of each new day is something to wonder at with joy and thanksgiving. It is remarkable, but even more so when what we celebrate today is that it is treasured and honoured by the love of God. Christmas brings each of us face to face with the loving purpose of our creator. And when things are tough, and they seem to be for so many people, through it, God keeps hold of us so we can rejoice, we can sing, we can join with the angels in their great songs of praises. Christ is born of Mary. He comes to us, abides with us as our Lord, Emmanuel – God is with us.

So, in the heart of this Christmas story there is a real birth, real life, real death and resurrection. Jesus Christ is born for us, as one of us. The profound mystery of God among us is expressed in a story rich with allusions to the Old Testament. These expand our imagination as we reflect on it and allow it deeper echoes to inspire and call us to follow him each and every day. As he is born in the stable, so may he be born anew in us today.

Sermon for Christmas Day, Peterborough Parish Church, 25th December 2018

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Being like stars – shining light, hope and wonder

IMG_2610Stars are very Christmassy. They twinkle, they shine, they have a magic all of their own. And a star is a very familiar part of the Christmas story. A star shines over the place where Jesus is born, so that people will know where he is and also that his birth is a wonderful event. Observing it from a distance, it causes the wise men to wonder and set off on their journey to find him. They bring their strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to lay before him. This is why we place a star at the top of Christmas Trees. It is to remember the star that shone over Jesus’ birth, announced it to wise men and drew them to embark on a journey to come and see, to come and adore. Stars invite us to travel and wonder.

Living in a city we don’t see the stars as clearly as people who live in much more rural areas do because of all the light pollution we get from the street lights and other bright lights in a modern city. If you go to a more secluded place, where there is much less light around, on a clear night, the sky lights up with a myriad of little lights, constellations and patterns. They are a source of awe and wonder, these strange lights in the sky. And when we know what they are, they are even more amazing. They are signs of how vast the universe is and that it is incredible. It is God’s creation and he loves it.

Just recently if you looked into sky first thing in the morning, before it got light, you will have seen a bright light in the south. This is called the Morning Star and it is a very bright light. It is actually the planet Venus, which is the brightest of the planets, so not really a star at all. Around this time of year the course of its orbit means that it appears just before dawn. It is an unusual sight to see a star while pulling back the curtains just as the day is dawning and it catches my attention every time. The Morning Star as it is known, has been a thing of wonder since the earliest days of human beings. It is recorded in the Bible as being something of wonder and it is one of the ways the first Christians talked about Jesus, as the Morning Star, the one who rises bringing hope and light to the darkness. Just like the star in the sky announces that day is about to dawn, a new hope is coming and will be fulfilled so Christ brings light to the darkness and ends the time of darkness. He is our light, our hope, our way, our everything.

This idea of the Morning Star has very deep roots in the Bible. There are quite a number of references that it draws on. Right at the end of the Book of Revelation, the final book of the bible, as it begins to look to how Christ will bring everything to completion, to fulfillment, Christ is referred to as ‘the bright morning star’ (Revelation 22:16). He is the one who brings about the promise of God’s salvation. He is our light, our hope, our way, our everything.

Much earlier in the Old Testament, the Morning Star is said to come out of the house of Jacob (Numbers 25:17), the origins of the ancient Hebrew People. Salvation will come from them as well as to them. So when Joseph is described as being descended from the house of David, talking of Jesus as the Morning Star connects with this long thread. The central message is that God brings salvation, and that is what the name Jesus means. Joseph is told ‘you will call is name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Christ as the Morning Star is an affirmation of hope and promise fulfilled; God loves his creation and Christ comes as the one who comes to save us. He is our light, our hope, our way, our everything.

So Christmas, full of bright and twinkling lights, touches the very point and purpose of life, of creation. And John in his incredibly rich prologue to his gospel, which we have just read, sets this out so powerfully and fully.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

The very thoughts and purpose, the planning and wisdom of God were in the beginning and they came among us in this child. Just as words communicate, so the one who is the Word of God, connects with creation, brings creation into being, and therefore is the only one who can bring Salvation to us. Because he is our light, our hope, our way, our everything.

Be like stars shining in the sky this Christmas, lights which bring hope and draw others to want to know more about the faith that inspires you and fires you. Be like stars which announce hope and that life is full of purpose and promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ. There are so many ways we can do this.

We can be people who bring promise and hope into the room. That in itself can be transformative, especially in these difficult days, when our nation is so divided over Europe and so many other things. We are people of hope because the world is God’s creation and he loves it. That gives reason beyond anything else to hope, to trust in God’s goodness. We can be people who draw others on a journey to wonder, because of our infectious excitement that this is a world of wonder and joy, awe and thanksgiving. That lifts the heart and bends the knee to worship. We can be people who live a justice which remembers that God is mindful of all people, loves all people equally, so no one is to be excluded or shut out. Some are shut out because they are hungry or homeless, lonely or struggling to put food on the table. Foodbanks help, but so does asking why they are needed. At a time of year when the Christ-child had to be laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn, the growing number of people who are homeless is particularly distressing. Garden House and the Winter Night Shelter are making a difference to lives here, bringing hope to very troubled lives, to people who have dropped off the edge in so many ways. Christmas, with Christ coming among us, is a celebration that God chooses to get involved in the struggles and concerns of daily living and our striving for justice.

Stars have a special place at Christmas. Among them, the Morning Star shines out announcing to us in that moment just before dawn that light is coming. It is not just a distant planet it is the proclamation of light, of hope, of following in the way of Christ, of everything being caught in the purposes, love and salvation of God. This is true meaning of Christmas. God loves the creation he made and therefore there is hope, there is love to be shared, there is joy to fill our hearts. So, with that have a happy, Christ-filled Christmas.

Sermon for Christmas Midnight, Peterborough Parish Church, 24th December 2018

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Song of Mary: Putting in the effort to effect change

IMG_2242For those who are familiar with Evensong, the song of Mary, the Magnificat, from our Gospel reading will be well known (Luke 1:46-55). Whether this is something that is deeply ingrained in you or not, the Magnificat is a powerful statement. It turns the world upside down. Favour is given to a young woman of low status and this will elevate her ranking for generations to come. The proud are scattered, the powerful brought down and leveled. The hungry receive the good things and the rich are sent away with nothing. Promises of justice and righteousness are brought to fulfillment. It was a shocking, radical, even revolutionary statement 2,000 years ago and it is just as challenging today. It is meant to be words of hope for the oppressed and those suffering most, and stands in a long tradition of such prophetic assurance. But when we remember that this is the gospel with a dedication at the beginning to a now unknown Roman official called Theophilus, a name that means ‘Lover of God’, then it might surprise us that he was so bold. Incidentally, the Latin version of that name, Theophilus, is Amadeus, Mozart’s middle name.

So we have a gospel which is written in the form of a report for an official with the name of ‘Lover of God’. That implies that Luke thought he would be open to being challenged, or at least should be, so Luke may have felt that he was pushing against an unlocked door, so dared to challenge and confront with the full force of what this gospel means. Beautiful musical settings of the Magnificat at Evensong can dull its full force, make it sound like a detox session for the stressed. It is that, but like the best detox sessions, it brings uncomfortable truths which we need to take seriously if we are going to get our spiritual lives in balance which will in turn get our emotional, physical, political and social lives in balance. Those who want their religion free of these things have picked the wrong faith and that is Luke’s assumption in addressing his gospel to the Lover of God. As we approach Christmas we are approaching a festival which says the complete opposite of God being remote and detached. He comes among us in the child in the manger and is worshipped and adored by shepherds. He comes into the complex political turmoil of first century life, rolls up his sleeves and gets involved.

I have been particularly aware this year of people who are not in an easy place this Christmas. I am shocked by the growing numbers sleeping rough on our streets, in doorways all around this city centre, even in the cathedral precincts. Talking with some of them they tell stories of experiencing violence where they were before and so have come away in search of a quieter spot and some sleep in shop doorways because of the CCTV there makes them feel safer. Talking to the manager of Garden House on Friday, he told me about the struggles many have with official forms and the bureaucracy of accessing official help. Volunteers at Garden House are spending hours on computers to help them (one had spent 4 hours trying to sort out the issues) – and so much state help is now only accessible online. Not everyone can navigate this, or even access it. And this kind of help involves specialist skills, which most of us just don’t have.

So when I hear people saying that something needs to be done about homelessness and churches should open their doors, I wonder if they really have a clue what ‘something’ really means. When those on the streets are escaping violence in other places, then ‘opening doors’ requires a lot of care and other measures putting in place. The Winter Night Shelter doesn’t just open doors, there is a lot of other planning and preparation behind the scenes. If we open doors we have a duty of care to people who are vulnerable, not least from who else might be there. That takes more resources than just turning a key.

Another difficult place that has come into the spotlight is mental illness. This has caught quite a lot of media attention recently, with campaigns that it’s OK not to be OK. Being open to this and aware of the struggles behind the smiles can become an easy slogan. But if we really take it seriously then we need to abandon the fantasy that everyone presents in an airbrushed manner. We know we don’t, so why would anyone else. Be alert to what might lie behind how we are. I had a couple of reminders of this over the past week. One with someone whose behaviour would be easy to judge but I suspect more behind it and another where it has driven that person out of their home to live rough in a chaotic way. A media which says something should be done, needs to realize that that something might just be for them to join up the dots to pause before encouraging dog whistle judgements. Mental illness is a very broad brush.

These two brief examples both often come with the label ‘something should be done’. There is no magic wand we can wave, or can be waved by someone else, to remove or cure or sort out these things. There are government policies which could help or may have knock on consequences which exacerbate the problems some experience, but they are not the sole cause, certainly not of homelessness. Some take to the streets because they can’t cope where they are and that can lead to a chaotic episode, distressing for others, but is not easily blamed on faceless ‘others’. Playing the ‘blame game’ is actually a search for an easy option to make a complex situation, which can be too difficult to comprehend, easier which in turn makes it easier to ignore. ‘It’s simple: that lot in power are to blame.’ Well, they may or may not be helping, even making it worse or better, but we have to go deeper.

The Magnificat sets an agenda of compassion and bias. It says that everyone matters and so those who usually benefit, at the expense of others, will in its vision find that the tables are turned because the balance needs redress. But just replacing one group or person on the top with another from the bottom, doesn’t actually deal with the root problems. A Brazilian educator of the 1970s, Paulo Freire, wrote a book called ‘The pedagogy of the oppressed’. It is a work of educational philosophy which highlights how education can replicate the conditions of oppression and setting people free is a much more complex process than mere revolution. Those who suffer have a nasty habit of turning into oppressors when they come to power and it is important to break the cycle. So while it comes out of a Marxist context, it is by no means without its criticisms. Regime change on its own does not cure the problem.

Luke opens his gospel with an exploration of what it means for ‘something to be done’. It is addressed to someone he calls ‘Lover of God’. The God he presents is not one who remains aloof or distant, but comes close. He does not wave a magic wand from a distance but gets stuck into the complexities, present in a deeply connected way. ‘Something being done’ is then real. For all ‘Lovers of God’, the Song of Mary is a radical reminder to put in the effort to effect change. In doing that it brings hope for us all.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 4, Sunday 23rd December 2018

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Rejoice – Living Hope

IMG_2196Advent is a season of preparation, but it is not to be a gloomy one. That would be impossible to maintain any way with all the bling, the lights, the songs and the carols. So, apologies to everyone who is brushing off the Bah Humbug hats and jumpers, this is very much a party season, a time of joy, even enforced joy – to which I will return. So although in churches we tend to hold back on all of the trappings for just another week, clinging on to Advent, while all around us have gone straight to Christmas celebration – this evening’s carol service excepted, our readings this morning bring rejoicing centre stage. This is Gaudete Sunday and that Latin word for ‘rejoice’ was all through our readings. This is not a recent invention, part of the over commercialization of a winter festival, but as fans of the 1970s group Steeleye Span will know, who had a hit with a setting of a medieval carol under that name, ‘Gaudete’, it is deeply rooted. Rejoice in God and that is the key to the joyfulness.

The colour of this Sunday, for churches which use purple candles, rather than red ones, is pink. The pink or rose coloured candle is for rejoicing. Yesterday I spoke at the Mar Thoma Church’s carol service, which was held at St Jude’s Church. They draw families from over a 40-mile radius and they travel for a service that lasts 3 hours. The commitment is impressive, deeply so, and I wonder how many Anglicans would do that? Does this faith fill us so deeply with rejoicing that we would travel each week up to 40 miles for a three-hour service? I came away quite humbled by their faith, their commitment and their generous hospitality. It was deeply impressive and we could learn so much from them. When they move into St John’s Hall, which will be their new regional home, if we engage with them we may find we get changed by them.

I took a visual aid with me, what I thought was a silver balloon. Well it looked silver in the shop. But when I got it home and saw it in different light, it was bright pink. Not in the slightest bit silver. So I had a visual aid of a bright pink star shaped balloon. Thank God for Gaudete Sunday, for rejoicing, and pink being its colour. I’m sure no one noticed! We rejoice because God is God and the news of Christ dawning on the world is so special that our hearts are to be filled with unrestrained joy.

This can’t be forced. It has to be genuine. Enforced party happiness, if you are not feeling like it does not improve the mood. Smiling and thinking happy thoughts can improve the mood, but if you are not happy, for whatever reason, enforced jollity is about as welcome as a slap, and tends to feel like one, an assault on the emotions. The joy which Gaudete rejoicing expresses is a deeply rooted one, anchored in the hope and faith in Jesus Christ. In the words of the Epistle, we “rejoice in the Lord always”. ‘The peace of God guards our hearts and minds’, protects and raises the spirit so that rejoicing is honest and hope-filled, not the empty false smile. (Philippians 4:4-7) All of us know how to wear the clowns face, that smiles with tears just below the surface. This is not the rejoicing of Gaudete; it is false, a pretense and denial. The rejoicing St Paul had in him is a rejoicing even in and through dark and troubled times and that makes it far more profound.

There is much to depress us. Walk round the city at night and so many people are bedding down in doorways and it is now very cold. The Winter Night Shelter project has begun and is offering beds, love, care and support. It will work with those who come under their care and some find this rescue changes their fortunes, with a way out of that crisis. Some, of course, are in a deep state of despair and are not in an easy place from which to access alternative options. It is complex. And another’s distress can be hard to bear, or we protect ourselves by hardening our hearts and shutting them out. Walking by not even on the other side of the road – we can’t stop for everyone, every day and every night. Rejoicing in the face of such distress is as much of a challenge as it is a proclamation of hope. Working with them is not one of despair, but bringing hope into deeply damaged and derailed lives. And through slow, careful work and getting alongside, hope is brought and dawns in dark lives.

There are moments though when we have to intervene, directly and now. The other night I and a colleague were alarmed at night by the screams of a woman in the precincts. I was at my desk in my study and she was at her desk a few doors away. When we both went outside to investigate we had to intervene to stop an assault taking place. There was big difference between these screams and the shrieks of excitement and high spirits we also hear. So in this case there was no question of it being crying wolf. That woman has found help through emergency nightshelter provision and being put in touch with a refuge. Domestic violence requires our rejoicing to step in and stop it, even face down the aggressor, which I had to do, while my colleague cared for the highly distressed woman. Rejoicing is not necessarily cozy and detached.

Our nation is in crisis at the moment. I spoke about this last week and my encouragement was to pray for the healing of this nation. How do we speak peace, hope and rejoicing into such a challenge? I don’t pretend it is easy, and I have my moments of utter despairing here. This is not party political because our major parties are clearly split. On Thursday on Question Time on BBC 1, the Tory party even fielded two ex-ministers who clearly held diametrically opposing views. Labour show similar splits. There was an interesting article in the Church Times this week which expressed this and argued that wherever the outcome, Britain has Brexited Britain. We are a nation in search of a national identity which coheres and makes home feel like home. Into this we have a role to be so rooted and confident in our faith, in the identity it brings that it makes us open and generous to neighbours and strangers alike. Open and generous are signs that rejoicing is in our bloodstream. The national debate is not displaying many signs of openness and generosity. Holding differences while also respecting and honouring is a sign of maturity and security of identity.

When a system is anxious, and our nation is anxious at the moment, it becomes even more important for people of hope to bring a calming and hope-filled presence to bear. In the words of the Epistle, to “let your gentleness be known. The Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:5) This springs from rejoicing, because it is rooted and grounded in deep faith and confidence in God’s future, God’s saving love. These are core values to affirm and say that a country rooted in Christianity, and this nation has deeply Christian roots, a nation like this must hold these as core values. Gracious, open, generous, hopeful and confident in who we are under God – that is our gift to our neighbours in a time of crisis and deep anxiety.

Advent is a season of preparation, but it is not a gloomy one. We prepare to welcome Christ, who comes among us in surprising guises and in surprising ways. Christ who meets us in the hungry, the homeless, the ill and the most vulnerable, and when we serve them we serve Christ. We prepare our hearts to be ready to meet him should he come again in glory, to be ready to accept and acknowledge the hope and joy of salvation that life is filled with God’s purpose and is held in the heart and love of God. Advent is a time of rejoicing – whether your balloon is silver or pink.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 3, Sunday 16th December 2018

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